2011 NBA Finals: Back from Siberia

A half decade ago, a Siberian woman wandered into my house. She had just arrived from Russia, looking for a nanny job. She was also looking for my roommate–a friend of her sister’s–to be some sort of Bay Area sherpa. The roommate, a stocky world traveler named Tim, was M.I.A. So the Siberian was stuck with me, my buddy, and the 2006 NBA Finals.

(Wait, what game was it?)

I believe it was Game 5, but I can’t be sure. It might have been Game 3? A few of those Mavs-Heat scrums ended similarly: Dwyane Wade danced a samba to whistles as Dallas faded into impotent outrage. It all blurs into a Mavs-Heat 2006 mobius strip of Wade driving, getting fouled, shooting free throws, and driving again.

I do recall that the Siberian was short, pale, possibly attractive–though I was viewing her through the prism of being single and desperate. That Summer, I lived in a giant empty house, acting out the part of an eccentric, reclusive millionaire. I shared the place with 15 other Cal students, but the vast majority were set to arrive right before September, when school tends to start. Berkeley is a June ghost town, so the presence of an actual woman was all the more pathetically thrilling. And this particular woman had appeared out of nowhere, straight from a place I knew nothing of.

The exotic Siberian turned out to be abrasive. She spoke halting English, but in so few words could make people so uncomfortable. Fresh off the plane, this woman had no sense of when to talk, or what was impolitic. At one point, she told us, “I can see, eh, you hate me,” without hint of irony. All lulls were peppered with “Where eez Teem (Tim)?” as though we would magically conjure the answer. Her grasp on the subconscious social rhythms that structure our American interactions was tenuous at best. She was awful to deal with–but awful in such fascinating way.

The Siberian sat and watched. And talked.

(“Why are all thee playars black?”)

That prompted a meandering, inconclusive explanation–which did not seem to impress her.

A few plays later, final minute, game in the balance, Dwyane Wade dribbled at the top of the key. My friend and I were absorbed into the this, lost in the moment of Wade building tension by the bounce. The Siberian suddenly pointed towards the girth that is Shaquille O’Neal:

(“Why eez Shock so beeg?”)

A difficult question to be sure, though geneticists have theories. I couldn’t help but answer her queries as she asked them, even if those interjections came at inopportune times. So I stammered gibberish in response as my eyeballs crept towards the screen like Pinocchio’s nose.

On the Shaq question, I might well have said, “Shaq is big because he drank milk from a whale’s udder when he was a baby.” Because, the part of me that wasn’t distracted was simply shocked that a Siberian had heard of O’Neal. Obviously, I had been startled into forgetting that only cows have udders. Apparently, she had known of him from his recent Lakers days. Apparently, Dwyane Wade had just been fouled–again.

Pro basketball’s grandeur felt diminished in 06,’ which was why I was surprised to learn that a Siberian prospective nanny knew anything of it. The breakup of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had left a vacuum. And if the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, or Mavericks filled it as contenders, they certainly did not replace the Lakers as a brand. The NBA was less meaningful in those days, less important.

That year, I’d written my hometown sportswriter Nick Canepa, asking about why he never wrote NBA columns. Nick responded, stating that he’d lost interest in the league’s style of play–save for what Phoenix was doing. In that statement, he likely spoke for millions.

Back then, there was no inkling of the Pau Gasol trade or Boston’s “Big Three.” An Amare Stoudemire injury was the incongruous raincloud cloud over Arizona. Nothing about Dallas-Miami felt historic or compelling, and none of the other plausible matchups would have granted greater gravitas. My friend and I had bet each other on the series, just to feel excitable while America shrugged.

A short five years has altered so much. Mike Wilbon recently shed light on how LeBron’s Decision gave increased ratings and relevance to pro basketball. The new Heat are the continuation of an NBA resurgence that has been rolling these last few years. Credit social media, the NBA Youtube policy, free agent movement, rule changes, or a superstar boom, but this game is more of the zeitgeist than any time since Michael Jordan. Bill Simmons stopped joking about being the “last remaining NBA fan,” for a reason.

Comparisons between the 2011 Finals and the 2006 Finals are barely relevant, not just because these teams are so different from their 06’ incarnations: These comparisons are also barely relevant because the 06’ Finals were barely relevant. Basketball is back from metaphorical Siberia.

@SherwoodStrauss is Ethan on Twitter

ethanstra@gmail.com is Ethan on email

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