Nowitzki and James: Making and unmaking myths in the NBA Playoffs

There’s a level of NBA greatness that defies logical understanding. At some point in a very few players’ careers, it happens. They go beyond simply being productive, or talented, or human and become an object of faith.

This postseason, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James have been gathering followers on a pilgrimage to the Finals. In each city, they’ve enlarged their legends. They’ve performed miracles that brazenly disregarded percentages and precedent.

The Church of Dirk was founded on the steadfast belief that he is unguardable. Their savior: a prophet of precision and calm, floating unaffected above the suffering masses, hurling rimward high-arcing salvos that absolve the sins of his utterly mortal teammates.

With a Buddha-like tranquility, Dirk absorbs the jostles, the grabs, the beatings and uses his opponent’s force against him. He feels the contact and spins away to the basket, or else to a space somewhere behind him.

That’s the space that cannot be defended, between Nowitzki and the sideline, or the other basket. That’s his myth: the space only he commands, and where no one can follow.

His team shockingly dispatched the two time defending champions then twice came from seemingly insurmountable deficits against a young, hungry team to claim victory. Every step of the way, Dirk was making the impossible seem routine, especially in the final moments.

If Dirk’s mystique lies in that his sublime play cannot be affected by any mortal force, LeBron has elevated himself by reveling in the grimy scrums. He’s the most talented player doing the nastiest things. Miami’s entire defense was built around the idea that James can consistently protect the basket by obliterating his opponent’s biggest, tallest players. He crawls on all fours to save a rolling ball and seal his team’s victory over a reputedly grittier team. He leads his squad in rebounding while defensively tapping out the game’s most devastating perimeter player. He dunks all over you and elevates for unfair pullups.

LeBron does not carve out a space for himself, he makes the entire court his domain. He is Achilles with proper footwear. In the playoffs he has smote his opponents and critics with the brazenness of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, a hero who constantly scorned the Gods yet never feared nor felt a heavenly reprisal.

Pragmatists point out: these players have been in the Finals, and extraordinarily great, before. Yet for all the myths that surrounded these two men, that LeBron chokes and Dirk is soft being foremost and most false, it took the last two months to reattach the mythology of the hero, rather than fatally flawed tragic hero. Excellence has for years been so routine for these two that to win over detractors, it took a near-miraculous run of clutch play that beggared logical explanation. You can’t argue with the scoreboard.

In one sense, James and Nowtizki’s 4th Quarter heroics might be explained as random: eventually every shooter is likely to hit improbable shots, it doesn’t make that player great, it makes him lucky.  It’s a natural phenomenon of hard work paying off a bit more than usual, not evidence of the divine hand.

The mythology of sports is a paradoxical melding of “no one thought he could do it” and “this is destiny.” That combination makes sense when considering the role that winning occupies in the making of myths. We retrofit events to suit a narrative not only because that’s human nature, but because we demand and expect greatness from our champions. We want our champions ordained, but they have to work for it.

Advanced statistics, the proliferation of good basketball writing and the availability of game footage have created a community of basketball enthusiasts and analysts better educated on the game than ever before. Yet myths rely, in part, on ignorance. LeBron James will never be the story that Michael Jordan was—not because he can’t be as good, or because he can’t win six titles, but because a layer of ignorance, and therefore wonder, continues to enshroud His Airness. Jordan’s myth was an unimpeachable brand, a coin-worthy sillouette soaring, not definitively towards anything, but floating God-like above an entire culture. What we didn’t know elevated him, what we know about James and indeed Nowitzki renders them utterly human.

But in the 2011 Playoffs, Nowitzki and James have somehow transcended the explanations provided by experts with incontrovertible data. All of the sudden they have arrived at the same place riding on high crests of infallibility. We cannot stop, but this is a nice moment.

From here, it’s likely that one myth will be preserved while the other is vanquished, debunked, a smudged line in the communal remembrance of this fascinating and well-played playoffs. Neither is truly fair. Both are somehow vulgar outcomes. The winner’s story is billowed by the loser’s supposed greatness, yet we will at the same time cease to attribute that very greatness to the fallen.

But right now is the moment of genuine faith, just before the competing myths of infallibility collide with each other and reality– and everything burst and swirls and disperses.

Though some compelling stories will lose their hold, watching these special players, coaches and teams define this chapter in the sport’s history should be epic, too. It’s time to find out which basketball team is the best.

Twitter: @BeckleyMason

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