For a few moments, on a few nights each year, a fact that often seems fuzzy becomes absolutely clear: Watching sports is totally, unquestionably worth our time. Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals was tense, baffling, infuriating, and cathartic. The Heat eventually beat the Spurs in overtime, 103-100, ensuring there will be a winner-take-all Game 7. But no matter what happens next, I’ll think back to the end of regulation on Tuesday night, and the seven seconds that revealed why we watch all these games and what we gain by watching.
With 12 seconds left on the clock and the Heat down to their last possession, LeBron James misses a tying 3-pointer. Chris Bosh grabs the errant shot, just barely outleaping the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, whose maximal effort leaves him sprawled out underneath the basket. As Bosh snares the ball, Ray Allen quickly backpedals out of the lane and into the corner. Allen’s toes scurry centimeters behind the arc, ensuring he’ll get credit for a three rather than a two; his feet lift off the ground the same way they elevate in the first quarter of a game in February; and his wrist snaps metronomically even as his right arm flails wildly off to the side. The ball goes in. The game is tied.
But that’s not nearly everything that happens in these seven seconds. There’s Tony Parker, running out at Allen, desperately challenging his shot—the reason the NBA’s most prolific three-point shooter flails his arm as he releases the ball. Parker’s effort wouldn’t be all that remarkable except for the fact that, a few seconds before, he’d been the one challenging James’ shot, all the way on the opposite side of the court. As Allen’s shot arcs toward the net, Ginobili lurches up off the ground, getting ready to challenge for the next rebound. And at the top of the key, LeBron thrusts both of his arms above his headband-free noggin, desperate to take another shot to tie what could be the last game of the Heat’s season.
This stuff is at once mundane and life-affirming. These men are the best at what they do, and their desparation creates a remarkably graceful panic. To quote the great philosopher Rasheed Wallace, both teams played hard, and that absolute effort matched with absolute parity is what makes those seven seconds so fantastic to watch.
Competitive sports wouldn’t be competitive if there weren’t winners and losers. But after six games of this series, we can now be reasonably certain that neither the Spurs nor the Heat are superior to the other. That’s why Thursday night’s Game 7 will be so thrilling. And that’s why, though it will decide the outcome of the 2013 NBA Finals, that game can’t possibly be decisive.
Even so, in a couple of days, history will be written by the team that scores the most points. There are rings to be sized and legacies to be assessed, after all.
While Game 6 affirmed my faith in sports, the subsequent press conferences and roundtables, packed as they were with superficial dishonesty, brought me right back down. “It may be shallow, it may be narrow-minded and it may be unfair. But it is also reality and there’s little use talking around it,” wrote ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst before the Heat’s overtime win. “The next three days will define these three years for the Miami Heat.”
Windhorst is right—it is shallow, narrow-minded, and unfair. If Kawhi Leonard makes both of his free throws with 19 seconds to go or Ray Allen’s shot doesn’t go down, then the Spurs are working through their 500th bottle of Veuve Clicquot right about now. There would be stories written about Tim Duncan’s throwback 30-point, 17-rebound performance, Tony Parker’s amazing pair of shots late in the fourth quarter, and Gregg Popovich’s standout on-court leadership. Duncan is the greatest player of his generation. Parker is the best point guard in basketball. Pop is on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches. And LeBron James and the Heat are huge stinking losers.
How does one missed free throw—a shot that hovered over the rim, spun around, and fell out—change any of that? It doesn’t make the Spurs any worse or the Heat any better, but everyone on TV is obligated to pretend otherwise. Now, we have to listen to ESPN’s Michael Wilbon and Magic Johnson talk about San Antonio choking the game away, which is about the least intellectually sophisticated thing a sentient being could say after watching the Spurs and Heat fight each other desperately on every possession. And, of course, there’s the talk about how Tim Duncan should have been on the court when the Heat tied the game, and how the refs rigged the outcome by refusing to call fouls on Miami down the stretch.
There’s plenty wrong with the NBA, from the excessive timeouts to the bad officiating to the incessant complaining about the bad officiating. But the most depressing thing by far is how we so easily put aside what makes basketball great in favor of dumb narratives based on the random spin of a ball on a rim. Pretty much every player on both teams oscillated between greatness and feebleness during Game 6. Duncan had 25 points in the first half and five the rest of the way. Parker made two spectacular shots in the fourth quarter, and was otherwise 4-21 from the field. LeBron pulled the Heat back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit, then helped give the lead away with two late turnovers. He made a clutch three, and he missed a couple more. If you’re desperate to tell me how any of this cements his or anyone else’s legacy, I’ll be happy to pretend to listen.
After a great game, we too often conflate what’s debatable with what’s worth debating. We can argue about Popovich’s substitutions and the refs and how to tote all this up on LeBron’s career ledger. But we shouldn’t let it drown out everything that went right, for both the winners and the losers, in those seven seconds: the way Ray Allen’s feet illuminated decades of preparation, Tony Parker somehow managing to guard every Heat shooter simultaneously, and Manu Ginobili getting off his butt only to see the ball splash through the net. It’s moments like these that make sports worth our time. Legacies can wait. I can’t wait for Game 7.