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Stories and Edges: Olympics-Inspired Thoughts on the Blazers

I'm not sure what you're doing during this mini-break in the Blazers schedule, but I am taking the opportunity to catch up on some belated Winter Olympics viewing.  (Note:  This is NOT an Olympics thread.  I still have multiple hours of coverage left to watch.  Please don't sidetrack into a general discussion of results from the Vancouver games and thus spoil it for me!!!)  A couple of the things I've watched in the last 24 hours made me reflect on the nature of sports as a whole and thus had bearing on our Blazer discussion.  I thought I'd share...

First, the coverage of Lindsey Vonn during the games reminded me how annoying American sports media can be sometimes.  It's not about the sport, it's about the story.  I understand that Vonn was an American darling, raced in all the events, had a chance to be the Winter Olympics version of Michael Phelps.  I also understand that she's charismatic and that when she races she either medals or crashes.  Those are compelling factors which merit coverage.  But I just got done watching the final event in which she was entered, the slalom.  It was not her strong suit going in.  She ended up bailing out of a turn in her first run, splitting a gate, not even making it halfway down.  That was it.  She didn't crash.  She didn't do well.  Basically she just stopped.  End of story.

Well, end of story except NBC thought it was more important to show her post-run interview on its tape-delayed coverage than, say, actual racing.  They did show one other American skier but other Americans competed and we didn't get to see their runs.  Granted they didn't place high in that first run but how would you like to be their parents or classmates or from their state and you didn't get to see their moment in the Olympics because Lindsey Vonn...well...just existed?  (Again...didn't crash, didn't run well, just half-recovered from a turn and bailed out.)    For that matter, wouldn't it have been truer to the event to show the runs of some of the better slalom skiers instead of sticking a microphone in Lindsey's face for the 8000th time in a fortnight?  But, you see, Lindsey's a story and the story is what sells, not the sport or even the rah-rah patriotism (or in Portland's case, regionalism) no matter how much they try to convince you that's what you're viewing and reading about.

This reminded me greatly of the bad old days when I was living well outside the Portland area and the only national sports coverage was ESPN on the tube and a few national sports networks on the radio.  90% of NBA discussion centered around the L*kers no matter how good or bad the team was.  If L.A. won it was how dominant they were and how they were going to be a dynasty.  The line was "We talk about winners here!  When your team wins we'll give them coverage."  But somehow when the L*kers got booted from the playoffs the discussion wasn't about their opponent, rather "What does L.A. need to do in order to get back to the championship?"  The basketball you saw, heard about, and learned about was exactly as good or bad as L.A. provided.  They were the story and the sport could go hang.

This was a bit before the internet became so accessible and long before sports coverage became both specialized and egalitarian through sites and networks such as this one.  As I saw Lindsey Vonn get the L*kers treatment from NBC I thought that if communities like this have even a little part in holding up the sport as much as the story, or even breaking the monopolistic hold professional media types once had on defining the story and its terms, then we've helped the world a little.  I also couldn't help but think that maybe there's a skiing site (and sites for the rest of these sports) out there fighting the same battle, not just for recognition but for definition.  If so, more power to them.  I hope they get enough attention to help shape the terms of our coverage someday.

The second event that struck me was the gold medal women's curling match between Sweden and Canada.  Yeah...I watch women's curling in the Olympics.  I'm a sicko.  But curling is fascinating.  It's also a sport where gender doesn't matter much in the pace or enjoyment of the game.  (But I haven't seen the men's results yet, so again...please don't spoil!)  In any case, the women's gold medal game was one for the ages.  Sweden had everything going their way in the first half but then Canada make a striking comeback in front of the home crowd.  The momentum shift was tangible.  But somewhere in the middle of their run one of the commentators remarked that this particular Canadian squad had always been known as second-place finishers.  Winning Canada's national qualifying event was something of a surprise and had started to change that perception.  Winning the gold medal, as it then appeared they were going to do, would turn it around completely.

The game came down to the final end with Canada having the last rock to throw.  Sweden did their best but they had left the Canadian skip with what looked like a straightforward throw, certainly easier than many that had been made in this game.  One average, normal throw and the gold medal would belong to Canada.  The skip lined up, slid, released, and...just missed it.  Sweden ended up scoring instead of Canada, tying the game to force an extra end.  As the overtime session progressed Sweden kept twisting the Canadians harder and harder until again Canada was left with the last shot.  This time it was far trickier as Canada's skip had to knock two Swedish stones out of the way with that final rock, leaving her rock victorious.  The skip made a far better throw than she had at the end of regulation.  The rock slid, curled, and...missed by about an inch.  One of Sweden's rocks was bumped out but the other only got ticked.  Somehow Sweden won.

As I watched the Swedish women jump for joy I couldn't help but recall that "second place" comment that had been made when Canada was on the upswing.  After all was said and done they had found a way to place second again.  This got me thinking about one of the basic lessons of sports:  Losing has far more gravity than winning does.  In fact winning might be described as having no gravity of its own, rather it's what happens when you escape losing's gravity.  If you leave things as they are, if you aren't consciously and actively fighting against losing, it's going to suck you in.  It'll get you on that last throw, that last inch.  It'll snatch the trophy out of your hands and stick a "what could have been" pacifier in your mouth instead.  Let that happen to you even once--or worse, become accustomed to sucking that binky for comfort--and you're going to have a hard time putting things right again.

A large part of the velocity to escape the gravity of losing comes from factors we're all familiar with.  You need talent, obviously.  Preparation is key...good coaching, smarts, focus, and all of that.  Without those things you're going nowhere.  In the NBA regular season and early rounds of the playoffs teams win multiple games from those factors alone.  But if you want to talk about winning the Big One you have to differentiate yourself even more.  As the playoffs progress teams become more equally matched in all of these areas.  It's rare to see a team out-talent or out-prepare their opponent, especially in the Finals.  The margins are too thin, much like the world's 20 best bobsledders all coming down an enormously long track within a couple tenths of a second of each other.

I would argue that the balance is tipped by your outlook as much as anything when it comes to those razor-thin matchups.  When the difference between victory and defeat is an inch and that inch comes in a shot you've thrown successfully hundreds of times before we're not talking talent or physical prowess anymore.  We're talking about some people stepping up to that line already knowing the shot is made while other people step up nervously hoping that they can pull this off.   We're talking about an attitude...a refusal to lose to anyone or anything for any reason.  Some teams have that.  Others are good with second.

I'm not trying to disparage the Canadian women's curling team here.  In fact I was heartened by their show of sportsmanship after the contest and the fact that they could still smile.  They played one heck of a game and deserved a standing ovation.  But to my view there was just something different in the eyes of the Swedish skip when she took hold of those last, critical rocks than there was in the eyes of the Canadian.  They were both excellent, technically and otherwise.  I believe their eyes illuminated the difference between gold and silver amidst that excellence.

This is one of the big questions I have about the Blazers in the coming years.  Portland will be talented.  I believe Portland will find excellence.  Somewhere along the line the Blazers are going to compete for the highest rewards their sport has to offer.  But the talent and excellence only get them to the door right alongside three or four other teams, all trying to be the first through that door in order to slam it on the others.  Will the Blazers have the will, attitude, fire, and refusal to succumb to gravity that's necessary to really be in that first position or will they watch the door get slammed in their faces?

In some ways the early signs we've seen from this team have been encouraging.  People have made much of their talent.  I think they might have been overestimated a tad in that department.  Much of that assessment was based off of their depth.  We're seeing on a night-to-night basis that not everyone on a deep roster can perform to full capacity, inhibiting expression of said talent.  Plus Portland's talent has been incredibly young and inexperienced prior to this season.  And now, in the season where they were finally supposed to grow together and start playing like veterans, they can't keep a team healthy and on the floor.  Despite all of this, from the very start of the Brandon Roy era, the Blazers have won more than projected...this season perhaps more than can be believed.  They have lost but they've never lost for long.  They haven't let losing get to them.  Instead they've kicked it out like a lingering in-law no matter who they had to beat to accomplish the eviction.  That's a great sign.

On the other hand the team as a whole still approaches the game carrying briefcases instead of playing like hard-cases.  We see smooth excellence, flashes of brilliance, even sustained runs of excitement.  But you can still see the difference between Portland and clubs like Houston last year or Denver this year.  Those teams are good.  Those teams are accomplished.  Those teams are also going to rip the win away from you in ways the Blazers haven't dreamed of yet.  If excellence, brilliance, and excitement can win a game then the Blazers are going to win it.  But what about those games that take more?  I don't see Portland there yet.

What's more, as I scan the roster I'm not sure how many of our players will be able to give you that "refuse to lose no matter what the cost" attitude.  I can name two and a half right now.  Even though Brandon Roy's demeanor is calm and he tends to lay in the weeds many nights he's shown through his fourth-quarter heroics that he can lift the team above its theoretical ceiling.  Andre Miller also appears to have that winning chip on his shoulders, at least in his approach and physicality.  (Note that he's a short-timer though.)  The other guy I'm looking at is Dante Cunningham.  He has a fierceness that transcends his statistical production.  I could see him becoming one of those critical-moment-dominating players even if he's never a star in the traditional sense, or even a starter for that matter.

On the other end of the spectrum I don't see LaMarcus Aldridge giving you that lift.  He's going to put up nice numbers and be a wonderful player.  You don't get to the door without him or someone of his talent-level.  But he doesn't have that "do anything to win" persona.  I also don't see that from Greg Oden.  Oden is a physical specimen.  He'll intimidate with his size and presence alone.  But Greg also lets the game come to him instead of reaching out and ripping it off the hinges.  I don't think Martell Webster is a strong candidate either.

Of the great young hopes I think Rudy Fernandez might be the most promising in this regard.  He's not as intense as Jerryd Bayless nor as well-rounded and athletic as Nicolas Batum but he's able to throw caution to the wind more than either.  When he's at his best it's like he doesn't care, he's just going to attack.  You might see anything in his eyes in those moments but fear or doubt won't be on the list.  Bayless also has an attacking mentality and he's a strong candidate but he seems too intense sometimes and the intensity is focused inward (or at least on his own game) which isn't precisely the same as dominating the other team with it.  Batum is going to be a better NBA player than either of the other two but his game is surgical and contained, which is also not quite the style we're talking about.

It's an open question how many loss-refusing, gravity-escaping, door-slamming players a team needs in order to be successful.  In some cases probably just one will do.  But somehow that attitude has to rub off on, and lift, the entire team in those critical situations.  I'm also not sure whether you're born with the instinct to hate losing or whether you learn it as your game develops.  I tend to think it's binary, either on or off.  I know it's not something you can coach a guy to do or explain to him.  If he does learn it he has to adopt the resolve himself (or at least have it pounded into him by his opponent).  If it can be learned I think it's harder to do so in the NBA where there are so many rewards even if you lose.

Again, we're talking about high-level stuff here...the finishing touches on a talented, focused, practiced team that provides that extra .01% edge that differentiates gold and silver.  Portland doesn't have to worry about that edge soon.  Someday, when facing the LeBron Jameses (or, if you prefer, Kevin Durants) of the world it's going to be important.  Right now finishing second in the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals, would be a cause for riotous celebration.  That won't always be the case.

--Dave (