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The Playoffs: A Couch Potato's High Holidays

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The playoffs — there's something, to the averagely insane sports fan, magical in that phrase.

Contra T. S. Eliot, April is not always the cruelest but can sometimes be the coolest month. At least it can be for the couch potato — that would be yours truly — who has two favorite teams in the playoffs, one in the NHL and one in the NBA. The playoffs — there's something, to the averagely insane sports fan, magical in that phrase. Explicit in it is the climax, the denouement, the dramatic ending of the long season with a few crucial games whose outcome will bring fans either intense pleasure or mild depression.

Until recently I have stayed away from watching hockey. I went to a few games in my twenties, but they didn’t yield much pleasure. So fast is the game that, from my seat at the old Chicago Stadium, I rarely saw goals scored, only heard screaming. The violence of the game also put me off. “Went to a fight last night,” an old joke has it, “and a hockey game broke out.” The game isn’t really quite American; that is, most of its players are Canadian and, increasingly in recent years, central and eastern European. I knew about the great names in the game — Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretsky — but knew of their greatness only by hearsay. I’m now sorry to have missed watching them perform.

If I have any complaint about hockey it is that it is perhaps too intense, too exciting.

Then last year, round the time of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I, though my vertical leap isn’t what it once was, jumped on the bandwagon of the Chicago Blackhawks, who went on to win the Cup. This was the first championship season in Chicago since the World Series victory of the White Sox in 2005 — a long time, you might say, between exultations. Everything about the team’s march to winning the Stanley Cup gave pleasure. I went so far as to buy a Blackhawks tee-shirt, not to wear around town but to sleep in. The great study of the behavior of fair-weather fans has yet to be done.

I’ve watched a lot of Blackhawks games this year; perhaps 30 or so of them. Almost all were close games; the excitement was intense. Watching hockey, I am reminded of the feminist comment about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and on high heels. So do hockey players do everything soccer players do, but often backwards and on skates. They are also the most physically courageous of professional athletes. A hockey player will require 20 stitches in his face from an injury sustained in the first period, and return ready to play in the third period.

If I have any complaint about hockey it is that it is perhaps too intense, too exciting. The game rivets and requires all one’s attention. One cannot really do other things — look down at a book or magazine, walk out to the kitchen for a tangerine, take a phone call — when watching it. Not infrequently I would find myself, at the close of a Blackhawks game, fists clenched, on my feet, counting down the last minute or so of games in which the Blackhawks had a one-goal lead.

Whether the team will go all the way this year to retain the Stanley Cup cannot be predicted. What can be said with a high degree of certainty, though, is that I shall be at my post for all the playoff games, fists clenched, a serious, even dour, look upon my face.

My other playoff contender, the Chicago Bulls, are given less of a chance to win the championship than are the Blackhawks. But, then, they weren’t given much of a chance even to get into the playoffs. Ten games into the season, Derrick Rose, the team’s most highly regarded player, went down with a torn meniscus — his second knee injury in two years — that put him out for the season. Mudville was drained of joy.

Hockey players do everything soccer players do, but often backwards and on skates.

But the team came back, and, after playing roughly .500 ball, closed out its season on several small winning streaks, ending with a record of 48-34. The Bulls great advantage is an extraordinary coach, a man in his middle-fifties named Tom Thibodeau, who put in a long apprenticeship as an assistant coach and scout in Minneapolis, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, and Boston before becoming the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. As an assistant coach, Tibs, as the local press has him, specialized in defense. As a personality, he is without the flair, but impressive in his seriousness, and known for getting the best out of his players.

Not an easy task, coaching in the National Basketball Association, where almost all players are likely to be making vastly more money than coaches, and are accustomed to doing things their way. Yet Tibs’s players work very hard for him, gutting it out on defense and often using athletic intelligence where pure talent is wanted.

One of these players, Joakim Noah — a 6’11” center, the son of the tennis player and French rock singer Yannick Noah — has gone, under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau, from a high-energy klutz to a brilliant passer, modestly high scorer, and superior rebounder. In all my years watching basketball, I have never seen so radical an improvement in so short a time as I have seen in Joachim Noah. That he happens to come across as a modest and nice young man is all the more pleasing. The other Bulls tend to be workman-like — to be sure, coached by Tom Thibodeau, hard-working workman-like — and many are journeymen, argot for athletes who have over the years have been traded from team to team. They function smoothly as a team, unselfish and efficient and immensely attractive to those of us who prefer character to flash in their athletes.

Will the Bulls get very deep in the playoffs? If they get that far, have they a serious chance in a seven-game series against either the Indian Pacers or the Miami Heat? The Blackhawks, as I write, are 1 - 2 in their seven-game series against the St. Louis Blues, and the Bulls have lost the first two games of their playoff against the Washington Wizards. High tension chez Epstein. I’ll be at my post for all of the action. One of the nice things about a couch potato, you usually know where you can reach him.

Joseph Epstein is The American’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “The Artist Athlete,” “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” and “The Long, Hot Summer.” Robert McHenry offers “Reflections of a Casual Fan.” Jon Entine discusses “What Makes a Great Olympian? Sometimes It's Genetics.”


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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