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The Most Important of Unimportant Things

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

During the last few weeks, one’s confidence about the essential unimportance of sports has been cast into the shadows of doubt.

“Sports,” said Larry King, in a formulation I much like, “is the most important of unimportant things.” During the last few weeks, however, one’s confidence about the essential unimportance of sports has been cast into the shadows of doubt. Sports have been turning up on the front pages of newspapers, usually above the fold, often being among the leading items on national television newscasts. Circuses before bread has been the order of the day.

America’s participation in the World Cup soccer championship garnered a vast amount of press and popular interest. Had the U.S. soccer team gone beyond the quarterfinal round all the way to the finals, soccer might at last have been established as a major American sport. As it is, soccer is making serious inroads in the national sports consciousness. Particularly is this so among those between the ages of 16 and 30, and of both sexes, who grew up playing the game. While America was in the running for the World Cup, vast numbers of people gathered in parks and stadiums around the country to watch the U.S. team on gigantic television screens, and the faces in the crowds were preponderantly youthful.

On the radio I heard a sports commentator remark that the average attendance at games of the American National Soccer League has been around 19,000, which rivals baseball, and in Los Angeles, where there is a large immigrant population, chiefly Hispanic, the average attendance at soccer games has exceeded 40,000. A smaller and smaller percentage of Americans fill the rosters of major league baseball teams, and participation in Little League baseball among kids in the United States is also said to be down. If these trends continue, baseball may, in 20 years or so, lose its standing as the national passtime, replaced by soccer.

Had the U.S. soccer team gone beyond the quarterfinal round all the way to the finals, soccer might at last have been established as a major American sport.

I shall probably have departed the planet by then, and, from the couch-potato-ly point of view, this may well be a good thing. I, who have watched every sport on television including fly-fishing and poker, found I could not get into the soccer. The game felt to me like nothing so much as hockey played at triple slow motion. On my DVD, I recorded the last U.S. team game against Belgium, but found myself fast-forwarding through large chunks of the game. I appreciated the dazzling performance of Tim Howard, the American team goalie, but the paucity of scoring left me bored Matisse blue.

That I do not understand the subtleties of the game doesn’t help. Subtleties, hell, I don’t even know the rules. I could never write a paragraph about soccer such as Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, who grew up playing soccer, wrote in his summing up of this year’s World Cup:

When the tournament began, I picked Argentina. My reasoning for that selection turned out to be wrong. I had thought that they had discovered an offensive formula that would yield many goals — and that Messi would produce a performance that would inscribe his place in the canon of greats. But Argentina advanced to the finals on the basis of its defense, which played with a stoutness that almost nobody foresaw. Messi scored a couple of great goals, but the team was dependent on Javier Mascherano’s impeccable tackles. And for long stretches, Messi disappeared from games. He played with physical and psychic fatigue; he was not nearly involved enough to carry his team. In the final, he missed two chances that he would have normally easily filled in his cabinet of goals. Perhaps, this tournament would have gone differently if Angel Di Maria hadn’t torn his thigh muscle. But without the distracting threat of Di Maria, defenders had the liberty to hang on Messi’s shorts; the unbearable pressure on Messi became even more unbearable.


Not only could I not write such a paragraph, I cannot even decipher it.

The other item that commanded national attention over the past weeks was the free-agency decisions of two super-star basketball players, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Both are what is known as franchise players, which is to say that through their skill they can make teams stellar, and under their leadership bring them championships. True enough, only LeBron James has actually done this, for his team the Miami Heat, while Carmelo Anthony has not been able to lift his team, the New York Knicks, from the mediocrity that has endured in New York pro basketball for several seasons. The great question was would these players leave their current teams, and if so to go where?

As we now know, Carmelo, after allowing himself to be courted sedulously by three different teams, stayed in New York. Since he is a talented but not a selfless player, the Knicks signing him to a five-year ($125 million, was it?) contract probably condemns them to another half decade without being a genuine championship contender. The teams that courted him — the Lakers, the Rockets, my own beloved Bulls — all tried to sell him on the notion of his joining them increasing his likelihood of being on a championship team. But it was no go; Carmelo — to complete the rhyme — went for the dough.

The surprise was LeBron James returning, whence he came, to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that, since he left them four years ago, has descended into the slough of deepest despond. His decision to do so lifted the spirits not only of Cleveland basketball fans but of the entire city. Cleveland, which looked on its way to becoming the next Detroit, now claims to be enjoying a revival, and the return of LeBron marks the return of the jewel to its urban crown. This could be the first time an athlete is responsible for the rise in real-estate values for an entire city.

I recorded the last U.S. team game against Belgium, but found myself fast-forwarding through large chunks of the game.

LeBron James just could well be the best basketball player ever to play the game. (Fans will argue whether he or Michael Jordan was greater; just as, in earlier days, they argued who was the better fighter, Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis; who the greater horse, Man o’ War or Whirlaway.) LeBron is not only an all-round player, one who does everything supremely well — shoot, pass, rebound, play defense — but a selfless one. I’ve not read it, but I’m told that he wrote a book, or more likely had a book written for him, in which he attributed all his athletic success to his family, his high-school coach, and his teammates, and did so in a convincingly humble way.

Yet for the past four years, by my reckoning, LeBron James has been the most disliked athlete in the United States. Overnight he went from nice kid to detestable jerk. The event that did it was when, with great failed fanfare, he left Cleveland, in a rigged deal, to announce that he was joining two other superstar players in order to win an NBA championship in Miami, which they did, twice. Like the Yankees outside New York and the old Celtics outside of Boston, outside of Miami, the Heat was the team to hate. (Nobody, so far as I know, printed up t-shirts reading Hate the Heat, with photographs of LeBron, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosch on the back. They would have been a big seller.) And most of this bad feeling was directed to the once golden boy, LeBron.

His return to Cleveland — to Ohio really, for he was born in Akron — made the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The three prime-time network news shows covered it. The return itself promises the prospect of the redemption of a great athlete in the always sceptically squinting public eye. All LeBron James needs to regain his previous nimbus of niceness is to bring a championship to Cleveland. If he does, it would make a pleasing story of peripeteia, the word that Aristotle, discussing plot in the Poetics, used to describe reversal of fortune. 

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

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes "Stanley Cup Blues," "The Playoffs: A Couch Potato's High Holidays," and "The Playing Fields of Suburbia." Stan Veuger adds "Soccer Isn’t an Un-American Sport. Football Is" and "Is Ann Coulter a Closet Soccer Fan?" Robert McHenry offers "Sweat and Honor." David Archer discusses "Sports and the Market."


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group




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