No playoffs here
You could call it “A False Spring,” to steal a line from Pat Jordan. Or maybe, the ‘‘Silent Spring,” with apologies to Rachel Carson. Only, that would imply there was something exceptional going on this year. Whereas having the lights go out early on our New England winter sports season has become old hat.
This year, however, it is more painful than usual. For there’s some epic stuff going on at the wayward outposts of North America where they are still playing basketball and hockey long past Mother’s Day and bearing on to the brink of summer. It is not fair, I tell you. Hockey doesn’t belong in Anaheim even in January.
Doubtless you’ve missed it. If the T.V. ratings are to be believed, more than 300 million Americans could not have cared less. But while you may be excused if it’s escaped your attention you nonetheless need to know that the playoff fare in both sports has been ranging from the delightful to the spectacular. Wonderful games, fiercely fought and sprinkled with heroism night, after night, after night. It has been that way since the very beginning with the best yet to come.
Lucky are the towns that are anointed. They have been scorched by the passions of the thing. Only one of the better examples being the scene in Buffalo the day the Sabres got finished off by the Ottawa Senators. Lacking tickets, thousands of Sabre fans surrounded HSBC Arena watching on huge monitors strung the length and breadth of the byways encircling the rink. They formed a joyous mob swaying with every foray up and down the ice. NBC took a wide shot when the home team scored and it looked like the storming of the Bastille. All of Buffalo seemed focused on the moment, hanging on the outcome.
This is what Stanley Cup hockey can do for a town -- you may dimly recall -- and it was a great tribute to the game. In the end, the letdown for the good burghers of Buffalo was savage. Ottawa, crown capital of Canada, gets to host the Cup Finals for the first time since that magical spring Lucky Lindy landed in Paris. In places like Ottawa they will patiently wait 80 years with nary a whimper. It is a good Stanley Cup Finale that features at least one Canadian team. It is an even better one that matches two teams that have never won the Cup, which as of this writing remains a possibility.
Meanwhile, Buffalo’s burghers withdraw to their shelters to await another wretched winter. They’ve been in the league almost four decades and are still looking for their first Cup. The team they had this year -- loaded with soon-to-be free agents -- is the best they’ve ever had. It was a hard moment for a tough town. Yet they took their wrenching defeat graciously and dispersed amiably. Hey, the play’s the thing, you know.
Less amiable has been the business in basketball. The clash between those sagebrush strewn tourist traps, San Antonio and Phoenix, became an old-fashioned range war. It took a bizarre ruling by a commissioner beside himself with fear to settle the matter, denying the players the privilege to do so fairly on the court. David Stern better not show up again in Phoenix without a lot of protection. There’s still a fair amount of “cowboy” mentality left in that town.
Stern and his cops were dead wrong in their ruling that almost certainly decided the series. You’ll recall the circumstances. The Spurs’ Robert Horry, a cagey old roleplayer adept at every dirty trick under the sun, ambushed the Suns sensational Steve Nash, the league’s reigning MVP, with a vicious hipcheck. It was a classic example of the sort of “deliberate attempt to injure” that earns you an indefinite suspension in every other civilized game.
But the NBA can be a strange place. Since that awful incident last season when the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl spilled into the seats precipitating a near riot, Stern has been obsessed with the conduct of the players and the image of the league. He has painstakingly instituted regulations designed to control the brush fires that break out now and again on the court. It was that obsession that sparked his supreme folly in the Suns-Spurs series. Horry, who should have been suspended indefinitely, got decked for two games. But two Suns who had done nothing more than stray a few feet from their bench during the incident also got hammered and one of them -- center Amare Stoudemire -- happens to be their most indispensable man.
Mind you, Stoudemire fouled no one, committed no atrocities, did nothing, only wandered a bit further from his bench than Stern’s anti-riot regulations allow. But Stern, invoking the letter of the law, socked him as fiercely as he hit Horry who had tried to cripple an opponent. Stern knows he botched it. You wonder if, in his heart of hearts, he yearned for the Suns to somehow survive his mistake. Two games later they were finished.
Suddenly, behavioral issues -- taking many forms -- have become a huge conundrum in professional sports. The NFL has its lawless element that the new czar now desperately strives to curb. Major League Baseball has its steroids fiasco. Basketball has variations on both themes. Hockey has the violence question as an eternal bugaboo. For my money, the NHL is the least hypocritical of the bunch and deals with its problem more openly and honestly than the other leagues. If something comparable to the Horry-Nash fiasco had occurred in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the editorial page of the Boston Globe would be in a lather and Congress would be fulminating.
It is all about manners, and morals and ethics and few people in the fun and games’ industry -- including all the various commissioners, czars, presidents, committees, academics, journalistic high priests, and like-minded goo-goos -- are remotely qualified to make the shrewd and highly legalistic distinctions that guarantee the games are clean while insuring no one’s rights are being trampled upon. Maybe what is needed is a “Supreme Court of Sport.”
But in the end, little of this will matter and less still will be remembered. Champions will be crowned in both games as tens of thousands cheer. As of this writing, there remains the strong chance both the hockey and basketball titlists will eventually come from Detroit, that most law-abiding of towns. That would be fine with us. Both the Original Six Red Wings and the Pistons who once upon a time played in Fort Wayne, Indiana have deep roots. When in doubt, always pull for the old guard.
And once again we will have endured a complete shutout here in the town that used to like to think it was the Mecca of American winter sport; the town that gave the world the Celtics, the town that understood hockey as no other; or at least no other in the lower 48.
What most amazes me is the fact that so few even complain anymore. The runaway incompetence of both the Celtics and Bruins is accepted as one of those regional idiosyncrasies that make us quaint and colorful, rather like the aberrant weather, or the traffic jams, or the cost overruns on the Big Dig.
Does it have to be that way? Once upon a time they couldn’t stage these festivals without us. You don’t have to be a sentimental old goat to wonder, “Why can’t it be that way again?”