Growing up I remember watching Midland High basketball games; cheering on iconic players like Chris Kelsey, Nathan Yopp, Ernie Sutton. I remember the guys in my older brother’s grade: Matt Brown, Tom O’Brien, Nick Butler, Rian Roberson. These were the local heroes, the legends on the court, the cool summer basketball camp counselors in the summer time.
As a young basketball player you aspired to be them.
Fast forward years later and I was on the varsity basketball team. I remember realizing, wait, our record’s the same as theirs was. Our guys are the same height. Wait, are we… equals? Are we better?
Then comes winter break. Coach Krause invites the older guys back to the gym to beat up on us right when we’re on the edge of overconfident. Ernie comes in. Nick Butler. My older brother. Matt Brown. Logic says they’re all in the 6-foot tall range but not to me. I’m back to being the kid again and these guys are the giants I cheered on.
So the first game starts. They’re physical. They block shots. They throw full court passes. They can still dunk. 5-0. 6-0. 7-0. We rush our shots. Take bad shots. Throw the ball out of bounds.
The first game’s a blowout. Second game too. It doesn’t really make sense considering we have set plays and practice every day. These guys are in college and may go weeks without stepping foot on the court.
But they have the key psychological edge: They were men when we were boys.
When Kevin Durant was 14, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade had just entered the NBA. For all of high school, Durant was cheering these guys on, hoping to elevate his game to their levels, idolizing their talents.
Likewise, when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade were in middle school, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett were beginning their Hall of Fame NBA careers.
It’s a one-sided fandom. Pierce never rushed home to watch LeBron James’s Youtube clips and Tim Duncan certainly never went out and bought a Chris Bosh middle school jersey. Hell, Duncan racked up thousands of NBA points before Serge Ibaka had even picked up a basketball.
The Spurs and Celtics are the older guys to the Heat. The Heat are the older guys to the Thunder. Older guys are afraid they might lose, younger guys are afraid they might win.
I think we all, to some degree, set limits on ourselves. We view ourselves belonging in a certain league, category, bracket and it becomes very hard to break out of that box. It’s why our older brothers always seem to win the 1-on-1 games, or why we’re intimidated to ask our boss for more money, or why we’re hesitant to ask a girl out of our range to the prom.
Think about it. If your friend says, “Hey, I set you up on a blind date. She’s really hot, great body, she’s a good singer too,” then you go to the restaurant with a certain expectation in place. However, if you show up and that girl turns out to be Rihanna, suddenly it’s a whole different ball game. Your heart’s racing faster, you stumble over your words, voice cracks, sweat profusely.
But why? She’s technically the hot girl with a good singing voice described by your friend. Except that she’s not. She’s Rihanna and you’re you. The two aren’t supposed to go together.
Or how about when Jesus told Peter to join him on the water walk. Peter’s doing great for a while until he starts thinking, “I’m walking on the water with Jesus! Holy crap I’m walking on the water with Jesus! OH CRAP, I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE WALKING ON WATER WITH JESUS!”
This same logic is why I think Michael Jordan could beat 99.8 percent of the world’s population at basketball into his late sixties. Reasoning? Only a select few, when they’re a basket away from winning, would be able to get past the mental hurdle of, “Wait, I might actually beat MJ?” It doesn’t matter if this MJ has gray eyebrows and walks with a cane, almost everyone’s minds would picture him in his Chicago Bulls prime.
So how can the younger guys ever win? The secret: They have to believe, not only that they belong on the same court, but that it’s their turn and the older guys already had their chance. Kevin Durant put it this way:
“We never thought we were supposed to wait our turn. We just know we’re supposed to take everything.”
The Thunder’s defining moment was this year in Game 4 against the Spurs when Durant carried the team in the fourth quarter. When your best player rises to the challenge, it’s contagious and that’s why you saw the The Thunder come into Game 5 with new confidence and were able to beat the old guys in enemy territory, something I thought would take several more years of growing pains to accomplish.
The Miami Heat had this moment last year when they finally got past the Boston Celtics in Round 2. This year they couldn’t get it done at home in Game 5 and now find themselves up against the ropes… again. They will have to beat the older guys two times in a row, once on the road, to keep their title hopes alive
Honestly, I don’t know between the Thunder and Heat who is in the better position. Mathematically, it’s the Thunder. They only have to go 1-1. But, psychologically, the Heat have no other choice than to fight, scrap, play their heart out and see if they can win two in a row. No thinking involved.
For the Thunder, they have to face the fear that they might just win one of these next two games and head to the NBA Finals. They are 48 minutes away from completing a path that involved them beating the Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs; three teams that have combined to win 10 of the last 13 NBA Championships. Unlike Peter, maybe it’s best the Thunder don’t look down and realize they’re walking on water.
Forget the ages, by the end of the week we’ll know exactly who are the men and who are the boys.