It is amazing how sport has the ability to transfix. How you can become so enthralled in the contest that everything else going on in the world is put to the back of your mind.
I thought this last night as I stayed up well into the early hours to watch the deciding-game six of the NBA finals between the LA Lakers and the Miami Heat. It ended in a 13-point victory for the LA Lakers who claimed their first title in a decade. Watching the celebrations it was heard not to think of the late Kobe Bryant, who seemed to be looking down on his Lakers helping them over the line.
If you had asked me six months ago if I would be staying up to watch this I would have laughed in your face. My knowledge of basketball was limited to a handful of players, even fewer teams and a vague outline of the rules based on messing around in school PE classes.
The release of the Last Dance documentary during lockdown changed all that. This brilliant ESPN series looked at the career of Michael Jordan and his six-times NBA championship-winning Chicago Bulls. For a long time I have loved sport documentaries of varying descriptions from The Test to When We Were Kings, but the Last Dance was a masterpiece. The release of the series over five weeks of lockdown was once again an example of how sport can provide a distraction from the horrors of the outside world. The New York Times said: “The Last Dance is a company opening up that case of good, special-occasion Chateau Margaux for crisis drinking.”
Over 10 episodes we saw Jordan and co-star Scottie Pippen transform the Bulls franchise from mediocrity to one of the biggest dynasties sport has ever seen. Over eight years, the Bulls won six championships in two three-peats (three years in a row). After winning a third championship Jordan retired and turned his attention to becoming a professional baseball player. He took 13 months out of the game before returning to win another three titles. If The Last Dance was designed to make the uninitiated believe MJ was the greatest of all time, then it certainly worked its magic on me.
The Last Dance whet my appetite for the sport and acted as a gateway drug to becoming an addict. Before I knew what was doing, my YouTube recommended was full of basketball videos of “Best plays of the decade” and debates on what seemed to be on anything and everything between ESPN’s pundits Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith.
I was eager to gain a deeper understanding of one of my new favourite sports. I particularly enjoyed learning about the beef between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill. At this moment, I feel it’s important that I make a confession; I had seen Shaq in a couple of films and the odd appearance on an American TV show, but until I had seen some clips of him play I thought he was a bit of a joke. I had assumed he was the sort of guy that was famous for his off-court persona and not his on-court domination of the league – how wrong could I be.
It was during The Last Dance that 2K, the makers of the NBA PlayStation game, made a brilliant marketing move. They reduced the price of NBA 2K20 to just £4 to capitalise on all the new basketball fans across the UK. To say I jumped on this would be an understatement.
Having never played a basketball game before I was pretty useless to begin with. I would often watch an episode of The Last Dance and then try to recreate the shots I had just watched Jordan make. You will be surprised to hear I didn’t make many of them. A few months down the line I feel like I have got a reasonable grasp on the game in the same way I feel I have a reasonable grasp of the sport.
All this meant that when the NBA returned from its COVID-induced break I felt ready to give it a watch. Like all sport at the moment the lack of supporters creates a seemingly sterile atmosphere, but there has still been some brilliant basketball.
From Anthony Davis’s buzzer-beating shot to snatch victory for the LA Lakers over the Denver Nuggets, to Jimmy Buttler’s takeover for the Miami Heat in game three of the finals, becoming the third player in NBA finals history to record a 40-point triple-double.
All of which brings me back to now; sitting in my room on my laptop in the early hours watching Lebron James and the LA Lakers climb to the summit of basketball yet again – James winning his fourth title, the Lakers their 17th. My love affair with this sport has only been a short one so far, but it has been very sweet.
By Alex Brinton