Beneath the Underdog

No one cares for me.

Time to fess up: for me, the real tragedy of the premature dismissal of Kings from the NBC lineup isn’t the fact that a decent show didn’t get an honest run, or that a great cast was now out of work (though that was certainly a part of it); it was the sudden lack of material to post and the sudden absence of a decent distraction. Unless you have the encyclopedic breadth of a J.C. Freñán, who seems to have an uncanny ability to watch everything at all times, it’s hard to keep up with weekly installments of teledramas. This ain’t made any easier by shows like Lost (which I caught a few recent episodes of with our good friends at Interweb Detritus), whose plotlines are so mangled, are such labyrinthine mazes through bullshit, that they’ve become absolutely impossible to enter midway. So, naturally, I spent most of my time in front of the tube watching a drama of other sorts unfold – the much more accessible ’09 NBA Playoffs – only to witness yet another devastating and premature dismissal of a tale of Biblical dimensions (if not quite proportions): the untimely death of the David-turned-Goliath-turned-David-again Detroit Pistons.

Now I know TubaTV isn’t the most appropriate spot to vent about sports per se (even if I, the destitute student that I am, have only ever experienced sports through television), and I don’t want to go on about how much the decimation of my beloved, hometown team hurt (how, for instance, my heart dropped into my intestines after game 1; or how close I was to taking the plunge into the Pacific after game 3). There’ll be none of that. No, I want to talk more about the narrative of the underdog, the one narrative hook that pulls us all in, whether it be in sports or film (hello Slumdog!) or TV shows. Our national psyche is indebted to that narrative (Horatio Alger’s rags to riches tale is paradigmatic; and Obama’s story the latest example), but that shit goes even beyond the country’s borders. It’s a universal trait of modern subjectivity to believe we are always the underdog, even when we’re not. And if we ever do come to grips that we are no longer the underdog, that somehow we’re no longer an average Joe when we’re catapulted to the next tax bracket, something feels amiss. For Sheed & Company, they longed for the days when no one believed they could win, until, they no longer actually could.

Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point fame) in this week’s New Yorker gives some perspective on how underdogs pull off their great upsets. Gladwell narrates the story of a Palo Alto youth girls basketball team, coached by IT entrepreneur and hoops-newbie Vivek Ranadive, who, against all odds, manage to become the league’s best team. Gladwell returns to the David and Goliath tale for example:

‘And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,’ the Bible says. ‘And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.’ The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. ‘The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,’ the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in ‘The Life of David.’ Pinsky calls David a ‘point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.’ David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

Gladwell’s essay is about the way in which the Davids of the world win, by outhustling and outsmarting their opponents, by ignomiously “choos[ing] not to play by Goliath’s rules.” But Gladwell has less to say about the fleeting nature of Davids, a constitutive part, I’d argue, of the narrative itself.

Getting back to hoops, the Detroit Pistons of the aughts are the perfect example of the David and Goliath tale because, over the long decade, they inhabited both ends of that tale: they were, in ’04, the unlikely underdogs knocking off the imploding, hubristic Lakers; and they were, every year after that, the arrogant force of the East, who lost time and again to an upstart (Miami, Cleveland, and the freshly minted Celtics). And so it went with Ranadive’s basketball team, the team of wimpy, white girls (and Desis) who perfected the full court press and, against all odds, started to mow down their opponents; soon after becoming the fiercest defenders in girls basketball, they turned into the obnoxious victors, enough that opposing coaches launched chairs across the court in frustration.

Some weeks back, I praised Kings for its inspired reinterpretation of the David and Goliath tale (the press and public mistake David’s surrender as an act of defiance), but was annoyed by his protagonist’s subsequent, string-enhanced, heroism in every fucking episode thereafter. What would have happened to the David of Kings as the show progressed? He drew the ire of TubaTV, but would he have started to piss off the public of Gilboa with his repeated acts of underdog bumpkin heroics? Would he have turned into a KG, barking at the latest upstarts? Now, thanks to NBC, we’ll probably never know. Eh.

— Thumbu Sammy

You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate.

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Thumbu

Brother of L. Augustus Del Pietro

6 thoughts on “Beneath the Underdog”

  1. The Pistons went awry the momen they signed Iverson. I called them not making the playoffs, so they did defy my expectations, but the ass kicking they received in round one was apt.

    They can’t really consider themselves “David”. They’re more David-turned-Goliath-turned-bunch of bitches. But that’s just my opinion. They gave up a really good thing with Billups and you can tell.

  2. I have to agree, based on my own experience, that San Mateo county is the land of basketball upsets, a world turned upside down by misfits.

    I don’t know if the Pistons had necessarily has become the ‘goliath’s’ per se. People tended to write them off since everyone on the team was nearing their thirties or past thirty. You could probably say they had a goliath type attitude though as they definitely coasted more than they should in the last few years (think the Lakers of 08-09 season). I think its impart Dumars overevaluating is youth — seriously, who is Amir Johnson? Or maybe that is Dumars’ master plan to re-instill that David mentality with his team of scrubs?

  3. I think the Pistons really only had one David moment in them; the year they knocked off the Lakers in the final. I do think in subsequent years – like maybe ’05, and ’06 – they were expected to win it, or at least make the Finals, and that deeply fucked with their psyche. ‘Sheed was parading around with his world championship belt, Chauncey was overconfident. I think KG is, possibly, the more apt model; he was the most beloved player in the NBA, and once he won it, he became this enormous douchebag on and off the court. Two beers in, I was trying to figure out what this post was about, too, and I think my main point is how the David-Goliath narrative is so fleeting, that its resolution necessarily reverses the protagonist-antagonist relationship. In the Old Testament, doesn’t David become a bit of a Machiavellian asshole?

  4. Yea KG is a douchebag to it’s fullest. I think he totally captures that transformation you’re talking about. Remember when we loved to feel sorry for him? Now he’s trying to take Russell’s place in the pantheon of great Celtics, when he really has as many rings as Wayne Kreklow (had to look that one up)!

  5. I still remember watching that video of him crying in front of Coach John Thompson. Everyone loved KG, but I think, in retrospect, part of the love was ’cause he was a loser – charismastic, borderline insane, hard working, but a loser, nonetheless. Now look at him, howling at Ben Gordon, in his mod suit. Sad, how the mighty have fallen.

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