It isn’t Ulysses’ perfection that makes him one of the greatest characters of all time. And it wasn’t perfection that led Dante, who had never actually read Homer’s epic poem which had yet to be translated into Latin by 1305 when he started the Divine Comedy, to write the greatest canto of the Inferno about Ulysses. It wasn’t perfection that persuaded Tennyson to write the poem “Ulysses,” a poem that builds on Homer and Dante and turns the Greek soldier into into a beautiful crescendo of death and courage. So what was it about this one man? A man who refused to return home until the time was right and then leave a lonely wife and son because of boredom? A man who willingly sent his crew to their death as they glimpsed the shores of purgatory? A man whose faults outweighed his virtues? Even though Dante never read the tales of Ulysses, hearing of his exploits was enough for the Italian to understand what made the Greek so special–his imperfection, or his humanity in the face of everything that made him beyond human.
One of the casualties of our modern era is the beauty of imperfections. There is an asinine idea in our culture that the modern day tragic characters; mainly the highest paid, most talented, larger-than-life athletes; should conform to the perceived moral character of their viewers. Many of the idiots who take exception to those professionals who won’t prescribe to this blame the athlete, not themselves. They believe a season ticket allows them the right to lord over the athlete, to judge them like the lions of Babylon, who were too cowardly, not clutch enough to finish off Daniel when the time came. Ben Fountain understood this and in his newest book, Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk he wrote of the NFL and its fans, “It seemed that football must be made to be productive and useful, a net-plus benefit for all mankind, hence the endless motivational yawping about teamwork, sacrifice, discipline, and other modern virtues, the basic thrust of which boiled down to shut up and do as you’re told.”
What’s worse is this theory has shackled one of the greatest athletes who has ever existed to a perception which may or may not be true; shackled him by the theory that the sports fan has the right to judge unworthy those who don’t conform. I don’t give a shit about the Decision–to be honest I was was halfway through a bottle of bourbon with friends before I knew what was happening. I don’t give a shit about what you may or may not think LeBron did to the city of Cleveland or how you may or may not think LeBron plays in the clutch (which is the worst kind of objective sports viewing). What I do care about is the fact that we can watch one of the more interesting characters do things like he did last night, angrily carry a team on his back for no better reason than he can, and do it in a way that was flawed and imperfect, and because of that, beautiful.
There have been a few times throughout this NBA season when I wanted to call it quits. Turn off the television, logout of twitter and walk outside into what experts refer to as “sunshine.” It wasn’t the quality of play, which, even with the lockout-shortened season, was exceptional, but the necessity of sports fans to believe the narratives that corner athletes into convenient roles that only exist in the minds of the viewer. This kind of stagnation of character doesn’t create Greek tragedies, but Nicholas Sparks novels where everything is comfortably predictable and nothing interesting happens. Luckily I survived this crisis of identity and witnessed one of the greatest playoff performances I’ve ever seen by one of the most imperfect and dynamic athletes of these much maligned modern times.
So you want your athletes to be uniform examples of the pasty-white, middle-class ideals that don’t really exist in this society? Go watch golf. You want a sport to sell you on the idea that you are the most important part of what the athlete does? The NFL is waiting for your call, they have a fantasy team waiting for a new “coach.” You want bullshit nostalgia? There’s a thirty-five second shot clock somewhere near your cookie-cutter home, that is if you have enough energy to get your ass off the couch after a long week as low man on the corporate totem-pole. Just leave me the sport where the athletes are allowed to be egos; allowed to be uneasy and grandiose; allowed to be gymnasts and juggernauts, comic and tragic. In short give me the imperfections of the hardwood, because only here can I witness an athlete like LeBron dominate like he did in Game Six. The Heat may not win the finals, it’s very possible the won’t even make it, but this team, and that one athlete, makes the NBA a more interesting, complex place.