The Miami Heat are the most obvious villains in sports right now, and quite possibly ever. Fans have wanted to see the Heat lose since before this season even started. It’s possible that someone outside Miami was rooting for them to win last night, but if so, he probably kept it to himself. EVERYONE wanted to see Dallas win that series. I barely care about the NBA, and I was thrilled that the Mavericks won. So far in 2011, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have demonstrated complete and utter unity only twice: Last night when the Heat lost, and last month when Osama bin Laden was killed.
The Miami Heat are the Osama bin Laden of sports.
And yet the Heat are not good sports villains. It is fun to root against them, but not as much fun as it should be.
The last great sports villains were the 2007 New England Patriots, and they were awesome villains. They had everything: a record-setting offense, a cheating scandal, a polarizing wide receiver, a surly head coach who everyone respected but not many people actually liked, and a debonair celebrity quarterback. Most of all, though, they had arrogance. Remember Tom Brady’s famous reaction to Plaxico Burress’ prediction of a 23-17 Super Bowl upset?
You can just hear the disdain in Brady’s voice. He is sure that his team is going to score more than 17 points. Of course, the Patriots ended up with only 14.
What made the Patriots such great villains, though, was that Brady’s arrogance was completely justified. New England was averaging over 35 points per game going into the Super Bowl, hadn’t been held under 20 all season, and had scored 38 against the same Giants defense only a month earlier. When I first heard Brady’s comments, I was mildly offended by his arrogance, but I had to concede that he was probably right.
It’s fun to root against teams like this because they win with such impressive regularity that it feels like something special to beat them. You have to shut down Tom Brady’s offense, or come back against Mariano Rivera, or knock out Mike Tyson. You have to do something that seems impossible.
But it hasn’t seemed impossible to beat the Heat since the Boston Celtics did it in the first game of the season. All the Heat have done since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade is fall short of expectations. After an off-season of people debating whether 72 wins werepossible, the Heat lost eight of their first 17 games, had another five-game losing streak capped by postgame crying, finished second in their conference, and ended up with a worse record than last year’s Cavaliers. James finished with fewer points than any season since his rookie year, averaging fewer assists per game than he had since ’07, and watched the sidekick he turned down win the MVP. And his 2011 postseason will forever be remembered for his fourth-quarter disappearing acts.
Great sports villains inspire things that the Miami Heat don’t: fear and respect. Fear because we know what they are capable of, and respect because they’ve done it before. But the Big 3 are not feared because they haven’t won a championship together yet, and they’re not respected because they seem like petulant children who can’t stand it when they aren’t the center of attention.
Watching the Miami Heat is not like watching some immaculate team that is bred like Ivan Drago for winning. It’s like watching a really smart high school student take a test he didn’t study for: They usually play well enough but you always get the sense that they could have played better.
When teams do upset sports villains you often hear that they had to “play perfect” to get the win. Either perfection or something historic is demanded: Villanova had to shoot 79% from the field to upset Georgetown in 1985; Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling had to pitch 39 innings in the 2001 World Series; Vince Young needed 467 total yards and three rushing touchdowns to win the Rose Bowl.*
*Do the Trojans count as sports villains? I have to think that they certainly do in retrospect…
There was nothing particularly “perfect” about Dallas’ win last night. Dirk Nowitzki, in fact, had a pretty bad game: He hit only one three and was 9-27 from the field. Jason Terry had a great game, but it wasn’t exactly a performance for the ages. And the Mavs still won by 10 in Miami.
Perhaps the simplest way to say it is that we love sports villains because without villains, there would be no heroes, and yet no heroics were required to beat the Heat last night. This series had plenty of heroics, but as the games got more crucial, Miami put up less and less of a fight. The Mavericks’ first win required a shocking fourth-quarter comeback; by the end of their last win, Miami wasn’t even fouling (a classic LeBron move that Tim predicted back in the preseason).
So while I was happy to see Miami lose, there was none of the shock that normally comes with seeing a sports villain vanquished. Disappointment is what we’ve come to expect from Miami and LeBron, so it wasn’t quite as exciting to see them lose. The Heat aren’t even good villains, which is yet another reason to hate them.