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Blogcat's Take, 5/30

Since we’re in the college acceptance season, let’s do a sentence completion exercise…for fun! Here goes: the Celtics are to the NBA what violence was to The Sopranos. Think about it: when the Celtics are up, everyone’s impression of the NBA is up. And when the Celtics are down, the NBA is seen as having a “down” year. Similarly, anytime there was a particularly bloody stretch on The Sopranos, it was universally regarded as a great show and generated water-cooler talk. But whenever the shooting stopped for long stretches and Tony did mundane, non-violent things (like spend multiple episodes in a coma), loyal viewers grew frustrated and casual fans turned away.

To understand the Celtics’ impact, simply compare this season and last season. Ostensibly, both had several common features: both had heated MVP races culminating in first-time winners (Dirk & Kobe), both had solid if unspectacular Rookies of the Year (Roy and Durant), both had highly competitive Western Conference Playoff races (5 50+ win teams last year, 8 this year), and both had teams blatantly tanking for purposes of draft positioning (Celtics & Bucks last year, Heat & Grizzlies this year).

The differences between 06-07 and 07-08, as far as I can tell, are pretty minor. Definitely this year had more blockbuster trades (and the impact was magnified because two of them involved...Boston!), but last year did see Iverson getting shipped off to Denver. Last year was marred by the Nuggets-Knicks “brawl” (or “minor altercation,” as it was known to us non-ignorant NBA fans) and a sketchy All-Star Game. This year also had the "feel-good story" of the New Orleans Hornets, but I’d argue that Golden State’s finish last year was—if not in the neighborhood—at least a suburb of comparability. In both years, the playoffs were a mixed bag.

But the biggest difference between this year and last year is the Celtics. It’s probably because they bring a large, disproportionately vocal fan base, full of old-time (Bob Ryan) and younger (Bill Simmons) tastemakers alike. Thus, their concerns end up being everyone’s concerns. For instance, when the team tanked last year, all of a sudden the league as a whole had a problem with tanking. This year? Tanking was no big deal, even though it was—if anything—more blatant (two words: "Patrick Riley").

So here’s the interesting part. The final season of The Sopranos drew more fans than ever, and a big part of it had to do with the escalating body count. But the last episode left roughly half the audience alienated, the general complaint being that it lacked an “ending.” I firmly believe that by “ending,” most people meant “some sort of bloody shootout, preferably involving Tony dying in a pinwheeling spray of blood and diner food.” In other words, it was a great last season until the end, when no violence = fan frustration.

Meanwhile, this year’s NBA has seen the Celtics rise to the best record, hence viewership and casual interest have correspondingly escalated, and the season has been universally heralded as one of the best in recent memory. But how will it end? The “dream match-up,” of course, is the Celtics-Lakers, while anything else is going to be like watching Meadow spend 5 minutes parking a car.

Full disclosure: I’m a diehard loyalist of both the NBA and The Sopranos. I’ve never not loved the NBA, even when it’s supposedly going through a “down” year. For example, I was one of a handful of people in the country absolutely mesmerized by the virtuoso shooting prowess of Chris Gatling in 1995. Similarly, I have and will continue to defend every Sopranos episode ever, including the final one (to all those who complained about the last episode, I ask you this: what more did you deranged sickos want? Phil Leotardo got his head run over by a car, for goodness’ sake, was that not enough? And just who precisely was supposed to kill Tony at the end?—he made his peace with everyone, including the Feds. You all are depraved.) So I’ll be happy either way, whether the Celtics make it or not. I enjoy the Spurs, and it’s not like the Pistons and Lakers have no history of their own.
Full disclosure #2: Before I get a bunch of hate-mail about how stupid/pointless this article is, I was on a conference call again. I'm telling you, stay away from those things. Only once the calls are done...that I feel like dying, I feel like dying.

Random epilogue: speaking of violence, if you’re ever bored, I’ve got a fun activity for you to try at home: watch a really violent movie with Closed-Captioning on. This past weekend, I DVR’d the utterly degenerate and quasi-fascist film 300, but because my wife was trying to work in the other room, all the screaming and axe-on-flesh noises were distracting her. So I turned the sound down and enabled the Closed-Captioning function, and the results were downright comical. In fact, I couldn’t resist copying down one of the scenes word-for-word. Looking over it, it’s hard to say if this is the dialogue from a movie or the minutes from the President’s latest Cabinet meeting. Check it out:

(All grunting)
(Distorted grunts and yells)
(Breathing heavily)
(Heavy, thudding footsteps, growling)
“My king!”
(Growling softly)
(Breathing heavily)
(Sharp tinging)
(Growling fiercely)
“Arcadians, now!”
“Go Show the Spartans what we can do!”
NARRRATOR: “They shout and curse, stabbing wildly, more brawlers than warriors. They make a wondrous mess of things. Brave amateurs, they do their part.”