Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thursday Narrative Post - Sports & Narrative

As a Tar Heel born and bred (if not educated), it was quite painful to me to watch the boys in blue lay a giant stinkbomb in the first half against KU, especially after looking so dominant for the rest of the tournament. Hansbrough was hitting face-up 20 footers against Louisville, for God's sake. Then they, what? Forget they're one game away from the final? Watching Kansas come out and shove a live grenade down Carolina's throat to the tune of a 40-12 lead in the first half was literally the sight of a dream season ending. Unbeaten on the road? Oh, how about another easy layup following an uncontested interior pass? They couldn't have played worse at a worse time if their life depended on it.

I rationalize and say that, with the way Memphis played in a magnificent title game 2 days later, there would have been no way the Heels could have beaten them. Carolina couldn't stop Sherrod Collins from getting into the lane, Derrick Rose would have blown their minds. And so I say I'm happy for KU to put on the crown following that incredible Chalmers 3, but the truth is that every second of watching the game was haunted by the ghostly question of "how would Carolina be playing right now?" And, as with the Georgetown debacle last year, the what-if question will hang over me for a while as basketball season fades.

Still and all, it is these failures that make sports so compelling, the ways that real life, in the form of televised childhood games played by athletically freakish millionaires, sometimes lines up with the stories we tell and sometimes does not. In watching a movie, or a TV show, or reading a book, the audience member is entering a narrative compact that is rarely broken: things will end appropriately, is the promise of the writer. Not necessarily well, or happily, but in a way that satisfies the narrative drive. One of the pleasures of fictional narratives lies in seeing how the various strands that are laid out reach a satisfying conclusion. Genre often helps - for the comedy we implicity understand that things will end happily; the pleasures lie in the twists and turns along the way. In tragedy, or suspense, the Aristotelian catharsis is the implied payoff for the weight of awful events/threats/mishaps that form the narrative.

When a work of fiction does not resolve to the root chord, the audience often feels cheated, and the work itself can feel cheapened. Witness the great outcry over the Sopranos finale. Fade to black, no resolution, life goes on (depending on your preferred conspiracy theory). The series ends without resolving on anything; it is an ending in the literal sense - it ceases to be, and the narrative strands are left dangling. The question remains; does this make the vast rich middle any less compelling? A subjective answer, I'd argue - for myself I'd say yes and no.

The glory of sports is that they contain resolution every single time out on the micro level (someone always wins, someone always loses), but they do not always provide narrative resolution. The Cinderella team in the NCAA tournament does not always win. Davidson does not always hit the last second three against Kansas. Sometimes a team led by a devil incarnate (cough Christian Laettner cough) wins a championship. There's no guarantee that real life will follow any narrative drive. And when it doesn't, it feels unsatisfying, but not in the same way that it feels unsatisfying when a movie/tv show/book doesn't achieve resolution. In those cases, the lack of resolution is a deliberate choice from the part of the author, thus feeling like entitlement withdrawn. In real life, it feels true. It resonates with the thousand petty disappointments that all of us feel over the course of a lifetime.

So, when it does happen...when Davidson beats Georgtown, when Roy Williams wins the Big One (and then Kansas wins the Big One after vanquishing Roy Williams), when Memphis is tragically, Shakespearian-ly done in by missed free throws after Calipari's blithe assertion that they'll make 'em when they count, when, unbelievably, the smarmy Belichick and his Death Star Patriots fall just short of the ultimate prize (with their matinee idol QB spending a good portion of the game on his back in the grass), the pleasure is doubled, trebled, even exponentially increased because there really is no guarantee. If a satisfying ending is exquisite pleasure in the realm of fictional narrative, it is on another level when comes from real life, which so often gives no quarter and unspools with such little rhyme or reason.

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