Notebook > Sports

Back to the nineties

Sports | The Heat looked like the Bulls of yesteryear in their dazzling NBA Finals victory

Issue: "Books and Movies 2006," July 1, 2006

Exhibit A on how to become an NBA superstar: Dwyane Wade, the articulate, young, exciting, well-mannered guard for the Miami Heat. Did you see how he won the NBA championship all by himself?

Entering the best of seven NBA Finals, pundits expected Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki to be the one to step forward and make his case for elite status. With 50 points in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the German star had lifted his team on his shoulders and seemed to be willing them through the playoffs.

And through two games of the Finals (both Dallas blowout wins), nothing could have been clearer: The Mavericks were ushering in a new era of versatile team play led by, of all people, a European star. Then the series moved to Miami. Then it all changed. ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons called the Heat win a triumph of early '90s basketball. "Unfortunately, they still had to get through Miami-an old-school, MJ [Michael Jordan] Era-type team with one superstar (Wade), another All-Star (Shaquille O'Neal), some overpaid pieces that didn't quite fit and a famous coach." That's right: the Big Aristotle reduced to a Scottie Pippen role. So much for the new school.

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Someday, someone will discover what happened to Dwyane Wade between Game 2 and Game 3. In Games 1 and 2 Mr. Wade looked like a player waiting for a teammate-Shaq-to step up and lead the Heat to a championship. In an ironic twist, Dallas' hard-nosed defense on Shaq may have led to the Mavericks' demise. The Dallas double-teams stymied Mr. O'Neal for the first time ever in a playoff series and forced Miami's hopes into Mr. Wade's hands. The Miami guard stepped up to the challenge, and the Mavericks never figured out how to double-team him without fouling him.

In Game 3, Mr. Wade exploded for 42 points. In Game 5, when his jumper wasn't falling, the Heat guard managed to hit 21 free throws, including a pair to ice the game in overtime. In the deciding Game 6, he captained a second- and third-quarter barrage that overwhelmed the defensive-minded Mavericks on their home court. After the game, reporters couldn't help themselves, comparing the 24-year-old star to a young Michael Jordan. Mr. Wade deflected. "No comparison," he said. "He was my greatest role model as an athlete. . . . The comparison is flattering but at the same time there will never be another Jordan."

Even so, in the copycat world of sports where teams always mimic the formula of the championship team, the NBA may find that uncovering the next Wade proves just as difficult as finding the next Jordan. The NBA enacted rule changes over the past two years to increase scoring and decrease physical defense in hopes of sending the NBA back to its glory days of the 1980s. But Mr. Wade's Jordan-style Finals dominance ushered in a different era of basketball: the 1990s.

Around the Horn

HOCKEY: The Carolina Hurricanes skated to the Stanley Cup after winning Game 7 on home ice on June 19. Judging by the television ratings, did anyone notice? The final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs drew a 3.3 rating on NBC, nearly a full point down from Game 7 in the 2004 finals. One subtle indignity: The NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City declined to even air the broadcast, choosing instead to rerun a Major League Soccer game.

FOOTBALL: A sign sports fans care too much and think too little: Following the June 12 motorcycle crash of Pittsburgh star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the other person involved in the collision, a 62-year-old woman, began receiving death threats. Mr. Roethlisberger suffered broken facial bones and a mild concussion in the accident.

GOLF: Something about Winged Foot makes the best golfers in the world look like guys fooling around on a Saturday morning at the local municipal course. Maybe it's the memory of the "Massacre at Winged Foot," the 1974 U.S. Open where Hale Irwin won with a 7-over par. Maybe it's the rough that more resembles a field of wheat than a golf course. At the final round of this year's U.S. Open on June 18, when then-leader Phil Mickelson pulled the driver out of his bag rather than an iron on Sunday's 18th tee, many fans had that Winged Foot feeling. Mr. Mickelson squandered his lead by banking his drive off the hospitality tent into the deep rough, and Geoff Oglivy won with a 5-over for the tournament.

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