The Central Division is the worst in the NBA. Even if all the marquee free agents were evenly distributed amongst Cleveland, Indiana, Milwaukee and Detroit, at best this would be the second worst in the league, ahead of the hapless Atlantic Division. We're potentially looking at 5 teams in which only 1 might make the playoffs. For all of our hoophead brothers in the Midwest, I can see how a once-nuclear winter has now only morphed into a just a really, really long one.
So why would you follow exclusively the predictable and inevitably disappointing journey to a 8th seed playoff team and a 4 game sweep by the vengeful Heat, when you could instead follow the scripted greatness of the WWE?
In the next of my 6-part series, here are the best possible comparisons I could come up with for these 5 NBA fan bases. I matched up the characteristics that defined, say, Deeeee-troit basketball with the professional wrestler that best personified the culture and history of these storied teams.
WWE Comparable: Santino Marella
The Cavaliers are coming off an unbelievable run that included the best record in the NBA and a Finals appearance. This was, without argument, the greatest stretch in Cleveland sports history in the last 10 years, and with the 2-time American champion Indians of the 90s, one of the greatest squads since Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns teams in the 1960's.
But then came The Decision. Without the need to rehash old history here, the hapless Cavaliers limped through the 2010-2011 season to 19 wins and 63 losses, while setting the record for longest losing streak in NBA history. I can't even define this as adding insult to injury; this is like a roast at a Holocaust memorial. Just terrible. Like that line.
So Cleveland, for you I'd prescribe a WWE Superstar that will be entertaining, but not nearly important enough for any potential investment and emotional distress. The 2011-2012 season isn't going to be much better than last year - even with the addition of Omri Casspi, rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, this will be a largely undersized squad with two vets (Antawn Jamison and Baron Davis) that likely won't be there before the trade deadline is up. Cleveland, what you need is someone to give you a few lighter moments in yet another season of despair. You need someone to keep you laughing while your basketball team is going to murder your heart...again. You need Santino Marella.
Santino Marella is an undersized professional wrestler from Canada masquerading as a Italian import. He was dubbed the "Milan Miracle" in his entrance to the WWE for his early upset victories over established Superstar Chris Masters during an European tour. He went on to hold the Intercontinental title but despite all his success, everything that Marella has accomplished during his time in the WWE has been done with a humorous slant. Though I cannot deny my own love and admiration for Santino as a performer, the truth is that his holding of any title while playing his clownish, arrogant and smart-alec character only devalues that championship. He is a man who plays for laughs and when he's not performing a match for comedy, is proficient enough in the ring to look like something of an actual fighter. After all, this is his finishing move.
You need someone to invest in with measured expectations Cleveland. At least for a few years. Here's your man. Have fun. And only fun.
WWE Comparable: Rey Mysterio
A couple years ago, ESPN's 30 for 30 unleashed an epic series of sports documentaries, each with their own unique flavor and style, but yet equal in quality. One of my favorites was "Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks". The film had a wide scope, touching on broad issues such as clashes of class and culture, and all the way down to Reggie Miller's personal relationship with his sister Cheryl, generally considered as the greatest women's basketball player ever to live. While the film was named after the seemingly individual battle Reggie had with the Knicks, Spike Lee and the city of New York, the true story that lied beneath was another tale of David versus Goliath. Once again, Indiana basketball was the cinematic focus as the underdog fighting against an invincible villain. The Pacers went on to eventually defeat the hated Knickerbockers, and in the moment where Reggie Miller splashed around in pools of BockerKnocker's tears, Indiana and its denizens where again the younger brother that wins the fight every once in a while.
The Pacers then went on to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals that season and in Reggie's tenure with the team, only made the NBA Finals once, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games. They haven't come close since.
The drama of Reggie and the Pacers' battle against the Knicks is one of the best in league history. The film truly seems scripted at points, but the real life events of that series were near perfection in their sequence. But the truth is that this was only the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Great story aside, this was the second round of the playoffs. Looking at this documentary side by side with the legendary film Hoosiers, I get the distinct impression that Indiana basketball fans just aren't the underdog - they revel in their standing as the underdog. They love fighting against the odds and proving themselves to other people. If you ever wanted to find your WWE equivalent Indiana, look no further than Rey Mysterio.
Rey Mysterio isn't figurative underdog like the smalltown Pacers against the mighty New York Knicks, or even an unheralded fighter like Rocky against the world champion Apollo Creed. At 5'3", he looks like a guy YOU could beat up. Every single federation he has performed in Rey has been the smallest man on the roster, even at times not being allowed in the arena because security thought he was a child trying to get backstage to see his favorite wrestlers. However, Rey has managed to overcome all of his physical limitations and defy his detractors with a dizzying array of aerial moves, technical mat proficiency and forgoing any sense of a Napoleonic complex and making everyone he faces in the ring look like the most powerful man on the roster. Throughout every place he's been and every opponent he's had, Rey has managed to keep his "face" persona and fan-favorite character on the strength of his in-ring work and unique connection he has with his fans. In an era where being "too good" will get the wrestling-watching public to turn against you, Rey has managed to stay true to who he is and how he wants to be perceived without sacrificing his core values as a man. He is the best possible wrestler for the fans of the Indiana Pacers to follow. The ultimate underdog. But he actually wins, Indiana. Might be a hard transition for you.
WWE Comparable: Mark Henry
Unbeknownst to many fans of the league and basketball in general, the Bucks used to be relevant. Early in the 70's, the team won two Eastern Conference titles and one championship behind the legendary Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor before he found Mohammed. While they were a great team in 80's, winning 6 straight division titles at one point, they are but a forgotten footnote in history behind the crushing dominance of the Bird-led Celtics and Dr. J's Sixers.
Since then, they've made the playoffs a scant 6 times in 20 seasons, only going past the first round once. Bucks basketball remains in an unenviable position - trying to maintain its fan base in a market where the Packers will forever be king, the upstart Brewers are now contending for titles and Wisconsin football always has a relevance on the national radar. They are doing so with Scott Skiles at the helm, trying to appeal to styles of smash mouth brutality that Packers fans have always been drawn to and the pummeling long balls coming from the smoldering bats in Miller Park. Everything about the Bucks speaks to me as a throwback to how basketball was played and the specific time in which Milwaukee ran as title contenders. A time when it earned its name as "The Good Land."
The only man who I can possibly match up with Bucks basketball is current World Heavyweight Champion, Mark Henry.
Mark is one of the longest tenured performers on the WWE roster. He began his career in 1996, after his a career as a professional and Olympic weight lifter. He came into the "sport" never having wrestled, either as an amateur or professional. Billed as "The World's Strongest Man", Henry enterted the Federation with some mainstream fanfare, but that quickly died out considering how terrible he was in the ring and on the microphone. Though a monster of a man at around 6'4" and nearly 400 pounds, his career as a weightlifter only helped him excel when treating his opponents as dumbbells rather than autonomous organisms needing a degree of care when being hurled around ring. In a word, Mark Henry was bad. Aside from his cartoonish physique and success as a legitimate athlete, there was simply nothing that Henry added to the World Wrestling Federation.
As the years passed, Henry moved from gimmick to gimmick, changing characters from the behemoth enforcer in the Black Panthers-inspired Nation of Domination to a nymphomaniac nicknamed "Sexual Chocolate" (dead serious). Several years ago, Mark dropped his coitus-driven moniker and became closer to the Mark Henry that you currently see on WWE programming; a monster who uses his brutality and strength to beat his opponents into submission. His gimmick as a man who seeks to put opponents into his "Hall of Pain" is a throwback to the Golden Age of the WWE, where the villainous champion was nothing more than a physically imposing bully whose main motivation was to destroy anyone that dared challenge him. Every interaction he had was about being the most dominating person alive, as if this claim to fame was the only thing validating his existence.
Milwaukee should enjoy this man. Everything about him is a throwback to a viciousness that sports seems all too eager to excise from a world with 24/7 coverage and high definition screens. He uses this style to not only popularity, but success in the face of everyone that doubted him. In what should be another title-less season for Bucks fans, this is a champion that you can identify with and cheer for.
WWE Comparable: Sheamus
Sheamus, while mirroring Mark Henry's style in some ways, is the opposite image of Mark Henry in many facets. They both wrestle with the same type of destructive and overwhelming physicality, except Sheamus matches every ounce of his strength with a surprising amount of agility and explosiveness. A former WWE champion, he is the exact type of wrestler that Vince McMahon has made his millions upon.
The Pistons, like the Celtics and Lakers in the 80's, seemed to take up the characteristics of its fan base and home. The Bad Boys always played with the same grit and toughness their midwest metropolis exudes, never being afraid to mix in a full court press or a high pick with an errant clothesline or a properly placed accidental elbow. Detroit's fans crowed about how tough their team was and took pride that defense won them games rather than the cocky showmanship of Magic Johnson or the arrogant dominance of Larry Bird.
But while the primary trait of the championship Pistons has always been their defensive acumen, all three of their title teams haven't been without their fair share of flash. Isaiah Thomas is still one of the greatest point guards of all time, an imaginative passer with a big smile and an extremely competitive personality. Rip Hamilton laid to waste a conference's worth of ankles and cut the rim better than most people in the league. Rasheed Wallace wasn't afraid to mix it up down low but would be just as much at ease throwing up a long ball.
The Pistons have had as much finesse and glitz in their play as they've had toughness and grit. As much as Detroit doesn't want to admit it, they didn't win title just by bowling people over and committing hard fouls. They did it with a creative and versatile offense as well. Sheamus has achieved his success in the same way, with the same amount of unrealistic assessment of his ability.
WWE Comparable: Randy Orton
In the last 30 years, the Chicago Bulls have truly only had three superstars: Derrick Rose, Scottie Pippen and of course, Michael Jordan. Guys like Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Joakim Noah, Artis Gilmore and Horace Grant may go down as great players, but Rose, Pippen and Michael are the players that Chicagoans remember. After watching a lifetime of those three, I can't think of a better WWE comparable than Randy Orton.
What Chicago has gotten used to over the past three decades, more than anything else, is sleek, fast-paced play, punctuated by a player (wearing the number 1, 23 or 33) lithely winding around its opponent on the way to the rim, much like a viper (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) would weave around whatever lay before it while going towards prey. All the while, this type of highlight-film offense simply serves as a facade, even a distraction, for a suffocating defense served with a stoic, workmanlike intensity. For as much emphasis and notoriety Michael and Scottie got for their senses-shattering dunks and ankle-decimating pivots in the paint, it often went unnoticed how much effort they put into every other facet of their game. I suspect that true Bulls fans won't remember a Michael buzzer-beater nearly as much as the Scottie steal that made that shot possible.
The other day a friend and I were talking about Randy Orton, and he noted that what was most impressive about him is the fluidity at which he makes every move. All his in-ring transitions are smooth, as if each muscle synapse that fires, does so in a domino-like succession. Unlike many of us in the normal world of desk jobs and 1 hour workout routines, Orton's body is so finely tuned to the point where he seems to have direct control over every single extremity. Like Derrick Rose rumbling down the lane, Orton can change direction at any single moment, seemingly contorting his body to whatever situation he comes across. Beyond the astonishing care he takes with his physique, this is a type of athletic gift that a man is born with. I don't know of a more perfect comparative to the athletes Chicago is used to than Randy Orton. More than just his physical attributes, it's the quiet and cold competitiveness that the Windy City will identify with.
Check out the other parts of the WWE for an NBA Fan series: