- Steve Etheridge, ESPN Playbook
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On Wednesday night, the Chicago Bulls were beaten by the Miami Heat 115-78, and it was ugly. It was like watching a feeble and malnourished goat go 10 rounds with Tyson in his prime. It was the kind of loss that even moms can’t say anything nice about, where they stare silently ahead in the minivan and turn on the radio to distract from the failure.
It was utterly demoralizing, which, to a team inching through the playoffs on moral stamina alone, is a nasty augury for the remainder of the series. They should just roll over and die, right? That would be a really easy and convenient solution.
But it’d be a dumb one, too. Because their dignity can still be salvaged, and dignity’s a nice thing to have. It keeps you from talking on a Bluetooth in public. And everybody hates people who do that.
Grossly outmatched, the Bulls would need to unleash some incredible heroics to nab another victory, whether moral or otherwise. They would need to stop playing like real-life athletes and start playing like athletes in movies, as, per the laws of cinema, movie athletes must always achieve at the very least a victory of the heart.
They’ll just need to determine what kind of movie they want to make.
• • •
There’s a scene in “The Great Muppet Caper” when a team of jewel thieves, in preparation for a climactic heist, takes inventory of all its cutting-edge jewel-thieving equipment. The Muppets, looking to thwart them, run off an equipment checklist of their own: whoopee cushion, peanut butter, yo-yo, wax lips, paper towels, etc.
Compared with the thieves’ pocket lasers and pneumatic drills, the Muppets are laughably ill equipped for the impending showdown. But they don’t seem to care. They’ve got each other. They’ve got heart. And if all their adventures have taught them anything, it’s that those are the only two things they need.
Sappy? Sure, a little. But it’s a storyline that never grows old, as we’ve been learning with the NBA playoffs. Until Wednesday, the Bulls were looking an awful lot like Muppets, both literally, in that everyone on the team looks vaguely puppetlike, and in attitude, as they hadn’t let their long-shot credentials put a dent in their optimism.
Their starting lineup at this point is little more than a wheelbarrow full of mangled limbs, battered beyond recognition by an absurd array of injuries and ailments. Yet for the most part, the Bulls have bounced out onto the court and startled their opponents with their pluck and guile, dazzling and delighting us all—save for Waldorf and Statler up in the press box.
In Game 1 against the Heat, they bested the reigning champs down the stretch by coordinating a succession of clever, synergetic offensive sets that smacked of classic Muppet teamwork. It was a beautiful statement for the team to make, and one that will linger in fans’ memories far longer than the savage massacre of Game 2. And spearheading it all was the unlikeliest of heroes, the smallest player in a league of giants: 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson.
Of all the Bulls, Nate is the most Muppet-y in appearance, so squatty and bulkily muscled that he looks as if he might've been sculpted from foam. He sports a neatly trimmed low fade that could very well just be fuzzy cloth glued to his scalp, and his mouth is so wide that it’s basically just a big happy wedge carved diametrically across his face. And then there’s his movement. The way he jerks through the paint and lurches backward for jumpers—it feels just a little bit off-putting, almost as if he’s being yanked around the court by a system of strings and wires. Almost, y’know, like he’s a Muppet.
But which Muppet? He has the recklessness of Animal but Kermit’s sense of duty. He is misunderstood like Gonzo, yet he makes himself known like Miss Piggy. I guess he’s sort of a Muppet Megazord, an aggregated embodiment of all their defining qualities.
Yet if there’s one trait shared by all the Muppets, it’s a propensity for high jinks. And, boy, does Nate got high jinks. If you trap him on a drive, chances are you’re gonna get nutmegged. If you toe up with him for a jump ball, no height advantage can compensate for his sneakiness. He’s always putting on a show, and, in terms of spectacle, he’s consistently the biggest player on the court. The bigness, though, comes more from character than from high jinks.
After the Bulls' win Monday, Nate dropped a quote that probably spurred dozens of pipsqueak JV ninth-graders to scurry out to their driveways and practice jumpers ’til sunrise.
“God blessed me with a lot of heart and no height, and I’ll take that any day.”
And he meant it. In a league where towering goons regularly collapse to the floor and writhe in faux agony in hopes of drawing a call, knee-high Nate dives fearlessly into plays like an X-wing plunging into the Death Star. In these playoffs alone, he has had his head stomped on, his guts regurgitated into a bucket and his lip split open by the colossal weight of LeBron’s marble frame. But he picks himself up, stows the puke bucket under his chair, gets a few stitches and hustles back onto the court. Just a little dirt on his shoulder, that's all. Fortitude of that caliber isn’t something you see very often in this sport.
And although he has always had heart, he had never had an opportunity as perfect as now to showcase it. He has become a leading man by last resort, and now, playing on his fifth team in four years, he is madly determined never to be sold short again.
It’s as if he has stumbled into this impossible moment when all the subatomic particles in the basketball universe have merged their energy in a way that perfectly nurtures him as a player. Primordial gas clouds spell out “Get it, Nate” every time he steps onto the court.
Although certainly the team’s injuries have given him unprecedented freedom to do his thing, he also has thrived thanks to the safety net of Tom Thibodeau’s system, which uses other players to compensate for Nate's flaws and gives him breathing room to find the right shots (although he’s still happy to chuck from pretty much anywhere). Thibs has trusted him in a way that, say, Scott Brooks never would have, giving him the green light to go off in the most important minutes of the season. And it’s been really exciting to witness.
Nate will inevitably land a bigger contract with another team next season, but wherever he ends up, he won’t get the chance to be the folk hero he is right now. Even as he’s proving himself to be one of the most potent fourth-quarter scorers in NBA playoff history, it’s hard to imagine another circumstance in which he could reprise his role as the leading man. After all, how many plausible scenarios can there be in which the 5-9 guy gets to be the NBA superstar? Outside of Jim Henson’s dreams, underdogs are rarely so far-fetched.
But that’s how it goes for Muppets, right? They come out on top again and again, but when it’s time for the next movie, they have to prove they’re worth taking seriously all over again.
Granted, the Bulls aren’t in a movie, and the Heat almost certainly will make kindling of them by the end of this series. But only a serious grouch could resist rooting for the Muppets, and, likewise, you’d need an awfully icy heart not to pull for Nate and this Bulls crew.
And, hey, as Kermit the Frog once said, don’t count your tadpoles until they’ve hatched. We live in an odd and preposterous world, a world where Dennis Rodman can be a legitimate force for global diplomacy and where the most notable fact about a legless Olympic sprinter isn’t that he’s a legless Olympic sprinter. Unfathomable things happen all the time. Stuff gets weird. Would it really be so unthinkable for the Heat to lose a few basketball games?
Yes. It would. But the Bulls don’t seem to think so. And, in strange and extraordinary circumstances, sometimes paper towels and whoopee cushions are all you need to win.