The HeartLand

When people use the word “heart,” they could just be referring to an actual, physical heart. You know, like, our organ that pumps blood. But, often, “heart” references something figurative. In Kanye West’s “Heartless,” he describes a woman (embarrassingly calling her "Dr. Evil") without, not an actual heart, but a figurative one that’s the abstract seat of love, that heart represents a person’s capacity for sympathy or compassion.  

Then there’s the other “heart.” In Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky’s “Bass” he begins the song manically letting some simp know not to sleep on him by snarling, “YOU DON’T PUT NO F#$%&!# FEAR IN MY HEART!!” Fear, it would seem, is a cognitive reaction, but Rocky’s usage got at something more visceral, which is indicative of how the word is used when stakes are obviously high, daunting and sometimes perilous. It’s synonymous with will and bravery.

That kind of “heart” – a figurative vessel or organ of mettle and fortitude – has been in the human lexicon for centuries. It comes from the Latin word “cor” which old French and Italian languages rendered some version of “courage.” We now use it all the time, especially in sports, more especially in big games, most especially in playoffs and tournaments.

Some will tell you that heart is more essential to champions than intellect/IQ/brains. I guarantee an athlete would rather be referred to as having no IQ than no heart. Heart is manhood. And that’s why it is a “Soul Glo slick” slippery-slope to question an athlete’s heart.

“Athlete X or Team Y has no heart,” you say? Well then you should essentially be ready to throw the fair ones with Athlete X or every cat on Team Y, because those are fighting words.

Yet, there’s a narrative forming around the NBA Conference Finals, pitting the recently triumphant Oklahoma City Thunder against the flailing Miami Heat. They are both teams, led by young Generation Y superstars, looking to take over the league. And the narrative is simply this: Miami – most conspicuously Dwyane Wade and LeBron James – don’t have any heart, while OKC – most notably its young Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden trio – are winning expressly because of their big, engorged hearts.

This is THE discussion, these days.

Every NBA season, I create a Gmail string for some colleagues and friends to discuss things like, say, how Tony Allen is the best perimeter defender in the league, but also “looks” like his breath stinks. We’ve spent a lot of time recently appreciating the OGs like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, while lamenting that the younger superstars don’t seemed destined for that level of greatness. The following (abridged) email was from my homeboy Tony:

“You know what really bothers me? LeBron and Wade not calling each other out.  Because best believe if Russ thinks KD isn't showing up or vice-versa, there will be a public argument on the sidelines.  These other two clowns won't say anything and will then come out the next game with some new dap that signifies how much they love each other.  These dudes are heartless man.”

I included that email, not because I agree with it, but because it nails the Heat-Thunder narrative.

I’ll say this about Miami and its heart: Those players – and, again, we’re really talking about Bron/Wade – have heart and we know this, because we’ve seen it before. But they aren’t playing with any heart, right now. Boston is playing with heart. They rolled into Miami for a pivotal Game 5 and handled biz. The optics of those timeouts in the final minutes was priceless. The Celtics were clapping their hands, shouting encouragement/urgency at each other. The Heat timeout was slump-shouldered, mute and zombie’d out. Whatever that was, it wasn’t heart.

The real story here, though, is these young cats in OKC. They came into the series as big underdogs, with everyone spouting this tripe about how unbeatable the Spurs were and how the Spurs were the best team in recent memory and how the Thunder big men can’t score and how Westbrook can’t play point and how, collectively, OKC can’t handle San Anotnio’s IQ. When the Spurs went up 2-0, the Spurs-slurping got freakier…and then the youngsters beat a team on a 20-game win streak four times in a row. OKC went on the road and beat an experienced bunch of champions at THEIR crib in a pivotal Game 5, then came back from 18 down to close it out in six. That’s some heart.

The Thunder are now on a mission to change the very fabric of the league in one postseason. So far, they’ve sent the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs home for summer vacation. Those three teams happen to be the only squads to represent the West in the NBA Finals since 1999 and the principal players (Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe, Duncan) were all present for the torch grab. That’s what you call a hostile takeover, a complete and thorough changing of the guard.

They’ll likely face Boston in the Finals, which means they have a chance to knock off ten of the last 12 NBA champions. The challenge ahead is to officially shift the generational balance of power in the league and to make history. The youngsters have the heart to do it.

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