Adversity: The Essential Ingredient to Drama

The lovable losers of this season and probably many more...

I meant to post a response to ghostlighting’s underdog post, with the recent win by Cleveland Cavaliers to break their record 26 game losing streak I finally have enough motivation and words to make this post. I mentioned earlier about how sports anime don’t stack up all too well against real sports, but now I want to go over some shounen tropes I see a lot, the underdog. Ghosty does a good job of breaking down the dynamic of David vs. Goliath, but what I want to touch on is what makes an underdog or even an overdog likable, adversity. Usually with sports and shounen anime adversity is usually overcome one way or another, likely with a new special attack. But what makes adversity different for a real underdog and a real overdog is that sometimes you do not overcome, you lose, and you keep on losing. Right now no team captures the underdog feel better than the Cleveland Cavaliers, even with the recent and glorious breaking of their losing streak, they will always be the underdogs for the remainder of the season, and for the foreseeable future, simply because they were the team with the worst record in the NBA and still owners of the longest losing streak in the major sports in the US.

Moe underdogs.

If there was an anime/manga based off of the current season of the NBA it would probably be highly unlikely that the Cavs would qualify as anything more than the joke team. Fundamentally they are everything a shounen hero is not, they genuinely suck, they struggle to compete with the overdogs in the Eastern Conference, the only thing they have in common with sports anime teams is that they have a history of losing and not making it. If anything these days James LeBron would be a better fit for the titular protagonist of such an anime, he has no championships, he has a troubled past with his hometown and old team, and he is undeniably talented.  James LeBron would be an easy fit since he is young compared to the aging veterans of the other overdog teams.

Even compared to the two big overdogs of the NBA, the Lakers and the Celtics, both have won championships, both have storied histories and seem to still be playing well. Here one would have two good antagonist teams, the Big Bad Lakers, and the Smug Celtics. Compare this to the scrappy Heat that has had trouble playing together, and from the outside looking in, one would take Miami as the underdog since they do not have the history of greatness that the Lakers and the Celtics have. Moreover most NBA fans that don’t cheer for the Heat are apt to want to see the Heat falter and lose, thus it is the Heat against the world. So it would seem to the uninitiated as the truth is that Miami is a very strong overdog in a league with other overdogs, and plenty of underdogs. But in fiction we like to see heroes with troubled pasts, most of us enjoy angst, plenty of us like the “us vs. the world” dynamic.

Pretty much the Miami Heat in manga, super talented but no rings, though probably not as hated.

Here it typical standard shounen anime would have LeBron, D. Wade, and Bosh pulling super dunks or amazing plays to defeat the other teams and finally the Lakers and Celtics. Any losses would be temporary, heck they might only lose to the Celtics and Lakers in one off matches. When LeBron went to Cleveland for the first time as a member of the Heat I am sure it would have been an angst ridden arc about how Cleveland fans did not understand LeBron and how they were wrong to boo him. That would be the fiction, but the reality is so much more interesting, as I have posted before real sports pretty much blows sports anime out of the water, it is not scripted, random occurrences can happen, there are real underdogs, and again real adversity.

Even within the Celtics, and Lakers, both teams are suffering questions of age. The Lakers have arguably the best player in the league and they are the reigning champions who vanquished the Celtics last year. However they have had a poor record against the top teams in the league and are far behind the Spurs in terms of wins. Where once it was assumed that they would be the top seed of the Western Conference, now pretty much every one is wondering if they need to make a trade to be strong in the playoffs now that age is becoming an issue. The Celtics have a similar issue with age, not only did they lose last year, injuries are becoming a big problem and while they have talented players they are too old to dominate like the much younger Miami heat. While so far their experience has helped them maintain the edge over the Heat, the Heat is playing better and the Heat roster has not been decimated as their reserves had. In both cases both overdogs are facing arguably stronger teams that are carrying the underdog label, if we go on history and accomplishments.

While the last year’s champions have had a bumpy ride, they have it much better than the poor Cavaliers who had been a force to be reckoned with when LeBron was leading them. Now they are the holders of the worst losing streak in US Sports, they have had to do without LeBron and their record speaks for itself. Because King James’ betrayal came so late they never really had a chance to rebuild their team to compensate somewhat for his loss. He had the right to leave but the way he left humiliated Cleveland, it was a media circus of his own design, and then there was the Nike commercial to further the humiliation. Now beating another losing team is a reason to celebrate, the end of the losing streak is nothing short of a miracle of sorts for Cleveland. As a sports fan who has a losing team I cannot find another town more deserving of the underdog title, all their sports teams have suffered numerous defeats and yet somehow when other fans would have called it quits Cleveland fans still believe even when, at times, their players do not.

No other sports fan can really compare to the die-hards in Cleveland, they have no recent glories to remember the long drought has been ongoing for decades; they have suffered two big betrayals, James LeBron when he left for Miami, and when Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore. The treachery is made all the more painful by the fact that the former Browns won a Super Bowl and LeBron is poised to win the NBA Championship. But most fans are not as tough and those in Cleveland we want our teams to win and when they don’t we are likely to abandon them after a time. They cheer for losers, terrible teams, and are never selected as favorites to win anything other than bitter defeat.

Plenty of adversity and a stinging defeat, but alas no Closer.

No one likes to lose but losing builds character, you have to learn when you lose. As Master Asia queried so long ago, “what is the meaning of victory if one has not suffered?” The answer is pretty simple for the shounen genre, nothing, because when someone wins all the time without putting much effort it becomes a boring narrative worthy of being called Marty Stu fan fiction. Right now in the NBA there are plenty of compelling narratives since there are so many teams that have had troubles, Lakers with their inability to dominate the way they used to, Heat with the venomous hate most fans have for the way them made their roster, the Celtics being written off as everyone favored the Heat to dominate the Eastern Conference, and the Cavs trying to find success after “the Decision” of King James. For LeBron it would be a compelling story should the Heat never make it and his decision to humiliate Cleveland be for naught when the Championship ring he seeks slips from his grasp. Miami might love him now but will they still love him after he fails to net a championship? Should Boston or the Western Conference Champions overcome the Heat where would he go next? Right now he has a good chance to get his ring, another chance like this might never happen again. When he is past his prime, he can never go home for the memory of Cleveland is long and few if any of the fans he betrayed would forgive him.

This NBA season ghosty and all those who want to see overdogs clash in nail biters are in for a treat. It is hard to call who will win this year since there are strong contenders in both conferences. Since “the Decision” you have a tale of adversity, drama, betrayal, and dark times any fiction author would struggle to build this narrative and yet here we have it being played out in real life.

If this were anime: The Boss

If this were anime: The Real Big Bad

If this were anime: The Dragon

If this were anime: The Hero

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12 Comments

  1. kalendil
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    No other team can compare to Cleveland for underdog status? No other fans can compare for long-suffering loyalty? Are you kidding? Have you ever heard of the Chicago Cubs?

    • Crusader
      Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Have you heard of the Chicago Bears you know the Super Bowl Champions of the 1985 season under Ditka and Ryan? The Cubs maybe cursed but that is because you pissed off a goat and thankfully for you the curse did not affect every team in town. You had Jordan and the Bulls now you have a good NBA team that is a top team in the East. How can you forget that your town had arguably the Best Basketball Player of all time? Unlike LeBron he did not stab you in the back and make commercials to rub it in.

      Cleveland has no winning team and as bad as your stadium is at least your Bears have yet to move or betray you. I’d say Chicago sports fans have it pretty good in that regard, if you think you have it worse than Cleveland you are either soft or ungrateful for your two good teams. Also you have the White Sox who did enjoy a few glory years and World Series title. Chicago has good teams, Cleveland has none.

  2. Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I’m gonna be honest… I wanted Cleveland to lose their last 60 games or whatever to break the record for the worst record. Dan Gilbert’s Orange Kun-like overreaction turned me off more than Lebron’s Decision.

    • Crusader
      Posted February 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Bah you can’t possibly be one of those nut jobs that thought this was a race issue? I’d be pissed too if the hometown hero humiliated the my town like that. Had they gotten prior notice at least they could tried to account for instead James played dumb when he knew that he was going to Miami when he started being an FA. Cleveland already already has the record for losing why make them suffer more?
      Hell I wish the Yorks had that kind of passion instead if being the ditzes they are. I am glad they broke the losing streak against the Clippers I am glad your dream dud not come true and I hope that the Celtics win the East.

  3. Posted February 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    The Knicks drama has been a good one to follow this year. A decade of failure, possibility of the reigning MVP coming, getting stuck with a consolation prize, another crappy start, shocking win streak, possibility of another star coming, team hitting a wall, WHERE WILL THIS END?

    • Crusader
      Posted February 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      At least it has been an interesting year for the Knicks, instead of the miserable year for the Cavs. Who knows after the Mello-Drama is over and won the Knicks will do better. If not at least you have five years with a good player, many teams don’t even have that much. Personally I think that you guys will probably get another star since LA isn’t likely to be trading after they were able to beat the Celtics will see how they do in Orlando personally, I expect a likely Laker win but that will not stop me from booing them hoarse. At least the Knicks aren’t cited as worst team evar in conversation and the Garden is abuzz again.

      If nothing else it will end when Spike Lee stops making a scene.

  4. Posted February 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    As they taught us back in high school, what makes a plot what it is, is the presence of conflict. Conflict is the adversarial relationship with the protagonist(s) with something else: environment:

    vs. self,
    society,
    nature,
    technology,
    destiny,
    aaand vs. other characters.

    There is some correlation with the intensity of the adversarial relationship, and perhaps the lopsidedness of the equation, with perhaps the compelling nature of the drama. A character vs. self narrative isn’t very interesting if the character isn’t interesting (commoner/everyman with little to no ambition), but if said character is a ruler of an empire on the cusp of creating lasting peace for the realm or some such — it can become quite arresting. If it’s a character vs. machine/technology and the machine is a nail clipper… not very compelling; but if it’s a race of robots (The Matrix, Terminator) then we have something to consider.

    …and so on.

    I think you’re on to something in that underdogs get to keep their underdog charm when they keep failing, when their victories are moral ones instead of actual ones. Think of Rocky, the first film… he really wasn’t on the same level as Apollo Creed and gutted out a non-victory but the kind that captured the hearts and imaginations of everyone. However, in succeeding films Stallone still wanted underdog status for Rocky, but it was becoming painfully obvious that Balboa as a boxer has infinite hit points and secretes elixir/curaga/regenerate juice from glands in his testicles. There is no boxer alive or in fiction who can prevail over these advantages.

    Lebron at this stage is too old to be the up and comer. He’s already been to the finals. The only thing compelling about him is his superhuman baller skills.

    Instead of LBJ and the Heat, I submit Kevin Durant and the OKC Thunder. Had they won against the Lakers last playoffs it would be the Cinderella upset story of the ages (better than GSW vs. DAL a few years ago… HOW CAN YOU FORGET THIS). KD and Russel Westbrook lead a group of young and scrappy ballers who can beat anybody on any given night. They were actually overrated at the beginning of the season lols.

    Their obvious potential yet with their less than exemplary record this season, matched by their small market city, makes for a bandwagon darling come playoffs time (where over/under dog narratives take on more significance). Right now MIA can make ORL look like underdogs… and that just doesn’t make the Heat easy to love as overall underdogs.

    • Crusader
      Posted February 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      I kept the references to the top contenders, besides who now speaks of the Thunder or the Golden State Warriors when the narrative is dominated by Lakers, Celtics, Heat, and Blake Griffin? Not too many I’d imagine for my team is at best an after thought given the Laker dominance of the Western Conference and our small showing in the Pacific Division. It will be sometime before GSW get to be more than a footnote in for a strong team breaking a slump.

      LeBron is seasoned but relatively speaking in the clash of overdogs his age makes him the underdog, his lack of titles as well. Indeed against other teams that aren’t holding significant leads the Heat are the clear overdog. It’s hard to love the Heat because they were favored to win the East before even playing a single game, more so if your local team sucks and dread having your team further wrecked by a player who delays making announcements regarding his future during Free Agency. Besides I would have been mad too if a local hero turned traitor and furthered the torture for all to see.

      The Cavs are pretty much the underdog even now since it takes a damn near miracle for them to win a game. I confess that seeing the Cavs lead for a bit is a moral victory of sorts especially against winning teams. The last time the underdog won the Finals was when the Pistons beat the Lakers because the Laker roster had big names like O’Neal, Kobe, and Karl Malone. Even if the Heat achieve overdog status they will not be a loved overdog like Jordan’s Bulls, too much bad blood from “the Decision.” It’s funny how they started as the clear overdog, played badly enough to be a viable underdog, and now are almost back to being overdog.

      I remember more vividly underdogs in the NFL, again it would have been great if the Bears’ third string quarterback picked up the flag, beat the long time Rival Green Bay and then beat the Steelers, NOW THAT would have been something. It’s just more magical if it’s a guy you never heard of who spends most of the season on the bench. Otherwise any team from Cleveland that gets to any playoff let alone any finals is the underdog by default since they have no luck.

  5. Posted February 12, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    In the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the most interesting part of the drama which hasn’t been discussed nearly enough is the sometimes crippling role that ones own psyche plays in ones performance. Sure, LeBron James choosing to, “Take his talents to South Beach,” was the earthquake, so to speak. However, it’s the aftershocks of how his decision to leave derailed the Cavs opinions of their own team that are so interesting. By leaving, James was saying loudly and clearly that he would never be able to win with his current team. They just weren’t good enough. The truly charming underdog story would have been if Mo Williams, or anyone, had somehow found a way to galvanize the Cavs into, at the very least, making the playoffs. Instead, we watched the embarrassing December slaughter of the Cavs by the Heat and their former teammate. This game cemented James’s place among his new team members while absolutely crushing the Cavs. Once crushed, it was easy for them to begin believing that they were, in fact, not good enough, and then it was all over. I was ecstatic to see the Cavs finally win this past week.

    In fairness, there are very few “true underdogs” in popular sports, mainly because, by the time you get to the playoffs or postseason, the teams that are left usually are all financially well-off and socially well-known. Even in the NCAA basketball tournament where underdogs (and the betting on thereof) are touted as the main draw, few teams seeded below 8 (this is an educated guess) make it to the Final Four (the lowest seed since expansion to make it has been an 11). Of course, no one wants to root for yet another well-endowed team, so the human aspect, like in the Cavs story, or if Caleb Hanie had somehow led his team to victory, is what we, as fans, latch on to and how we create underdogs.

    Anyway, this and the Superbowl article have both been a pleasure to read. It’s always fantastic to find other anime fans who are also sports fans!

    • Crusader
      Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Yeah there were a few games when the Cavs seemed to not care despite the fervor of their fans. Still they have a long way to go, however should LeBron and the Heat still perform poorly against Boston it will become less of an issue of Cleveland can’t do it, rather than LeBron can’t overcome. The Heat were set to dominate, they though that they would dominate and talked as if the dominance would start this season, however the old timers of Boston still have plenty of fire left and if things continue LeBron, Wade, and Bosh will have to wait it out for Boston to get older before they can dominate the way they wanted. While Rondo is not really and underdog it sure looked like he was when taking on LeBron.

      Teams that make it that far usually deserve to be there because they are strong, but once in a while you have that 7-9 Seahawks team that gets to go to the NFL playoffs by being the best of the worst, that they won one game at all in the playoffs would have made them underdogs compared to the rest who deserved to be there. There may be few real underdogs but there are plenty of mismatches or at least what appear to be when viewing stats. Atlanta and the Patriots were top seeds and yet were one and done.

  6. Posted February 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Having just gone to my first basketball game with Crusader I can see why people love the sport, especially when you are surrounded by so many die hard fans! Things get really exciting when your team is winning hahah well I don’t know much on stats and what not but still interesting.

  7. pagan poor
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Funny, the Cavs just beat the Lakers. Make of that what you will.

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