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.
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.
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.
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.