Major professional sports in 2020 look and sound a bit ridiculous.
The NBA and WNBA bubble scenes in Florida were reminiscent of pick-up games at the local YMCA.
The NHL bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto had the feel of a Canadian junior bus league or a local 10:30 p.m. beer league.
The NFL season, with obnoxious manufactured crowd noise pumped into empty stadiums, is playing out to a distracting soundtrack.
And Major League Baseball, with league championship series taking place, still has the aesthetic appeal of spring training.
The optics and acoustics are insufferable. The void of pageantry and buzz has been filled by ill-timed recordings and cardboard cutouts of Bruce Lee, Queen Elizabeth and season ticket holders with enough time or motivation to allow for their virtual participation.
But the championships are real. The level of play, across the board, remains up to par. The between-the-lines products are as strong as ever. For players and particular fan bases, the joy of winning and torture of losing is as acute as in any other non-pandemic year.
So it has worked. If you shake our current sports world free from all on the periphery that feels so strange, you'll realize we haven't lost so much over the past seven months. Sports at the highest level continue to deliver to the fullest extent 2020 will allow amid a pandemic, with delays and pivoting, through protocols and over hurdles.
We got in enough games to get in all the seasons, or we're working toward that, one fragile NFL week at a time. We have, or are working toward, real trophies being earned and legacies being bolstered.
No asterisk needed, 2020 has just about given us all it can with COVID-19 snaking its way through most everything we try to accomplish.
LeBron James won his fourth NBA Finals MVP award with his third team and the Lakers' won a 17th title. Neither accomplishment takes on lesser value for a truncated season taking place in the isolation of a gym instead of in packed arenas. It has more charm, even, given the sacrifice players made to spend about 100 days in the Disney bubble - without a single player testing positive for coronavirus.
Sue Bird won a fourth championship in her 19th year with the Storm and Breanna Stewart, now a two-time Finals MVP, won her second at age 26. Bird is going down as the best point guard in history to this point and Stewart is the best player in the world right now. Their legacies are bolstered, not diminished, by what took place in the bubble.
The Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup - just as shiny, just as meaningful as any time since 1893 - after defeating the Stars in Edmonton to end an arduous NHL season that came to a screeching halt, just like the NBA, before resuming in a bubble.
The NFL continues to define our Sundays - and even parts of our Tuesdays, now, given COVID flare-ups and necessary rescheduling.
The MLB playoffs are down to four teams and wouldn't it be the most 2020 thing ever if the Astros, who cheated their way through previous seasons and ended this regular season with a losing record, wound up winning the World Series.
If there's any real strike to competitive integrity we're all so used it, it's in baseball. The Astros crept into the expanded playoffs with a 29-31 record after a season shortened by 100 games.
Still, we'll take what we can get this year and for however long we're in a world improvising. And at the end of all these strange seasons and trying experiences, there are victories that mean much the same as they always do - even more, perhaps.
They're more rewarding for what went in to building a platform.
I don't buy the argument that any championship in any sport, or in any season, is harder to win than the next. James' latest title was harder than the first three, for sure, but the weeks-long or months-long bubble experience was probably more difficult than anything all NBA players have experienced.
This season was simply more difficult to participate in. James rode off into the Florida sunset and further into the conversation about best-player-ever, puffing a cigar and demanding more respect, because his team was the best on equal ground, just like any other year.
The emotions on display were profound. Aren't they always? Because no matter the path, it's the final moments and what's made of them that leaves one overwhelmed. The Lakers, the Storm, the Lightning and whoever wins the World Series and Super Bowl won't have to look back on a 2020 with guilt or discomfort or apologies.
There is nothing wrong with being a champion in 2020, in a time of great sacrifice. We shouldn't come out of this with many complaints.
Maybe just one.
The fake crowd noise is atrocious.
There have been no fans, or just a few thousand, at most games in most sports.
Let's stop pretending we don't understand that.
If ever there was a blown opportunity to advance the fan's viewing experience when the fan's in-person experience was eliminated, it was in the decision to have broadcasts and ballparks filled with noise at the press of a button instead of allowing for on-field conversations to make their way through our TV speakers.
That bothers me. The Astros bother me, too. So be it. I'll take what I can get and celebrate sports in 2020 for what they are and what they became against the odds, no regrets, no asterisks.
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