Basketball As Electroshock Therapy
Last year, the NBA playoffs threatened to unmake me. When the standings in the Western Division crystalized there was a match-up in the first round that promised beautiful and aching anarchy. It stood out amongst a slew of ho-hum and predictable contests. The Lakers interest me the way Michael Phelps interests me, which is to say that the Lakers are fast swimmers who like Subway and who cares? Seen it. Miami and Boston I despised, but they were inexorable, so I knew I’d eventually have to contend with their smarmy smirks, their brutish defensive schemes. The Thunder and the Spurs both clearly outclassed their respective draws; slaughters and routs are boring and unseemly. No, this was the Battle For the Silver Medal, this was Scottie Pippen arm wrestling Dr. Watson in an abandoned warehouse. This was Clippers-Grizzlies. Among hoop dweebs this was an obvious choice, but hoop dweebs are not as plentiful as I once imagined. Not everyone will nod knowingly when I drunkenly proclaim “Jamal Crawford loves him some Jack-In-The-Box!”
My father’s hand shakes with tiny tremors. I live with cats, he lives with Parkinson’s. We can’t shoot baskets anymore, but we still catch games, and unfailingly he shows me the wisdom in the cracks, the things I miss time and time again. This guy goes left! That fellow comes off screens exceptionally well! Zone will never work against this team! “Basketball is a movable feast-you’ve got all your metaphors. Right there. Right in front of you. Right there.” So much of my perspective was shaped by him. We laughed about the futility of Rashad McCants, thrilled at the emergence of LeBron and Durant, cringed as our Warriors trotted out a murderer’s row of sloppy shooters and that bumbling oaf Corey Maggette. It was from the many incarnations of that particular team that focused my notions of loyalty. If there’s any metaphor for absolute hopelessness in the NBA, it has to be the Golden State Warriors, but watching them night in and night out with my dad has been one of the true great joys of my life. The way he called the guys by their first names made a huge impact on me. It was not the respect of a spectator to a performer, but it was familial, almost filial, a one-way street intimacy that was confusing but nice. The Warriors are predictably shitty nearly every year, and I have no first-name basis loyalty to any other team, but certain teams seize the imagination by the throat and force a response. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers are two such teams, and their clash was something I looked forward to with shy anxiety.
The series threatened to dictate my schedule for its duration, to shatter my moods during parties, to interrupt conversations about Breaking Bad or whatever Mitt Romney had said that particular night. The Los Angeles Clippers, a cursed franchise owned by a despicable racist slumlord had returned to the playoffs, led by the best point guard in the universe, soft-eyed taciturn Chris Paul, and his aide-de-camp, the humble freak Blake Griffin. Staring them down with justified confidence were the Grizzlies. They were big, tough, proletariat brawlers that combined middling to pretty good players into a gestalt wrecking ball. This series seemed destined to decide who was the best of the rest, which team would push the boulder up the hill on the Road to Oklahoma City or San Antonio, or perhaps all the way to Miami or Chicago. Instead the series proved to be the anti-climax of a generation, a wafting belch of meaningless suffering, a dance of the Tyburn jig that soured the remainder of the playoffs. Chris Paul would be a free agent after one more year, the Grizzlies core was being exposed as regular season fool’s gold. This was the end of the road for all intents and purposes for both clubs. Or at least that was how I saw it. I saw things in a really stupid way.
Creating mythologies remains a dangerous aspect of fandom. The disconnect between the incredibly rich man who is throwing an orange ball into a hoop and the reluctant martyr in my mind is vast. Every player on the roster was a character that had its place, from the super-stars all the way down to perpetually scruffy scrub Randy Foye and third string center (but first Iranian NBA Player!) Hamed Haddadi. At their core they were two very solid teams both untainted by hubris or too much success. Teams on the rise, teams with dignity (mostly). The utter pointlessness of predicting a sporting event of such equal stakes was chaos theory mixed with LARPing. At the same time, things like PER or +/- stats were ruining my enjoyment of dudes running around and going to war with elbows and snarls. At a certain point there is a nasty streak of projected voyeurism that piggybacks such intense investment. These people are not our friends (though they could be!), these people are not desperate heroes (though they might be!), these people are just doing their goddamn jobs. To say that Clippers-Grizzlies meant something more than a basketball series would be accurate. It was not so much a battle of ideas but a Civil War of one. Both teams were levers on the same flawed apparatus and their clash was less of titans than of your extremely tall friends and neighbors.
There is one utopian mandate for every team in every professional sports league and that is to win a championship. For some, winning a championship is a matter of pride or inevitability. For others it is a matter of revenue, merchandise and maybe some bad-ass parades. Neither the Grizzlies or the Clippers are built for a championship, though Chris Paul at least puts the Clips in the conversation. Conventional wisdom held the Grizzlies capable of making a run for it (based somewhat on their impressive take-down of the Spurs the year previous) but just not talented enough to take it all. I believe in my heart of hearts any team can win if the cosmos align just right, but I believe in my brain of brains that only four or five teams any given year are really capable of pulling it off. It was clear rather early in this series that neither the Clippers nor the Grizzlies would be hoisting any trophies. That doesn’t matter to me. A trophy is not my mandate, and I’d much rather watch barbarians at the gates than the Romans within. But the Clippers and Grizzlies existed in a place empty of both wild barbarian and disciplined Roman legionnaire. They were in the NBA wilderness and it seemed like everyone knew it but me.
As the series played out some things happened as they were meant to. The Grizzlies mounted a stout defense, even when they didn’t. Chris Paul was brilliant, even when he wasn’t. Griffin struggled but he could still dunk a basketball like a blacksmith playing whack-a-mole. The two best players on the Grizzlies, recovering misanthrope turned redemptive paragon (based solely on nothing, really) Zach Randolph and high flying (excuse the idiotic expression!) Rudy Gay often seemed to bump into each other on the court, neither asserting anything resembling dominance. Ugly box scores, boring barn-burners, these games disassembled my pedantic and airy notions with a ginsu knife. The series ended with a thud. The Clippers would advance to bring a dagger to a tank fight against the San Antonio Spurs and that particular first round battle would vanish from this earth.
Certainly there were few enough people with whom to commiserate. This is a hockey town that sometimes gets really focused on baseball for a bit. The after action review of what went wrong in that series seemed daunting. I saw two teams I loved to watch become uninteresting and listless before my eyes, but they were of course not uninteresting, of course not listless. I don’t doubt everyone played as hard as they could, I don’t doubt that their failure to turn into otherworldly avatars was a result of boredom or a mischievous desire to piss me off. Attaching meaning to something so inherently meaningless (every season is essentially a re-boot) is something a sports fan has to grapple with, but despite all my dour thoughts I realize that without that meaning this really all is anarchy with a rulebook.
For longer than I can remember I have been numb. I did not have highs, and my lows were only journeyman low. I brought nothing to the table but vitriol and filled empty air with bad vibes. I had no money, no job, lost friends with surprising alacrity, had crushes on bad girls, got fat. I hated myself a bit, but was generally bored with myself. Some of that was my fault, some of it was not; mostly it was both. Our lives are fought and won and lost in spectacular benign moments. It’s not the buzzer beaters that break our backs, it’s missed free throws and sloppy in-bounds passes, little unnoticed shit, the unpleasant, rather than the tragic.
One unremarkable night, I was hanging out with a girl, sipping malt liquor and unsuccessfully having a conversation. I was talking shit about this, demeaning that, chastising this, mocking that. The girl rightfully was not going to take this too much of that and finally snapped “Is there anything you like?” Sentences like that are more often than not the enemy of the people, but it gave me pause and in one instant I was back to square one, my own personal square one. Her question seemed almost foolish. Of course I liked things! Like Fresca! I knew there was only one thing at that moment I could completely and utterly convince her I had true emotions for. I was a no good depressing idiot but there was one thing I loved to talk about and that was this one particular sport where you had to dribble and free throws sometimes happened. Saying it aloud felt stupid, a betrayal of circumspect dignity, but that was shortsighted and foolish thinking, loser talk. Basketball moved me. I could feel my own face lighting up when I found a kindred spirit, could yap about third-string point guards for hours, stare at a re-run of a game all night at a bar. It was and is annoying, I am sure. Enjoying a thing to the point of feeling slightly dumb about it an underrated sensation. It definitely beats feeling like you can’t answer the phone, that you’d rather be asleep than awake. The Clippers and Grizzlies were not put on this earth to provide me justification for my own silver medal destiny, my own grappling free-falls and occasional sweet victories, or to try and convince people that I am not all that bad (and why would it?). Nor obviously do I think the cure to depression is “enjoying something a lot”. The Clippers and the Grizzlies were put on this earth to play basketball. The meaningless spawns the meaning and the meaning is not secret or restrictive, it is open and welcoming, there when you need it, gone when you don’t. My evolving view on the anti-climax of the epic series that-was-not is the logical extension of this.
As my boy Søren Kierkegaard possibly said, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” The Grizzlies and the Clippers are marooned from their remembered future, adrift in a soggy no man’s land of early termination options and the luxury tax blues, but despite all that they (or someone like them) might have saved me. All men must die, but first we must give a shit about something, even if that something is temporary, even if that something is ultimately a mundane footnote, or something that someone else considers meaningless. Sometimes those are the most important things.
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