A Land Soaked in Blood

In the imagination of a person based on the West coast, the East is just a jumble of cities that you read about in your high school textbook; names you faintly remember from your Civil War unit, or that you recall were important during the War of Independence. In this way, true regional rivalries can be parsed out and solved, usually in the arena of professional sports. For a person out West, New York, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Cleveland are all on one magical highway, taking turns beating each other in sports, economics, and even in past wars, and in turn, losing to a more complete opponent a few time zones to the left. Even though simple geography contradicts this misplaced assertion, it’s a stereotype that persists in the minds of those living West of the continental divide; those of us placed in a part of the craggier part of the country, where the roads stretch endlessly towards nothing, and everything seems lonesome and forgotten, just as soon as you leave the comfort of the bright city lights.

In the West, there is a feeling that everything is on a land-locked island even if the ocean is clearly in view, a strange feeling of lonely exposure. It is both a blessing and a curse that one could hop in their car, drive in a random direction on any decently-paved road, and within an hour be in a place that feels primordial; almost as if no one has been there but you. In these hidden spaces, mountains rise from the landscape and remorselessly split the sky, creating strange wispy clouds and black, menacing thunderheads around unforgiving peaks. Trees of a thousand varieties, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, dot the landscape, and allow their leaves to become soft, soothing rattles as the wind blows through them. The weather fluctuates wildly, from cold and icy to hot and arid, and in many of these cases, humans are unable to survive. Indeed, there is a strange, hollow beauty to the West; a resplendent landscape that has been soaked with the blood of those who were on the wrong side of history, nature, science and religion. The West is our home, though there is a feeling that it would just as soon kill us, if we gave it even the faintest glimmer of a chance.

For at least myself, the murderous nature of the West informs my perception of the coastal bias of the NBA; why the East seems so foreign compared to the West. Whereas the East has the shared history of being first and foremost, our experience out West is that of a new-comer; not just to the country, but to the NBA landscape altogether. On the whole, the teams out West are the late-arrivers in the National Basketball Association; franchises that were procured when the NBA and ABA merged, and organizations who have undergone several facelifts and tummy-tucks to become what they are today. In the Oklahoma City Thunder, we see the furious ghosts of the Seattle SuperSonics, and in the Denver Nuggets, we can feel spirits from a much more iconic past, grumbling as their once-iconic franchise settles into a life of uninterrupted quasi-competitiveness. While the East can take some time to revel in the nobility of being an original franchise, the West has no time for such pleasantries. Unlike the Knicks, Celtics and Bulls, no Western team can proudly display the same jerseys in 2014 as they did in 1964, and unlike these teams, no one can look back to the Second World War to wax wistfully about some sort of “Golden Age.” There’s no time for any of that pomp and circumstance: those who don’t keep their guards up will be defeated. This is a message well-known to any Warriors fan; anyone who spent the last two decades being defeated on a nightly basis, and who now relishes every single win with a special sense of contentment reserved for those who must play all their games in this firing squad of a conference.

For this reason, the rise of the Sacramento Kings — standing 5-1 after two weeks, and coming off of the signature victory of the Vivek Era last night — must be met with a special feeling; one that can only occur out here in this beautiful, malicious land. Of course, the Kings are well-known to fans of Western conference basketball, there’s no need to rehash the competitive years the franchise enjoyed at the turn of the century. But this version of the Kings — and, really, this version of winning basketball — hasn’t been seen before, a team anchored by players who were roundly criticized (including by myself) and lead by a crew of basketball minds who, for the previous four months, looked like the least-informed men in the room. As fans of more established teams out West laughed deeply as the team let go of important starters, crowd sourced draft picks, those guffaws have all but disappeared as the Kings have established a particular style of winning basketball. Their fourth-ranked defense is a hawking, crack-commando sort of operation; using length, width and breadth to uproot opposing big men, and sending their enemy’s guards back beyond the three-point line, relegated to isolation and hastily-launched three-pointers. Their ninth-ranked offense — led ably by Rudy Gay, Darren Collison and DeMarcus Cousins — makes effective use of the extra pass, and uses both brain and brawn to overwhelm their opponent. Their style of basketball doesn’t resemble any other style of basketball in the West; an emergent force calloused by years of ineptitude, and hungry to prove every single doubter wrong. It is fantastic. It is magnificent. And above all, it must be stopped.

For out here in the West, there’s little room for fraternity. To Warriors fans, the potential rise of the Kings presents a situation that we have not confronted before; a true regional rival. All other opponents in the conference were from foreign lands; metropolises in giant states whose shapes reflect the vast, sweeping nature of Western expansion. The average Bay Area resident can’t tell you much about Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, or even Los Angeles. But in a Sacramento Kings fan, there are resemblances, certain shared traits that cause both parties to smile reluctantly at one another. Ample numbers of Warriors fans moonlighted as Kings fans in the early part of the 2000′s, and a commiserate number of Kings fans have done the same for the Warriors within the last few years. Unlike in other spots in the West, our respective polities are separated only by a minimal stretch of highway; a road most of us have taken hundreds of times as we travel between the Bay and the heart of the Central Valley. There isn’t the luxury of distance. There isn’t the convenient excuse of civilizational dissonance. In confronting the Kings — and the truly disruptive force they seem to represent — there is the unsettling realization that the league is always changing, always creating new challengers for your preferred team to mitigate. The West is a land of heartbreak, and once again, a team has arrived ready to cause pain and suffering; distinctly unmoved by the prospects of ruining your night.

Of course, 5-1 may turn to 5-5, which may turn to 5-10. At that point, this piece will seem comically outdated. But even if that occurs, the message remains the same: in this far-flung land, where metropolises are separated by huge expanses of land, soaked with a history of conflict and conquest, it is hard to conceive of anything in the West as friendly and forgiving. Perhaps the Kings realize this, and like anyone who rises to the top out here, has learned to use the landscape to their own advantage, and to turn it against others, with little remorse, and even less regret.

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Are Thunder Fans Going To Stop Showing Up, And Does That Make Them Bad Fans?

Oklahoma City Thunder fans are universally considered some of the “best” in basketball. They show up, selling out nearly every game, and while they’re there they scream their heads off. “Welcome to Loud City” is an incredibly lame moniker, but it’s not exactly inaccurate. When players are asked which opposing arenas are the loudest, Chesapeake Energy Arena comes up frequently.

Of course, Thunder fans don’t know much about rooting for a bad basketball team. They went 22–59 in their debut season, but fans were contented by a new team, new arena, and rooting for an exciting young core anchored by the previous season’s Rookie of the Year. Since then they’ve won at least 50 games (not counting the lockout) each season, and made several deep playoff runs. As only the Thunder, they are tied with the Lakers for highest franchise winning percentage in NBA history.

This season, however, the Thunder might actually be bad, or at least not good. They’re 1–4 and face a rough month without Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. Practically every other player in the roster is banged up in some way, and they still have Kendrick Perkins and a coach who can’t really design an offense. In a Western Conference where 50 wins might be the minimum to get into the playoffs, the Thunder are in real danger of missing out.

The Thunder also don’t have the brightest of futures. They continue to refuse going into the luxury tax, hampering their options. The haul of picks they got back in the ill-conceived trade of James Harden haven’t yielded even a borderline star. There are also the rumblings (perhaps just fantasy) that Durant wants to return home to DC in 2016. It’s not inconceivable to think we might be witnessing the decline of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

If that does happen, what will the Thunder fans do? Everybody likes to judge and make pronouncements about which fanbases are “good” or not, but are they really doing anything other than simply pointing at fans of successful franchises? We have numerous examples of “good” fanbases deserting their team, and “bad” ones showing up in great numbers.

The Trail Blazers sold out a million games in a row, and then dropped to near-bottom of the league in attendance for a while in the mid-2000s following the Jail Blazers debacle. Throughout most of the 1990s the “best fans in the NBA” title was given to Charlotte Hornets fans, and things got so bad there the team had to move, and things still haven’t really recovered. The previously loud-as-hell Arco Arena has been silent since 2008.

On the flipside, do Warriors fans really deserve the “best” moniker? Sure, they showed up more than expected given a decade of terrible play, but it’s not like they were selling out the arena, intimidating opponents, and travelling well. Are Knicks fans really that passionate, or is it just that approximately a billion people live in New York City and occasionally a couple of them go to a basketball game?

The bigger question here is how we define a “good” fan whether it even matters. Does a “good fan” just need to show up? Are fanbases measuredly solely by attendance? Does engagement matter? Some fanbases are regarded as “smarter” than others, does it make them better than the others? Is it fair to ding Angelenos for going to the beach instead of a game when, say, Bucks fans (sorry) have nothing better to do in February? Raptors fans are known to bombard writers of pieces they find overly critical; is this the behavior of a good fanbase or a bad one?

Talking about fanbases is usually just a circle-jerk of people claiming worthless superiority, most prominently (in my experience) in English football. A Manchester United fan gets caught shouting racist abuse and everybody says United fans are the worst. United fans then point to the Chelsea Headhunters “fan” group, heavily-linked to white supremacist organizations. Chelsea fans then point to Liverpool fans toppling retaining walls at Heysel Stadium and killing a number of people. Someone then comes in and say all of those fans are just “bad apples” that don’t represent a fanbase, and nothing is learned.

But this doesn’t mean that all fanbases are equal, or not worth studying. A sociology student should do their thesis on the reasons why the Atlanta Hawks have struggled to connect with Atlantans. Fans of the pretty bad Utah Jazz are still mostly sticking around, is this because there are no other big four sports in Salt Lake City, or something else? Black and white fans support the hometown team in different percentages, surely impacting certain fanbases. There is a wealth of interesting data and observations to make—things that can help us better understand regions and society in general—that usually gets flattened to support a “good fan” or “bad fan” argument.

Call me a bandwagoner or liberated fan, but there should be no shame in not showing up to watch a terrible team. Your money is hard earned, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to spend it on what is ultimately an unsatisfying entertainment experience. If your favorite team is owned by an asshole like Donald Sterling, you don’t deserve abuse for not supporting him. If you prefer to enjoy games by quietly sitting and observing instead of screaming, you should do you.

At some point, Thunder fans are going to stop showing up. Pretty much all fanbases do. And when they stop, they’ll probably have a pretty good reason for doing so. It won’t be because they’re a good fanbase or a bad fanbase, but because a lot of individual people made similar decisions not to go to a basketball game, and that’s ok.

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: 9/3-9/9

MONDAY: PELICANS AT MEMPHIS, 8 PM EAST, 5PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

After a week, the NBA is worried about you. You smell like garbage, you’ve sworn off feeling human relationships, you’re starting to think about voiding all responsibilities and voyaging from arena to arena, in a sick neo-religious ritual. They think you need a night off. So they programmed this slate:

But you’ll show them! New Orleans at Memphis! Anthony Davis and Zach Randolph, answering the question “Just how different can two players be?” Jrue Holiday vs. Mike Conley: the fated battle of the West’s two great very-solid-but-juuuuuust-under-an-all-star point guards! Marc Gasol! Omer Asik! They’re both from Europe! You can do this! Show the NBA that NO SCHEDULE can stop you from zoning out in front of the tube and taking what is your, basketball stimulation!

TUESDAY: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS AT TRAIL BLAZERS,  7 PM WEST, 10 PM EAST, ESPN

AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR, “A LIFE DOMINATED BY VICTORY”

“I was so grateful that someone out there loved my writing for thediss.com SO MUCH that they just GAVE me a ticket for this game! I will be that person’s friends forever. I will even marry their sister, and be a better than average in-law, if they want that. And, hey, if they’re all ‘Hands off my sister’ I will think there is a weird kind of patriarchy-protection thing going on there, but I can respect that. Anyway, thank you for giving me a ticket to that game. I had a good time watching everyone play basketball.”

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WEDNESDAY: SPIN THE DIAL!

There’s 12 games on! 24 teams, IN ACTION! And I say: WATCH EM’ ALL! Start off with Miami at Charlotte (PLAYOFF REMATCH!) and whenever it goes to a commercial, SPIN THE DIAL! Pull up a Random Number Generator, pick a number between one and fourteen, and go WHERE THE WHIMS OF FATE WILL TAKE YOU! Commerical? SPIN THE DIAL! Get bored? SPIN THE DIAL! If you’re PARTICULARLY adventurous, you might SPIN THE DIAL! every time a whistle gets blown! Why should you have to put up with stoppages in play!? Soccer ain’t got no stoppages in play! Pretend the shards are all one seven hour game, then piece it together in your dreams!

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THURSDAY: SPURS AT ROCKETS, 8 PM EAST, 5 PM WEST, TNT

This battle between Southwest Division Powers is your mind being played out in front of you on a television screen. On one side: the Houston Rockets containing all of your neurosis and neediness, angling for free agents and better friends, making unfunny jokes to try and fit in at parties, incessantly promoting yourself so you will be famous and loved. On the other side, the San Antonio Spurs, obsessed with work, keeping a low profile so everyone will leave you alone, a productive member of society, but cold. WHO WILL WIN: THE FIRES OF NEUROTIC FRUSTRATION OR THE ICES OF PRODUCTIVITY!?

FRIDAY: WASHINGTON AT TORONTO 7 PM EAST, 4 PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

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SATURDAY: GOLDEN STATE AT HOUSTON 8PM EAST, 5PM WEST

Klay Thompson has begun this season on a upward trajectory. Will it continue in this matchup against James Harden and the Rockets? Or will he have already left the NBA to peruse space travel and lunar domination? Where will it end? Can Klay Thompson harness the power of the vibrating strings that make up particles at the lowest level of existence? Or will he regress and have basically have the same season he did last year?

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SUNDAY: CHARLOTTE AT LAKERS 6:30 WEST, 9:30 EAST, LEAGUE PASS

Is watching a team just to see them get embarrassingly beat, over and over, in poor taste? Apparently I either don’t think so or don’t care, because I just recommended this game!

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Exchanging Blood for Profits

I think the first time I ever came across the word “fatigue” was playing some sports video game. I don’t know if it was from the Lakers vs. Celtics franchise, NBA Live or Coach K, but there it was: fatigue. Over the years it alternated with stamina, energy, or even health, but whatever the name it meant the same thing: how much gas a player or character has left in the tank. Now after years of video game-playing conditioning, I’ve occasionally found myself fantasizing about real life energy bars with easy-to-understand green/yellow/red coding that indicates if Dwyane Wade is running on empty or experiencing a burst of fourth quarter energy. After reading this piece from Pablo S. Torre and Tom Haberstroh in ESPN the Magazine, I’m starting to think some form of this childhood fantasy could become a reality.

The title of the piece is New biometric tests invade the NBA and its subject is how the NBA is at the forefront of a “biometric revolution,” but simultaneously how bioethics and technoethics need to be of equal concerns as the boundaries between employee and private citizen become more blurred.

So what’re we talking about here? How about everything from sleep habits and dieting to drawing blood and eventually “sequencing and understanding the genome … and how that relates to pro athletes on an injury basis” as Sacramento Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro put it. The range of invasiveness is as simple as wearing something on your wrist like a FitBit to monitor your sleep quality and track your physical activity throughout the day to something “Injectable (that) stays in the body for a year or two. No fuss.” as described by Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California.

The benefits to these types of testing is pretty damn significant and, not surprising, economically driven. The piece references a study from fantasy sports outlet, Rotowire that determined “the average NBA team hemorrhages about $10 million in guaranteed salary from games missed due to injury alone. This makes fatigue, which directly relates to the twin dangers of overexertion of soft-tissue damage, a chief threat to playoff chances and literal fortunes.”

Teams can turn to insurance to protect themselves against athlete injuries, but as the Economist wrote in January of 2013, “sports teams that offer guaranteed contracts face huge losses if stars are injured, even only temporarily.” Consider the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the span of a month, they have lost Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to foot and hand injuries. The next four to six weeks without either player promises to negatively impact ticket both at home and on the road in addition to reducing the number of viewers tuning in for national TV games. When the Thunder lost Westbrook to injury during the 2013 playoffs, there was a direct correlation to the price of tickets post-injury which has been established with other injuries as well. The NBA uses a “league-wide insurance plan” where each team assumes limited risk that, as of 2013, “costs a modest 4% of salaries” while only being required for “a club’s top five players.” But even insurance can be problematic as we saw with Darius Miles and Portland in 2009. Miles sustained an injury and if he retired due to medical reasons the Blazers would’ve been able to avoid his $18 million cap hit. It was in the team’s best interest for Miles to retire and they even went as far as threatening to sue any team that signed him with “the purpose of adversely impacting the … Blazers salary cap.” Miles came back and played 34 games for the Memphis Grizzlies. He wasn’t the same player, but he was more than capable of playing and Portland ate the $18 million.

Given the high cost of injuries and the potential challenges and costs of insurance, it’s easy to understand the concerns of owners who, as D’Alessandro says, “need to be able to have an impact on these players in their private time.” With the upcoming rise in salary cap and the likelihood of player salaries increasing alongside the cap, it’s no surprise that owners want more control over what they see as an asset or investment.

In various ways, this has already begun. We’ve long heard stories of players being put on diets and training programs to increase their on-court or on-field production. Just a few weeks ago Dallas Mavs coach Rick Carlisle got in hot water for referring to his lean, six-pack toting small forward and multi-million dollar investment Chandler Parsons as “a little heavier than he’s ever been.” As part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ reimagining, the team is putting a greater emphasis on player-specific nutrition and dieting plans. And curfews have been part of the team-control mechanism for years. Most of us are familiar with the myth that athletes should avoid sex before big games and most of us accept that teams are going to be partnering with their players to some degree to ensure their off-court lifestyle doesn’t negatively impact their on-court performance. The big question NBA teams and the Player’s Association will face is how much should the team be involved?

When we’re talking about players eating burgers and having beers the night before games, it’s easy to laugh off, but what about when something called “the patch” is used to measure how much booze a player has had “on account of alcohol’s observable effect on heartbeat?” Or how about the implants I referenced above? Random drug testing suddenly morphs into 24/7 internal surveillance. There are real questions that need to be addressed around the commodification of human beings. Just because a team pays an athlete wild amounts of money does not give them open access to the inner workings of their body or keys to the compass of their off-court existence – unless the players and their representatives allow that. While it appears some organizations already view players as more asset than person, the paradox comes when an organization gets to know its players even more intimately – their biorhythms, their genetic treats, their weaknesses – which results in potential forms of dehumanization because teams make decisions based exclusively on economics and profits.

The Mavs have already instituted a blood testing program that should be raising flags within the NBPA. Their athletic-performance director Jeremy Hosopple told Haberstroh and Torres, “I tell them that nobody sees the data (of sensitive testing) but me and the people directly on staff that work for me.” Meanwhile, Mavs guard Devin Harris says, “I don’t know what they do with it once they have it, but they definitely take it (blood).”

It’s somewhat surprising that agents and the NBPA aren’t stepping in to request Dallas clarify how it is using Harris’s blood or at least to explain to the player how it is and isn’t being used. Habestroh and Torres write:

No complaints have been filed to the National Basketball Players Association as of yet. But it is worth noting that these partnerships have developed so quietly that the union had not even developed a position on the concept until ESPN requested comment in August. “If the league and teams want to discuss potentially invasive testing procedures that relate to performance, they’re free to start that dialogue and we’ll be glad to weigh the benefits against the risks,” says longtime NBPA counsel Ron Klempner.

You have to wonder where the Dallas’s player rep is at during the testing and why they haven’t raised the issue to the union. This lack of oversight or awareness should not have been surfaced by the writers here, but rather internally by the players.

Meanwhile, teams like Dallas and the Spurs are moving forward with testing their players behind a cloak of secrecy. While watching ESPN’s season preview show, Tim Legler expressed serious concerns about biometric testing being used against players in contract negotiations and while Haberstroh countered on set, and in the ESPN the Magazine piece, that teams are pushing for more of a partnership to improve player performance (and team economics no doubt), it’s a very legitimate concern. Not to extrapolate what appears to a be well-intentioned program into the world of science fiction, but I can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report where he creates the idea of “precrime” where people are arrested for crimes they would have committed in the future. Not surprisingly, we find out it’s an inexact science with the potential for mistakes, but imagine a future where a player’s blood test reveals he has a high probability for knee injuries or arthritis and is offered less money, or no money, as a result. Or just look at a situation like Tyson Chandler where the Thunder traded for the big man, gave him a physical, saw the potential for a long-term injury to his big toe and decided the risk was too great, thus rejecting the trade. While experiencing niggling injuries after the OKC rejection, Chandler was a key component on the Mavs 2011 title team and was an all-star for the Knicks in 2012.

To be clear, what happened with Chandler is not the same as using genetics in hiring or signing decisions. Haberstroh and Torres expertly go deeper on the genetic aspect:

In 2005, Alan Milstein (a bioethics and sports attorney) represented Eddy Curry against the Bulls, whose management wanted the center to submit to genetic screening because of an irregular heartbeat. (Curry was eventually traded to the Knicks, bypassing the issue.) The core objection then, as now, was that genetic markers are not actual proof of alcoholism, or Alzheimer’s, or cancer; they just signal greater odds of developing those conditions. In fact, as of the 2008 passing of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on genetic information for that very reason. Choosing to privilege reality over probability in that way, Milstein notes, “was one of the few situations where Congress was actually unanimous.”

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It’s refreshing to see the presence of someone like Milstein involved in this issue and protecting NBA players, but I can’t overlook the NBPA’s inaction on this front. While the organization has had a full docket in replacing its executive director and spouting off sound bites concerning the league’s new TV deal, players like Harris have been giving blood without understanding why. Further, given the Miles situation referenced above, Curry’s situation in Chicago, and many owners’ penchant for greed (as evidenced by their attempts to break the union and continue taking a greater slice of the BRI pie), it’s understandable for people (Shane Battier and Legler) to be skeptical about how this information will potentially be used.

The treasure chest awaiting a franchise’s ability to optimize against health is great enough that this revolution will happen in some form, mostly likely gradual, but inevitable. There are too many ways to improve on how athletes maintain and finely tune their bodies to ignore this overwhelmingly big data, but the risks of data misuse are also great and frightening even without a wild imagination led astray by Philip K. Dick. While my dream of being able to analyze my own fatigue meter (really, how much do I have left?) is probably closer than I realize, hopefully someone out there is the banging drum of privacy for me, you and the NBA players, encouraging all of us to slow down and consider the risks before we willingly give our blood in ignorance.

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My Predictions.

I predict that, beginning this evening, once I drop my backpack on my desk chair, and heave a heavy sigh to an empty, chilly apartment, my life will be based around a ratty second hand couch that I got for free from a friend. My butt will slide easily into the grooves embedded deep within the behemoth’s plush, springy cushions, happy to be reunited with a partner that cradles and comforts with gentle, caring ease. From there, I will fall into autopilot, cranking up three different games on three different screens arrayed about my living room. I predict that, for an average of two hours a night — minimum — my head will slowly swivel between these three glowing planes of light, watching exceptionally gifted human beings hard-charge, like boulders rolling eternally down a hill. The sounds of squeaking sneakers will become a ubiquitous presence in my modest suburban shit-hole, and the discordant creaks of cries of League Pass music will provide my nightly aria. I predict that I will spend an average of 10 hours a week watching basketball; an average of 40 hours a month watching basketball; an average of 320 hours over eight months watching basketball. I predict my life will be distinctly average.

This season, I predict that I will be cut by both sides of the sword of inactivity. Some fall days will be perfect; tucked into a vaguely-ripe blanket as a low light creeps through the window, faceless announcers braying on about who is hitting their shots, and who needs to get their heads in the game. Some winter days — a term used loosely in California — will be magical in their own right; bright, cool Christmas days stuffed to the brim with sleeved jerseys in pastel colors an roll-your-eyes moments with the Turner crew. But I predict the dark side will be there too. I predict a waning in exercise; self-conscious poking at expanding bellies, chests heaving desperately as cardiovascular capabilities wane over time. I predict fantastic game time feasts — luscious lasagna, piping-hot pizza, endless iterations of cheesy, gooey, salty and sweet — will pass through my abode. I predict loud, inebriated nights, the sounds of clinking bottles intermingling with those squeaking sneakers as an herby haze settles about the room. Yet, when the revelry has ceased, I predict a wake of destruction: empty fast food bags, ash-covered tables, annual weight gain and artificially dark rooms; a disheartening headache on an otherwise brilliant Spring day. I predict I will feel both warm comfort, and sublime shame as I sit on the ratty second hand couch. As for which emotion I feel, I suppose it will depend on how my day went.

I predict that, despite my best efforts, the NBA will continue to stand as a non-functional replacement for real human interaction. When friends text about getting together after a hard day of work, I will find a way to watch basketball instead. When the opportunity to meet new people in my hometown arises, I will gravitate towards basketball instead. When people ask me if I’ve made any new friends lately, I will think about the faceless avatars chirping away on social media, equally frightened to stray too far away from the NBA, and talk about them instead. When the overtures for social interaction just end altogether, and my phone remains silent, I will swallow my hurt feelings, and just focus on the games instead. I will stare hard at the little players, my little men; squeaking in their sneakers, slapping hands and patting butts, all for me, on my three screens. This is what I have done forever. This is what I have done always. And though I predict I will continue to think about the opportunities I missed — boisterous happy hours, far-too infrequent family moments, late-afternoon hikes, competitive pick up games, or even just the opportunity to totally unplug from our fucked-up world — I also predict that the NBA season will smile warmly, smooth my hair, and tell me to just sit down, to watch my little men play basketball, and to try not to think about it.

I predict that, against all odds, my relationship will survive yet another NBA season. And what a prediction to make. After all, I’m the one who becomes incommunicado as soon as games start, once-wordy texts slimmed down to one-word dispatches like “yeah” and “okay”. I’m the one who becomes dark when the Warriors have lost three of five, or moody after Steph Curry turns an ankle. I’m the one who gets mad at the bar, who snaps and snarls in petulant anger when things don’t go his team’s way. She’s the one who will put me in my place; who will tell me that it’s just a game, and to lighten the fuck up. She’s the one who tells me “good job!” when the Warriors win, as if it was I who was moving brilliantly off of screens and splashing wide-open corner threes. She’s the one who named Jarrett Jack “LL Cool JJ”, has been to the last five Warriors games I’ve been to (including a playoff game) and has made an NBA “Boning Roster” with a depth-chart deeper than the Cavaliers. In a reversal of an age-old adage, it’s not me, it’s her. I predict I will feel very lucky. I predict there will be a moment after a big three from Steph that I will look into her face, and my feelings will get all mixed up.

I predict we will have the same arguments this year as we had the year before, and the year before, and the year before. I predict we will call Dwight Howard a child based on small personality snapshots, laughing like juveniles as we make up fart jokes about him, then remounting our high horses as gravely we call him immature. I predict we will wonder if Derrick Rose is really “back”, despite the fact that he will be in a uniform, playing basketball with our peers. I predict that there will be no pleasing us in the end, with each NBA event and activity couched in language of lacking; armchair analysts attempting to fix everything through heavy, haughty words, and motivated by the beguiling buzz of a social media notification. No voter will be right. No opinion will go unchallenged. I predict I will roll my eyes deeply, yet jump into the tired fray of antagonism, time and time again.

I cannot predict who will win tonight. I cannot predict who will win tomorrow. I cannot predict who will soar to new heights, finally unshackled, free from the chains of mediocrity, and no longer held to standards that others made for him. I cannot predict who will falter and fail; who will watch their averages drop precipitously, who will fail to see playing time by the time 2015 rolls around. I cannot predict who will prosper in good health, and who will crumple to the floor, clutching acutely damaged appendages, screaming at the top of their lungs. I cannot know what I have not seen yet. I cannot fathom what simply has not occurred yet. All of these are conjectures, stabs in the dark; deeply flawed exercises in understanding and projecting.

I cannot predict what I don’t know about them. All I can predict is what I know about myself. And I can predict that all I wrote about will come true.

(And I can predict the Warriors will win the West.)

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 26TH-NOVEMBER 2ND

The NBA starts this week. What is going to happen? Only two ways to find out! A. Read play by play game summaries. B. Watch games. You will probably do B.

MONDAY: NO GAMES!

Try to do everything you said you were going to do tonight. I, for one, will be plowing right through “The Mill on the Floss” and growing some delicious heirloom tomatoes.

TUESDAY: MAVERICKS AT SPURS, 8PM EAST, 5PM WEST, TNT

You had a date? CANCEL IT. Boss said you need to stay late? LEAVE EARLY AND LIE ABOUT IT TOMORROW. Were thinking about curling up with a good book? COVER THAT BOOK IN PIG’S BLOOD AND FEED IT TO THE DOG. THE NBA, NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION, IS BACK BACK BACK with this showdown between two titans of MOTION BASKETBALL! Ball Movement! (POW!) Three point shooting! (SWISH!) Fundamental box outs! (BOX!)  And hey, if you’re feeling JUST A LITTLE freaky, you can zero in on Monta Ellis and try to project what he is going to be up to all year.

WEDNESDAY: HAWKS AT RAPTORS 7:30 PM EAST, 4:30 PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

YOU, IN FIVE MONTHS, IF YOU DON’T WATCH THIS GAME: A SHORT PLAY BY CORBIN SMITH:

Cassie: If you ask me, the most interesting thing in the NBA right now is the race to claim the third, fourth and fifth seeds in the East. Who do you think is going to be destined for mid-conference glory come playoff time?

You: Uhh, I uhh… do you think Kobe will demand a trade? Oh, I am sorry, Cassie. I don’t know anything about the Hawks or the Raptors, because I didn’t watch their games early in the season, and I never felt like I needed to catch up. Now all I can talk about is Lakers gossip, that most vile of NBA topics. I should have done what Corbin said in his weekly column at thediss.com, and watched the Hawks and the Raptors back on October 29th.

Cassie: You’re right, you should have. I am going to go across the party now, and talk to someone else, someone with a balanced and comprehensive set of opinions about the NBA. You disgust me.

 

THURSDAY: KNICKS AT CAVALIERS 8PM EAST, 5PM WEST, TNT

The Cavs Offensive Ultracannon makes its regular season debut in this game against the New York Knicks, the perfect canvas for a young, upstart collective to try and paint their first masterpiece. Anything below 120 will be an outright disappointment. We ought to take to the street in protest if this is the case.

FRIDAY: 76ERS AT BUCKS, 8:30 EAST, 5:30 WEST, LEAGUE PASS

If you’re looking for a spoooooooky NBA game to take in on Friday’s celebration of the almighty power of evil ghosts, look no further than this Buck/76ers matchup. A group of attractive and ambitious young people will take up arms against an abomination of science and capitalism, designed to straddle the blasphemous line betwixt life and death as to supply it’s creator with more fresh, young bodies to absorb into his abomination.

 

SATURDAY: GRIZZLIES AT HORNETS, 7PM EAST, 4PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

Look at you, you pig. One week of NBA action and you’re passed out on the floor, bloated with points. You need to get to Grizzlies at Hornets, a classic slugfest between two defensive squads seeking enlightenment through the power of post ups and hard shows. Stare into the abyss and try your damnedest to appreciate how good a man can be at covering a pick and roll.

 

SUNDAY: KINGS AT CLIPPERS: 12:30 WEST, 3:30 EAST LEAGUE PASS

The blood feud between Demarcus Cousins and the entire Los Angeles Clippers organization picks up on Sunday, at a time that is ideal for lounging and breakfast foods and other bourgeois activity. The ideal way to watch this game is to make a cook a crepe the size of a blanket on a gigantic hot stone you covered in butter and eat it all before the game ends. Then you slip into a crepe coma and replay the game in your dreams. Wake up and compose a poem about your new vision of the game. Submit it to a literary journal. When it is rejected, burn it in your fireplace while your drink a bottle of hard alcohol. No one understands your genius.

Posted in Games of the Week | 1 Comment

The Hands of Melancholy

“The greatest madness a man can be guilty of in this life, is to let himself die outright, without being slain by any person whatever, or destroyed by any other weapon than the hands of melancholy.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

***

Full discretion: while I’m not a Lakers fan, like all NBA fans, my relationship with the Lakers is semi-complicated. I hate them as a rival, but am somewhat envious of their success; secretly wishing my team could be so consistently competitive.   I’m old enough to admit this.  Sustained success was never the reason I supported a team, but it was always something to aspire to.  As a fan, all you really want is your team to be in contention, and the Lakers have delivered that to their fans more than any franchise over the last 30 years.

Whether you love or hate them, it’s always better when the Lakers are competitive. Like the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Real Madrid, we need that ‘evil empire’  not only to root against, but to draw interest to the sport in general.  Like it or not, the Lakers have the largest fan base globally.  It’s in the best interest of basketball if that fan base is engaged.  Even if you acknowledge many of those fans as fair-weather, they bring interest to basketball and thus indirect interest to your team.  The same way Superman needs Lex Luthor, Batman needs the Joker, we fans of the other 29 teams need the Lakers.  And we need them to be competitive.

The Lakers are currently dealing with an identity crisis.  Their iconic star is near his end, with no replacement in sight. Past history implies that even if the Lakers are struggling in Kobe’s final act, they’ll eventually re-tool.  Eras always end, and legends always eventually decline.  Transition periods happen.  The Lakers have seen down periods before, but always maintained a certain prestige, and that prestige guaranteed that sooner or later, they’d acquire the necessary talent to compete for titles again.

It feels different this time though.  Now that mystique seems to be slipping.  Starting with the passing of Dr. Buss, the catalyst for the entire Laker image, and then the departure of prized free agent, Dwight Howard, the Lakers have appeared vulnerable as the preeminent franchise of the NBA.  And that vulnerability seems to have led the Lakers to desperation; a willingness to do anything they can to recapture the magic of the past.

The Los Angeles Lakers don’t do well with failure.  A franchise, which has only had 3 losing seasons in 38 years, is predictably unclear how to proceed.  And while taking fliers on young players with potential or making a nostalgic coaching hire is one thing, waging an all-out war on specific shot locations is entirely different and somewhat puzzling. But that is precisely what the Lakers have done: they went and hired a coach synonymous with a glory period in an attempt to restore order.  But that wasn’t all.  The Lakers continue with what can only be described as a misplaced romantic pursuit of past glory through stylistic battles.

“If the Lakers never shoot another 3, I’ll be happy,” said Magic Johnson on August 3rd. Magic isn’t a Lakers employee or front office executive.  But Magic’s words do carry weight with many Laker fans.  He is perhaps their greatest player of all time, the catalyst of what is considered the most aesthetically pleasing Lakers’ team of all time.  Magic embodies the Lakers image that has been sold to fans for 3+ decades, not just a commitment to winning, but also a commitment to doing it with a certain style and showmanship.  Something Dr. Buss firmly believed in, and something his son, is desperately trying to recreate.  So when Magic, speaks employed or not, it does resonate among the Laker fans and organization.

Magic’s campaign against 3 pointers, is of course a direct shot at Mike D’Antoni and what he perceives as non-Laker basketball.  D’Antoni is the poster boy of modern basketball, with his emphasis on pick and rolls, 3 pointers, and small-ball attack.  All these things spit in the face of characteristics of classic Laker teams who were large, played inside out, and didn’t rely heavily on outside shooting.  Instead of acknowledging the Lakers heavily depleted roster, so depleted Swaggy P was their best player, the focus switched to blaming D’Antoni for ruining a tried and trued formula for success.  And with every loss, words from respected Laker greats like Magic resonated louder.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that when the Lakers struggled, the blame was shifted to the outsider: ousted head coach Mike D’Antoni.  D’Antoni isn’t from the Pat Riley or Phil Jackson school of winning.  He was never a Laker.  His seemingly prickly personality didn’t help either. He’s a stark contrast from the magnetism and charm Riley and Jackson displayed.  Maybe it’s the large southern California media market or the brand the Lakers have built, but their coach needs a certain image to resonate with the fans.  Phil Jackson and Pat Riley had an unwavering confidence, which manifested in every press conference.  They had a way of instilling self-assuredness, no matter what kind of locker room turmoil or on-court mess was going on.  They had that ability to smile at reporters, act calm in the face of adversity like it was just another day in the office. D’Antoni on the other hand, has never been one to care for the media.  He would often appear irritated with their questions or curt in response.  The only time he focused seemed to focus on defense was in postgame pressers, when the effectiveness of his coaching principles were often called into question.  He was the easiest person to blame for a poor season.

Enter Magic’s former teammate, friend and Laker old timer, Byron Scott.  Scott first spoke of returning to Lakers to their heyday.  But as camp rolled around, he gives us this gem,  “If we shoot between 10 and 15, I think that’s a good mixture of getting to that basket and shooting threes.”  Through 3 preseason games the Lakers have attempted only 8 threes.  That pace would have them attempt significantly fewer 3s than any team in the NBA over the last 10+ years.

In response to a disappointing season, the Lakers have instead decided to pursue past glories, by trying to play a brand of basketball that is semi-antiquated, and certainly doesn’t maximize it’s talent against modern defensive schemes.  And this begs the question: what exactly are the Lakers trying to do?  Their blind romanticization of the past is reaching Don Quixote levels.  Waving an imaginary sword at windmills, to restore order to the way things were.  Waging a war on the modern game, instead of trying to fit into it.  Of course, that’s not to say D’antoni’s approach was correct.  It had its flaws.  But the biggest flaw D’antoni’s Lakers had was a simple lack of talent.  And no hiring of ex-Laker legends or a pursuit of 1980s basketball is going to change that.

As the Lakers enter this season, to some it’s a tragedy, a once proud franchise, setting itself up for failure pursuing a plan doomed for failure.  To others it’s a comedy, for the exact same reasons, a misguided attempt to re-store an era of greatness.  As the Lakers go down their quixotic path, perhaps it’s best to remind them of the words of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: “It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

But until they realize this, please just continue tilting at windmills.  For the rest of NBA fans, whose teams haven’t been as fortunate as the Lakers the last 30 years, this opportunity to lean back and laugh heartily is welcomed.

Sam Esfandiari has written for Warriorsworld and LetsGoWarriors. This is his first submission to The Diss. 

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