A bleak basketball metaverse
The decisions the NBA is making in real-time, against renewed crisis, show absolute and total fantasy beholden to nobody.
Things are changing quickly. When I started writing this morning the latest news was that Kyrie Irving would join the Nets for road games, except for in Toronto. Since then, in the rushing, fairly paranoid few hours it took me to finish up my Christmas shopping and get home, Irving has been placed in league health and safety protocols.
Snow’s been piling up here all day and so have the players being grouped with Irving in those same protocols. Again, this number is changing in real-time, but the last I saw was 64 people in the NBA this season out because of a positive Covid test or contact with someone who returned a positive test. Of that total, 53 came in December and included Masai Ujiri, Rick Carlisle and Alvin Gentry, and of that 52, 22 were placed in protocols between Wednesday and Thursday of this week. One day.
The overwhelming, critical response to this is for the NBA to put the season on pause. But that logic, correct as it is, aligns with actions the league has taken in the past. It also assumes that the NBA handles itself as a monolith instead of a sleek, fairly expensive speedboat, lifting in the waters around it. The NBA is responsive. Adept not only at reading the room but the entire climate of the moment.
When Rudy Gobert returned the first positive Covid test the league had seen, a virus so far flung for so many in North America suddenly became real. Shutting things down and returning to play in a bubble, our brains fresh with new vigilance, was the only responsible option. We all just knew that. That the NBA Board of Governors (see: owners) had a call this week urging the league not to shut down or delay in the midst of its — and the public climate in which the NBA operates — current Covid explosion shows how far we’ve come. The correct response is no longer aligned with the passable one, and the passable one at this point is hardly even a bare minimum.
Because the country and overarching mentality that the NBA operates in decided a while ago that the pandemic was over, never mind that the virus kept on infecting and killing people day after day. The NBA, for a time, lived in the same oblivious vaccination bubble as many of us, myself included, but the difference is we’re the ones that created these conditions for the league to operate so brazenly in. Games with full capacity stopped seeming like a bad idea because we bought in, testing of players tapered off (though that one I only realized when the league announced it would reimplement testing ahead of the holidays, I had no idea it even stopped), and any pandemic PSAs, or public facing messaging about player vaccinations or boosters from a league perspective vanished. The heat was being turned up but it was incremental, plus what did we care? We’d gotten used to the water, we were stewing in there. Toss in differing mask and vaccination requirements from city to city and there’s hardly a recipe anymore, just a slow boil.
None of this is to say that it’s the responsibility of the public, or NBA fans as some collective trust, to hold the league to account. The Trojan Horse is already out of the barn and I don’t think anyone, whether it’s someone in media writing with access in order to be rewarded with more access or the average fan, has that kind of power. Granted that doesn’t excuse you from maintaining social responsibility in your own life, whether or not you’re tired, bored, over it, because it’s still the right thing to do. All I mean is that it’s vital sometimes to take a step back and trace the steps of something to understand why it’s gotten there and where it’s stuck moving in circles. To live an examined life of fandom as much as one of your own.
It’s in following those jumbled tracks and seeing where they went from trepidatious to sure and steady — right around early last November when Adam Silver bumped up the 2020-2021 season start with Covid case counts projecting to be the highest they’d ever been in the U.S. — that shows the most likely road forward, in this case lit with flashing arrows and without a set speed limit. The NBA will push to continue the season and paint it either as a triumph or mercenary necessity, because there’s no longer any resistance or social pressures not to. End of bench players will get incredible, meaningful opportunities and so will players in the G League recalled to their parent teams, or guys hastily signed to 10-days. Fans will pick up new fleeting favourites and forget them when they’re waived. None of it is expressly good or bad and it all underscores how bereft the way we talk about basketball can be.
No one likes to be made a fool of, to feel foolish. So much of our reluctance — in ambition, in change, in life — comes from preemptively safeguarding against it. Against the psychic discomfort of an ego briefly maligned. Fear is hardwired into decision making, an evolutionary holdover that still helps, but the override of vanity, or arrogance, only tangles us up with the duller and more annoying parts of ourselves.
Because to be worried about looking foolish already assumes that anyone is paying attention, and even if they are, that their perception of you holds to the same, probably warped shape as your own. At the same time to be in the world can feel so endlessly free flowing that it’s a relief to have friends that hold us to account, bear us back in forms we understand, remake us in a likeness that removes our ego if we have the grace and realism to accept it.
It’s not wrong or dumb to expect the NBA to behave like a progressive entity when that’s the face it so often, as a company, takes pains to manifest then strains to put forward. It’s not foolish to be upset when the league shirks that face like a mask and regresses into the nebulous comfort of operating as a corporation, hiding smugly in the murk of itself and impossible to pin down. Even if you’re familiar with this cycle of the NBA time and again opting to do the correct thing until it becomes in any way difficult, or slightly complicated, which both tend to involve risk to profit, it’s not irrational or naive to hope for a different outcome. The trouble is being in thrall of it, either the league or the cycle.
Of course, the main difference is that when you or I do something dumb, when we become embarrassed about ourselves or our actions, it’s not all that likely that we are working to construct and maintain a reality that seeks to harm. The NBA, in ceding sense and treating social and professional responsibility as fair-weather curiosities, is. You only have to look as far as the sense it makes, and the message it sends, to have an unvaccinated person like Irving encouraged to travel widely and be in close and frequent contact with many other people, on the floor and in arena tunnels and to some degree in the stands, night after night. Or the suggestion, even if it’s rebuked, to let players who’ve tested positive but are asymptomatic go ahead and play. Or the new and actual rule of neglecting to test players who’ve either had Covid or have been vaccinated against it. These are decisions made within the bounds of what may as well be an aspirational basketball metaverse, an absolute and total fantasy beholden, it’s clear, to nobody.
It’s easy to give up on the things that make us feel foolish. To drop whatever it was we were aiming for and decide we’re not ready or we don’t want it, to take the sting out of embarrassment. In your life, you shouldn’t do that. Discomfort usually means you’re on to something, that you’re moving forward. But with the NBA right now and the backdrop of the real world against it, taking a step back to see the bigger picture, excusing yourself from the strange and dangerous delusion of not, feels less a cop-out than it does deeply, pretty humanly, crucial.