A nebula of remove
The liminal space that winter in the woods and the NBA's trade deadline opens up.
It’s so quiet here in winter. I notice it more now that we don’t live on Lamb Ave, now that we’re right on one of the city’s mains. We’d been up last in the fall, and once in early December, but the first time there were still boats out on the water and in December there were people getting their three season places ready to close, voices and work and car sounds that carried. Now, here when the deep winter has just started, all that has gone. There haven’t even been snowmobiles buzzing by on the frozen path of the lake chain and when we first pulled in, on my second trip crunching back from the car, I saw two deer picking their way across the frozen lake on its opposite shore. I held my breath, as if they could hear me, the agenda of winter’s silence driven home.
The winter here has sounds, of course. I’ve heard them many times. The low boom of deep ice in the lakes shifting, the creak of branches under the weight of snow, the curt chickadees going about their business bopping through the trees and trilling their open-ended calls. Clumps of snow always falling with soft thumps from somewhere, the occasional screech of a hawk, quark of a crow, beating wings of an owl, jerky muffling of turkeys walking through the underbrush, liquid slither of a weasel’s body over rolling dunes of snow. Even wolves, their mournful calls occasionally echoing down from farther north in the deep, resonant cold of night.
But now that the transition to quiet of this place is so much more pronounced, I wonder if it takes me longer to adjust. To listen for the sounds under the silence. I know there’s an acclimatizing period because my eyes go through it too. Get tricked early and often in the first few days, snagged by what looks like movement against the clean blanket of white only to see it was a branch swaying, dipping, usually from the wind but sometimes, tracing up the trunk, finding a bird or red squirrel busy high above. The movement, the life, also gets hidden under all the stillness.
There are times here waking up in the middle of the night where it feels like I’ve slipped from sleep into some other state for how silent. In summer, too, but in summer there’s the loons calling for each other, echoing otherworldly, the sound of water moving against the rocks, and the stars poking through the trees, sometimes the moon hanging there so low it’s startling, like it’s been strung up between branches. In winter, with all the snow, there are usually clouds hanging low and unlike the city, with no ambient light bouncing off them to lighten the sky into that fuzzy rose glow, the darkness is total. Waking in that, knowing I’m looking out a giant window and not seeing a thing, it feels deeper than sleep. Like sleep was the way there along with the only way out.
It’s not lost on me that, in my conversations about this season’s new glut of parity with friends and professionals in this world, the main response has been how overwhelming it is and tucked within that, discomfort. Discomfort at all the different outcomes parity offers both on any given night and at the finality of the season, but at the unknown.
The unknown being the thing hanging there, or around, in any state of suspension, in any of life’s gaps.
As with life, the unknown is always there in basketball. Even when it seems the season’s outcomes are certain by its second month. But now, the sense of unknown has spread, been made substantial. Made into a lasting (until mid-June, anyway) reality.
Dylan and I spent New Years up here the second winter of the pandemic. We’d spent New Years here many times, alone or with friends, and the sense of remove it lends softens the stakes of the night and its occasion, but this time it was with the intention of staying through the month, maybe the winter, seeing as we were already so isolated at home.
What we weren’t counting on, couldn’t have considered, is how the usual sense of remoteness and remove — warm and willing when you want to give yourself over to it — worked so quickly against us.
The idea had been basic: to spend our days staring out different windows. But something about how fast the days went, their sameness, our walks not around the usual blocks at home but out on a frozen lake, felt like slipping away instead of stepping outside something.
We both worked. I was in the early stages of Contact Tracing, the three-part reported series I wrote for Dime on the NBA’s handling and mishandling of what the pandemic exacerbated. I did interviews up in the bedroom where the reception is marginally better, often kneeling on the floor with my laptop on the night table in front of me, phone on speaker propped beside it, while Dylan gave his attention to a steady stream of data and numbers with the occasional work call with colleagues all isolated in their own ways.
It’s hard to remember that winter clearly for all the ways anxiety and coping have warped and wiped it, but what sticks out is how hopeless it felt. There was no timeline yet on vaccines, the best guess seemed to put us around a fall so faraway that it couldn’t be pictured, and our plan to escape the never-ending holding pattern only put us in an even more removed place (and it’s impossible to write this without recognizing the privilege in it — I do). We fought. Became brittle, sharper. More space but less places to go within it. And the natural world, what could it give us? It had already turned inward, would stay braced that way for months until the days started to stretch incrementally longer.
We only made it to the third week of January. Returned to a world still waiting but one where we were free to slip between things to create some necessary space for ourselves. The big difference being that as desolate as that time felt to begin with, there was no longer the immediate danger of us getting lost.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the two week stretch up to the NBA’s trade deadline is the season’s own liminal space.
Whether you handle it as screaming vortex, absorbing as much noise and as many opinions as you can for who will be moving where, or you prefer to sink into it silently and totally, treating it as a proper void, it’s a simultaneous shrinking and expanding of basketball’s time.
A lot gets lost in it. What I like the least is how quickly humanity goes. How fast our impressions of the people we’re talking about as people are replaced by the handier substitute language of trades and movement. Assets, returns, pieces, exceptions, contracts, picks — a nebula of remove.
The excitement can also feel, when you sit back and try to take a temperature of the fever pitch of it, jarring. And I get the excitement, I get and have been caught up in its roil. Have been in transit, in that already fluid space of flying (and not paying for wifi) only to land and find the entire circumstances and future prospects of a team changed. Muttered, Marc Gasol? furtively to myself in the line for customs a few times, until the person in front of me turned around to check and see if a curse was being placed on them, specifically, or more generally upon the world.
It can be overpowering, the desire not for an end but only for more. A Bacchanalian fervor for bodies to be constantly in motion, accompanying names and faces swept slavering away. It can be mournful too, the abrupt finality of a trade, of losing people in what feels more than a proximal way. Identities that, days before, seemed paramount to the larger integrity of a team and its fixed point in place and time. Even if you were clamouring for them to go, there’s a jolting sense of reality in the universe, for a split second, calling your bluff.
Beyond the losses, the sudden onset amnesia for people we were nights ago calling by name, and the machinating churn, there’s the bright combustion of new worlds being made. Possibilities suddenly scattered across the league like so many new stars in the making. A franchise’s entire circumstances suddenly shifted, a tremor that catches to a full spectrum of hope spreading over a team and its city, however real and staying it may turn out not mattering at all in the moment, because someone new is on the way. Where names get lost in the shuffle of the deadline, when they get picked up again — they’re golden. That name, that person, may never again mean as much to that team as they do right then, and no matter what bears out that feeling will always be conjurable to the fanbase. On a real, actionable, career level, the people who move in the deadline may suddenly find their circumstances broadened. Deeper minutes, more leverage, a different role. A renewed joy, maybe. The same but different person looking at themselves in the mirror, if only given the entirely new quality of light.
I like the deadline best for its promise, after the thrum of blood has lowered in everybody’s ears. For what could and might. The slipstream of potential requires such rare, precise conditions in the NBA. I think of something like a chinook. A warm front of weather wending its way into a city locked in winter’s jaw, that bite loosening briefly and without the pressure it’s suddenly possible to believe, or remember, that things can be different. We don’t get many stretches like this before reality and its expectations, outsized or fair, clamp down again.
Driving back from the obligatory trip into town we pull off onto the narrow cottage road and I see, almost once we’ve rolled past and I have no idea how because she doesn’t move a muscle unless it was in the barest way something latently primal in me picks up, the biggest deer I’ve ever seen standing stock still under one of the pines. Six feet from the car, she’s just watching us. Her tawny coat thick and plush for winter, we are all of us holding our breath.
We stop the car and it’s the change in movement that sends her bounding up the hill behind into deeper tree cover, white tail up like a flag. The sudden burst of strength and speed from her body so powerful I flinch as if anticipating a thunderclap, but there’s hardly a sound.
BASKETBALL FEELINGS is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“The unknown being the thing hanging there, or around, in any state of suspension, in any of life’s gaps.”
My company has been going through layoffs, so this sentence sits heavy—and familiar—right now. Always appreciate your writing and how you speak about sports, which is to speak to that which is human.