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A soft touch
Being easier with touch, and the softness we lose in the NBA playoffs forced severity.
The sun’s only just up and the shower’s barely off my skin, my hair’s clean and my makeup light, I’m wearing this long, grey and black striped soft merino wool dress and worn-in white canvas high tops, a green smoothie deep and on my way to meet Rei for coffee.
At the back of the bus, jostling lightly by the window, I feel as soft and full of promise as mornings tend to this time of the year, when the sun is thin but warming and buds are foaming out from every tree and scraggly bush in a chartreuse spray. Snowdrops are finishing, blue scilla are too, early and delicate white apple blossoms are two days from popping, magnolia blooms are bursting, the hardy and best (in my opinion) crabapple blossom clusters are close. Daffodils are in full swing, some already curling; tulips are tall, their wide thick leaves fanning out with buds knotted tight so their colours are veiled, and everywhere, exploding in firecracker pops, sunny yellow forsythia.
Teenagers on the way to school crowd into the back, eyes still half closed and sleepy they slump into empty seats and the sun glints off their phone screens and glossy bedhead. They tumble off the back door in droves, go single file along the sidewalk and carefully, despite themselves, avoid the new wash of stubborn and lurid green grass banking under the chainlink fence of the schoolyard.
Promise and softness, how often they twine around the other.
To refer to someone as a soft touch in life is to mark them as gullible, easy to get one over on. To have a soft touch in basketball is a sought after thing. Players who don’t have it, who bruise and bully the ball, work hard to soften because to say someone has a soft touch is to anoint them with the elusive perfect measure of control. They exert just the right amount of force whether shooting, passing, handling through space or scooping the ball out of the air. The ball in their hands transformed into a perfectly ripe thing.
Nikola Jokic has a soft touch. Featherlight, all quiet and directive force, not lost on me that it’s the kind of touch it takes to move horses around. A touch that, if I concentrate, I can still feel in my hands. Some latent power there like muscle memory — or the memory of a muscle memory — in hands moving sure and soft over muscles that if tensed and sprung, could have you communing with the dirt.
So many of the hits this past week have been hard. Determined and sharp to not only the soft parts, but the carefully guarded ones.
Draymond Green stomping down on the chest of Domantas Sabonis laying prone on his back across the glaring hardwood and in the roiling days after the conversation running toward whether or not it warranted Green’s one game suspension rather than why, in the first place. To stomp or not to stomp — totally the wrong question.
Joel Embiid kicking up at Nic Claxton stepping over him, foot making a hard and fast connection where the sun doesn’t shine. Embiid getting a flagrant 1 but not ejected from the game (two quarters later, James Harden was ejected for it — his a cuff from his wrist to Royce O’Neale’s groin instead of a lashing foot), left to scowl and prowl, probably in private disbelief considering this was only three nights after Green was kicked out of the game.
Bookended between those two bruising exchanges came another between Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul as they both left the floor in Phoenix. As they filed by each other (though the intent at this level, at this stage in the playoffs isn’t this, I still can’t help but hear a mumbled good game good game good game in my head whenever I see these lines) their bodies made contact.
Takeaway from the chest up looks like their shoulders, rolled forward, slung socket to socket into the other’s. Watch over and look lower and see Paul’s hand trail along Leonard’s stomach in the sliver of space the camera catches between their bodies, and a testament the morning after tells us Leonard also gave Paul’s leg a friendly slap.
Leave it to me and I would love to have every in-game ministration carefully identified and described. The tender taps and slaps of sportsmanship, the trailing hands that signal recognition, the quick rush of palms going up to a person’s shoulder or small of their back to say I’m here or I’ve got you, or that act as an apology if a previous initiated contact came too hard or abrupt. In context, the explanation came because this week in playoffs started so pummelingly that the interpretation of two guys being in a postgame daze and happening to glance close enough to the other to draw accidental contact could be misinterpreted as hostile. That first-thought best-thought had become, to a viewership on edge, an exchange of force rather than the accidental contact of bodies and in that contact, a softer, forgiving acquiesce.
Is anyone having fun right now? Rei asks me. Tears are drying on my cheeks from laughing so hard at our last bend of conversation before it turned to the playoffs, the NBA. It feels like nobody is friends, she says.
There’s an absence, we agree, of the kind of overlapping friendship we saw with the Banana Boat boys. Friendships that extend beyond the convenience of roster, are collectively understood to be dutiful and intentional. Even on teams with longstanding rosters there’s obvious disconnects, or outright splintering.
I list three easily and off the top of my head — Kings, Cavs, Magic — the first with the caveat that it feels like the fun is taking a turn and the last with the footnote that they’re out and maybe that has something to do with it. For the rest, the fun feels charged, examined. Like the Grizzlies, where the mood has been weaponized by the team and the media in turn. Knicks fans are definitely having fun.
Where these playoffs are the most unpredictable in years, where they might be lively and exciting because of it, everyone has, at one point or another, looked exhausted, we agree. Like the winning is a weight.
And isn’t it? Manifested in expectation, in where the bar for achievement gets set and whether a team vaults over or collapses under it. Externalized in a “winning mentality”, into the requisite devotion to an austere, unyielding team-wide front and the maintenance that takes. The rejection of joy until the job gets done and not only conspicuous joy — a face, beaming — but its quieter expressions. No playful movement in tunnels or at the sidelines, nothing bouncy, nothing that could be interpreted as nerves or as behaving in a way that’s unserious. How the clampdown quality the playoffs foists on players (and in turn, our perception of them) brings a preference to disavow languid touches amongst each other but even on court. The flourishes, the flashiness, the long and luxuriant extension of limbs exchanged for clipped movement and crushing blows. Rationing power instead of exalting in it.
I think of all the heads I’ve had drooped down in front of me, into my hands or lap, shoulders relaxed, bare necks shown in pliable acquiesce, easy docility, or else exhaustion. The small offerings we give of our bodies to others in slow trust or swift desperation. Pale flashes of forearms, ribs a soft scaffolding, eyelids in waxing crescent.
Where I’ve recoiled from softness I’ve regretted it. Where I’ve flinched from touch, pulled my body out of a hug too quick, where I got the signals wrong or else overrode them with my own misfiring sense of self-protection.
I still remember a moment so regular, that would’ve stayed nondescript in its soft blur of home if not for my reaction. I was visiting my parents in my first few years after moving out and my mom ducked her head into the guest room to find me reading in bed. She came around to the night table to turn on the light, probably, if the afternoon was getting on, and then moved to sit down on the bed. I shot the other way. Didn’t scoot to make room, but overzealously bolted my body as if shocked by a charge. Why did I do that? I thought not long after, when she took my wallop of a hint and left the room, and I think now, still, pretty often.
To soften to softness sometimes takes a stronger will than spurning it, automatic and easy.
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