The Basketball Feelings Feeling Of The Year (FOTY)
A year in review by people I trust more than myself to remember plays, moments or abstract memories that stuck with them in Basketball Feelings 2021.
It brings me joy to see introverts or awkward people doing things outside their element. Like you just want to root for them, and the fact that they look so uncomfortable just makes the effort much more appreciated.
The standout moment that gave me all the basketball feelings in 2021 was Kawhi Leonard in Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy” video. Combining my affinity for Drake and sports is my love language, but when you add in Kawhi it takes it to another level.
Think about what you know when it comes to Kawhi. He loves Cali, his family, and braids, but other than that he’s a mystery. So the fact that he shows up in arguably the hottest rapper’s music video makes this such an iconic moment. That and the fact that it looks like he has trouble manoeuvring his giant hands doing simple dance moves.
Every group of friends has one that’s hella awkward by nature, which makes anything they do extra funny. They still participate in group activities even though they know they won’t look as cool as the rest of the group doing it.
(Epiphany… am I Kawhi?)
Anyway, I mean just look at the awkwardness!
Kawhi is all of us “I don’t know what to do with my hands” people and I couldn’t be more ecstatic about it. Honestly if knowing one of the best players in the game is just like us doesn’t bring you some kind of joy well you’re probably made of stone.
Here’s to finding joy in our awkwardness as time goes on.
Josh Gondelman, Writer and Comedian
Both before vaccines became available and after COVID-19 variants emerged, 2021 was another lonely year, with summer providing a flickering reminder of how good it is to be close to other people (the ones you love, at least). And while many of us have been too cautious to gather for holiday parties or celebrate birthdays and anniversaries in crowded restaurants, the confident hand and dubious ethics of capitalism have given us professional sports as a vicarious means of experiencing community. Even before fans returned to arenas, we could watch on tv as teammates lifted each other up, literally and metaphorically: peeling one another off the floor and cheering for each other from the sidelines (masking protocols be damned, I guess).
Watching a defense make rotations in perfect synchronicity or seeing a jump shooter fly around an impenetrable screen to spring open provided a facsimile of a rowdy night out or at least a good day at the office. But no basketball play makes me feel less alone than an alley oop.
An alley oop looks the way close friends finishing each other’s sentences feels. It’s like improv comedy, but cool. Or jazz, except I understand it. It’s the moment of eye contact that signals it’s time to leave the bar together, the inside joke that cracks you up while strangers watch in confusion. And, on the court, it confirms the synaptic connection between teammates and galvanizes the crowd.
My favorite alley oop combination is (obviously) Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III. Smart lobs to Williams III (Time Lord, to those in the know) on the opening possession of some games and often launches passes towards the rim from well beyond the three-point line. There is especial beauty in this specific chemistry, knowing that Smart possesses inconsistent accuracy as a shooter, and Williams’s repertoire of offensive maneuvers has taken some time to develop. But a shared sense of timing and opportunity accentuates their complementary skills while eliding their individual deficiencies in exhilarating bursts. That, truly, is what friends are for.
Rob Mahoney, Writer, The Ringer
Forgive me for a year-in-review submission that’s a little too here and now, though maybe there’s no such thing anymore. The basketball timeline has fully collapsed on itself; apparently the next stage in that permeating sense that the last two years have simultaneously flown by and crawled along is for the future to give up the pretense and just become the past. At the moment, keeping up with the NBA is like reading a ticker-tape transaction log from a league gone by. Joe Johnson. Isaiah Thomas. Mario Chalmers. Brandon Knight. I wish I could say that watching those players again was heartening for an old bloghead like me—or even that it jolted me awake with a reminder of my own mortality. Instead, I see empty revivals and a league spinning its wheels. I hate to sound glib about strivers making the long climb back to basketball relevance, but I also don’t want to pretend that I’m hearing music in what amounts to an echo.
Everything I felt watching Giannis barely hold himself together in the aftermath of a title or in finally hearing the roar of a full arena again has unfortunately given way to a sense of spiralling. It’s a crummy way to experience our most dynamic and expressionistic sport; basketball deserves better. But the cold reality of the NBA’s omicron era is that a player like Thomas—charismatic, accomplished, and defiant—could be cycled through and spat out by the Lakers before anyone could really process what his return to the NBA had even meant, only for him to join the pandemic-depleted Mavs and be placed into the COVID protocol almost immediately.
If you can find real meaning in where the NBA is right now, I envy you. If you can find something resonant in this churn of fringe talent and memory into a barely-passable commercial product, I’d love to know how. There are still awesome, evocative things happening on NBA courts. They’re just performed against replacement players filling in for other replacement players, framed by teams whose most interesting colors have been all but washed out.
Time has melted into an amorphous blob. The past year was all ebb and flow with not much in-between. I surfed the waves, soothing my increasingly fragile frontal lobe with the welcome sight of some familiar faces throwing a spherical leather object into a suspended hoop over and over and over. One Tuesday evening in February, I was watching a Raptors game where they were playing against the Orlando Magic. This was decidedly not appointment viewing. It really couldn’t have been a more inconsequential game, the type of matchup that only a degenerate gambler, fantasy owner or Raptors fan could find significance in. The Raps started off the game down 11-0. I nearly went to bed early but then Fred VanVleet knocked down a 3. And then another. And then another from deep. Every time I looked up, Fred was hitting another three. Whoa, that one was from the logo!
Heat check in the dead of winter. FVV had five threes in the first quarter. I felt a palpable charge of electricity coursing through me as I watched. Back in the day, you would’ve said he was “unconscious.” As he continued knocking down threes, it became clear that we were witnessing an out-of-body experience. There’s nothing like watching someone as they slowly become aware of their power. All those years of betting on himself and he had suddenly hit the jackpot. Petrified defenders reacted to his every movement, allowing Fred to adjust and carve up the lane. His unrelenting barrage of long range strikes finally broke the game open late in the third quarter after he hit his 11 th (!) three-pointer.
This game, which had the internet going nuts like Paul Wall in 2005, was happening at a time when I felt incapable of accomplishing anything. It seemed like nobody did back then. We had collective pandemic paralysis. It’s easy to understand how sports like basketball can seem meaningless to the casual observer, especially in the midst of our current phase of the pandemic, during a season that probably shouldn’t be happening at all. But Fred VanVleet’s 54-point game on a random night in February legitimately gave me hope for the future. Watching Fred have a record-setting evening was enough to unite an entire nation. If a sport can do that, how could anyone ever call it pointless?
I didn't apply for Finals credentials in 2021, used the pandemic as my excuse, probably wasn't getting in anyway. I've covered a pair in the past but have been turned down a pair of times for a credential since "going independent," I can't say it doesn't remind me that the scene has moved on in my absence. I was privileged, not everyone earns free airfare to and from Orlando, plus lodging.
The family my brother just married into is "own a cabin"-folk, in spring I was happy to accept an invite to a nice place in Wisconsin during July. As the playoffs bounced around and it became apparent the Bucks solidified their set, the novelty of spending the same week as all my media brethren in the same state the NBA'd ignored for 50 years, hell, you don't have to be a sportswriter to put 2 and 4 together.
I'd considered viewing Game 3 at the Deer District, but standing among all those people, you know, that Riefenstahl-lighting just isn't for me. Plus I needed a place I could pop outside and smoke, and while I've managed as much in the District before, watching the Inside the NBA legends perform post-game, that was different. That was the Conference finals.
Nah, headed to a bar, stared at my partner half the time, quaffed the only Lagunitas I've ever enjoyed (key: take all the alcohol out). Watched a player I've always loved, outfitted (like a 13-year old) in t-shirt and headband, move a bar to chant his name:
It was so sweet to chant.
Due to an incident outside the cabin a few days later I am -- legitimately, as a result of my plea agreement on a weed charge -- not allowed in bars or liquor stores in Wisconsin for the rest of my life. Drinkable irony, for a guy with five years' no-drinky.
If the Bucks make the Finals again, they'd have to let me in the building. I've nowhere else to go.
Anthony Edwards moved in two directions at once when he dunked over Yuta Watanabe in February. His torso shot upwards while his arm reclined back. It was as if he were trying to touch the ceiling and the wall.
I felt pity for Yuta and awe at Edwards and even more sympathy for Karl-Anthony Towns, whose demotion as the most intriguing Timberwolf had been pending for months, maybe years, but had finally been sealed. Most of all the dunk brought an embarrassingly potent blow of nostalgia, as it happened in a crowd-less Target Center during the most somber February of my lifetime, where not much felt right and nothing felt regular. Certainly not entertainment. Certainly not basketball, which was, like every other social activity, an inappropriate, risky, and potentially deadly thing to do.
And so I felt nostalgia, because I enjoyed the dunk. I enjoyed basketball. I returned to my most unbearably excited self. We all did, tweeting unbearably excited things like “THIS GAME” or the player’s name in all caps or remarking on that fact that Yuta has a family, Anthony, or whatever your cliche tweet format of choice is to let everyone to know that you saw it, too. It felt like a moment worth being part of.
It felt good for a moment to go back. Because we’re still not back to normal, not even in sports. Because we might not be for a long time. Because it’s all worth being existential about now, even in a 200-400 word request from a dear friend to write about a moment in basketball.
Kyle Muzyka, Writer, Journalist, CBC
Does death staring you in the face look anything like Anthony Edwards's chest smarting your sinuses while he dunks on you?
Is what I would ask Yuta Watanabe, over ramen, if I could.
Our concept of time has taken a nosedive over the past two years, and I'll prove it by telling you that this dunk was on Feb. 19, 2021. A brisk Minneapolis evening, last season, with fake crowd noise pumped in and the two teams artificially pumped up.
A season that felt trite, a game that felt, well, trite-r. But that dunk brought the 100-some-odd people in the arena up a notch that night.
I hid my eyes at the replay. Save for when broadcasts think it's a good idea to show me rolled ankles and torn ACLs, it's the only time I've done that. The Raptors are my team; Yuta my large son. I wanted to protect him all the way from my couch in Edmonton.
What he said about the dunk afterwards is etched in my brain.
"If I’m in the same situation in the future, I’ll jump to block every time. Even if I get dunked on 99 times out of 100, I’ll always jump if there’s a chance I can block one."
In a world of business decisions and uncontested dunks, there are few players who live by that mantra. But it's one we should borrow in our unjust society.
I've spent the last couple of years in a crater of despair. Government inaction, lack of consequences, rinse, repeat. Feeling a rush of productivity, of serotonin induced by a compliment or a new opportunity, only to crash down with the others beside it. Time feels enveloping and fleeting at once — unable to discern whether time flies or moves slow.
Nine months after his career allegedly ended, Watanabe blocked Memphis guard Dillon Brooks's dunk attempt in a close game that swung the momentum for the Raptors, who would go on to win that night.
In both outcomes, Watanabe is the help defender. He makes up for overly aggressive closeouts by his teammates with strong contests at the rim.
It doesn't matter whose fault it was, he's determined to do whatever he can to fix the issue.
Effort is a skill; a talent. What does it say about us if we stop trying to make things better? If we stop trying to prevent preventable issues?
Watanabe won't ever stop — and when he gets dunked on, he'll get up and contest all over again.
My favorite basketball feeling of 2021 is embarrassment. Embarrassment for thinking this Lakers team was built for another NBA championship when they can’t even hold leads against the likes of TikTok sensation, Josh Giddey, and whose answers to roster replacements are, “Hey, let’s sign the guy who we’re pretty sure hangs out at L.A. Live in case of emergencies like these (Darren Collison).”
Here’s the thing though: I absolutely 1000% deserve it. I followed LeBron to this team but disguised my fandom in “they play minutes from my home” and “might as well since I will be buried out here.” Additionally, I was arrogant about it all. I celebrated their greatness while having earned zero of it. Honestly, it became performance art for me because of how fun it was to shove it in opposing fans’ faces that we were good.
Well, here I am. On the cusp of 2022 and I’ve been humbled, and for that all I can feel is thankful. I have a son on the way who both my wife and I want to have a sane and healthy relationship with sports and going through this now, I hope I can pass on the stress management techniques I’ve acquired watching this team and the tools needed to separate wins and losses from reality and the things that really matter, like being a tolerable person to be around. If I’m yelling at my screen at LeBron’s teammates to stop wasting his prime, I have to take that same advice for myself. So I guess, go life balance and priorities!
Oh, and I made a hat for myself combining Wayne’s World and basketball and it really made me happy this year. That’s a positive feeling to end this on. Thanks!
Kyrie Irving, star point guard for the Brooklyn Nets, recently put into words how he felt having been forced to watch his team play games without him, after deciding to not get vaccinated. 'I knew the consequences. I wasn't prepared for them, by no stretch of imagination coming into the season.'
Irving is known for being candid, unafraid to speak his mind, unbothered by how factually correct his statements are or how they may rub the next person. His talent affords him the ability to be unapologetically himself in a way that suits in a boardroom rarely get to be.
Suits such as, our commissioner, Adam Silver, the antitheses of Kyrie Irving. Silver, is buttoned up, and rigid, a rule follower, who has never taken the time to ponder the shape of the world. A man so by the book, it almost always sounds as though he’s reading when he talks.
And yet, If Commissioner Silver, who has consulted professionals every step of the way, and whose opinions appear to be informed by science rather than Instagram memes, were given a dose of truth serum, I’d have to imagine, the same words would be said 'I knew the consequences. I wasn't prepared for them'
That phrase encapsulates the entire season thus far for me. A season that has already seen over 100 players enter Health and Safety Protocols and have nearly a dozen games postponed before the turn of the new year.
Teams knew the consequences of letting fans pack an arena. They also knew the consequences of having vaccinated and unvaccinated players share a court, and yet they seem wholly unprepared to deal with missed games and major outbreaks on teams.
The amendments to the league’s hardship exemption, allowing teams to sign replacement players is a good start. Except for when, those replacement players require replacement players, as seen with the Toronto Raptors.
All in all this season feels like the league wished and willed for it to exist as normal, they keep telling us it’s normal, but all I see are people wholly unprepared to deal with the fact that it isn't.
Isle McElroy, Author, The Atmospherians
I don’t like to think of myself as a nostalgic person—I don’t dwell fondly on my childhood, I rarely rose color my memories—but in 2021, I found myself repeatedly basking in nostalgia. What I mean, is, I spent my off hours rewatching the 2019 NBA playoffs. Not every day, of course, but when I needed noise in the background while writing or cooking I would click through the calendar in my League Pass account to May 2019. Some people return to Friends or Frasier for comfort. I return to the playoffs—a friend once called them my version of The Notebook.
Etymologically, nostalgia implies a longing for a lost home, a desire to heal something ruptured. But the problem with nostalgia is that it’s never as good as the real thing. After Kawhi hit the four-bounce shot, the camera pans out to the crowd, to people hugging and cheering, particles dousing the air. Crowds—the good kind—are temporary homes, expansive and spontaneous. And, as I rewatched those Raptors games, it occurred to me that I wanted less to return to the court than to return to those crowds, or the idea of those crowds—though I've been a Raptors fan since childhood, I’m not from Toronto; I didn’t go to a single game.
At an outdoor bar in Houston, watching game 3 of the Bucks/Raptors game on the smallest TV at the bar—the Astros were playing—a pair of strangers joined me and my friend as we watched. They weren’t Raptors fans, and though they checked the score, the strangers seemed just as invested in me and my anxiety as overtime become double overtime, as my nerves frayed and sparked like a toaster in a tub. One dude put a hand on my shoulder. He assured me everything would be okay.
This is the home I fear that we’ve lost, even as things return to something like normal. We know too well, now, how easy it is to be nervous around other people, to fear the air, but occasionally, this past year, while watching old basketball games on a laptop, I could convince myself I remembered how it felt to be in a crowd, to be among strangers, that it was a feeling I would never forget.
Harrison Faigen, EIC at Silver Screen and Roll
2021 was a year of isolation, when all of us felt cut off from those we cared for at various times. Whether you were missing friends, family, or even coworkers, you probably felt disconnected at some point or another, forced to get or give support from afar, through a Zoom window, FaceTime call, or from at least 5-10 feet away.
In a year like that, the best any of us could hope for is to have — or be — a friend like Andre Drummond. The everlasting image of basketball I'll always remember from 2021 is not Giannis winning his first title and bringing us all the simple joy of an NBA superstar ordering more Chik Fil A than any human could possibly consume, or Chris Paul participating in his first NBA Finals, unleashing his unique brand of non-basketball chicanery on the sport's biggest stage.
No, the moment that will always live rent-free in my head is Andre Drummond, the ultimate supportive friend, pantomiming LeBron James’ exact movements as he dominated Game 3 of the first round against the Phoenix Suns, taking just as much joy out of James’ ruthless destruction of Jae Crowder in the post as if he was doing it himself.
Like many of us cheering on our more talented friends from afar, Drummond has surely realized that he is not going to singlehandedly overpower a playoff opponent, fuelling a blowout victory from the embers of a previously close game. But that didn’t stop him from turning around, posting up an invisible opponent like a child in oversized clothes mimicking their parent going to work, leaning and shaking just like his more talented friend, and celebrating just as wholeheartedly as if he had achieved basketball success himself.
Forget for a moment that the Lakers went on to lose the next three games and the series, or that Drummond is long gone now. On an ethereal level, what mattered from this moment was the example it set. All of us, in the day-to-day grind of our increasingly individualized existences, need our own Andre Drummond, cheering us on like they’re the ones succeeding themselves. And all of us should strive to be an Andre Drummond to our friends, taking as much joy in their victories and achievements as if we are experiencing them ourselves.
We just maybe shouldn’t promise them a starting spot over Marc Gasol. But I digress.
James Herbert, Writer, CBS
In April, journeyman Mike James stepped right into his first NBA game in years and hit a series of preposterous shots: A sidestep 3 in the corner, a eurostep floater, a goddamn skyhook. James had just signed with the Nets after leaving CSKA Moscow. In his pregame Zoom session, Steve Nash said he hadn’t even met James yet, but would play him.
I watched that pregame Zoom and those preposterous shots from the press section at Barclays. It was my first time back there since the beginning of the pandemic. The whole thing felt off — less than 2,000 fans in attendance, both teams without two of their top three players, Boston lineups that featured Jabari Parker and Luke Kornet. It was not surprising in the least to see James, a bucket-getter, get his buckets, but to do so straight out of Moscow, without so much as a shootaround, was a delightful anomaly. I tweeted all sorts of stuff about it.
Eight months later, the funny thing is that any of this felt weird at the time. Isaiah Thomas is a G Leaguer, then he’s a Laker, then he’s a free agent buying groceries in Seattle and his phone rings and now he’s a Maverick and he’s getting an ovation in Sacramento and, shit, he’s in isolation. Mario Chalmers is hilariously back in Miami. Trae Young has no idea who most of his teammates are. In the grand scheme of things, the day-to-day chaos of the NBA is not an important example of how we’ve become desensitized, but, I mean, feel free to extrapolate.
William Lou, Writer, Host, The Raptors Show
The trouble with saying goodbye is that there’s rarely any time for it, nor any dignity in it. Life doesn’t leave room for sentiment when there’s so much going on.
Here’s some context for what happened leading up to March 24, 2021. The Raptors were playing in Tampa because they decided that Florida was the safest place during a pandemic. An outbreak infected the entire team including players and staff, resulting in 15 losses over a span of 17 games ahead of the trade deadline on the following afternoon, where it was widely reported that the Raptors would trade their most beloved icon.
First, there was a game to be played against the Denver Nuggets, and a memorable one at that. It was called by the first all-women’s broadcast in NBA history, an event worthy of its own celebration which overcame the decidedly dour mood around the game. And for the Raptors themselves, it was one last hurrah for a proud champion, with all of their regulars healthy for the first time all year as they dismantled the opponent from start to finish, with Kia Nurse explaining in great detail how great the Raptors can be on their day.
It was one of those nights that you wished would never end, but they all do. Kyle Lowry put on a masterclass, taking only eight shots yet somehow winning his minutes by 42 points. As he walked down the tunnel, he scrunched his face and flashed duces into the camera, before walking off for what felt like the last time. It’s one of those images that is instantly seared into your heart as the realization hits you that the good times are long gone, and that you were a fool not to enjoy them to the fullest.
The next day was a sobering reminder that life doesn’t leave room for goodbyes. Kyle didn't go anywhere except the golf course to celebrate turning 30 for the sixth time. It was actually Norman Powell who moved on, with tears in his eyes and an arm around Fred VanVleet as they looked through Open Gym’s cameras and directly into our souls. Kyle’s time came months later, without any fanfare or even so much as one last performance when the Raptors shut the lights on their forgettable time in Tampa. Kyle was there in jeans and a sweater, waving back to fans in another country, knowing that he was already gone.
Colin McGowan, Writer
In the last scene of The Power of the Kangwon Province, a young man who’s in love with a younger woman more out of desperation than anything else, who is unhappy in his marriage and in his job and in his friendships—brutally unhappy with himself, it goes without saying—who has gone on vacation to smoke cigarettes against gorgeous thick green woods and sudden canyons, malignantly bored and horny, rageful and petulant, tossing a drink in his friend’s face, laying a sex worker who is imploring him to cum already, to stop touching her hair; the young man walks into a basement storage unit to see that the white plastic bowl in which he’s left two goldfish, two orange ribbons chasing each other through tapwater, contains only one fish now. One of them died while he was ashing into a canyon, or crying into his mistress’s stomach, or interviewing for a new job he doesn’t seem to want. He stares at the bowl like you do when you’re too hungover to register how badly you’ve fucked up. Like, this isn’t going well and it’s going to get so much worse. Roll credits.
Ricky Rubio, who had been just beautiful all season, blew out of his ACL on Wednesday night, and I thought I heard a fuse pop somewhere in the universe’s circuitry. A reminder that there are many precious things still left to be destroyed. Roll 2022.
Tristan Douglas, Illustrator
I like to think I have compassion for those who fall from grace. Then again, I do not claim to have the best self-awareness.
The day Neil Olshey—the longtime Portland Trail Blazers General Manager, whom the fanbase loathed more than Raymond Felton himself—was fired, was the best day of 2021.
It’s hard to fully explicate what it felt like; what it meant for so many of us. It was like the last day of high school, when you knew the past didn’t matter and the future was yours for the taking.
The moment it happened, I picked up my phone to view the Shams notification and I expected to read something like: “Trail Blazers Ownership Decides to Keep Neil Olshey Despite Tumultuous Tenure,” but it didn’t.
“The Portland Trail Blazers have fired president/GM Neil Olshey,” Shams wrote. Not a lot of context, but I didn’t care. The investigation that we all thought would eventually absolve him of any wrongdoing, proved to be an effective and eye-opening one.
I was overcome. I heard the birds sing. I felt the sun on my skin. The hair on my arms stood up in uncontained excitement. It was like one of those Planet Earth montages that depicts the miracle of living things. Animals dancing to attract mates; a human pupil dilating; time-lapsed flowers shooting up from soil beneath them. Bye bitch, I yelled aloud to myself.
And then, everyone took to Twitter, the place where commiseration and celebration happen simultaneously. Only this time, no one was commiserating. People from every corner of the internet came together to dunk on the guy who has nearly wasted a generational talent. The man who hired alleged abusers because they were his friends and famously hated the city of Portland.
In these *corporation voice* unprecedented times, I found solace for one day. The day Neil Olshey was fired.