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Blinking out of a fishbowl
Anthony Edwards, Noah Lyles, and debating "small markets" from inside the smallest market of them all: the NBA
The clouds were persistent all throughout the day. Low, in an overcast layer that wouldn’t budge. Around 3pm, reading on the couch, I started to drowse. A bad night’s sleep catching up. I set my book on the coffee table, stretched out and closed my eyes. Captain, indignant at my legs trying to find space around his body, dropped off the couch and flopped on his side on the rug with a huff.
Each time I woke up — those brief, half conscious lulls in a good nap where your mind turns over the idea of waking up before putting it off and sinking back into sleep — the clouds were gradually breaking up. Shot through with patches of blue. Until the last time and the clouds, as if hastily wiped by a hand clearing a swath in a fogged bathroom mirror, were bunched off to one side and on the other — sun and bright, endless blue.
When I moved to get up I felt a quick pulling pain on the back of my bare calf. I hadn’t realized, laying earlier in the hammock, I’d set the backs of my legs in pine sap, dripped down from the canopy above. The layer had fused my legs to the couch and then, in the tangle of the nap, one leg stuck to the other. I dab them with dish soap, remember how impossible it is to get sap off of anything. It’ll take days of showering, swimming, being scoured by the lake and the sun. Little motes of the cottage and the immediate world outside clinging to the sticky patches on my skin like travelling topography, live maps.
Do small markets exist just so we can get into this debate, every season? Whether they’re made worthwhile by superstars or whether they’re necessary to turn stars into superstar status, when they leave them. Whether they’re the sign of a flourishing, healthy league, or whether the very term of “small markets” suggests that these places aren’t big enough to sustain a larger one.
The irony of it taking Anthony Edwards playing on the global stage, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, to spark this debate again, of whether Edwards is bound to leave Minnesota for parts greater because his performance there has been such a standout, is kind of perfect. That the debate is coming after American sprinter and current fastest man in the world, Noah Lyles, teased the veracity of an NBA title being called a world championship, also while FIBA was going on, even better.
It’s a uniquely American bent, to ordain things as best or greatest in the world without looking beyond the country’s continental borders. The thought goes that the peak of performance has so long been concentrated in the U.S. that it becomes the end of the road. For Lyles, for any track athlete, this has just never been categorically true. For athletes outside of, I’d say, baseball, American football, and basketball, this has never been true. The road actually has to veer, as soon as possible, away from the States to gain the kind of competitive advantage and professional optics needed to vault a career to global performance and with it, prestige.
It’s why I don’t put much stock in the pile-on (beyond how funny) of Lyles by NBA players that came after his comments (the media pundits know what they’re doing — American networks, American audience). One, to run like Lyles does would probably blow Aaron Gordon’s legs out in 10 seconds, let alone “smoking” Lyles record of 19.31 in the 200m. And two, for the whole of most every American NBA athlete’s career, the pipeline they’ve been in has been a hyper-accelerated, strictly American one. The idea being never to leave. To go from AAU, to high school, to a blinking stint at a Division I college and to be drafted directly into the NBA. Where this is changing, with the NBA’s Ignite or athletes opting to enter the G League direct, is still synthesized by the league and largely American-based. To “play overseas” becomes — on the spectrum of failure — a setback to total defeat, and each classification between those two end points is still seen as a degree of stasis in returning State-side. Rare are the players, like P.J. Tucker, who use leaving like a slingshot, gaining momentum on the way back around. Rarer still are athletes like Kemba Walker, who’ve left on their own volition and likely by some combination of the league being too small and its front offices liking to talk and that talk, especially if disparaging about someone’s “ceiling”, going like dominoes from one team to the next.
The NBA’s ‘World Champions’ moniker is mainly made of suggestions, some of them correct. It’s unlikely a team made up of non-NBA basketball players the best in their respective countries would best an all NBA roster, and sure — though this feels like carrying water for Adam Silver’s ongoing globalization marketing — the NBA is becoming a wider, international league, partially through its international superstars. But in terms of what the reaction to Lyles’ teasing proves, it’s a title also tied up in anxiety — professional and American.
In the professional sense, the NBA doesn’t move the meter so much as it is the needle. In terms of identity, and this is just outside perspective, it’s always and especially lately struck me that the American ideal was, by nature, untested. The point being that it didn’t need to be tested. American criterion is isolationist by default, forged in the country’s bedrock ideal of independence. At one point, this must have been freeing, even skewing socialist in its optimism. Now, the feeling is a shut-in one. Iconoclastic to even itself with a wariness bordering on caginess of any external pressure, be that differing systems of belief or perspective. To have self-extracted as an entire county from the world for so long, it must feel jarring, unsteadying, to have that world come to sudden sharp focus. Blinking out of a fishbowl to a world going on altogether without you. If you’re not the best there, and that doesn’t automatically make you the best everywhere, what’s the precedent? If you’re no longer the archetype, what’s your identity? What’s even the touchstone, or just the norm? Without titles — World Champs being an innocent one — does the world collapse or violently and frighteningly expand, way beyond you? And are you, all at once, adrift?
I forgot how small the days can feel up here. And the longer you’re here the faster they go. I feel, for the first time since I started taking a week here alone in the woods each summer, desperately lonely. Feel the isolation instead of the solitude, maybe. I work, do some interviews, text friends, swim, walk the dogs every day through the woods and up and down the dirt cottage roads. One day we cut down a narrow foot trail that runs under a solitary power line and I remember, too late, that in deep summer the point past halfway — that is, too late to turn around — turns into a marsh. I drag Captain up on a narrow ridge of rocks and toppled tree trunks and George, off leash, forges right through the bog. At the end, jogging the rest of the way to where the trail spits us out onto the cottage road, I laugh and check us all for ticks. That was so dumb, I say to the dogs, Cap maniacal and panting and George somber and muddy. The next evening we stick to our regular circuit, don’t tease out past the edge of the world we know. The only tracks are ours from the days before.
With the cyclical debate around small markets — their worth, quality, impact on competition — and the see-sawing state of the league when it comes to making more of them through expansion, it’s worth remembering that the NBA itself is, maybe, the smallest market of all. With 30 teams and 450-500ish active players, the NBA is dwarfed by the other American leagues. Internationally, just take a glance at the competitive levels of club soccer within mid to major European cities, let alone their respective countries. World Athletics, the global governing body of track and field and competitive running events, where Lyles is internationally ranked, counts 214 countries as members.
The NBA is tiny. That’s part of its charm. It’s why we can debate the rise of Edwards like jaded know-it-alls, most every argument, even the supportive ones, shrouded in a kind of “yeah but we saw him first” pouting that has more in common with music snobs than sports fans. This is also the charm of the NBA, that it’s forged a different, at times annoying, kind of fandom. The smallness of the league makes it so we can know diminutive facts about every single athlete in it, from their preference of — not even hand, nor foot — shooting angle to selvedge denim, their sun and moon sign to their defensive win shares. In a league any larger, “regular” fans wouldn’t learn this stuff. Maybe about their favourite athletes, but not every athlete.
The NBA is the very comfortable, sated, big fish in a tiny and well-tended pond. We don’t need to argue about whether the waters are crowded or not and who has to leave which city to find some more breathing room or space to grow. It’s all the same tank and we’re there, noses and fingers pressed greedily against the outside, tracking every errant bubble in the ecosystem.
Most days a little speed boat goes by, slowed in the neck between lakes, loaded with kids. I hear them from my towel on the dock where I read, write, stare up at the clouds and watch for the pair of loons on their daily circuit. The closer the boat gets the more excited the kids. Breathless, their voices growing shrilly furious until they can’t bear it any longer and burst out scream-chanting, PALM TREE ISLAND PALM TREE ISLAND, over and over about the tacky, floating dock one of the neighbours has anchored in the cove for his renters. On it, there are sun loungers, actual sand which must be filthy by this point, and a fake palm tree, jammed down in the corner. An eye-sore most everyone else on the little cove laments, but hearing these kids scream for it is the first time I don’t dislike it. To us, a distortion of the natural landscape, an intrusion into this isolated world. To them, a weird little diversion that finally breaks it up, cracks it wide open.
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