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Down the row like dominoes
The limits of interpretation and the great luck of holding space.
At the start of this week, walking the dogs with Dylan on the Beltline, the trail beautiful with late afternoon light slipping through the leaves all changing colour draped protectively overhead, we started talking about the end of the week. My birthday.
I was, a little, lamenting at not knowing what to do. I began to talk about perfect versions of the day in other cities (for context, we’d also been talking about how hard Toronto has seemed to have grown in the last years, less of a glory days nostalgia than a slow erosion, how difficult and pressing for people both vulnerable and not, and how the presiding opinion from bodies in power has turned into a running background refrain that you should be satisfied enough with how things are; you should be happy to still be able to be here).
In New York we’d have breakfast at some small and just fine diner, then go to the MET and spend the better part of the morning wandering — I can even picture the play of light over the sculptures in the Greek and Roman wing, slipping over the lion pelt draped across the youthful Hercules’ arm to make the fur, very old stone, look soft — really dallying over every placard. Sit on the wide steps out front with a coffee then loaf through the park behind. Pick another corner place to meet friends as afternoon waned, somewhere perfectly low-lit like Fanelli’s, then to a bar for a nightcap. Any of the narrow and worn squeeze-in-here places the city is rife with, a little ragged but never a drag.
I picture this alternate version of a day in an alternate life all the way home, long enough to text lamenting to Greg, And here it’s like… go to the batcave? A little while later he texts back, Batcave? I remember he didn’t grow up here. Didn’t spend school field trips running through the ROM’s recreation of a dank underground cave, replete with strobe lights flashing in rhythm across the ceiling and walls over clusters of stationary figurines of bats, pretending not to be afraid.
The day after, beautiful blue sky October dotted with jags of cotton ball clouds, I go get my haircut. Walk on the way through Bickford Park, it’s grassy slopes and smouldering maples bright in the sun. Remember it was the first park we let Captain off leash when we got him only to watch him bolt toward Bloor Street and the smell of Banjara, naan and biryani. With Kat’s fingers dug into my hair in the shampoo sink we laugh back at all the dumb things we did as teen ravers, then manage to catch and corral the gist of our lives since then back to now, as we do every visit. Leaving, feeling light, I cut through Koreatown for a banh mi and Vietnamese coffee, feel petulant for complaining about Toronto’s availability to spend a sunny day wandering across it.
The next day, as if to hammer it home, Rei takes me for dinner at El Asador for birria and tamales, our warm weather seasonal place until we switch to bubbling bowls of soondubu when it gets cold at Buk Chang, next door. We talk about the world, the city, pressing in. The cruelties that threaten to swamp whole days if you bend to them or keep scrolling, but the difficulty of looking away when you feel responsible, protective, of both.
Walking to the subway after hugging goodbye I run into Age. Neither of us have seen the other in a while but stand there beaming, catching up. We’ve nothing so spectacular to report but something in the people slipping around us on the sidewalk and the car and bike headlights swishing across our legs with the chill of the night settling, I feel flush with what it is to live in a place for so long. The luck and privilege of it. To see it change and complain about it changing to people who have changed alongside it, with and around you. People who have managed to stay and make it into the next stage of their lives, past the ones where we were all screaming headlong into nights nobody was willing to let go of, all endurance, future fuzzy as the dawn.
How you all develop the same shorthands of place and time, interlocking histories like intricate maps, shortcuts through decades to single moments in buildings levelled, burned down, built over or rarer still, standing. And doing it just through a thing instinctive made to feel difficult, even ruthless: existing in and holding onto space.
When I get home I stand in the kitchen, the smell of wet leaves clinging to my coat still on, and rushingly explain it to Dylan as best as I can, like a dream that dissipates when waking. It feels a little like atonement. A protective prayer like a Hail Mary of place.
It’s a strange time to live here but then, it’s a strange time to live anywhere.
On the plane to Toronto from Los Angeles, the middle seat in my row stays empty. My seatmate, talking to the person he boarded with across the aisle from him — emphatically. I can’t tell if they’re fighting or just engaged. I fall asleep listening to a podcast of an old interview with Nora Ephron, wake up to its credits having not heard any of it.
I blink around, first out the window then glance over to the end of the row.
He’s crying. He takes long swipes of his eyes with the backs of his hands, pushing his glasses up his face to do it. The woman across the aisle from him looks, calmly, forward.
Terry Stotts just resigned, four months into his new job as assistant coach with the Bucks. After a team shootaround, new Milwaukee coach Adrian Griffin asked his athletes and coaching staff to huddle up. When that huddle broke, Stotts moved to talk to Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, falling in with them for a few steps before Griffin shouted for Stotts to come back. Griffin had, apparently, asked for his coaches to stick around for a private, additional huddle after that first one and got frustrated with Stotts for leaving.
If a disruption to a funny Matryoshka doll sequence of team dynamics — a couple seconds delay to a huddle within a huddle — was what it took for Stotts to give notice, then it seems fair to glean a disconnect had been building between him and Griffin. There’s been reporting that cites people around to the team saying Stotts had a hard time answering to someone, having been a head coach for so long, or that he expected a certain level of respect given that long tenure. Both reasonable to believe (though as an aside, I wonder how far we are from the concept of automatic respect in direct relation to experience as a given going the way of antiquated, though it might take longer in sports because so many of its rules and habits are predicated on deference) but the more telling response to me came from Damian Lillard.
Lillard spent just over a decade with Stotts in Portland, plenty of time for the two to develop their own shorthand of communication (Lillard pressuring the Blazers front office might have also been a reason Stotts was fired, which I bring up because as linear as history can seem, it always runs more than one way) and when he was asked what happened, Lillard told Bucks reporters that Stotts had called him personally to let him know he was leaving.
We spoke directly. I don’t expect anything different. We spend so much time around each other in this league. Seven, eighth months a year, practice every day, flights, hotels, dinners, watching film, we share a lot of intimate spaces and like I said, being with him for nine years and him being my head coach, me being the point guard of his team, we spent a lot of time around each other. We know each other really well, even in the two years without him, we stayed in pretty consistent contact. So, I don’t expect anything different than him to call me directly and that’s how it happened.
That’s a lot of laid out history — and I can’t help but wonder what distance has done to distil it for Lillard. But then, despite the pretty consistent contact he mentioned, Lillard said Stotts drawing his last straw at shootaround “kind of came out of nowhere”.
It could have just been clunky framing for the story that turned out to read (to me) funny instead of shocking. Like, this big twist of Lillard knowing Stotts so closely, for so long, but having no inkling that being told to come back to a special huddle after having huddled was what would make him walk out of the gym for good. There’s also caveats, as many as you can care to find, that Lillard knew what was coming, or Lillard was fine with it, or at the end of the day, with the direction of his year set, it’s all pretty inconsequential to him.
The woman beside me in the coffee shop is on the phone, whether with a person or leaving a message I’m not sure. The voice she’s trying to keep low raising as she stresses, I want to know— I want to know— No, listen, I want to know if that just left your mouth. Then she sets her phone on the table, screen down.
I always thought the line in ‘Astral Weeks’ went, “Standing with the look of Everest”. As in, formidable, challenging, a little bit dangerous but still, tempting. Magnetic.
It’s “avarice”, not the mountain. A keen desire for the material. When I found that out I liked the song a little less.
I was trying to think of a sacrosanct example, something considered to be commonly held in trust between the NBA’s audience. The best I could come up with was the Warriors being free from ever having a shooting problem so long as Steph Curry’s in uniform, but instantly my brain fanned annoyingly out into potential arguments, all starting with: Well… Some in my own voice, others in the annoying voice I picture someone who’d equate a Klay Thompson scoring slump with a reason for Golden State to panic.
When Draymond Green punched Jordan Poole in the face on camera at a Warriors practice, he made a mini documentary about how it could be interpreted. A feature-length recent ESPN story on Ja Morant, with no new information beyond blaming rap for Morant’s shift in behaviour, reads like a yawning void and seems like it was only published to give plenty of interpretive fodder to fans who might’ve forgotten Morant would be out 25 games to start the season.
The point is, the prevailing logic in basketball is that nothing is so venerated as to not be constantly up for discussion. It’s also the reason for 80% of basketball media’s content (and at least 50% of this newsletter’s). It doesn’t matter the level of understanding, an untrained eye vs. a perception more honed. I’ve sat in many media rows and watched something incredible, or incredibly disappointing happen on the court, just to turn a half-second after it has and see expressions ranging from incredulous to dismayed, going down the row like dominoes. That exercise is also one of my favourite things to do. Whether communicated through words or the body, reading between the lines of what gets said — especially what gets said in excess — will always tell you more.
Interpretation has its limits. In basketball, conversation, life. Our interpretations sustain us but at some point there’s no stand-in for the quieting clarity of face value. To quite literally look into the face of a friend in the moment, not as the composite you carry around in your head when you’re apart but really them, there and then. To take a person at their word. To take action as it happens, on its impulse. To step forward, not into a day as you’ve imagined it, but as it’s happening.
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