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Exits: They were clean
Giannis Antetokounmpo asked us to understand continuity, now the Bucks get to determine what that means.
Mornings with jet lag have been so quiet. Up at 5 or 6am, reading on the couch with the lamp on before the sky lightens. Getting through five or six of Joy Williams’ short stories before it’s even 8am. Out with the dogs on the city’s park trails before there are too many cyclists or clumps of runners that George can amble off leash and Captain, more sensitive to being startled in his older age, won’t bark at when they come up on us racing. The air cool and the light climbing.
All this day before the day’s even started. A feeling like fullness. Like palming over the perfect piece of fruit before biting into it.
Maybe because these mornings are the result of my internal clock shorting out I’m more relaxed in them, don’t feel the same kind of pressure I usually do when I get up early to work. They are accidental and I succumb to them, their cleanness not marred with my wasting them by fucking around on the internet or looking at my phone. The rest of the day coming on like a marvel. Like, look at all this time left instead of, look at all this time I’ve lost.
The appeal of each NBA season, season to season, is they can be clean. A new one starts every October, and will start every October (barring, now we know, pandemics, but even that felt like catastrophe the league strained to turn into mere anomaly and move on from expeditiously as it could), neat and tidy, only to unravel and grow more unwieldy as it goes on until, come May, it’s a mess. The appeal in these tight parameters is that they do not, at all, match our outside day-to-day lives. Lives that slip and snap and explode in all directions, sometimes within the same hour.
What Giannis Antetokounmpo did, in his last postgame availability of the season, was inject continuity into that cleanliness. Said okay, for you, I get that it looks like a failure, us falling out like this, because measured against one singular season, how we played and where expectation placed us, yes, we have failed. If everything ended today, his career, the Milwaukee Bucks as a team, a franchise in a vacuum, it was a failure. One and done. But for me, Antetokounmpo said, it isn’t like that. Because for me, now, after a couple months off, I won’t start from scratch. I’ll work on what’s already here, and what’s already here is in fact, quite a lot.
Continuity as concept slips in and out of sports, and in basketball tends to taper off the longer a season goes on. By the playoffs, each series as its own small universe, it hardly exists.
We know there’s continuity because we allow ourselves to take it freely with fandom. Especially for our special little grudges. Can you imagine rooting interests in a vacuum? Impossible. Grudges are held by whole families for franchises and athletes over multiple lifetimes as generational mania. But we like to stop continuity there, not giving it any wiggle room season to season for the tougher stuff — like losses, upsets, the incremental tolls of falling short.
Antetokounmpo broke the fourth wall of media, and the illusion that basketball is a game best played in the parameters of a static season, and he did it so kindly.
(Sometimes I wonder if he has any choice than to appear in the collective consciousness as generous, forgiving, gracious. The immigrant expectation of excellence. Of course he has a choice, but he’s been paired with an ideal, a case study of a specialized American success granted to the very few and in his case, reinforced by his identity as superstar.)
First, with the most directness we’ve seen from him in a public forum, to be so explicit in getting his point across, and then with a catching grace. He could’ve left it with his original answer — it really wasn’t cutting — but chose to reverse, apologizing for turning it personal because he used examples specific to the reporter. In the same breath he pulls back, says there are steps to this. He apologizes again and recalls getting the same question, from the same person, the season before, explains that he wasn’t ready for it then. Both points reinforced the continuity he’s trying to get across, the latter in a lighter, inclusive way that’s kind of genius for how it will, in that moment, make the person asking the question travel back to the year before in their mind. Antetokounmpo places this person, very gently, in the wider world outside that conference room and the court beyond it. However their brain will reconcile all the days they’ve had between that first iteration of the question and this repetition of it, whatever flashes of memory whip across their mind’s eye, they have been made to clock time. To note its relentless continuity.
Antetokounmpo isn’t wrong. We should colour our interpretations of the game, not just its storylines but its technical functions, with more continuity. Continuity as concept is difficult for the Bucks as a whole, though, because this team wants to be the mountain.
Last year’s ‘Exits’ for the Bucks I called Form and function, a title that was an architectural echo (“form follows function”) as much as Milwaukee’s reason for being. Cleanness, too, has an architectural use.
Hang around architects long enough (or probably not very long for how colloquial) and the phrase clean will come up. A building, an interior, plans for either, will be labelled as such. It’s very clean/It looks clean/It’s clean. The meaning being that the subject of the label is minimal, subdued. Free of ostentation, or unnecessary ornament, but still appears effortless. Underlying that effortlessness is an incredible amount of attention to detail, to aligning elements of design and the functional things like structural, drainage, mechanical and electrical necessities. For a building to be clean is really a testament to the kind of skill that comes over time, of all the practice and work and botched designs before the end result.
You can apply it to buildings or basketball (clean block, clean foul, clean shot) and the conditions will be the same — continuity.
“It’s the wrong question,” Antetokounmpo says with a light, conclusive shrug, “there’s no failure in sports.”
The question, too, was clean. An attempt to wrangle Milwaukee’s season back into its earlier linearity, back to the point where the Bucks were a head down force unbeholden to the jockeying chaos of their conference. The Bucks finished first in the East with a record better than the previous two seasons. They also fell out in the first round, something Milwaukee had not done since they did it three out of four times under Jason Kidd (the fourth, they didn’t see the postseason at all).
The Bucks were bested by a team in thrall to, not messiness, but a certain headiness. Throughout the five game series, many where it was the Bucks technical skill that stood out, Miami pushed. In swamping pockets of defence, where the Heat tripled up on Antetokounmpo to make him as uncomfortable as they could, Miami forced rushed passes and got turnovers they’d fling down the floor to Jimmy Butler, who’d just run full court from the defensive press the sequence started in. The Heat smothered, ran ragged, took dare-me shots, forced contact, wouldn’t go away. The Bucks were clean. How arduous Miami was compared to Milwaukee’s quiet sense of their own assured deliverance exemplified by Butler’s made basket to force overtime in Game 5, a volleyball dive to swat the ball up as he fell away. Not clean, all effort. The Bucks looked incredulous all through the next five minutes, right up until they lost the series.
Miami scrambled and Milwaukee hesitated, looked out at the jarring way the Heat play basketball and couldn’t find any solid footing in it. No clarity. The Heat were not clean but they were absolutely continual — that is, relentless.
Do the Bucks need to become a mess? No, this team won the title two seasons ago. But with Mike Budenholzer out as head coach there’s going to be some jumbling to the continuity Antetokounmpo was imploring the fanbase, critics, broader media, and whoever else watched that presser to understand. Whether or not the collective we of that group choose to give him the same grace he’s shown, a disruption to Milwaukee’s workaday patterns won’t be the worst thing for the team. The Bucks, as they are currently constructed, don’t have it in them to be sloppy, to scramble too hard, to chase. This is still a stoic group. But they could stand to shed some of that indomitability in order to bend, veer and bolt; to fuck around a little and find themselves all of a sudden not as the mountain but in its shadow, whiling away the hours in ways that aren’t always purposeful and breathing a little easier as they move on, in whichever direction comes next.
At its most basic, continuity is just moving forwards.
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