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Stars sitting out, teams missing the playoffs, does the NBA have a "product" problem?
At first I thought I’d gone too hard at community centre pilates class. Wednesday morning is usually when the worst of it sets in and our instructor had taken no prisoners for crunches night. I mentally scanned my body — muscle sore, a bit achey, a lingering and residual flush, a healthy glow? No.
By Wednesday around noon the aches had migrated into my joints and the flush was full body, by 6 PM my skin was burning to the touch. Dylan brought me bags of frozen edamame to hold against my face and neck, the relief replaced by sudden shivering so I’d shuffle the bag to another part burning up and repeat. That night my dreams were of me waking in bed sweating, upset I wasn’t sleeping, the same thing I felt when I’d wake up and realize from a feature of the dream — a slant of light, items on my bedside table, some weird preoccupation dream-me was having with PVC piping (?) when dream-me lay there awake — I had slept, briefly.
My first thought, obviously, Covid. But I’ve tested every day and every day only the one stoic line has shown up. The fever and body pain have diminished, my throat is so sore I can’t swallow or talk, I have these new small little red dots under the skin at the tips of my fingers that, when pressed, feel like fresh burns. The doctor at the walk-in clinic I went to Saturday morning because the spots freaked me out and I was worried it was strep throat said, A viral infection, mostly likely. Not unkindly, but with that Hippocratic shrug. Nothing for it. Continue like you have been, pain killers, rest and fluids. Come back or see your regular doctor if it gets worse.
The triage nurse who’d done my pre-exam and encouraged me to flag as many concerns to the doctor as I had — which I was planning on, but appreciated for a person who might not have — asked if I had plans for the rest of the day. I was still sweating from the barely 10 minute walk over. Probably lie down, I said. She laughed. Said she’d been there not that long ago and it took about a week and a half to feel like she was back. Back from what she didn’t need to say, the same way her question was an invitation to pretend for a second I wasn’t currently in the same place — the sidelines.
As someone who suffers from multi-day knockout migraines regularly I’ve made my resigned peace with the feeling of watching the world at arm’s length for a few days. It’s always easier in winter, when the immediate world around me is itself slowed, subdued, when the light doesn’t do what it’s described to do in books and beckon. When the people I’d like to be seeing are themselves subdued.
There’s less guilt but in some ways more, working for myself. No one to apologize or feel the need to explain pain or how it’s laid me out to, but no buffer between how I’m physically feeling and what my brain thinks I should be doing (being busy).
Maybe it’s been in coming off such a busy stretch of travel and work that’s made it easier to feel more placid about being forcibly cut out of the loop this week. About endlessly scrolling Instagram reels and laughing at the dumbest stuff, or starting to scroll Twitter and think, I’ve missed every game this week what does it matter and closing the app. About writing this in bed (I never write in bed). I won’t say this same resignation is exactly reflected in how things stand in the league at the moment, but in a lot of ways, all these teams we thought were going to make some collective, frantic push right until the end and fulfil the form they were meant to take all season are either bowing out or looking in the mirror at the same time. The chance in this postseason that we’ll see the playoff’s perennial stars sitting out, sidelined, is pretty good.
The Mavericks have not secured better — not stable, or progressive, because you need a rhythm to get to those things — offensive footing with Kyrie Irving as quickly as they thought. The Blazers have quietly collapsed. The Lakers are winning, seem happier, but LeBron James is out and this kind of feels like the looseness people tend to operate with at the end of things (jobs, relationships, seasons). Toronto’s season is back to looking the same as it ever was. Miami, bad shooting and misfiring nightly effort occasionally cloaked by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo having career seasons. The Grizzlies and Ja Morant. Phoenix and Kevin Durant.
This isn’t going to be a knock on the “product”, because what seems overly complicated in some of these sidelinings (Portland, Dallas, Los Angeles) isn’t — it’s bad coaching, implemented by bad or impetuous or panicky management — and what seems simple (Miami, Toronto, Memphis) is myriad. The NBA can’t secure its “product” any better because what people who refer to the NBA as a “product” tend to forget is that it requires, is felled by, and relies upon, people.
An event I always feel happily sidelined by is March Madness. The collegiate sports system in the U.S. is at once bizarre as it is captivating as it is galling as it is to me. I wish I understood that kind of loyalty to a place you went to school not as formative to you on any personal level, but in its pure iconography. Being on the outside of it, while still close-up having had to delve into it for so many things I’ve worked on, puts me in the equivalent of watching as if I were in the mouth of an arena tunnel. Close, but nearer to an exit than the action. I like watching from here, seeing friends and industry colleagues in full thrall, all these eyes trained while my own rove around.
More people watch March Madness than the NBA Finals, but then, more people are compelled by their loyalties — tied up in a school are perceptions of place, belonging, time and experience, bucolic flashes in even the most ragged four years — than whether or not they like basketball. The NBA has made itself into basketball’s apex. It isn’t just, there are and always have been plenty of other international basketball leagues, most by default more international than the NBA. The difference is a lot of these leagues are comfortable being sidelined when it comes to attention because they always have been, probably just by soccer. Most North American leagues operate in a vacuum, a privilege given the sheer size of the population. Eyeballs for everybody. The NBA only really gets sidelined if the vacuum gets turned off. It doesn’t mean things are regressing, that fans (but in this argument it’s just “viewers”) are leaving in droves. There’s just a lot of other stuff going on.
The panic comes from the perception that to be sidelined is to be counted out. Relegated. Passed on in favour of. And yeah, sometimes it’s the case. But I don’t think of the franchises that have been sidelined this season, or the star athletes who will miss outright or else won’t make it very far in the playoffs, as being sidelined in that sense, because that would mean each season wasn’t feeding endlessly, luckily, into the next. In a glimpse, in a vacuum, that could be the case, but one thing people who make arguments on how bad things are in basketball tend to forget is the reason they can pretend things are so singularly dire is because none of this ever stops. Even when superstars sit out. The NBA has built its own roaring, machinating machine. They knows how it works.
Thursday, clammy and resting my head in my hands, elbows propped on the kitchen table, waiting for a call. Everything else I have cancelled and apologized for but this, an interview that’s been back and forth scheduled for over a month, this I will manage 20 minutes sitting upright for.
It isn’t difficult, when I hear a familiar voice at the other end warmly ask, How are you? to fake it. When I hear the smirk I know best for its appearances when the clock is ticking down on the floor fade into something softer, turned tender by being asked to probe a person, for once, that isn’t them. To talk about friendship and memory and what it means to feel arms wrap around your body when you need them the most, a voice in your ear saying I’ve got you. By then, I’m not really faking it anymore. I’m sitting up straight, adrenalin briefly dampening the fallout of whatever it is my white blood cells are fighting.
Later, retreated back to bed, I’ll think what a privilege, what a gentle little grift. Using basketball as a conduit for the thing I would always rather talk about — how people know and love other people.
For the both of us, it technically represented a break from the bigger thing we’d normally be talking about: basketball, the regular NBA season rushing to completion, playoff expectations for their team. For both of us it was apparent how nice of a break it was to have.
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