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Fandom (and covering the NBA) as a car with accumulating dents, and small flashes of what smoothed the dents this last week.
In the dark, with the blackout shades still down, I open the map to find Dylan’s location. As the patently creepy tracking function finds its bearings and my eyes adjust to the bright greens and pale greys in chunks on my phone’s screen, Jeans stretches her furry body against my side, making a sound between purr and sleepy trill. George lifts his head from against my leg to clock how much more movement I’m going to do. I can hear Captain snoring from his orthopaedic bed on the floor.
He’s already running up the Schuylkill River, has been running for an hour and a half. After I feed the dogs, get dressed, take them over to the empty field where I hear a hawk screech in the distance and scan around for it, I see Dylan as pulsing blue dot, still running along the river. The marathon course loops the runners way up to Wissahickon and then back down, I wonder if by then any of them can shift their focus from their bodies long enough to look at the water and the fall sun flaring off of it. Probably not.
I’m home and working at my desk when he FaceTimes me, just finished and collapsed on the grass wrapped in his foil space blanket. He holds his medal up to the camera, a giant thing with a built in miniature Liberty Bell, tinkling as it moves. He knocked seven minutes off his last time, a personal best. George hears his voice and whines softly. My face is so still compared to the emotion shifting and flickering across Dylan’s. Now joy, now pain, now relief, now a twining pride and sadness.
The night before he left we were in the car coming back from a shoot I was working on, way out in an industrial park in the west end of the city, and he said it had hit him out of nowhere that the day of the marathon would mark 15 years since his friend Nick died. A runner, then, before Dylan had started.
It means time, passing as fast as it will circuitous. It means an already emotional day will be made that much more. It means thinking of your life, lined up beside someone else’s, where one dropped off and how you go on, filling it in for them. I know what he means.
I have no idea how I’m going to stand up, he says from the grass. A grin and a grimace. I’m going to try, he tells me.
Henry and I are talking about the sensation of fandom being like driving a car that gradually accumulates dents. It starts out very shiny and sleek, a vehicle you’re happy and proud to cruise around in, but soon enough you get sideswiped, backed into, rear-ended. Maybe your team trades your favourite person away, maybe there’s an injury. If the damage isn’t too bad, just a ding, you can use the next big win or exhilarating play to punch out the dent from the inside.
Henry and I are talking about it from the perspective of covering the NBA, getting closer than the average fan, and having the dents pile up a little faster. You see or hear something in the locker room or arena tunnel, you get told something by former team staff about a franchise, a GM, an owner, you begin to see the dents not as anomaly, or bad luck, but as choreographed pattern. In this way, it gets harder to punch them out. Structural components begin to go. The bumper falls off and drags, windows shatter, the hood crumples, smoke is sputtering out of the whole thing.
Occasionally, in regular fandom, it’s possible to trade the old car in for a new one. A different team altogether or deciding to go the route of rooting for the individual, for specific athletes, instead. Reporting on the league is being stuck with the clunker. Of course there are bright spots — new coats of paint over a vehicle that was just on fire, compelling and beautiful encounters that redirect your focus from where the floor panel on the passenger side has just dropped out to the promise of the road ahead — but you begin to realize, especially if you mean to give consideration to encountering racism, misogyny, scarcity, deceit, and the occasional asshole that this is less leisurely cruise than demolition derby. Some days, you just sort of strap in.
Standing in the dark of a film set with sound rolling, listening to a director read out questions I’ve written to a Raptors trainer who answers back from a set built and styled to look like the most austere kitchen. I smile as I scarf, quietly as possible, unripe chunks of cantaloupe and honeydew from a catered plastic clamshell, feeling like a pleased little rat.
Sitting in Darko Rajaković’s pregame presser before the Bucks match midweek and noticing how deep the laugh lines around his eyes are, how unbidden. How between questions they’ll crinkle and soften, even when he’s not talking. His introductory press conference, back in June, was outside the arena. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses like everyone else but he was up on a stage, a bit too far for me to notice. I didn’t notice at opening night either, maybe ruffled still from nearly wiping out over a row of seats 20 seconds before he walked in the room. Now, though, I catch myself smiling at the furrows made by repetition (also think how much more likely we are to call to them laugh lines on men, crow’s feet for women), as evident when he answers a question about defensive schemes as when he thanks us for being there.
At the Apple Store, the woman assigned to my ticket to help me figure out why my headphone case is dead, keeps saying she Loves that for me. About my plans for the rest of the day, my work, what I’m reading. She is excelling at customer service, I know, but when I leave, after having had to buy a new case, I Love it all for me, too.
The next day, maybe tuned to the area or in the same state of low-level tired I’ve been since the clocks went back, settling into a half dazed, half soft overfamiliarity, I watch the same lines crinkle and smooth around Paul’s eyes like exhausted little fireworks. We hadn’t seen each other in person since roughly this time a year ago, on a studio set roughly five minutes east from the one we’re in now, but fall into the same easy habit of finishing jokes and flashing smiles between takes in the half-dark. Unspooled by cajoling lines from coaches and low blood sugar, waiting for the last of the takes to be shot and nursing a 8pm iced coffee, I admit to him how I wish I’d known to be more cutthroat, more self-serving, in my professional past. Both of us are sunk down into a couch, his long legs kicked out past the coffee table and mine folded under me, and I have the out-of-body sensation of asking myself, What are you saying but note, like I have more in recent years, that often saying the thing, even if you haven’t figured out quite how, is better than not. That of course there are people who you’ll feel closer to immediately for reasons you can’t pin, maybe a question of chemistry, maybe something about less social weight in new acquaintances, but honesty is always going to expedite.
During a particularly bad stretch of the Bucks-Raptors game, when AJ Green is subbed in, Oren, sitting beside me and feigning shock, exclaims, Who the fuck is that! He looks like me!
Harrison telling me the Jimmy Butler story I wrote they’d been sitting on, placeholder title I’d given the draft I filed ‘Butler exploding’, was getting published — Butler’d exploded. Seeing more confusion and disappointment than I anticipated in the clip of Miles Bridges checking into a game for the first time since he was charged with felony assault and a scattering of people in the Charlotte arena crowd giving him a standing ovation. Blake asking me how to frame a question to Adam Silver about intimate partner violence, hearing him ask it.
There are some weeks when the chips and gouges of the game overlap with real life, but it doesn’t take your own full force to undo the dents. It’s the soft touches from other people that end up buffing the surface back.
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