Where real life stops and the NBA starts
“It's a business, it's a big TV thing. You know, it's a big thing for the TV networks. It is what it is. And this situation, you kind of got to ask the guys that will be for sure All-Stars. I'm sure everyone wants a break. Personally, I don't have a real life answer for you. I understand the business of the All-Star game. I understand that part of it.”
I didn’t expect Kyle Lowry to lay bare the paradox the NBA has put itself in this season, but there it was on the heels of one of the most confused, exhilarating, strangely bloody and reckless games of the season.
Asked where he stood on All-Star and he offered instead the summarization of why it’s rolling steadily, somewhat menacingly ahead. The outside interests and influence driving it, the trappings and mechanism around the engine of basketball but nothing to do with the game or its players. He didn’t even mention himself until a third of the way through his answer and when he did, it was in abstraction. Personally, I don’t have a real life answer for you.
Part of what sets basketball and its fandom apart from the rest is its approximation to real life, personal life. Players are visible, singular, follow any face on court and you’re likely to get an operatic range of emotion to read over 2 1/2 hours, multiply that by two rosters and you’re bound to grow more empathetic by osmosis alone. We know we don’t know them, but we do, at least more than we would’ve in game eras past. We follow their accounts, see their families, know their preferences, endorsements, singing voices, relationships, vacations, have as many glimpsing windows into the idle time they spend at home as we do to their brains. And for the league this kind of blurred, symbiotic relationship between players and fans has paid in dividends. In profit, certainly, but in a shorthand familiarity other pro sports leagues couldn’t hope to buy their way into. Our familiarity with the NBA is what’s made it such an intrinsic product, it takes a bare effort to engage with it in some of the most deeply personal moments of our lives because it lives in our heads pretty much all the time. We know it’s not real life, not ours, not really, but we can recall with instant clarity so many of the NBA’s big moments based on where we were and what we were doing when they happened, so the whole of it is shot through our lives like the refraction of light.
But for the NBA to maintain its incessant proximity to us it needs to stay comfortable, imperceptible. If it starts to chafe, to grasp, to break the veneer of convenience or pleasure, we’re gonna notice it.
This season has, one stumbling misstep after another, turned what might have been an anomaly of a gap into a widening rift. It was always going to be tricky, and a shorter runway for players to construct that loose, middle reality we happily exist in alongside for a season at a time, but the urgency in which the NBA insisted on starting early at the very least suggested they were ready. Now it seems like it was an exercise in buying time. Padding out the inevitable. Getting as many games in as possible before they came up against the threat they were working so hard to falsify or cast as far-flung when, since December, since summer 2020, since the spring when the NBA first called it all off, was a threat so pervasive it was atmospheric.
The NBA understands now what it cobbled together from the science that sounded best and refused to learn from other leagues: that any perceived head start against the pandemic is just that, plus a smirking predatory certitude. A virus spitting in its hands as it ambles to the starting line and proceeds to gain like something gone rabid.
When Lowry said he didn’t have a real life answer I felt the incessant cycle I’d jammed myself into this last month stop so short my breath caught. Going from feeling like I was losing my mind, a slow simmering anger, to powerless, to frustrated, to wondering when the inevitable — a player getting sick, games getting postponed — would happen and then not feeling anything when it did. Even as Kevin Durant was given the green light to play, then yanked “out of an abundance of caution” instead of what literally is the process of contact tracing, as the game continued and no one, neither coach, thought to disrupt what? The need for the game to go on? It may not have been on Nick Nurse or Steve Nash to make sense of the muddle the league has made in real time, but the thing about no one making decisions is that any time presents as a good time for somebody, anybody, to start.
There was, there has been, no end. Only the facade being plugged and plastered over where reality has punched steady holes because the crucial thing this season has always been continuity.
I don’t have a real life answer for you.
They’ve come apart. Real life and this, whatever you’d call it; basketball, the NBA, the thing you let take up space in your head. Lowry couldn’t give what didn’t exist. In real life there is no reason for there to be an All-Star Game the same way there’s no reason to have an NBA season. In real life there’s no reason for us to direct our undivided attention anywhere other than bringing Covid to heel, to why pharmaceutical companies are slowing down the process of vaccination they already stand to profit from by insisting on patents versus a global approach of sharing formulas. In real life there is an exhausting need to leave and circle back to all this because how can you handle the bigger picture when you are trying to manage the small, anxious and strange one you relive every day, and that’s where the NBA wedges itself in, not even particularly covertly. We’re all just too tired to call it out for what it is — a rude and dumb performance set against the backdrop of a world that doesn’t even exist anymore. How long are we going to watch with the lights off?