It has become increasingly evident that a depressed athlete is about as productive as a physically injured athlete. Psychic scarring in an ever changing world with high stakes demands and a bottomless pit of choice after a lifetime of discipline must feel like waking up a house of mirrors every morning. To enter into a fraternity as rare as the National Basketball Association, with only five starters per team is in itself, an isolating feat. Basketball is the most personally creative of the major american sports, the only sport American citizens cherish that riffs like soccer. In kind, NBA fans are Blur fans the way all American Football fans are Oasis fans, just like all Celtics fans are Notre Dame fans, all Lakers fans are Duke apologists, and all Marquette alumni are horny for Heat Culture.
Since they are exactly one Kyrie Irving short of title contention, the Boston Celtics should replace Shipping out to Boston with Righteous Jams The Fight/Your Game, if for no other reason than shouting out DFJ before a mosh part is more important to the city of Boston than any note from any bagpipe.
We got a preseason to sports viewing this year in the form of a ten episode infomercial for Michael Jordan. As a 33 year old who looks less haunted than other whites, I took my boomer hall pass for a ride and boofed this documentary like hotel bidet water, it grayed my hair in kind. The audacity of the idea that someone could want it more, that bullying the shit out of your teammates over a decade was good and not bad. Put to the side that in the ten episodes you see Michael Jordan in various stages of dress and understand on a deep level you aren’t built like that and you couldn’t work into that form. He wasn’t “built different” he was built different. And then he worked harder than everyone else in a league that still did cocaine and other cool stuff. One man’s quest to fill an unfillable void with full stadiums of adoration. He could be your hopes and dreams because you couldn’t be, but he was Michael Jordan. A person who will take things to a place that you will not, punk so you don’t have to be. If you are lucky or maybe just look close enough, characters like this appear in life, and make it better. I think of Timmy No Justice sometimes.
So what happens to the psyche of the superstar athlete in an empty arena? What happens when you exit the empty arena into a more empty hotel resort, where you’ve been living in isolation for months? What about the outside world screaming through the phone in your locker?
I like to think MJ would have enjoyed the bubble, especially at the height of his fame, when it could be argued he was functionally in a buble boy reality, but I’m also losing my fucking mind in my childhood home. I’m projecting onto people I know about achieving heights I can’t, in a situation I am not in. But what if you need the performance more than the competition? They say all athletes wanna be musicians and vice versa, but I don’t think that’s true.
There are folks that prefer the studio to touring. The careful work, the layers in the tracks, the sequencing, the mastering, the car test, the process. Some people say fuck all that, and vastly prefer to be in front of as many people as humanly possible performing after two practices they didn’t make it to. There are ballers that love the game and there are ballers that were born incredible and have built on their talents, adding their intelligence and experience to take them to the highest level, but still, their elation comes from an adoring crowd, not just beating someone else at something they are pre naturally good at.
It does appear there are guys, and moreover there are whole teams that enjoy the bubble. While those teams have put the most entertaining product on the floor (and it is a product) you have to wonder if these are the co-workers who drive you crazy. Lou Williams wanting to hit Magic City after he had to leave an Orlando based quarantine bubble in the middle of race riots and a pandemic for the funeral of a father figure is way more relatable than the insatiable drive of whoever, really. But maybe the Heat are just road dogs, if they were a band they’d wanna tour 100+ days out of the year and make an honest living off decent merch sales, Jimmy Butler telling his family not to come to the bubble was the moment I realized they were my favorites to win it all. Man doesn’t care, and you put your fandom into people like that not because you relate to it but because you wish you did.
Do we selfishly want our athletes to mirror our personal politics? Of course, but how so, do you want them to fit into the construct of the “league” and the “team” as those constructs have been understood or qualified into boomerisms, or like me, are you so broken as to root against specific stadiums? I for one, pity Thunder players who have to perform for a stadium full of people I have made assumptions about in advance. I’ve recently read on twitter that the food in OKC is pretty good. I’m not sure if I made 15 million a year if the 8.5/10 Korean BBQ would make up for regional, Tulsa-adjacent flavored racism. My audacity at imagining this push and pull I’ve never come close to experiencing doesn’t necessarily hold up to the reality of just rooting for a static organization, as players pass through your preferred jersey with increasing frequency. Why would these young men give a fuck what anyone thinks when everyone has a different passionate bottleneck for them to fit through? I’m not sure Jaylen Brown cares about gaining new fans for calling out Lebron James during the wildcat strike any more than Lebron cares about losing fans over his, well, business savvy stance on China, or his phoner with Obama during the strike. The politics worth rallying around in sports are the ones driving us all insane anyhow.
Clayton Ike Bennet is a truly unscrupulous dickhead worthy of individual scrutiny, but he is just one money tree in a forest. He is an owner in a league populated by figures like payday loan predator Dan Gilbert, and Trump leg humper Tilman Ferttita, (who looks like an unfuckable Al Bundy). These men and their compatriots, billionaires all, routinely hold cities hostage for public funds. I picture them in leather -appointed studies (outdated, I know), waxing on about the Roman Coliseum, and accompanying arenas across the empire, which were built with public funds (by slaves). I’d imagine there was pushback then too, but considerably less so since the tickets were free and the games went from morning to nightfall. It is unclear what the broadcast rights would have looked like. I’d imagine the naval battles would be Pay Per View exclusives. You wonder if the gladiators would have done big numbers on TV. Given the option, would Romans would opt to schlep to the coliseum if there was, say, a red zone for kills? You’d have to imagine the kills were consistent enough since they’d just dump more sand when the floor of the arena was thick with blood, not unlike the turf at MetLife. The foreign seeds inside the slain beasts at the Coliseum took root, and until 1871 there were over 400 species of plants growing on the premises, while Metlife has a feral cat infestation.
And then what do we say about our wants as fans, what we want from the product, what we want from the ethics of the ethical sport, that is still, like every other professional sports league, owned by a conglomerate of business criminals who all deserve their day at the hague, if not a fateful night at the hands of a torch wielding mob. Do you still root for laundry instead of human personalities even though you’re well past childhood? Maybe your father “prefers college sports” because there’s “less ego.” Maybe the $20 cup of coffee was funny, but $60 a cup is a bridge too far in your mind. Everyone is experiencing their own reality.
And so we’re talking about sanity. If sports are to mirror our reality than maybe the mirror is something closer to what we’re understanding our universe to be currently: an ever expanding and contracting endless coil we cannot begin to fathom.