I’m not sure if any of you have been in the kind of situation the Wolves found themselves in last night, but I feel like I definitely have.
In the fall of 2003, things were not going so well for my band. A little less than a year after we changed the band’s name—a name we’d had for almost a decade—because we felt it no longer fit what we were trying to do, a little more than six months since we’d fired our bassist and not been able to find a consistent replacement, a few weeks after our drummer had to cancel several dates because of conflicts with another band he was in that paid him better, we played our last gig.
It was at a pretty new spot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, not more than half an hour from Pittsfield, where we regularly packed them in whenever we played. Or rather, we used to, before the name change. The other guitarist—who was also the singer—and I were living in southern Connecticut at the time and trying to make inroads into New York City, where we’d played a good number of gigs, but hadn’t really found our niche. Massachusetts was supposed to be our safe space, our home turf, where we could be comfortable.
But nobody showed up on that October night. And I mean just about literally NOBODY. We had ringers on bass and drums, had maybe chucked whatever name recognition we had, and had barely rehearsed the drummer enough to get him through both our sets. I don’t think we knew for sure it was our last show, or at least we hadn’t said so out loud, but I think we had a sense that things were going off the rails, that any gig might be our last.
And we couldn’t rise to the occasion. It would be great to be able to tell you that we played our asses off that night, that our play rose to the level of the moment and that we really brought it. But we didn’t. And neither did the Timberwolves last night.
As the season winds down, there’s plenty of talk about “having something to play for,” and before the game, there was a lot of focus on the idea of the Wolves finishing the season with a home winning record for the first time since 2005-2006. Beyond that very specific goal, there was also the more penumbral goal of finishing the season strong at home on Fan Appreciation Night.
When the ball tipped, though, it was clear the Wolves’ hearts just weren’t in it. Shots were shot, rebounds were grabbed, runs were made, and in the third quarter, Minnesota even tightened it up on the back of a 9-0 run that included this pretty Derrick Williams tomahawk alley-oop:
But after cutting Utah’s lead to 4, Minnesota wilted again and basically packed it in by the time Randy Foye hit a 3-pointer with 6 minutes remaining in the fourth to push the lead to 18.
I do not, however, come to bury the Timberwolves, nor to praise them, but to use this game as an illustration of the disconnect between effort and result that makes basketball a lot more like a creative endeavor than a job.
There are many areas of life where there’s a more or less direct connection between effort and result. If I don’t get out there and shovel the driveway or mow the lawn, it’s not getting done. And if I do put in the work, it’s going to happen. If I put in good work, it’s going to be done well, but even if I half-ass the job, I’m going to end up with a clear driveway or a lawn that won’t scare away young children. Effort in, result out.
But that’s not the way it works for bands. Or writing or painting. Or basketball, apparently. This is because these things rely disproportionately on things you cannot control and things you cannot understand, at least not in the moment.
The things you cannot control have a much bigger role in bands and basketball because they are collective endeavors. They rely on the cumulative effect of everyone’s effort, and that’s beyond the control of any one person in the group. If you have a Ricky Rubio, you have someone who’s always going to give maximum effort, but there are limits to what that can do for the group as a whole. If the group isn’t responding, that effort can spill over into forcing things, into frustration and desperation.
And then on the individual level, there are so many factors whirling around a show or a game that it’s impossible to understand how they are all affecting you. This weighs more heavily on writers or other people whose creative pursuit is a more individual one. You can do everything according to patterns you’ve established to produce good work and then discover you just don’t have it. Rubio alluded to this earlier in the season when he talked about how you can feel good in practice, feel good in shootaround, and then come out on the floor and just feel flat. You can know in your heart of hearts that this is a big game, that it’s your last homestand, that the season is almost over, and it can make no difference at all.
The creative process is a fickle one, and seeing what happens on the court—both when teams are playing inspired basketball and when they’re playing horridly—makes it seem like this is whole lot more like being creative than mowing the lawn.
Now, a lot of people might read that and think I mean that musicians or writers are at the mercy of inspiration, that there’s nothing to do but wait for inspiration to strike. That’s not at all true. If you wait for inspiration, you’re likely not to ever get anywhere. There is always the work, if not always the success. The work is what you do to be ready for the success.
When it comes to areas like basketball or music that rely so heavily on things beyond your control or your understanding, success often has a mystical tinge to it. You can see it when players talk about being “in the zone,” about being “unconscious” in their shooting, about playing like they’re “possessed.”
In work where true success can be so fleeting, you lay the groundwork, build the foundation, put in the preparation because that’s all you can do—you cannot build success directly. When it doesn’t come, you go back and do more work, not because more work means greater success, but because the work is all there is. This was a lost Wolves season, and it ended at home with a whimper, not a bang. The good news is: There is always the work.