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Speaking Hoops

Benjamin Polk —  April 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

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Yes, yes y’all. You can catch me today over at the great (I’m not just saying that because they’re nice to me) Hoopspeak, waxing and waning for roughly 2,000 words about the Malice at the Palace, the much-rumored decline of the league, Harvey Araton’s “Crashing the Borders,” and the nostalgic curmudgeonliness therein. It starts something like this:

Has anybody else noticed how awesome the NBA playoffs are? [...] watching these games, it’s a little funny to consider the fact that just six years ago many observers of the NBA were talking doom. Remember this apocalyptic scene? Remember the young, desperately unstable Ron Artest of 2004? This is not the smiley guy with the champagne who thanked his therapist on TV. I’m talking about the Ron Artest who, for a long moment, embodied one of the deepest, darkest terrors of the white, comfortably seated American sports spectator: the fear that angry, hypertrophicallly muscled young black manhood could burst through the fourth wall and have its vengeance.

…and pretty much goes from there.  Check it out if you’ve got the notion and a touch of patience.

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I’ve written before about my distaste for the idea of winning as the only and essential arbiter of NBA success. To me, the game is a far richer, more complex phenomenon if we explore the full spectrum of basketball experience, if we look deeper than simple wins and losses. There’s compelling, powerful stuff produced all the time in the service of losses; every year myriad fascinating players and teams end the season without a ring.

I still believe all of this. But a season spent with the Wolves, observing the effects (on myself, the fans, the team) of constant, terminal losing can really make a guy rethink some things. Even though we may (although I’m fairly sure I don’t speak for Myles on this one) view winning, in and of itself, as less of an ultimate prize than does the culture at large, we still hold a deep desire for good basketball. We want very much to see the game played well; we want to watch players and teams perform the game with style and skill and grace–and we definitely wouldn’t mind having a team to cheer for in the playoffs either. And by any of these standards, the 2010/2011 Minnesota Timberwolves were an abject failure.

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All things end. Suffering is impermanent. Pain passes away. And so game 82 of the Wolves 2010/2011 season floats on into the ether. We’re getting older and time moves pretty quickly, but I must confess that this season felt awfully long to me. Its literally been months since I felt real optimism, since watching the games brought anything more than very brief flashes of hope amid the drudgery. The season is finally over. This is a good thing.

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Kurt Rambis takes a seat

Myles Brown —  April 14, 2011 — 1 Comment

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First they came for the coaches. Kurt Rambis’ team finished this season on a 15 game losing streak, which save for a season opening win against the Nets, was exactly how they began the last. Everything in between merely consisted of smaller bouts with uncertainty and lethargy. He’s clashed with his star player and presides over the league’s worst defense. Two years, 32 wins. It’s enough to get anyone fired.

According to the tea leaves, David Kahn has all but done so. Here, take a look.

Then we need to have a talk about whether it’s deserved.

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I honestly don’t know what to say anymore. Our pups are obviously frustrated with such a prolonged losing streak. It shows in their morose huddles, pained expressions and increasingly frequent outbursts towards each other. But they don’t make any of the necessary adjustments to rid themselves of this dark cloud. They aren’t rebuilding, they’re resigned; entirely too accepting of their fate.

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As you probably know, Tuesday’s summit meeting in New Jersey was not shown on television anywhere. That is amazing. So we happily relied on our old friend David Roth to get out to Newark and do some good old fashioned reporting. Journalism is not always easy. It’s not always fun. Sometimes you have to be one of the only people in the world to watch the New Jersey Nets play the Minnesota Timberwolves. David?

We take bad basketball teams into our hearts when we’re young. Or we take good ones, depending on how much of a tragic sense of life or stubbornness or whatever you’ve got working for/against you at the age of 11, which is when — at least from my experience — the NBA really becomes very important. Growing up where I grew up and how I grew up — in the streets and hard as hell, respectively — I did not have to become a New Jersey Nets fan. Just across the river, in Manhattan, was a good if not terribly lovable Knicks team, which you may remember: Patrick Ewing all drippy and virtuosic, Mark Jackson’s understated pudgy-playground-guy excellence and later Derek Harper’s Humpty Hump facial features. Looking back, the Knicks have some tragic-sense-of-life cred in their own right — the franchise has run up a 2522-2554 over its 65 seasons and won all of two titles, and things like Charles Smith’s epic one-man anti-layup drill in the 1993 playoffs and the ongoing retardo-plutocratic nightmare of the James Dolan Years are plenty bleak.

The most tragic thing of all about the Knicks, though, is also the funniest: the people covering and cheering for the Knicks think of them as mega-champs going through a generations-long dry spell. Which is New York, I guess. But I grew up in New Jersey, where we build towering and ornate ziggurat-y monuments to our failures — mansions of glory, suicide machines, you know — and make pilgrimages to revisit it and generally glory in overstated struggle the way New York glories in success. Also I’m kind of a masochist. So I chose the Nets.

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Derrick Rose is a special player. How special is obviously dependent on who you ask and more importantly, what they value. Now there’s certainly no shortage of metric centric posts available to espouse or denounce his worth, so let’s just take a moment to appreciate the obvious.

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Underneath the rubble

Myles Brown —  March 28, 2011 — 3 Comments

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So where does this leave us? When Rajon Rondo’s name was wiped off the locker room whiteboard, there was a sigh of relief, as the struggling Celitcs of late became slightly more beatable. But after the first quarter ended, so had any thoughts of morale lifting victories. Boston was in the midst of a 32-13 drubbing, to the delight of several new found fans. Ray Allen ran Wes Johnson ragged, Delonte West met no resistance in serving his role as starting point and Michael Beasley seemed intent on breaking a shooting record, if not a scoring one. Woe were the three hundred Wolves fans in attendance.

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Photo by Wright Reading

On Thursday, we discussed the coach’s role in ensuring that his players execute his game plan, and in creating a team culture of effort and accountability. I spend a lot of time around these Wolves but it remains unclear to me how well Kurt Rambis does this extraordinarily important part of his job. My guess is that, for the Wolves, the erratic ebb and flow of inspiration, focus and confidence remains as much a mystery to them, players and coaches alike, as it us to us. These Timberwolves are a strange beast; I’m not sure we’ll ever figure them out.

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It has been nearly two weeks since Japan weathered the largest earthquake in its recorded history, been deluged by a tsunami and terrified by the specter of nuclear disaster. Whole towns have been destroyed. People have been buried in rubble, swept away to sea, poisoned with radiation. In addition to that tremendously awful situation, Muammar Qaddafi has been murdering his own people with abandon and the U.S. and its allies have found themselves embroiled in another military conflict. I think you probably already know this.

In that time we at A Wolf Among Wolves have published five posts. One of them is a funny photoshopped picture. Another is a strident critique of the Timberwolves’ defense. A third examines Nikola Pekovic’s recently improved play and his struggle to avoid foul trouble. Not exactly seething with geopolitical relevance, right?

Now, this is a blog about basketball and as such it’s not our job to report the news. As a matter of fact, I know for certain that many people visit sites like ours as away of escaping the awful things that happen every day–and the rotten, degraded discourse that inevitably grows around them. But still, I can’t escape the feeling that a detailed description of the Wolves’ indecisive weakside rotations against Utah’s flex offense somehow misses the point, that our typically American mode of blithe myopia is a pretty bad look at moments like this.

One wonders: how should we, as people who care about sports and who devote no small amount of our energies and intellects to thinking about and discussing sports, deal with things like this? How do we reconcile the feeling within us that basketball is somehow really important with the awareness that it seems to have very little to say about the tremendously awful things that happen in the world?

The typical answer to this question is some version of the statement above: sports are escapism. They have value because they give people a break from their worries and fears. They provide a place for people to relax, to be thrilled, entertained, moved, even enraged without the pressure of real-world consequences. This idea of entertainment–a dreamworld in which the viewer passively receives information and emotion with no strings attached–is the way we conceive of all of our pop culture.

I would not presume to deny the power and value of escapism. Everybody has the right to lay their burdens down, to forget the world and become absorbed in a realm of harmless amusement. But ultimately, I find this account pretty unsatisfying. Because escapism depends on turning away from the world, on ignorance and forgetting. And this condemns sports to an irrelevance that is not only makes seriously pursuing them irresponsible but also fails to do justice to the passion and care that we invest in them.

Recent events do remind us that its patently obscene to treat professional sports as if they had world historical importance commensurate with a catastrophic natural disaster or massive, violent political upheaval. We’re all guilty of this–of grave, self-serious assessments of a team’s playoff chances, of scolding descriptions of this player’s effort or that player’s ability to shoot in the clutch, as if these were serious moral failings or serious news. I hope you’ll agree that this is a little off-key, a strange mislaying of our attentions.

But so what should we do? How do we honor the depth of our care for the sports we love while still recognizing the ultimate triviality of their outcomes, especially at a time like this, when the world’s sufferings and tragedies are staring us so directly in the face?

Let me suggest that sports, properly experienced, are a celebration. They are a celebration of our bodies’ beauty and possibility, of the breadth of our physical creativity, of the depth of our capabilities for passion and commitment. To me, real celebrations–those performed  in full recognition of the world’s sad facts and with a deep gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given–are an entirely appropriate response to tragedy. This is true even now, as so many people are denied the full use of their bodies by the caprices of nature or by the malice and vanity of violent, powerful people. When we celebrate properly, we don’t forget the world, we remember it.

To this way of thinking, the results of the games are far less significant than the effort, skill, imagination and joy that go into the playing. Of course, we care very much about the outcomes. Winning and losing are, after all, the engines that drive the competition, the structure that makes the celebration possible. As fans, we are deeply invested in the success and failure of our favorite teams and players. And this is perfectly fine–as long as we remember that the outcomes themselves are not what gives the game its deepest meaning, its real value to us and to the world.

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This is a tough balance to strike: to take the game seriously as a form of celebration and expression, but not with such gravity and self-importance that we forget about the rest of the world. It can be particularly difficult when following a team like the Timberwolves, who evince a level of frustration and despair in their supporters that is hard to come by in any venue outside of politics.

In another way, though, this can be a good reminder to us to examine the process, not the result. To search for moments of grace and beauty amid even the most discouraging Wolves loss. To remember how lucky we are to be able to live through these magnificent athletes (even if they are slightly less magnificent than everybody else’s). There are 11 games left in this long NBA regular season. Sounds like a party.