Death and decay are two inexorable facts of life. Everything gets old; everything wilts and fades; everything dies. We’ve been dealing with this for quite a while now. We U.S. Americans, though, are becoming practiced in the art of forgetting these facts. We’re smitten with newness and youth. This is maybe the great appeal of sports. When we watch, we get to forget about dying and our own aging bodies. We get to feast our eyes on the powerful, fluent movements of the young and in so doing, briefly make their bodies our own.
This is both magical and, like most of the best parts of our pop culture, also a huge problem. Because in sports (particularly the NBA and the NFL), even the slightest sign of aging (remember: inexorable fact of life) is viewed as weakness. And weakness is intolerable to us. And so, in a world in which personal worth is assumed to be perfectly quantifiable–in dollars, wins, tails in seats–as a player begins to age, begins to enter into that phase of life known to us non-physical geniuses as adulthood, said aging is accompanied by rapidly diminishing value, until that fella is finally judged to be of no value at all.
This is disconcerting for a guy like me, 33 years old, really just now coming into bloom as a human. I’m not crazy about watching men younger than me casually discarded for their advancing age, for the grave sin of minutely diminishing lateral quickness. Just seems really cruel. (I would imagine, by the way, that this sense of unease at watching our heroes fade, and the way it turns us back toward our own creeping mortality, is fairly common. And I’m convinced that this is a huge part of the NFL’s great success. With players faceless under those masks and that gear, its easy to maintain that sense that they are interchangeable. When a player gets old or damaged, he’s easily replaced by someone younger and fitter who looks essentially the same. We get to remain comfortably enthralled by the dream of perpetual youth.)
Oh, did I not mention that this was a Timberwolves season preview? In the NBA, youth signifies vitality and hope. And right now energetically embodied, hysterically physical youth is what the Timberwolves have to offer us. This youth is presented to us in many forms. There’s Michael Beasley’s adolescent exuberance (genuinely charming), unavoidably accompanied by his equally adolescent decision making and penchant for indulgent heroism (not at all charming).
There’s Wesley Johnson, whose plainspoken, almost naive earnestness stands in stark contrast with his alarming quickness and leaping ability. And Kevin Love, still only 22 (!), cocky and self-assured in the way of people who have never really had anything bad happen to them. And Jonny Flynn (see Beasley, Michael); and the bruising, occasionally lewd and rude Nikola Pekovic; Corey Brewer and his ridiculously skinny legs; the shy, boyish Darko Milicic; and so many more.
You get the picture; overflows of energy and talent coupled with barely burgeoning maturity. Sports are already an inverted world. But when you consider that, at age 23 with five years of NBA experience, Martell Webster is the even-tempered veteran presence, suddenly gravity really does seem to be pulling us up.
So where does all this, plus the team’s startling 6-2 pre-season leave us? There are some things I think we can be pretty sure about already. The team will (thank goodness) defend with much more verve and awareness than they did last year. With any luck, they will run the floor with some seriousness of purpose (as opposed to last year’s haphazard, often turnover-friendly chaos). Their half-court offense will probably look a little stilted for a while as these young guys begin to scratch the surface of the reads and reactions necessary to run Kurt Rambis’ offense.
And there’s still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know whether Jonny Flynn will improve enough (or whether Luke Ridnour will get enough minutes) to keep this ship afloat. We don’t know whether Darko and Koufos and Pekovic will be able to protect the basket (or even whether Pek will be able to stay on the floor). We don’t know whether Beasley will ever become a viable, every-night NBA scorer.
But what is most important to me right now is that even one quick glance tells you how strikingly different this team is than last year’s. These Wolves communicate a kinetic energy, a sense of immediacy and motion that has been missing since KG left the building. It’s been this lack, more even than the innumerable losses, that have made the Wolves so miserable to watch over the past three years. Activity and abandon and potential and desire: these are youth’s essences. This extreme youth will probably cause the Timberwolves to lose a lot of games this year. And this team will certainly not challenge us to rethink our assumptions about the aging athlete. But at their best, they could also give us the opportunity to indulge in one of life’s sweetest, guiltiest illusions: the one that tells us that we just might live forever.