The NBA schedule released last July is a road map to a parallel universe. We can stare at it and imagine where we'd be if the league as we knew it still existed. Right now, for instance, we'd be transfixed by maybe the best 27-hour stretch of the Lakers' regular season. Tuesday night in Memphis, Wednesday night in Oklahoma City: a back-to-back set in front of rowdy, hostile crowds against two electric young teams. We'd talk about Kobe Bryant taking O.J. Mayo into the post and joke about not wanting Andrew Bynum to face Memphis (except that deep in the little unevolved piece of our brain that makes us superstitious, we wouldn't be joking). We'd nerdily pick through the opening-night game between the Lakers and Thunder and sketch out the adjustments each team would make in the rematch. If the Lakers lost both nights we'd pretend to be miserable, but we wouldn't be, not really. In truth we'd be having ourselves a grand old time in basketball's grip.
Following along with this counterfictional world, this Earth Two that has a functioning NBA, has become a parlor game among hoops fans. Pretty much every night someone tweets about which games were lost that day. I've done it, probably more than once. Basketball Prospectus is even simulating the season and posting hypothetical box scores. For the first time, I'm beginning to understand what drives people to fan fiction and cosplay. It's the same impulse that makes a lovesick kid bike a dozen times past the house of the girl who dumped him. When the reality you want is unattainable, you project yourself into it as best you can.
The Lakers, by the way, are 8-2 in the Prospectus sim league.
On Monday, a press conference took place at the offices of David Boies, the litigation samurai who's representing NBA players in their courtroom war on the owners. The purpose of the press conference was to announce a consolidation of lawsuits. What had been two actions, one filed in Northern California and the other in Minnesota, has been merged into one. This is not intrinsically interesting but struck me as a sign-post on our downward spiral of triviality. At one point in the lockout we were talking about actual issues. Then came a debate over tactics. Now we're getting press conferences about paperwork. The sign on the post reads, "Hey, NBA Fans: Time to take stock of the other things in life that make you happy and go do them."
NBA fandom has never felt like a dumber use of one's time. Not only do we spend untold hours watching, talking and reading about athletes who don't know us and wouldn't care about us if they did, but we do so knowing the game can be snatched from us at the whim of reptilian tycoons. At this moment guys like Paul Allen and Dan Gilbert and Michael Heisley, pharaohs of late-stage capitalism, look down at us with a mixture of pity, malice and indifference. We exist to channel wealth into their estates, and until the conditions of future wealth transfers are precisely to their liking, we wait. How did we, as creatures of free will, get to this point? Who would sign up for this?
Linger too long on these questions and you'll drive yourself nuts. In the time left vacant by the lockout I've been turning them over in my head to no good end. For most of us, loving basketball isn't really a choice.
I mean, to skeptics we can defend the sport with objective truths: it provides an outlet for competitive instincts. It's enjoyable both as a strategic contest and as a theater of physical grace. There's intensity and confrontation without uncomfortable levels of violence. There's drama and humor and harmless tribalism, codes and mythologies to make you feel like you're part of something bigger. But I could tick off a similar list for any number of pursuits that don't interest me in the least. A lot of smart, thoughtful people love to garden, which gives the world oxygen and veggies and doesn't get canceled when Robert Sarver's feeling cranky. With greater self-determination maybe I could turn my back on the NBA and start tossing seeds in the ground. That's just not how it works, though. When you love basketball like we do, it's anchored in your core. The game will never let you go.
The appeal of the sport can't be universalized. I can only reflect on what it's given me, and when I do the lockout disappears from my field of vision. Many of the happiest moments of my life have taken place on a basketball court. Many more have been spent watching, cheering for and getting my heart broken by teams I loved. The sport has cemented some of the best friendships I've ever had. It's given me something to share with my parents and my brother. It gives me something to talk about with pretty much anyone I'll ever meet in Los Angeles. If the NBA shut down forever, if it didn't play another game, I wouldn't regret even a moment of my life I've spent on it. (Except for the 90 seconds I spent reading about the David Boies press conference. Those I want back.)
So look. The lockout sucks hard. There's probably not going to be a season, and for that we should never forgive the tiny men responsible. But the game is so much bigger than them. It is going to come back someday, and when it does the Gilberts and Sarvers of the league will have to watch as their crappy teams taste the fury of the Lake Show. You think Kobe enjoyed beating the Suns before? Imagine what he'll do now that Sarver's tried to take a season off his career. Kobe knows exactly which owners have shut down his league, and Lord help them when he gets his shot at revenge.
Until then, I recommend we all tune out the lawyers, grab the rock, call a couple friends and go find a hoop. We've still got the game and we've still got each other.
Have a great holiday, everyone.