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Triptych for the End of a Season

July 14, 2016 | by

Tim Duncan has announced his retirement.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, we knew what the routine was when it came to the end of an NBA season: the playoffs would come, a champion would be crowned, and—in the scoreboard–über alles style embraced more by basketball than any other sport—the losers would be banished to oblivion. The typical NBA fan can tell you how many championships Kobe Bryant won and yet pauses when asked to name the opponents he faced. No league is dragged along by its front-runner like the NBA is. If the league is, at its best, majestic, it’s also, at its worst, pharaonic.

The end of the season was once an estival balm. Summer would arrive to wash the past season clean. The break was essential. The players need a breather, but so do we, if only to dream a little. In the nineties, I, like most New Yorkers, used to think year after year that the Knicks had a chance against the Bulls. We know now which teams were the dynasties, but in the heat of competition, the outcomes never felt inevitable. Plenty of teams were quite good, and as they licked their wounds in the summer haze, they could reasonably think to themselves: Next year, why not us? Read More »

Blue in Green

June 14, 2016 | by

The finals get interesting.

And just like that, Monday evening blossomed into something both the rabid and the casual basketball fan will remember. The Cavaliers, down three games to one and facing elimination on the road—in the fortress that is the Oracle Arena, no less—rode their two superstars, who were both pulsing their brightest, to a dramatic 112–97 victory, dragging the resuscitated corpse of this NBA Finals back to the waiting arms of their fans in Cleveland.

Now a win at home—something they already managed in emphatic fashion in the third game of the series—would force a do-or-die game 7; the Cavs would have all of the momentum and every right to believe that the two best players in the building are dressed in Cavs colors. Just like that, this series has gone from the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” to Donald Byrd’s “Emperor.” Read More »

Meet the New Boss

June 7, 2016 | by

I made a decision once the playoffs began to take a little break from this column. I know what you’re thinking: Who writes on basketball for an entire regular season and then takes a break when the playoffs start? Well … I do. It wasn’t a dramatic decision. I just wanted to step back, observe, and avoid—as strange as it may sound—the pitfalls of the playoffs. By “pitfalls” I mean the playoffs’ compulsion to repeat themselves and the accompanying impulse of the writer to search for particular significance in these repetitions. In other words, you’ve seen the Raptors–Cavs Eastern Conference Final before, countless times. The favorite wins the first two home games with relative ease; the underdog returns home to a raucous crowd and wins the next two games to even the series, stirring thoughts that the contest is evenly matched; and then, almost as if on cue, the underdog capitulates and vanishes. Read More »

“Purple Elegy”

April 22, 2016 | by


Dearly beloved, this is what it sounds
Like when you become a symbol through sound
That roreth of the crying and the soun:
You give up all your shit, down to the sou,
Wade through raspberry death to find him so
You can remind yourself he once was

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s second book of poems, Heaven, was published last year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and is shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize.

After the Love Has Gone

April 5, 2016 | by

Reflections on the end of the regular season.

John Havlicek in a trading card for the 1972–3 Celtics, one of many excellent teams all but lost to NBA history.

The last two weeks of the NBA regular season, things get turned on their heads. It’s like someone switches off the gravity, or even the gravitas, and concerns that were once at the bottom float up to the top. At this point, the best teams are what they are. They know they’ll start the playoffs at home against an overwhelmed opponent. They know that the potential for injury or complacency—the secondhand smoke of an excessively long season—is their most dangerous rival. They play these last games competing more against the limits of themselves than anything else.

The Warriors and the Spurs, still by far the two best teams in the league, are chasing records: the Warriors, 69–8 as I write this, have a better-than-even chance of topping the 1995–1996 Chicago Bulls’s record of 72–10; the Spurs are three home victories from having gone the entire season undefeated in their own arena, a feat no NBA team has ever accomplished. Read More »

Hoops and the Abstract Truth

March 1, 2016 | by

Curry after his game-winning shot.

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote in The World As I See It. “It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

Thus far, the NBA has been far from that cradle this season. There’s not a lot of mystery when you have two superior teams—when the best players in the game are playing like the best players in the game. The results have, for the most part, certified reasonable assumptions as truths. Read More »