Say hello to our new basketball columnist: Rowan Ricardo Phillips.
Last Wednesday evening, after most of the autumn day had been washed away by rain, I found myself crossing Atlantic Avenue, in Brooklyn. A friend and I were heading to Barclays Center to see the Brooklyn Nets open their season against the Chicago Bulls, one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. In this day and age, being one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference doesn’t mean much; the powerhouse teams, with all due respect to LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, are in the West. But a game between two Eastern Conference teams offers the opportunity to see competition in its purest form: that is, within a realm of easily exposed flaws and weaknesses. Seeing a team miss shot after shot isn’t my idea of a fun time, but watching teams divine their strengths from a forest of inadequacies—I prefer that to endless hours of free and easy swishing. And if that sounds crazy to you, think of how many people sing the praises of college basketball.
My friend, who went to college in Chicago, is a Bulls fan. You wouldn’t know it today from his cool demeanor, but once upon a time he was of those nineties-era Bulls fans, the ones who tormented New Yorkers by wearing his Bulls cap everywhere he went, saying little because little needed to be said. The Bulls almost always won, and almost always at the expense of the New York Knicks. But today it’s a struggle to imagine my friend in a cap at all, much less being invested enough in basketball to risk his well-being for a sartorial statement. In fact, I can only recall him mentioning basketball once in the past few years: when a Miami native insisted on referring to his beloved Superteam, with an evil tilt to his Jack Nicholson-esque eyebrows, as the Heatles. Then the look of the scrapper scoured my friend’s face and the side of his forehead trellised with veins before he laughed it off: “Yeah, the Heat are pretty good. We’ll see.” He’s from the Midwest.
But now here he was, with me, in the epilogue of a rainstorm, ready to see his Bulls pummel, as they inevitably would, a Nets team stripped of their thoughtlessly assembled, insanely expensive talent, a team that’s given up on selling themselves as New York’s hot new ticket and just hopes to sell you any ticket. Suckers that we are, we’d shelled out for two in the front rows of the mezzanine. A Knicks fan and a Bulls fan, neither of us with a hat or shirt to mark us. My friend wondered if he’d actually use the large black Brooklyn Nets fridge magnet he was gifted as we cleared the metal detectors at the entrance.
Welcome to my basketball life. How did I get here?
Four years ago, in 2011, a labor dispute between the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Association team owners led to an owner-imposed lockout and a league-wide shutdown of all NBA-related activities. It was the fourth lockout in the league’s history, following those of 1995, 1996, and 1998–1999.
That work-stoppage-free decade of 2000–2010 may have deceived some into thinking that these battles (millionaires versus billionaires) were a thing of the past, that lessons has been learned—but the lockout of 2011 showed us that things were the same as they ever were. This may simply be how the NBA will balance its business in perpetuity: periodically scorching the earth to build a better house. The combustibility of the action on the court—with its sharp cuts, pirouettes, and dunks, its sound track of squeaking sneakers and fabricated noise fed through potent speakers—is matched by the combustibility of labor relations, if you can call bitter meetings in which each party acts as if the other is barking big bank take little bank labor relations.
To give you a sense of what’s at stake, look at the Los Angeles Clippers—a franchise on the upswing, but one that typically sees the sun about as often as a rock in a cave does. They sold last year for two billion dollars. The Milwaukee Bucks, a historic basketball organization in the way that Schlitz is a historic American beverage, sold last year for $500 million. The Bucks, it bears repeating, play in Milwaukee and haven’t seen even moderate postseason success since the 1988–1989 season, at about the time Internet service providers first went commercial. On the player side, the Cavs’ power forward, Tristan Thompson, recently signed a five-year, $82 million contract. One player, on hearing this news, took to Twitter with a two-word response: “How much?”
Business isn’t just booming, business has gone kaboom. Owners can’t resist showering averagely above-average players with exorbitant contracts. When their lack of restraint becomes untenable, they say that business isn’t going well, that the system is broken. But when teams are sold for such stunning figures and new television deals are brokered for equally stratospheric amounts, both sides plant their feet and the game stops in its tracks.
Owners and players alike will neither stop making money nor arguing about who should get what share of it. Constant spikes in revenue turn a collectively bargained deal into a fool’s errand a few years later. The agreement of 2011 is set to expire in 2017, when the money is on another lockout, putting a stop to NBA action for some part of the season.
Welcome to my basketball life. How did I get here?
In 2011, after months of acrimony, a new NBA deal was signed and the season began on Christmas Day, more than three months later than usual. I settled into a soft chair and watched the Knicks battle the Bulls in Madison Square Garden. They pulled off a tight win thanks to a scintillating, dramatic performance by Carmelo Anthony. The Bulls, led by their superstar Derrick Rose and with a rugged, millimetrically precise team defense for a spine, had no answer for Anthony’s varied offensive game. His range knew no range. His three-point shot was casual and pure, effortless, almost boring, like slipping a lollipop back into your mouth.
Things didn’t work out for either the Knicks or the Bulls that year: the Heatles took the title. But that lockout-shortened season taught me something about myself I hadn’t before known: I had been suffering from NBA fatigue. I love basketball, but I don’t love product. And the NBA, from October to December, feels like a product, its narrative forced and enforced by a media culture that’s increasingly difficult to discern from TMZ, HSN, and WTF. Players with something to prove (or new marketing contracts to live up to or expiring contracts nipping at their heels) start the season in the best shape of their lives, their mechanics perfect, those famed little things it takes to win stitched into their fast-twitch muscle fibers. A rookie seems like the next big thing until there’s enough tape on him to make the adjustment he never, in turn, adjusts to.
Having competed in summer competitions like the Olympics, or any number of continental championships, some players use the games to round themselves back into shape. The veteran players on the best teams, knowing they’ll be playing an extra month or more of games after the long march from October to April, pace themselves in autumn and into winter: the spring that matters is at the end of the season. Gregg Popovich, the coach and beloved curmudgeon of the San Antonio Spurs, has announced his feelings about the regular season’s length by routinely benching key players for whole games at a time. In the mandatory injury report, he cites the one injury a body can never recover from: old.
This early season fatigue is real, no matter how many pointless player rankings or baseless trade rumors the game coaxes out of those who dedicate themselves to writing or yelling about it. The promises planted at the start of the season flourish fast and die out, because the season is simply too long.
But here I am. I don’t have to write about basketball, but I want to write about it; I’m magnetized by something irreducibly pure at the core of the game. Join me through the season. I don’t know what I’ll say, but I can guarantee you I won’t wonder if LeBron James is the greatest player of all time, or if Kristaps Porzingis is the next Darko Miličić, or whether the Golden State Warriors were a fluke. I’ll say only: Welcome to my basketball life. How did I get here?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published earlier this year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.