Rachel B. Glaser, Ref Huddle, 2023.
These years, the only basketball I watch is the playoffs, but I take them very seriously, because they’re so fleeting, dramatic, and sublime. I love the ever-changing narratives. The pregame handshakes. The postgame interviews. The controversial tweets. The stupid commercials one can’t help but memorize. I love when a player “gets hot” and their teammates keep funneling them the ball. The rarely seen, silent green siren that flashes when a coach uses their challenge to dispute a call. The sudden announcement of a technical foul and the way the mood shifts during the single, solitary free throw.
I love catching glimpses of the players’ tattoos of babies, ancestors, dates, signatures, playing cards, angels, lions, phantoms, and crosses emitting sunbeams.
I like when the refs touch each other in any way, but especially when all three of them put their arms around one another, huddling to discuss a difficult call. I like watching endless replays of fouls, trying to decide whether something was a block or a charge, or who touched the ball last. I like when the commentators disagree with the refs and when the broadcast cuts to the former ref Steve Javie in some NBA warehouse in New Jersey, standing in front of TV screens, calmly hypothesizing what the refs are discussing.
I love the emotions, which in other sports are often hidden under the players’ helmets and hats. Jamal Murray’s arms outstretched in joy as he backpedals after nailing yet another three. Jimmy Butler’s and Grant Williams’s noses touching while they scream at each other like two feuding angelfish. Robert Williams’s head in his hands on the bench.
I love when the play-by play commentators mention Kevin Love. “Love has grabbed the ball.” “Love’s effect cannot be overstated.” I’m entertained by the exaggeratedly dull way the stadium announcers say the names of the opposing team’s players. Though my friends complain about the commentators, I’m soothed by the familiar voices of Doris Burke, Reggie Miller, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Breen, Kevin Harlan, and Mark Jackson. It feels like Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson have been in conversation for hundreds of years. Tuning into a game relaxes me. It’s like visiting a pleasant realm, one simpler than ours. I like the golden color of the courts (though not the Nets’ floor, which looks like old newspaper). I like the endless stats. The records, which are always being broken. The vintage video montages. I track the league as dynasties rise and crumble, players are traded from team to team, logos evolve, stars retire, and jerseys are lifted into the rafters.
In 1995, when I was in junior high, my brother showed me an issue of Sports Illustrated with Dennis Rodman on the cover—his hair dyed red, posing in shiny short shorts with a parrot perched on his hand. I read the interview with interest—we both loved hair dye and Pearl Jam!—and I’ve been watching NBA basketball ever since. I love expressive, emotive players. I love teams who have great passing, enthusiasm, and confidence. I like when they seem like a family. The teams I’ve loved most are the late-nineties Bulls, the mid-2000s Pistons, the late-2000s Bulls, the Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant Thunder, the 2010s Grizzlies, the Kawhi Leonard Raptors, and often whoever LeBron was playing for.
For the last few years, my favorite player has been the Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, so it’s been a thrilling time for me. All season, whenever I asked my basketball-obsessed friend Seth how the Heat were looking, he’d say, “Not so good,” though he wanted them “as far away as possible” from his Celtics in the playoffs and said they were “capable of beating anybody.” But I’d heard Miami had had some injuries, so when they lost to Atlanta in the first game of the play-in tournament, I thought their season was probably over, and even if they won the second play-in game, they’d have to face the number-one seed, Milwaukee. I cringed, imagining the gloating texts I’d receive from my Buck-wild father-in-law.
After Jimmy’s forty-seven-point game in last year’s playoffs to force a Game 7 against the Celtics, you would think I’d have more faith in him, but nearly everyone was predicting a Bucks/Celtics Eastern Conference Finals, and I was no different. The Heat played magnificently against the Bucks, winning in five games, and becoming the fifth number-eight seed to ever beat a number-one seed in the NBA playoffs. The Heat then beat the Knicks in six games, and they are now one win away from beating the Celtics and appearing in the Finals for the first time since 2020.
Throughout the playoffs, there has been much focus on the fact that there are nine players on the Heat roster who weren’t drafted into the league, including Caleb Martin, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Duncan Robinson. All have played fantastically. The Heat’s starting center, Bam Adebayo, has looked unstoppable. And leading the charge, with grace and swagger, is Jimmy Butler. I love his tenacity. His sly, gleaming eyes. His swishes, passes, rebounds, smirks, smiles, overall demeanor, and especially his steals. He had six of them last week in Game 1 against Boston. I love how he takes over a game’s second half, unleashing his miraculous will. If the Heat win tonight, they will be facing the Denver Nuggets, first-time Western Conference champions.
Last night in Los Angeles, the Nuggets completed their four-game sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, even after LeBron’s thirty-one-point first half. The Lakers had some impressive moments throughout the series, and just to have made it past the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors in the first two rounds is an incredible feat, but the Nuggets always seemed in control. Though I love the combo of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, their magical passes, and the team’s fun vibe, I was surprised to realize, midway through Game 1, that I was rooting for LeBron again, no matter how silly he looked arguing with the refs or how many threes he missed. In Game 2, when he blew the breakaway dunk, I felt bewildered. How could this be? It was almost as if he were aging, and had always been, and I had too, and one day everyone living would die! But it was just one play, and he is still amazing, even if he never wins another championship—he already has four.
LeBron’s postgame interview last night, in which he seemed to mull over retirement amid suspicions he wants the Lakers to sign (his old teammate) Kyrie Irving, has strangers fighting on internet comment threads. Nuggets fans are retweeting clips of Jokić’s shot-clock-beating overhead three. I just crossed out the potential Western Conference Finals Games 5, 6, and 7 on my calendar, and can now make plans those nights. It’s all part of the collective NBA experience. We are millions of people watching the same moments, feeling elated, defeated, bored, anxious, sentimental, disappointed, and stunned, as we witness the inevitable play out in forty-eight-minute games over a two-month stretch, like we do every year.
Rachel B. Glaser is the author of the story collection Pee On Water, the novel Paulina & Fran, and two books of poetry. She will be writing a series of dispatches about the NBA Finals for the Review.
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