There is no triumph. It just goes on until the screen blinks black and everyone begins to forget you. This isn’t a reason to despair, though it is that, but knowing failure is inevitable doesn’t make life less worth living so much as it means you need to disabuse yourself of the expectation that anything is going to save you from the pain of being alive. You’re never going to score that lasting victory over—what exactly are you trying to defeat anyway? The challenges keep coming.
The Memphis Grizzlies got knocked out of the Western Conference again last night. We’ll get there. First, it should be told that the Grizz were everything they have been for going on seven years now, which is to say they were a spectacular pain in the ass to get rid of, even with ornery old Tony Allen on the bench in a suit jacket.
Z-Bo twice finished through a pair of Spurs near the rim, his arms pushing the ball rimward like muscular Drano sludge expelling a clog. In the third quarter, he bullied Pau Gasol out of his path, converted a lay-in, and pointed to his eyes to big-up Pau’s younger brother’s superior court vision. Vince Carter, who turned forty in January, posted a putback dunk, a three, and a blow-by that he finished with a spinning jumper in the opening period. He also stripped Kawhi Leonard, drew a few Spurs on the break, and found Mike Conley for a corner three at the end of the first half. Conley got a bucket or created one whenever the Grizz needed it, except at the game’s conclusion. In the fourth quarter, he smiled as he walked to the bench after a successful drive, handsomely iridescent with that bushy hair and slightly feral beard. Marc Gasol can hit running hooks and fading, one-footed jumpers and catch-and-shoot triples and whip cross-court passes that find open teammates and dispense clever little behind-the-back numbers that given guards an extra half-step coming off the sturdy screens he sets, and he did all of that on Thursday night.
I’m glad we don’t play Memphis anymore, Tony Parker said shortly after the final buzzer. There are better foes to come, maybe, but what Tony means is the Grizz wear you out. This is their peculiar art. The Grizz tried to shimmy through a narrow championship window four or five seasons back, but it’s been bolted shut for a while now and instead of grand glory their goal each year is to knock the snot out of whoever’s in front of them until they’re not permitted to do so anymore. They’ve grown more refined under David Fizdale—they finally have some willing and able perimeter shooters—but at their essence, they’re a team that makes basketball look like hard work and their strength is in being as habituated to that labor as anyone in the league. Every franchise has their own worn out slogan. Grit & Grind describes an honest-to-god ethos. The Grizz give those words meaning, and they make their opponents feel it.
Sports are an imperfect yet powerful analogue for life because they’re a dramatic, simplified literalization of our struggles. All of us fight depression and self-doubt and the hell of other people, and the most athletic among us fight that plus the San Antonio Spurs. Games, if you’re a partisan in one direction or the other, are a task with an obvious goal and an adversary and they give us a definitive outcome. When our teams win, we feel like something’s been overcome, and when they fail, some part of us fails too. It’s a silly construction in the abstract but makes implicit sense to anyone who’s experienced it. Your shooting guard draining a corner three is you frying up eggplant just right. And when he careens through the lane like it’s been hosed down and gets called for a charge? That’s you knocking the plate of cooling eggplant onto the kitchen floor.
The stakes of games can seem high, but they’re not, and your existence can seem important, but it isn’t. Sports have established pinnacles in a way day-to-day life doesn’t, but even championships fade in the way all great accomplishments do. You can recount the past only so many times before it loses its flavor. You are not the things you’ve done and seen. You are whatever you are right now, and that’s a fact in search of a solution.
So the Memphis Grizzlies got knocked out of the Western Conference again. This is beside the point. What they’ve sketched out over these past seven years is more significant than any title may have been. In the obstinate, unceasing, sumbitching effort they put forth every season in the face of certain obliteration, they have delineated a beautifully realistic model for living. We are never going to do this thing correctly, because that’s impossible and illusory. The best we can do is link the days together in the shape of something we think will make us happy, knowing in the end it probably won’t. But in trying, we locate always too-brief spells of elation and satisfaction. That’s Zach Randolph throwing bows around the rim; that’s Marc Gasol’s lumpy grace as he swoops across the lane; that’s Mike Conley grinning, having fun right before he’s defeated.
The night the Grizz got knocked out of the Western Conference again, they were awesome and brave and barely came up short. Here’s hoping they can take some pride in that. At the very least, we can take some joy.