I had moved back to Andersonville after three years in Noble Square. The two neighborhoods, situated on the north and near west sides of Chicago, respectively, are somehow both six miles and an hour-plus away from each other by any method of public transit. My friend had been finishing up his graduate degree, or maybe he had dropped out. We weren’t keeping up. He was working nights delivering food for high-end restaurants, navigating dense downtown traffic on his bike, shuttling tiramisus and tinfoil doggie bags of lobster ravioli to apartment buildings with doormen and elevators. I was writing during the day and doing standup at night. We were busy, exhausted. We made plans and didn’t follow through. We put the friendship on standby. When I told him I was returning to his neck of the woods, he said we should get drinks soon. About two weeks after the move, we did.
He looks the same—unruly beard, thick glasses, wispy frame—but he’s not. He and his longtime girlfriend got married. He has a young daughter. He’s no longer living in the Edgewater condo we used to gas cases in, where he once disclosed, with the enthralled detachment of a medical student discussing somebody else’s problem, the bizarre effects of lupus on his own body. He’s a fascinating guy, cold and emotional at the same time, intimidatingly smart, and these days he’s up in—I didn’t learn the name; I just know it’s semi-suburban and hard to get to.
This is all I glean from a three-hour conversation. I’m mad at him almost from the start of it, not for growing up and acquiring new priorities, but for not leaving me behind completely. This is the first time I’ve been out like this in a year, he says, suggesting that he hasn’t missed it, and I’ve gotta get home now. In my head, I cross his name off a list. We depart company, probably permanently, and I stay at the bar for another hour to stew—look at myself in the mirror behind the bar, study the pictures of nieces and grandkids hung up over the cash register, let the ambient noise of other people’s conversations rush into a now-empty space.
My friendships aren’t excursions. No travel, no creative collaboration. We sit and drink and talk. There are only so many people you find who are a good fit for this, who can sit and drink and talk with you for years and neither of you get bored of it. These people come in and out of your life; you don’t get to know all of them as well as you would like to. Some move away and some get preoccupied with work or families. Some stop caring. All of them change. I don’t know what about me has changed in the last three years. It has to be something.
We come at the world like it’s fixed, knowing it’s always in flux, but needing to make some basic assumptions about the way things are because otherwise, we’d never be able to get on with our lives. It’s also feeds the ego to feel like we’re learning all the time, becoming day by day more certain of what we’re putting ourselves through and how to survive it. But there is, no matter how much we think we know, a lot that surprises us, in delightful and horrifying and banal ways. You lose a friend. You find one. You walk down a familiar street and trip over some jagged sidewalk.
* * * * *
The Blazers are soaring; the Jazz are leaning on a spectacular rookie; the Cavs are twice renovated and recently got Kevin Love back; the Warriors have been bored and intermittently electric, and now Steph Curry is hurt; the Spurs have been without Kawhi Leonard all season; the Pelicans are having a Lazarushian second life after DeMarcus Cousins; the Wizards have remade themselves in John Wall’s absence; the Raptors are as frictionlessly mighty as they have ever been, but they’ve fooled us before; the Sixers are young and Joel Embiid has a busted eye socket; the Celtics are downright depleted; and the Rockets, improbably, are the most stable team in the league.
In short, the NBA isn’t exactly what we imagined it was going to be at the beginning of the year. It’s true that, provided Curry is able to get himself back to something like full health by the later playoff rounds, the Warriors are still firm title favorites, but there is so much else we don’t have a handle on. Like: if the Wizards need a bucket inside two minutes, who has the ball? How sharply are the Raptors going to cut down their rotation? Will the Wolves have any legs left? Can the Thunder find some consistency against tough competition? These are the sort of things we can’t credibly purport to know but think we’ll find out.
And we will, because we’ve granted the playoffs argument-settling powers. What transpires during them takes on a hyper-truthful quality. James Harden has a couple underwhelming stretches in contests we designate with proper nouns—the Western Conference Finals on TNT!—and the popular perception that he’s mentally fragile intensifies to the point that it’s practically a fact. Whether that narrative is fair or not, the only way for Harden to amend it is by playing well in the postseason. He could win the MVP, go cold against Golden State in an elimination game, and suffer beneath the weight of taunting tweets and blogs and radio show rants about his chokery for at least another year. Some deficiency in him will seem to have grown.
That’s one type of playoff revelation. There is another that’s less discussed because it doesn’t have a corresponding question. It’s a tremorous sensation that arrives obliquely and without notice like a novel, between its winding plots, rattling off a dynamite shortbread recipe. It’s Ben Gordon, John Salmons, and a 20-year-old Derrick Rose nearly taking out the defending champion Celtics in 2009. It’s Brandon Roy having one stupendous quarter left in his cartilage-deficient knees in 2011. It’s Matthew Dellavedova enjoying two gloriously ugly nights in the 2015 Finals, draining prayerful floaters and hassling Steph Curry, then having to be rushed to the hospital for dehydration after the second one because he drank an entire pot of coffee before the game. These aren’t answers; they are the vivid nonsense we’re not able to place and mean what they mean with a specificity that resists narrativization and broad context. Someone throws a switch and instead of light, music fills the darkness. Josh Smith has range out to San Pedro and Corey Brewer is like a tailor’s shears through the lane. We’re sharing Chris Paul’s bafflement—and maybe his horror. Stuff like this does not inform; it thrills and devastates.
It’s SPORTS! in the visceral sense, which comes before all. From this raw material, we spin everything else: the exegeses and analyses, arguments and proclamations. We relish giving ourselves over to the chaotic nature of games, then afterwards, out of anxiety or arrogance, try to explain the chaos. Both can be fun or tedious, depending, but one is an embrace of the ridiculousness of fandom and another is a ridiculous denial of the first thing.
* * * * *
Joe Lacob was sort of right, if colossally petulant, when he claimed the Warriors were a better team than the Cavs two seasons ago, when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving took down Lacob’s 73-win squad in the Finals. The Warriors were obviously deeper and more talented. They broke the single-season wins record with a plus-10.8 point differential. Curry was a unanimous MVP. (My favorite stat of his from that season: from 28-to-50 feet, he shot 35-for-52.) They destroyed the rest of the league for seven months and the Cavs were barely strong and fortunate enough to take the title off them. The point Lacob missed, muttering sourly into his flat Moët, was that the postseason is a flawed epistemological tool. Historically great teams lose sometimes. This doesn’t change the fact of their greatness, though it does complicate our understanding of them.
The 2001 Lakers—Peak Shaq, Kobe entering his early prime—were untouchable and they played like it in the playoffs, dropping just one game during a championship run that seemed inevitable from the start. It’s easy to file them in your mind as a special team because they faced no resistance they couldn’t blow away with a hearty sneeze. The 2016 Warriors were similar, and they represented the obsidian-sharp aesthetic endpoint of the pace and space revolution they had been at the forefront of, but Curry tweaked his already balky knee against the Rockets in the first round and Golden State narrowly fell to a Cavs team that featured the best player of his generation and one of Curry’s few equals as a scoring guard. Last season, they added Kevin Durant and had a less defined style, but they were impossible to beat, winning their title with a single loss like the Lakers did.
And yet the 2017 Warriors were, if inarguably better, also further from an ideal than the 73-win squad was, and less interesting because of it. The pre-Durant team was victimized by both bad luck and LeBron, but also how we think about time—using it to bind an event so we can later reference it and announce, futilely and with some insistence, what something was. (That was the happiest day of my life, that was a bad year for her, etc.) For a spell there, the Warriors were the most terrifying and perfectly realized team I’ve ever seen. The spell was sustained but a whit shorter than they would have liked. Their downfall negated what came before it, in a sports almanac sense, but did not undo what was real for a while and still is.
This isn’t to posit some radically postmodern theory that the 2016 Warriors actually did win a championship, on some higher or parallel plane. Outcomes matter in sports and anyone who argues otherwise is pretending to be highly evolved while actually being obtuse and annoying. But wins and losses aren’t the end. As Bethlehem Shoals once succinctly put it, sports history doesn’t write itself. We can decide what to derive meaning from, and in what directions. Our subjective truth is sometimes, in ways that are hard to explain but worth figuring out how to, more correct than the objective one—deeper, vibrating with feeling, like how impressionist paintings describe flowers better than photographs. I know what I saw from Steph Curry and company, for slightly less than an entire season. Art, god, and awe resist measurement.
* * * * *
Athletes are unique public figures. Some of the elite ones are as famous as A-list actors or musicians, but LeBron James plays a hundred-plus games per season and gives interviews after all of them and Scarlett Johansson was in two movies last year. The work of an athlete is not a tightly edited compilation of their finest performances, but a single voluminous evolving performance that can span decades. We catch players on nights when they’re frustrated, ebullient, or checked out. We track them as they develop new skills and pick up bad habits, as they grow and deteriorate.
The judgments we make about them are best guesses, if typically well-informed ones because we have access to so many data points, but the accuracy of those assessments is tenuous and temporary. I wrote last week that Dennis Smith has no range. He’s also had thirteen games this year in which he’s made three or more three-pointers. The truth varies from night to night. It wouldn’t surprise me if Smith is a significantly better shooter next season than he has been during this one. He’s twenty years old and will have spent an entire summer working on his jumper. By the end of his playing days, it’s possible he’ll be thought of as a solid or even an expert shooter. There’s plenty of time for what he is to change. Perhaps a big postseason series will have something to do with it.
Like everybody else, I’m looking forward to the playoffs because, finally, the players are going to try as hard as they can, the coaches will be making game by game adjustments, and I want to know if the Blazers are indeed as good as they’ve looked lately, and how the babyfaced Sixers are going to hold up under the pressure. The playoffs are the best process for figuring this stuff out, but they’re useful only up to a point—providing insight but also illusory moments of definition and lousy facts. In terms of the universe being a fair and correct place, it’s pretty stupid that Chris Bosh has two rings and Charles Barkley doesn’t have any. It’s stupider still Tracy McGrady never got out of the first round until he signed with the Spurs for their 2013 playoff run.
Because of this, I approach the playoffs with some trepidation. They’re riveting theater, but their condemnational power makes me uneasy. You see, I have my attachments. I don’t want Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni to get close to toppling the Warriors and blow it. I don’t want Kyle Lowry to frazzle himself into five consecutive poor shooting nights against the Cavs. I have been watching these guys for a long time, and I know what they can be, the different ways the light can strike them—and that is all anyone will ever really know, but you have to point to certain games in a career, works in a corpus, days in a life, in order to say with any clarity this is the person I am talking about. You might as well pick the most difficult ones. That’s where most people will start. You hope that interpretation flatters you, and those you’ve grown fond of.
So the playoffs are—dramatically, regrettably, and frighteningly—a machine that makes legacies. Of course, we’re not the ones on trial, but the contact hit of shuddering nerves is enough to evoke our sympathy, and because we’re each trying to prove ourselves in our way, we relate. We show up for the spectacle sweaty-palmed to see what happens, what’s changed that we didn’t notice until now, what fresh epiphany or havoc or gorgeous flapdoodle development awaits us. It’s not a complicated experience, though it is confounding: it unfolds, and we live through it and with it, gracefully or otherwise, dazed and heaving or too happy to speak. In time, as the feeling fades and intellect takes over, maybe, we begin to make sense of it. As much as we’re able to, anyway.