Watching Dame Lillard work can be like falling asleep on a train, hallucinogenic art cinema where you wonder if the guy switching reels in the projection booth is playing a joke. The Blazers lost to the Pelicans on Tuesday night, I’m sure of it. They were down 17 with 5:45 left in the game. There have been contests this season, everyone as beaten down as they are by their demi-quarantined lives and the grind of an especially brutal schedule, that effectively ended with one team down 17 in the second quarter, millennials and zoomers embracing the Clerks lifestyle and calling it a night. Demanding that anybody, even millionaire athletes who are more or less television characters, commit themselves to your entertainment feels like an unreasonable ask these days. Whatever, pack it in, the players have earned their game check just by showing up.
But if that’s the case then some extra appreciation is due for the guy who remains engaged as ever. Dame, who doesn’t quit on principle, erased the 17-point deficit almost by himself, finished the win with 50 points on 20 shots and a pair of game-clinching free throws. He stepped into long threes, found open teammates, attacked the tin, even grabbed a couple important rebounds. And it seemed normal. There was little spectacle about it. Part of that was the lack of a home crowd, but Dame does stuff like this all the time. 50 points en route to a big comeback for him isn’t entirely anomalous. It’s a particularly good day at the office. The previous game, he had 38. A couple weeks ago, 44. When he goes for 21 and 5, that’s when your eyebrows shoot up.
Shaq asked Dame after the game about how he’s built himself into such a good shooter. The answer wasn’t surprising, I’m actually from Jupiter wouldn’t have been surprising, but Dame emphasized a couple times the importance of practicing his shooting when he doesn’t want to. When he’s tired, when he’s bored, etc. Obviously all NBA players work through their own ennui, you don’t get to the pros in the first place without an abnormal devotion to maintaining your body and developing your skills, but Dame clearly exists in the top percentile of workers even among his peers. If he talks about it a little too much, affects the unctuous tone of the valedictorian, he at least backs up the try-hardery with hard-won 30-foot range.
There is perhaps a special resonance about that kind of discipline, now. It’s been a year of death and debt and lost wages and fissuring sanity. I’ve had relatively good luck. At least my friends and I are healthy. I have a partner who loves me. But man, I feel terrible. Just crateringly depressed. It’s hard to get anything done and some days I punt at noon, fill the time I can’t sleep away with long aimless walks and compulsive phone-checking. I throw myself into news stories I don’t actually care about, rearrange the kitchen cabinets. Entire months composed of pathetic half-victories. You finish a job application, hop on an exercise bike for an hour, polish a few paragraphs and think you’ve done something. But life doesn’t change. The whole world is giving you the silent treatment. You realize you might as well not have done anything. It sucks.
It’s hard to imagine playing basketball through all this. An objectively stupid pursuit even in happier times, the multi-multi-million dollar salaries are a decent motivator, but no financial incentive can move you to play at the level Dame Lillard does every night. That’s single-mindedness, an intense personal pride in action. And hell, the Blazers aren’t even that good. They’ve had horrible injury luck this season, both C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić have barely played. It’s been a lot of Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter. A 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony has been genuinely crucial to their modest success. None of this affects Dame’s attitude. He’ll step onto the court, drill a bunch of jumpers, and check the score around the five-minute mark of the fourth. It’s ridiculous how often the Blazers are in the lead or close to it, given the ingredients he’s cooking with.
It’s difficult to define the utility of sports at the moment. Escape is the easy answer, but that is always the answer. It wasn’t sufficient before the pandemic and it definitely isn’t as we begin to dig ourselves out from under its weight. Here is something else: sports provide a mind-bending demonstration of the possible. They are grounded, we keep numbers on it, each action is real and true, but there is also glimmering on their surface a supernatural quality. Because players like Dame Lillard: they exist while seeming like they shouldn’t. You are familiar with people, you’ve met thousands of them, and yet you’ve probably never encountered anyone quite so magnificent as Dame, who of course keeps it together, outright flourishes, in the middle of a mess that has most of the rest of us literally and figuratively flat on our backs. Is that inspiring? I don’t know, but it helps us understand the broadest limits of human possibility. That’s more than you would expect to find, numb with worry flipping channels on your couch on a Tuesday night, if you didn’t already know that Dame Lillard is out there putting in the work like only he knows how.