There aren’t any decent sports bars in my neighborhood. This is a fact I’m generally happy about. I don’t need my drinking spots cluttered with LCD fishtanks and Cubs fans, but it is a problem, when you want to go out on a Tuesday night and watch Game 6 of the NBA Finals without having to walk two miles in Chicago’s wet summer heat, and then another two after you’ve had four PBR tallboys and an involved discussion about the state of your friend’s marriage. So, whatever. Up to the barcade, the generic joint with pinball machines and Street Fighter cabinets commingling with the high tables, the one where the waitress allocates a TV in the corner for you and your friend and three guys who have money on the over, who end up leaving at halftime. Woo-hoo! Game 7! she hollers as she places two beers on your table. (Your thoughts: [sic].) She’s doing her best, even if the establishment resolutely isn’t.
By the fourth quarter, you and your friend aren’t the only people paying attention. There’s a passel of guys in Bucks t-shirts sitting across the room, a college-aged group that you think might be rooting for the Suns, middle-aged women standing with wine glasses in hand, looking up at the screen, and a shaved-bald fella in his fifties ironically calling out GO KNICKS! DAVE DEBUSSCHERE, EARL “THE PEARL” MONROE! This is bottom-tier stuff, a bummer if you weren’t kind of drunk, kind of pleased just be out in the world. It’s a privilege to be in the company of terminally unfunny men, waitresses who don’t know what’s going on.
Let’s not profane Giannis’s 50 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks by throwing a flight of adjectives at it. He was as good as you can be, and more than that, he was extraordinarily brave. His greatest strength twins with his most troubling weakness. There’s nobody better at attacking the rim, but he’s also prone to missing five or six free throws in a row, maybe airballing a couple. If he shot 80 percent from the line, Giannis would be unstoppable. In Game 6 he transformed into seven-foot, linguine-armed Mark Price. That wasn’t the whole story—Devin Booker struggled with Jrue Holiday checking him, Khris Middleton hit a big shot late as Milwaukee’s lead was dwindling—but it comprised a big chunk of it. Almost everybody looked tight out there, in a contest of greater magnitude than most of them had ever participated. Giannis was breathing deep at the stripe, hyperventilation and nerves and the 11 out of 10 effort he gives on every play, but he knew exactly what he needed to do, catching and turning and launching himself at the rim trip after trip. Laying it in or else getting whacked on the arm. Beneath everything else he was feeling, a strong certainty.
Stars have to teach themselves to be delusional, to think they’re always going to come through. They have already made the shot in their minds, and if they miss it, well, that’s the universe making a mistake. You get the sense Giannis would have been okay missing a dozen free throws. He believed in his approach, and his ability to deliver. Point by hard-won point, he proved himself completely correct. I wonder if, when he came out of his competitive trance, even he was a little bit surprised.
After the final buzzer, a polite round of applause from the bar, fist-pumps from the passel of Milwaukee bros, quickly dispersing wine moms and the young folks who might have been Suns fans going outside to smoke weed and melt into the neighborhood. It’s funny, this is how basketball happens to most people. Even a title-determining tilt. Ah, what a good game, and then they go home. There’s no weighty analysis. They don’t think about the way the history of the sport has just been impacted. It seems vast when you’re in it, among the legacy-measurers and listmakers, men who know more about the collective bargaining agreement than they know about themselves, but only an objectively small mongrel corner of the sports-watching world actually cares about this stuff. This isn’t to argue against caring. It is to point out that none of it is important. We’re killing time, keeping the silence at bay. It would seem like there are infinite ways to do that. We explore about five of them, over and over.
I don’t know exactly what this Bucks title means. This was a miserable season in which many players seemed flagrantly depressed, pursuing their ostensible passion as if it were a data entry gig. And then there were all the injuries, which knocked out and hobbled stars on nearly every championship-contending team. As has been pointed out by a million fans and media types, these Milwaukee and Phoenix squads are hardly juggernauts. This matters as much as you want it to, although I would bet that if you’re living in Los Angeles or Brooklyn, your assessment is more a function of bitterness than anything else.
In the end there is only the end: the Bucks needed a win to secure the trophy and one of the best players in the league, a unique and almost mortifyingly genuine genetic anomaly, by all appearances a really nice guy, scored 50 points and cried and spun his son around in his arms. A great American city melted down gleefully like they haven’t since 1971. What does that mean? It means everything, in the moment. It’s sometimes like we’re dense, so caught up in abstract assessments and imaginary math that we forget how this works. One team wins it all and they are the happiest group of guys who ever lived, they are invincible and immortal and beautiful and exhausted. They vacation, extravagantly. And then we reset and go again.