I’ve been sick—not the grand kind of sickness you write a book about, but a niggling illness that has made impossible a few things I used to enjoy, embittered me, enhanced my depression, made me feel feeble at a young age, rendered pathetic, anger covering like a sloppily executed deadfall trap, an intense and unsexy sadness, appreciating the colossal inefficiencies of the American healthcare system, getting bills I don’t understand six months after the fact. Didn’t I pay for this already? Shouldn’t insurance take care of me here? My charisma is drained. Some days I don’t know how to talk to old friends. I rant, fly off boringly into the details of a grievance even I don’t have the energy to fully understand. I’m getting worse, not in every way, but overall. I worry about all the important people in my life leaving me. I worry about leaving myself. I had a dream last night where I couldn’t correctly enter my PIN at a supermarket for what felt like hours. At one point, news cameras showed up. The whole world grew increasingly upset with me. I woke up wishing my body were a smoking car I could ditch.
Kevin Love is in decline, has been since he showed up in Cleveland four years ago. It’s something with his back, a throb that’s stiffened his frame. He grimaces through contact in the post. His shooting form brings to mind a buoy erectly bobbing among the waves. His once-fluid movements are now mechanical right down to the screw-ups. When he fumbles an entry pass, it’s like a robot haywiringly trying to grasp the concept of regret. He might be the NBA’s best player who occasionally looks like he’d only get minutes at UTEP because his dad is the coach. The game hasn’t gotten away from him in any broad sense, but it does, completely at times, more often than it used to.
This decline has unfolded in about as public a space as exists: on a brightly lit court, cameras among the stands, playing alongside LeBron James on championship-winning and Finals-attending squads. Monkey’s paw stuff: as soon as Love escaped the dismal purgatory of Minnesota and his every third game on national TV, he was no longer himself. In his last season with the Timberwolves, he finished third in the league in win shares. When the Cavs vanquished the 73-win Warriors in 2016, he played 26 minutes per contest, missed Game 3 with a concussion, and was less important to his team’s success than Tristan Thompson.
If this isn’t a deep valley—here is an evocatively 144p photo of Love elatedly pouring beer over himself in an Austin 3:16 t-shirt—it understandably bruises the ego and draws the nerves taut. Winning is nice, but when you’re two-time second team All-NBA, you’d like to have more to do with it than Love has. His lone iconic performance from that famous Finals is him valiantly not falling on his butt five different times as Steph Curry tried to feint himself free for a three-pointer. He’d probably rather it were a 35-and-16 in an elimination game.
“I’m so hard on myself… I don’t pass the mirror test,” Love told Jackie MacMullan, in a recently published piece about the NBA’s mental health epidemic. That’s a problem on his best day. What do you do when the mirror is clocking how far you’ve slipped, when you aren’t supposed to be slipping yet?
Projection is an ugly thing, using other people’s lives as paper to make origami that looks like you. It’s what jerks do to justify themselves, what the chronically lonely do instead of forging actual connections. You point at the screen in the middle of the movie and whisper that’s me. It’s possible you’re extremely wrong.
I sort of hate Kevin Love. Casually, the way you hate a restaurant without ever eating there. I don’t put a lot of effort into it, though I have over the years crafted a rich fictional inner life for the guy: byzantine takes on the hierarchy of Scrubs seasons, an abiding love of skinless chicken breasts, a latent desire to quit the NBA and run a surf shop. I like to think he yells oh, crackers! when he claps his hands together after missing a shot. When Cleveland announced Love’s four-year extension last month, I lamented to a Cavs fan friend: that man’s going to have his number retired one day, and you’re going to have to explain it to your son. I’m kidding, like you kid strangers for no reason, like teens crack on random passers-by outside a corner store. It’s one-sided, cruel, and pointless.
And that flip antipathy seeps into my ideas about Love’s anxiety. I’m with Pete Davidson here: “sorry you missed your three-pointer, Kev, but I’ve been in therapy since I was six years old.” Journalists and talking heads have taken a solemn, effortfully serious tone in commenting on the reveal that Love and many other NBA players are struggling with mental health issues, and while that’s generally a good thing, it’s also pretty mockable. A hangdogish millionaire has some trouble, and sports media folks, not really knowing what to do with themselves when they have to discuss something serious, having read two novels in the past three years and considered the human experience less thoroughly than whether or not Clint Capela can stay on the floor against the Warriors, like an idiot’s idea of a therapist, squickishly overthank Love for his candor. So brave, what you did, Kevin. Astounding. This is not his fault. He’s doing okay. It’s the reaction—the sincerity-cranked-to-11 humoring of him—that bothers me more than anything, reminds me of relatives not knowing how to talk to me. He should use this power toward his own ends, petition the league to let him wear an American flag bandana on the court.
You want people to understand you, and they never will. Not because you’re special. You might be. (Kevin Love is. I am not.) In the end, what you feel is incompletely expressible, and it’s trapped within you anyway. That’s true of everybody, no matter how happy or despondent. Your struggles are specific, and they aren’t. You grew up hard, or easier. Your dad was abusive, or a good guy who still scared you sometimes, or he wasn’t around at all. You’re coming apart more every day, somehow.
I don’t know that Kevin Love thinks about entropy, as such. I don’t know that he’s got Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline in his headphones when he’s in the practice gym, some plaintive horn line murmuring over the silent arc of his jumper, considering the album’s title, how it suggests a beautiful, almost artistic way of eroding down to nothing. Like you can see certain things sharper as your eyesight fades.
Definitely not. More of a Soundgarden man.
I sort of like Kevin Love, in the way you like a man you see on the sidewalk outside your apartment window, battling a sweater he’s pulled over his head wrong, clutching and wriggling, a big dumb bent navy flower with a human torso for a stem, hoping that nobody else is noticing. But you’re noticing, and you’re laughing at him, thinking: oh, buddy. It’s possible to be sympathetic and amused at the same time.
Love’s going to have a fine year in Cleveland. He’ll be the offensive axis of a mediocre team, which might be a soothing exercise after four seasons of crushing high-stakes scrutiny. The local media will flatter him for choosing to stick around, even if the scant hope that Minnesota Kevin Love was lurking beneath the LeBron Era one is quickly dispelled. At 29, he should be in his prime, but he’s not—broken down in some small way for good a long time ago. He’ll take on the air of a distinguished veteran who’s lost a step but gained a certain, possibly imaginary battle-testedness. The Cavs could lose fifty games and he would still glow like a winner.
In spite of our best, well-intentioned, or barely half-assed efforts, strangers remain strangers—caricatures, symbols, punchlines, some parts of them overemphasized and others completely invisible. I like knowing Kevin Love is a little bit of a mess, because—oh, buddy—I am an even greater one. I also find his issue funny, because it jibes with a fake person I’ve constructed in my head, a doofily hapless basketball player out of the Cathy cartoon universe.
Here is some fellow feeling for you: reaching for the profound, tumbling, and ending up with a mouth full of turf. Here is more: “Love, who is 6-foot-10, was in a cabana at Gurney’s Beach Club in Montauk with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model girlfriend, Kate Bock. ‘They played cornhole on the beach for hours,’ said a spy.” I woke up last week nauseous, spent ten minutes in the bathroom dry-heaving, naked and ugly in the quiet dawn, wondering what’s hit me. Love had to pull himself out of a basketball game because he felt like he was dying.
Deep down, what is our relationship with professional athletes? Our own lives loosely correlating with facts about people we watch on TV? Maybe that’s all it is, a kind of hysterical connection between object and voyeur. Kevin Love seems sweet; I want to protect him from people like me. If that’s not a reflection on the self, I don’t know what is. He looks like a basset hound with a YMCA membership—and a long familiar shadow.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic