A Tale of Two Baseline Jumpshots
How the second round of the NBA playoffs brought me back after a strange six months
As the ball bounced off the front of the rim, my thoughts turned to overtime. Who was in foul trouble? Who was the most fatigued? Which team had the momentum?
The second bounce made me realize that such things were silly to consider. If the Basketball Gods didn’t think Toronto had been tormented enough in recent postseasons, and really thought it necessary to torment them further by dangling this ball on the rim forever, then they certainly were not going to let them win in overtime.
By the next bounce, I had started to warm up to the idea that the ball might actually go in. But would it make a difference to Kawhi Leonard? While the basketball world contemplated the future of the league as that shot hopped around the rim, was Leonard himself simply picturing Manhattan Beach?
The fourth bounce shifted my thoughts to Philly. Oh man, this is going to drop through, isn’t it? The Gods weren’t torturing Toronto, why would they be? No, they were punishing the Sixers for all their sins. Destroying a prodigal son in Markelle Fultz. The process. Eric Jr. But what about Brett Brown? Coaching a game with your job hanging in the balance is hard enough. Did he really deserve to watch it bounce around the rim for an eternity? What circle of hell was this?
As much as I’ve bounced around over the last five years, I’ve always known what’s coming next. Really, I knew my entire life. After fourth grade, it was fifth grade. After high school, it was college. After my girlfriend dumped me, it was Italy. After the best year of my life (thanks, Clare), it was an extra year of college.
After college, it was finding a place to move with my new girlfriend. We decided on New York, and once we arrived, it was find a place, find a job in sports media, and find friends. I accomplished all three, though the job got strange rather quickly, as did the relationship.
Even so, I knew what was next. I was going to Sports Business Classroom that summer, where I would figure out how to take the next step in my basketball media career. I made a great impression there, and got pointed to some NBA jobs that fall — one of which happened to be in Los Angeles.
I wasn’t thrilled about relocating, but I applied anyway. I saw it as a win-win. If I get the job, I get the job. If I don’t, I get to stay in New York.
As I waited for a response, I started to consider LA. I thought about my lack of friends in New York, and my slightly-less-significant lack in LA. I thought about the rapidly dropping temperatures, about driving, about proximity to family.
I didn’t end up getting the job (suffice it to say the position was with an organization about which I had recently written a rather scathing article), but the seed had been planted.
I spent the first two weeks of the NBA season packing up and saying goodbye to friends in New York, and the next two weeks driving across the country. I would watch games from motel beds as I fell asleep, and made pit-stops at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the Pepsi Center (where I sat in front of a man cursing loudly in Serbian after Caris LeVert hit a game-winner).
LeVert’s shot came just a few days before what looked like a career-altering leg injury. He miraculously returned three months later, though his season had been more or less lost. Three months after that, another shooting guard hit a game-winning dagger at the Pepsi Center. I can only imagine what Nemanja Jokic was yelling.
When I arrived in LA, I stayed with my uncle Barry, who makes an annual list of every film he sees that year, leaving a brief comment and a grade (4 is a “must see,” 1 is an “honest effort”).
The first few nights, I watched with him out of squatter’s courtesy, but my motivations quickly changed. I know it might be aspiring-NBA-writer taboo to admit this, but I found myself skipping Wizards-Hornets games in favor of John Cassavetes’ Faces (a “tough, tough film,” as Barry described it) or John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead — the only example, according to Barry, of a film and its source material being equally great (“Usually, one is better than the other”). The trend continued when I found my own place.
Don’t get me wrong — by normal standards, I still watched a lot of basketball. I also produced an NBA podcast five nights a week, which kept me up to date on the nights that I ditched league pass in favor of Hannah and Her Sisters or a proper Italian Sausage Ragu (I rediscovered my love for cooking, in part because my LA kitchen had more space for each individual housemate than my Brooklyn kitchen had in total).
This shift in focus poured into my job search. I considered writing about music, or about wine. I did some freelance copywriting, and looked into applying for MFA programs in creative non-fiction or critical film studies.
In February, I got a call from Larry Coon. He wanted me to run social media for Sports Business Classroom, starting immediately and leading up to the program in July.
All of a sudden, I had the type of opportunity I had spent years working towards. But my broadened interests had morphed into confusion, and that confusion into neuroticism. I did my job well, but I was distracted throughout the day and night.
I’d always had trouble sleeping, and had long established strange ways of counting sheep. “Rank each NBA team’s point guard rotation.” “Name every franchise’s last five head coaches.”
Upon moving to LA, these games had been replaced by self-reflective thoughts. What am I doing with my life? Do I really love basketball? Is LA the right place for me? What is my calling? Of course, this approach was non-conducive to sleep, not to mention wholly unproductive.
One night, I decided to start answering the questions I was asking myself. I grabbed my phone and typed up a list of everything I would want in a place to live, in a job, in a social setting.
The first thing that became clear: I hadn’t given LA a fair chance. It had everything I wanted in a place, I just had to stop isolating myself. Get an in-person job, live with people who don’t wait for you to leave the kitchen before heading downstairs, that kind of thing.
Once I realized this, another thing became immediately clear: I loved basketball, and my temporary ambivalence towards it was more about letting the unknown future distract me from the things I love than it was about a decrease in the love itself.
Nothing has changed materially about my present situation. I still don’t have friends in LA, outside of the people I already knew before moving here. I will be jobless in two months. I don’t know what my ultimate purpose in life is.
The only difference is that I have a plan. And because of that plan, I have gone from constantly analyzing everything to analyzing what I have for most of my adult life: basketball.
Last week, I drove up to the Bay Area. My dad and I were going to Oracle Arena for what could have been the last time. It certainly felt that way when the Warriors had all but completely blown a 20-point lead, and Kevin Durant reached for the back of his right leg following a baseline jumper.
My thoughts raced. After all the great moments we had witnessed in this building — the Baron Davis dunk, Game 3 upsets over Dallas in 2007 and Denver in 2013, multiple Finals wins in 2015, the 2017 championship clincher — was this really how it would end?
To be fair, it would not have been the strangest of feelings. My most memorable moment at Oracle will always be Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. The building was nervous that night, but loose compared to Stephen Curry, who was missing open shots, turning the ball over and getting worn down defensively.
Game 5 against the Rockets was checking all the same boxes.
The following game in Houston will be remembered historically. It was the clincher, the one that Houston was supposed to roll in, the one where Curry dropped 33 in the second half and 23 in the fourth quarter after a first-half goose egg.
I’m going to remember Game 5, though. The momentum was 100% with Houston. Curry did not go incandescent, nor did his teammates. But they battled. They defended. They hit the shots they needed to, and they gutted out a short-handed win against their arch rival.
They entered Game 6 as bigger underdogs than they had ever been in a playoff game during the Steve Kerr era, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they won. Game 5 gave them their swagger back.
The Warriors might win the title this June, or they might fall short to the Bucks (I don’t think the Raptors can beat them with Durant, and I don’t think the Blazers can beat them regardless).
Whatever happens, it will be okay. I’ll be at Summer League in July. After that, I’ll be looking for a job, and then for a new apartment in LA.
Maybe Kawhi will be doing the same. Maybe KD will do what I did two years ago, relocating from the Bay to NY. We all bounce around. Whichever way they’re leaning, it’s clear that both players are focused on what’s in front of them. Leave the neuroticism to Woody Allen.