"So now it was all over, he thought.... It was strange how easy being tired enough made it."--Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
"We resent that we need them so badly, that we live through them so completely; we're embarrassed that we've created a religion with such fallible gods."--David Shields, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season
"Basketball may be played and seen and agonized over and loved by more people in more places than any other sport in history." --Ira Berkow, "To Hoops on Its 100th"
And so here's where it all ends. Once again, the velvet curtain swings down on seven months of lovely nonsense. The Sonics, despite some tough losses down the stretch, fought their way through the last quarter of the regular season with a gritty, crippled kind of grace, finishing up the year with a decent if not respectable winning record. Even so, they now find themselves stepping back for the second time in three years while just about everyone else gets to go to the party.
Some folks say there's only one season in the NBA, which is a particularly cruel way of pointing out that more teams make the playoffs than not. Professional basketball, then, is one of the few places where losers find themselves in the minority. Hence, the loneliness of the vanquished is automatically compounded by an undue sense of shame, a stigmata of chronic chumping. Sometimes it gets so bad they run you right out of town. Next year, for instance, Vancouver's lowly basketball franchise is being shipped for a song down South. The Memphis Grizzlies: It's the best bad name since the Jazz landed in Salt Lake.
In the past, my enduring devotion to the Sonics has delivered me all too often unto those vicarious levels of resentment and embarrassment of which David Shields writes. Unfortunately, I'm infinitely vulnerable to such transferences of desire, as well as their attendant dangers. I used to get inordinately depressed whenever the Sonics lost. I'd get drunk, mopey. Over time, however, and especially this season, the spontaneous mental disruptions brought about by my own fanaticism have forced me to seek consolation in ever smaller doses. Now, I can find pleasure in isolated moments--a pretty play, a good quarter--regardless of whether they occur in a larger context of defeat. Sure, I still love it when the Sonics win; the trick is that I don't hate them, myself, and the world when they lose.
That said, I suspect this change in perspective is due to the hours I've logged working on this column--watching games, listening to sports radio, reading newspapers and magazines and books and biographies about basketball... all in an effort to translate as a cultural phenomenon the weird, emotional frenzy of spectatorship. Such constant surveillance has given me a deeper appreciation of the game. I'm as addicted to it as ever. It might sound contradictory, but I'm just not as anxious about it. I love the process, the movement, the sense of suspense that is contained in a single, perfect instance of talent and ambition.
It's a great game.