Wednesday, October 1, 2008

HustleJunkie: Memories Before the Storm

Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell and a contributing writer for HP. His HustleJunkie column runs weekly here at HP. He is NOT leaving me all alone for some sort of position with an NBA Team, because he's not a traitor. He will be spared when my reign is affirm...HE'S A COOL DUDE.

The 2008-2009 NBA Season is nearly here. Needless to say, I can hardly wait. Soon the paroxysms of joy that only the hardwood can provide will come storming into our lives again. The ferocious dunks. The athletic blocks. The clutch last second shots. In one gigantic wave, the game that we love will be back. If only I could concoct some scheme that would keep it here for good.

As a Spurs fan, I’ve learned one lesson repeatedly: The minute the referee tosses that ball up into the air and the clock passes from 12:00 to 11:59 for the first time, all the achievements of the past seep away. The only victories that count are the victories that lie ahead. It’s this lesson that has helped keep my beloved Spurs competitive for so long, but it’s a lesson we need not heed just yet. The first tip-off and the first click of the clock have yet to come. So before we are caught in the whirlwind of the upcoming season, I’d like to take a minute and reflect upon my favorite memories from the season that has recently subsided.

One cold early spring evening, I sat in the Old Town Ale House In Chicago, Illinois with my friends Andrew and Brenna. In the corner was an old television which no one but me was paying attention to. On the screen, the Boston Celtics were playing the Minnesota Timberwolves in what was surely an emotional affair for all involved. It was the first time Kevin Garnett had returned to the court he had previously haunted for a decade, but as one fan’s sign aptly put it, he returned “a wolf in celtic clothing.” Despite the respective records of both teams, the game was extremely competitive. In the end, the Celtics stole the ball in a manner I can’t quite recall (I was at a bar), and with it the win.

I don’t remember the score or the man who scored the winning bucket, all I remember was feeling oddly emotional. I don’t have any allegiance to the Timberwolves, but something about their loss struck me as tragic. I also don’t harbor any ill will towards Kevin Garnett. If anything, he is sure to make a heroic appearance later in this piece. But it seemed to me that Minnesota had a chance to prove something. They had a chance to prove the game is about more than superstars, that in actuality its about some fleeting conception of pride. At that moment I felt that they missed that opportunity. But you know what, now that I think about, they didn’t miss it at all.

My mother had come to visit me here in Chicago to help me shop for furniture because I’m inept when it comes to providing for myself and for some reason she loves me nonetheless. At the time I didn’t have dining room chairs or a kitchen table, much less cable, so our shopping excursion was accompanied by a trip to the Four Farthings, a pub near my apartment. You see, that day was the first day of the NBA playoffs and the San Antonio Spurs were playing the Phoenix Suns.

I’ll let you in on a little secret about your pal, Graydon: When I get watch the Spurs, I get very anxious. And when I’m anxious, if beer is placed in front of me, it is consumed at an alarming rate. To cut to the chase, I was drunk and the sun was still shining. If I have to remind you about this game you must have been living in a cave at the time as it was arguably the most exciting game of the playoffs, if not the whole season. It took two overtimes to come to a conclusion. The game was initially extended by a booming 3-pointer from the veteran Michael Finley. But the most miraculous moment came in the closing seconds of the first overtime.

Manu Ginobili set up at the top of the key as the clock ticked below 10 seconds. Raja Bell stood across from him, sporting that Mephistophelean grin I despise so much. Manu drove to his left, as the wily Argentinean is known to do, and kicked the ball back to a long and awkward man in a white jersey who had perched himself just beyond the 3-point line. The ball slid into the hands of number 21, Tim Duncan, who, having been abandoned by Shaquille O’Neal, took his time setting up the shot. His knees buckled, his eyes focused, and he let it fly. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on. I saw the ball go through the basket and instinctually exploded from my seat in an elated fit. But it took me several seconds to realize who had actually made the shot.

After a layup by Ginobili in the second overtime the game came to a close and I started hugging waitresses and receiving hearty handshakes from giggling patrons who were probably more entertained by my drunken enthusiasm than the game itself. That was good day.

I strongly dislike both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Oh, screw it. I hate both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Both rank near the very top of my least favorite franchises. So the NBA Finals provided me with a predicament, to say the least. In some ways, I was happy to just watch some solid basketball without the previously mentioned Spurs-induced anxiety that accompanies me like my own shadow. But for some indiscernible reason I felt compelled to pick a side. So originally, I settled on the Lakers. I decided that something about the inorganic composition of the Celtics meant they didn’t deserve a title. But somewhere along the way, amidst Kobe’s temper tantrums, and Paul Pierce’s hot hand, I started to switch sides. But my complete transformation didn’t really happen until game 6. And even then, until one particular play.

I was in a little soul food joint near my apartment enjoying some fried chicken and mashed potatoes. My eyes were locked on the screen. Kevin Garnett found himself with the ball in traffic. He went up, was fouled, and collapsed to the floor in an odd yet electrifying manner. His body became flat as a board, and before making contact with the court he seemed to momentarily float completely parallel to the floor itself. While hanging suspended, he hurled the ball at the backboard, ricocheting it back through hoop with violent force. “And one.” I erupted from my chair, nearly flipping my plate of chicken onto the floor. Half the room let out a collective roar; the other half immediately turned towards the screen to see what had just occurred. The bartender, an acquaintance of mine, quickly asked me what had just happened. As I explained to him the details of the play, he didn’t seem as enthused as those of us who had witnessed it live. He turned to watch the replay, admitted it was a good shot, and returned to his duties not nearly as excited as those of us who had originally seen the play.

He was missing the point. Yes, the play was great, but it wasn’t about the play in and of itself. It was about the message that it communicated. I have always argued for an understanding of the basketball court as not just an athletic space but a communicative one: a space where those who play the game are actually empowered to a level of self-expression. This play is one of my most formidable examples. Without a word, everyone watching knew exactly what was going through Garnett’s mind: “There is no chance in hell we are going to lose.” It was at this moment I relaxed. It was in the second quarter, but the outcome to me seemed inevitable. Not coincidentally, the Lakers seemed to lose hope as well. Rather than fight for survival, they submitted in an underwhelming fashion. Garnett got his point across.

You know what was the fun thing about writing my column this week? Realizing that by June, I’m going to have a lot more of these.

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