The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here

“Inside… Monroe… lot of traffic… on top Terry for the lead…

During the subsequent Raptor timeout, a waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings walked over to a table near the wall. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I did hear the response. “You guys make commercials about stuff like this.” It was a statement so naïve to its own profundity that it made me laugh a little. It communicated a working knowledge of the kind of blue collar, almost banal surrealism those commercials usually deal in. Pressed buttons that can dictate the course of a game miles away. Players transported through the TV from the field to a chair in front of the bar. Surrealism seeks to conflate dream and reality in a way that creates a reality that’s heightened. One that is transcendent. I think of melting clocks and their five o’clock shadow, totally unconcerned with the way time usually works, bereft of their youth, but trying their damndest to return to it. Kevin Harlan knew better than to insert of any of his own words after that three went through the net. I’m not sure what would have even felt sufficient. Because what I had just seen wasn’t part of any reality I was familiar with and I surely didn’t know what to say then and I don’t know if I even do now. It’s why I screamed, in a way that felt primal and cathartic. In a way that felt as close to approximating the inarticulable significance of the moment as possible. It was the kind of feeling they could never make commercials about because its lifespan is short and even reflecting on it now feels like I can only barely render it.

During the timeout, I texted my mom two words. “It’s happening.” It felt like several things were happening. Certainly, a historic comeback in Game 6 of a playoff series had just happened. But I think I was really talking about something else. Something that felt more in line with how monumental catharsis is supposed to be. I had said “this is the moment” so often throughout the series that it had probably already been canonized as cliché. Before Game 4. At halftime of Game 4. Before Game 5. At halftime of Game 5. I said it so much it seemed like I was trying to will it into existence. It represented something esoteric. Something that not everyone could understand. Like everyone can in some sense understand the phenomenology of a child growing up. What’s involved. How long the journey is. How cool it is when it finally happens. But unless it’s your child or your family, it can’t possibly resonate as much. Some of the nuances will assuredly be lost. It becomes something generalizable rather than something so specific that it consumes. So maybe it felt like a moment of transition for the franchise. To shed all the twenty first century mediocrity for something that indicated a push towards greatness. Until it wasn’t happening anymore. When Tony Snell threw away the inbounds pass with three seconds left, I sank to the ground. He put his hands on his head and eventually down over his face. I did the same.

We sat on a couch a few weeks before the 2013 NBA Draft. Phones in hand, we watched. What exactly, we weren’t quite sure yet. Fifteen seconds into the video was our first indication. “My name is uh… Giannis Antetokounmpo”. Honestly, watching the video now almost makes me blush. After he says his name, he then asserts that his aspiration is to be an NBA player. He says it with a thoughtfulness he still has and an innocence that makes me smile. He says it but doesn’t look directly into the camera when he does. Instead, he looks just off to the left, as if some part of him already knows that he should be looking towards a different world. He speaks with a kind of teenage uncertainty and vulnerability that is immediately juxtaposed next to an unmistakable, albeit somewhat muted confidence. Maybe it’s even closer to self-assuredness. There was an undeniable charm. Yet, it still didn’t seem like any part of him could have possibly anticipated what he would become. At the time, he was only 6’9” and still under 200 pounds. His stats were relatively unremarkable. Tools. Potential. Upside. Versatility. These were his listed strengths. They were words to gravitate towards. Words that often serve as early precursors to superstardom. But, admittedly at that point that is all they were. Words. Somewhat grainy footage of second division Greek basketball then started playing. It felt initially incomprehensible. It felt like we were in on some secret. Like it didn’t feel right that there was someone across the world, doing things I had never seen done on a basketball court before, being shown to me through what looked like a meticulously edited compilation of home video clips. Already he seemed impossible to conceptualize. His defining quality was his unknowability, his avoidance of intellectual reduction. There was no player comparison. There was no ability to project. And there certainly was no way to estimate the likelihood of success. He anticipated the Fraschillian “two years away from being two years away” moniker before it was an archetype. Yet, ultimately what he embodied was possibility. He represented a way forward. A symbol that might have the ability to one day literalize itself. And so, weeks later, we selected him fifteenth overall.

December 10, 2013. The first time I saw him in action. A cold December night against the Bulls at the UC. Giannis played 10 minutes that night and had one point. He turned it over twice and both were caused by stepping out of bounds on the catch. He was 19 and a rookie. He had still done very little to help me conceptualize what he was. Nights like that still endure in my mind, in a baby’s first steps kind of way. Nights like that are what makes it so impossible to consider his ascendancy. That was less than four years ago. He was a rookie that played less than 20 minutes on a team that won 15 games. But there was something even more crucial to be discerned from nights like that. A kernel of truth so often forced to acquiesce to his physical impossibility. There was an underlying sense of joy that permeated everything he did on the court. The way he carried himself. Even talking about joy feels too pithy, like I’m already not getting deep enough to capture his essence. But joy is so essential to personal and team success. And it’s not something that every team plays with. In a piece about the Clippers this week, Kevin Arnovitz affirmed, in an excerpt of a conversation with J.J. Redick that

“There’s a long-standing belief in the NBA, one that’s been popularized again with the emergence of the Warriors and the endurance of the Spurs: An NBA team must play with joy to win big. “I’ve always felt the best teams play with joy,” Redick sa[id]. “For some teams, joy is evident just by watching their faces. But it doesn’t always have to be outward, expressive joy in the form of laughing or smiling.”

And I think this begins to get at it. A joy that’s inward and below the surface. There is a level of carefreeness to his game. A distinct and unconditional love. A perpetual feeling, that if I can approximate vicariously, resembles an omnipresent awareness of how lucky he is to be doing what he’s doing. How much he’s embraced being the face of a franchise as a teenager with a humility and enthusiasm that belies his years and in fact, many of his predecessors in his profession. I don’t know, something about this team this year felt different, and difficult to put words to. There was a cohesiveness. A sense of shared vision. Maybe some of it was due to Jet. Maybe some of it was due to Beasus. There was a sense of veteran Dudley/Zaza-esque leadership residing in those guys that was now finally in accordance with the arrival of transcendent talent. But yet, Giannis was the catalyst for it all. On the court obviously. But also emotionally, in a way that was harder to elucidate but maybe more encompassing.

Undoubtedly, Thursday night was THE Giannis game. It was the defining moment of his career thus far. He played all but one minute in an elimination game. He was the driving force of the comeback. 34 points. 9 rebounds. It was a performance that served as the culmination of a season that had already signaled his full-fledged arrival. There are moments that are assuredly indelible. His step back buzzer beater at MSG. His dunk over Steph in the All-Star Game. But this was the night that he announced to the BC and to the world that he was a superstar. Giannis has always been a paragon of individuality, a player so unlike anyone that has come before him and quite possibly after him, that he exists in a sphere all his own. And because he is a player without comparison, it sometimes feels a little disingenuous to submit him to hierarchy. The skepticism latent beneath Bucks fandom often impels me to underestimate how good he is. There’s always an underlying this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things emanating from somewhere deep inside. But now it feels like doubt finally has a worthy adversary. His pre- draft video presented a physiologically impossible teenager whose dream was to one day be a player in the NBA. Well, Giannis, I think I can safely say that you have achieved that. You are the second-best player in the Eastern Conference. A top five player in the league. A bona fide MVP candidate in any year, including this. A player with as much defensive potential as any that has ever entered the league. And the closest analogue the league has to LeBron. All of that feels weird to type. It feels like I just led myself down a path of hyperbole. But it’s all true. And it’s why Thursday night felt so important, even in a loss.

In the waning moments of Game 4 last weekend, we searched for consolation. For most of the game, the upper deck was home to very little of that, and a lot of inebriated confusion. The rally towels provided on the way in had since been set under chairs. But suddenly something happened. BUCKS IN SIX reverberated around the arena. Initially, and even upon reflection, some part of it felt genuinely inspirational. Like it maybe, at least ephemerally, had the power to eliminate any thoughts of here we go again and replace them with optimism. But eventually, it felt almost irritating. It continued to be shouted, louder and louder. Yet, it felt like the kind of thing you said at a high volume to convince yourself of its sincerity or its truthfulness. Its triteness precipitating its likelihood. I descended the steps to the fourth-floor concourse and couldn’t help but feel like I was being transported backwards. Fundamentally, the Bucks in Six chant felt anachronistic. Its origin was in an era in which the eighth seed was celebrated as success. An era steeped in mediocrity and one which the aforementioned chant was invoked as the mantra for a team that was little more than a cute underdog upstart. And thus because it was now invoked again, that’s how it felt like this team was going to be characterized. As a plucky, cute upstart. The thing about that though is that it just can’t be true anymore. This year was the last year for that kind of thinking. This team was the best Bucks team since the incarnation that was one win away from reaching the 2001 Finals. This series was right there for the taking. And yet, the liminality of this franchise is as compelling as it is scary as shit. Own the Future needs to become less of a hashtag and more of a direct course of action. Sure, Giannis is still only 22. But he is one of the best players in this league and at some point, the team around him and the extent of their achievement need to reflect that. This offseason is crucial. Questions abound. How much of this supporting cast is already maxed out? Surely this version of Tony Snell is invaluable in any team context and maybe more so in ours. A paradigm fulfilling 3 and D wing often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player while also being content to be the lowest usage player on the floor. But can we guarantee that this version of him will exist for years to come? I think so, but I better be 4 years, 48 million sure of it. In many ways, it seems like the league has passed Greg Monroe by, leaving behind a left handed emblematization of an era wholly unfamiliar with philosophical platitudes like pace and space and small ball. But the Greg Monroe we saw this year was exactly the player we were hoping to get. He anchored second units offensively with the kind of footwork and skill within fifteen feet that frankly not many other big men possess. But more importantly, his effort on defense was consistent and helped make up for some of his athletic deficiencies. He’s always had incredible hands. It’s what has allowed him to succeed defensively in the low post as somewhat of a lackluster rim protector. It’s what allows him to become a headache in pick and roll coverage when he blitzes and traps. But was the best case version of him this year? And while he can dictate whether or not he wants to come back next year, this particular incarnation of the Moose begs questions that are much more long term. His leadership and his willingness to be the resident enforcer are encouraging, even more so in the wake of his relegation to the bench. It’s hard to think his offense will go anywhere. But the sustainability of his defense revels in much greater uncertainty. And uncertainty is not the friend of a restructured or post 2017-18 4 years, 60 million decision.

Fortunately there are parts of the roster that do not pose as much of an existential threat. Khris Middleton is a top 30 player in the league. Period. His offensive versatility is almost paradoxically stunning because it’s so understated. He’s a forty percent three point shooter with a Joe Johnsonian propensity to take and make difficult shots in the mid range and in post ups. He’s a capable secondary ballhandler with the ability to create his own offense and is also deft at leveraging his athleticism with a knowledge of how to utilize angles, especially out of the PnR. Oh, and he’s in the conversation for the best defender on the team not named Giannis.

If Playoff Thon Maker is the Thon Maker we get to begin the year next year, then I feel like it is my public obligation to alert the rest of the league to watch out. Admittedly, I didn’t even expect him to play much this year. But he ultimately started almost the entire second half of the season and didn’t look at all out of place. He is (hopefully) our long term answer at center, a center that might shoot forty percent from three and be able to capably switch all five positions. The 23 point, 4 three, clutch catch and finish in transition, make Andre Drummond’s life miserable performance against the Pistons at the end of March will be etched into memory for a long time. Images from that game can constitute an early page in the scrapbook of his career. But maybe the most holy-shit-this-guy’s-gonna-be-fucking-awesome moment was a switch onto Kyle Lowry in Game 1 a couple weeks ago. A 1-5 PnR usually does not spell success for the defense if they try to switch. But Thon was forced to corral Kyle in an iso situation and almost ran him out of bounds. He’s 20 and he’s going to be really freaking good.

It made me happy that my probably unnoticed clamoring for Malcolm Brogdon before the draft last year was not completely lost in the wind. In many ways, he saved the team this year, which is somewhat scary, but probably more encouraging. He became the team’s starting point guard, and continually displayed the kind of situational maturity and fearlessness not usually endemic to NBA rookies. Obviously the Celtics game will always stand out. It was revelatory in ways both inspirational and concerning. That he was handed the keys down the stretch in that game. That Giannis and Khris willingly moved out of the way and allowed a rookie to shoulder the burden. And yet his steadiness and his negotiation of the sometimes difficult dichotomy between creating for himself and creating for others earned a late second victory over the highest seeded team in the conference. Whether or not he is the long term answer at point guard remains to be seen. But his importance to this team’s future does not.

But ultimately, Own the Future wasn’t supposed to be about any of these aforementioned guys. The background on my phone, the same since the summer of 2014, has but two players. One, already heavily talked about, with the number 34 on the front of his jersey. The other, with the number 12. The final destination of this franchise is not necessarily hard to conceptualize. There are certainly images that help the grander one materialize. The Larry O’Brien trophy. A championship banner. Giannis, showered in confetti, holding what recognizes him as Finals MVP. The journey towards that has started but the direction and the stops along the way are still mired in a philosophical haze of roster construction. And thus the biggest question that faces this franchise, is what exactly to do with Jabari Parker. After his rehabilitation from his second knee injury, there’s a chance he might be able to play the last month or so of next season. That’s one month of basketball, post second significant injury, before his rookie contract expires. There’s a pronounced uneasiness that accompanies the thought of having to pay him upwards of 20 million dollars a year. Maybe more. Maybe he seeks the max. And that decision will be heavily dictated by projection. By looking at the 20 point scorer from the first 50 games of the season and believing that he is the missing piece. That he is on the path towards anointment as an elite offensive player in this league. But there will almost assuredly be a voice avowing just as loudly that he will never be more than just an okay defender. That while he has already developed a Robersonian penchant for cutting off of Giannis’s penetration – unprecedentedly explosive at that – much of his offensive ability necessarily hinges on having the ball in his hands, creating for himself. He’s a capable passer but not a great one. He did shoot 37% from beyond the arc before his injury. That would seem like the key to his increasingly off-ball, second option future. I can’t help but think of Zach Lowe’s article from just before the season, in which he invoked Jabari’s figuration as a lump of clay.

“It still feels like we know nothing about this guy — what position he should play on offense, what position he defends, and what in the hell an allegedly Melo-style scorer is supposed to do while Point Giannis has the ball.”

So maybe he’s best utilized as the roll man on a PnR. Giannis had incredible success in that role this year. Maybe he can be put in Khris like situations in the mid-post that seek to actively exploit mismatches. Maybe his three pointer consistently hovers around 40% so that not only is his shot an undeniable weapon, but also his athleticism in attacking closeouts. Lowe goes on to say that

“Parker holds the promise of a multi-positional shape-shifter who could become really good at almost every offensive skill. That is a unicorn. Right now, he’s good at only one — and clueless at basically every part of defense.”

This was before the season. But it holds no less veracity now. Ever since his second year in the league, I felt like he would be best utilized as a second unit bludgeoner, someone how could effortless get 20 a night off the bench, while also being allowed the creative freedom to handle all of the non-Giannis, non-Khris playmaking. And while it would certainly be extremely difficult to construct a second unit defense around Jabari and Greg, the offensive virtuosity of both would be almost impossible to handle. But is that worth somewhere around 20 million? Probably not. If we could lock him at a Steph, my-ankle-is-like-glass type discount closer to 12-15 million then maybe. But frankly, his fit isn’t obvious and his developmental timeline is now behind the rest of the team. Blank slates are compelling, but not so much on a team that needs to take a step further on their journey to contention next season. There just isn’t as much time anymore to experiment, to figure it all out.

The future is now. It’s cliched, but it’s true. The buck surely doesn’t stop here.

 

 

 

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Top 25 Countdown: #16 UCLA

Rotation

G Lonzo Ball (Fr.)

G Bryce Alford (Sr.)

F Isaac Hamilton (Sr.)

F T.J. Leaf (Fr.)

C Thomas Welsh (Jr.)

Bench

G Aaron Holiday (So.)

G Prince Ali (So.)

F Ike Anigbogu (Fr.)

F Gyorgy Goloman (Jr.)

UCLA’s penultimate losing season was achieved by a team that was led by Dijon Thompson and T.J. Cummings. It was Ben Howland’s first season on campus. It was also thirteen years ago. For the first time since the 2003-04 season, the 2015-2016 UCLA Bruins ended the year with more losses than wins, a year that was also just-extended Steve Alford’s third in Los Angeles. However, maybe more so than any other program in the country, UCLA is synonymous with tradition. It’s a program with a record 11 championships to its name. Yet, 10 of those championships belong to the Wizard of Westwood and were won over the course of 12 years. Post-Wooden, UCLA has won only once, and they have the immortalized 4.8 second Tyus Edney length of the floor lay in at the buzzer to thank for that.

But, the Bruins are supposed to win. And in Alford’s first two seasons on campus, that was an expectation that was reasonably fulfilled through consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16, albeit with one run that was facilitated by what must have been Woodenian intervention from above in a first round escape of SMU. Yet, last season the Bruins were unable to make it past the first round… of the Pac-12 tournament, finishing 15-17 and impelling Alford to explicitly reassert his own accountability to fans of the program. Fortunately, it appears that this year’s team is poised to at the very least return to the tournament and is also well positioned to make a run once they get there. And while UCLA is forced to absorb the departures of big men Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden, much of the optimism surrounding this season owes itself to the arrival of freshman Lonzo Ball.

An incredibly unique talent, and one of the highest regarded recruits in what promises to be one of the deepest freshmen classes in recent memory, Ball’s immediate insertion into the starting lineup will be nothing short of transformational. With him he carries an expectation that he will challenge the evolutionary constraints of the point guard position. He has positively elite vision and his overall athleticism paired with his size at 6’6″ should allow him to develop into force on the defensive end. However, his shot, while developable, is certainly inconsistent, as well his ability to create and make plays in the half court. Nevertheless, Ball will be given the keys to the offense and should ostensibly allow the Bruins to better fulfill Alford’s already demonstrated predilection to play up tempo. Even more fundamentally though, throughout Alford’s tenure thus far, UCLA has been without an actual floor general, and while I certainly harbor extreme affection for former Bruin Kyle Anderson, Ball fills a void that has been left unfilled for the last three years. Consequently, his presence on the floor also allows coach’s son Bryce Alford to slide off the ball, a position that much better suits his game and alleviates a significant portion of his ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities. Last year especially, the construction of the roster necessitated that the team be overly reliant on Alford to be both the primary scorer and distributor, a reality that proved to be far from advantageous. And even though Alford was statistically impressive as a playmaker a season ago, the Bruin backcourt will inevitably be better off if some of his burden is removed. Ball and Alford will be joined on the wing by senior Isaac Hamilton, a skilled and efficient scorer who led UCLA in points per game a season ago and finished third in the Pac 12. And even though he shot 38% from three last year, the transformation of the backcourt should allow both he and sophomore guard Aaron Holiday to improve on their field goal percentages, while also cutting down on their number of turnovers.

The most prominent returner in the frontcourt is seven foot junior, Thomas Welsh, who, with continued improvement of his jumper and his post game, should further develop into a consistent offensive threat inside the arc. However, with the departures of Parker and Bolden, the Bruin frontcourt will not only invariably rely on the maturation of Welsh, but will also be forced to rely heavily on five star freshman forward T.J. Leaf, a McDonald’s All-American, whose athleticism and skill at 6’9″ will need to be immediately present if the Bruins hope to fill a glaring void in a frontcourt that is not especially deep, even before the 4-6 week absence of fellow freshman Ike Anigbogu to begin the season.

This year has the appearance of do or die time for Steve Alford. However, with an infusion of young talent, most notably of Ball and Leaf, the Bruins seems well positioned to return to their spot at the footsteps of prominence. Nevertheless, this was a team that barely finished inside the top 125 defensively last season, and their improvement this season must begin there. And although Ball already looks the part of transcendent, it remains to be seen whether or not superior talent in the starting five will be enough to alleviate a marked lack of depth down the bench. But suffice it to say, we think it will.

Namedrop Corner

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

So this addition to the namedrop corner would appear to eschew our affection for the obscure and the otherwise anonymous. And yet, as UCLA’s most prominent and assuredly most idiosyncratic basketball alumnus, Russell Westbrook is just too compelling not to write about… and because, frankly,  well

There is no doubt that he became even more compelling because of everything that happened this summer, yet compelling in a way that only seemed to impel me even more fervently towards an effort to conceptualize him. To comprehend a figure that perpetually seems so deeply entrenched in his own individualism that he eschews even basic understanding. I don’t remember much of Russ from his days at UCLA apart from his game sealing dunk against Texas A&M in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. But something, even then, was undoubtedly magnetic about him. The 2008-09 NBA season was the first for the Oklahoma City Thunder (RIP Seattle Supersonics), but they moved across the country with a face of the franchise already in tow – Kevin Durant. They won only 23 games that season. And yet, it seemed so obvious that it would not take them long to ascend to the national forefront. After selecting James Harden with the third pick of the 2009 draft, the Thunder rode their transcendent young core all the way to the playoffs, where they earned the 8 seed and a first round matchup with the eventual world champion Los Angeles Lakers. But where I fell in love with the otherworldly and almost overwhelming mythos of Russell Westbrook was on a Tuesday night. April 20, 2010. Lakers-Thunder Game 2. 5:55 left in the third quarter. The Lakers were up 6. And then this happened.

roos

It was a game I watched from one of those faux-ergonomic desk chairs at a Holiday Inn in Omaha, Nebraska. Everything about the occasion seemed banal. But that didn’t mean that what was happening on the twenty inch screen just a couple feet from my face couldn’t do everything in its power to contradict the idyllic ordinariness of a Tuesday night in middle America. Like the man attempted to throw down on Andrew freaking Bynum from just in front of the free throw line. It was only his second year. And like I said, they won 23 games his rookie year. So this ostensibly qualified as my first HOLY SHIT THIS GUY IS NOT NORMAL moment of my Russell Westbrook experience. Like a regular human being was not supposed to attempt something like that. But he gave zero fucks. He turned around, walked to the free throw line, and calmly high fived his teammates. LIKE WHAT? YOU JUST TRIED TO PUT ANDREW BYNUM ON A MOTHERFUCKING POSTER. And yet it looked elegant and effortless in a way I’m still not sure I’m equipped to describe. He didn’t care what Bynum thought. He didn’t care what I thought. Russ was just gonna do Russ. And that’s the way it will always be. Throughout his career, Russell Westbrook has seemed more symbolic than he has a real basketball player. Emblematic of some level of unbridled kinetic beauty that we’re not yet privy to. He refuses to be reduced to anything by anybody. He has always seemed a supernatural figure, someone who if he was indebted to anything, it was to his own mythology. Which is why this summer was so interesting. It felt like maybe for the first time, Russell Westbrook, the human being was forced into the limelight whether he liked it or not. Kevin Durant left for the Bay. He left for the team he and Russ had blown a 3-1 lead to in the conference finals. So now, if he so chose, Russell Westbrook would be the unchallenged face of the Thunder. And that is exactly what he chose. Why exactly however, still seemed like a mystery. In many ways, he still seemed impenetrable. Revelatory as always because he is the best at what he does, Lee Jenkins talked to Russ and wrote about it in a piece that just recently dropped for Sports Illustrated. The title of the piece – “I Was Never Going to Leave”. What emanated from the piece is that Russell Westbrook is fiercely loyal. To his family. To his friends. To his team. And to his city. But also that he is deeply invested in the journey. In the ups and downs. He knows a championship will not be in the cards every year but he loves that it can be. In many ways he just loves. His overabundant compassion is what makes him him. It is easy to perceive him as the consummate individual. Obfuscatory by nature because he is so wrapped up in himself. But that might just fundamentally misunderstand who Russell Westbrook is. There’s a journey towards understanding, and that’s one thankfully, that we can be on with him.

 

Top 25 Countdown: #18 Purdue

Rotation

G P.J. Thompson (Jr.)

G Dakota Mathias (Jr.)

F Vince Edwards (Jr.)

F Caleb Swanigan (So.)

C Isaac Haas (Jr.)

Bench

G Spike Albrecht (Sr.)

F Jacquil Taylor (So.)

G Carsen Edwards (Fr.)

G Ryan Cline (So.)

F Basil Smotherman (Jr.)

Before the season started last year, I was convinced that Purdue, after a five year absence from the national and Big Ten Conference forefront, was prepared to return to the precipice. To plant that black and gold flag with the big P at the top of the mountain next to the most recent one, somewhat tattered, but still standing proud, with Hummel, Moore, and Johnson still visibly traced into the hardened dirt by a since deceased stick. But the deities of the college basketball postseason are undeniably whimsical and omnipotent. Two seasons ago, their year culminated in a devastating late second half collapse in an 8/9 game against Cincinnati that resulted in an overtime loss. Last season they finished the season fourth in the Big Ten Conference, and rode their success all the way to the Big Ten Tournament title game where they would fall to March’s perpetual darling, Michigan State. But still, they looked primed. Primed to conceivably end an Elite Eight drought that not even the teams of the late 2000s were able to rectify. Alas, that would not happen, and it would not happen in a way that superseded even the 2015 result in the disappointment it wrought. A 5 seed in the Midwest, they drew a very good Arkansas Little Rock team. However, with just 5 minutes to go in the game, the Boilermakers were up by 14 and appeared to have already punched their ticket to the next round. Their win probability approached 100%. The fat lady was warming up her voice. And then it started again. The implosion. Now see, the 2015-16 Purdue Boilermakers had been blessed with three NBA-caliber seven footers. Three. Like that’s not a thing that college basketball teams have. And they couldn’t get them the ball late in regulation or in either of the overtime sessions. When Little Rock went up tempo, fourteen feet went off the floor. But, well, the only problem was that guys like point guard, P.J. Thompson became damn near unplayable. And it also didn’t help that Josh Hagins was kissed by the basketball gods. In spite of all of this, the Boilermakers finished last season with a top 20 offense and a top 15 offense. And even though they are forced to absorb the loss of second round pick, A.J. Hammons, they are uniquely equipped to do exactly that. So maybe this year is the year.

The absorption effort begins and ends with sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan and junior behemoth, Isaac Haas. Ostensibly the most highly regarded recruit in the history of the program, Swanigan exhibited incredible prowess on the glass as a freshman, particularly on the defensive end, where he finished first in the conference in rebounding rate. Furthermore, he proved to be an effective and efficient scorer inside the arc, while also showing flashes that he might be able to extend his production past it. And while his usage remained relatively consistent throughout much of his freshman year, the loss of Hammons will necessitate that he assume a much larger burden of the scoring, and consequently, his ability to fulfill his new, purportedly go-to role is one of the most significant questions underlying Purdue’s success this season. He will be paired in the frontcourt with with 7’2″ center, Isaac Haas, who although is admittedly somewhat limited athletically, is a freaking large human being. A per-minute stud in his time on the court a year ago, Haas combines his size with surprising touch around the basket in a way that at least somewhat alleviates pressure on his decided lack of mobility. Nevertheless, even though his role on defense can almost exclusively be limited to rim protection, it is assuredly a vulnerability that can be exploited by opposing offenses. Completing the frontcourt is 6’8″ junior, Vince Edwards, who might very well be the best all-around Boilermaker. Pressed into even greater ballhandling duties a season ago during a point guard search that did not look entirely kindly on either Thompson or Johnny Hill, Edwards has led Purdue in assists each of the last two seasons. Versatile and extremely skilled, Edwards is not only a proficient passer of the basketball, but is also one of Purdue’s best at creating extra possessions on the offensive glass, and is also an efficient scorer. Furthermore, and maybe most importantly for Purdue’s 2016-17 success, is that Edwards improved nearly nine percentage points from beyond the arc from his freshman to his sophomore year, from 32% to almost 41. If that kind of shotmaking can sustain itself throughout the course of this coming year, his Swiss Army Knife game will be all that more dangerous.

The backcourt however is enigmatic. Junior Dakota Mathias is the most likely candidate to start at shooting guard. A much improved player on offense his sophomore season, Mathias became one of Purdue’s and the Big Ten’s more consistent threats from 3, shooting nearly 42% in conference play. Last season, he also often operated as a secondary ball handler, proving adept at taking care of the ball. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen exactly how his production will be affected by his decidedly larger role, especially when he will be counted on even more to make shots in lieu of the departure of the self proclaimed perpetual green light of Kendall Stephens. The shotmaking of sophomore Ryan Cline will also be integral to the development of the Boilermakers on the perimeter, and even more importantly, to the alleviation of interior pressure on Swanigan and Haas. P.J. Thompson will ostensibly get the first opportunity to be the starting point guard. Diminutive and far from a natural playmaker, Thompson still did have the third highest offensive rating of any player in the country a season ago and shot a likely irreplicable 47% from 3 in conference play. And while he did flash the ability to effectively initiate and lead an offense, he can be somewhat of a liability on defense, and was a partial impetus to the Boilermaker collapse in the tournament. Fortunately, there might just be a star waiting in the wings. Four star freshman Carsen Edwards appears equipped to fulfill and even transcend the lead guard vacancy in West Lafayette – a void that has not been capably filled since the days of Lewis Jackson and Chris Kramer. Edwards has already impressed in preseason action overseas, and he already looks like an explosive scorer that could become Purdue’s secret weapon and more, sooner rather than later.

Namedrop Corner

spike1

Michael Joseph Albrecht

We had just come back from the under 16 TV timeout. The CBS cameras flashed first to C-Webb and Jalen in the crowd, a partial resurrection of the Fab Five. The pinnacle of Michigan basketball. Or so we thought. They were maize and blue mythology, heroes in basketball shorts and Nikes. Pushed into obscurity is ostensibly something they thought they would never be. We get a quick glimpse of the Wolverine set out of the timeout before the camera turns to star point guard Trey Burke who had just come out of the game. He nods his head. About what, we don’t know, but it was like he knew something. A secret Joe Couch Potato could not even begin to conceptualize.  15:00. Sauce Castillo with the ball on the left wing. Maybe it was some subtle ode to the anonymity he had previously reveled in, but no Louisville Cardinal seemed to recognize that there was someone wide open in the corner. Almost like he was some sort of spectre. And then… HERE’S ALBRECHT. Corner pocket. 13:09. Off a Russ Smith miss, Tim Hardaway pushed the ball up the floor and found, well… ALBRECHT, CAN HE DO IT AGAIN? The answer, once again, was yes. Yet, it still seemed like some sort of mirage, like a narrative already becoming so dangerously close to Disney sports movie that it couldn’t possibly be real. It still felt impossible to genuinely comprehend what was happening, because it wasn’t clear what exactly was happening. Backpedaling down the court, screaming LET’S FUCKING GO. Jim’s Nantz’s voice getting louder and louder seemed to approximate the intensification of the moment, but it still wasn’t really helping. 12:04. This time, an absolute bomb, early in the shot clock. UNBELIEVABLE. UNREAL. Jim trying his very best to articulate the inarticulable. 5:59. This, the most YOU HAVE TO SHITTING ME three of them all. And yet, sports are cruel. Sometimes, moments are just that. They succumb to the timelessness of narrative, but oftentimes ephemerality afflicts. And in that moment, Michael Joseph Albrecht was the biggest star on his sport’s biggest night. His aspirations changed. A date with Kate Upton seemed within reach. Make me like Mike became make me like Spike. Until it was over. Memory isn’t maize and blue. It’s just a maze.

Top 25 Countdown: #20 Rhode Island

Rotation

G Jarvis Garrett (Jr.)

G Jared Terrll (Jr.)

G E.C. Matthews (Jr.)

F Hassan Martin (Sr.)

F Kuran Iverson (Sr.)

Bench

G Stanford Robinson (Jr.)

G Christion Thompson (So.)

F Nikola Akele (So.)

F Andre Berry (Jr.)

F Mike Layssard (Fr.)

Over the last fifteen years, the faces of the Atlantic 10 conference have been as distinct as they have been numerous. The 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Red Hawks finished the regular season undefeated, but they finished the season with two losses. One to eventual Elite 8 counterpart Xavier led by Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, and the other on the precipice of the Final Four to the John Lucas led Oklahoma State Cowboys in one of the greatest regional finals I have ever witnessed. Jameer Nelson was the little man, from the little school who beat, well, almost everyone. Phil Martelli was roaming the sidelines then. And still is today. The forgotten 2005-06 George Washington Colonials who ran through the regular season unscathed in conference play and with only three losses overall. Pops Mensah-Bonsu. Mike Hall. J.R. Pinnock. The 2006-07 Xavier Musketeers did not necessarily have the otherworldly regular season performance of the aforementioned teams, however they did participate in one of the most indelible games of my lifetime. Outlasting the 8th seeded BYU Cougars in the first round, the Musketeers earned a second round matchup with the Oden and Conley led Ohio State Buckeyes. Gus was on the call as I watched the final minutes on a small TV in the concession area at a seventh grade basketball tournament. Now this Ohio State team purported itself to be the closest approximation of a forerunner to a Calipari Kentucky team of the next decade. Oden was transcendent. Conley was his floor general. Swingman Daequan Cook came with five stars floating above his head. And eventual Buckeye great David Lighty had four. They lost only once in the Big Ten, and were coached by former Xavier head coach Thad Matta. So needless to say, they weren’t supposed to lose. At least not yet. Following a Drew Lavender three pointer with seven and a half to play, Xavier was up 11 and inching ever closer to achieving the unthinkable. They were still up 7 with just under 3 to go and then it began. Jamar Butler from the parking lot. Ron Lewis and-1.  All leading up to one of Gus’s best ever calls. CONLEY… 5 TO GO… LEWIS HAS BEEN AWESOME LETS IT GO… LKAHFAOS;IFHIROTHIAODFBAIFHIORTHA’OIH’NSAJLF. Yeah Xavier lost in overtime. But their wait to avenge an early exit would be a short one. Returning almost everyone the next year, Xavier entered the tournament as a three seed and would again make it to the Elite 8 where they would lose handily to a Westbrook and Love led UCLA team. But the game that preceded that, a Sweet 16 matchup against West Virginia also entered the pantheon of indelibility. I will always remember the game as the B.J. Raymond game. Hitting one bomb from the top of the circle with just over a minute to play and then a right wing three off an out of bounds play with 30 seconds left that sent Raf into hysteria. ONIONS. HOW COULD THEY LEAVE HIM?? And yet all of this still fell short of one of the greatest games of all time. March 26, 2010. Xavier in the Sweet 16 again. This time playing the second seeded Kansas State Wildcats. If you looked at the game only through the prism of numbers, this is what you’ll see. 2 overtimes. 13 ties. 17 lead changes. 197 points scored. The game itself fell so deep into the vast abyss of absurdity and volatility that it became genuinely unbelievable. It was high leverage masterpiece where every possession felt monumental. And the shotmaking eluded capable description. This was the last game of the night with the stage all to itself. And even though K State would prevail in the second overtime, the shot to get there birthed another Gus great. “Holloway… has shown a flair for the dramatic… 11 to go… Holloway kicks it out Crawford 8… CRAWFORDS GOTTA HURRY… AAAAAHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOOO… And Len Elmore, becoming the mouthpiece for America screams but a single word… NO. Thank you Jordan Crawford. Thank you Tu Holloway. Now over the last few years, the Atlantic 10 crown has shifted and its overall membership transformed. A 2011 Sweet 16 run by the Richmond Spiders. A couple Rick Majerus led Saint Louis Billikens teams that earned my affection. Consistency at the top of the conference from the Temple Owls. The entrance of Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams. An improbable Sweet 16 run by the Explorers of La Salle. And an inspiring Elite 8 run from the Dayton Flyers. And yet I have yet to mention the team this preview is really about.

All of this is to say that the class of the 2016-17 Atlantic 10 conference is Rhode Island. Extracted from the doldrums of obscurity by now fifth year head coach Dan Hurley, the Rams look to be legitimately positioned to do something they have only recently watched other members of their conference do – play deep into the NCAA Tournament. But that could have happened even earlier. And a 2014-15 season that saw them make it to the second round of the NIT, Rhode Island looked primed to end their twenty first century tournament drought last year. That was until their best player, E.C. Matthews, sustained a knee injury in the first game of the season. The Rams went on to finish a disappointing 17-15 accompanied by a first round exit in the A10 tournament. However, not all was lost. In the absence of Matthews, the sophomore backcourt of Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell, was forced into an opportunity to shoulder much more of the load themselves. And it was Garrett especially, who emerged as one of the best lead guards in the conference. In his freshman season, Garrett flashed his abilities as a pure point and a defensive menace, but his offensive production left much to be desired. Shooting 38% from the field and 29% from three with relatively low usage was recognizably freshman, but last season, out from beneath the shadow of the ball dominant Matthews, saw not only a significant uptick in usage, but an unfathomable improvement in shot making that saw the Masked Man become the best three point shooter in the entire conference. Whether or not that is sustainable remains to be seen. While Terrell did not enjoy as monumental a transformation between his freshman and sophomore year, he did cement himself as an invaluable part of the Ram rotation, playing a much higher number of minutes while improving his percentages across the board. Adept at taking care of the ball on the offensive end and having already displayed a penchant for forcing turnovers on the other end, the Garrett/Terrell tandem has proven to be formidable on their own. And now Matthews steps back into the fold.

A legitimate first round NBA prospect and the player who will most assuredly dictate how far Rhode Island can go, E.C Matthews is one of the most skilled offensive players in the entire country. And most importantly, with him returns hope in Kingston. Mining for comparisons, guys like D’Angelo Russell and James Harden come to mind. Admittedly it helps that they are all left handed, but Matthews fits into their mold of smooth, crafty, high usage playmakers capable of carrying their team for long stretches of time. Already a skilled creator for himself and for others, Matthews does need to take care of the ball better and more consistently convert from behind the three point line, two things that might inherently improve through the maturation of Garrett and Terrell, allowing Matthews to more often move off the ball and have it in his hands less. The backcourt will be most notably supplemented by Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, a sixth man, who although was a relative non shooter during his two years with the Hoosiers, will ostensibly be able to better utilize his athleticism to his advantage in the A10.

The frontcourt returns both Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, who although are both relatively undersized, make up for it with their respective length and athleticism. Iverson, a Memphis tranfer, and a former top 30 recruit, led the Rams in rebounding a season ago and was one of the best in the A10 at cleaning the glass. With every year his range extends more comfortably outward, and his development as a two way forward is another key to postseason success. Since he stepped foot on campus at Rhode Island, there has always been one thing Hassan Martin has been able to do, block shots. The best in the Atlantic 10 the last two seasons, and consistently in the top 20 nationally, Martin is an absolute force around the rim defensively and an efficient producer around it on the other end. His durability is certainly a concern, but the continued development of Iverson and Martin suggests that the Rams frontcourt is not far behind their backcourt, if at all.

This is the year. The Rams have not been back to the tournament in this millennium. The Rams played unbelievably slow last year, as their tempo dipped into the 33os nationally, down from spot firmly inside the top 100 the year before. However their offense improved from its 2015 incarnation, most prominently due to a marked uptick in three point percentage. If the Rams can inch back closer to their top 15 defense from a couple seasons ago, this team suddenly becomes extremely formidable, especially while being perpetuated by the continuity of its core. Yet, the Rams are not especially deep and are not especially big, and therefore, their success this season will stem from the reassertion of Matthews and the health of the starting five. But this is their turn, their chance to bear the flag of the A10 while a nation watches in awe. And they will do exactly that.

Namedrop Corner

Lamar Odom

Lamar Odom

The best player in the history of Rhode Island basketball, Lamar Odom was awesome and revolutionary. 6’10” with sublime handle of the basketball and an unbelievably gifted playmaker, Lamar will forever be underappreciated, possibly having earned a spot on the Mount Rushmore of point forwards. But he was also an intimately complex figure and a tragic one, much of the tragedy sacrificed for the televised essentiality of Kardashiana. A playground legend at a young age, his fame and mythology was compounded by his bestowed transcendence atop the glitz and glamour backdrop of Los Angeles. A captain for the Clippers at 21, it wasn’t until Khloe that his sports and Hollywood celebrity coalesced in the most dysfunctional way possible. My one time foray into the world of Khloe and Lamar was relatively brief but it was real. And even while his life was manipulated by camera documentation and framed by the high definition living room set of housewives in suburbia, his vulnerability was exceedingly evident. As was his pervasive optimism. Deferential and perpetually seeking connection, my short lived exposure to him is what ultimately made his eventual descent all the more heartbreaking. And Khloe always seemed like the most down to earth of the three. The most relatable. The most resistant to reduction. And while my years of separation leave me unable to verify whether or not this is still true, their divorce was just finalized and you wanted to see those two crazy kids make it. RIP Khloe and Lamar, best wishes to you both. Although Khloe, you already maybe got engaged to Tristan Thompson which is kind of weird, but also you do you girl.

Top 25 Countdown: #22 Creighton

Rotation

G Mo Watson Jr. (Sr.)

G Marcus Foster (Jr.)

G Isaiah Zierden (Sr.)

F Cole Huff (Sr.)

C Justin Patton (R Fr.)

Bench

G Khyri Thomas (So.)

F Toby Hegner (Jr.)

C Zach Hanson (Sr.)

G Ronnie Harrell Jr. (So.)

G Kobe Paras (Fr.)

For the majority of my existence, Dana Altman has been the face of Creighton basketball. Leading the Jays to seven tournament appearances during his tenure in Omaha, ephemeral stardom smiled down on Missouri Valley darlings like Kyle Korver, Nate Funk, and Booker Woodfox. However, he departed Omaha following the 2009-10 season for Eugene, paving the way for the ascendance of then Iowa State head coach, Greg McDermott. Thus, while Altman might have objectively defined Creighton basketball, it has been McDermott, and his son, Mr. McBuckets, who have ostensibly ushered in an era with the closest approximation of transcendence. In Dougie’s three years of superstardom, the formula for the Jays was relatively simple. They were going to score a lot of points. They were going to shoot a lot of threes. They were going to allow a lot of points. But more often that not, they were going to score more points than they gave up. The 29-6, 2011-2012 Jays were 5th in the country in offense and would not finish below the top 5 in the two seasons that followed, boasting the nation’s highest three point percentage in consecutive seasons. However, in the three seasons of McBucket transcendence, the highest Bluejay defensive finish was 69th, which ostensibly owed itself to a commitment to cleaning up the glass and keeping their opponents away from the charity stripe. Most often though, it appeared like their defense was largely characterized by an inability to create turnovers and a overall lack of size. After the departure of Gregory Echenique, the 2013-14 Jays were nominally playing McDermott at center in their most common lineup with molasses footed Ethan Wragge at the 4. And thus, even with an offense that reached scarily good heights, they were left with a team whose inherent construction became its regrettable downfall, perpetually falling just short of the Sweet 16.

But at least they knew who they were. And they had something they had never had before. An absolute superstar, future lottery talent, whose shot-making and overall versatility was something to behold. Inevitably, the last two seasons, post Dougie, have necessitated a transformation, and the discovery of a new identity. But somewhat quietly, these last two seasons have also been the backdrop for the emergence of a new superstar in Omaha.

A transfer from Boston U and an OOWF favorite, Mo Watson Jr. is flat out one of the best players in the entire country. The diminutive point guard is a do-everything speed demon who is also very much a quintessential floor general, albeit with a penchant to turn the ball over just a little too much. A special passer of the basketball, Watson was second in the nation in assist rate in his final season with the Terriers, and was 12th nationally a year ago, while also posting the best mark in the Big East. A high minute, high usage player a year ago, Watson had the ball in his hands incessantly, and much like my discussion of Bryant McIntosh, became the impetus for previously unprecedented team success through his assertiveness on offense, almost single handedly taking over in conference games against Butler and Xavier. Nevertheless, Watson is still markedly a work in progress from beyond the arc, shooting just under 30% a year ago. Therefore, it is helpful that he will continue to be flanked in the backcourt by the experience and shotmaking ability of senior Isaiah Zierden and an emerging 3 and D threat in sophomore Khyri Thomas.

What will be even more helpful however, is that Watson now has someone to more than capably share in the ball handling and play-making responsibilities. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster finished the 2013-14 season in Manhattan as one of the most highly regarded freshmen in the nation. However, his sophomore year saw not only his play decline, but also his position within the Wildcat basketball program, eventually culminating in his dismissal from the team. Now armed with a change of scenery and a fresh start, McDermott and the Jays hope that Foster can parlay his strength, athletic ability and his ability to create for himself and for others into a backcourt tandem that could very easily become one of the nation’s best. Already best friends off the court, the chemistry between Foster and Watson is what will ultimately determine the Jays’ ceiling, which may very well be higher than this ranking purports. Ostensibly, Foster can become the go to guy at the end of the shot clock, exhibiting an amalgamation of control and explosiveness that is one of the keys to this team’s hopeful postseason success.

Returning in the frontcourt is 6’8″ junior Nevada transfer Cole Huff. In his first season with the Bluejays a year ago, Huff flashed the ability to score in bunches, scoring 35 with 7 threes in a Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall and 28 in a February home victory over DePaul. Already one of the team’s better shooters from the outside, Huff has also exhibited the ability to be an invaluable defensive contributor, using his athleticism to become one of the team’s best at crashing the defensive glass and forcing turnovers. Returning important rotation pieces like Zach Hanson and Toby Hegner is not insignificant, but the national viability of the frontcourt and its greatest hope for never before seen success lies in seven foot redshirt freshman and Omaha native, Justin Patton. A consensus top 75 recruit, a season ago, Patton represents something the Jays have not recently, and maybe never, had – a dynamic presence at the center position. And while his frame currently inhibits his ability to bang down low, his mobility and ability to stretch the floor will almost immediately render him a nightly matchup nightmare.

This team returns nearly all of its significant contributors from a season that saw them finish as a top 50 offense and defense; rankings that should only be supplemented by another year of experience and the addition of guys like Foster, Patton, and freshman guard Kobe Paras to the rotation. The post-McBuckets reconstruction of the roster now feels complete, and Creighton basketball feels like its ready to once again assume its place at the national forefront, and maybe, finally secure the all elusive berth into the Sweet Sixteen.

Namedrop Corner

Ethan Wragge

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Monday January 20, 2014. In what became an incredibly surreal game watching experience, Creighton, visiting Philadelphia to take on #4 Villanova in a game that felt like it was positioned for the Bluejays to confront their Big East and national legitimacy, began the game with nine consecutive three pointers.

By the 14:00 mark in the first half, the game was already over. Wragge finished with 9 three pointers in a game that saw them win by 28, but he will be permanently accompanied in my mind with Gus on loop shouting, “PPUUUUREEEEEE”.

Top 25 Countdown: #24 Northwestern

I can almost hear Greg Gumbel now. “Now Thursday/Saturday games out of the Midwest… and they will be playing the 10th seeded Wildcats of Northwestern…” I can’t hear anything else because my insides will have already exploded. Please bury my remains beneath the three point line. CBS tries to cut to their live feed of Welsh Ryan Arena. Nate Taphorn dabs and points at America. Gavin Skelly stands up and sprints around the floor twice, while loudly emanating a rash of incomprehensible syllables. Dererk stares quizzically ahead and whispers “Pardon me?”, believing wholeheartedly that he had just cleverly birthed an original pun at the perfect moment. And Bryant sits at the center of it all with his eyes closed. He keeps his eyes closed for a little longer, hoping that if he never opens them, he never has to stop dreaming. It couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t. Finally, he opens his eyes. He looks at the video board. It’s feed is split in half. Drew has been holding a three stache for the better part of thirty minutes. Alex, from across the pond, has been screaming for almost that entire time, although the speakers had given out a long time ago. They couldn’t handle that much noise. He looks up and winks. And then all of a sudden the live feed cuts out. Tries to return. And cuts out. Evanston erupts in flames.

The Northwestern Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 2017. But Mike, you say that every year, why should I even consider believing you now? Admittedly, over the past few years, there hasn’t genuinely been a team that was equipped to make it that far. My belief in our tournament hopes stretched much more into wishful thinking than they did into any kind of honest truth. But this year is different, I promise you.

Rotation

G Bryant McIntosh (Jr.)

G Scottie Lindsey (Jr.)

F Sanjay Lumpkin (R Sr.)

F Aaron Falzon (So.)

C Dererk Pardon (So.)

Bench

F Vic Law (R So.)

G Isiah Brown (Fr.)

F Gavin Skelly (Jr.)

F Nathan Taphorn (Sr.)

F/C Barret Benson (Fr.)

G Jordan Ash (So.)

Heading into his junior season, this team will go as far as Bryant McIntosh is able to take them. Which is not to say that the supporting cast is not capable. Rather, it’s more that Bryant is just really fucking good. 14th nationally in assist rate last year and 2nd in the Big Ten, Bryant is as close to an archetypal floor general as you can get. Not only that, but his assist rate jumped from 53rd his freshman year to that spot at 14 as season ago, while he simultaneously improved his turnover rate and played much heavier minutes. Frankly, he almost never came off the floor. And yet, where he improved most significantly last year and where his greatest upside resides is in his offensive assertiveness. There were a frustratingly large number of games last year in which Bryant and Tre Demps were the only two people capable of getting something even resembling a quality look, most often occurring near the end of the shot clock after several pick and rolls and half-hearted attempts at moving the ball around the perimeter had inevitably failed. And yet, there were also several games in which his unselfishness almost came at a detriment. A really crafty play-maker in the pick and roll, there are few things as enjoyable to watch as his careful probes into the lanes only to draw a defender and dish it off at the perfect moment. But knowing when to look for his shot and committing himself to that raises this team’s ceiling significantly. Last year against Columbia and Wisconsin at home, McIntosh ostensibly won each of those games single-handedly with his shot-making, scoring 32 and 28 points respectively; games that wielded his two highest shot attempt totals of the year.

Nevertheless, quite possibly the biggest question heading into the year is how exactly the Cats will replace Tre Demps. Not only was he the player on the team best at creating for himself and getting his own shot, but he was also an invaluable second ball handler who never turned the ball over, ranking 25th in the entire country in turnover rate. He played the most minutes of anyone in the conference, never leaving the floor much like his backcourt partner. This year, McIntosh will be ostensibly flanked by junior Scottie Lindsey, and it is Lindsey, who might actually hold the key to the entire season. Fitting the profile of a conventional 3 and D wing, Lindsey jumped to 41 % from behind the three point line last year, up from 35% his freshman year. However, with an inevitable increase in minutes and usage, it remains to be seen whether or not those numbers are sustainable.

The frontcourt will be comprised of redshirt senior Sanjay Lumpkin and sophomore Aaron Falzon, who, if they were capable of combining their talents into one body may very well be an All-American. Lumpkin is a quintessential glue guy, a player who might be the best individual on ball defender on the team, and whose willingness to crash the boards and become the face to a defensive identity purportedly committed to physicality renders him invaluable. However, there are few things harder to watch than a possession that ends in a Sanjay Lumpkin corner three. The ball seems to just close its eyes and pray that it finds the rim. Which is where Falzon steps in. A 35% shooter from deep last year, Falzon is already a skilled bomber and mover without the basketball. And if added strength and a year of experience can help him negotiate everything inside the line, he will almost certainly transform into our best and most complete offensive threat. I envision the best version of this offense being predicated around a spread pick and roll attack between McIntosh and sophomore center Dererk Pardon, allowing McIntosh to move downhill, Pardon and his enviable length to be around the rim, and Lindsey and Falzon to space the floor and stretch the defense. Supplementing the attack will be instant offense freshman guard Isiah Brown, energizer bunny junior forward Gavin Skelly, floor stretching (well maybe) senior Nate Taphorn,  and most importantly, the return of redshirt sophomore forward Vic Law. The most heralded Northwestern recruit in some time when he arrived on campus, Law showed flashes his freshman year of the player he was expected to be, an uber athletic and long forward, capable of being a terror on the defensive end. And while his offense was slow to come along, he shot 44% from beyond the arc in Big Ten Play. Yes you read that right, 44%. Good for 5th in the conference. Whether or not that kind of shooting ability is transferable after a year away from the court is another thing, but the talent is there, and his ceiling only keeps rising.

The Cats never help themselves with a perpetually barren non-conference schedule, but this year is a little bit different. With early season games against Butler, Texas, Notre Dame, and Dayton, Northwestern has something it often does not. Opportunities to bolster its resume outside of Big Ten conference games. This is the year. The momentum feels tangible. Like something is genuinely building. Undoubtedly a team whose footprint last year was characterized best by its unwillingness to turn the ball over but also its inability to turn the other team over needs to be incredibly precise and has little room for error. But everything is there to do something that has never been done before. When Evanston burns down in March, Chris Collins won’t have started the fire. But he will surely have brought it.

Namedrop Corner

Michael “Juice” Thomspon

juicepumpedvsosu3

January 29, 2011. The day was introduced to Northwestern basketball. The day I became a fan. That day the Cats welcomed #1 Ohio State to Evanston in a game that will forever be lamented as the Jared Sullinger game. That day the Cats lost 58-57, but I remember standing in my family room, screaming for a team I had never watched before. To me, it will always be the Juice Thompson game. Trailing the entire second half, he hit a three with 7:56 remaining to bring the Cats within 9, and assisted on a JerShon Cobb three just moments later to cut the lead to 5. He made another bomb a minute later to keep the lead at 4 and with 3:53 remaining, hit one more to put the Cats on top by a point. Welsh-Ryan was shaking. It felt special even while all I was able to have was a distant, vicarious experience through a television set. And even though the Cats lost on a regrettable Sullinger free throw in the final seconds, I received an ephemeral glimpse into how special an environment Welsh-Ryan could be. I was in. Thank you Juice.

 

Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry

The detonation of a Woj bomb unlike any I had experienced before – the reverberations of which would ostensibly extend far beyond its one hundred forty character radius. “Kevin Durant signs with the Golden State Warriors”. Yes, those Golden State Warriors. The 73 win, you had to see it to believe it and you probably still wouldn’t believe it, Draymond Game 6 suspension away from back to back world championships and a rightful claim to the moniker of best team of all time Golden State Warriors. It has now been a little over a week since the decision. A decision purposefully invoked in lowercase type so as to not confuse it with its older brother, six summers its elder, The Decision. It has been a little over a week and I’m still not quite sure that I have distilled my labyrinthine thoughts into anything resembling a cohesive whole. But ostensibly my emotional arc has traced something close to a transformation from anger to sadness, although it is a transformation that feels somewhat misguided. And maybe even uncomfortably narcissistic. My anger was almost surprising. Not because I didn’t feel like it wasn’t warranted, but because it was directed at Kevin Durant of all people. Synonyms for soft and antonyms for loyalty were what my mind was ardently searching for, and that seemed incomprehensible and downright antithetical to everything that KD purportedly represented. I mean the man had positioned himself as a walking embodiment of Oklahoma City, fully encapsulating a humility and allegiance that wove himself into the fabric of the community rather than simply superimposing himself onto it. Just hours later, fans dressed in an orange and blue that appeared unusually muted, took a picture in front of the banner with his face on it that hung from the façade of the Peake – a banner that was situated directly between Russ and Steven. Maybe façade was the word to focus on because it was what provoked what I so vehemently felt. In the hours after his letter in the Players Tribune, there was this unshakable feeling that Kevin Durant was exactly that – just a facade. I remember the man’s MVP acceptance in speech in 2014 more indelibly than almost any other one because it was imbued with a sense of genuineness that usually felt absent, especially when was it being emanated from a soul already located in the stratosphere of his profession. His was a superstardom that felt casual, a talent that felt so banal you almost had to remain actively conscious of the fact that what took the floor each night was a 6’10” anomaly of a basketball player. Kevin Durant is veritably unlike any other player professional basketball has previously seen. Players his size are not supposed to be able to do anything as well as he does. And for glimpses in these past playoffs, most notably in their series against the Spurs, we saw one of the greatest two-way players ever to step on the floor. He seemed like a guy that was all about the journey. That championships were important, of course. But the process was what mattered. And he made it seem like he ardently believed all of that. But it’s just hard to believe that he still does. He left for the second greatest team of all time.

He left for a team that had the most regular season wins in NBA history. And he left for a team with the two greatest shooters in the history of the league. Yet, worst of all, and the hardest to swallow, is that he left for a team he was four minutes away from beating. Had Steph Curry and Klay Thompson not combined for the greatest shooting performance I have ever seen, the Oklahoma City Thunder would have conceivably been the 2016 world champions. KD would have resigned. Russ would have undoubtedly resigned next summer. And the Warriors and Thunder would ostensibly go on to actualize the greatest in conference rivalry since who knows when. But they lost Game 6. And they inevitably lost Game 7. But the dominoes didn’t stop falling there. See, the Warriors blew a 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavaliers that not only brought a championship to a city that had been starving for one but also cemented the legacy of the greatest player of our generation. The Cavs won and they will forever be remembered as champions. However, it is still abundantly clear that the Warriors were the better team. The 2014-15 Cavs did not have a puncher’s chance. They took the Dubs to six games on the back of what might go down as LeBron’s most impressive career performance – an effort precipitated by Delly wrong foot floaters and thirty-five point outbursts from a man who somehow just received sixty-four million dollars from the Lakers. But this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers did have a chance. And the Warriors opened the door for them. Images continue to persist in my head of Draymond stepping over LeBron in Game 5. Of Steph throwing his mouth guard after fouling out in Game 6. Of Steph throwing a behind the back pass to a fan in the front row in the waning moments of Game 7. Although it nears naïve overstatement, the last few games of the Finals and certain desperate moments in the Western Conference Finals were some of the first and realest moments of adversity this incarnation of the Warriors had had to face over the last two years. And they folded in the face of it. Thus their loss in the Finals naturally provokes an endless series of questions. As constructed, is the Warriors team capable of rendering themselves a dynasty? Unprecedented and still largely unsolvable, is this team capable of becoming something professional sports has never seen before, and not ephemerally? Does this team need something else?

And maybe this is where KD comes in. It has been said that the impetus for his move to the Bay was a Team USA connection with Steph and Andre Iguodala conceived years ago. So maybe they sold him on the idea of something. Maybe they sold him on the idea that he was the missing link to the ascertainment of something great. Of something transcendent. Maybe this is where my frustration originated. Because the move felt, and to a large extent still resides in some philosophical area outside my understanding. There are certain limitations to empathy here that made themselves clear. Why did he make the decision he did? I needed to know. Because from a competitiveness standpoint it made no sense. If loyalty was still a cornerstone, it made no sense. If a philosophical reverence of the process and the journey was still important, then it made no sense. So why then? Maybe in some ways, it was an omnipotent allure of the unknown. The fundamental human attraction to something else, to something beyond our understanding. He had spent his whole career in Oklahoma City. Maybe it was just time for a change. He had been steps away from a championship, sure. But he would have come back to largely the same thing. Sans Serge. And plus an athletically supreme backcourt of Westbrook and Oladipo. Maybe he had watched Steph. And LeBron. And D-Wade. And Kobe. And Timmy. And Dirk. And just maybe he had thought about his legacy. About the fact that he is the second best basketball player on the face of the earth and he doesn’t yet have a ring. Historical narrative dictates that he needs one to remain relevant in any kind of contextual discussion of the best players of all time lest he want his name included in a pantheon with Barkley, Iverson, Stockton, and Malone. Certainly signing with the Warriors is primarily motivated by a desire for a championship. And yet, there has been a perpetuated sentiment that this is the worst way to do it. But the cognitive dissonance is increasingly apparent. Kevin Durant needs a ring. And he has been surprisingly able to eschew the often pervasive discussion in any sport about the best players without a championship. He can thank LeBron for that one. However, he can also thank LeBron for making what he is doing now somewhat reproachable. Surely much of the disdain surrounding his move to Miami involved his televised Decision, because it posited an egocentrism that had seemingly no concern for the implications of what he was saying, his jersey simultaneously being burned by fans in northeast Ohio. LeBron understandably left a roster he was never going to win a title with to join two of his best friends, and fellow superstars. Yet it’s hard, if not disingenuous to compare the two decisions. LeBron ostensibly left to build something. KD left to join something. Nevertheless, what they both have become a reflection of is the phenomenon of the superteam; an amalgamation of players most often conceived out a need to win. To just finally get a ring. Players are not good enough if they never win a ring. But they are also not good enough if they win a ring by leaving the team they started with to construct something largely conceptualized as artificial. The only way for a ring to mean something is if it is earned, eventually obtained through an unyielding adherence to the necessity of adversity. LeBron helped write and embolden the legacy of Dirk and Tim because of this immediate juxtaposition. The two of them represent a kind of purity that falls in line with a capital R romanticism that governs fandom. A capital R romanticism that extracted a deep rooted desire for KD to be like one of them.

Yet as I’ve thought more about it, maybe it wasn’t actually Kevin Durant that bothered me most about Kevin Durant’s decision. No, it was too centralized and too individual. Honestly, who was I to pass any kind of merited judgement on the choice he made for his life and his career. No, see what initially angered me instead changed into a melancholic rumination on the phenomenology of fandom. It wasn’t actually about Kevin Durant about all. It was about the Oklahoma City Thunder, and what they represented. Ever since Clay Bennett robbed the city of Seattle of its basketball team and moved them to Oklahoma City, the team became a weird kind of beacon of light for me. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. Jeff Green. Serge Ibaka. James Harden. An initial core that was built entirely through the draft. And don’t forget Sonics and Thunder lifer Nick Collison. Now the most dominant and universally acclaimed organization in all of sports over the last twenty years resides in San Antonio, Texas. Five championships in the last seventeen years. And playoff appearances in each of Tim Duncan’s nineteen seasons. But there is one word that seems to characterize the Spurs better than anything else. Culture. A word that has evolved into a rather ambiguous platitude when discussing team building and organizational success. Yet, to succeed to so completely in the single team city of San Antonio, something magical and unprecedented was needed. Timmy was something. Pop was something too. Tony and Manu surely played a role also. But I’m talking about something much deeper. A top down model of organizational success. Something that can manifest itself in an extended period of joy and fulfillment. R.C. Buford is a team building savant and the system itself was exceedingly malleable, ostensibly even operating at two ends of the basketball spectrum. The early 2000s Spurs were grinders. The early 2010s Spurs were virtuosos. And they had a superstar that never left. Ultimately they could build their team however they wanted because Tim always stayed. And almost every player brought in unfailingly became better. They bought into an identity meticulously cultivated and maintained. Players want to play in San Antonio because they want to be a Spur. Hell David West took a veteran minimum last summer, leaving ridiculous amounts of money on the table because he knew the last thing he wanted could maybe be best obtained in black, silver, and white.

However, the Spurs are an anomaly. There is no other organization in professional basketball whose success is so indebted to culture and top down leadership. Los Angeles. Boston. Chicago. Miami. New York. These are destinations and big markets. Carmelo forced his way out of Denver for one. CP3 in much the same manner, left New Orleans for one. But since I was old enough to really genuinely remember what I was watching on the court (sorry Michael), the Spurs have been better than all of them. And that’s why the Thunder were so special. And so special to me. They represented possibility in a way the Bucks had never been able to. A team completely homegrown in a market that was small and realistically could not attract anyone. They had everything in place. Sam Presti is a Spurs disciple. And he, and the Thunder have done almost everything right. Building nearly exclusively through the draft, they assembled a team with two of the top five players in the world and tried to surround them with the pieces that complemented in a meaningful way. I still remember sitting in a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska watching the 2009-10 Thunder play the eventual world champion Lakers in their first round series and it was obvious that something special was just beginning. The Peake was absolute mayhem. Russ was trying to dunk through three guys from the free throw line. The next season was the start of their actualized rise to prominence before being forced to acquiesce to the buzz saw that was Dirk’s coronation. They reached the finals in 2012 on the back of KD, Russ, and James. I don’t know, maybe they weren’t ready. And at the time that seemed fine. It was team whose four best players did not exceed the age of 23. They had to go up against a Heat team that had finally figured things out. So it was understandable because undoubtedly they were going to be back. That first Finals appearance was just going to be the first of many. Until it wasn’t. That summer after contract disputes could not resolve themselves, James was traded for the once promising Jeremy Lamb, sixth man extraordinaire Kevin Martin and a pick that would eventually become Steven Adams. That team in 2013 won 60 games and once again looked the part. That was until Pat Beverly stepped into his role as antagonist and precipitated a Westbrook injury that ruined any chance at a title. Serge was hurt in 2014. Durant hurt in 2015. Which takes us to this year. Out goes Scott Brooks and in steps Billy Donovan. Now Scott Brooks is interesting to consider. Surely he isn’t Gregg Popovich but he is still a very good basketball coach. However, to what extent he is culpable for the Thunder still being championship-less is ambiguous at best. Sam Presti did an unprecedentedly good job in back to back years of obtaining two absolute superstars. And yet, just placing two superstars on the court with each other does not necessarily ensure success and the relationship between Durant and Westbrook has been a complicated case study into whether or not positive coexistence is possible with personalities and egos that when juxtaposed next to each other, seem so antithetical. So much has been made of the fact that the two can never coalesce, that just maybe their fit with each other is more problematic than it is beneficial. And yet in reality the fit has always had the potential to be something wholly transcendent. Yes, Russ is a ball dominant lead guard that has not always looked the part of a lead guard, but he is an insanely willing passer and at his most relentless and ferocious might just be the hardest player to guard in the entire league. And Kevin with the ball or without it is quite possibly the most skilled offensive threat the league has. On the surface it doesn’t seem all that problematic. That’s why it’s always been so hard to actually discern what percentage of the purported conflict between them has been fabricated. It’s no secret that KD was deeply attracted to the free flowing, selfless, ball averse offense of the Warriors – an offense the Thunder could never quite execute under Brooks – and the fact that it only just began to finally emerge in spurts during this year’s playoff run had to be understandably frustrating. But this team was so close. They were up 3-1 largely behind incomprehensibly great performances from the two of them. The pieces around them were working in nearly perfect concert. Steven Adams became the rim running pick and roll partner both of them needed. Serge stretched and hit timely shots. Enes gobbled up rebounds and made the Death Lineup almost unplayable. Dion passed. And Dion made plays. Yeah those last two sentences weren’t lies. There were no excuses anymore. Youth and inexperience was a card that could no longer be played. Injuries and overall health could not be played either. And that was fine, because they were on the brink of culminating a journey that began on draft night in June of 2007, ten years in the making. And then it all came crashing down. Kevin left. Russ will probably leave. And the Thunder will inevitably have to start all over. That fundamentally is what makes me so sad about this whole thing. The line for success in professional sports is so fragile and razor thin that when an opportunity presents itself you have to take advantage. Windows don’t stay open in places like Oklahoma City for very long. And when the window closes, it inevitably remains shut until a new journey is undertaken. The Thunder have been an analogue for everything I want the Bucks to be. A team in a small market with a rabidly enthusiastic fan base and a homegrown roster with an organization committed to a cohesive and measured vision. To reaching the top of the mountain by climbing up it and sticking a green and white flag in the ground and vehemently shouting that it is possible. That investing in even the smallest promise of eventual transcendence is worth it. It’s what makes relinquishing your soul to a team and to sports worth it. So KD I want to thank you for always perpetuating that. Thank you for being a reflection of something I want to believe in. But damn it, why couldn’t you have just stayed and supported that belief just a little bit longer?

And We said: ‘Look at that f*cker Dance.’

“Sports is a metaphor for life. Everything is black and white on the surface. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care. Lurking underneath the surface, that’s where all the good stuff is – the memories, the connections, the love, the fans, the layers that make sports what they are.” – Billiam Simmons

This doesn’t seem so much like an epigraph as it does a kind of perfect encapsulation. But there’s more. In high school, I discovered a quote once delivered by Howard Cosell, a man who devoted his life to the elucidation of all of the idiosyncrasies of the sports world. “Sports is human life in microcosm.” A statement so grandiose it frankly seemed like intellectualized bullshit. Maybe it was because sports and human life seemed so difficult to capture. Or their essence at least. Sure it sounded remarkably profound, but what it did it actually mean? Was there actually any truth to it? Let’s just say, I called game.

Life seems to present itself as a ceaseless progression of events, of hours and days, of experiences. They all undoubtedly march toward something. No, the progression isn’t perfect, and nostalgia becomes so omnipresent that it doesn’t seem like progress at all. Memory colors the portrait in the process of painting itself. And yet it seems partly disingenuous to say that life is too complicated to figure out. Because most of the time, all it is are the banal platitudes of everyday existence. But they are only banal in the sense that they are ordinary. Not that they don’t matter. There’s actually a certain matter of factness to them. The characters largely stay the same; the world continues to reveal itself in largely the same way. But there’s still enlightenment to be found. And sports operate in a very similar fashion. One team wins. One team loses.  Games are played. Seasons begin and end. Players and teams write their own mythologies. Figures indelibly etched onto an actualized desire to never forget what to feel. Or how to feel. Sports is human life because it illustrates the narrative. I remember myself not as an eleven year old or as a twenty one year old because honestly the words of the story are just not that interesting. And coming from me, the assertion that the words don’t matter almost seems like some sort of sacrilegious middle finger to the voice that perpetually avows that it is only language that can articulate life. And yet I remember moments not most vividly by people or place, but rather by what game was playing on the television. I’m sitting in a chair in my uncle’s office, while the grown ups did what grown ups do. On a television that seemed anachronistically situated in a suburban living room during the Kennedy administration, Pat Garrity looked at the name on the front of his jersey. It said Magic. Three after three went in but the Buck didn’t stop there. I was seven. I’m sitting at a table with my parents in the musty basement of a restaurant I don’t even remember the name of, staring at a grainy television protruding from the corner of the wall. Swing and a miss after swing and a miss. Ben Sheets struck out eighteen Braves that day. I was ten. Maybe sports is not necessarily a microcosm of life, but instead is an amplification of life. “One shining moment, you knew you were alive.” Sure, this might seem like a Vandrossian ode to the shallow sentimentality of athletics, but in reality this is partly what sports do. They make you are aware that you’re alive. They awaken the inner recesses of marginalized emotion and do all they can to extract them. And I’m not talking about anger or frustration or anxiety or sadness or joy or optimism. Undeniably, these are all already present. No, what I’m talking about is passion, about a genuine investment of the soul in something outside of itself. I’m talking about honest to God caring; about undiluted emotion – as if all of life was hanging in the balance.

“It is foolish and childish on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team. What is left out of this calculation is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté – the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball – seems like a small price for such a gift.” – Roger Angell

It’s the naïveté. It’s the dance. My first one scampering through the house after the Josh McCown to Nate Poole miracle that sent that 2003 Packer team to the playoffs.  Dancing necessitates nuance though. And you never learn all of its subtleties. But you can learn some. Like that 2003 Packer team. “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score.” Soon gave way to “TOUCHDOWN! DAGGER! AL HARRIS!” Which soon gave way to Freddie Mitchell on 4th and goddamn 26. How do you choreograph that shit? How do you best capture the end of a twenty five year playoff drought with Bernie sliding on his ass, CC pounding the glove with complete game after complete game, and Braunie circling the bases for the fourth time that week? Or three years later when the journey was narrated by Tony Plush. Excuse me, Tony Gumble. We all threw up the T and went Beast Mode and tried to stay real real professional. What a brave heart. Or two years later when they were the best. For so long they were the best. Dream. It was okay. Wake me up when September ends. Really, please. I didn’t want to see what happened in September. So the Pack. Go Pack Go, am I right? Freddie Mitchell said stop dancing once. And Brett, oh Brett. If anyone ever embodied the soul of a team and of a fan base more than you, please let me know. Yet, on the precipice of glory, Corey Webster told us all to stop dancing. Three years later, the joy was incomprehensible. And ephemeral. 15-1, there were the Giants again. Kaep running wild, Wilson with a miracle. Then it was our turn for a miracle. Excuse me, two miracles. The prayer can be recited by any overly eager Catholic schoolboy. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” I mean the phenomenology of watching it happen twice was the kind of full blown religious experience that has you falling to your knees , dipping your whole fucking body in holy water and lifting your arms towards the heavens with nothing other than complete and utter shock. I mean if you had told me that Richard Rodgers and Jeff Janis would be transformed into messianic figures I would have asked you to look out the window and point out the pigs flying across the horizon. Everybody worships something. And in reality there is nothing that is too remarkable for faith to conceptualize. That’s why it’s called faith. It’s unwavering. Believing is not always seeing though. Green and gold every Sunday from September through January. Hell, probably just every Sunday in general. It’s more than an affiliation; it’s a full blown familial bond. There were a few other colors allowed. Red and white of course. On a scale from 38-1, Kentucky we’re sorry. Roses wilted year after year though. The magic could only last for so long. What about purple and green? Light it up, light it up. Big Dog, Ray, and Sam. They just didn’t have an answer.  Purple and green. Red and green. Green, cream and blue. A cosmetic image as transitory as the identity of the team it represented. An exercise in speed dating. Porter, Stotts, Krystkowiak, Skiles, Drew. More like a fucking exercise in futility. I mean look at our draft picks for god’s sake. The beacons of light. The saviors. Haislip, Ford, Bogut, Jianlian, Alexander, Jennings, Sanders. But the love is unconditional. The passion never wavers. It’s what makes you stand next to actualized futility for more than a decade and become overwhelmed with an entire emotional spectrum on a Dudley to Bayless buzzer beater. It’s what makes you drop everything and buy tickets to Game 6 of a series that is largely irrelevant and they have no business winning. But they might. You just never know. Until you start feeling like you might know. When a brighter future becomes less of a cliche and more of a wholehearted aphorism. When Giannis does things you have never seen a basketball player, let alone a human being do before. When Khris and Jabari make it seem like as long as you keep believing, the pinnacle can be reached. When they become emblematic of a franchise and a city on the brink of resurrection. When your investment no longer appears irrevocably Sisyphean, but screams instead that fulfillment is possible.

Sports aren’t their most profound when they embody life. No, sports are at their most profound when they transcend life. Transcendence is what keeps me coming back. When it becomes everything that life is not. When it surprises. When it inspires. When it captivates. Why is the triumph of the underdog so revered? Because it is never supposed to happen. In a black and white world, this authentic newness has no place. So every Vinatieri kick, every curse breaking 3-0 ALCS comeback, every “BYE GEORGE”, every Hayward half course off the glass and in…and out, every Tyree on the helmet to Burress in the end zone, every last glimmer that made College Gameday and a Rose Bowl and defied expectations coalesce , everything that makes us reconsider what is actually real. See sports don’t merely illustrate the narrative. Sports oftentimes ARE the narrative. They tell us things that everyday life never could. They show us a place we never thought we could go. A place we never want to leave. It really isn’t so black and white after all.