The NBA Returns Like a Mournful Fart

Basketball is back. Hooray?

Back in mid-March, one of the United States’ first signs that “the novel coronavirus” was some serious shit came after the NBA announced the suspension of its season. American pro sports don’t shut down unless ownership decides that continuing to play would present an unacceptable financial risk, whether that entails splitting profits more evenly with players or, in this case, causing mass death among sports fans. The 2019-2020 NBA season existed in limbo for over three and a half months—but this week, it’s finally coming back. After a long, dreary basketball-free journey into the maw of the human soul, “amazing will happen” once again.

Finally, there’s a light at the end of the hermetically sealed COVID-19 quarantine tunnel. Although the NBA’s eight remaining “seeding games” and the ensuing playoffs will be played sans-fans in a dystopian Disney World bubble, at least they’re going to be played. At least there’s the promise of something resembling a sense of normalcy. Sports matter in our society. As NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, “they bring people together when they need it the most.” Everything about American life might seem polarized right now, but at least we can come together to hate James Harden and his McKinsey-optimized shot selection. 

You can make a reasonable argument that the NBA’s return is quite exciting news. It’s not the first sport to resume action—the Spanish football league La Liga, Major League Baseball, and the WNBA are just a few of many leagues to get the jump on the NBA—but the NBA is the league of America’s future, the one with its finger on our national pulse. And unlike some sports, the NBA’s plan to prevent athletes from getting sick* seems like a non-terrible one (though the WNBA’s might be better). If pro baseball’s return is a case study in how to fuck up a societal reopening, pro basketball is proof that sometimes the people in charge aren’t complete idiots.

But let’s stick to sports for a second. The NBA means something to millions of Americans, many of whom are struggling to even keep a roof over their heads right now. So it means something when the NBA comes back. Being able to zone out and watch a few hours of the world’s best basketball could be the only bright spot in some people’s otherwise gloom-filled lives. 

I have written before about how basketball saved my life, and in praise of frivolous diversions in general, so I’m sympathetic to this line of reasoning. I love watching, talking, and reading about the NBA—even though my hometown Minnesota Timberwolves have been moldy trash-cheese for almost the entirety of my time on earth. Sports do matter to people’s lives. Ever since the season was suspended, there’s been a gaping NBA-shaped hole in my consciousness. I’ve missed it a lot.

Yet it’s very, very hard to give a shit about the NBA’s return. Forget that it’s a blatant attempt by the league’s billionaire owners to recoup some of the money they lost due to cancelled home games and TV deals (though financial simpletons might wonder why those owners couldn’t just swallow a year of losses since swiftly-appreciating NBA franchises are essentially a license to print money, with the average team being worth $2.12 billion, up from $369 million in 2010). Forget that the NBA restart has also been criticized as a way to channel anger about police brutality and racial injustice into more corporate-friendly expressions (and that the league’s promises to the contrary are belied by the fact that its main steps to “center social justice” consist of league-approved jersey messages and a pledge to paint Black Lives Matter on the court, a la Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser). 

All these points about the cynical, money-driven return of the NBA have been made by many sportswriters and fans. Despite the NBA’s woke posturing—and the very real commitments of many of its athletes—nobody is surprised to learn that it’s still a growth-crazed, for-profit enterprise. We already know that capitalism is an insatiable beast that demands the right to continue devouring the world alive. As ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe said on his popular podcast The Lowe Post, “Nobody cares about healing. It’s just about money.” 

On the other hand: who cares? Are NBA owners solely concerned with enriching themselves even as they lay off thousands of vulnerable, low-paid staff? Yes, this is indisputable. But does it make the prospect of watching Zion Williamson dunking over Rudy Gobert any less appealing? Is the NBA a deeply hypocritical organization that pretends to be progressive while catering to the whims of its conservative stakeholders? Of course, just look how it handled the whole China snafu. But would that really tarnish the karmic splendor of 7’2” stick figure Bol Bol raining threes?

Any self-respecting leftist would like to believe otherwise, but the answer to both these questions is a resounding “no.” People do not tend to care about how problematic sports are off the court, field, or rink. That’s because the point of sports isn’t to teach us lessons about teamwork and perseverance (apologies to every youth sports coach ever born) or serve as a microcosm for life in general. The point of sports is to entertain us, and few sports have ever been as entertaining as the modern NBA. 

I wish the prospect of being entertained was an appealing one right now. It would be cool as hell if the parts of my brain that are currently focused on “will I still have a job tomorrow?” and “I hope my friends and relatives don’t die from the highly contagious virus sweeping the planet” could be dedicated to less angsty topics. I’d like to have a strong opinion about whether Giannis’s lack of a jumper means he’s a step below LeBron or whether Pascal Siakam can be the Raptors’ go-to guy in a Game 7.

You know what I’d love to be obsessing over at this exact moment? The prospect of Houston giving zero minutes of playing time to any dude over 6’7”, which would finally fulfill the prophecy I made as an 8 year old while playing Ice Hockey for NES (essentially: “why not make a whole team out of the Medium-Sized Guys?”). I sincerely wish I could find it in my heart to be outraged that Washington and Brooklyn—two teams so ravaged by injuries, illness, and general disinterest from their own players that they’ll be lucky to win a single game in the Disney bubble—were included in the NBA’s restart just to generate a little more income for their already obscenely rich owners.

I wish I could care about the players complaining that the food sucks, or the scandalous strip club adventures of stars who break the bubble’s confines on the pretense of attending family funerals (the star in question, Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers, said he only went to the strip club to get some chicken wings, which are apparently pretty good). This stuff is light, it’s fun, and it makes for great small talk. It’s a nice distraction from the problems of the real world.

Unfortunately, those problems are too massive and ominous to be obscured, even temporarily, by the NBA right now. The president of the United States has unleashed fascist shock troops against protestors in Portland, even as he refuses to unleash the federal government’s power to tackle the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. The nation’s billionaires (including many NBA owners) have seen their wealth grow by nearly $600 billion and counting since the pandemic started. Members of Congress have proven more focused on bolstering their own stock portfolios than providing meaningful support to the people who elected them.

Meanwhile, the U.S. opposition party has stepped up by… approving yet another massive increase in military spending and adopting an official platform that rejects Medicare for All, the legalization of marijuana, accountability for Israeli war crimes, and other policies that are broadly popular among not only Democratic voters but Americans at large. Adding insult to injury, a steady stream of propaganda articles assure voters that this is “the most progressive Democratic platform ever,” and that its racist, senile figurehead is the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I don’t care how electric the pick-and-roll chemistry between LeBron and Anthony Davis might be, it’s not enough to make you forget the United States is collapsing in front of our eyes. It’s fun to wonder if Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker might be Boston’s next Big Three. But we are currently trapped in a burning bus, hurtling toward a cliff with the brakes cut, and it doesn’t really matter what’s playing on TV.

I’ll still probably watch a game or two. Back before the pandemic started, I used to plan my week around prime time NBA games—they were a rare escape from the nonstop depression that permeated each day. I cherished each intricate series of passes and thunderous dunk attempt on an unlikable player. The next day, I’d spend hours poring over stats and analysis, drowning out the existential fear with an ever-present hum of trivia. The NBA brought me a lot of peace in those days. 

But distracting a person from personal problems is a far different thing than distracting them from the utter collapse of the society in which they live. It’s tempting, perhaps comforting, to believe that “collapse” is a hyperbolic term to describe what we’re living through right now. Yet if anything it undersells the severity of the disaster at hand. Even if Trump loses and agrees to leave office peacefully, which isn’t a given, it should be obvious by now that there will be no New Deal-style program to rescue America from the abyss. Despite the breathless, bootlicking mainstream media coverage of the Democrats’ “unity platform” under puppet candidate Joe Biden, the party’s recent actions—and Biden’s own promises to Wall Street donors—show that any comparisons to the 1930s should not be positive ones. It’s becoming less and less possible to avoid concluding that the system is beyond salvaging. 

That’s not a statement to make lightly. “Burning it all down” has a lot of terrifying implications. But the alternative isn’t “leave the system alone and things will be hard for a while until we figure things out.” There is an ever-dwindling—and ever-more-expensive—supply of housing, food, and medicine. There is an ever-shrinking pool of jobs. The people who run society are determined that “government handouts” remain reserved for business owners and the corporations they control. The climate clock is ticking ever louder. This is not a sustainable state of affairs. 

So yeah, the NBA is back. Hooray. All our favorite stars are set to take the court, and the sports media take machine is rumbling to life once more. Shaq and Chuck will be talking shit on Inside the NBA. Woj will be dropping his trademark bombs, though probably not on senators again. Someone will surely muster up the energy to have a dumb opinion about the national anthem. Good for them, I guess.

But who cares? 

*While both the NBA and WNBA deserve some credit for safeguarding athletes’ safety, they’ve been much less diligent in looking out for the well-being of Disney workers who make the bubble possible. The little attention given to these low-paid workers has mostly focused on how they might get players sick

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