Nobody ever confused me with Hemingway, but here be a farewell to arms.
Less than five minutes remain in the fourth quarter of a late-March tilt between the Toronto Raptors and the Indiana Pacers. Just as they are in the playoff race, the Raptors are down four, but they’re mounting a comeback.
Amir Johnson inbounds the ball to Kyle Lowry, who is immediately met with a trap. The combined wingspan of George Hill and Lance Stephenson form a perimeter around the diminutive Lowry, who scans the court for an outlet pass.
David West trails Amir and denies him the ball, so Demar Derozan scampers into the backcourt to Lowry’s aid. Lowry leaves his feet and flings a pass over Hill’s outstretched arms and the ball nestles safely in Derozan’s hands. With Stephenson hot on his trail, Demar advances the ball into the front-court. The Pacers’ trap shaves five precious seconds off the shot-clock.
Derozan surveys the court. He sees Jonas jostling for post-position, but he decides against pitting the Lithuanian against Roy Hibbert, especially considering that Hibbert has already recorded four blocks in tonight’s game. Instead, Demar crosses the ball between his legs and swings the ball to Rudy Gay on the wing.
Perhaps this wasn’t the best matchup either. Indiana’s Paul George, he of the 6’9 wingspan, is draped all over Gay like a cape. Gay calls for Amir to set a high screen, and uses the screen to get into the paint, but he’s immediately met by David West, who has stepped up to deny Rudy access into the paint, while Hibbert’s eyes are firmly locked on Gay, ready to rotate over and challenge the shot in the event that Gay gets past West.
Recognizing all of this, Gay picks up his dribble, rises up from 18-feet, and drains the jumpshot with West’s hand in his face. He brings the Raptors within two, and the rabid Air Canada Centre crowd to its feet.
“RU-DY! RU-DY! RU-DY!”
Once the high-fives are exchanged and the cheers have subsided, two camps immediately form to stake their claims. In one camp, there is the “analytics” crowd who argue that Gay shouldn’t have taken that jumpshot because he doesn’t shoot a great percentage from that distance. In the other camp, the “scouting” crowd sing Rudy’s praises, citing that the shot proves that he is a real leader, and that he’s clutch. It’s an inevitability.
I lost the ability to purely revel in these fleeting moments. Once I paid my first visit to Basketball-Reference.com, it marked the death of my fandom’s innocence.
Don’t get me wrong. I could still appreciate these moments, but not without an accompanying conscience that reminded me of Gay’s field-goal percentage from 16-23 feet, or the cap-crippling size of his contract. Every time I watch a game, I have the basketball equivalent of that annoying “office helper” from Microsoft Word in my mind, reminding me of all the contextual evidence that outlines how ill-advised Gay’s shot was. I can’t find the [x] on my “basketball helper”. I suspect I am not alone.
Things have not always been this way. Back in the dawn of time, before fools like me started watching basketball with a beer in one hand and a calculator in the other, I’m sure it was a purely transcendental experience. It was smack-talk at the local Y. It was a heated argument at the barbershop. It was Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose in a dark dungeon surrounded by obscure basketball paraphernalia and microphones. There was little worry of a player’s PER or points per possession. There wasn’t as much fretting over salary cap implications and trading up/down in the draft. It was just talking, and watching ball.
But then like-minded fans from my generation invaded the internet, and we changed everything. We threw numbers at you. We rejected your opinions of which you traded like currency, and demanded to be paid in bars of evidence – in wads of numbers. We found more meaning in statements like “Joakim Noah limits his opponents to 0.81 points per possession” than comments like “Joakim Noah is an exceptional leader and his leadership makes his team-mates better”. We challenged your fundamental beliefs about the game of basketball and we ridiculed you for worshipping at the altars of “clutch” and “shot-creation”.
We took polarizing positions and entrenched ourselves behind them. Whenever a dispute broke out in a forum or in a comment thread, we scampered behind familiar parapets and lobbed opinion-laced grenades at each other. No inch of ground was given, and no inch of ground was conceded.
In all honesty, most of us enjoy the fight. We enjoy waving the flag, be it for the analytics camp, or for the scouting camp, we derive some twisted pleasure from defending our ideals and poking holes in others. You challenge me on how much Win Shares under-values context, I challenge you on how much you over-value the capabilities of your memory, but nothing ever changes. At the end of the day, we both log off a little ticked, but still beholden to our respective hippocampuses and calculators, while everyone who bore witness to the ruins of the comment thread lost a bit of faith in humanity, and wondered:
What is wrong with us?
Our quarrel is not with each other, or with our fundamentals. It isn’t the tanking camp vs the anti-tanking camp. It isn’t numbers vs impressions. It’s the 15 men on the other team. It’s Paul George and his mustard-draped Pacers. It’s Lebron and his
royal subjects Heatles. It’s Kevin Garnett and his scumbaggery.
We might disagree, but we are all on the same team. We all set aside our Friday nights and Sunday afternoons to watch the Raptors play. We all boo Vince. We all chant “Primo” at our television sets when Bargnani comes to town. We all (at least those of us who are above the legal drinking age) finish our drinks when Jack Armstrong lets out his usual squeal of “MILLAHHH JENNUINEEE DRAHHHFTT”. We all love this franchise, and that’s why we are here. Let’s not forget that.