Change in itself always involves a loss. At the very least, it is a loss of the status quo, of the way things were. This is why whether a change is positive or negative there is always some dimension of loss to it, with some measure of grief being warranted even if it is negligible.
—Therese Rando, How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies
Loss, then, and grief are the unspoken elements of this 2019-2020 Raptors season.
Grief for the departed. Grief that Kawhi chose LA over TO. Grief that Danny did the same. Grief, still, that our sweet prince Demar DeRozan remains gone.
Grief too for the skins the Raptors have shed in winning their first championship. Grief even for the things we thought we’d never miss, like the labels—playoff chokers, regular season wonders.
All sandpapered off by a ring studded with 640 diamonds.
And why a ring?
“Tradition and ritual is very important in sports,” commentator Matthew Syed is quoted as saying. “Artefacts become imbued with a deep amount of symbolic meaning.”
When we talk symbolic meaning in the western world, dollars to donuts we’re talking, at least incidentally, about Joseph Campbell.
His monomyth, the Hero’s Journey (see below), is a link in the history of western thought. Through comparative mythology it attempts to show the universality of Carl Jung’s unconscious archetypes.
Of course, like any great taxonomizing effort, Campbell’s single story runs roughshod over detail. It denies difference to focus on commonalities. Commonalities as seen by him.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” might as well be a rebuke of Campbell, of the thrust of power and history that he represents—of the hermeticizing, obliterating simplicity of what calls itself “western thought”—and is called by many others, among them bell hooks, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
Despite the tradition that Campbell’s momomyth represents and advances, there is value in it. Especially if we, as Maggie Nelson recommends with regards to Freud, remember that “the problems come when he succumbs—or we succumb—to the temptation to mastery rather than reminding ourselves that we are at deep play in the makeshift.”
Disclaimer issued, the question stands: Why, in the tradition of Campbell, a ring?
The history of championship rings dates back to the 1920s for baseball and hockey, the 1940s for basketball, the 1960s for football. Ring culture is a distinctly North American phenomenon.
What does the ring represent?
Well, look again at Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and see it for what it is: the ouroboros, infinity, a cycle terminating in precisely the same spot as it originates, a ring.
According to the worldview of mainstream professional sport, a championship is a culmination. It is, quite literally, the be-all, end-all. Any season that does not end in a championship is considered somehow incomplete. A season that ends without a championship is, in the parlance of tormented souls and sports talk sound bites, unfinished business.
Another interpretive framework that seems to follow the same principles as Campbell is the Tarot, and especially the 22 trump cards of the Tarot, the Major Arcana (arcana being a direct transliteration of the Latin plural of arcanum, mystery; thus Major Arcana = major mysteries), representing, to some, the Hero’s Journey, which spans from 1-The Magician to 21-The World.
In The World card, a mostly-nude woman with a flowing lavender shawl holds two wands. She is encircled by a wreath, representing success, which is tied at two points by red ribbons, representing infinity. At the card’s four corners are man, eagle, bull, and lion, representing the four fixed signs of the Zodiac: Aquarius, Scorpio, Taurus, and Leo.
A championship, then, is The World. The final card in the deck. The trump of trumps. I know I’m not the only Raptors fan who feels like that.
If you have a head for math you might notice that something has been missing from my description of the Tarot.
1 to 21 = 21. I said that there are 22 cards in the Major Arcana.
Where’s the missing card?
Traversing these 21 stations is the 0 card, which, ace-like, represents not only the 0 but the 22. The beginning and the end.
The 0 card is The Fool.
So if last season represents The World, then it makes sense that this season would be The Fool. And what is The Fool?
With 3:05 remaining in the second quarter of October 25th’s game between the World Champion Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics, Pascal Siakam dribbles to his right, losing Jaylen Brown on a Fred VanVleet screen, and then Kemba Walker when he inexplicably runs away, leaving Siakam unguarded. Off-the-dribble moving right is, in my opinion, the most difficult shot for a right-handed shooter because you have to turn to get your shoulder into alignment with the basket. Siakam squares his feet in his wide stance and swishes it.
With 26 seconds to go, Siakam dribbles up the left side of the court, seeing two things, a three-man wall of Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, and Kemba Walker, and an opportunity for a two-for-one. Siakam launches, splash again.
And it’s not just Siakam that something has gotten into. On the broadcast, Jack Armstrong complains to Matty D about the poor quality of the television screen they’ve been given at Boston Gardens. Matt tries to mollify him but Jack’s incensed.
With 1.5 seconds remaining, Siakam again pushes the ball, there’s some confusion, a whistle. Again, he launches and splashes, but from even farther this time. However this one is whistled off. Foul before the shot.
With :0.3 left the Raptors run what seems like a bit of a botched play to Gasol in the corner for a 3. He pump-fakes and Robert Williams, Time Lord, jumps. Gasol, all 6’11” and 265 pounds of him, jumps too, into Williams, and then flings the ball at the rim.
But the Celtics use their challenge. Gasol created contact with his lateral jump. No foul.
But The Fool doesn’t care about the result. The play is all that matters. This is the kind of loose confidence in playcalling and execution you see from a champion, and from The Fool.
The Fool is a young man (the whole Tarot deck is tilted toward men, but The Fool is more androgynous than most). He walks gracefully and easily with his eyes on the sky, a bindle over his right shoulder and a white rose held gently between his left thumb and index finger. At his side a white dog cavorts. In the distant background rise strange and magisterial snow-capped peaks. The sun shines brightly down on him.
Ahead is a cliff. Is he about to walk off the edge? In this frozen moment, we cannot know.
All we can do is enjoy it, innocence regained, confidence soaring, feet traversing the earth—perhaps to plummet, perhaps just to rest a moment on the precipice and enjoy the view all the way down.
But the moment doesn’t stay frozen. The foot falls, the card turns, the calendar flips, from October to November to December to a new year in which the Raptors will not (yet) have won a championship.
I invite you to grieve this, to grieve and then & thereby to proceed into this upcoming year, the first after the first championship, a little lighter of expectation and anxiety. Ready to enjoy whatever comes.