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The Joy of Time as a Basketball Fan

We all have no idea what the future of the Toronto Raptors beholds, and, for us fans, that's a good thing.

11 mins read
Original photos via TSN and Sports Illustrated

*Caution to Reader: this is more existential reflection than traditional RR post.

It took a Netflix series for my dumb self to realize I don’t have a clue of how time works. I thought I did. Then I watched the shadowy, confusing-as-hell German drama, Dark, and now I don’t know what to think.

We, most commonly, conceive time as a force walking us straight through life. Albert Einstein thought of it much less deterministically:

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

As we – the human species, that is – go, though, Alby’s sentiment feels less and less true.

Time is slowly becoming that singular moment. Global travel a matter of hours. TV series done in a day (not Dark though, your head would explode). Monthly magazines a daily roar of takes and analyses (Hi.).

Heck, this article’s a shooting star: by the time you read this, there’ll be 589 comments telling me I’m wrong, right, this way or the other, and then, poof, gone. (I still love it, don’t worry).

Time in the NBA has similarly contracted.

Eager franchises (like Sacramento [LOL] and Atlanta last year, the Bulls, and, perhaps, the Knicks, this year) hasten “winning windows” to seize upon an iota of opportunity; budding star-powery players get antsier and louder earlier in their careers; all those poor new coaches lease a year, maybe two, tops, of trust from ownership; even media’s quick to conclude – anoint or write-off – a team or player’s promise.

And, yes, fans, too, expect immediacy.

No longer is a Playoff-series loss an affordable building block towards the future. No longer is a growing player’s down-year a means to an end. No longer is developing a team – a sedimentary aggregation of experience + progress + regress + acquisitions + wins + losses + coach changes + so on – an acceptable, or bearable, formula.

Instead, drastic measures must be taken to rectify whatever, at the time, is seen as a fatal flaw. We see this perspective prominently with young players. So often, the label “bust” looms hazardously above nascent careers. Players plank-walked off a roster only to swim trepidatiously elsewhere (the Wendell Carter Jr. for Nikola Vučević trade of recent comes to mind; or, the Ben Simmons Saga, rife with misjudgment about a TWENTY-FIVE YEAR OLD!).

The Quarterback in the NFL serves no better analogy to time shrinkage in sports. Once, rookie QB’s were sidelined for years before being called to arms (YES! pun-intended). Aaron Rodgers played six games in his first three years. Now, Tua Tagovailoa has to “prove himself” a year after a solid rookie campaign in Miami.

Sorry, ick football, you catch my drift though.

Our perception of the now and its burdensome expectations preclude whatever the future may behold. Unless a team has entirely nuked its roster or gone “all-in”, there is only a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy amount of room for an approvable plan for growth. No matter the multitude of possible future scenarios, there are few acceptable ones. We’ve seen these paths before or know where these paths could end, best avoid it altogether.

No wonder futility reverberates in the solemn, smoggy Toronto night like an errant church bell. Such determinism staves off all hope.

Indeed, this is where many stand in Canada: the Raptors have already reached their ceiling.

Whatever it is that lays ahead, we don’t want it. We know Pascal Siakam’s trajectory (of which I have already defended); we know we need a Super Star; we know Scottie Barnes is less than Jalen Suggs, we know…we know…we (think) we know.

We don’t know anything. No one does. Not even Masai.

And suppose we did. Maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe the joy we find in being a fan is not how we think it to be.

I suppose the privilege of winning a championship allows for the daring thought that maybe winning it all isn’t that hunky-dory?

Am I crazy to think that? Don’t answer that.

I had the misfortune of celebrating alone in my apartment the evening the Toronto Raptors won Game Six in Golden State. I sadly lived much too far away from Toronto to exalt in the chaos that was the six-hour cluster-F of the championship parade. I celebrated quietly by way of Tim and Sid’s commentary for a good 40 minutes, and was then left, in solitude, to discern, what was next.

I recall a feeling of emptiness. Championship glory had dissipated; a deep sense of meaninglessness settled in. As though, I had finally defeated a difficult video game or slogged through a Dostoyevsky novel and was aghast at the thought of looking at it ever again. I had utterly exhausted myself in dedication.

The euphoria I thought I would serenely float upon for many months later, if not the whole season, vanished in a number of weeks. Already, I began to scout the draft, imagine Free Agency, watch Freddy V dominate workout vids in sweatpants, writhe in nausea deliberating Kawhi’s next destination, and hope, again, that Drake would finally just fuck off.

The epiphany was clear.

None of this, any of this, matters without the struggle. Without the tumult, the frustrations, the hopelessness – or the crushing of it by LeBron James over and over again – the experience of winning is spoilt.

I suppose I’ll not likely know what it feels to be a fan of a dynasty. But I always imagined that cheering for a team of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Andre Iguodala year-in-year-out to be kinda boring.

They faced few tribulations – but for their own internal prima donnaisms, apparently resolved. Their fate was to either meet unfair expectations or face absolute derision. The pinnacle of winning, for a fan, looked more like a  jaunt than a journey. To me, the only true joy…would be in their failure…muahaha.

That first Warriors championship, on the other hand, would have been deliciously rapturous. So unforeseen, so hard-earned, so organic. The following ones mere rote exercises.

And, so, we must dedicatedly start somewhere. Like we did with an electrifying Vince Carter and industrious Antonio Davis; as we did with the cowboy Chris Bosh, the aristócrata José Manuel Calderón, and the pigrizia Andrea Bargnani; and, as we did with the obstinately-determined Kyle Lowry and silently-smooth DeMar DeRozan. They all gave us some measure of hope and optimism; they all failed us, as far as championships go.

But it is the thrilling and painful minutia of a team’s development and their collective – or lack there of – growth that draws me to watch Tuesday games against the Charlotte Hornets in March or curse John Wall in the first round of the Playoffs or gravely misplace trust upon Hedo Türkoğlu or find love in depth players like Yuta Watanabe.

The profound entertainment is not woo-ing alone in my apartment while Kyle Lowry – after keeping Masai from obliterating that P.O.S. Oakland Sheriff – hoists the Larry ‘OB’, but all of what leads up to it.

The grind is the joy. To start over and rebuild is to dismiss both the unpredictability of time and the merriment of suffering. Rather, it is the ungraspable possibility – the peaks and the valleys – that defines fandom and fulfills our foolish dedication to a corporate entity solely transfixed on making moolah.

By expecting ultimate success now or demanding total deconstruction otherwise, we lose the enriching, silly, exhilarating experience of observing the sport of basketball.

We are an established franchise now. The Raptors have a vision newly minted as “length + strength” by Oren Weisfeld (also peeps this podcast by RR’s Samson Folk).

Their core is set for the next several years. They have a group of ravenous youth. They have players who want to be there (that says a lot for a franchise where for many, many years they did not) and a slowly developing veteran presence (without Lowry we’ll see how that void is filled). And they have an institutional substratum both on the bench and in the front office.

The Raptors are primed for a radically unpredictable path forward. There’s a lot of fun to be had in that uncertainty as we witness this team’s evolution – for better or for worse.

As a fan, that’s all we need. Because, inevitably, our time isn’t going to happen all at once.