They told you in the academy that you’d never get used to it, and you believed them then, but you didn’t quite understand what they meant. You see the body below you, a body you know well. It’s outlined in chalk, and there’s broken bottles around it. They coulda been thrown by disgusted fans, or they could be a metaphor.
How many holes can be gouged from a season before a team’s guts tumble out after them? The vital organs — the leadership, the pride, the chemistry, the camaraderie, the joy — might have already left the body, or they might still be hanging on by a leaking, tearing ligament. You can’t tell from within the moment itself. But you know in hindsight it’ll be damn clear. If you’re going to point to a moment in time when the spirit left the body, it might as well be now.
It doesn’t matter when, just that it’s gone.
You sigh — more of a shudder — and roll a cigarette. This time, your hand shakes. You’ve done it plenty of times before, found this helpless, lifeless thing on the cold pavement, studied it, but never in the regular season. Not like the Toronto Raptors are going any further, this time. A win’s a win in the regular season, but if the regular season is all you’re gonna get, a loss can be blown up like a blood sample under the microscope. Bigger than Times Square, if you’ve never seen Times Square. A regular season loss can mean a game, a season, an era. You’ll never get used to it? You know what that means, now.
The Raptors had a sure thing. An almost wire-to-wire lead, with a fiery offense creating great shots, and starters coming back into the game with seven minutes left and a six-point lead. Good teams close that out. Heck, bad teams close that out.
But what do the Raptors do? Now is the time to smoke that cigarette you rolled, or to look away, or to become a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves instead.
Pascal Siakam turns it over, then O.G. Anunoby gets blocked on a wild, no-chance hook layup. Later, Siakam misses a floater, Gary Trent jr. a jumper, and Scottie Barnes a floater. Barnes turns it over, steals it back, and misses a layup, then another. Siakam misses a jumper. Barnes turns it over, then misses another layup. Trent misses a jumper. VanVleet misses a layup.
The Raptors managed four points over that whole, bugs-under-your-skin stretch of basketball not even their mothers could love. Nobody could get a step on a defender, every attempt at creating an advantage grinding and shattering like knuckles into a brick wall. And after all that, they still have chances to win. But Anunoby misses two triples. The ability to pull a loss out of all that borders on astounding. You can get used to a rabbit out of a hat. But you can never, ever get used to that.
The trade deadline is unmercifully weeks away. The Raptors need life support now, but the season is swirling — no, the season is basically done at this point. This entire era of the Raptors is swirling around the bowl. Players look visibly unhappy on the court. It’s only a matter of time before “we’re good, we’ve just got to find a way to win” in response to media questions becomes blame aimed like a machete at teammates and coaches and front office staff. VanVleet and Siakam were supposed to be the direct descendants of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. That may no longer be the case after this trade deadline. (The Raptors traded DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard after a 50-fucking-9 win season. At this rate, these Raptors would need a 136-game season to put up 59 wins.)
What hurts the most, you think, is that the last time you did this, picked through the wreckage of what was once a proud basketball franchise, you left with a little hope. The playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was death by natural causes, you thought. Youth loses to experience, and the Raptors simply cut their teeth to sharpen them for the next time around. But now, you realize, there doesn’t have to be a next time around. Nothing’s promised. Not to you, the fan, the detective, and not to the poor mangled Raptor on the road. Winning doesn’t have to last forever, 50-win seasons piled up so high in trophy cases they’re forgotten. This team went from raising divisional banners to championship banners. It might not be raising anything anytime soon.
You knew that. You knew it was the dream of a forever empire that made its fall so painful. You knew it when you named one of your own autopsy reports “It’s the hope that kills you.” You knew it again when the Raptors missed 15 in a row against the Milwaukee Bucks, staged a historical comeback, and still lost. It was the hope that killed them then, too. It’s still the hope that kills these Raptors. But the lesson teaches itself anew, this time. It’s not about a single game anymore. It’s about a philosophy. A means of consuming sports, fandom. It’s the hope that growth is chronological, that the Raptors had a core philosophy, a foundation to build on after last season that wasn’t fixed in sand.
When you’re left with wreckage, fandom finds something to love in the twisted remains. Sand, waves, and time turn broken bottles and needles into beach glass; fandom can be so pure that there’s even something to love in this lifeless husk of a basketball team called the 2022-23 Toronto Raptors.
Barnes put up a monster 29 points against the Timberwolves. Love that, if you want to love anything. Precious Achiuwa was basketball’s version of Beethoven, stomping and thundering and wielding glorious chaos like a piano hammer. You can’t not love that. Broken glass can be the most beautiful thing on earth. Well, maybe not the most. A full bottle, pieces working together in harmony, can be pretty nice, too. That doesn’t need sand or waves or time to love.
You look down at the pavement, the body, its organs. You look at your chalk outline. You expect it to be wrong, for the body to have moved. It always moves. There’s always another game, another series, another reason to be hopeful. But the chalk surrounds the body in totality, not an inch wasted. There’s still plenty to love in the broken glass. But you’re not going to get fooled by hope anymore. This thing is done. Even if the 2022-23 Raptors are rescued by the trade deadline like deus ex machina, it won’t be this team that crawls away to fight another day. This team is dead and buried, the Timberwolves loss the last in a long line of death knells. This team exists now only in our memories as what could have been.