Blue Pill World
Professional Sports often don’t feel like reality.
In good and bad ways. Good, because we all get a moment to give a shit [or not give a shit] about something that doesn’t really mean anything at all.
Bad, because there’s a divide. Something artificially separating us from them. A code, a story, another language. A glass bowl surrounding us or them or both.
Betwixt quarters; post-game interviews; media sit-downs. It’s all the same. Like watching Non-Player Characters during video game interludes. Standard quips and empty clichés. Same shit on repeat.
We all smile, and listen, and intuit, and read, and speculate, and argue knowing little more than we did before – despite thinking we do. None of it getting us closer to the stratospheric gulf between our ignorance and what’s actually going.
Perfect example. A week ago Ime Udoka, future Toronto Raptor head coach, was a done deal. Nope, Houston. Another. All year, all decade really, Dame Lillard confirmed 1000 times he wants to be a Blazer for life. Rumours now suggest the opposite, imminently. Just like that. True or no? Who knows. Bullshit from both ends.
It makes sense. Who the Hell is willing to put their word on the line? There is no reward. None. Dillon Brooks expressed some raw hyperbolic emotion and was eviscerated within hours for his vanity. Now, once imperturbable, he is avoiding media altogether (losing probably doesn’t help).
The only question is not if there will be scrutiny, but how much.
It’s why Professional Athletes are taught to neuter emotions and disembowel commentary (Pat Bev and Draymond Green missed the seminars). Someone says something, anything, perceived to be contrary to popular belief or a bit out of character and a horde of unwanted analyses follow. Stick to the script, kid, you’ll do fine.
When they don’t, like Nick Nurse, who, publicly, went out of his way to pontificate on his coaching future – at a very inopportune time, mind you – they’re skewered, sizzled, battered, fried, lambasted, and microwaved. Dummy dumb dumb. Never say it how it is, unless it’s been recited, redacted, and refined to an invariable finality of plain.
From the business side, it’s no duh economics. Never tell consumers anything other than what they want to hear. Avoid accountability. Best have every avenue of avoidance and escape available to the bitter end. Under promise, over deliver. Boom, just saved you 40k for your MBA. You’re welcome.
That’s just the way it is. Professional Sports thrive within an ecosystem inhospitable to truth. Franchises protect it as Intellectual Property. Players hide it beneath personas. Media hoard its fungibility like Doge. Everyone else desperately tries to discern any iotas of truth (data, sideline reports, rumours, Woj and Shams‘ little birdies, etc.) to figure out what’s going on.
Conspiratorial me thinks most want it that way. Where would our Reddit forums, daily pundits, and First Takes be without conjecture and obfuscation? Bleeding out in a Bristol Chipotle’s somewhere, that’s where.
I know, it’s more complex than that, but feels a bit wink wink nod nod if you know what I mean. Knowwww what I meannnnn, Chris Haynes?
Wink wink nod nod…
Red Pill Moment
It is why small moments of clarity are so gratifying. And why Masai Ujiri’s press conference the other week was a deep, refreshing breath of depressing air.
You can expect certain things from Masai. Confidence. Certainty. Introspection. Precision.
All of that, typically, precludes us from getting deep into that brain of his. Unless he’s vulgarly addressing the city of Brooklyn.
Not so in Masai’s final media address of the season. He spoke in closing of the unsatisfactory 2022-23 Toronto Raptors season and commented on the sudden firing of Nick Nurse. And he gave it to us straight.
Players were selfish. Depth charts ill-managed. Potential short-shrifted. Play ugly and uninspiring. All of it confirming what so many of us had felt in our bones much of the season.
Masai conveyed his dismay in the same way we heard it in the deep recesses of social media circles. Same way my Pops grumbled about it flippantly in the middle of a random 2nd quarter with the Raps down 12 while he mindlessly tapped away at Candy Crush in disinterest. And the same way my gut was telling me something was supremely fucked for months.
We knew we were seeing it, but we had no one else to validate it except each other. Who knew nothing, yet everything.
It was like floating amiss deep in the ocean. No way knowing up from down. After all, there was no precedent of recent memory. This team, when healthy, was incombustible. Resilient. Their mettle to make up for whatever flaws or shortcomings they possessed. Or, so we were told.
Not this year. And how tragic it was to, time and time again, think a new leaf was turning. A recovery and rally just around the corner. Only for another turn to appear. And another. And another.
In retrospect, it was foolish to ignore what we already knew. This team was doomed from the git go. Masai thought so too.
“Right around the New Orleans game [at the end of November], the Brooklyn game, something there just didn’t seem right, to be honest. There was something there that did not seem right at all, and from there, it started taking a turn.”
My first thought was: you knew and did nothing!? My second thought was: wow, that was honest. Masai could have gaslit us like most suits trying to damage control. He didn’t. He commiserated. The Vice President and Chairman of an NBA franchise commiserated. With us. The fans.
He didn’t attribute blame to any one person or entity. Rather, all were at fault, himself included. Perhaps, some of his reasoning was whitewashed. At the same time, it’s true, no single source was majorly responsible.
Regardless, it’s the humility that matters. We want to know that they know. That they know all those games we watched were wholly disappointing. That they know the promises they made were unmet. That they know the money and time they spent and we spent on this team were, mostly, wasted.
And we want to know they know, because then we know they’re going to fix it. So that next year, at least in earnest effort, things will be different. That there’s a plan. Not, necessarily, that all will be well. But that there’s a plan.
Not every team takes that route.
Just across the Great Lakes, the Chicago Bulls Vice President of Operations, Arturas Karnisovas, also spoke to local media, but with a much firmer optimism.
“Blow up, rebuild. It’s not on our minds. We changed our minds in the 2021 season to focus on winning, and try to build a sustainable program here — I think that’s where we’re focused right now. How we can help this group and how we can improve from this year.”
Karnisovas alluded to the team’s 14-9 record to end the season, “…the way we finished the season, I think we’re on the right path… ” and his team’s reputed season-long defensive rating as justifications for running it back with his core – more or less.
Everyone, like the Raptors, saw where the Bulls were heading. Right, smack in the middle. Play-in or First Round exit at best. It takes quite a rose-colored pair of sunglasses to think that a few tweaks puts them in contention next year.
Masai, conversely, empathized with his fan base. Acknowledged how CRUD a season it was. How poorly his teamed performed, how unfun it was to watch, and how things must be substantively different.
Executives are good at ambiguity: semblances of hope, muted acknowledgements of failure. It keeps their jobs. Deflects the criticism. Distracts from the real problems. Convinces fans they must not know what they’re talking about, so shaddup. Karnisovas did as much.
That’s the irony of it, isn’t it?
The clichés and empty statements are meant to pacify us. Tell people what they want to hear and make them feel like it’s all gonna be okay. Or to not think anything of anything at all.
It works, kinda, but not in the way they think. It’s rather counterproductive, actually. It doesn’t ease our resentment or our outrage. It just represses it. Pushing it further down the chasm like a lost barrel of nuclear waste leeching into our emotional reserves. We know nothing new or enlightening is going to be said. So we tune it out. Growling elsewhere as we did before. Cynics the lot of us.
That does nothing good for the franchise in the long term. It’s truth and honesty that will ally us to the cause. It is the acceptance of wrongdoing and dissatisfaction that sell jerseys and fill seats.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Masai might not. But at least we know we’re on the same page. That the wonkiness we saw with this team in demeanour, in structure, in execution, wasn’t a misconception, wasn’t unseen by management, wasn’t excused by externalities. That it was a profound problem that must be resolved.
How nice to know.
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