Monday, March 12, 2012

Love and the NBA

Alex Theoharides (@Minne_Pop) sorts through his heartbreak to ruminate on Ricky Rubio's injury, the Minnesota Timberwolves, love, and writing.

Love and the NBA

by Alex Theoharides


There are countless reasons why we fall in love. Most evolutionary psychologists argue that love stems from our need as a species to procreate. No matter how much we hate to be reminded that we are related to our parents, the fact remains that our very existence suggests we descended from a long line of successful maters. Our genes have survived. For what purpose? To mate. To keep the species going. To continue our rabid colonization of Mother Earth.

What we call love, these same psychologists call the adaptive quality the human species has developed to help us select appropriate mates. In other words, the smells and tastes and swirling sensations we typically equate with love, may be nothing more than our insides telling us that the person across the room would be nice to mate with.

Greek philosophers had a slightly different take on love. In Plato’s Symposium, the playwright Aristophanes delivers a discourse on the origins of love, in which he argues that humans were once spherical, had eight limbs, one head with two faces, and two sets of genitals. The genitals could be any of the following: male-male, female-female, or female-male. Eventually, the humans angered Zeus and he split them apart, scattering their severed parts in opposite directions. After being split, the humans were forced to spend their days searching for their other half, desperately trying to make themselves whole again.

When they eventually found each other, they were overcome with Eros and delighted in being together; not due to sexual desire alone, but because humans long for a common life, a common death, and to become one again in the afterlife. Eros, Aristophanes states, is the desire and pursuit of wholeness.

There are so many different kinds of love. In my own life, I love my wife, my mother and father, my two sisters, my grandparents, my extended family and friends, my dog Sadie, the city of Minneapolis, the dewy smell that permeates our streets after rainstorms in the summer, the greenness of the sky just before a tornado, Roald Dahl’s Omnibus, maple leaves tumbling to the ground, the prose of Roberto Bolaño, greasy egg sandwiches with crispy bacon and sriracha, watching my students fall in love with Jay Gatsby, as he stares across the Long Island sound at an ominous green light, driving with the windows down, the way Bill Evans and Miles Davis slowly meld their sounds together in Blue and Green, long walks that twist and wind and lead me to places I’ve never been, Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” never-ending cups of coffee, shooting hoops on an empty court, August days spent exploring the Maine seashore with my family, good rum poured over ice with lime, the poetry of James Wright, early mornings up at the cabin, the look on Eli Cash’s face when he asks Margot Tenenbaum, “Do you especially think I’m not a genius?”, pizza slices from Broders Cucina, folded in half and dusted with red pepper flakes, the Brit’s sense of humor, Paul Westerberg’s sloppy vocals on Pleased to Meet Me, sidewalk patios, roast beef sandwiches, the pretension of my last name, and yes, even though I know how silly this must sound to those of you who don’t follow sports, I also love(d) watching Ricky Rubio play basketball.


Basketball is a fluid, meritocratic game, marked by endings more closely related to the running out of time than to any substantive difference between the two teams on the court. Games slip forward in ebbs and flows. For entire quarters, it will seem like your team can’t miss. Then they do miss, and again, and again, until it seems they can’t score, that they’ll never score, that scoring is an action these players, your players, are incapable of accomplishing.

While baseball owns the drama of last pitches and final at bats, and football has propriety over sanctioned violence and “watchability,” basketball’s success stems from it’s inherent simplicity. Basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith to give the malcontents of the Springfield YMCA an indoor game to play during the long and cold Massachusetts winters (side note: the malcontents still exist at the Springfield YMCA; a few years ago they smashed my passenger side window and stole my car stereo). As the story goes, all Dr. Naismith gave his pupils was a soccer ball, a peach basket, and 13 rules, most of which were intended to keep his new game from becoming a street brawl.

When I was very young, I fell in love with the simplicity of basketball. To play, all I needed was a ball and a hoop, and I spent countless hours on my parent’s gravel driveway, pretending that I was shooting hoops on a national stage. As I got older, I began to embrace the connectivity of basketball, knowing that all across the world, in French Lick and Compton, Barcelona and Shanghai, young men and women were doing the same exact thing as me. They were working on their game, shooting hoops, exhaling softly as they bent their knees and launched world-beating shots gently toward the rim.


There is a reason why specific basketball teams resonate with their cities. Of course, winning is a large part of this reason. When I watch sports, I do so to escape the listlessness of life, which can often seem to be an endless series of small losses piled on top of each other. The loss of possibilities. The loss of old friends. The loss of dreams. The loss of all the things you thought you would do, but never quite did.

Sports provides us with concrete answers, allowing us to escape from our personal doldrums and find some confirmation in the choices we have made, the wins we have compiled. However, in order for a city to fall in love with a particular team it takes much more than just fielding a winning roster.

There have been numerous championship teams that weren’t necessarily loved by their fans. Admired, yes. Rooted for, certainly. But not loved.

Take the Boston Celtics. Even though the most recent Celtics’ team has accomplished a great deal of success, including winning the 2008 championship and restoring Boston’s reputation as a premier NBA city, they never became Boston’s team. Fans flocked to their games and revelled in their victories; however, there was always the undertone that these Celtics were not on the same level as the squads led by Larry Legend and Bill Russell. The main issue being that this Celtics team had been constructed through the vagaries of free agency, and two of its stars, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, had been loved in other cities before coming to Boston.

Despite achieving success, the Celtics’ roster never quite fit Boston’s slightly distorted self-image as a blue-collar, nativist, working-and-drinking-and-stumbling-home-drunk town. Paul Pierce, Boston loved. After all, he’d come up with the Celtics, and stuck with the team even after being stabbed both literally and figuratively by the people of Boston. However, Ray Allen’s shots were always a little too perfect. Kevin Garnett was always a little too excited to win big games. Rajon Rondo was always as easy to hate as he was to love. And no one was ever quite sure just what exactly Doc Rivers was supposed to hold his doctorate in.

Boston loved the 2001 Patriots, the 2004 Red Sox and the 2011 Bruins; Boston rooted for the 2008 Celtics. That difference, though small, was apparent.


The first NBA team I fell in love with was the New York Knicks. Not the current flash in the pan incarnation, but the New York Knicks of Charles Oakley, John Starks and Patrick Ewing (yes, I always considered them in that order). The Knicks played ugly, physical basketball; they were bullies, and New York loved them for it. They loved that Pat Riley, with his slicked-back hair, fine Italian suits, and habit of writing motivational messages (such as, “He who hesitates is lost”) on the chalk board before big games, coached basketball like a stock broker, surveying the market for possible investments. They loved that the Knicks played in the World’s Most Famous Arena. They loved the balance of the radio announcers—Mr. Cool, Walt “Clyde” Frazier with Mr. Calm, Mike Breen. They loved that Charles Oakley ran a car wash in the off-season, and was almost universally considered the toughest man in the NBA. They loved that John Starks was kicked off two college teams, played in the CBA and the WBL, and worked at a Safeway before becoming an NBA All-Star. Finally, they loved Patrick Ewing’s clumsy relationship with fame, the sweat that poured off his skin during big games, and the way they knew, that he knew, he would never be able to beat Michael Jordan.

Patrick Ewing never did beat Jordan, at least he never did when it really mattered, and his New York Knicks never won an NBA Championship. Eventually, the fans turned on the team, and on Ewing in particular. But for a few years in the 1990s, New York had a very real love affair with its Knicks.


I’m not sure Minneapolis will ever feel the same way about its Timberwolves. For those of you who haven’t visited the city of frozen lakes, it’s important to note that Minneapolis is—and always will be—a hockey town first. Natives teach their children how to lace up their skates before showing them how to tie their shoes. There are as many hockey rinks in the city as there are basketball courts. And more people watch the high school hockey tournament then watch Wolves’ games.

However, there is something about this Wolves’ team that resonates with the growing population of NBA fans in Minneapolis. After years of losing, the Wolves actually have a team worth paying money to see. Attendance is up. Twitter is abuzz. The national media has gone so far as to nickname the Wolves “America’s Team,” a moniker usually reserved for the Dallas Cowboys. And through some intervening force, some holier-than-thou writer with a tendency toward rampant symbolism, the team’s best player is named Kevin Love and their most exciting player, Ricky Rubio, is an endearingly cute Spaniard, who seems certain to break countless girl’s hearts during his stay in our city.

But, as a city, is it fair to say that we truly love the Timberwolves? We love that Anthony Tolliver posts bible passages on Twitter and we love Nikola Pekovic’s tattoo. We love that Michael Beasley sometimes plays basketball like he just took a bong hit and we love that Martell Webster refuses to cut his stupid hair. We love that Ricky Rubio speaks English only slightly better than we speak Spanish, and we love that Kevin Love carries himself with poise, speaks articulately, and wears a fantastic Minneapolis-hipster beard.

However, at this point the answer is clear: Minneapolis doesn’t love the Timberwolves yet. No, not yet, but we’re getting there.


I wrote this on Friday morning. The Wolves were coming off their best stretch of basketball, having just defeated the Portland Trailblazers and the L.A. Clippers. That night, the Wolves hosted the Lakers. Just before tip-off, it was announced that Kevin Love would miss the game due to a back sprain. Like most fans, I assumed that without Love, they’d be lucky to keep the game close.

I was pleasantly surprised when the Wolves managed to jump out to an early lead, by moving the ball around the perimeter and hitting open shots. For three quarters, they played like the better team. Then the Lakers began to feed the ball down low to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant stretched the Wolves’ defense with his usual array of jump shots and hard drives to the basket. With 16 seconds left—and the outcome still very much undecided—Ricky Rubio rotated to cover Kobe Bryant. For a moment, it looked like their knees collided. Then Rubio’s knee buckled and he collapsed in pain. The Wolves ended up losing the game 105-102, and honestly, I didn’t think much about Rubio’s injury. It was a Friday night; I had other things going on.

When I got to work the next morning, one of my coworkers mentioned that Rubio might have torn his ACL. Then I spent the better part of the morning checking my Twitter feed for any news and writing stupid reverse jinx tweets. Finally, the news broke: Rubio had, in fact, torn his ACL and he was out for the season.

That night I had tickets to the Wolves game against the New Orleans Hornets. Before going to the Target Center, I met up with a few of my friends at the Lowbrow. We drank beer, ate soggy nachos and talked about how little time we had anymore to do any real writing. None of my friends were basketball fans, and when I brought up Rubio’s injury they shrugged and moved on to another subject.

A few hours later, I drove to the game with my friend Dan, who, like me, played basketball in high school and still fantasizes about being good enough to play in the NBA. Five years ago, when I was just out of college, Dan and I worked together as editorial interns at a local magazine. We became friends based on our mutual distaste for what we termed our “soul-devouring” jobs, as well as our mutual love for writing. Now, for some reason, whenever Dan and I spend time together the subject invariably comes around to what we want to do with our lives. And then to how our writing seems to be leading us nowhere.

Dan was driving his roommates’ car, an old Toyota that was filled with dog toys and dog hair, an assortment of sticks, and had a deer skull on the dashboard. As we headed downtown, we discussed Ricky Rubio’s injury, circling around the issues in our own lives.

“So how have you been, man?” Dan finally asked, pulling to a stop at a red light.

“It was a long fucking February,” I said. Then I told him about my Dad being diagnosed with a blood condition and my wife being laid-off from her job.

“How’s the writing going?” he asked.

“What writing?”

He nodded, then neither of us said anything more about it. We were 27, Ricky Rubio was injured, and life seemed to be tumbling forward without us. A few seconds later, a woman pulled up next to our car and rolled down her window.

“What kind of skull is that?” she asked, pointing to our dashboard.

“It’s a deer skull,” Dan replied. “My roommate found it on the North Shore.”

“I just had to ask,” the woman said. Then the light changed and she drove away.


In our hearts, Dan and I are small town kids. He grew up across from a Bison farm; I grew up adjacent to a cow field. More then anything, we are connected by our dreamlike understanding (misunderstanding?) of how to connect the dots in real life—and because we both fall in love too easily.

After parking in a garage, Dan and I charged through the mostly empty skyways, leaping to slap overhanging signs, executing spin moves around the trash cans, and getting lost in the same elevated tunnels we once took almost everyday back when we worked together.

“Are we going the right way?” I finally asked, when we found ourselves heading down a particularly long and dark skyway.

“I was following you,” Dan said.

For some reason, that seemed to be the funniest thing in the world.

Eventually, we made our way to the Target Center. The Wolves played horribly, losing to the the Hornets 95-89. For most of the game, I felt like I was a pallbearer at a funeral. No one in the crowd wanted to admit it, but we all knew the Wolves’ season—at least the season we’d fallen in love with—was over.

Yes, there is still a good chance the Wolves can make the playoffs. Yes, there is a very good chance Rubio will recover from his surgery and emerge an even better player. And yes, it was just one basketball game, in early March. Still, as Dan drove me home from the game, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit brokenhearted. It was a warm night in Minneapolis. The Wolves season was over. And I was heading home. It was time to move on with my life.

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