LAST WEEK ON vacation in rural parts, a genial oldster running a campground general store asked me how my trip was going. I told him it was nice being away from things, not watching any news, etc. He told me he didn’t watch the news at all anymore. “They’re all lying to us anyway.” I thought, “Funny old coot.” Then he said, “They say one thing on one channel, then you change the channel and it’s the opposite.” Then I thought, “Funny old coot’s right.”
These are confusing times. Where do we go for signs of truth?
That’s a trick question, of course. The answer is right there for us all the time: The National Basketball Association. The NBA speaks to us. It’s been speaking clear and mostly painful truths to me since the Jack Ramsey led the Trail Blazers to the ’77 title. Hubie Brown calls it “our league” for a reason: pay close enough attention to its shuffles and shenanigans and it will lay bare the intricacies of our nation’s most pressing issues.
Don’t believe me? Here are ten examples of how the NBA’s off-season can guide our thinking about America’s vexing dilemmas.
1. Steve Nash to the Lakers.
Arizona’s commitment to ridding itself of foreigners forced the stunning self-deportation of the Suns’ longtime Canadian point guard. For years, bringing the ball up the court in Phoenix has been one of those jobs immigrants did because no one else would (Brazilian Leandro Barbosa and Slovenian Goran Dragic have each served as Nash’s backups), but Governor Jan Brewer and crazed Sheriff Joseph Arpaio thought they’d finally Americanized the Suns backcourt—until the wily Purple and Orange re-signed Dragic to come back from Houston and take the job.
WHAT IT TELLS US: Well, I guess what it tells us is that even in Arizona they know you need foreign help to get some jobs done. They even signed Argentinian Luis Scola to reinforce the front court. Now that the Grand Canyon State has relaxed on immigration, expect the country to follow. We’re all immigrants (mostly)—you just can’t build on the future by hatin’ on foreign folk.
2. Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to the Wizards.
ISSUE: WASHINGTON INEFFECTIVENESS
Last season the Wizards re-adopted the red, white and blue stars and stripes of their predecessors, the Washington Bullets. The Wiz looked like the ’78-’79 NBA champs, but they still played like their ’11-’12 selves. The fix in DC? Sign up a couple woulda-coulda-shoulda-beens who have as much in common with Wes Unseld and Bobby Dandridge as the present United States Congress has with the Greatest Generation.
WHAT IT TELLS US: For fans in the capital, we know what it means: Another horrible team that will accomplish nothing. For an electorate desperate to send semi-competent people to the Capitol, it provides an easy object lesson: When losers wrap themselves in Old Glory, abandon hope and look away.
3. Ray Allen to the Heat.
ISSUE: GLOBAL WARMING
The Heat get hotter and the greens lose out. The Celtics lose the greatest three-point shooter in league history to the best team in the league in a rich-get-richer scheme that caught the Commonwealth by surprise. Sounds like an inconvenient truth to me.
WHAT IT TELLS US: This issue has no traction, folks. Al Gore’s probably right about it—the country is engulfed in a drought, after all—but more folks are worked up about high gas prices than high temperatures. Check it out: The Heat is hotter now than at any time in recorded history and the people causing this phenomenon are basking in good fortune. Politically speaking: this issue has no traction.
4. Brandon Roy to the Timberwolves
A little less than a year ago, fans in Portland received the sad news that their hero simply could play no more. There just wasn’t anything left in Brandon Roy’s young but battered knees and the potential superstar’s career was over just months after he lit up the soon-to-be-champion Mavericks for 18 fourth-quarter points in an electric playoff performance. So the Blazers let him go and opened some salary space for the likes of Joel Freeland and Victor Claver. But wait! Forsooth! After a shortened season away from the game, Roy’s knees have healed! It is a miracle from the Raven Goddess of Plentiful Salmon Harvest (as we say in the Northwest Division), and who benefits? The Blazers? Um, no.
WHAT IT TELLS US: Recycling hasn’t been a national issue since Al Gore went on Letterman in 1993 and Dave told the VP how amazed he was that everyone on his block was setting their crap out to be picked up every week. But if Roy turns out to be a good pickup for the Wolves, you might have folks rethinking this one.
5. Jeremy Lin to the Houston Rockets
ISSUE: AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
He was the story of the season: An Asian-American Harvard-educated kid no one wanted alighted the Madison Square Garden hardwood and lit up the Big Apple. “The Natural” without the girl and the gun (as far as anyone knew). Linsanity felt like an only-in-America story, even if (or partly because) one of the story’s dominant elements was “Wow, he’s not from the race we expected to do that.”
WHAT IT TELLS US: America, like New York, is unique: The lights are brighter, the stage bigger, the experiment a little crazier and a lot more fragile. What Lin did during those electrifying few weeks put our national mission into intriguing relief, and Linsanity’s global reach reminded us that others are tracking our progress. If he fails to live up to his massive new contract—if he can’t reprise the hope and wonder of his cooler-than-it-had-any-right-to-be beginning—then something about the whole thing loses its luster. If you know what I mean.
6. The Nets to Brooklyn.
ISSUE: INTERSTATE COMMERCE
Having a team in New Jersey was a like having a fishing pole in the garage. It’s there, and if you need it you could get to it, but it doesn’t really matter. You don’t fish. If someone steals it you won’t care. On the other hand, having a cousin who lives in Brooklyn is a great thing. If you ever get to New York, you can crash at his place, and he’ll show you a part of the city you wouldn’t be cool enough to find on your own.
WHAT IT TELLS US: What the hell is “interstate commerce” anyway? That’s not a real thing is it? Why is taking something across the Hudson River different from taking something from Manhattan to Buffalo? I do not understand this issue. On the other hand, taking the Nets from Newark to Brooklyn has just made this team cool for the first time since Dr. J helped them win the ’76 ABA championship.
7. The Dream Team to London
ISSUE: STRONG FOREIGN POLICY
It has never quite sat right in this country that soccer is the global game. Why shouldn’t the world prefer basketball? It takes less players, and is much more hospitable to very tall people. And so every four years we send our best ten or twelve guys to some far-off land to demonstrate our game’s wonders and convert a global sporting audience to the delights of basketball’s signature attributes of speed, power and flight. And all that scoring! For some reason, however, the world’s embrace of 1-0 soccer games continues, despite the obvious grandeur of our ability to score 156 points against Nigeria.
WHAT IT TELLS US: You can’t make people love you, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. I think that’s basically our foreign policy. Works sometimes…
8. Oklahoma City to the Finals
ISSUE: TAKING THE COUNTRY BACK
The Thunder didn’t make the Finals in the off-season of course, but it does bear mentioning that for a league obsessed with big-market dominance—think how long our league has been pretending the Knicks are worth watching—OKC’s arrival is a welcome development. A young, exciting team in a new, excited market. A league that started in places like Fort Wayne, Indiana and Oshkosh, Wisconsin returning to the hinterlands and guess what? No one wishes we had to watch more of the Knicks. It’s got a Tea Party ring to it.
WHAT IT TELLS US: Honestly, I don’t even know what people mean when they say “Taking our country back.” From whom? To what? And these are the same people who won’t let you bad-mouth anything about America as it is. It doesn’t make any sense. But these people matter. They vote. And they live in Oklahoma. Lots of them anyway. They like the Thunder, I like the Thunder. Maybe Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the future of bipartisanship.
9. Omar Asik to the Rockets
ISSUE: MARKET REGULATION
When I was in high school—the Reagan years—part of a quality public school education was learning why capitalism was superior to Communism. Each year, a Social Studies or History or Economics teacher would explain to us that the magic hand of the free market was the key to growth and prosperity, and Communism was evil for at least 17 reasons. Now, I believe capitalism is superior to Communism, but I’ll bet there’s a Communist out there somewhere looking at this contract and saying, “Really? Omer Asik—Omer Asik—who has averaged 2.9 points a game and started twice in his NBA career, gets $25 mil over three years? That’s the best economic system in the world? Don’t think so.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Insufficiently regulated markets, hyperinflated European commodities, free-spending Texans…we know where this ends up. Not a good place.
10. Dwight Howard to the Lakers
ISSUE: THE GREEK EURO CRISIS
For months, we’ve watched Dwight Howard (the Euro) wriggle in the bind of his sunsplashed but irresponsible custodians (the Orlando Magic/Greece). Whether he stayed or go’ed, one thing was clear: Orlando/Athens was screwed. And so it has come to pass: Whether it’s a sign that Greece is destined to be booted from the Euro or a metaphor for the German bailout, one thing is clear: The Lakers win again.
WHAT IT TELLS US: Minimal investment, terrific return…such is the happy, happy life of a Laker loyalist. You don’t even have to be a Laker fan for all the time you actually are a Laker fan—the regular season, the beginnings of games…why, you could be, oh, say, off organizing the Winter Olympics somewhere. But as long as you show up for Showtime, all the benefits of the slightest tangential connection are showered upon you. Others suffer, you gain. Must be nice.
I love it when Hubie Brown says “Our league.” Makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. Yes, it may be Kobe Bryant’s league and Mark Cuban’s league, but it’s mine too. I’ve put a few decades into it, it’s brought me abundant joy and abject misery, but for all its faults it pays me back by helping the world make sense. You’re welcome into our league. I know it can help you.