I sometimes wonder if it’s healthy—spending so much energy on something that I can’t control. Alcoholics Anonymous preaches having the serenity to accept the things you can’t change and to instead focus on the things you can. Yet I spend my time on this. Basketball brings me many states of being, but serenity is not one of them.
I don’t mean playing basketball—which I enjoy, but which is usually inhibited by my bloated lungs’ inability to ingest the amount of oxygen needed for me to, you know, run. I mean watching basketball.
Saturday was not a serene day. My beloved Clippers lost Game 1 of their opening round playoff series to the Golden State Warriors. Worse, they weren’t beaten by the Warriors—they were beaten by themselves, and, to a lesser extent, the referees. The NBA admitted that it missed a key call on Chris Paul’s last minute turnover, at least two of Blake Griffin’s six fouls were absurd, and while Golden State also suffered from the refs’ overzealousness, with at least one phantom call on Andre Iguodala, comparing losing Iguodala to losing Griffin is like comparing losing a pair of sunglasses to losing an infant left in your care.
Even so, the Clips brought about their own demise, with key turnovers, bad fast break decisions, and missed free throws from the unlikeliest sources. The feeling of powerlessness that comes from watching your favorite team self-destruct is awful, but it’s also one of my favorite parts of watching basketball. I get enraged, vindictive, ruthless, and indignant when my team loses—but I don’t direct any of these emotions at myself. They’re all pointed outwards.
It’s why I watch basketball alone. I can get together with friends for games in which I don’t care about the outcome. At a Super Bowl party with a bunch of architects from U of O, only one of whom seemed to be familiar with the rules of football, I caused an awkward silence by yelling that a bad call was the worst thing to happen to the world since John Lennon died. Generally speaking, though, as a neutral, I can keep my shit together pretty well.
But when my teams are playing, it’s a different story. Those teams are: the Los Angeles Clippers, above all others; the US and Swedish national soccer teams; the Swedish national hockey team; the LA Galaxy; the Washington Redskins (a combination of the lack of an LA football team + my dad’s DC-influence—thanks for bequeathing me that winner, Dad); and AIK Stockholm. When I watch any of these teams, I can’t control myself. Or, more accurately, I don’t want to control myself.
When I’m around other people, I am constantly judging myself. I’m not socializing well enough. Not listening well enough. Not being empathetic enough. Not caring enough or loving enough. I’m talking too much. Joking too much. Staying in my head too much. Drinking too much.
When I’m out with other people, I know that if I say anything wrong (anything that my brain deems wrong, mind you, which often includes infractions that others won’t even notice), I will remember that mistake for days.
But when I watch basketball, I am guiltless and present in the moment. There is nothing required of me and nowhere I would rather be. Nothing I could be doing better and nothing I can fuck up. I just sit and scream at things over which I have no control.
On Saturday afternoon, when Warriors coach Mark Jackson called for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan to be intentionally fouled in the fourth quarter, I yelled in a way that I would rather other people not hear.
Granted, I strongly dislike Mark Jackson, and was very annoyed at the two-and-a-half-hour infomercial to save Jackson’s job that the ABC announcers, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen, conducted on Saturday afternoon. (Odd coincidence: before taking over as coach of the Warriors, Mark Jackson was a basketball announcer. Can you guess who his broadcast partners were?) And yes, I think Jackson is the most overrated coach in basketball—
Quick tangential rant: Is there anything more useless than a “Mic’d Up” feature with Mark Jackson? You listen to Rick Carlisle’s huddles and you’ll hear him talk about staying low on defense and defending against the leak-out after missed shots. You listen to Doc Rivers and you’ll hear him emphasize the importance of picking up your man in cross match-ups in transition. You listen to Mark Jackson and it’s like you’ve walked into the ballroom at the Airport Marriott—all he does is tell his guys to believe in themselves. It’s a cross between self-help seminar and revival meeting. I’ve never heard him say one word about basketball.
It’s a credit to just how good the Warriors’ players are that they can find success in the absence of any meaningful coaching. Van Gundy and company say that it’s outrageous that anyone would question Jackson’s credentials since he’s improved the Dubs record every season. He has in fact done that. The Warriors won 23 during his first year. And then last year, they won 47. In a totally unrelated note, during the 23 win season, Steph Curry only started 23 games. And during the 47 win season, he started all but four. The Warriors are better than they’ve been a long time; they have the best player they’ve had in a long time. These two facts may have something to do with each other.
But hey, if the Warriors want a sanctimonious preacher for a coach, go for it. Those types do great in the Bay Area—just ask Mike Singletary.
—but despite my feelings for Jackson, if I had yelled the shit I yelled at him in the heat of the moment in public, I would’ve felt really bad about myself afterwards. Not necessarily for what I yelled, but for being out of control. That’s the great thing about watching alone—I can exist without filter.
So when DeAndre Jordan stepped up to the line, taking his 43% free throw average and his propensity for unintentionally hitting the backboard/shot clock/sixth row with him, and nailed the first free throw, I didn’t even make a conscious choice to yell. I saw the ball go in and I heard my voice screaming, Fuck yeah, DJ! That’s how we [expletive about Mark Jackson deleted]! I felt ecstatic and I didn’t have to monitor my ecstasy to make sure it was within the bounds of appropriateness.
And when CP3’s lay up got blocked and Harrison Barnes ran back to sink the winning three, I felt dejection so encompassing that it was hard to move. But that, too, was good—feeling so down and knowing that it’s not your fault and there’s nothing you can do about it. Basking in the deliciousness of an unhappiness that’s just there.
I suspect that this intensity comes from my mom, who scares the dog every time she watches sports. Whereas my connectedness to the screen comes from a multi-year narrative, Mom can become emotionally invested in a game in fifteen seconds, whether or not she knows any of the teams, players, or rules of the sport.
When we lived in Stockholm, we went to see AIK play Leksand (hockey)—two teams my mom doesn’t even care about—and she was so loud that four drunk teenagers sitting next to us moved away because they couldn’t enjoy the game with all that yelling.
I love how strongly she feels sports—how she often covers her mouth after she hears the nonsense Swedish she just blurted (“Oj oj! Nej! Va?! Ja!”). I love how she decides right off the bat whether she likes a player or not based on his face. I love how she has an empathy gene that I lack, even if it is a little irritating at times (she always get sad when the losing team marching off the court, heads bowed; I’m usually singing “Warm up the bus, motherfuckers!”). I love the way she suggested that the Swedish government send prostitutes to the Finnish team’s hotel the night before the Olympic semifinal. How when I was little, she used to let me stay home from school on the first day of the NCAA tournament because she knew it was my favorite day of the year. How when I was a kid and my favorite team was knocked out of the playoffs, and I felt myself on the brink of tears, she wouldn’t try to explain that it was just a game. She knew that whatever you’re feeling is what you’re feeling and no logic can change that.
Maybe that’s why the emotions I have during basketball games are some of the only ones that I feel totally okay about expressing.
Just not, you know, in public.