Living is better than dying. It’s a simple concept. We lose touch with the idea in our daily tasks but deep in our subconscious, we cling to it. We don’t know why, we just do. We all live our lives in one microcosm or another. Be it an insatiable desire to attach significance to an otherwise mundane life or just the way that as humans, we connect with each other, it’s almost second nature to see the functions of our personal lives as a metaphor for the world-at-large. For me, that microcosm is basketball.
Not because I look for escapism and perfection in sports because my life is mundane. Because the questions on the court, while complex and problematic, are ultimately solvable. When you break it down to its core, amusing player tendencies and discernible decision making et al, there’s nothing more predictably exciting than an NBA game. “Of course he made that shot.” “Of course they drew that up.” “Of course he turned it over.” Of course. Nothing else makes that much sense. The outcome is often a foregone conclusion. It’s why the “process over results” moniker rings truer in the NBA than it does in any other professional sports league.
This draws me to the Clippers.
Of course, the past 88 games have presented us with so many different versions of this team that it’s becoming difficult to distinguish 12 players with a basketball from one sole person with multiple-personality disorder. I’m talking about the post-February version of the Clippers, the one that hobbled into the playoffs on the back of a once-in-a-generation talent of a point guard but carried fatal flaws that were equally indiscernible. Quiet murmurs of mediocrity were amplified and overblown thanks to a heavily-documented and troublesome late stretch and Clippers fans immediately went into retreat mode. Losing was okay, but only because it seemed inevitable.
“Once a man has realized that death is the end of everything, then there is nothing worse than life either.”
I read this sentence in an introduction to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I wrote it down immediately and for some reason, it always stuck with me — probably because, as eloquent as it sounds, I knew it wasn’t true. And as fans of sports teams, we know it’s not true. Life is better than death because it carries with it the hope of something different. In the real world, we know deathlessness is unattainable so hope morphs into whatever we choose it to be. In sports, the idea of living forever does little aside from pay homage to its conventional definition but it’s a possible feat. Immortality is a desired although rarely achieved state.
Still, we dupe ourselves. We comfort ourselves with platitudes to which we always give ready tongue… “It’s okay. They have no real shot this year.” “The Clippers’ defense simply can’t stop Kevin Durant.” “They rely too heavily on Chris Paul.” “Vinny Del Negro can’t coach this team to the Finals.” Whether you’re a fan of the Bucks, Nuggets or Clippers doesn’t matter. It hurts just the same but the narratives are an ever-reliable crutch. For fans of fringe contenders, it’s all part of a never-ending circadian cycle.
Then Russell Westbrook got hurt and all of that candid, self-deprecating preparation from early March was thrown out of the window. With Oklahoma City’s eccentric sidekick sidelined and the Spurs tied 2-2 in a series with the Golden State Warriors, it’s hard not to imagine one of the most painfully irresistible things in life that one could imagine: what could have been. That’s the thing about sports — and life. You can analyze something for months, break it down to its core and be almost-certain of an outcome. And then all of that work can be eradicated by one solitary moment. We’ll never know which way the wind will blow but isn’t that the entire point? We want to be there to feel the gust.
Playoff basketball is another wind all together. It makes the rest of the world feel slow-paced, uninspired and monotonous. It makes lying in your bed with League Pass Broadband feel like an out-of-body experience.
My 2013 playoff experience is headlined by two teams that don’t have much in common aside from their inevitable defeat: the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers, the team that I love and the team that I cover, respectively. The Bulls play against that wind. Despite mounting injuries and an uphill battle from the beginning, the Bulls are alive today because the buzzwords and cliches we make drinking games out of actually apply to them: effort, resiliency, toughness, pride. And then there are the Clippers. They lost the same way they’ve always lost: lackluster defense, a Chris Paul-or-die game plan and questionable lineup decisions. Watching Game 6 was like driving by a hospital and seeing cancer patients smoking outside of the building. It wasn’t surprising, which is what made it all the more depressing. I’ve never understood it but I don’t expect to, for better or for worse. It felt as if the Clippers were welcoming death. That’s not to say they weren’t trying. They were. But it’s hard to get any sort of a run going when you have to stop for a cigarette every so often. When the going gets tough, complacency can take you over if you allow it to… and old habits really do die hard.
Right now, the Grizzlies are fighting tooth and nail with the Thunder for that one elusive prize: immortality. Behind the stack of papers that represents the Clippers’ list of tasks and questions this summer lies life’s most haunting, encapsulating reaction to failure: regret. What could have been.