October 11, 2011

A Hooponic Plague

It was a classic case of self-denial: we've all done it, and we've all suffered by it. It is a common human reaction to clear upcoming tragedy and depression to pretend that it's not really happening, to distract ourselves with other matters, to imagine that it couldn't really last that long.

By a matter of sheer coincidence, I happen to be re-reading 'The Plague', the English translation of the French novel by my favourite author, Albert Camus. In this haunting, existential novel, the residents of a small French town are forced to come to terms with the reality that something of a bubonic plague is killing off hundreds of their fellow men and women daily, and forcing the town into a complete shutdown, or a 'lock' down, if you like.

But what is more interesting than the tragedy is the delayed reaction to the tragedy: until it hits him where it personally hurts, most of the townspeople in the story refuse to buck down and change their normal mentality and way of life: they go on passing through their lives in complete denial of the fact that one by one they will be losing their lives or the lives of their loved ones, and that the rest of their loved ones outside the town have been locked out, away from them, perhaps never to see them again.

Let's leave fiction behind and awaken back to our much-kinder reality: With the new CBA deadline approaching, there were whispers of an NBA Lockout over a year ago, which I had scoffed at and suppressed, focused more with the exciting storylines of the new NBA season: the three-headed monster that became the Miami Heat, the dramatic rise of Derrick Rose, and the Knicks' return to relevance. The whispers got louder as the season progressed, but louder still were Blake Griffin's dunks, Carmelo Anthony's trade to New York, and every bit of useless information that was fed to us about the over-scrutinised Heat. As the season reached its conclusion, I was left in awe after an incredible, unpredictable two months of the playoffs, where the Thunder and the Grizzlies surprised, the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs fell too early, LeBron James choked, and Dirk and the Mavs rose against all odds to the promised land. It was an amazing end to an amazing season. Bad News Lockout Bears be damned.

Until the lockout actually happened. With the CBA deadline passing on July 1, 2011, we were officially in a lockout. The whispers were really loud now, too hard to ignore because there was little else going on in the NBA calender in the off-season. I heard everyone from David Stern and Adam Silver to Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher tell me that this was going to be a long haul, a gap too far apart to bridge easily. It was going to take hours of meetings and money talk and men in suits and other stuff that sports fan don't want to understand.

But it still didn't feel real. I mean, all that we missed in July were player photographs/mentions on the NBA's official sites. The offseason wasn't supposed to have any games anyways, so how was a lockout going to change anything, right?

Still in denial.

There was a little more missing this off-season. Rumours. Ideas. Possibilities. What ifs. What if such-and-such team sign this-and-that free agent? What if Team A trade injury-ridden-star to Team B for selfish-star? Who will be the team to watch this season? Who will be the most improved player? Which rookie will make the biggest difference? Etc. Etc. Etc. These were all the type of questions I wondered and discussed every off-season, but this time, the conversations seemed awfully hollow. Every sentence was prefixed with 'If the lockout ends...': If the lockout ends, Kevin Durant will become the best player in the league. If the lockout ends, the Heat will have the best chance to win a championship. If the lockout ends, Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, and Jimmer Fredette will back the Kings the league's new up-and-coming team to watch.

But the Lockout was showing no signs of end, or even any signs of subsiding. The blows from both sides: the NBA and the NBA Players Association (NBPA) came harder and harder, and the effects were felt more and more with each passing day, with each day that the sides came closer to not sorting this shit out. Fans were anticipating men in suits at meetings like they anticipated their favourite players showing up on the court, except that the new anticipation was annoying, boring, and downright depressing.

I still didn't let it get to me though: I followed everything that happened, all the agreements that weren't made, and I still chose to remain emotionally unaffected. It still wasn't hitting close enough to home yet.

And just like that, we were in October. And instead of training camps and Media Days around the league, I heard crickets.

The pre-season which was supposed to start on October 9th, got cancelled: first by two weeks, and then completely. For something I had been expecting for months, I was still shocked. But hell, it's only the pre-season right? The games don't count, anyways.

But on October 10th, a day into the non-happening pre-season, I, and every other NBA fan on the planet, felt the first real torturous blows of this entire messy affair. After another long NBA/NBPA meeting yesterday, the NBA cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season, which was slated to begin on November 1st. That's a 100 games across the league cancelled, vanished, poof into thin air.

Until recently, the percentages being fought over, the zeroes at the end of the contracts, the number of millions being lost and gained here and there, were just that: numbers. Just like the casualty numbers collected and announced by the doctor in 'The Plague', unfeeling and unrelatable. But with actual games being missed, it's all too real: it's not about which side gets what percentage, it's about no Bulls vs Mavericks on November 1st, no showdown of Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant on the first day of the season, no sign of seeing the full-strength Heat take on the resurgent Knicks the next day, no one for Blake Griffin to dunk on, no one for Kevin Garnett to intimidate, and no sign of a Laker running up and down the court with the words 'World Peace' on his back.

Two weeks isn't much you say. Well, it is enough to end my delayed reaction, my denial to his Hooponic Plague. What makes it worse is that the two sides are no closer to an agreement. In his story for Yahoo! Sports today, Adrian Wojnarowski quoted players and GMs saying things such as “We remain very, very apart on all issues,” “We have a gulf that separates us," and “I think the best-case scenario now is 50 games, but I can see the whole season gone."

It's happened. We are not just missing rumours, or photographs on a website, or practice, or exhibition matches: we are missing NBA games. And by the looks of it, we will be missing many more. It's like 1998 all over again, and I really hope it's not worse than that last lockout.

Perhaps its time for me to take the stance that the NBPA's president Derek Fisher took after yesterday's meetings, and be realistic about what has been coming this way for over a year. “We anticipated being in this situation,” Fisher said, “and here we are.”

Games are lost, and we could continue losing them. No amount of charity defense-less dunk-fests, street-ball 50-point outbursts, exhibition all-star games, WNBA, foreign hoops, college hoops or anything else can replace the sadness of losing NBA games.

We need this resolved fast, so start praying to your Gods now: I'm turning to Camus and Michael Jordan.

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