FIRST QUARTER (Tip-Off) by LEESA CROSS-SMITH
We talk about sports a lot in my family. We talk about NBA feelings a lot in my family. We talk across the dinner table, we text. What’s up with Kobe? Who you got in this Clippers game? Are the Celtics supposed to be good this year? What’s up with Rondo? Did you watch the game last night? Why did Chris Paul get ejected from a preseason game? What happened to the Bulls last night? Is D. Rose playing tonight? LeBron James. Ok, what’s more embarrassing: GETTING DUNKED ON OR GETTING BLOCKED REALLY HARD. I grew up watching NBA games every night during the season when I was younger. This was late 80s/early 90s so I blessedly grew up watching Jordan play a lot, watching Detroit’s Bad Boys play a lot. I liked to talk about how Danny Ainge was a crybaby and I don’t really like crybabies in my sports. I grew up watching and loving the Lakers. I remember watching Shaq at LSU, watching Shaq play for the Magic. We watch these guys play in college, talk about the ones who will and won’t make the NBA. We laughed at and loved Larry Johnson, in a flowery dress as Grandmama. Almost every dude in my middle school had a Starter jacket. My geography teacher would put on Come Fly With Me at least once a month during class and call it an inspirational free day. It worked. Spike Lee and Michael Jordan doing commercials together. It’s gotta be the shoes. Hip-hop and basketball, basketball and hip-hop. There were other players, other teams, but mostly, there was Michael Jordan. Them Js, them new Jordans finna come out, Gatorade and Nike. Like Mike, if I could be like Mike. Every dude on a basketball court wanted to be Michael Jordan. Freaking brothers every way like MJ. We loved NBA, everyone loved NBA. Some of it, all of it. I still love NBA and the NBA is for feelings.
SECOND QUARTER (Half-Court Heave) by MATT PAUL
Life can be hard and sports are fun. Does it need to be more complicated than that? I discovered that basketball was a thing in the early 90s when, as an Englishman, tradition and social norms dictated that my sports identity revolved around football (I refuse to call it soccer). Don’t get me wrong, when I wasn’t working at the tea and crumpet factory I was all about diving around on a churned up muddy pitch with numb knees and a frostbitten nose. But I needed somewhere to put my pre-pubescent energy when the hard italic shire rains fell approximately 358 days of the year. After fumbling through a number of racquet-based sports that I had neither the coordination nor desire to practice, a fateful occurrence took place during a PE lesson forced inside: my teacher shoved an orange ball into my chest and told me to hurl it in the vague direction of a metal ring bolted to the wall. My first two-handed heave somehow dropped through, and the sound of that swish changed my world.
On a school trip to France soon after, I spent my saved pocket money on a T-shirt emblazoned with the NBA logo and the image of a player dribbling down the court. It was months later that I discovered that player to be Charles Barkley wearing his brand new Phoenix uniform. I started hoarding the newspaper flyers advertising NBA jerseys for sale, making a huge list for birthdays and Christmases. My parents tried to understand why I wanted to wear a “vest,” much less a bright green one with the word MOURNING in block letters across the back.
As sports fashion in the UK moved on from the ubiquitous LA (now Oakland) Raiders caps to NBA apparel, I realised a couple of my friends were into the game, or at least liked wearing the now cool-to-be-seen-in Jordan brand. On weekends, we hired out our school sports hall under the name Barkley or Jordan or, somewhat abstractly, D. Stern. We dragged trampolines under the baskets for wild dunk contests (I maintain that I invented the under-the-legs jam before J.R Rider set the world ablaze with it during the 1994 all-star weekend), and I tried desperately to shoot free-throws without having to jump to help give my feeble young wrist enough oomph for the ball to make it fifteen feet.
In the pre-internet days, I searched the television schedule for coverage. All we had in the UK was a Saturday morning highlight show. The presenter clearly knew nothing about the game (there’s just something about the way a middle-class British person says bawwww-skit-bawwwl like they’re phonetically sounding out an alien concept). I always looked forward to the end when she “took us to the States” to bring us the Courtside Countdown (5, 4, 3, 2, ooooone) with its jazzy, Saved by the Bell onscreen graphics and overzealous-to-English-ears American voiceover punning his way through, say Shawn Kemp’s latest highlight dunk (“When it rains in Seattle, the reign man makes it pour.”) Channel Four televised one game a week during the playoffs. During the ’96 NBA Finals, fifteen year old me set an alarm for 3am to watch Jordan’s Chicago Bulls close out the series versus the Seattle Supersonics. I watched bleary-eyed and fog-brained as, after winning it all, Michael Jordan ran to the locker room, collapsing to the floor and convulsing in tears as he hugged the game ball. It was Father’s Day in the US and Jordan had lost his in tragic circumstances three years prior.
As my teen years ran dry, adulthood started to veer me towards introversion. Basketball become my secret passion, something I always followed and pumped my fist at on the quiet. I don’t get to play the game anymore—I haven’t known anyone who follows the game in years, and international time zones make it tough to watch NBA games live. But I still get a rush from letting my thoughts escape the humdrum back to that first victorious swish, consequent swishes, all of the surprising victories to come that you never see coming.
HALFTIME MEMORIES by LEESA CROSS-SMITH
I used to coach little girls’ cheerleading, I used to be on dance team. Halftime meant dancetime. We’d wait outside the double doors until the buzzer went off and then we’d bust in and dance to Paula Abdul. What I liked the most was wearing my uniform to school on game days—the sweatshirt over my uniform, my skirt flipped out over my sweatpants.
THIRD QUARTER (Heat Check) by MATT PAUL
-When I sat five rows back during an actual NBA game in Portland, Oregon. I watched Portland play Phoenix when they had Scottie Pippen/Steve Smith/Sheed—superstars twenty feet away who I’d been watching on NBA VHS tapes for years. Their trainers (FINE, “sneakers”) squeaking way louder than I thought, how the whole thing is such an event (national anthem, the music, the kiss cam which by the way fell on me and my girlfriend at the time and I ducked it), the Phoenix fan sat a few rows in front of us who we berated in good fun for his funky cheer and he was so into it and how that’s nothing like here where if you said a word to an opposing fan at a football match you would be putting yourself at physical risk.
-When Shaq/Allen Iverson entered the league and NBA trends changed.
-The sound of hard slams pulling on spring-loaded rims.
-Rule changes: no hand-checking, zone defense, three-point line distance.
-How Kobe is so divisive.
-How someone always shouts “WHOOO,” on the court when play gets a little wild.
-Jordan retiring, coming back, retiring, coming back, retiring…
-Trying to emulate NBA moves as an English kid with negative hops and a naturally ectomorphic yet wholly unathletic frame.
-Trying to dunk and being ecstatic when I found I could touch the bottom of the backboard.
-Looking back on the 90’s as the “golden age” of basketball. How nostalgia is so skilled at being a revisionist historian.
FOURTH QUARTER (Starting Five Back on the Floor) & POST-GAME INTERVIEW by LEESA CROSS-SMITH
I wanted to ask Matt Paul some rapid-fire questions, NBA feelings-style:
Who’s your favorite player?
I grew up in the era of Charles Barkley, Jordan, Grandmama, Shawn Kemp, and it’s tough to get round nostalgia. I’m a fan of humility, so Kevin Durant is arguably my favourite right now. At least for today. But I love a strong personality, see Rodman, D.
What’s your favorite team?
I’ve never rooted consistently for just one team, but I find myself shouting at the Thunder’s opponents. The Spurs are so much fun to watch—still surgical with their old, rusted instruments. The 2002 Sacto Kings had the underdog thing going for them and played pretty basketball.
Is there a team you absolutely will not root for?
The Knicks. I don’t know if my disdain is based on the fierce NY-Chicago rivalry throughout the 90s, but I just don’t care about the “Mecca of basketball” at all. Also the Lakers cos I’m not a Kobe fan at all. Just no.
How beautiful is Steph Curry’s crossover?
Without wishing to trample all over your Curry-crush, I’m going to rename this question Best/Worst Moves: Tim Hardaway had the prettiest killer crossover. There’s a move I remember from one of my many tapes: he hit the defender with a crossover, spin move and simultaneous behind the back, then a gorgeous floater to finish it off. So fluid. Steph’s jumper is prettier than his crossover—it unloads like his arms were created solely to perform that action. Bradley Beal has a nice-looking jump shot. Paul Pierce’s jumper is tough to watch, as was Chuck Hayes’—there was a hitch in his form as bad as Charles Barkley’s golf swing. Seriously, Google them both. Dominique was the best power dunker, although Sprewell’s angry beehive slams always made me gasp. Kevin Durant’s free-throw shoulder-shimmy speaks to how he embraces the LCS life o’ chill (trademark pending) and I love it.
How adorable is Riley Curry?
Riley Curry was moulded from melted-down Haribo diluted with pure cane sugar. The cutest. Save for Madeleine getting on a train (YouTube it) and my future kids.
Did you get your Mourning jersey? Did you get any others?
I have never owned an NBA jersey. It’s tragic. As a teen I got all self-conscious about wearing one around my small-minded British town (“What the hell is that?” / “You think you’re hot?” / “Where are your muscles?”). As I type this I’m looking at a Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks jersey online because it’s so, so pretty and I love his spindly, hyper-caffeinated Scottie Pippen play. He goes at it with a youthful freedom, like he’s out there alone imagining the opponents and the crowd, and that should be celebrated. I feel like at some point in the near future I SHOULD and NEED to own an NBA jersey, even if I only wear it to bed to dream of hitting the big shot.
Do you collect NBA stuffs? Cards? Hats?
Back in the day I bought every NBA tape I could find including: Sir Charles, Shawn Kemp: The Reignman, Unstop-a-bulls, Come Fly With Me, Airtime, Above and Beyond, Dream Team, Dream Team II, Slam Dunk: The Official History of Basketball, and more. I have a region one Jordan DVD I can’t even play. If there was a house fire I would run back in for them.
Favorite NBA Twitter/Twitterer/Writer/Website?
Mike Prada and Paul Flannery from SBNation are great for stats and recaps, but Zach Lowe of Grantland is the best NBA writer. Top of the heap. His articles are consistently excellent pieces of writing. My favourite tweets of his are when he says his Tuesday column is up. Everyone from Grantland is so good at what they do, including exiled jefe Bill Simmons. I miss his mammoth, ALL CAPS-laden articles. However antagonistic he may be, his passion for the NBA—going all the way back to watching Kevin McHale and Larry Bird at the old Garden with his dad—is unsurpassed.
BONUS QUESTION for Leesa: Would you rather have the ability to dunk for an entire year or go on one, guilt-free date with Steph Curry in a parallel universe?
My own answers to some of the questions: Steph Curry is my favorite player right now, for the majesty of his jump shot and also because I love his entire beautiful family as if they were my own. I like Blake Griffin and have ever since he played for Oklahoma and I like every player who used to play for UofL. And I will always love the Bulls. I don’t know very much about the new-ish teams and am always half-surprised when I remember the New Orleans Pelicans exist. Writer-wise, I love following Shea Serrano because of everything and especially because of his sports/NBA tweets. And I love Grantland so much too. (RIP Grantland, we are sad and we love you.) Sports are pretty much my favorite things to read about so I find a way. Podcasts, too. What Matt said at the beginning of the second quarter: Life can be hard and sports are fun. It is and they are. They’re heartbreaking and frustrating and fun and funny and ridiculous and meaningless and somehow can also end up meaning everything to a team, to a city, to a state, to a country, to the world. And I would absolutely go on a date with Steph Curry in a parallel universe where we’re not married to other people. And it would start with him in a suit and end with him in his GSW uniform. I would want this date to involve me eating Chick-Fil-A from the bag, sitting in the stadium, watching him shoot threes and sometimes the only sound would be him, dribbling the basketball and the swish and me drinking the rest of my lemonade and that sucky-straw sound would be really loud and echo off of everything and then when it was finally time for him to take me home, he’d drive me in whatever sleek fancy luxury car I’m sure he has and we’d listen to “Blessings” by Big Sean and Drake and also probably “Hotline Bling.” When he got home safely, he’d text me goodnight, babygirl and appropriately cute emojis. (The piece of cake, the basketball, the pineapple, the mushroom, several hearts.)
NBA feelings are here, NBA season is here, let’s go.
Photo by Cliff