Two teams, born out of necessity in the same year and in service to the same league starting to feel the pressure of a burgeoning challenger not beholden to its own, increasingly antiquated norms, met for the first time in the NBA Finals in this, of all years. While one experienced immediate success, winning a coin toss over the other which led to literally Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, subsequently, a championship in 1971, the other endured the weird fluctuations that come with acting like a small market team while not being a small market team.
For as influential a year as 1968 was supposed to have been in the minds of those who lived it, two products of that vintage specifically, each of whom have long disappointed their faithful, turned in playoff runs and an NBA Finals for the ages. While the Phoenix Suns’ third run to the championship round ended in something approaching triumphant uncertainty, the Milwaukee Bucks wheezed hot fumes in the face of adversity. Fifty years after their first, the Bucks are the NBA champions.
When the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul, it seemed to be an opportunity, albeit a misguided one: the aged Point God would arrive and, just as he had in OKC before, impart some majestic secret knowledge on the youths, a Gnostic arriving to guide things just enough, to the point that they would be able to grow beyond his available measure upon his departure. He would never be at peace, but if this was his role at 35, Paul would be charitably useful. Only then would he again elevate everyone around him, and so far, he has exceeded that.
Did I think this year’s edition of the Phoenix Suns was that team? Not necessarily, but they had a lot more juice than many previous editions of Chris Paul Teams, with or without the State Farm sponsorship. Despite their youth and various fears, here they are: the orbs whose mascot and logo cause so much consternation, and yet a team whose continued excellence brings a familiar chill to anyone daring themselves to watch following his time with the other Hornets, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder. Finally, now, Chris Paul is in an NBA Finals.
It would be negligence to suggest that Paul’s presence alone turned a team that went undefeated in last year’s abridged bubble – and still missed the playoffs! – into the Western Conference representative this year. Paul is and remains the Point God, perhaps now more than ever, but we’ve already talked that over, so it seems fair and fitting to bestow some glory on the rest, the co. in CP3 and Co.
On Thursday night, Conan O’Brien hosted what he has said would be his final late-night television episode, on his last late-night television program. He began on TV as a largely unknown 30-year-old in 1993 with exactly the kind of pedigree you would’ve expected then: Harvard-taught, an alumnus of both TheSimpsons and Saturday Night Live, an advocate for the weird and disruptive trends emerging in comedy to which, despite him being an Irish-Catholic Massachusetts native, he had a singular pulse.
My introduction to Conan’s work was via Late Night With Conan O’Brien, the show he hosted as the wedge between his beloved Johnny Carson and Jay Leno and which was repurposed as a day-after lead-in to The Daily Show on Comedy Central for a while. When it came time for Conan to assume his seat at the top of NBC’s hierarchy, it suffered from poor ratings and a shift back to late-night along with the Tonight Show name, which Conan would fundamentally not accept. A back-and-forth ensued, and Conan eventually ceded the seat, leaving us bereft of him for a time while he popped up on tour and at music festivals – more on that later.
I understand that his is mainly a slightly-older generation of an audience, the tweeners that both lived to experience Nevermind in real time, cognizant of it or not, and also know how to navigate social media without sparking fights at a dinner table, but my friends and I – white and well-off-ish enough as we were – liked Conan better than any of the others mostly because we never knew what to expect.
Below is a list, mostly off the top of my head, of my personal favorite Conan segments, recurring and otherwise. I know this isn’t the end, but HBOMax’s app is horrendous, and anyway, it isn’t as widely accessible as he has been for thirty years otherwise. Conan, we only wish you well, as you ever wished us.
It’s one thing to win a Grand Slam in the first place – to be physically gifted enough from the start, to train hard enough to be the best tennis player in your town, and then your region, and then your country, and eventually the world, at least for a moment. To do that once is a monumental feat, a testament to all the things we’re told we should aspire to cultivate.
On Sunday, Novak Djokovic won his nineteenth singles title and second French Open championship. Nevermind that he is now only one behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the men’s record for career Slams – he had to beat Nadal, the clay king and thirteen-time champion at Roland Garros to do it, and then overcome a two-set deficit, something he’d never done in a Slam final, to Stefanos Tsitsipas. All the while, he never looked in doubt.
While the world’s wealthiest men continue to do their best to disprove other, better-known examples, some truths remain universally acknowledged: parquet looks great on television; nobody will ever understand how to domesticize bears; the American education system is broken. Regardless of our individual solutions to these problems, it seems reasonable to suggest that we agree on these.
Another truth nearly universally acknowledged – and only nearly because there remains a small but growing populace, somewhere, whose entire existence seems strictly to hinge on the acceptance of counterpoints and “asking questions” when there aren’t really any interested parties in the answers, including themselves – is that Chris Paul is the Point God. On Thursday night, helming the Phoenix Suns, and staking his case in the playoffs for the first time in direct opposition to his Banana Boat buddy LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Paul did his work, as always, leading the Suns to a continued rise.
Historically, there is a slight dispute over the first usage of the term “triple-double” in a basketball context – Philadelphia 76ers publicist Harvey Pollack stakes a claim, as does ex-Los Angeles Lakers PR man Bruce Jolesch. Fittingly, they are intertwined courtesy of the same player, Magic Johnson, who had seven triple-doubles the 1980-’81 season and would ultimately finish with 138 in his career.
That number was still 43 behind the career total of Oscar Robertson, who held the record for nearly half a century and had set his final total at 181, in 1974. That number stood until Monday night, when Russell Westbrook, now of the Washington Wizards, pulled down his tenth rebound against the Atlanta Hawks and, having already notched double-digit points and assists, broke the Big O’s record for career triple-doubles on his way to a 28-point, 13-rebound, 21-assist performance. Naturally, Westbrook barreled up the floor and promptly missed a three-pointer.
It’s almost guilt-inducing to laugh at anything right now. Aside from the scornful, halfhearted chuckles any of us get from seeing anything people with a higher Q-score than I have deem “newsworthy,” genuine joy begetting laughter is akin to heartbreak. For every laugh, there are countless tears, and even (especially?) if they’re happening elsewhere, you’re aware of them and their beholders, and you become innately attuned to that reflexive awareness. Laughing to keep from crying almost becomes communal.
The thing about laughter, though, at least usually, is that it’s spontaneous – we expect the things we love to make us smile, whether it be foster pet success stories, an ELI5 display and accompanying graphic of how light moves through space or a book by a favored author. This is trusted comfort, something we can at least give a courtesy smile, as if remembering the one dog, or the one gif, or the one line from a book we were forced to read in high school that brought us here.
He was all smiles atop a snowy Andorran mountain when the cover officially broke for his 2021 look, full of ebullient chatter about Repsol Honda’s loaded history and the on-track challenge of a new bike and the ultimate teammate that awaited him. Any idiot could see it, any child could tell: Pol Espargaro was ready, practically jumping out of his seat with nervous energy at the chance to wring its neck, the neck he’s been hearing and reading and seeing he might be pretty good on for years now. “If only Dani would retire,” messageboards clamored. “If only Honda hadn’t thought of Jorge first,” journalists mused. Through it all, Pol shrugged, smiled, overdelivered. Then came the offer. Now comes the reckoning.
The year before his namesake retired, Elgin Baylor Lumpkin was born in Washington, D.C. Eventually he would connect with Swing Mob, cover Prince and release an all-time single in “Pony,” right on time. That the other Elgin Baylor was named after a watch made sense in the prefab Neo-soul era for a guy whose legacy is, both fairly and unfairly, laying the groundwork for what was to come.
That first Elgin was an unparalleled talent for his time. He was the first player who left college early for the NBA, and the kind of basketball player for which you make compromises. To his detriment, so did he. A complete and selfless player on the court, Baylor never seemed to asked for anything, not even the championship ring the Lakers gave him after he retired in the middle of a season when they won. Baylor, who passed away Monday at the age of 86, was even more than that.
It’s been the longest, coldest, loneliest winter, and every time I look up – usually to take my eyes off the screen for the requisite twenty seconds-per-twenty minutes of screen time, or about as much as my stop light eyes can stand in the middle of the afternoon – it gets longer. Once again, winter is and has been upon us, beautiful falling snow giving way to the malignant ice, which has never done anyone any favors and, really, just ought to melt immediately, in between Jack Frost’s cosplay as Punxsutawney Phil.
Even in New York City – we’re the lucky ones as far as the past two weeks have gone, and among places you’d expect to not be doing so well in a February winter – seasonal depression is self-evident in almost anyone you encounter, as far as “encountering” a person can go these days: there is the lady on the muffled phone call, pulling from a cigarette in between listening; there is the shop owner, only going inside when a potential customer directs her in; there is the man on the street, literally pleading with his corgi to please join him on the street corner.