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Basketball

Photograph by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I’m not at all qualified to discuss sports, professional or otherwise. Or, at least, not in the view of the people who believe Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment is anything other than a morally righteous comeuppance, an inevitable reaction to a decorated athlete of color speaking his mind. How dare a person have thoughts beyond their scope of expertise? Can’t he just keep quiet, perform for the fans and accept his sizable paycheck? Why doesn’t he #sticktosports?

Given that thought process, none of us are qualified to form an opinion on, really, anything. Your dentist shouldn’t tell you what he thinks about the Mets’ starting rotation, nor should your accountant divulge his thoughts on Gary Bettman’s perpetual dismantling of professional hockey. Drill the teeth, find the tax breaks, shut up and do your job. Most notably, of course, the current POTUS wouldn’t be anywhere near his position had much of his base applied to him the same logic they – liberally – apply to athletes, given his complete lack of political experience and expertise prior to assuming the role[1].

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The final battle between Bhima & Duryodhana

For a moment, I beg of you to try and envision yourself as Kyrie Irving, in several stages of his life[1]. You’ve got perhaps the best handles in the history of basketball, routinely curling camels through needles’ eyes for fun as you lampoon your beguiled opponent before an adoring crowd, which screams at you to end the procession and join your only true love, the basket, in eternal harmony. They recognize you from Sprite commercials; you recognize them from the hordes of people shielding their eyes, but peeking through, as you did this in your youth to many nameless foes in the neighborhood, on schoolyard courts and in parks near and far.

One minute, it’s 2016, and you’ve hit The Shot™, solidifying your immortality, both in the annals of professional basketball and to Clevelanders everywhere. The next minute, it’s 2017, and you’re requesting a trade out of the city that drafted you, that crafted you, that created a media megalith despite its decidedly Middle America setting. If the preceding period is any indication, twelve months is enough to change anything, least of all the presumption that a team owns an entire conference because of one man. You are not that man, but you strive to be. And now, you need to be.

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Akrotiri Thera Fresco, c. sixteenth century BCE

Likely dating back to the first interaction between civilizations of Homo sapiens from different geographic origins, the trade system is both as simple and complex as one wants it to be. An entity has something; another entity has another thing; each one wants what the other has, giving up as little as possible in order to gain it. With the exception of a few law-making scandals here and some ethical creativity there, that is all trade has ever been, whether it be Mycenaeans utilizing the Danube River, or your possibly drug-addled stockbroker gambling your retirement on the latest cryptocurrency.

Though the exchange of humans themselves largely, mercifully went out of fashion over the past two centuries, it remains a compelling means of business in the public arena of professional sports. We watch the games for a variety of reasons, but in the age of social media, reaction has become nearly as important as action. A team wins, and another loses. The former has to maintain its formula, while the latter has to figure out an antidote.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign was the coldest consolation prize for the first season since moving from Seattle spent without Kevin Durant. To paraphrase ESPN staff writer Royce Young, as eye-poppingly ostentatious as it was, for the Thunder to succeed with him, Westbrook’s 2016-’17 season can never happen again. The Monolith needed help, and on Tuesday, that help officially arrived.

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“Salieri pours poison into Mozart’s glass,” Mikhail Vrubel

The popular perception of Antonio Salieri, if the stage and film versions of Amadeus are to be believed, is that he was the unforgiving rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man who championed the Austrian composer publicly while attempting to derail his career privately, like a southbound A train without a supportive governor for assistance. The film, of course, used poetic license to an extreme in the cases of both Salieri and Mozart, suggesting that, while there was some sense of rivalry, there was also a begrudging respect, manifested in the fact that Salieri conducted a handful of Mozart’s works both while the composer was alive and afterward.

A physical specimen of uncommon stature, even by 2017 standards, Russell Westbrook is not the prototypical NBA player. He stands at a modest 6’3” and weighs an everyman-esque 200 pounds[1], yet he in his 6’3”, 200-pound frame has done more in an athletic context, pound for pound, than perhaps anyone else (a) not playing upper echelon European soccer, (b) not an NFL quarter- or halfback, if that counts, or (c) named Allen Iverson[2]. On Monday night, for his efforts this past season, one which was forgotten in June but will never, ever be forgotten, Westbrook was awarded this season’s Most Valuable Player.

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Courtesy of NBA.com

Since their move from New Jersey in the summer of 2012, the current Brooklyn Nets franchise has had a grand total of two (2) NBA All-Stars. The most recent is the ageless, egoless, nearly-anonymous Joe Johnson[1], fresh off eviscerating unsuspecting foes with his iso-heavy wizardry and shooting among the best percentages of his career in both the regular season and playoffs with the Utah Jazz.

The other is a twin with a noted fondness for everything Disney and cats. He toiled for several years with a team that squeaked into the playoffs in 2015 before descending into what is essentially indentured servitude to the Boston Celtics, a lottery-bound squad without recourse that has racked up a grand total of 41 wins over the past two seasons. Following a pre-draft trade with the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps, finally, Brook Lopez will be able to find peace.

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Courtesy of Joe Lacob’s ego

At what point, if at all, did you dare to dream? You knew the circumstances, the insurmountable odds, the fact that a championship team followed up its title by winning 73 games only to lose in Internet-infamous fashion, perhaps spurring the acquisition of the second (which, he loves that, and don’t let his championship and Finals MVP tell you otherwise)-best basketball player on the planet. You knew this.

And yet, you dared to think, if only for a moment, what calamity it would be, what a catastrophic occurrence for the foundation of the game of basketball it would be if the Golden State Warriors, featuring three of perhaps the five best shooters in NBA history, lost in the Finals after leading 3-0. I know you did, because I did too. We both knew better but wanted to stave off the anger of Durant joining this team and ending any reasonable expectation of the all-important “parity” in the NBA for the next 3-5 years. As it is, it shall be.

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Is he the Greatest Of All-Time? To answer that question in the affirmative, some folks believe that LeBron James must defeat these Golden State Warriors, after requiring he defeat them last year and the year before that. By having any spots, his Finals record already pales in comparison to Michael Jordan’s, albeit in a vastly different basketball landscape.

This fact alone seems to power most of the counterarguments against James, whose shadow grows with every impossibility realized. And yet, it is never enough. What would silence the criticism?

Allora, in a word, nothing.

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