Subway 1934, Lily Furedi
“For when we have suffered a long time, we have great difficulty in believing in good fortune.” – Edmond Dantès, The Count of Monte Cristo
Of the myriad tectonic shifts that have changed the landscape of the NBA this offseason, one of the least surprising was always bound to be Carmelo Anthony’s departure from the New York Knicks. In fact, that it took so long, as well as where he ended up, is the most shocking aspect of the deal. While Anthony is headed for surely greener pastures, albeit with a presumably (and rightfully) reduced role, his time with the Knicks will always inspire conflicted reactions. Before looking ahead, we always look back.
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. 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.
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.
“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, 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. 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.
Triple Self-Portrait, Norman Rockwell (1960)
Today marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs, a most glorious time of the year when the basketball is noticeably better. In a season full of downright certainty underpinned by complete uncertainty, these playoffs are going to shock and surprise us in ways we can’t even imagine, because they almost universally do. Can’t hold anything back now, and all that.
For just a brief moment, however, it seems fitting to gaze back with awe on one of the more improbable regular seasons we are ever likely to see, one full of jaw-dropping individual performances. Specifically, and with the utmost respect, it is my duty to inform you that, unless you are one of the members of the media yet to reveal their MVP vote via a longform column explaining why you didn’t pick any of the other candidates instead, nobody cares about your choice for this year’s NBA MVP.
With Andre Roberson closing quickly, Brook Lopez launches a three, early in the shot clock but with enough space to give it a chance. The ball clanks off the front of the rim, kisses the backboard and falls into the left hand of professional basketball’s most perplexing genius, to rapturous applause from what should be a hostile crowd. It is the latter’s tenth rebound of the night, and after adding two more, combined with his 25 points and 19 assists, the intensely focused scientist sits, his team all but guaranteed a victory they would soon officially claim, his 33rd triple-double of the season secure.
Thunder doesn’t only happen when it’s raining. It was in the middle of March, in the midst of an overhyped blizzard, that the Brodie came to Brooklyn.
Suffering from a deafness which plagued him over the final three decades of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven explored new and innovative areas of musical theory which sometimes left him in controversial straits with critics. Having already composed countless quartets and sonatas as well as several symphonies, Beethoven continued to push the bounds of sound through his late period, often incorporating the influences of Bach, Handel and his immediate predecessor as foremost composer in the world, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Until his death in 1827, Beethoven strove to perfect the sounds and styles of the time which produced him.
On Sunday, two NBA title contenders, each by an MVP candidate, met in Houston for the second and final time in the regular season. The team that prevailed, the Houston Rockets, did so in much the same fashion as they have done all year: by adhering to their particular brand of the NBA’s prevailing style, launching as many threes as possible and, when that wasn’t available, getting to the rim for high percentage shots and foul opportunities. At the eye of the Rockets’ storm is James Harden, high-volume wing-turned-obscenely efficient point guard, a scoring machine in either case.
“Morte di Cesare,” Vincenzo Camucci
As common as love, perhaps more so, betrayal is a delicate theme which, if the Book of Genesis is to be trusted, has permeated history since the inception of existence. We know how this one goes: a serpent tempts Eve into an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is strike one; soon thereafter, their sons elicit contrasting reviews for ostensibly the same work, causing the first instance of jealousy and, subsequently, the first instance of murder in the form of fratricide, which is strike two; many centuries later, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Roman Italy and earned himself a perpetual dictatorship, until a group of his friends decided that perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea. Several centuries after that, we learned to sum up betrayal in three words, none of them English: “Et tu, Brute?”
On Saturday night, Kevin Durant returned to Oklahoma City, the arena and area which raised him from a lanky post-Supersonic to an NBA MVP, to face the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena for the first time. Despite two massive victories over the Thunder already under their belts, there was no reason to expect this would be easy, particularly with many fans and, as it turned out, teammates still twisting the knives out of their backs.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/20th Century Fox
“Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” – Butch Cassidy
When the final whistle sounded on Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in May, a certain feeling of deflation accompanied the confetti which fell from the rafters of Oracle Arena in Oakland. After having been up three games to one in the series, the Oklahoma City Thunder squandered their lead to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the 96-88 final score of Game 7 being the most painful exclamation mark of any during the Durant-Westbrook Thunder era. Even with Kevin Durant lined up to be a free agent in the offseason, it still stood to reason that he had more to lose by leaving Oklahoma City than by giving it at least one more go with his explosive comrade in arms.
Already, the rest is history, albeit of the continually developing nature that calls for perpetual scrolling lines of text alerting the viewer to the absolute latest hard truths, highlighted in red and bolded beyond reason. Durant left to sign with the Warriors, the very team that had beaten his own before going on to put together an even more spectacular collapse in the NBA Finals. Westbrook re-signed with the Thunder, finally and definitively taking the wheel after years as Durant’s foil. Tonight, back in Oracle Arena, the erstwhile brothers meet as opponents for the first time.
“Custer’s Last Stand,” Edgar Samuel Paxson
Finally – finally – it is that time of year again. As the leaves turn, and the breeze becomes a chill, the NBA is at our doorstep, knocking incessantly, asking if we have heard the good news and finally accepted Adam Silver into our lives. As is tradition around this time, profile after ostensibly revealing profile has exploded through the Internet’s dams and into our timelines – of teams, of conferences and divisions and, of course, of players. Each one delivers us infinitesimally closer to the players we hold in high regard, whom we can never really know.
Fitting, then, that in the week before the start of the season, two captivating and personal cover stories on Russell Westbrook have preceded the NBA season, one from GQ’s Daniel Riley, and another from Sports Illustrated’s masterful Lee Jenkins. Each is uniquely great in its own right, and both brim with an undercurrent of the rage everyone anticipates and hopes to see manifested in Westbrook’s game on a potentially scorched earth-like MVP campaign. This is the Year of Westbrook.