Monday, May 21, 2012

Why I Can't Root For The Thunder With A Clean Conscience Anymore.

There was a brief moment Saturday night, just as the halftime buzzer sounded, when the air went out of the room.  Russell Westbrook skidded along the Staples Center floor, legs in unnatural akimbo, and collapsed.  "If Russ is seriously injured," I thought, "the Thunder's title aspirations are shot."  This was a somewhat objective assessment of the situation.  Since the Hawks got bounced, I don't have a horse in this playoffs race anymore.

Except I kind of do.  My reaction to Westbrook lying on the court included no small amount of actual trepidation, because I really, really like the Thunder.

As fascinating as the other remaining teams' narratives are, I'm more or less done with everyone else from an attachment point of view.  The Lakers and Clippers are finished.  The Celtics and Spurs are playing phenomenal basketball, but they've already enjoyed considerable success with their respective nuclei.  I would certainly love to watch that combination in the finals, but I'm not sentimental enough to desperately long for one last hurrah from any of them.  The Pacers and Sixers are fascinating and enjoyable to watch, but they have time, assuming the prime assets of both squads elect to stay in the coming years, to develop and cohere before real expectations are thrust upon their shoulders.  Miami is a science experiment whose results will have interesting ramifications for how we view future teams and how front offices construct their rosters, but they're too far down the path of mechanical assemblage/dysfunction to engender any real affection.

Which leaves OKC and their infectiously loveable brand of hoops.  We've spent the past few years waiting for this team to blossom into the legitimate contenders they've now become.  We've watched them accumulate the necessary and appropriate players to fill the gaps around the heavy ammunition.  We've witnessed the Durant/Westbrook tandem, so widely rumored to be a divided and unworkable pairing, evolve into a thing of power, grace, and balance.  And of course, we have seen James Harden transmute himself into an unequivocal force of nature, accepting his "bench" role with not only a commitment to the team mentality, but an incomparable relish and flare.

This is an easy team to cheer for; an easy team to adore.  The have an identifiable group personality and an engagingly individualized cast of characters.  Outside of the Hawks, they are my favorite NBA team by a considerable margin.  But lately, I've been questioning that tertiary rooting interest.  A triptych of thoughtful and affecting articles has appeared online recently that have raised a fair amount of doubt in me as to the ethical "rightness" of rooting for OKC.  In chronological order:      

May 3: A heartbreaking, first-person account detailing the demise of professional basketball in Seattle appears on Deadspin.  Jeremy Repanich recounts the manner in which Clay Bennett hijacked the Sonics franchise and took them to OKC.  It's a narrative that will wrench your guts out if you allow it to do so, even as Repanich acknowledges that Bennett, despite his initially duplicitous sentiments, ultimately did a lot of good for the franchise.  

May 11: Brian Phillips posts a lovely open letter to Seattle on Grantland about the convoluted nature of being an Oklahoma City Thunder fan.  He acknowledges the guilt of enjoying a team that was wantonly pilfered from another city.  He also pens the case for his and every other Oklahoman's absolution under the fairly irrefutable "Holy crap our fly-over city has a real pro sports franchise and they're actually good!!!" defense.

May 12th: Beckley Mason responds to Phillips' post on Hoopspeak.  This is at once a still-raw, jangling nerve reflex to the sad events of the Soncis' departure and a flat rejection of Phillips' apologia.  Essentially: "I appreciate the sentiment, but eff you, Oklahoma.  When your team is snatched away for the greener pastures of a bigger market, you'll know how this feels, but don't presume to shower us with pointless, hollow empathy in the interim."

Bereavement, it seems, cannot be easily put aside. The question as NBA fans is what, if anything, we owe to the bereaved?

The Thunder have been the darlings of the NBA for quite some time now.  We love the team and how brilliantly Sam Presti has built them.  We've all just been waiting for their ascendancy, and that appears to have arrived.  As basketball fans, the whole narrative is so enticing, so filled with wonderful characters and sweeping pictures.  And it doesn't hurt that they play with fervor and dynamism and the exuberance of youth, either.  Problem is: we tend to forget that this storybook we're enjoying was printed on paper made from a rare and lovely tree with deep roots that was chainsawed down without a thought or care by one greedy-ass and duplicitous lumberjack.  

The tenets of "liberated fandom" not withstanding, enjoying the Thunder guilt-free seems at least a little shady.  (I should note that I am a fantastic hypocrite, since both the Braves and Hawks resided elsewhere before becoming Atlanta teams.  In my defense, this happened about 15 years before I was born, so I grew up with "my" teams without realizing until later that they hadn't always been there.)  Shouldn't we feel some remorse about this?  Shouldn't we abstain from buying in when the price was the destruction of the franchise that gave us The Glove and Shawn Kemp and The X-Man and some of the coolest jerseys ever?  There's a reason that Zombie Sonics picture at the top of this post exists, though it's unclear who's more walking dead, the new team or the city they abandoned. 

Those in Oklahoma should probably try not to be too smug about The Thunder if they're in the company of Seattle folks, but they can and should root for their team.  That's what fans do, after all.  As for me, I'm trying pretty hard to temper my enthusiasm for OKC.  I'll enjoy the aesthetics of their play on the court, but I'm striving to do so with an appropriately somber attitude.  The Soncis were from their mother's womb untimely ripped.  I'm not sure if it was Howard Shultz or Clay Bennet in the role of Lady Macbeth, but it seems safe to say neither of them ever felt guilty enough to wash their hands repeatedly while hysterically mumbling "out, out, damned spot."  Shame on them for that.  Either way, Seattle ended up as Banquo's ghost. From now on, whenever I watch the Thunder, I'll also hold a candlelight vigil for them. 

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