Archive for the 'Basketball Poems' Category

A Thunderous Inferiority

Sep 25 2020 Published by under Basketball Poems

If you insult the Thunder, you insult me. This isn’t hyperbole; this is the painful truth. I wish it were not the case, but it is. When someone says that the Thunder are the biggest what-if since 1985, that makes me feel that I personally am an underachiever. How did this happen? How did some part of my identity get wrapped into the Thunder’s success? And how do I disentangle that? 

I come by some of this identity warping honestly. In Sam Anderson’s fantastic book Boom Town, he explains how the Oklahoma City Thunder served as a civic redemption for Oklahoma’s twin tragedies of the 90s: the Alfred P. Murrah building bombing and the May 1999 tornadoes that destroyed a big chunk of the town of Moore. OKC’s national brand had become tragedy, and the Thunder were supposed to arrive, start winning, and make people think about other things than tragedy for Oklahoma City. Surprisingly, this has largely happened. The book is funny, moving, interesting, clever, and ultimately incredibly understanding of Oklahoma for a person is not actually from Oklahoma.  It made me think about what Oklahoma means to me, and what the Thunder mean to me. 

I am not old enough to have vivid memories of the Oklahoma City bombing, but I was living in Oklahoma when it happened. I do remember the May 1999 tornadoes. I do remember the enormous national attention that we received for the tornadoes and the bombing. I grew up in this context, where Oklahoma City (and by extension, Oklahoma) was only sad things. Oklahoma was not discussed outside of Oklahoma except for these things. Anything else going on in Oklahoma did not really exist in the opinions of those outside of the borders of Oklahoma.  

I felt intimately that Oklahoma was an underdog, and that subsequently I was an underdog. If Oklahoma could escape being an underdog, then I could escape being an underdog. This is the emotional set up, personal and civic, that the Thunder emerged into.  

The Thunder’s success felt like people would have to recognize that Oklahoma was meaningful and valuable. It felt like Oklahoma had forced the world to talk about Oklahoma in conversations that Oklahoma had been intentionally left out of. We could be discussed. We could be discussed positively. The Thunder had a chance to matter, and that gave Oklahoma a chance to matter. It gave me a chance to matter.

And that’s because once they showed up, they were good. Quickly. They were contenders. They had a chance at the trophy. The Thunder winning a championship has no real meaning or value to me, materially speaking. I will never get to hold the trophy. I may never even get to see it in person. Yet the mere existence of the Thunder proved the possibility that someday Oklahoma could be the best at something. Then: they actually were good! They were really good! And that gave us further hope that we could be the best at something. Not just the best in a way that only we knew about (Oklahomans know Oklahoma is the best), but that everyone had to acknowledge. It felt important.  

But: we got the team in an unpleasant, inferiority-complex-inducing way. We got (we… took) the team in maybe the most underdog, underhanded, unpleasant way possible. I was living in Oklahoma City when Oklahoma City’s NBA team arrived, and I am compelled to point out—and Sam Anderson goes in great details to explain—that the way we got that team was bogus. It’s a fact. It is sort of painful to think about, honestly. I would absolutely rather that we had been expansion team, but even after successfully, enthusiastically harboring the New Orleans Hornets for a year, the NBA wouldn’t take flyer on us. They said, in essence, “hey, you still don’t matter. You’re not a big priority, even though you just did us a solid and sold out a lot of games for the Hornets when they were turned out after Katrina destroyed their arena. So thanks, but, you know, you’re not high on our priorities list.” And then we still got a team anyway, but Oklahoma had to play dirty to get people to pay attention. It is very un-Oklahoma to do this, but desperate desires call for desperate measures. 

So we got the team while still holding a massive inferiority complex. We almost got the team the right way, but not quite. Subsequently, the Thunder have almost but not quite been the best team several times. In heartbreaking ways, I might add. (About here is where I note that Seattle fans have some thoughts about heartbreak.)

In my experience of Oklahoma, this is the way: almost, but not quite. Beyond the many almost-not-quites of Boom Town, I have my own major ANQ with my home state. I love Oklahoma, and I loved living there. But when I wanted to go to grad school and become a professor, I couldn’t do that very easily in Oklahoma. (Almost, but not quite.) So I chose to leave.

Thus, I have a further complicated relationship with the Thunder in that I am a Thunder fan that doesn’t live in Oklahoma anymore. Being a Thunder fan outside of Oklahoma reinforces the feeling that no one cares about Oklahoma. There are no Thunder bars in most major cities. The Thunder makes us feel like we matter on ESPN, and sometimes we do matter on ESPN. But, beyond that: empirically, the Thunder don’t matter very many other places, in media and in life. 

So there’s a self-reinforcing problem that deals directly into this strange inferiority complex. I grew up feeling that no one cared about Oklahoma, and then I felt like Oklahoma mattered via the Thunder. Then I moved outside of Oklahoma, and I found out that no one cared about the Thunder, and thus maybe no one cared about Oklahoma after all. Perhaps it was all an illusion. Maybe we made it all up.

So, naturally, you may be thinking: “wow, this is sort of unhealthy.” And yes, it is unhealthy. It is remarkably unhealthy. I should not be wrapping my sense of inferiority to the entire world into the success or failure of an NBA basketball team. Unfortunately, this is what has happened. Due to growing up in a specific context, due to living there when the team arrived, due to seeing them get so close several times; all of it has conspired to make it so that I feel the failures of the Oklahoma City Thunder as my own failures.  

And that points to the main crux of the issue: as I mentioned earlier, there is no material value, especially now that I live in Arizona, to an NBA championship for the Thunder. It’s an internal state. I would be able to silence unnamed haters and my own inferior feelings about Oklahoma, if Oklahoma City could just win one. This is an irrational thing to hang an internal sense of security upon. It is an unhealthy thing to hang your internal states on, it should be noted. And honestly, I want to fix it. I want to care less than I do.

But not caring as much as I do feels like betraying Oklahoma in some ways. It feels like I’ve given up on the idea that Oklahoma will ever be valuable, and that where I came from ever has meaning. Now, perhaps that’s a valuable and important thing to do. Perhaps that’s part of the maturing process, that you develop a sense of yourself in the world in relation to where you live but not defined by where you live.

I would like to think that is true. I would like to think that I can continue growing and maturing and that in 10 years I’ll look back at this essay and think, “You know, that was the turning point, and I no longer have my emotions wrapped up in the Thunder, even though I still like them. Go Thunder.” But this level of personal development goes beyond bootstrapping new habits. This is a spiritual conundrum.

Thinking about how we relate to things regards deep soul issues. What do I deeply care about? What are my ultimate, cosmological commitments? How do I relate to the world now, and how should I relate to the world in the future? How should I relate to the world properly?

I have spent a lot of emotional energy relating to the world through the lens of the Thunder. I have used them as a way to cover over the feeling that I am inferior, and that it is other people’s opinions of the place I grew up as inferior that make me inferior. If I can point out an objective piece of evidence that my home state is not inferior, I can cling to it and feel better in relation to the world. The championship would be my armor, my everpresent help and shield. When I think about the Thunder, my soul clings to this hope more than the true hope I have in Christ.

And yet, that true hope is everlasting! And guaranteed! And it is not dependent on three-point percentage! But, lo, it is invisible. It is in and among us, that hope that unites Christians who believe in the resurrection: new life has broken through, and is breaking through, and will break through. It is a hope that will break through my inferiority complex, slowly, bit by bit, changing me through love of and relationship with Christ. Not into new morals or habits, but into a new person; a new person who does not need the Thunder to win to validate my social standing with invisible haters. A person who finds all my worth in the finished work of Christ, a work all-sufficient and ever-effective for destroying inferiority in the light of truth.

But not yet. I am not that person yet. The Thunder is not that team yet. Oklahoma is not that state yet. We all have a long way to go to not be and feel inferior. But I am guaranteed to arise, championship or no.

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Sep 23 2020 Published by under Basketball Poems

My wife is tired of hearing me complain about the unfairness of NBA Playoffs, particularly the massive talent disparity between East and West. To wit:

“I could fix it all: just seed the playoffs 1-16. Let the best teams be given the best slots, no conferences. No one misses the playoffs in the West who won more games than a ‘playoff’ team in the East. Look at how great these playoffs would be, if we seeded 1-16; who wouldn’t want these first-round matchups?”

And I care about this plan very much, care that it’s just the best teams that get in, care that underachievers don’t get unearned credit for their lack of achievement.

I want teams to know: “yes, you can merit your way to the top, no matter if you’re in Sacramento or Oklahoma City or anywhere else. No arbitrary conference split is going to stop you. I’m going to fight the arbitrary things that stop you.”

It would be more fair, with me defining “fair.”

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Point Guards

Sep 11 2020 Published by under Basketball Poems

I’d like to come up with a formula
for the ideal point guard
a formula that assesses how perfectly
my ideal can be achieved:
20 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, plus
the flow of Steph Curry on offense,
the peskiness of Marcus Smart on defense,
and the magic passing of CP3.

The formula would prove mathematically
who comes closest.
Really just to validate my personal opinions
to prove that my opinions are good
to prove that the ideal is possible
to prove that we can make the ideal and me meet in a meaningful way
if only on a spreadsheet

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