The NBA is harsh on the mind. There’s the long physical grind of the regular season, sure, but there are also other ineffable mental tolls to be paid, particularly by the marginal player. To be told, this is who you are, this is what you can do, do not stray from this set of instructions or you will be punished — it must be tough at times. All this, as others summon greatness as if from some other transcendent realm, given free rein to exert their talents as they wish. To make it to the NBA is to be one of the best in the entire world, and yet it is still possible to feel very far away from the sublime.
I always think first of Antonio Salieri, despite not knowing any of his work (which, given the context, is fitting). He was a composer made famous in modern-ish times by the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus. The film dramaticizes the feeling I describe, the notion that for all a person’s labour, there could be another who seemingly conjures up some higher level of achievement, forever out of reach. It’s telling the film is named after another man, despite being from the perspective of Salieri. It’s his anger we feel, his jealousy, the unrest of his mind, as he encounters the titular Mozart, portrayed as something of a foppish buffoon. Salieri lived longer than Mozart, but it was just long enough to watch the latter’s artistic legacy grow beyond that of anyone else’s.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, to name two prominent (and incoming) examples, had to work hard to get where they are. Much could have gone wrong on their paths to excellence. But there is still, in description if not in practice, an element of the supernatural to their mutual games. How does James anticipate the next play? How does Giannis know now is the time to leap, instead of then? How do they see the things they see? If you’re Lucas Nogueira, mutely watching this all from the bench, your body stretched to athletic dimensions considered ideal for the same sport, maybe you ask yourself: Could I ever achieve that? Maybe it puts you on the same path as Salieri, crushing your spirit in time.
As someone located down the totem pole of Raptors reporters, lower than the TV people, the beat writers, and usually a second, third, or fourth choice for go-to blogger, I find myself relating to (my constructions of) Bebe, Salieri, and the Raptors as a whole. HQ exists under a shadow too. The same sense of impermanence and impossibility can overwhelm. And there’s no solution to it except to keep trying, to keep going. That’s it.
The Raptors won 51 games this year, a bit off the pace from last season’s surprise 56, but a stunning total nonetheless. For a franchise most often thought of as a joke, the Raptors over the past four years have been a clear success. This year, after having retooled, and still with young players (like Bebe) in the wings, may be one of the best seasons in franchise history. The talent is there, the higher level of achievement within reach — maybe.
It’s that maybe that keeps Toronto up at night. Despite operating with two great players — Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — we anticipate run-ins with those talents that outstrip our team’s own. We fret about Giannis, and worry about LeBron. They alone, from their different plane, can upend the progress made by the Raptors collective. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that.
So yes, we should be happy to be here, but we also know that phrase, our mere presence in the post-season, is not enough. We want more.
The NBA playoffs are finally here and it would be uncool, particularly after that earlier display of emotion, to bemoan the fates now. The Raptors have a good shot to make some noise in the post-season, and while Bebe does not figure into the normal plans, he’ll get to experience it.
I hate to cut these sections short but what else is there to say? As Emperor Joseph II does in Amadeus, there are ways of summing these things up simply.
Level of High Level
Forgive the weird-ass visual — Mac DeMarco is always good for that — and just let this odd, but thematically resonant song, wash over you:
Whatever level Bebe is on now, let’s just call it the one he was meant to be at. And while I’m confident I’ve leaned on DeMarco one too many times in my column efforts, there’s something zen about Mac’s approach (even if it is way off from Mozart).
Just play and be and accept.
High Level Result: 3 out of 10 — Barring blowout one way or the other, we will not see Nogueira on the court again in the post-season for the Raptors. I’ve written this before, but the composition of the last couple of months leads to that same inevitable score.
While it’s doubtful Bebe feels the same emotion, I will grapple with the spirit of Salieri on his behalf anyway. It’s this torch of desire that lights our way, even as we know, deep down, of the levels we cannot reach.