The Raptors barely played last week. They squeezed in two games towards the week’s end but were otherwise off enjoying their All-Star break. As such, with the fun and good output being severely limited this week, I’m going to have to talk about something which isn’t very fun or good at all. I’m going to have to talk about baseball.
Baseball is often referred to by idiots as “the thinking man’s game”, which is, of course, a total misnomer. Playing baseball is an utterly mindless activity. You nod at your catcher and then you throw the ball at his glove. Repeat until the game is over. Relative to other popular sports the number of complex, meaningful decisions made by anyone throughout the course of a baseball game are laughably small.
That’s probably why I liked playing it so much while I was growing up.
Anxiety is described by existentialists as the fear of our own freedom. At any waking moment we are technically free to do whatever we would like. That infinite range of options is often paralyzing. To be anxious is to both fear all the bad decisions available to you and prematurely regret not making all the good decisions available to you. It’s something I deal with every day, because I am very, very bad at making decisions.
In high school I skipped over 500 days of school and was accordingly nearly expelled for truancy. I also never studied, completely isolated myself from my peers and had a substance abuse problem. I’m scared of freedom. In the one period in my life where I chose to consistently act on it I screwed up egregiously.
On a baseball diamond I couldn’t make bad decisions. I threw very hard, so as long as I put the ball in the glove I was doing the right thing. I would spend all day terrified, thinking about the implications of my actions, about my potential looming expulsion, about all the friends I was losing. Then I would get on a baseball diamond and not have to think at all. Just nod and throw.
This is part of the reason that I’m so in awe whenever I watch an NBA game. NBA players are constantly presented with an infinite array of incredibly complex choices. In baseball you need to be standing on top of a six inch by two foot piece of rubber or you aren’t even allowed to start playing. In basketball you can go wherever you want. You can shoot whenever you want. You can pass to whoever you want. It’s a coach’s job to try to make some sense of this and provide a gameplan, but players can deviate from the gameplan whenever they want. Sometimes they have to deviate from the gameplan in order to succeed.
Such was the case in the dying seconds of the Raptors’ recent game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Down by two points Dwane Casey had drawn up a handoff play to get a quick 3-pointer for C.J. Miles. The veteran Jason Terry sniffed out the play and blew it up, suffocating Miles and preventing him from receiving the handoff. The plan had failed and now it was up to the man holding the ball to act on his suddenly relevant freedom.
Jonas Valanciunas was standing at the elbow holding the ball with two seconds left on the clock. He could have done any number of things. He could have looked for a different guard to pass to. He could have stepped back behind the 3-point line and let it fly. He could have put down the ball, retired from basketball on the spot and left to go farm cherries with Darko Milicic.
Instead, Valanciunas made a decision that was both fun and good. The immediate outcome of his decision is recorded below:
WELCOME TO LITHUANIA!— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2018
POSTER TO SEND US TO OT! pic.twitter.com/pOvytShaVH
When people in prominent positions make fun and good decisions it can have a huge positive impact. Others who see them may be prompted to follow along and make some fun and good decisions of their own. Case in point, here’s Jakob Poeltl turning from the elbow and throwing down a poster on Andre Drummond in a picture perfect recreation of Valanciunas’ highlight play from three days prior.
That earlier thought also ties in to our funnest and best Raptors’ highlight, an offcourt highlight from DeMar DeRozan. In a piece recently published by the Toronto Star DeRozan spoke about the need to overcome the stigma surrounding the open discussion of mental illness. If you haven’t read the piece already then you should go read it right now. The topic discussed is already incredibly important, but it’s even more important in the world of sports; where labels like “soft” and “mentally weak” are all to quickly thrust on any player with the audacity to show even a shred of vulnerability. Having athletes speak publicly about this issue could have an enormous positive impact.
On the court this is the funnest and best team in Raptors history. They blow teams out with impunity and they look great doing it. More important than that, however, is the fact that they are somehow better off the court than on it.