More than anything else these days, I’ve found myself missing The Raptor. Our plush king, harassing security guards, gyrating inside his inflatable fatigues, whipping in behind-the-back half court shots the pros can’t even fathom — The Raptor supplies the pops of fun and levity that remind us this shit doesn’t have to be so serious, and I want him back as much as I do haircuts.
Don’t get me wrong, I miss actual basketball, too. And a small albeit conflicted part of me is happy the league is on track to return, however dystopian the reported Disney plan might be. This year’s Raptors were as inspiring as they were beautiful to watch, and it’s nice that the narrative they wove themselves all year might not be stuck dangling as a flaccid thread forever. Blasting our pores with the steam of a thousand Battle of L.A. takes sounds like a glorious reprieve after a month of MJ discourse. I can’t wait to watch Bucks fans sweat whenever Milwaukee drops a game in the shadow of Space Mountain.
But what we’re missing right now goes well beyond questions of who’d be winning or losing if games were going on, or how the results of those games might affect who wins and loses games three years from now. We’re stuck in a hell without all the dumb frivolities that turn basic basketball into the NBA. And no matter how elaborate the league’s scheme to return to play may be, it seems certain those things beyond the scoreboard will remain just as sidelined as they are right now. Despite my firm belief to the contrary, there’s no way mascots and dance crews and t-shirt cannons are gonna be deemed essential if and when the league posts up at Epcot.
Of course, mascots dunking off ladders and halftime baby races don’t factor into the almighty Basketball Related Income figure, so the league and owners aren’t going to consider that sort of thing as they hatch their return plot — a plot that’s at best tone deaf and at worst literally going to get people killed. The process of bringing the NBA back was always going to feature billionaire ghouls sacrificing quality and morality in the name of staying as rich as they were before the pause. To these people, fulfilling TV contracts with something, anything, is more important than the integrity of the product they’re slapping together. Who cares about Benny the Bull or the home-cooking charm of a local broadcast team — not to mention, you know, regular people who will certainly be forced to work behind the scenes in the Magic Basketball Kingdom — when there are millions to be salvaged? No one should be surprised that billionaires think this way; capitalism brain has no empathy centers.
That extends to the players themselves, too. As much as us normies may want them to be, guys playing in the league are closer to owners than they are to us. Wealthy, hyper-competitive athletes for whom access to healthcare isn’t a concern aren’t exactly the dudes we should be taking our cues from. They’re not heartless billionaire slime, but they’re not directly affected front line workers either. The question to be asking the players via anonymous text isn’t whether they want to come back and play, because of fucking course they do, especially if it’s posed as a yes or no proposition. Rather, the NBAPA should be asking itself is whether it wants to be complicit, not only in an irresponsible ploy to shoehorn games into a summer during which America has far more pressing needs than buckets, but in churning out an on-court product without an ounce of soul.
Even if your blinders can cancel out the blatant immorality of playing basketball in a literal fairy tale bubble around which a nation is crumbling, it’ll be impossible to look past the burnt-out husk of a league the post-shutdown version of the NBA will resemble. No matter the format, the season’s forced conclusions will be hollow, played without all the noise and pomp that lend stakes to the NBA playoffs. No silly t-shirts placed on seats, none of the communal gatherings that turn playoff runs into beautiful shared experiences, and of course no mascots to liven the game day scene. We’re probably looking at a title-clinching moment where in place of champagne showers and fan delirium, we’ll have muted elbow bumps and a socially-distanced trophy stage. Shit, the eventual champions won’t even get to hold a parade.
With those realities in mind the question becomes, outside of the super rich owners and the slightly less super rich players, who exactly is all this for? And is it really worth all of the headaches and risks just to crown a champion for whom their title will always feel less than whole? It’s not even that winning the thing will be any less impressive under these circumstances. Every team is navigating the same challenges right now; asterisking the 2020 champs because of a global pandemic seems unfair. But take a second to imagine the Raptors’ title run without 50-something Jurassic Parks across the country, or the lunatic Raps fans who closed down Oracle Arena after Game 6, or the city-paralyzing parade. Would fans feel the same way about last spring without all of that? Would the players? Completing the season will avoid a vacancy on the Basketball Reference list of NBA champions, but it’ll rob the players and fans of the champs of the feelings and experiences that are supposed to accompany a title.
No solution is perfect here. A season cancellation, and the resulting financial fallout could make things like cap math and large Greek man pursuits difficult down the line. The NBA is well within its rights to exhaust all avenues to return, and if there’s a way to get games in with foolproof safety measures that don’t require the hoarding of precious virus-fighting resources, then fine. The logistics of making that happen are overwhelming, though, and will ultimately see so many of the elements that make the NBA experience so rich axed. In-game entertainment, batshit crowds, mascots, hugs — none will be part of the skeleton league we’re on track to see some time in July. It’s a price the powers that be won’t think twice about paying if it means they can dive nude into a pool of TV money, and if returning to play during a pandemic didn’t feel so ill-considered, you could hardly blame the owners for sacrificing the sport’s non-essential frills.
A league without those excesses is gonna be an empty and cold watch. Those with advanced metric salary cap brain might enjoy the ultra-distilled product, where it’s about wins, losses, X’s and O’s and not much else. But if you’ve ever enjoyed one of the things that happens away from the floor at an NBA game, your viewing experience is about to have some enormous, in some cases irreconcilable gaps. Yeah, “basketball” might return soon, but that doesn’t mean the NBA won’t still be on hold.