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Bubble vs. Reality: In which we watch basketball in today’s world

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Basketball returns, the globe keeps spinning, and that means we have to keep these two things — and many others — in mind at the same time. What does that look like as we journey on with the Raptors?

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

We’re doing this.

That’s the overwhelming feeling I’ve had as the NBA has marched towards its restart. Back in March it seemed like the season shutdown would be brief, then it became apparent even thinking about basketball was selfish, and now we’ve settled into something else with a distinct vibe of resignation. The NBA has established its so-called bubble along with various health protocols to maintain the appearance of control. It’s clear everyone involved is prepared to white-knuckle this right on to the end. We’re meant to enjoy it.

But then there’s the broader world happening literally just outside this little theoretical basketball fortress. This world in which we’re dealing with an increasingly dire number of issues and a rising feeling of desperation. You don’t come here to read about all that of course, but it is growing harder to ignore, to pretend it’s not part of the context of writing about basketball.

So that’s what Bubble vs. Reality is going to be about: a weekly review of the goings-on in the basketball world (and with the Raptors in particular), coupled with a perspective-shifting glance outside. What else is happening?

Bubble

First, the fun stuff! Because they’re the only Canada-based team in the NBA, the Raptors have spent the last few weeks nesting in Orlando and preparing for the season restart. This process started all the way back in late June — which feels a million miles away now — allowing Toronto’s squad to get as comfortable as possible in their new surroundings. It’s allowed for a series of pictures like this to emerge:

Reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Norman Powell trying his hand at fishing (like his former teammate, noted fisherman Jonas Valanciunas) is not a sight we’d ever normally see. There’s a weird incongruence to the image, not because NBA players don’t go fishing or because we haven’t — thanks to social media — seen more and more images and videos of them in their downtime doing what they like to do. No, it’s strange because they’re in a land of make-believe right now, a Truman Show-esque reality with borders we’ve all agreed to pretend are not there.

Now I admit, I don’t quite know where that photo was taken, or how much access the Disney World campus has to an open body of water, but for the life of me all I could think of was this line from The Foundation, a season-eight episode of Seinfeld:

INT. Jerry’s Apartment - Day

Jerry: [on the phone] Dad, I wouldn’t eat anything you caught in that pond out in front of the condo.

This section is supposed to be the fun part and, really, you do just have to laugh. To that end, if you want more opportunities to do so, you can find them here on Twitter, as just one example. This can indeed be funny stuff. It’s not every day we get to see a sports league play out the final months of its season from a massive compound, like a more put-together and high profile athlete’s village from the Olympics.

I’m not immune to those charms either, yet I always find my eyes straying to the edge of the frame.

Reality

Speaking of images on Twitter, much was made last week of the Raptors’ choice of transportation into the Disney World bubble. In truth, it was cool to see, the aesthetic and moral choices in play coming together in one striking series of photographs:

As symbols go, it’s a strong one. But — you knew there’d be a but — I can’t help but wonder what’s next, for both NBA players and for everyone else. As I’ve written about before, it’s clear the NBA as a business organization, even one largely subsisting on and consisting of Black people, is unprepared and unwilling to push for actual systemic change. The team owners and the league office will allow some version of protest, but only one that is carefully controlled. It’s there in that ridiculous decision to allow players to put messages on the backs of their jerseys in lieu of their names — but only messages approved by the league and player’s association. (Against this, LeBron James leads the charge, standing by his name, while backing a much-needed voting rights initiative in the U.S.)

Again, like Toronto’s team bus, these are useful symbols in part, nods to an awareness of the very real suffering happening outside the bubble. Coupled with the right words, they at least keep the issues of the day in people’s minds, even as we strive for some sort of return to “normal.” But they also do little to truly upset the NBA’s business-as-usual interests. To do that would be something else entirely.

To that end, we turn to each other and to our local communities to find a way to be useful, to do the work — some work, any kind of work — to push forward on the changes we need to make as a society. In Toronto, we’ve lately seen some truly vile threats to the most vulnerable people in our city. Look here as Mayor John Tory attempts to hold them hostage in a bid for more money from the federal government.

Tory is not wrong to suggest COVID-19 has put Toronto into an even more serious budget crisis than the one he’s overseen for years. And he’s not wrong to suggest the city needs money from somewhere. He is wrong — very, seriously wrong — in implying he’ll have to cut funding to the programs mentioned above, as of that were his only option. Tory’s desire here is, in true Tory fashion, to look like the reasonable man. He doesn’t want to make these cuts, but, as he’ll tell you, he has no choice — the people above him, be they Premier Doug Ford or Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, are forcing his hand.

What Tory leaves out is that he does indeed have the power to change things for the better. He didn’t, for example, have to lead the charge against defunding the Toronto Police Service — the City’s single biggest line item, and one many people would like to see reduced. And he certainly didn’t have to support increasing their budget to allow for body cameras to be worn by every cop in the field (a measure we already to know to have failed as a means for reducing violence against Black and Indigenous people). That he can now turn around and cry poor after labouring for years to keep property taxes low and ignoring the calls for budget redistribution away from policing is a particularly evil turn of events.

So, if you’re looking for a way to do something, for actions that move beyond a few turns of phrase or some well-meaning symbols, there is this:

Read carefully, prepare wisely, and I hope you’ll make the decision to attend so as to let your voice be heard. This column is running early for its inaugural edition as a way to hopefully get the word out even just a little bit. In all, this is maybe not as flashy as a cool bus or jersey, but it’s where this kind of work has to start, carrying on as a tangible action that breaks through the various bubbles we’ve built — or had constructed around us — in this reality we all share.