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Friday Musings: Striving for Greatness

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How Sports illustrate our never ending quest for temporal achievement

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Sports and fandom are often an integral part of our basic need for tribalism. Being a fan of a team typically denotes a location component of one’s history. It gives us understood and shared backstories. There are good guys, people holding the team back, hopes for the upcoming or current year, and nemesis who are disliked due to their opposing positions.

I often think of this as the base level of fandom, understanding and appreciating the tribal aspect to following a team closely, of which there can be various levels of interest. However, sports also provide us with an avenue to examine our own lives.

Success in Basketball is fleeting. Whichever team ends up winning the NBA finals will be the champion for around 3 months. Their legacy will live on, such as how LeBron’s place in basketball’s pantheon of greats was cemented after Cleveland’s game 7 win over the Golden State Warriors. The Block will exist in our collection consciousness, even if the teams were back to work not but a few weeks after the playoffs ended.

While these moments become seared in memory, unfortunately, we are simply not able to similarly hold onto the game-by-game nature of the NBA. It is instead much easier to digest narratives.

The broad swathes of our history become swept up into ready-made shareable aspects. I was born here, I have done these few things, I am doing this now. That is me. Sports, for many people, are part of the lynchpin of this history. They tie us to location-oriented aspects of our life, or perhaps to some other connection, that allows us to quickly explain part of our history.

The history of NBA teams is melted down in a similar aspect. Recent Timberwolves history serves as an easy example. The Kevin Garnett years, the doldrums of the Kahn era, the brief Kevin Love run, and now the hopeful future, built around Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, led by Tom Thibodeau.

Teams that have seemingly wide-open windows into competition see them slammed shut in their faces, their stories ending before they have even truly begun. The recent bastions of the West, the Grizzlies, Thunder, and Mavericks are at wildly different places, yet is hard to believe that any of those teams has any real chance to attend an NBA championship game in the near future. Even the team that achieved success, the Dallas Mavericks, seem stuck in a cycle of failed contention all in the hope of reclaiming one glorious moment.

In a league with so little chance to succeed, as we are all too aware of the lack of parity in the NBA simply due to the immense gravitational pull that the absolute best players can have on the league, what is the point? Why do players, or ourselves as fans, sell ourselves on this hope that maybe this will be the year? Why do we think that against all odds, it will be us that succeeds? Why do we deserve it?

Humans seem to be born with a built-in, ready-made existential crisis. Upon entering this world, and understanding our place in it, we find that we are always searching for the next horizon, the next task to accomplish. That happiness will be there once we accomplish this goal. We will be made whole.

However, what we often find, is that there is no “end-state” upon which we are entirely fulfilled. No personal Nirvana that allows us to demarcate that this is the person who we were trying to become all along, finally achieving success. The treadmill keeps on running.

In the NBA, that treadmill is inherently built into the system. If an All-time great like LeBron James cannot take a break, but instead must keep on working for that next championship, then the players who have almost no chance of winning an NBA championship must feel an immense burden that they, quite possibly, know will never be alleviated.

This makes it hard to imagine the mindset of players like Isaiah Thomas, whose post-season greatness may be lost to the annals of the history books as all that is left of the 2016-2017 season is the Cavs-Warriors III battle (featuring Kevin Durant). Or Mike Conley, whose great series will be forgotten by the offseason as the Grizzlies try to retool again and end up with another 4-6 seed.

We are locked in a battle between the constant need for fulfillment and achievement, but against the pulls of time and our inability to recall much more than the broad strokes of history. We all want to be Ozymandias, even if we are cognizant that the effort is futile. The NBA offers a more rigorous, and public, version of this quest, although the end result is the same.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.