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Basketball in the Time of Corona

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Turning to the NBA amidst a pandemic

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It is unbelievable that just over a month ago, the NBA was ramping up en route to the playoffs. The Wolves were terrible of course, but the rest of the league was promising. We had the Lakers and the Clippers fighting for the top of the Western Conference hierarchy, a competitive Eastern Conference that may have drastically shifted the courses of leading teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. LeBron James was making the MVP race competitive, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans were fighting an uphill battle for the 8th seed, and we were beginning to create the battle lines for the existential dilemma of whether D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns are good enough to build a team around.

But then the world went to hell and it all seems so small now, especially given the recent heartbreaking news of the death of Karl-Anthony Towns’ mother at the hands of this virus.

The shock and terror of this past month has been a heavy, heavy burden for those of us holed-up in isolation and those that are the critical workers keeping the basic functioning of society operating at great personal risk.

For me, the NBA has always served as the escape where I could find solace and comfort away from the stress of life. When I was living abroad, I had failed to imagine how difficult it would be to be alone, sequestered from everything that I knew and forced to begin anew. In that time, I dove into the NBA and the Minnesota Timberwolves, and even this site itself, finding a community willing to celebrate and debate the quirks, big and small, of the NBA.

Since then, the NBA and the Timberwolves have become an inextricable part of my life. My close group of college friends has a four-year running text thread predominately about the NBA. I wake up and check NBA Twitter and Reddit for highlights and news. I listen to NBA podcasts when I go running, a welcome distraction from the stress of work and graduate school. When I talk with my father, one of the few easy conversation topics is a shared exasperation with the Minnesota Timberwolves (he has also been on the anti-Wiggins train for years).

That is all gone now. Or at least it has dissipated for the foreseeable future. It is hard to work up the energy to care about the ideal defensive power forward to make this roster anything but a collective bunch of matadors of defense, waving around their red capes as they sprint to back to position themselves along the three-point line on offense.

It’s not as if other forms of media have been any help. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the cartels are practicing social distancing when watching Better Call Saul. I have a hard time imagining Lalo would care about New Mexico’s shelter-in-place order.

But a strange thing happened this week. I was going for a run and I pulled up one of Zach Lowe’s podcasts from a few weeks ago where he had David Thorpe on to talk about their Most Improved Player ballots and it was just so perfectly, shockingly, normal. After the now-required prerequisite chat about their new quarantine lives, there was a long argument over which exact types of players should qualify for the MIP award and a vigorous debate on the merits of Trae Young.

As the pandemic has seeped into every millisecond of our lives, it was a moment of bliss to deny our collective reality for an hour. Of course, this was not a complete success, as during my run I passed another runner who was failing to observe social distancing, so I had to dart into the road to avoid passing within six-feet of an unknown human.

This normalcy, however brief it was, felt like a first clean breath of air in a very long time. Of course, the denial of reality is false, as our world has been so irrevocably changed that it is impossible to imagine that things will ever return to what they ever were just six weeks ago before Rudy Gobert tested positive and our everyday life imploded.

Nevertheless, the NBA and the Timberwolves are still here to offer a familiar escape. Perhaps, as Timberwolves fans, we are particularly primed for the collective self-delusion that with enough pretend, maybe things will be different. We know that we will be disappointed and recommend gambling friends to bet the under, but maybe if we can break things down in just the right way, they can make sense for a few moments. Or maybe the pretending was the point all along, and we can certainly make-believe there is light amidst the darkness for a while longer.

So, if the Timberwolves manage to land the top pick in the draft, how aggressive should they be in seeking a trade? How many teams even have a player worth the first overall pick that they are willing to trade? Are we all just hoping that Orlando is willing to trade Jonathan Issac for a top pick because they are Orlando?

Being able to talk about these things is solace, although they are the tiniest of questions in the grand scheme. They are important in that they are a way for us to commune together, and yet they do not and should not allow us to forget about the collective suffering of so many.

But at least we have the NBA to distract us and bring us together in our times of trial. And, as always, we can convince ourselves that next year will be a different, better world.