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Why I'm more excited for Raptors basketball than ever before

Toronto Star, December 2020. Find the original article here.

The NBA came back in a flash. On Wednesday, just a couple of months after championship confetti fell upon the LeBron-led Lakers in the Florida bubble, the Raptors will tip off against the New Orleans Pelicans to begin the 2020-21 season. It was the shortest off-season in league history, and yet it seems like the NBA restart can’t happen soon enough. In many ways, basketball’s televised revival feels like an essential service for the housebound.


It could be that Raptors fans, like myself, despondent after watching their team get booted from the bubble by the Boston Celtics, are ready to rinse their mouths of the lingering taste of defeat, which was particularly foul after enjoying the sweet champagne of a 2019 championship victory.


Or it could be that for the average Torontonian — enduring a second lockdown, during which the barrage of disembodied Zoom calls somehow intensifies the sense of isolation — any sort of entertainment-induced respite from the virus seems integral to maintaining some semblance of sanity.


Indeed, remembering how much basketball buoyed my spirits over the past nine months, I can’t help but think that broadcasted sports are essential to our collective well-being. Sure, there are risks associated with playing right now but, from my perspective, the league proved its importance and social value back in the bubble.


In March, shortly after the NBA took a virus hiatus, I felt relatively OK without the babble of basketball commentary providing the background music to my life. There were no instances of dunk withdrawal. After a lifetime of non-stop sports indulgence, including playing and coaching at the college level, perhaps I needed a bit of a double-dribble detox.

I took temporary solace in the world of online chess (yes, even before the Queen’s Gambit phenomenon), where everyone from active grandmasters to idle grandmothers compete in a global forum of pawn-swapping, king-capturing madness.


Then, when the weather improved, I amused myself with socially distant outdoor gatherings, playing spikeball and enjoying blanket-top picnics late into the evening at Christie Pits Park. All the while my basketballphilia remained dormant.


But the emergence of the NBA bubble, 2,000 kilometres south at Disney World, revivified my fandom.


The playoffs, specifically, delivered fabulous entertainment in a time of mind-numbing boredom: Jamal Murray’s acrobatic layups; Jimmy Butler’s quiet leadership and ironman-like exploits in the Finals; LeBron James (love him or hate him) adding another notch to his championship belt. Critics of a pandemic-time NBA renaissance might characterize these moments as meaningless distractions. To me, they were joy-inducing instances of athletic excellence.


The importance of the bubble extended beyond just basketball. It gave the league a platform for political awareness in a time of mass confusion, during the mix of peaceful protests and riots that followed the death of George Floyd. Remember how the players mobilized, with procedural efficiency, to support the Black Lives Matter movement? Without the powerful visuals provided by athletes kneeling in solidarity during the national anthem or the impassioned press-conferences by leaders like Fred VanVleet, the BLM messaging might have been reduced to athletes posting heartfelt but ineffectual captions on their Instagram accounts.


And the entire bubble enterprise, allowing the league to finish the season, showed how human innovation can quite literally create a protective layer around the things we love. That’s certainly preferable to just sitting around, yielding to the virus and never trying to find a solution. (That same pioneering spirit eventually led scientists to discover a vaccine.)


These were all positive contributions, whether to my personal state of mind or the combined psyche of fans everywhere. Then basketball left again.


Shortly after the Lakers hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the city of Toronto went into Lockdown 2.0 — a dispiriting moment for everyone. Mom-and-pop shops had to close before the holidays, when they typically make a good chunk of their annual revenue and scrape together cash to buy gifts for their own families. And locals hoping to combat the winter blues with revelrous holiday gatherings were forced to make different — likely solitary — plans.


Daylight saving time seemed particularly cruel this year, taking away much of the sunshine that made lockdown relatively tolerable. I fell into a bit of a winter funk, looking out of the window of my downtown apartment, around 5 p.m. every day, watching darkness descend upon the sleepy cityscape, knowing Toronto would remain quiet for at least the next few months.


But seeing the Raptors’ upcoming schedule, with the excitement of a new season yet to be realized, I felt a flicker of hope (or perhaps it was just the light of my Hanukkah candles), a reminder of the daily delight that basketball brings. More of Kyle Lowry’s scrappy antics, Pascal Siakam’s freakishly long strides to the bucket, VanVleet’s crafty pick-and-roll three-pointers.


Those wary of an NBA redux contend that televised sports are just mindless escapism, a needless indulgence amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, a psychological anesthetic to help us temporarily forget the greatest threat facing civilization in the past century. Scores of people have succumbed to the virus and the number of positive tests continues to climb. So why should these athletes be allowed to play contact sports and travel, potentially putting themselves and everyone around them at risk, while most people — save for the essential workers — are stuck at home?


The naysayers have a point. But it’s worth considering that if any segment of the population were prepared to handle potential COVID exposure, it would be the pro athletes, who are mostly young and in peak physical condition, with access to first-rate testing and health care. The wealth of the league, combined with its organizational competence, creates an environment in which these players can safeguard themselves against the virus. Kind of like, well, a bubble.


The players are also being paid handsomely for their efforts. Grocery workers on the front lines can attest to how much a $4 hourly wage increase makes working under difficult conditions relatively manageable, so just imagine these NBAers who get paid ridiculous amounts of money to run up and down the court? It’s probably relatively straightforward for VanVleet, who recently signed an $85 million contract, to weigh his financial compensation against the potential harm of showing up to work, especially compared to a frontliner.


And if athletes want to opt out, like veterans Trevor Ariza and Avery Bradley showed in the bubble, they’re well within their rights to do so. It’s at least somewhat telling that no players have opted out for 2020-21.


The NBA’s efforts to forge ahead, though it might arguably be motivated by the greed of uber wealthy team owners, reflects our ambition to transcend the virus, maintaining as many coveted pre-pandemic traditions as possible and cultivating circumstances in which the things we covet are untouchable to an outside threat. That’s a noble pursuit.


Above all, last season gave me a much-needed boost during a time when positivity was necessary to combat the chaos elsewhere. The 2020-21 campaign will give me and hordes of other basketball fans a bit of a boost during our first proper COVID winter, trapped at home in our little bubbles. I think that’s what makes the Raptors season opener feel so damn special.

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© 2018 by Mathew Silver

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