Be the bubble.
If I’m Brett Brown, I’m walking into the locker room on Saturday night and I’m picking up a dry erase marker and I’m writing those three words in big bold letters so that each of my players can see them. It might not be Gene Hackman with a tape measure, but it should remind the Sixers that they have a lot more to play for than banners and rings and pride.
When Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and the gang take the court inside the NBA’s makeshift magic kingdom on Saturday night, they will do so in the name of a city that is in desperate need of something to feel good about. In that regard, Philadelphia is like a lot of other places in this country. From New York to Portland, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, the last five months have placed placed a near constant strain on the seams of our patchwork nation. We’ve watched more than 152,000 of our countrymen die at the hands of a virus, and we’ve watched them die at the hands of police, and all the while we’ve wrestled with the contradictions exposed by our country’s inability to stop neither.
I suspect it is the contradictions that make the current moment feel so unrelenting. We are problem-solving creatures by nature, endowed with minds that crave certainty, and that exude anxiety in its absence. We are not programmed to accept a lack of clear and coherent solutions. Some people cope by insisting there is one. Others cope by insisting that one ain’t it. After five months of this sort of back-and-forth, I’m not sure we have enough energy to realize how exhausted all of us are.
Where Philadelphians differentiate themselves from the population at large is the level to which they utilize spectator sports as an outlet. In normal times, there is a level of charm in that characteristic. But these are not normal times, and they’re particularly precarious for anyone who incorporates sports into his or her identity. Because, as you may have noticed, sports have had a rough go of it lately.
On Thursday, the local baseball team postponed another series, and it is getting increasingly difficult to envision the sport making it through the season. Earlier in the week, the local football team learned that one of its wide receivers was among a flurry of NFL veterans who had decided to sit out the upcoming season. Not long afterward, the team learned that its starting right tackle had tested positive for COVID-19. At this point, the NFL’s herculean single-mindedness is the only reason to think that the Eagles might yet play football.
All of this means it could fall on the shoulders of the Sixers to carry us through the early stages of autumn. While the Flyers deserve some consideration, the NBA’s decision to stage a traditional postseason makes it much easier to accept the legitimacy of its eventual champion. That could change in a hurry. All it would take is a COVID outbreak inside the league’s Disney World bubble. Or a single superstar missing a series. Still, at least for the moment, the Sixers will embark on a journey that is a serious, if strange, opportunity.
“To think that you can provide some level of relief, some level of entertainment, some reclaiming of memories that you used to have of watching your favorite team, of watching sports, of watching NBA basketball,” Brown, the Sixers coach, said Thursday. “To be a part of that, to have that opportunity, I think about it a lot.”
On several occasions over the last few months, I’ve used this column to express my belief that our professional sports leagues should do everything in their power to play (safely) on. Each time, I’ve received a handful of replies admonishing me for portraying sports as a necessity.
In at least once sense, the finger-waggers are correct. The inability to watch sports pales in comparison to the life-and-death struggle we’ve watched play out this spring and summer. But I struggle to see the logic in using sports as an inessential rebuttal when you consider all of the other things in life that are inessential. It’s just sports, it’s just music, it’s just a movie, it’s just a job, it’s just a vacation. Start stripping life of all its unnecessary components and pretty soon all that remains is a perpetual fixation on survival.
These have been five long months, and the next three could be even longer. The start of the school year is a month away. Beyond that, the return of flu season. Factor in a presidential election and autumn could easily devolve into chaos.