There’s a script, more or less, for losing the NBA Finals, an expected way to vocalize sadness. In the suspicious, unkind glare of the post-series press conference, the player who doesn’t adhere to it invites everyone to doubt their devotion to basketball.
Forget all the hours spent in service of the NBA dream, the demands of the loneliest regular season ever, a hard-fought playoffs; weighed against a few minutes of insufficient scowling, those mean nothing. It helps that the mannerisms treated as proof of truly caring—a crack in the voice, eyes fixed downward at the microphone, maybe a terse few words muttered into it—might come naturally to a person in the moments after a difficult loss. But human emotion is more idiosyncratic than that, and I was glad to be reminded so by the Phoenix Suns’ Deandre Ayton, who looked almost like he was trying to keep himself from smiling after his team lost Game 6 and the Finals Tuesday night. As he headed out of the interview room, he told reporters, “Even though we lost, it was still fun.”
If there was anyone who would’ve been justified in sticking to the script last night, it was Ayton. A transcendent Giannis Antetokounmpo just about chauffeured the Suns center to the table read. Ayton finished with 12 points to his matchup’s 50. (Maybe you heard about this.) For the entire game and much of the series, Antetokounmpo dominated Ayton; that may say less about the latter’s performance than the former’s. But when Game 6 ended, something delightful came from Ayton’s inexperience. The insanely cool, surreal feeling of being an NBA player in the damn Finals, just the third No. 1 pick in the last 30 years to make it that far in his first playoff appearance, wasn’t lost on him.
“I’m just really happy how the guys had a wonderful season playing together to get us where we are today,” Ayton said in the press conference. “But at the same time we feel it, it leaves a little bad taste in your mouth, but at the end of the day this is just the beginning, man. This is my third year and I’m already feeling it, you know?” He told reporters that when he walked into the locker room after the game, the first thing he did was tell teammate Devin Booker that this year was just the beginning for them.
And then there’s what Ayton said when asked about a matchup whose defining image was him being stuffed to hell, a highlight so obviously awesome and lopsided Antetokounmpo felt sheepish acknowledging it: “I think I seen—this is the most time I’ve ever seen Giannis, but, yeah, man, it was fun. I love competing, I love the challenges, man, but I just wish I could win.”
Ayton had fun. He loved it. Of course he wanted to win, but he enjoyed and found inherent value in the chance to play against one of the NBA’s greatest players. And why shouldn’t he? Is basketball any better for the script, for the practiced dourness of the people who play it? Somewhere Stephen A. Smith is rehearsing his Serious Concern For The Future Of The Phoenix Suns Organization in front of a mirror, but the truest, most mature read of a playoff run where Ayton was nothing short of a revelation and the team exceeded all expectations is that, yes, it was fun.
Being 22 certainly makes optimism much easier on nights like those. Chris Paul can be forgiven for frowning while the final grains of sand trickle through the hourglass of his career. But it’s good and cool to see an athlete bask a little in his accomplishment, to hear him admit that he actually enjoys the thing he does every day.
A fan thought exercise I like to run through after the end of a close-but-no-cigar season is to ask whether I’d have taken the result at the season’s beginning, and often that answer is pretty humbling. Call it soft or a loser mentality (look at the replies to any tweet with the Ayton quote; you wouldn’t be alone) but it seems about a thousand times healthier to remember that a season of enjoyable, competitive basketball matters and means something in itself—even when it ends, as it will for 29 teams every year, without a ring.