These are the sports moments from 2020 that the staff of Defector enjoyed.
Leafs 2, Lightning 1
Outside of an appreciation for Mitch Marner’s general vibe, I can’t claim to be a fan, or even a polite acquaintance really, of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But so excited was I to be in Canada with my dad in early March that, for one night, I flung myself full-throatedly into Leafs fandom. I borrowed an Auston Matthews jersey, got to the rink super early, and loudly encouraged my beautiful sons, including but not limited to William Nylander and Zach Hyman.
The game was awesome, perhaps the best the Leafs played all season, as they dominated the eventual 2020 champions in the early going, scored one on the power play, gave up an expected equalizer late in the second, then regained the lead with another goal early in the third and held on for the big 2-1 win. In a game where the Leafs easily could have gotten their asses kicked, they instead enjoyed an ecstatic victory in front of a playoff-like atmosphere—the last one they’d get as of this writing.
Solidly drunk off two (or maybe three?) tall Molsons as I left the arena, I got a veggie hot dog from a vendor (who oh-so-kindly told me he uses the veggie ones as dog food most nights because so few people buy them) and then had my picture taken with the big neon CANADA sign that sits outside the CN Tower. The next day, I turned on my nearly empty plane’s TV as I was flying back into New York and saw that Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA season was being put on hold. I touched down and got a cab back to my apartment. I haven’t left the city since. – Lauren Theisen
Jimmy Butler Drops The Hammer On The Lakers
As the resident Heat Lifer at Defector, I was the only person on staff convinced that Miami could beat the Lakers in the NBA Bubble Finals. “Heat in 7” was my rallying cry, and doubly so after Miami got pantsed in the first two games of the series, losing Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo in the process. Entering Game 3, I have to admit my confidence was shaken. Enter Jimmy Butler.
Long thought to be a very talented-but-frustrating cheesebutt, Butler put on the single best performance of his career in the definition of a must-win game: 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, and suffocating defense on LeBron James for 45 long and painful minutes. His flurry of turn-around jumpers, awkward lay-ups, and so many free throws (12-of-14 from the line) kept Miami alive to fight another day. That aforementioned defense featured a headline-worthy charge on one of LeBron’s own trademark barrels into the lane, the perfect symbol for a night in which Butler would not let the Lakers run away with the game.
Butler would go on to do it again in Game 5, with a 47-minute triple-double, though by then it was just a matter of time before the Lakers would lift the trophy. The Game 3 outburst is the one I’ll always remember, because it came at a time when the Heat were undermanned and in serious threat of an anti-climactic sweep. The bubble was a bizarre exercise in cognitive dissonance, but for 48 minutes on Oct. 4, Jimmy Butler rolled all the noise into a ball and floated it in cleanly through the hoop. – Luis Paez-Pumar
The Lonzo Ball-To-Zion Williamson Connection
Who does not love to see basketball soulmates, linked by fate? Each is slightly defective in his own way, but together Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson enjoy a charmed life out in the open court. It’s a short list of teammates in NBA history who can make this play at all; that list dwindles to zeroish once you ask them to do it twice in as many possessions, and with such insouciant ease:
Successful lob passes that traveled 64.7 feet and 51.5 feet, respectively—just your everyday basketball sequence. When you employ maybe the best hit-ahead passer ever, a man who wants nothing more than to eject the ball from his hands as soon as it hits fingertips, all you need is the right personnel on the receiving end. Which is to say: a cube with dimensions of 6-foot-7 that can beat near everyone in a foot race and then, for good measure, elevate higher than anyone who managed to keep up. On any given trip down the court, there’s a pocket of air that no living human can arrive at faster than Williamson. Ball’s task is to deposit the ball there. He was built for that precise task—though he’s almost overqualified for the job, since, by Ball’s own admission, it’s impossible to throw the man a bad pass. Bad is alchemically made good. Watching Zion catch the ball behind the backboard and still ferry it into the hoop was a moment of religious conversion.
While transition is where they sing, the whole season’s worth of Lonzion connections is a story of complementary parts. Stuck with a nominal point guard who cannot actually get to the rim in the half-court? We have a solution. What better way to bail out a drive that’s going nowhere than dumping the ball to that guy? Modern guards work hard at something called “shooting off the dribble.” Ball has the luxury of just standing at the arc, staring past his defender until his buddy has sealed his defender behind a great wall of dude, and blooping the entry pass into Williamson’s personal pocket. Here lies the inefficiency these soulmates have discovered together: Who needs to shoot it when you can effectively pass it into the basket? – Giri Nathan
Nikola Jokic Hugs Jamal Murray
It’s strange to be 32 years old and realize that you are having a completely novel experience. That’s where I was on Sept. 15, when I watched the Denver Nuggets defeat the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, thus completing their second consecutive comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
It hit me all at once while watching Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray embrace each other after the game: I had never actually cared about a sports team as much as I did this one. Having spent my entire life as a sports fan carrying around a bit of ironic detachment–that’s what ignoring the Broncos and Avalanche in favor of the Nuggets and Rockies will do to you–I was suddenly transformed into a genuine Sports Fan. Those were my guys! Jokic and Murray! I wanted to get their names tattooed on my body. I wanted to die for them.
So that’s me now. I’m the guy who got tears in his eyes while watching two basketball players hug each other on TV. I’m now a Denver Nuggets fan, in the purest sense of the word. If anyone says anything bad about Will Barton on the internet, I will challenge them to a fistfight and I will mean it. – Tom Ley
The Victory Of The Emergency Goalie
I thought about writing about how Brad Marchand totally whiffed a puck in a shootout, but you know what? It’s been a really bad year. Probably it has been a bad year for (my enemy) Brad Marchand, too. I would like to remember instead someone who had a really good day in this really bad year: David Ayres. Destined to become A Guy, Ayres was the 43-year-old Zamboni driver who was called in to play for the Carolina Hurricanes as their emergency backup goalie. Remember this? It was this year!
Ayres entered the game in the second period with the Canes up 3-1. He blocked eight of the 10 shots he faced! Carolina won 6-3! The Canes players gave him a little champagne shower at the end of the game!
Congratulations to David Ayres, undefeated NHL goalie, on your 2020! – Kelsey McKinney
When The 49ers Were Evicted
The most enduring myth in American sports is that the National Football League is the perfect enhancement for every city, the mesomorphic equivalent of the Disney theme park only with catastrophic knee injuries to Mickey, Donald, Snow White, and all the other characters every 20 minutes.
But like the Olympic Games, which are diminishing slowly as it discovers that fewer and fewer cities want to host them and will in some cases have voter referendums to keep them out, the NFL is now seeing the event horizon of its frontiersmanship. In other words, it got one of its clients temporarily evicted from the place they just moved to six years earlier. Someone actually told the the National Football League to piss off. Actually, someone ELSE did, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The freshly banned team was the Not Quite San Francisco 49ers, who were temporarily ejected from their stadium because Santa Clara County decided to prioritize the stemming of the COVID-19 virus over sporting entertainments that require close contact. That meant that high school, college, and professional sports that couldn’t socially distance and mask themselves had to stop until the number of positive tests stopped bumping the ionosphere. The measure was supposed to last only three weeks, but because the open-ended and still-virulent nature of the virus blew through that deadline, the 49ers became the new Washington Generals, America’s Guest.
We pick on the 49ers here because, well, why not? The NFL’s galactic arrogance has never known bounds because it has always taken “yes” as the only permissible answer when dealing with the municipalities it needs to bully. Give us a new stadium? Yes. Give us tax rebates? Yes. In fact, never send us a tax bill again? Yes. Give us free infrastructure improvements? Yes. Give us breaks on any other businesses we want to operate? Hell yes. Share some of the profits? Shove off, you old trout.
So when November turned into December and Santa Clara County announced that it was closed to football until further notice, the 49ers felt the brunt of the blow. For one, remarkably few people bothered noticing that Stanford, San Jose State, and a number of junior colleges and high schools were also affected. For two, head coach and principal voice Kyle Shanahan groused for a few days about not getting any advance notice of the decision, let alone leeway to work around it. The county treated the 49ers like every other business inside its borders—it would have to adjust to a series of new and ever-changing restrictions based on the morphing virus.
In other words, the rest of their games would be Arizona’s problem, even though Maricopa County’s positives were significantly greater than Santa Clara County’s. In other other words, the 49ers got told to shove off until further instructions, with the practical effect that the 49ers lost their next two “home” games to Buffalo and the WTFs and were essentially eliminated from the playoffs. They weren’t likely to make it before, but even FiveThirtyEight spat on their chances after the Washington loss. And they still had two more Arizona-based games after Christmas to drive the point home with even more ferocity.
More tellingly, though, most folks in the area seemed both unmoved by their plight and unwilling to invest a lot of energy in their place in the standings. They were already watching the 49ers on a TV-only basis because no fans were allowed in the stadium, so what was three more games more or less? Like most fan bases, the 49ers have a large percentage of proud front-runners, so a five-, six- or seven-win team wasn’t going to excite anyone who already had more than enough actual misery on their plates.
It is instructive at this point to remind the folks at home that the 49ers’ relationship with the city and county has been largely hamhanded and even acrimonious, going back several years to the administration of a soccer park near the 49ers’ offices and stadium and the costs therein. It has not gotten better, to the point that team president/owner’s son Jed York spent about $3 million to change the membership of the Santa Clara City Council in this past election. In other words, they are each others’ noisiest neighbors—the team has the stadium and the land that the stadium sits on, and the city and county have all the land around it and the power to determine the conditions around which it is used. And to lift from the late Keith Jackson, “They dooooooon’t like each other very much.”
Think of if this way. The 49ers are Vatican City telling Italy what to do, and Santa Clara County is Italy saying, “Wanna bet?” The relationship didn’t used to be this way, but it is now, and it only took six years for it all to go to hell.
This is the time where we remind you of the first time a city has told an NFL franchise it can wait in line with the other proles. The Oakland Raiders agitated the city and Alameda County for a decade to get a new stadium to replace the plumbing-deficient Coliseum, which the city and county first built to nourish the franchise back in the ’60s and then redesigned to re-lure the Raiders in the ’90s. Only this time, the city and its mayor, the calmly immovable Libby Schaaf, told Mark Davis that the city had been fleeced on the stadium re-do and wasn’t going to play ball any more. We move ahead in the story for time considerations, but the Raiders, properly shunned, left for Las Vegas after flirting with San Antonio and Los Angeles.
In sum, there is political precedent for a city sending its NFL team a severed middle finger. There was not COVID-19 then, though, and the Raiders didn’t have that bad a relationship with the city and county, and everyone understood that in that case, goodbye meant forever.
As for the 49ers and Santa Clara, though, this looks more and more like Chuck and Di in the last few episodes of The Crown. There will be a toothy reconciliation when the virus finally abates—unless of course it doesn’t and the virus simply colonized the planet for its bacillic overlords. The city and county will tell the 49ers that they are again welcome as long as they don’t dirty the towels, and the 49ers will say thanks and return with their own towels, since they didn’t pack an extra stadium when they left town.
But they will both remember the day when, in direct contravention of the way these things normally go, the county told the team to take a powder and the team had no choice but to indeed powder. They’ll hate each other for years, and frankly we’ll all be better for it fiscally. It might not be the end of Stadium Yahtzee in America, but now we see that a city can tell a team how things work just as well as the other way around. All it needs is a global pandemic, a lousy relationship that could still stand some worsening, and a willingness to point to the door. – Ray Ratto
Everyone Vs. The Astros
The Astros Beanball Tour kicked off in earnest before actual baseball did, with the commissioner warning teams against throwing at Astros players in retaliation for, well, being the Astros. That ensured it would happen, and happen it did. Houston truly was a perfect storm of villainy: offending anyone with a spirit of fair play by an organized team-wide sign-stealing scheme; offending anyone with a conscience by their unapologetic embrace and crude championing of Roberto Osuna; offending anyone with a soul by reducing the game to a series of spreadsheets overseen by bloodless quants. There was something in here for everyone to hate.
And then the pandemic hit, forcing mound justice to be deferred. But not denied. The shortened schedule kept the Astros from having to play anyone except West teams, but those divisions stepped up. Joe Kelly happily took a fine and suspension for throwing behind Alex Bregman, and, memorably, mocking them with the mew-mew face seen ’round the world. Kelly would later say his issue was that Astros players ratted on their coaches in exchange for immunity for themselves, and even if you’re not inclined to feel sorry for the likes of Alex Cora or A.J. Hinch, it was galling that the players received no meaningful punishment. Then, a couple of weeks later, Ramón Laureano charged the Astros dugout. He was seeking to settle up with a taunting coach, but the image of Laureano seeming to challenge the entire roster to a fight on their own turf crystallized what many around baseball wanted in their hearts to do, and what so many fans wanted to see them do.
The cheatin’ Astros are good for baseball, at a time when so little else is. When’s the last time this sport—which is seemingly hated by the people in charge of it, and which the owners want to see reduced to a dozen 85-win mediocrities spending just enough to win a third wild-card spot—made you feel an honest-to-god emotion as strong as Astros bloodlust? The game is entertainment, and entertainment needs villains. – Barry Petchesky
Shey Peddy’s Buzzer-Beater
Shey Peddy, a 31-year-old sophomore guard, was not supposed to take the shot that let the Phoenix Mercury escape the first round of the WNBA playoffs and send the Washington Mystics home. This is true, less importantly, in the micro sense: Sandy Brondello’s final play was designed for Skylar Diggins-Smith, the kind of franchise player plays are drawn up for. But there’s the stranger, more cosmic matter of why Peddy was there—in that game, on that team, in this league—in the first place.
Peddy endured some training camp heartbreaks and spent six years playing overseas before making her WNBA debut last year with Washington, where she was brought on to fill a temporary roster hole. When they no longer needed her on the team, she was kept around as a video intern for the rest of the season. Peddy assumed, incorrectly, that when the Mystics invited her to join them in the WNBA’s bubble this season, they were hiring her back to the video department, not signing her to play. She was waived by the Mystics in a mid-August salary cap shuffle and signed with the Mercury two days later.
A month after that: The Mercury had cut a big deficit down to two with six seconds left in this single-elimination game. On the last possession, Diana Taurasi inbounded to Diggins-Smith, who instantly drew two pesky defenders. Now neither Mercury star seemed to have a good look. So Diggins-Smith lobbed it cross-court to a wide-open Peddy in the corner. With less than two seconds left at this point, Peddy coolly and slowly pump faked, sent her defender in the air, and took the shot.
Buzzer-beaters are mostly luck, but I’ll confess to being a terrible overthinker; I can read meaning and narrative into just about anything. In Peddy’s shot was the story of how painfully few opportunities there are in the WNBA, how much talent gets cut and waived and shunted aside as a result, and how special it can be on those rare occasions when someone is finally given a chance. – Maitreyi Anantharaman
Clayton Kershaw Defeats His Demons
Since before he threw a major-league pitch, Clayton Kershaw has had to contend with expectations. In 2006, the young lefty was considered the top baseball prospect in the entire country, producing all sorts of jaw-dropping high school stats, and famously pitched a perfect game in which he also homered. Still a teenager, his signing bonus with the Dodgers was $2.3 million. In 2008, at the age of 19, Texas Monthly wrote that his minor-league career so far “suggests he’ll be able to control his own destiny.”
But destiny is fickle. At first, Kershaw seemed to live up to such a lofty ideal. He flew through the minor leagues and quickly adjusted to the majors. He racked up statistics that read like a baseball fairytale—four seasons in a row leading baseball in ERA, three seasons leading the National League in strikeouts, three Cy Young Awards, and an NL MVP. Because he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team with a history of winning and spending, his ascent to the pinnacle of pitching greatness seemed almost foretold, as certain as a Disney princess finding true love or a Marvel hero defeating evil. The ending was predetermined, the fun was in guessing how the journey would go.
Yet as Kershaw’s career stretched on, that foretold conclusion, that destiny, began to feel uncertain, even slippery. More than a decade into his pro career, Kershaw still did not have a World Series ring and, in fact, sometimes seemed to be the reason why. The Dodgers went into this season having gone to the playoffs nine times during the Kershaw era, with key losses in games Kershaw pitched. They made the World Series twice, losing both times.
The truth was Kershaw never controlled his own destiny. No single athlete in a team sport can control their entire team and dominate their opponent while never faltering themselves. And that’s fine. There’s very little control any of us have within our own daily lives. But a myth had been built, the myth appeared to be fracturing, and suddenly the boy wonder who couldn’t lose crashed to Earth, just another ball player with a name getting tossed around in the same stale sports debate about is so-and-so a choker.
This year, Kershaw finally won his World Series ring. He did so during a year when sports arguably shouldn’t have been played due to the pandemic ravaging the world. Within moments of his victory—finally, his sweet, glorious, predestined victory—the news broke that one of teammates, Justin Turner, had tested positive for COVID-19 and was on the field celebrating with the rest of his fellow Dodgers, including Kershaw, when he should have been quarantined. After their World Series victory, the Dodgers organization had nine positive COVID-19 tests.
Even during the World Series, there was no escaping that this has been a horrible year for most people. If you weren’t already a billionaire, you probably got poorer. It is highly likely that you or someone you know has had COVID-19, or has died from COVID-19, or you’re still doing your best to manage the daily fear. Here in Los Angeles, the daily death count still climbs. But, dammit, I was happy for Kershaw when he won. I sweated through every one of his starts, yelling every time I thought Dave Roberts pulled him too early, and screaming every time I thought Roberts pulled him too late. A lot of Dodgers fans, who wallowed with him through a decade of heartbreaking losses, were happy for him, too. Every one of us has had expectations put upon us—to have this type of job, or that type of career, to marry this person, or produce that many children, to meet a goal that is entirely arbitrary and yet made to feel terribly important—and knows the feeling that you just might buckle or break. But sometimes you get out from underneath it. You get to breathe a little freer.
I don’t know when baseball will be back, and I’d much rather the sport take its time returning than rush and put the players and staff in danger. But when it does come back, I wonder if Kershaw will pitch a little better, if he might feel just a tad lighter in his shoulders, like he lost a pound or two. He got out from under the expectations. The rest of the winning he can do just for himself. – Diana Moskovitz
Montez Sweat Sacks Carson Wentz With His Nutsack
My favorite sports moment of 2020 was when Montez Sweat knocked Carson Wentz loopy with his nutsack—call it the Nuts Sack—and thereby changed the outlook of the season for two franchises.
It came on Sept. 13, on a second-and-8 early in the second quarter of Washington Football Team’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. The play was memorable in real time as WFT’s big defensive end charged at Wentz full speed and full frontal. Philly’s QB ducked at precisely the wrong time and angle to incite head-to-head contact of the worst order.
One would think this sort of collision would leave the owner of the participating nutsack in some discomfort. But Sweat, a humongous (6-foot-6, 262 pounds) defensive end drafted last year by Washington, got up celebrating like he’d discovered a COVID-19 cure. Wentz, meanwhile, struggled to find his bearings on the ground and had a googly look in his eyes. It was as if Sweat had loaded up his protective cup the way the Hansen Brothers wrapped their fists in aluminum foil.
The play has only grown in momentousness for both squads. The Eagles had gone into the game expected by all Vegas books to contend with Dallas to win the NFC East this season, and were dominant to that point in the game, up 10-0 with Wentz doing everything right.
Then came the Nuts Sack. Wentz went straight to hell, finishing the game with two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 21.6. And, as his current seat on the Eagles’ bench shows, he never recovered.
It was also a turning point for Washington, which had been playing on opening day just like a team forecast by Vegas to win five games would. WFT came back to win, 27-17, led by the dominant defense, which ended the game with eight sacks (though only one involving a nutsack). They have gone on to give fans reasons to keep paying attention well into December. That’s not often been the case in the last 21 years since the franchise was taken over by Dan Snyder. WFT has but one playoff win this century, and, from the top down, this organization was just hateable as hell. (Disclosure: I’ve had adversarial dealings with the owner.)
To look at this year’s team is to like ‘em. The coach has cancer, for crissakes. The starting quarterback is recovering from a leg injury so severe he probably took two ambulances to the hospital, then with infections and other complications needed 17 surgeries to save the limb and his life. Plus, the franchise’s offensive name is finally gone, replaced by a so-generic-it’s-cool moniker and similarly simplistic but fashionable faux-throwback uniforms. Sure, the lousy owner’s still around, but he’s spent the season getting pummeled from so many sides for past misdeeds that he’s been invisible.
I’ve watched the games with a close friend and our teenage sons, alternating homes week to week, upping the size and quality of our halftime buffets as the season’s progressed. It’s been the only regular human contact outside family on my schedule and far and away the highlight of my social and sporting calendar all fall. We had to break the weekly routine over Thanksgiving and I missed our WFT-centric gathering terribly. The bizarre Monday late-afternoon win over Pittsburgh was as good as sports fandom can get.
Vegas now has WFT installed as the favorite to take the NFC East. The season’s been so much fun. None of this seemed likely before Sweat took matters into his own, well, nutsack. – Dave McKenna
Lamar Jackson’s Possible Dump
I had the Hail Murray in this spot originally because it’s probably the best Hail Mary I’ve ever witnessed in real time … and I was AT the Kordell Stewart game. But then came the night of Dec. 14, in which Lamar Jackson heroically waddled to the locker room mid-game to evacuate his bowels, only to triumphantly return to put the Browns in the trash can. He threw a touchdown pass on his FIRST play back from the toilet, a mere 10 minutes after wiping his ass. I wonder if he needed a while on the toilet because he had diarrhea OR because he was actually constipated: a classic hurry-up-and-wait dumping moment. I wonder if he checked his phone, because I do that.
Anyway, that was the best night on Twitter since that one guy drank poison. – Drew Magary
Rutgers Almost Making The NCAA Tournament
It is surely a good sign—a sign that you are fine, and that things more broadly are also fine—that this entry began as a joke. Not even an especially thoughtful one, either, as saying “Rutgers” aloud near some of my coworkers is the laziest kind of shortcut to a laugh. This is both because it is kind of a funny word to say but also because of what it implies relative to college sports, which is a uniquely doomful and grasping vision of Big Time Sports Aspirations brought to life by some of the least impressive people alive. The women’s basketball program has always been good, the football team has had its moments—say what you will about the tenets of Schiano-ism, but at least it’s an ethos—but the joke is a joke because the idea of any year’s best sports moment being provided by Rutgers basketball is, also, a joke. Until it is not.
The Rutgers men’s basketball team has not played a game in the NCAA Tournament since 1991, a year in which George H.W. Bush was president, I was making Bar Mitzvah, and the team was a part of the Atlantic 10 Conference. The intervening 29 years weren’t much fun for anyone in retrospect, but Rutgers had it worse than most. By the start of the ‘19-20 season the program had changed conferences three times; the best season during that interim came in the Big East, in 2006, when Quincy Douby led the conference in scoring and led the team to some fun home wins. It was not in other ways an especially memorable season; the team won 19 games and lost to St. Joseph’s in the first round of the NIT. If it is memorable in retrospect, it is because Douby was so cool and because it was the program’s last winning season until the one that ended in March, with the pandemic.
Picked to finish 12th in the conference, Rutgers would certainly have made the field in March, thanks in large part to a late-season win over Maryland. The team might even have bludgeoned its way to a win in the graceless way that Big Ten teams—Rutgers is a Big Ten team now, you know—sometimes do. They are better this year, but still much more admirable to consider than they are fun to watch. Coach Steve Pikiell has built a team that wins by playing a tougher and more annoying version of basketball than its opponents, which is so wonderfully perfect a fit for my home state’s suite of embedded neuroses that I am a little bit in awe of it, but it is not lovely even when it works. This was also part of the joke, back when it was a joke.
There is a new season happening now; we have been in all this for that long. I am not really watching it, but Rutgers is good again, in a slightly less unsightly way than they were during their last thwarted run. This season really shouldn’t be happening, and the queasy and stilted and cynical fact of it probably feels worse, in aggregate, than a cancelation would. It is both tough to imagine the season running its full course and notably difficult to think of what could stop it. All jokes fail in the face of this shameful capitulation, this useless and wildly stupid defiance, the needless, heedless carnage that the country’s cruelty and laziness made.
This joke, in retrospect, was not even really about Rutgers. It was about the idea that the best moment of this terrible year was one that never actually happened—that nothing the year actually gave us rose even to the level of Rutgers hypothetically grinding out one (1) thudding tournament win against some Southland Conference team in some anonymous arena far from home. I still think that it is kind of a funny thing to consider a high point for a given sporting year, honestly, at least until you consider all the alternatives. At which point you are just left with your answer. – David Roth
Al Horford’s Layup
It was not a fun year to be a Sixers fan. The previous season, the team had lost to the eventual league champions in Game 7 on a last-second shot. It was a rough ending, but the future was promising. Then they traded Jimmy Butler to Miami, re-signed Tobias Harris to a big deal and acquired Al Horford in free agency. By the time it was the new year, the new-look Sixers weren’t working out as well as we’d hoped. They were good—on Jan. 1 they were 23-13, and fifth in the Eastern Conference, and they’d routed the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas—but this was a team that was supposed to have title expectations. It didn’t look like they were going to win any titles this year.
That continued through 2020. When the Sixers returned in the NBA bubble over the summer, they were just as middling as before. Then Ben Simmons got injured. The Sixers finished sixth in the conference. My dream of a title-contending Sixers team this year was over, just like most years.
In Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, things started out pretty much how I expected. The Celtics—my most hated basketball team, one that I wouldn’t even root for if they played Princeton—looked like the better team. They were up double-digits by the third quarter.
Then the Sixers went on a little run. It got closer. Everyone seemed to score. Shake Milton scored. So did Alec Burks. Then Josh Richardson hit a three. Horford—the player who’d been disappointing all season, the guy who I always liked despite being on the Celtics—tied it up with a jumper. The Sixers took the lead on a pair of free throws. Joel Embiid wasn’t even in at the time.
In the final minute of the third, Horford got the ball on a post-up against Jayson Tatum. He backed him down. He missed. He got the rebound. He laid it in and screamed. With no fans, you could really hear it. In my living room in Philadelphia, I screamed too. The Sixers were up four going into the fourth. Maybe I was all wrong. At least this was going to be a series against the Celtics.
Uh, things didn’t go so well after that. The Sixers were swept. The player they jettisoned, Butler, led the Heat to the NBA Finals. Brett Brown was fired. New head of basketball operations Daryl Morey traded Horford, giving away a first-round pick to get rid of his contract. But, you know, that follow layup and scream: It was the best I felt as a Philadelphia 76ers fan in 2020. It sucked. – Dan McQuade
The NBA Strike
For a sports labor action that easily ranks as the most significant of the century, the NBA strike has a curiously short tail. This makes a certain degree of sense given the conditions under which it arose: Protests against racial injustice were still happening; the pandemic was just past what was its midsummer peak; Election Day loomed; everything that was happening in the country felt urgent and unprecedented; and the strike took place within the odd confines of the NBA bubble, itself a spirit-crusher even considering its success as a barrier against the virus.
The most remarkable aspect of the strike was not the contradictions it exposed within the NBA, or its anticlimactic end, but its beginning. It is essential to remember that for the wave of stoppages inspired by the strike, it began as a discrete action taken by one player. George Hill felt that he could not play after Kenosha, Wisc. police shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times. In solidarity, league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo joined him. In further solidarity, the Bucks decided not to play, the Magic decided to join them, WNBA players immediately joined, and within days, MLB and MLS players had joined in.
One could take the position that the strike’s lack of central organization was what allowed it to come to such a swift end, though to read too much organization into the movement would be to mistake solidarity for structure. There was something undeniably beautiful about the domino effect of players across sports joining in what was never more than a protean response to something appalling. The window of possibility felt wide open for a short few days, and even if the players did not start their own league, the strike was a success on its own terms.
Earlier that summer, former Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said something that’s stuck with me as the world has continued to fracture around us: “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” At no point in the six months since he gave that quote has there been much evidence that we have a functioning society, and yet, we’ve crowned MLB, NBA, and NHL champions in that time. He was talking about COVID-19, and of course, the NBA strike was a response to a different sort of dysfunction. But in a year defined by crises, the NBA strike was the only thing in sports that felt right. – Patrick Redford