The 2020 NBA season has ended. It did not wither and succumb to the cruelty of our time, it was not abandoned on an ice floe as some terrible last resort. It was not conquered and supplanted by an awful monstrosity. It simply ended, for all the usual reasons.
It’s been nearly a year of this one season. Now that it’s over, I, for one, am both relieved and glad to be rid of it in a way that I would never have predicted four months ago, when the season was rebooted in a theme park at the height of several crises.
The NBA Finals, it’s important to note, did not suck. Jimmy Butler was magnificent for exactly as long as the cells of his body could sustain full-bore magnificence, which is as much as you can ever ask of any professional athlete, and much more than you will usually get. Anthony Davis was less consistently at his terrifying best, but those minutes-long jolts of brilliance were of a whole other, almost alien quality. Certainly the series had plenty of drama, that Game 6 laugher notwithstanding. As an entertainment product, drama is exactly what a Finals series exists to provide. As a consumer of televised entertainment, you got your attention’s worth.
I consider myself both a lunatic basketball fan and an over-relier on the attention-monopolizing and time-devouring properties of television entertainment. So it was disorienting, and a significant bummer, to discover during Game 6 that I was eager—desperate, even—for the Lakers to take their growing lead and vanish over the horizon and end the Finals as quickly as possible.
This was not because I wanted the Lakers to win the series. My rooting interests swung wildly from game to game, dictated (annoyingly) by which team seemed to be playing better on a given night. What I experienced, over the course of the series, was a growing need to finally just be clear of this NBA season. Hard as it may be to remember, it is a normal part of a calendar year for a basketball season to just end. This was, you may have noticed, a very long basketball season—11-plus months from start to finish, October 22, 2019 to October 11, 2020. I think what I learned is that my brain is not up to the task of keeping track of a single basketball season for that long.
Maintaining brain space for a little temporary database of the sorts of information you track across a given season, stuff like standings and statistics and depth charts, is work. By the end of a normal summer I have long since deleted all the packets of shit that mattered to the previous NBA season; to the extent that I am aware of rosters and lineups and so forth, it’s in the context of the possibilities presented by a new season. A whole different part of my brain handles that excitement. The part of my brain that knows or remembers to look up—and more importantly cares about—how many games the Charlotte Hornets are behind the eighth seed requires a nice long summer vacation and a near-complete purge.
There’s more to it than that. We live in the era of the interminable. Our bottomless stupidity and a profound absence of political leadership have made the peak-stage of a viral pandemic into an indefinite fact of existence. The everyday lives of responsible people who particularly give a shit about the welfare of other people have shrunk away to practically nothing. The monotony of it, the sense of looking out at the world from a closed bunker, through a long periscope whose view is entirely blocked by the endlessly shitting ass of a zombified cow, is like nothing that any of us have ever experienced before. Nothing ever seems to end except for one more remnant of the time of possibilities; nothing ever seems to start except another hysterical era of consequence. Every new paradigm is a Time Of Horror unto itself, and unless you are an epidemiologist, all your efforts at affecting change are undertaken in a profound, life-altering state of waiting. I realize that I am describing depression; the vortex of depression is now the literal arc of modernity for anyone with even a Jiminy-sized conscience.
Did this bubble season exist primarily to deliver a distressed product to consumers? Sure. But with the world itself circling the drain, the emotional significance of televised summer basketball for consumers was rooted less in needing to see this particular campaign to its conclusion than it was in the sad but earnest wish, or even the desperate need, to have something normal-seeming to distract us from all of this shit. And the stamping of NBA hoops onto the calendar in late summer did not make all or any of the shit go away, as was demonstrated by the players’ August 26 wildcat strike. The shit endures. That the shit is indefatigable is the defining characteristic of our time. There comes a point where too many demands are being made of a person’s attention. The overlapping of like 14 different major sports seasons during the home stretch of the strangest and dumbest election cycle in modern history, during a pandemic, during multiple escalating environmental disasters, during an important and long overdue social upheaval, probably ought to be well beyond that point. The brain of a person for whom it is not is either as powerful as a raging tokamak or an actual toilet.
Still, the NBA restart was, for a time, welcome. The league and players did a hell of a job of delivering a satisfying conclusion to such a warped and unnaturally extended season. It is exactly where the project was intended to represent a return to some sort of normalcy that it was doomed to fail. It’s the uncanny valley: Over a long enough timeline and under close enough inspection what starts to leap to the foreground of any distorted approximation of something familiar is what about it is off. In the case of the bubble playoffs, it was the crappy, automated camera-work, the gigantic pixilated virtual fans, the fake crowd noise, the distanced bench areas, and the ultra-bright court lights, which by the end had focused my attention on the not-normalness of the whole thing. This uncanniness only increased as the playoffs progressed. The NBA playoffs, in a normal season, buzz and shake and erupt with excitement. The bubble’s relatively quiet and unlovely presentation, minimally distracting during a 1-8 opening round series featuring the Orlando Magic, is just too fucking weird when it’s the actual damn Finals.
And once that fundamental weirdness captured my attention, I couldn’t help but spot or imagine other weirdnesses. Were the non-Jimmy Butler players as invested as they would be in a typical season? Was I detecting a kind of super-exhaustion in their expressions and body language, reflecting their urgent human desire to get the fuck out of Disney World for the first time in three months? Did the half-assed play of the Lakers in the middle games of the Finals reflect their desperate psychological need to feel that the series and season were already fundamentally over? Maybe I was overlaying all this shit onto the action because my brain is a writhing fist-sized pile of worms the evil color of caterpillar guts. Either way, I hated it.
More than anything else, I think I was so desperate for the Finals to end because bubble basketball, which had been saddled with the burden of making us forget about the dismal monotony of isolation in a pandemic, had started to become another part of that monotony. More and more the very strangeness of the bubble Finals playing out in a repurposed gym in Lake Buena Vista was just another reminder of the oppressive hideousness of right now.
So this is a timely reminder: In the normal course of a person’s life, good things come to an end, for reasons that are not in the least bit frightening. Also, in the normal course of a person’s life, waiting for something good to return is not some hellish, indefinite condition of miserable endurance. Under normal circumstances, the reason to watch a game on television is to see what happens, and not to determinedly avoid seeing what is happening everywhere else.
Who the fuck knows when or whether all of this shit will ever just be over, but in the meantime it’s a relief that this basketball season has ended. Someday soon a new one will come along. When it does, it will be good to see how Steve Nash handles the cosmic brain of Kyrie Irving, and to track how quickly Giannis checks out in Milwaukee, or to confirm that John Wall’s legs are full of crabmeat. For now, it’s nice to have something to look forward to.