The NBA– more than anything– is a league of relationships. It is predicated on the idea that players, coaches, and fans will respond to one another– that they’ll know each other and vice versa. These relationships, this communication, is what drives the story lines of the NBA, and those story lines are what make a meaningless game in December interesting.
The Hawks beat the Wizards on Tuesday night, and no one really cares all that much. The Wizards are the worst team in the NBA and the Hawks, while solid this year, have a history of being largely erratic. People don’t want to watch that combination– at least based solely on those qualifications. But beyond an outer lining of what seems like a useless mid-winter game, inside of that shell, there is meaning. Maybe not significantly to the standings, maybe not significantly to half of a fan base, but in everything and every game, these inter-connected relationships produce meaning.
DeShawn Stevenson played in Washington for 4 NBA seasons. He developed a connection with the fan base, but by the time he left, they had begun to see him as an enigma. Now, every time Stevenson plays a game in Washington, he is booed. Tuesday night was no different. He didn’t expect to play as he was under the impression that Coach Drew was saving his legs for the second night of a back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But once Stevenson tore off his warm-ups in the 3rd quarter and approached the scorers table, the crowd let him hear it.
Every decision he made on the court produced an amplified reaction. When he banked a ridiculous and-1 runner in the lane, the crowd became unearthly quiet. When he missed a free throw on his chance for a three-point play, the crowd erupted. Suddenly, in an unimportant game in the middle of the NBA season, there was a battle that meant something– a battle that made the game relevant in its actual time.
Stevenson would have the last laugh. He shut down Jordan Crawford to end regulation, and, to the chagrin of the fans in the stadium, buried a dagger 3-poiner in overtime. Making the big shot wasn’t enough. For Washington, for this crowd, he had to break out the “I can’t feel my face” hand wave.
“I made a name for myself here, so it was good to come back,” Stevenson said after the game in the locker room. The intensity of that moment was gone. He, like everyone else in America, didn’t care much about the shot shortly after the game ended, other than that it helped his team win.
“I mean it felt good,” Stevenson said of the shot. “Just to get the win, it felt good. I’m not worried about Washington. I think we’ve got a good thing going right now and that was a big win.”
There was no disrespect directed at the fans or his former team, there was neither venom nor ill-will. In a match-up like this, when the game ends, the story line ends too. For a split-second in time, though, in a contest that should have meant nothing, Stevenson made it mean something.
Jeff Teague did the same thing. He and former teammate Jordan Crawford had more than a few verbal exchanges in the third quarter of Tuesday’s game, and suddenly, there was something there. Some sort of spark. Crawford’s speed shifted gears. He went at Teague and Teague went at him. They were eventually charged with a double technical.
For a short stretch in that third quarter, the game was more than just a number in a win or loss column– it was a game of pride, of former teammates trying to one-up each other. However, once the game ended , the story line died with it. “He’s my homeboy… it’s just bragging rights for the summer,” Teague said in the locker room after the game. “It’s all fun. I mean, we joked about it after the game. I was like ‘you finally made some shots against us,’ and we laughed about it.”
So if you find yourself lost in the slog of the NBA season with frustration over varying consequential scenarios, just embrace one game at a time, because within each game there’s a story you can latch on to, but are (sometimes) not forced to commit to. It’s the one night stand of entertaining yourself through basketball. Pick a game, and embrace a story within that game. It dies when the clock hits 00:00.