Someone once said—the author’s name is lost in my memory somewhere between the cost of a steak burrito from the Mexican place in my old neighborhood and the lyrics to Curren$y’s “Address”—the only person interested in twenty year-old girls besides twenty year-old girls is Woody Allen. This is exceedingly correct, and goes double for twenty year-old guys, who have no great filmmaker to cast them as objects of desire in romantic comedies. Real talk, college sophomores and McDonald’s night managers: you could all spontaneously contract tuberculosis and the answer would be two million tumbleweeds rolling through the dust.
I’m twenty-one, by the way: barely a person, fresh off a half-decade of self-destruction, attempting to carve a notch into existence’s fat thigh. There’s a lot of night-sweat involved. Kyrie Irving (19) and Tristan Thompson (20) are trying to be successful in the world’s best basketball league, ideally not at the expense of their burgeoning humanity. I can’t comprehend the pressure and confusion that accompanies millions of dollars in the bank and a city’s sports fans on one’s back. All I know is that my internal monologue—the one belonging to a indolent grad student, for whom tumbleweeds scurry—is just a string of nervous, angry expletives most of the time.
TT and Irving aren’t so neurotic, I’m sure. At least that’s what I glean from their Twitter feeds, which are a series of platitudes and half-platitudes, instances of bro-ing down with Texas and Duke alum, and questions for followers as to where one can find a good steakhouse in Minneapolis or Detroit. It’s a waterfall of boring into which I stick my sifting pan every few days, just in case Irving twists an ankle walking up the steps of a hotel lobby or Thompson admits that he, a 6’9″ black dude from Toronto, is actually Banksy. Neither of these things has happened; I know next to nothing about either of them as people.
I don’t know that I aspire to. I want to know as much as I can about Irving and Thompson insofar as that information might help me project the type of basketball player either one is going to be in a few years. I’m not curious, I’m impatient. And my impatience is never satiated because there’s simply not much to know about most 20 year-olds, even ones who ply their trade in front of television cameras and answer questions from reporters every other night. Watching Kyrie Irving play basketball is like being equipped with shoddy echolocation: you can tell there’s a bulky mass of something in the distance, but you can’t trace its features.
Because pupation has to conclude before the process makes much sense; staring at the cocoon, speculating about what’s to emerge is more a source of entertainment than a science. Which is why I’ve spent so many hours conducting quasi-research. In times of uncertainty, it’s prudent to arm oneself with knowledge, and when knowledge is scarce, it’s comforting to arm oneself with trivia masquerading as knowledge. Did you know that Tristan Thompson is the cousin of Defensive Tackle Jemal Thompson of the Toronto Argonauts? More importantly, do you know what that means for his ability to develop a 15-foot jumper by his third year in the league?
This fervent quest for information that doesn’t exist serves to illuminate how far we sometimes go in our commodification of athletes. In the face of a volatile commodity—a player with heaps of unrealized potential—we rush to project what the commodity will be when it has become relatively stable. What is 24 year-old Tristan Thompson? We do this because, when examining a roster, we treat players like chess pieces. Think how many times you’ve read on any sports blog or website Team X could compete for a championship if only they had Player Type Y. One of the first questions we ask ourselves as sports fans when our team is struggling is What does our team need?, and to figure out what our team needs we need to know, logically, what the young players will become. So we attempt to read tea leaves—Wikipedia pages, interviews, boring Twitter feeds—in an impossible pursuit of the unknowable.
I admit that all of this makes me feel sort of gross. Being a good fan is sometimes a conversation between one’s enthusiasm and self-awareness, I think—about intermittently recalibrating how much one should care. Otherwise, you’re the overzealous jerk at the sports bar, the perpetually angry fan, the obsessive, the sports radio junkie, or the person who allows their team’s failure to gnaw at their innards. None of those things are healthy. The fun of sports is that they matter—there’s a lot of nightsweat involved—but that they also, objectively, don’t. Getting red in the face over a loss due to a poor coaching decision is natural, but after directing a few curses at the television screen, it’s best to recalibrate. You choose, after all, whether to let a game ruin the rest of your weekend.
At present, I realize I need to recalibrate my fandom in a more subtle way: I want to enjoy this rusted-out tugboat of a team I’m watching. I grew way too accustomed to watching a championship contender over the past half-decade, and I watch this 2011-12 Cavs squad like a half-heartedly recovering methadone addict. I mean, sure: “cultivating young talent” or whatever, but when do I start feeling my arteries vibrate like viola strings again? It’s why I’m already thinking about the 2012 NBA draft, tracking the development of young Cavs on a game-to-game basis, imagining trades months before the deadline. It’s natural: who doesn’t want their team to be good? But my impatience has been pulling my glee underwater. Kyrie Irving is already one of the more exciting players in the NBA, and he’s 19, so sometimes he makes hilariously bad decisions. Tristan Thompson’s athleticism-to-skill ratio is, like, a thousand. Ryan Hollins plays significant minutes in professional basketball games sometimes. Antawn Jamison does not care about “a hand in his face” or “eleven seconds on the shot clock”—that 18-footer’s headed rimward. Byron Scott has grown a scruffy salt and pepper goatee, and breaks out an incredulous “Goddamn rookies!” face at least once per game. Hallelujah: this new young, old, irrelevant rusted-out tugboat of a team is fun to watch. They don’t proceed so much as careen—toward where is anyone’s guess.