The Edge of the Bench

February 2nd, 2012 by Colin McGowan

Yesterday, the Cavs recalled Luke Harangody from their NBDL affiliate in Canton. He had been sent there for a week to bring his sweat, push shot, and ineffable Midwesterness to minor cities across the nation. To spread the Gospel according to Luke, if you will. Each night, before heading to the arena, he looked in the mirror and whispered something like, “Are you ready to experience hustle in its purest distillation, Des Moines, Iowa?” then slam dunked a Hardee’s wrapper into the Comfort Inn wastebasket before laying siege to the world of semi-professional basketball. By “laying siege,” I mean setting fundamentally sound picks.

I joke because I have nothing substantive to say about Harangody. He’s a bundle of end-of-the-bench white guy clichés contained within the body of a Medieval stone mason, and thus he exists more as a symbol—Brian Scalabrine wearing a different mask—than as a person, or at a least basketball player, with whom I can engage. What’s most interesting about Harangody is the strange between-space he’s destined to occupy for the remainder of his career.

Luke Harangody doesn’t sit at the end of the bench so much as at the edge of it. He could fall off at any moment and land facedown in Bismark, North Dakota. Harangody exists within the narrow phylum of basketball player that is, at any given time, either barely good enough or not quite good enough to occupy a place in the NBA. “Place” is the accurate term here because this type of player doesn’t contribute to a team’s success or failure in a significant fashion. He is, in many ways, a placeholder: a body in practices, someone to spell the rotation players in blowouts, an insufficient insurance policy if the team is afflicted with injuries. I wonder if 12th men are chosen according to their ability to perform tasks other than being particularly good at basketball, if some guys have stayed in the league longer than other more talented players simply because they try hard in practice and are well-liked. It would make sense, because if a Harangody-like player is logging substantial minutes, the team is either dreadful or dreadfully injured. If all the 316th best player in the NBA can do is drive the Failure Bus to the Lottery Town, it’s probably important that he’s funny. Damon Jones probably stayed in the league an extra three years because of this.

I always enjoy when players cry at the NBA Draft. It’s the moment when triumph swallows a man whole. One imagines, as the teary-eyed draftee puts on a league-approved cap and attempts to gather himself for an awkward interview with Stuart Scott, the athlete has visions of early-morning 8-mile runs and three-hour free throw sessions—we sometimes forget there’s a mountain of boring, strenuous labor that goes into making a great athlete—performed in the name of a far-off goal. It is a justification, in the literal sense: the action of showing that one’s hard work was not in vain. Being drafted is also a metaphorical exhalation of breath held for some eight, twelve, seventeen years.

So then, what is it like to have to shove that metaphorical breath back into one’s lungs? Luke Harangody must have felt whatever that sensation is when he was sent down to Canton last week. Such is the plight of the barely-/not-quite-good-enough athlete. The NBA Draft, for the best college and international players, is like closing escrow on a new house. Kyrie Irving-like players walk through the doorway, throw down their bags, and prepare to live in the NBA for a decade-plus. For Harangody-like players, entry into the NBA is a bit like signing the lease on a palatial apartment they can just barely afford. They’re still ecstatic, obviously—I’ve always wanted a monogrammed bidet!—but lingering in the back of their minds must lurk the fact that a bad month or two at the office could spell eviction.

Precariously clinging to a roster spot in the NBA must be exhausting; all those platitudes about Harangody’s toughness might not be condescension at all. Surely, he must be one of the hardest-working members of the Cavaliers. One doesn’t exactly relax while hanging over the edge of a cliff; neither does one ever stop working hard when faced with the prospect of playing basketball in front of 4,000 people in Tulsa. Rarified air must smell like fear when the alternative is mustard gas.

Unfortunately for Luke Harangody, I think he might make a few more trips to Canton over the next couple of seasons. Or he might take his sweat, push shot, and ineffable Midwesterness to Turkey. Maybe we’ll see him on the end of the Bobcats bench in a few years. In all likelihood, he will exist in a sort of purgatorial state, if Purgatory had poles that functioned as approximations Heaven and Hell. Because no one dreams of being a benchwarmer for an NBA team, but it’s still a pretty great job; and no one dreams of playing for Bešiktaš, but there are worse circumstances. Harangody will oscillate like this for three, eight, twelve years. Until he gets sick of it and uses his Notre Dame degree to get a job at a PR firm or whatever. Until then, he reacquaints himself with his locker at the Q. His desire congeals for a moment, though he knows it might melt again in the morning. The universe blooms and curdles.