Pasha Malla is the co-editor of Best Canadian Sportswriting and the author of, most recently, the novel Fugue States.
Rapper Rob Base performed at halftime during the first game of the 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, a game that Golden State’s Kevin Durant would finish with 38 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, on his way to his first NBA Championship and Finals MVP award. That was the joy; two years later came the pain. After sitting out the first four games of this year’s Finals with a calf strain, Mr. Durant returned in Game 5, scoring 11 points before suffering a torn Achilles tendon. That the Toronto Raptors went on to win the series made a lot of Canadians exuberantly, deliriously happy – although I, a long-time Warriors fan, do not count myself among them.
Joy and Pain, Rob Base’s 1988 hit with DJ E-Z Rock, lifts its chorus from a song of the same name by the seventies soul group Maze. “Where there’s a flower, there’s the sun and the rain,” sings Frankie Beverly in the original. “Oh, and it’s wonderful, they’re both one and the same.” Joy and pain, the existential coin-flip of the human condition, embodied acutely by Mr. Durant’s Resurrection and heartbreaking Fall.
But the results of the 2019 Finals got me thinking about joy as more complex than simply the inverse of pain – less, that is, a product of circumstance than a continuing and experiential process – and how basketball, in particular, expresses these dynamics so vividly.
“I feel like a lot of people confuse joy and happiness,” Mr. Durant told ESPN back in December. “I think happiness is a feeling [that’s] fleeting … I think joy is something that we can always hold onto.”
Mr. Durant and his teammates talk and think about joy a lot. Head coach Steve Kerr and his staff have instilled a culture in Golden State based on four key ideological tenets: competition, compassion, mindfulness and, most crucially, joy. For the Warriors, joy manifests in a fast, footloose offence, which showcases the talent and creativity of the team’s star-studded roster and the sport played at its fluid, harmonious best. In Mr. Kerr’s system, joy is intended not as the result of winning basketball games – although that helps – but more of a systematic approach.
Mr. Durant has been widely criticized for hitching aboard the Warriors’ wagon in pursuit of titles, yet people close to him have argued that winning championships was less his motivating factor for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder, his previous team, than something a little more existential. “Kevin is searching for joy, not accolades,” Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash, who works in player development with the Warriors, claimed last year on the writer Bill Simmons’s podcast. Yet, as anyone who has watched Golden State much over the past three seasons can attest, that joy seems to have remained elusive. After his first Finals win, Mr. Durant admitted to feeling unsatisfied. “I thought it would fill a certain [void],” he told ESPN last March. “It didn’t.”
While his teammate Steph Curry’s wildly improvisational game embodies Golden State’s ethos of free-wheeling fun, Mr. Durant’s online handle, “Easy Money Sniper,” speaks to the tactical, precise ruthlessness with which he drops game-winning daggers or slices to the rim for vicious, almost vindictive dunks. “You know he’s an assassin,” said LeBron James, after Mr. Durant buried the Cavaliers with another series-clinching three pointer in the 2018 Finals. “And that was one of those assassin plays right there.” If Mr. Curry is the most joyful shooter of all-time, surely Mr. Durant is the game’s most merciless.
But is there joy in playing the stone-cold killer? In the past two seasons, Mr. Durant has been assessed 30 technical fouls (only Draymond Green, his mercurial teammate, has more), which seems a symptom of, if not unhappiness, then at least angst – which might be a more accurate yin to joy’s yang than concomitant pain.
“Angst has an unmistakable relation to expectation,” Freud wrote. “It has a quality of indefiniteness and lack of object.” Certainly this speaks to Mr. Durant’s unfocused turmoil, and what seems to be a constant, vertiginous swirl of anxiety seeking purpose and form. “I’m not sure he even knows what matters to him yet,” is Steve Nash’s assessment. “I think he’s still trying to figure out what makes [him] tick.”
But it wasn’t Mr. Durant’s mood that disrupted this year’s Finals. When that strained calf muscle forced him to the bench and his teammates returned to their pre-KD, fast and furious style of play, some misguided commentators claimed that the Warriors were better without him.
What the injury established most compellingly was a captivating storyline, one in which Mr. Durant, like Willis Reed in 1970, seemed destined to hobble out of the dressing room with his team, down three games to one, and lead Golden State to its third consecutive championship.
The joy this prospect elicited was electrifying, its dramatic potential worthy of Hollywood and sports lore both: If athletes are our modern-day heroes, we are most inspired by their stories when they turn archetypically mythic.
Yet, even the most grandiose legend relies on the strength of its characters, and the NBA’s aesthetic and formal particulars – the proximity of the court to the stands, the visibility of the athletes’ faces, the individual style encouraged by the game itself and the recent trend toward player agency – have helped create a league of vivid personalities and storylines perhaps equalled only by the WWE.
So when Golden State’s comeback ruptured along with Mr. Durant’s Achilles, it felt akin to a movie flaming out mid-reel – for Warriors fans, certainly, although anyone watching the ABC telecast could sense the broadcast team floundering for meaning and direction as well. Even Doris Burke, as sharp a basketball mind as there is in sportscasting, settled for gossip up on the victory podium, asking Kawhi Leonard about his plans for next year, Marc Gasol about his old teammates in Memphis and Kyle Lowry about his best friend and forsaken ex-Raptor, DeMar DeRozan. None of these questions was pertinent to the celebrations at hand, but one sensed that Ms. Burke, usually so masterful at getting players to reflect in postgame interviews, was fumbling for something to talk about.
But even before the Raptors’ victory, these Finals felt like one of those anthology films where each entry is contributed by a different director, and which generally fail to cohere. This was partly due to the Warriors’ shifting line-ups and Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s “janky” coaching style, but off-court disruptions equally confused what might still have been a cogent story: a Golden State minority owner shoving and insulting Mr. Lowry, Raptors fans taunting Mr. Durant as he writhed in pain on the floor, Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s confrontation with Oakland police, the shooting that marred Monday’s victory parade in Toronto … and, sure, Drake. Even the protracted, anticlimactic way in which the Raptors took the title, with those 0.9 seconds hovering interminably on the clock, spoke to a series whose rhythms and pacing felt off, with distracting subplots spiralling from the main event every which way.
And then there were the Raptors themselves, and their championship, who resist any sort of prescribed or familiar narrative, and perhaps even challenge conventional wisdom of the NBA’s most dependable storylines. Mr. Leonard, the team’s best player, had been written off by many organizations as a rental, at best, who may or may not give his strongest effort (he, um, did). Mr. Lowry is somehow an all-star point guard who might not be among the top 10 in the league at his position, at least in terms of individual skill. Danny Green sucked for most of the Playoffs. Pascal Siakam still seems to be learning the game every trip down the floor. Mr. Gasol is past his prime. Fred VanVleet is shorter than most refs. Serge Ibaka, in the words of my sister, “would be really good if he were a little better.” It’s difficult to cobble a story out of so many disparate parts, and the media responses to Toronto’s win were telling.
Mr. Simmons called them “a dumbfounding NBA champion … just bizarre.” Writing for ESPN, Zach Lowe noted that the “unlikely champion” with “no apparent modern precedent” failed to follow the model of “most championship teams [with] clear through lines that trace their journey to the top.” Deadspin announced the results of Game 6 with incredulity – “The Toronto Raptors, of all teams, are your new NBA champions” – and USA Today lamented the series that never happened: “It could have been a classic.” One might attribute all this disbelief to the grudging chauvinism of American sports journalism, of gatekeepers reluctant to relinquish “their” championship trophy to another country. But there is no doubt that these were a strange Finals, injuries even aside.
Even the most die-hard Raptors fans I know, including the editor of this very piece, expressed mostly stunned awe that their team was departing Oakland with the Larry O’Brien trophy. (Text message variations of “I can’t believe it!” littered my phone.) These were the same people who, going into Game 5 up 3-1, thought Toronto was a lock – which those of us who have followed Golden State for the past five seasons recognized as naiveté. Some particularly cynical part of me even wondered if the Champs, out of boredom with their casual dominance of the league, had allowed the Raptors to take a two-game lead in the series as a challenge to themselves. And when Toronto lost Game 5, the writing seemed to be on the wall – or up in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena: a banner proclaiming the team as 2019 Eastern Conference Champions, and nothing more.
Of course, a different, more unlikely story ended up being written, and many of us are still trying to make sense of it. Human beings are, as the cliché goes, narrative creatures; we need stories to order our experiences into beginnings, middles and endings, and for those endings to provide resolution – comic or tragic. The plot line of these Finals was fragmented, its storybook conclusion thwarted by chance (and pain). Instead, we got a different and unexpected ending – which, while no less joyous for the victors and their supporters, patently rejects the narrative archetypes on which sport relies for meaning and structure. But even from a fan perspective, I’m beginning to come around to this alternate reality in which the Warriors are not NBA champs.
I’ve been a fan of Golden State since childhood simply because they’ve always been the most fun team in the league. Over the past five seasons, I’ve cheered happily as a squad of jump-shooting underdogs has enjoyed one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport, and I lamented the turn to villainy as cockiness (swagger with something to prove) morphed into arrogance (swagger at having already proved it) and petulance and entitlement. While there is little joy in Draymond Green’s hissy-fits, Klay Thompson’s eye-rolls or Steve Kerr’s profane explosions at referees (“It’s embarrassing,” he’s admitted), I’ve remained invested in Golden State’s success, and this year’s historic comeback, with Mr. Durant at the helm, was the storyline that I hoped might redeem the joylessness that has, at times, clouded my team the past couple of seasons.
Fortunately, I watched the Finals with my partner, a far more diplomatic person than me. Vanessa is a Warriors fan, too, but also an equal supporter of all things Toronto; as such, she pledged her allegiances less to one side than the sport itself (mantra: “I’m cheering for basketball”). She seemed to feel less conflicted cheering for both teams than liberated: Whatever happened gave her joy. There’s no script for this sort of fandom, no expectations, just pure delight. She required nothing of the games, and no storylines to be realized. And so when the Raptors won, she was just as ecstatic as she would have been had Mr. Durant not torn his Achilles and had hoisted his third consecutive Bill Russell trophy as Finals MVP.
Part of what has so profoundly delighted Toronto Raptors fans about this victory seems to have been the same, sheer surprise that has left the sport’s talking heads so discombobulated. In the disbelief sewed by surprise thrives a particular and exhilarating breed of joy, almost childlike in its intensity, coupled with the fear that someone might pinch and awaken you, revealing the whole thing to have been a dream. Maybe joy, like happiness, needs to feel a little precarious, too, in order for it to be wholly felt.
For the past few seasons, there’s been nothing particularly precarious about Golden State’s supremacy in the NBA. Of course no person deserves the horrible injuries suffered by Mr. Durant and Mr. Thompson, who tore his ACL in Game 6, and anyone who celebrates their pain deserves to be cast into some particularly dark and hopeless corner of basketball hell (i.e. Phoenix). Yet, Golden State losing two of its stars opened the door for happenstance, unlikelihood and chance, returning some of the spontaneity to the game that has been recently missing. (Even so, let’s not forget that Game 6 was only a Steph Curry three away from a Golden State victory.) None of this is meant to detract from the accomplishments of the Toronto Raptors, who played terrific, exciting basketball throughout this series and deserve to have won. I am speaking more about greater powers – the work, if you like, of the so-called Basketball Gods, who have helped restore a balance of joy to the NBA universe, if not parity.
As such, I mostly agree with Globe columnist Cathal Kelly’s assertion that “Toronto didn’t rob the Warriors of the title. They stole Golden State’s identity.” For now, sure: They were the more joyful team, and will remain so heading into next season. Where he’s wrong is in claiming that the Warriors’ “era is done.” Because there’s a new storyline in its early, formative phases, and it goes something like this: Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both free agents, will re-sign with Golden State and emerge better than ever from rehab, rejoining a team that, having scratched its way into the playoffs, will tear through the Western Conference en route to the Finals – maybe against Toronto. How the fairytale ending of that story might go, however, I’m happy for now to leave unwritten.