On the coldest night in Minnesota, we packed up and drove 36 hours to California. I spent the next four months floundering around the Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco inclusive), an area I now consider to be a graveyard for the young. I could speculate that this appearance is due to the rise/fall/displacement of 1990s dot-com whizzery, San Francisco’s rare distinction of being the only major city with virtually no collegiate atmosphere (the UC Berkeley kids are kept at a distance), or the painstaking effort put into preserving some idealized past of hippies and beatniks that perhaps today’s young progressives no longer give a shit about. More likely, however, my perception that the Bay Area somehow sucked the youth out of me biasedly stems from the incredibly trite woman-exiting, band-breaking-up/reforming, grad-school-anticipating tropes I encountered during my brief stay. And as rigor mortis began encroaching, I turned to the Association of National Basketball that we hold so dear, which, instead of providing me with metaphors for life or, at the very least, distracting me with pomp and dazzle, laughed at my every attempt to preserve my “better years.” The angular Tayshaun Prince taunted me with his sheer physical versatility. The knuckleheaded Qyntel Woods, whose illegal dogfighting ring earned him 12 months’ probation and fines, induced nostalgia for the days of free-spirited mischief. Even misguided high-school phenom Ndudi Ebi, whose high draft selection and underdeveloped skill set eventually cast him as a pariah figure for all teenage preps-to-pros hopefuls, shook my very core. As NBA pundits consistently blamed “Ebi’s youth,” and not Ebi himself, for his decision to forgo college, I was reminded tormentingly that I no longer was allowed this same luxury of freedom from responsibility.
I was born the exact same day, in the exact same year, as Yao Ming. Or, as my brother likes to put it, the same day I was born, some Chinese woman millions of miles away was experiencing intense pain as she tried to squeeze a fetal Yao from her loins. Today Yao stands 18 inches taller than me and earns a $5.5 million salary from the Houston Rockets, plus endorsement money that probably dwarfs my life earnings. To drive home this not very profound point, I return to the tale of Ndudi Ebi, four years my junior, drafted straight out of high school into the league by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and since cut by the Wolves and flung into basketball oblivion. The experience no doubt jarred Ebi, as in his last phone interview with the Minnesota press, Ebi dared the reporter to guess whether or not he had a gun pointed at his head. No matter how screwed up the kid is now, for playing in 19 games total in three years, including zero games this year, he will have earned $2.2 million. That Ebi’s NBA life span ended at age 21, his epitaph engraved with “He for Whom the Task of Fulfilling the Unfulfilled Promise Was Bestowed,” instigates my sadness. Ebi is seen as the ultimate failure, when I have done so little.
In this age of comparison as a motivational tool, in which Israel and Palestine continue to out-death each other, each electronic gadget is manufactured to be smaller than the last, and the general public is fixated on televised talent duels, the NBA—like no other sports league—offers quite a depressing source of comparison, continuously reminding us that the period of youth is incomplete, fleeting, and fraught with failure. And it is because this Association—like no other sports league—is a League of Youth: perpetual youth, an omnipresent illustration of what it truly means to be young.
Whereas even the most casual sports fans can recognize the names Favre, Clemens, and Lemieux, the legendary, albeit geriatric, ambassadors of football, baseball, and hockey, respectively, pro basketball’s equivalent figures—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish, if anyone—are anomalies of an era long forgotten. Never could a Julio Franco, who at 47 years of age is still an effective hitter for baseball’s New York Mets, exist in the NBA. Not only are the very actions of basketball too youth-oriented (e.g., unlike in baseball or football, these players are never stationary) but also the style of the league itself is too rooted in youth culture. Yes, the whole “death-inspired tattoos/Tupac/fitted Yankees hats/slang = today’s NBA” statement is an overmined and overdiscussed one, but it is an inarguable one nonetheless. Even the league’s signature move—the slam dunk—is one of such youthful exuberance, in its defiance toward the old norms of the finger roll as the preferred close-to-the-basket shot and its swaggering disrespect toward one’s opponent, that it has become a truism for NBA announcers, when commenting on the soft lay-ups and putbacks of the league’s elder players, to say, “A young [first and last name of player] would have dunked that.”
It was while I, seated alone in a blank North Berkeley apartment adorned only by my subletter’s many crucifixes, was watching a play of this exact type unfold that the NBA was first revealed as an adversary in my attempt to stave off adulthood. A 38-year-old Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacer legend and last league-surviving member of those early-1990s generation-defining USA Olympic Dream Teams (hoops mavens who want to bark about Christian Laettner, Zo, or Shaq can get the gas face), famously captured a loose ball in the final seconds of a critical playoff game versus the Detroit Pistons. With no defender in sight, Miller sprinted downcourt to tie the game with what appeared would be an uncontested lay-up. As many already know, however, the aforementioned Tayshaun Prince leapt from an altogether otherworldly coordinate of the space-time continuum with arm fully extended to block the shot. And, in a single moment, the Dream Team generation gasped a final breath, my own limitations as a mortal (unlike Tayshaun Prince) were made salient, and I was reminded that in the NBA the “guard” never really changes: agility, spontaneity, and irreverence continually triumph over old wisdom and maturity. Since that game, I have not stopped loving this League of Youth, nor do I hold any real scorn for the young juggernauts of the league. Yet I still occasionally wince when confronted with the glorious acrobatics of these frozen-in-time prodigies, as they continue to reveal to me what I might have been and definitely am not.