How Basketball Briefly Saved Me From Politics

In the last month, I watched every Timberwolves game in an attempt to tune out something larger.
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Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves (left) during game one of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs in Houston, Texas, on April 15th, 2018.

Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves (left) during game one of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs in Houston, Texas, on April 15th, 2018.

The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves reached the NBA postseason it was 2004 and I was preparing to be done with my teens, sprinting into what I imagined would be my promising 20s. It was the height of the Kevin Garnett era, during his MVP season. The team made a run to the Western Conference Finals, where they eventually lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, it was a more promising time for me, a Timberwolves fan since their early days in the league. Just three short years later, the Kevin Garnett era ended, its doom accelerated by a series of poor trades and draft picks by the franchise. The Timberwolves would go on to miss the playoffs for the next 13 straight seasons, often never even coming close.

The moment when a luxury becomes a desperately needed escape can be scary. I grew up loving and watching all manner of sports, deeply investing myself in them, timing my schedule around them and then building a schedule around the emotional space I would need to occupy if my team won or lost. Despite how much time and thought I put into it, this devotion was an enjoyable and comforting luxury. The performance of being a sports fan was an identity that made watching the event more thrilling. It was still an escape, of course, but one that I could do without, if I needed. Despite building a life around it, I didn't see my life outside of sports fandom as so difficult to navigate that I needed the sport to tether me to the blessed escape at all times.

Perhaps I am simply getting older. I have less time now to do the things I did when I was in my early 20s, and thankfully so. It could also be that, in my getting older, I have had to take on more responsibilities, and in doing so, I've become more aware of the world and how, globally, it feels like we're often on the brink of some collective disaster. Though the American political landscape is treacherous now in a very particular way, the landscape in the early 2000s wasn't always much better, or necessarily less terrifying. Still, as I've aged I've gotten more aware, and allowed myself to care more—an always shifting kind of care that seems to be more urgent by the day.

I miss sports games now, even when my favorite teams are playing. I watch religiously at times, and other times I will clock out at halftime to get work done. I root for some games to become blowouts, so that I can go to sleep early. All this is about aging too—becoming more distinctly in touch with all the ways you might not survive.

The Minnesota Timberwolves began to consume me again over the past 30 days or so. The Western Conference playoff race was unprecedented in how tight it was: The third-place team and the ninth-place team were separated by four wins or less, depending on when you checked, so a short winning streak or a short losing streak could mean the difference between being locked in a high-playoff seed or sitting at home. The Timberwolves were in third place once, briefly, toward the end of February. This was expected: The Wolves had acquired star talent Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls, to add to their already gifted duo of center Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins. They were, at the very least, expected to secure a playoff berth, if not win a first-round match-up.

At the end of February, Butler injured his knee, which sent the Wolves into a spiral of inconsistency. They plummeted from third to fifth to seventh and then, finally, they spent the last couple of weeks of the season clinging to the eighth place in the West, fighting for the final spot with the Denver Nuggets. In a perfect storm of scheduling, the NBA had Denver and Minnesota play each other in the final game of the season, their records tied, with the winner getting into the NBA playoffs.

I found myself thrilled by this, rooting for a team that I once imagined great, before they became an underdog, having to claw their way to a place that they'd felt had been promised. If there is a difference in what draws me to sports now, it is narrative, and so I watched the Timberwolves in new ways, rooting for the race to get closer. The narrative I was looking for was one of the downtrodden fighting their way from unlikely odds into a brief bit of glory. It might sound foolish, but in a search for small triumphs, it's an easy thing to root for. The escape I found in the tension of the competition came with an awareness of how trivial the outcome would ultimately be.

I tuned in to every Timberwolves game during the last month of the season in an attempt to tune out something larger: a presidential threat; an ongoing investigation; a global climate crisis. Sports have been political for decades now, but the ways they present as political today can feel a lot more all-encompassing. Sometimes it's inspiring, as when athletes take stands and use their platforms to effect change. But during the game, in between the lines, it is easy for athlete and viewer alike to forget these political aspects. It is easy to tune out the world's lurching forward. This knowledge somehow made the games more thrilling. It was comforting to live inside of a world where the outcome would only briefly shake my emotional foundation, but not have lasting impacts.

The Timberwolves snuck into the playoffs. They beat the Nuggets in overtime on Wednesday, in a game that was exciting but ended sloppily, as if neither team wanted to make it. I was doing a reading during the game, and people in the audience—at my request—shouted out the score in between poems to keep me posted. I streamed the final minutes of overtime on my phone from a car, twisting and twitching with each missed shot, or fumbled rebound. When the game ended, I had enough time to take an elated breath, and return to my phone's home screen, where there were 10 push notifications. The news of the world hadn't stopped; I had just found a brief window out. The NBA playoffs are now underway, and the Timberwolves are projected to lose in the first round. If they go out, I hope they at least make it fun.

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