Canceled Opportunities

Photo via @TheWagofMutombo

They probably didn’t miss much on Saturday; after all, it’s really a football town. People from all over the region live in Albany, New York, so all types of flags fly on Sundays. A few, mostly college kids from cities along I-90, are Bills fans. The rogue Patriots fan wears his jacket proudly and walks quickly, knowing that he is the enemy to everyone else. Most, though, are fans of the teams from the city – or from New Jersey, depending on how much snark you put in your delivery. The Capital District hosts the Giants for training camp – well, they do most years. This summer the Giants stayed away once the NFL resolved its lockout. Time constraints and logistics made it too difficult to reschedule. They’d be back next year, though. That’s what they said. That’s what they promised. Because the NFL had enough reasons to come together and detonate its labor impasse, no regular season games were lost. All was forgiven in Albany and across the nation before the first snap of the shortened preseason. If the Giants come back upstate next summer, so much the better. If they don’t, then people will be disappointed, but they’ll likely make the short trip to wherever camp is held in the future. They’re diehards. Even if it was just preseason training camp, Albany missed the Giants.

This past Saturday, an exhibition between the Celtics and Knicks was scheduled at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany. That game has long been canceled, of course, with the rest of the preseason slate. And while it would be easy to make the trite joke about no one caring about the event being scheduled, let alone being canceled, it’d be vacuous at best. True, Albany’s relationship with the NBA is analogous to Atlanta’s love for hockey. New York City has its reputation as the Mecca of basketball, and it seems well-deserved but, while only an hour and a half away, the state’s capital is far removed from that culture and appreciation for the beautiful game. Rarely did people wear basketball jerseys, and too often they bore purple and gold 24s when they did. Ask the cashier at the grocery store if he is a football fan and be considered a fool for even asking. Inquire about interest in the NBA and get the same reaction for a far different reason. It quickly got to the point that I stopped trying to talk about the league with my coworkers and neighbors.*

*Shammgod bless twitter.

Even in this basketball wasteland, however, there were those who cared. I worked across the street from an elementary school, and every weekday a group of three boys would come in, each dribbling a basketball and pouring sweat. They’d ask for a cup of ice water. That’s a seemingly simple request; in Arizona, where I’m from and where I’ve since returned, a place of business is required by law to give a person a glass of water if they have the capacity to do so. It’s a desert, so it makes sense. New York has no such law, so my employer asked that we charge 50 cents for a cup of ice water. Now, I consider myself a law-abiding citizen, but I decided to make up my own rule: if you could provide entertaining conversation or even just prove that you had learned some semblance of manners, water was free. And these three young men – all 11-13, all obsessed with basketball – offered some of the best hoops speak I had in my entire time in Albany. The pinnacle was when an older woman asked them who the best basketball player in the NBA was (during the peak of “Rose for MVP!” fever). Without a moment’s hesitation, the most vocal of the three answered, “LeBron James.”

Over the course of a few months, I met the father of one of the boys, a kind gentleman in his 60s named Mack (as far as I knew) who was in most days to buy lottery tickets. He was as proud of his son as could be and wouldn’t hesitate to remind you that his boy could only play basketball if his grades were good. When the end of the school year approached and his son was on the honor roll, I suggested the idea of buying tickets for the two of them to go see the Knicks and Celtics for the preseason. I let him know there was every possibility that the game would be lost due to the lockout, but Mack loved the idea and got courtside seats as soon as he knew that his money would be refunded if the game were to be canceled. The rest is sad, sad history.

I suppose I should feel bad for the Son of Mack.* He had the opportunity to see an NBA game when he was young, but it was taken from him by the lockout. The normal thing to do is probably to rip David Stern for shattering a young boy’s dreams, for taking away a father-son bonding event.

*Or MacMack in the Scottish naming pattern.

Like the tendency to say, “no one cares about the NBA,” though, that’d be the cop-out. I was still in Albany when Saturday’s game was canceled; I saw Mack and his son several more times before I left. Sure, they were disappointed, but life was going to go on just fine for them. The boy would keep studying and playing basketball. His dad would keep playing his numbers, keeping his son disciplined, and loving life. When the league came back – well, they wouldn’t be able to buy tickets at Madison Square Garden, but I told them a game in New Jersey could be pretty affordable and a lot of fun.

I can’t feel sorry for the two of them and MacMack’s two friends, then. They’ll get along fine without the league. But I do feel sorry for you, NBA. You lost your chance to hook them while they were young. For every international market you look into expanding, know that there are people here in the States who love your product but aren’t quite convinced. Those fans of the game who could become fans of the league are the lifeblood of our sports-based fanaticism. They keep fresh perspectives coming to the table. They buy jerseys. And they tell the old ladies of the world in measured, reasoned tones why LeBron James is the best player in the world.

They’ll move on happily enough without you, NBA. They’ve got football this Sunday, so don’t weep for them. Feel sorry for yourself instead.

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.