Here’s a thing that would be weird about people if it weren’t so indelibly human: our almost universal tendency to believe that the things we like are good and the things we dislike are bad, morally speaking. We also tend to feel there’s causation there as well: we like things because they’re good and we dislike things because they’re bad. We feel we have a tacit set of standards that are objective markers of quality and if they’re met, we like something. But that’s not the whole story.
Certain things (and we will, I swear, get to basketball here) line up with who we are — in all our conflicted mess of good and bad, in both our sound reasoning and self-destructive tendencies, in our acquired tastes and guilty pleasures — that we’re almost powerless to resist their pull, and it has almost nothing to do with a well-established set of rules or laws about what’s good and bad. I’m going to call this “buying in.”
The oldest (and, when it works, most ideal) form of buying in is marriage. It’s embedded directly into the traditional vows about sickness and health, for richer or poorer. Durable relationships are not just objectively good or sensible — they resonate, reinforcing positive attributes, yes, but also nurturing the thorny bits of each person. At its best, a marriage should approach a flexible unconditionality made possible not by a set of standards, but by a more slippery resonance that acknowledges how human beings can be messed up, contradictory creatures.
It’s so foundational in marriage, though, that it might be easier to see in the way we respond to a writer or director. I, for example, am a pretty terrible judge of whether an average person should read this or that book by David Foster Wallace or watch this or that film by Wes Anderson. I’m not overly negative in the way I approach art, but I am very critical of everything I consume in the sense that I have a hard time not picking things apart, not trying to understand how and why they work or don’t work.
But both Wallace’s and Anderson’s ways of approaching their work are such that it defuses that sharp critical faculty in me. I know Wallace is overly wordy, almost trapped in his own head, and not well-suited to crafting the kind of lean, balanced storytelling that is the highwater mark of literature. But I couldn’t give a shit about that. His voice on the page strikes a chord in me whose root note is way down at the bottom of my spine. Whatever he has to say — no matter how unrefined or unwieldy like, say, in his final novel, The Pale King — I want to listen to it.
It’s much the same with Anderson. I can see how his exacting attention to detail, to the elaborate crafting of artifice, can shortchange his stories. His films are not particularly diverse, either in subject matter or their casts — by and large he deals with families and romance, with a special emphasis on father-son dynamics in the former and young love in the latter. And I couldn’t care less. I can make judgments about which of his films I prefer, but their relationship to each other is more important to my understanding of him than any one film is. His body of work, from “Bottle Rocket” to “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is an ongoing conversation for me — there’s never any question about seeing whatever new film he puts out.
I’ve bought in: to Wallace, to Anderson, and to the San Antonio Spurs. If fame or prestige are the second most tangible currency of creative artists beyond straight cash, championships are their equivalent in the NBA. Yet the Spurs — in spite of their championship pedigree under Gregg Popovich — have reached a place where something as picayune as another ring is nearly beside the point when it comes to appreciating the team. As with nearly every season, Popovich should be a shoe-in for Coach of the Year. But I hope he doesn’t win it.
For me, the Spurs need to toil in semi-darkness within the NBA, need to stay underappreciated for them to fulfill the pact I’ve bought into. My hometown Timberwolves winning the NBA championship would prove something, and not just that the world was ending. For the long-suffering fan dormant within me, it would provide an emotional punch of righteousness, just as surely as another Lakers crown would provide a sting of injustice. But another Spurs trophy? Another Duncan (or Parker) MVP? Another Coach of the Year award? These just feel like ornamentation on top of what the Spurs have achieved over the last two-plus decades: a brand of basketball where process has defeated desire.
They’ve reached a place where their actions are not judged successes because they work but because it was the Spurs that did them. Of course Boris Diaw has found a second-life as an important bench player with the Spurs after being discarded by franchise after franchise. Of course Kawhi Leonard has developed into the exact kind of face of the franchise the Spurs need going into the post-Duncan era. (Basically, a Moai who responded to a question about being the next face of the franchise with, “It just brings joy to me” while his expression never changed.) Of course Popovich has coaxed 60-plus wins out of his team while playing his three best players fewer than 30 minutes a game.
And of course nothing embodies the Spurs this season like Tim Duncan’s reaction to being shoved by Kendrick Perkins. The stumble, the wry smile as the refs blow the whistle for the T: If you’ve bought in, these are precisely the things that warm your heart, the same way a four-page David Foster Wallace sentence can, or the way the cable cars squeaking in perfect time with the background music in Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” can. Every little thing like this sinks you deeper into it, and not because it’s good, not because it’s logical or makes sense, but because it pings some imperfect tuning fork in you.
I can’t tell you how to fall in love, but I’ve always agreed with Mr. Darcy’s explanation of it from Pride and Prejudice: “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” I’m not here to argue with facts and figures that you should appreciate the San Antonio Spurs while you can, dammit. I’m here to say we’re all flawed, and the perfect things for us are not universally perfect, nor do they need to be. They just need to vibrate in sympathy with us, even if we can never perfectly understand them.