It might seem extreme to begin a piece about a basketball team with such bold lyrics, but few things bring about hot, hot, hot emotions more quickly in me than Fiona Apple and the Milwaukee Bucks. There is, among the many, one crucial difference between their stirring of my emotions. With The Idler Wheel… or When the Pawn…, like all Capital A Art, there is a process of healing inherent in the intake. Fiona lays bare her wounds, in the process revealing our own but making us feel less alone. Her music wrenches the gut; it’s ugly, visceral, knotty. But it’s also beautiful, catchy, ornately composed. "Artists take us to the places we’re uncomfortable to go," author Junot Diaz said at a recent talk. The best of them, or at least my favorites, take us there but also back.
The Milwaukee Bucks are not great artists. They’re not entertainers. Some nights, it seems as if they’re not even basketball players. Their games often progress like a wave pool from the perspective of a seven-year-old who left his pair of floaties on the table beside his beach-reading mother; the wave is coming, we can see it, we cannot stop it, why the hell is it so big, will it ever stop, it’s passed and I’m choking on chlorine. Discomfort? Sure. Healing? No. The closest these Bucks come to catharsis is throwing the towel in early enough for us to change the channel over to FX.
But these emotions are not just because the Bucks are bad. The Bucks have almost always been bad, at least during my lifetime. It’s that these Bucks are so disappointing.
It’s hard to start an earnest discussion of this disappointing season with anyone other than Jabari Parker. If you’ve spent a second on Bucks Twitter (which, please don’t, we should all delete our accounts, the Internet is killing us), you’ll know a recurring tone of this disappointment. Hopeless, angry, Derrick Williams.
Jabari Parker was advertised as a star, someone so ready on offense that it was all but assumed that he’d instantly dominate that end the second he stepped on a professional basketball court. The uproar in year two stems partially from year one. Jabari didn’t do any of that his first season, but he looked fine enough, and it felt like he was turning a corner at the end there (think of Andrew Wiggins’ second half, I’m crying). Season 2 is a continuation of that first half of the season (and, if anything, a bit of a drop-off), the three still isn’t there (literally at all), and neither are the other jump shots. He handles the ball exclusively like he’s carrying a ten-layer cake in a silent slapstick, runs like he’s just been given his legs (which he has, kind of), and tries to dunk the ball as if he’s swinging a hammer on carnival grounds regardless of who stands in his way. It’s pretty rough to watch, a lot of the stats are concerning, and you’re going to yell at someone about it.
There’s the other, sadder, deeper disappointment, too. If you bought into the idea that Jabari Parker’s rookie season was steadily on the rise, then your disappointment lies with the formerly-torn left anterior cruciate ligament. There was a narrative, perhaps a naive one, where Jabari Parker progressed at a consistent rate, harnessing his powers little-by-little until he morphed into a friggin’ basketball phoenix, burning down each of the 29 arenas in the wake of his monster dunks and sick-ass step-backs. The ACL injury, that bitter little pill in the form of a delicate ligament, has robbed that from you. Your timeline has changed. Your celebration has been postponed. Jabari Parker is still but a rookie.
There’s another disappointment, though, even deeper, even sadder. There has always been a great joy in Jabari Parker’s game. I started writing for Brew Hoop in the summer after I graduated from college by sending a long e-mail to Frank, born out of this legacy-building Free Darko post on liberated fandom, saying that basketball teams are like books and movies and music and TV shows so we should be able to choose which ones we watch based on how much we like how and who they play, you know, their aesthetics and personality, and well, the Bucks were becoming one of those teams I liked. Jabari Parker was the main reason for that.
I lived just outside of Chicago for Parker’s last three years of high school and sole college season. The excitement surrounding the kid was palpable in a way that the Sports Illustrated cover story or highlight tapes or the list of state championships do not fully convey. There was a collective sense that people were pulling for him, and sure, some of this likely had to do with the differences between him and the "rest of Chicago" in the same way critics initially defined Chance the Rapper in opposition to the city’s drill scene, but Jabari’s clean, charming image translated in a fascinating way to his game. There was joy in the way he dunked, in the way he shot, in the way he bounced. Blessed with the body of an NBA player as translated through a Mr. Potato Head, Parker moved strangely but cleanly, polished but undeniably unique. The "moves" that have been advertised since his emergence upon the national scene seemed less the result of careful studying than of improv and fortunate dysmorphia. And at the end of it, he was always smiling. Always. It was incredible. It was going to be in a Milwaukee Bucks uniform.
That smile isn’t around as much anymore.
Milwaukee isn’t Chicago. It isn’t half of Chicago, or even a third. But it is a city. A real city. Where people move faster than a walk but slower than a run, where you can see almost all of your favorite bands, where things that had been now no longer exist at all, where history meets the future on a daily basis. It is a city full of people, not as large or varied a populous as the city to its south, but still, people.
And those people would like to have a good basketball team. They thought they were going to have one this year. And it hasn’t happened. Last year was a surprise. The team outperformed even the wildest expectations. They earned a new arena, even in light of budget cuts to almost every essential humanitarian or intellectual program in the state. A city, a real city, needs sports the same way it needs art. There’s pride at stake, but also love and life. And with this team, there was a young core crucially restricted to the shores of Lake Michigan thanks to the league’s contractual policies.
And that core is still there, but it’s been muddled. Middleton has quickly climbed, Giannis has climbed but not as quickly, Jabari is looking to climb soon. This shift in hierarchy is important; Middleton and Giannis are two clear gems, but Middleton is, for this season at least, the shinier one. He’s more confident, more consistent, less likely to disappear for entire games. He’s the one that always looks like he’s trying, which is a silly thing to admire a professional basketball player for, but hey, it’s something on a team with a whole lot of nothing.
There are, of course, two other members of that young core I haven’t mentioned, and no, I do not mean John Henson and John Henson. The most recently-added piece, Greg Monroe, inspired a ton of chest-thumping upon his arrival. Here was a legit, desirable big man who turned down New York and Los Angeles for Milwaukee of all places. This humble little city pulled it off! And while Monroe hasn’t been much different than advertised (he can score, he can rebound if he wants to, he wears shoes filled with rocks on defense), the fit just hasn’t been right. If this team is going to lose, then damnit, let’s see what the kids can do, nevermind Greg Monroe only just signed his second real contract. Every touch that goes to Greg Monroe doesn’t go to Khris, Giannis, or Jabari, and those guys can jump and (theoretically) shoot.
That other fella is a little harder to talk about. Or maybe not. Maybe we don’t have to talk about him at all anymore. Michael Carter-Williams is no fun. What a bummer. Who cares.
Look, part of what hurts so much is that the plan seemed so clear so recently. Giannis and Jabari are going to take over the world, let’s build around them!!! And that’s probably still the plan. But the pieces surrounding them (and now Middleton) haven’t worked out all that well. Still, it’s not like the Bucks are the Pelicans. The supporting cast doesn’t entirely comprise clowns, and no player in Milwaukee is Anthony Davis. No one’s talent is being wasted yet.
Only our time.
For the last few decades, theatergoers have been polled by an outfit called CinemaScore post-screening to answer some questions about and give a grade to the movie they have just seen. I have never personally been polled, and neither have you probably, but this supposedly happens. It’s a system that’s meant to convey the thoughts of the masses, but these thoughts usually coincide with the box office. Only eight films have ever received the dreaded CinemaScore F. Critic Scott Tobias gave a good rundown of them on the sadly-deceased film website The Dissolve a few years ago.
One of these films was Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation of Solaris. While the film has frequently drawn poor comparisons to either the revered Russian film or the classic Polish novel, the grand downfall of the film was likely the result of a mistakenly high budget and, more interestingly, an advertising campaign built on deception. Soderbergh, fresh off the commercial (and creative!) success of Ocean’s Eleven, made a slick, evocative, and ultimately grounded story of space romance. But because the budget for the film was so high due to special effects and star George Clooney, it was advertised primarily as a high-budget space adventure. When viewers found out that almost the entirety of the film takes place aboard a spaceship that doesn’t even shoot lasers, they greeted it with the fabled CinemaScore F. But Soderbergh’s film is anything but a failure, and its subtle and sleek rumination on memory and love has stuck with a wide range of viewers.
The 2015-2016 Milwaukee Bucks would get a CinemaScore F, too. I don’t think they’re going to spawn a vocal group of apologists. I don’t think anyone would remotely describe them as sleek. I don’t think anyone is going to walk away from this season declaring this the year we started to Own the Future. This is a case where the perception matches the product. The Milwaukee Bucks are no fun to watch. If they are a CinemaScore-F film, they are The Devil Inside.
But what about the 2016-2017 Bucks? What about the 2017-2018 Bucks? The ’18-’19 Bucks? That’s where the focus shifts, I guess. That and development, or whatever. I don’t know. The future is a hard thing to get excited about when you thought it was already here.
There’s an impeccable four-track sequence that ends the shortened version of Kanye West’s new album The Life of Pablo (WHICH ONE WHICH ONE WHICH ONE) that starts with a song called "Waves" and finishes with a song called "Wolves." "Waves" is the redemption story, the salvation, the saintly sinner baptizing himself in the newly-holy waters of … Chris Brown? It’s a beautiful song, one that somehow almost didn’t make the album. Then comes "FML," a 4-minute punch-to-the-gut that makes The Weeknd listenable and name-drops Lexapro. It’s a downer. Next song "Real Friends" twinkles, but not in that I-just-got-a-diamond way, but that I-just-found-out-how-I-got-this-diamond way. It’s one of the most straightforwardly melancholic songs Kanye’s ever made. There’s a sense of lost innocence, of an unattainable past, an unsure future. "Wolves," then, finds Kanye returning to the den, sheltering himself from the cold world that threatens his family every moment he leaves the house or opens his mouth. For a self-described Gospel Album, it’s not the most upbeat of endings, but hey, neither is Revelations.
It’s hard not to see that sequence mirroring these last two Bucks’ seasons (if you’re me, I mean, not if you’re, like, a regular person with better things to think about). Game 4 against the Bulls last postseason was "Waves," Game 6 was "FML," the first half of this season was "Real Friends," the next is "Wolves," with Papa Kidd returning to the den to throw lamb’s wool over Jabari and Giannis. But that’s how the shortened version ends. The full album moves from a short interlude to "30 Hours," a song with a beat so delicious it’s caused me to eat four pairs of headphones this past week. Its first half tells an often ugly but assured narrative about a cheating ex-girlfriend before bleeding into a couple of minutes of relaxed shit talk, corny jokes, and other non-sequiturs. It is the most confident song on the album, the one which bears the burden of West’s ambitions the least. It is the only song on here that could possibly be described as breezy.
I think you know what I'm building to, but no, I’m not really going to end this with "There’s always next season." Instead I’ll end with this: There’s always next season, and next season might be "30 Hours."