Playing Ball

Rachel B. Glaser, Jamal with Confetti, 2023. The collective dream is over. Squinting, we walk out of the playoffs and return to Life. Images linger—a giant holding a toddler in a storm of confetti. A shiny, exuberant, mantis-like man standing next to a trophy. The woman who sat courtside wearing red and white gowns. The inexplicable man-made-out-of-Sprite commercial. Duncan Robinson’s tough-guy face. On Monday, after the great battle of Game 5, the Denver Nuggets won the NBA championship for the first time in franchise history. I was introduced to the on-court chemistry between the Nuggets stars Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray during the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Though they lost that series in five games to the Lakers (who would go on to win the championship after beating the Heat), they were great fun to watch. I found Murray’s smile infectious. He seemed unselfconscious and comfortable in his body. When he was having fun, I was having fun. In 2021, Jokić received the first of two consecutive MVP awards. Right before the playoffs that year, Murray tore his ACL, missing the playoffs and the entire next season. Jokić carried the team without him, but in the 2022 playoffs, the Nuggets lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors (who later went on to win the championship). While the Sixers center Joel Embiid won this year’s MVP, most basketball fans believe Jokić is the better player. His performance in these Finals was sensational. His passes were gorgeous, his threes looked like afterthoughts. When the camera cut to him, he often seemed displeased. He was an unstoppable force, even when he wasn’t scoring. He made it look effortless. I thought of him as Paul Bunyan. I liked whenever the broadcast cut to a room in Serbia, Jokić’s home country, where fans stayed up till dawn, watching the Nuggets game live. In the postgame interviews before the award ceremony, it was wonderful to see Jamal Murray’s teary-eyed smile as he spoke about the long journey coming back from his injury. And even a Heat fan could appreciate Jokić’s genuine disappointment upon learning that he’d have to attend a victory parade in Denver on Thursday when he was eager to fly home to Serbia to watch his horse, Dream Catcher, race on Sunday. Though the series was tipping decisively toward Denver, Game 5 was close. Neither team ever led by more than ten points. Jokić’s early foul trouble gave the Heat some breathing room. Even small Heat leads felt luxurious to me and I tried to appreciate them, knowing they could be erased in mere seconds. The Heat’s leader, Jimmy Butler, had little swagger during the first three quarters, exhibiting his new tendency to drive to the basket and stall, as if afraid to shoot. It felt like he was unable to jump. My husband and I began calling him Brick-foot. After witnessing Playoff Jimmy for much of the postseason, the mystery of his dead eyes and lack of energy gnawed at me during the last game. It looked like he had signed away his soul to Ursula the sea-witch. Even when the Heat were ahead, part of me was troubled, trying to figure out what had happened to him. Probably his injured ankle from the Knicks series had gotten worse. Maybe it was fractured. Internet search results implied that his father might be sick. For a brief stretch, Playoff Jimmy returned, hitting back-to-back threes and a jump shot and scoring five points off free throws. The Heat led by one with less than two minutes to go, but a Bruce Brown layup put the Nuggets back in the lead. Then Jimmy drove to the basket, froze, and his pass to Max Strus was picked-off by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope was fouled and hit both free throws, sealing the Heat’s fate. Then Bruce Brown did the same, and Kyle Lowry was shaking hands with Nuggets players as the clock dwindled down its last seconds. When I think of that last game, the most positive Heat memory I have is Bam Adebayo’s dazzling performance. Bam opened the game with a steal and a dunk, and he never relented. He looked lit up, activated. He played emphatically and with desire. To steal a term from the basketball writer and poet Ted Powers, Bam had the bodyjoy. *** I used to experience bodyjoy when dancing, but these days it happens when I’m playing doubles tennis with my friends. When it’s good, nothing gives me more glee. It’s exhilarating to see a ball fly toward me and need to act fast to hit it. When else in life does something fly toward me? I jump through the air, my racket outstretched, unsure if I will reach it. When else do I jump through the air? Sometimes I totally miss, or it brushes the side of my racket and spins off at a funny angle. Or I hit it with gusto and it sails over the net and we all watch to see if it lands in bounds. It feels good to all be watching the same thing. The best is when we rally for so long the point seems to last forever. Our shots are solidly good and comically bad and by the time it ends we are laughing and have no idea what the sco

Playing Ball

Rachel B. Glaser, Jamal with Confetti, 2023.

The collective dream is over. Squinting, we walk out of the playoffs and return to Life. Images linger—a giant holding a toddler in a storm of confetti. A shiny, exuberant, mantis-like man standing next to a trophy. The woman who sat courtside wearing red and white gowns. The inexplicable man-made-out-of-Sprite commercial. Duncan Robinson’s tough-guy face.

On Monday, after the great battle of Game 5, the Denver Nuggets won the NBA championship for the first time in franchise history. I was introduced to the on-court chemistry between the Nuggets stars Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray during the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Though they lost that series in five games to the Lakers (who would go on to win the championship after beating the Heat), they were great fun to watch. I found Murray’s smile infectious. He seemed unselfconscious and comfortable in his body. When he was having fun, I was having fun.

In 2021, Jokić received the first of two consecutive MVP awards. Right before the playoffs that year, Murray tore his ACL, missing the playoffs and the entire next season. Jokić carried the team without him, but in the 2022 playoffs, the Nuggets lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors (who later went on to win the championship). While the Sixers center Joel Embiid won this year’s MVP, most basketball fans believe Jokić is the better player. His performance in these Finals was sensational. His passes were gorgeous, his threes looked like afterthoughts. When the camera cut to him, he often seemed displeased. He was an unstoppable force, even when he wasn’t scoring. He made it look effortless. I thought of him as Paul Bunyan.

I liked whenever the broadcast cut to a room in Serbia, Jokić’s home country, where fans stayed up till dawn, watching the Nuggets game live. In the postgame interviews before the award ceremony, it was wonderful to see Jamal Murray’s teary-eyed smile as he spoke about the long journey coming back from his injury. And even a Heat fan could appreciate Jokić’s genuine disappointment upon learning that he’d have to attend a victory parade in Denver on Thursday when he was eager to fly home to Serbia to watch his horse, Dream Catcher, race on Sunday.

Though the series was tipping decisively toward Denver, Game 5 was close. Neither team ever led by more than ten points. Jokić’s early foul trouble gave the Heat some breathing room. Even small Heat leads felt luxurious to me and I tried to appreciate them, knowing they could be erased in mere seconds. The Heat’s leader, Jimmy Butler, had little swagger during the first three quarters, exhibiting his new tendency to drive to the basket and stall, as if afraid to shoot. It felt like he was unable to jump. My husband and I began calling him Brick-foot.

After witnessing Playoff Jimmy for much of the postseason, the mystery of his dead eyes and lack of energy gnawed at me during the last game. It looked like he had signed away his soul to Ursula the sea-witch. Even when the Heat were ahead, part of me was troubled, trying to figure out what had happened to him. Probably his injured ankle from the Knicks series had gotten worse. Maybe it was fractured. Internet search results implied that his father might be sick.

For a brief stretch, Playoff Jimmy returned, hitting back-to-back threes and a jump shot and scoring five points off free throws. The Heat led by one with less than two minutes to go, but a Bruce Brown layup put the Nuggets back in the lead. Then Jimmy drove to the basket, froze, and his pass to Max Strus was picked-off by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope was fouled and hit both free throws, sealing the Heat’s fate. Then Bruce Brown did the same, and Kyle Lowry was shaking hands with Nuggets players as the clock dwindled down its last seconds.

When I think of that last game, the most positive Heat memory I have is Bam Adebayo’s dazzling performance. Bam opened the game with a steal and a dunk, and he never relented. He looked lit up, activated. He played emphatically and with desire. To steal a term from the basketball writer and poet Ted Powers, Bam had the bodyjoy.

***

I used to experience bodyjoy when dancing, but these days it happens when I’m playing doubles tennis with my friends. When it’s good, nothing gives me more glee. It’s exhilarating to see a ball fly toward me and need to act fast to hit it. When else in life does something fly toward me? I jump through the air, my racket outstretched, unsure if I will reach it. When else do I jump through the air? Sometimes I totally miss, or it brushes the side of my racket and spins off at a funny angle. Or I hit it with gusto and it sails over the net and we all watch to see if it lands in bounds. It feels good to all be watching the same thing. The best is when we rally for so long the point seems to last forever. Our shots are solidly good and comically bad and by the time it ends we are laughing and have no idea what the score is.

Earlier this week, my husband read me the poem “Playing with the Children” by the unconventional eighteenth-century Japanese monk Ryōkan Taigu. In the poem, the speaker bounces a ball to some neighborhood children and they bounce it back, singing and playing. My favorite lines of the poem are: “Caught up in the excitement of the game / We forget completely about the time.”

People have been playing ball for thousands of years. Nausicaa was playing ball with her maidens when Odysseus first saw her in Homer’s Odyssey. Balls connect children. They connect dogs and humans. Playing releases endorphins, which often leads to happiness. Taigu’s poem ends with: “Passersby turn and question me: / ‘Why are you carrying on like this?’ / I just shake my head without answering / Even if I were able to say something / how could I explain? / Do you really want to know the meaning of it all? / This is it! / This is it!”

Rachel B. Glaser is the author of the story collection Pee On Water, the novel Paulina & Fran, and two books of poetry.