The NBA Preseason's Demos, Outtakes, And B-Sides

The NBA preseason is mostly meaningless, and not even all that much like actual NBA basketball. But if you love the latter, there's still something there to find in the former.
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Fall marks our exodus from the broad, lawless wasteland of the NBA offseason and into the outer rings of the regular season. We can, more or less, see the city lights from where we are now. Here, the ludicrousness of DeAndre Jordan agreeing to sign with the Mavericks and then returning to the Clippers falls away. Frank Vogel wearing a duster and carrying a compound bow fades from view. Sure: ludicrous stuff still happens; this is still the NBA. But basketball—with its boundaries, its rules, its rituals, its pacing—creates its own city, much in the same way music does. We are nearly there.

I can still remember the first album I ruined for anyone: Gish by the Smashing Pumpkins. In the spring of 1993, I had been playing guitar for a year and—having already digested Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger—I had at long last gotten around to Billy Corgan’s first broadside blast of teen angst. Each of the aforementioned records was a minor revolution for me as a I dug deeper into music as a musician, but there was something meticulously constructed about Gish that made it stand out.

Over the course of a road trip from the East Coast to the Midwest to visit relatives, I picked the record apart for my family. I’d like to say my insights hewed to melodic motifs, development of themes, or complicated understandings of harmonic inversions. I’m mostly sure they were about nothing more complex than Corgan’s finely tuned ear for whisper-to-a-scream dynamics. I am certain I was unbearable about it. Listening to the record now I can’t excavate precisely what got me so excited. It’s still a terrific record, if not as fully realized sonically as Siamese Dream or melodically as Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

Whatever it was I found there, it matters that it was there to find in the first place. Gish creates a world akin to the space children occupy when they build forts with pillows or castles with Legos. But where the multi-layered worlds of childhood’s creation are pliable and vanish when you turn away, the complex clockwork of an album, or a basketball game, is someone else’s. And so you get the pleasure of discovery, of entering someone else’s world.

Right now, it’s the preseason, and these worlds are—let’s be fair—more like a messy kids’ bedroom than a well-realized dreamscape. Preseason games have a demo or outtake quality to them, the kind of thing valued by collectors and obsessives but comfortably passed over by the casual fan. Many of these efforts in collective construction will fail to come together, but that’s part of the contract.

Not every band or album becomes a place you can call home, not any more than every team or season becomes one that seduces you, that invites you to unpeel its layers and learn about it. But the ones that do—I mean, goddamn. The Atlanta Hawks in the regular season last year; the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs the year before; the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors in 2007; the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns; the ’96 Sonics: they weren’t all champions or even contenders, but they were less collections of players than compelling mazes, bigger on the inside than the outside and stuffed with meanings.

Some teams are just teams, just as some albums are a collection of songs one after another. Some buildings are just places to put your stuff. But as you move through certain ones, imbuing them with your own experiences, your own interpretations and hopes and dreams and beliefs, they become something more. That’s when the demos and outtakes, be it the particular click of the lightswitch in your bedroom growing up or the near telekinesis of an alley-oop from one player to another, accumulate a kind of resonant weight.

It’s both common and understandable for fans to view a championship as the ultimate payoff of this process when it comes to sports. And don’t get me wrong: championships are great things. But there’s so much luck and unreliability that goes into them that we all might be better off valuing this process, this accumulated interest in a thing, over the more tangible but more elusive rewards at the season’s end.

We’re at the beginning of the beginning of another season, and nothing that happens (short of injuries) between now and the first game on October 27 matters in and of itself, and neither do a band’s ramshackle demos. Not until they become your favorite band.

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