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Grit and Grind: Burned in a Pale Fire

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This season has been frustrating to watch, in part because we just can’t let go.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Warning- explicit language.

Before the season, I wrote that Grit ‘n Grind was a tired term in need of retirement. If you wanted to view this season through a lens, turns out that one was better than most.

But what I’m tired of, more than the lens of Grit ‘n Grind, is the lens itself. Any lens. Any narrative. The person that showed this to me has been dead for forty years. His name is Vladimir Nabokov, and he might be the best writer who has ever lived. In an indulgence that I hope reflects back on my fan experience of this season, I’m going to talk about how he woke me.

His book, Pale Fire, is strange. The text of Pale Fire opens with a foreword written by a fictional English professor describing how he came to meet and annotate the poem of his “friend,” a fictional poet posthumously. The second part of the book is the actual text of the fictional poet’s poem, named “Pale Fire.” The third part is a reflection back on part two: a collection of line by line annotated notes on “Pale Fire” the poem by the fictional literary professor. Line 1 means such and such. Line 4 might be an allusion to this and that. These notes devolve away from actual notes, and towards an increasingly less-than-hinged story of how the poet was killed, his writing process, and it becomes a possibility that the critic may have written the poem under a pen name, or vice versa!

As such, the proper way to read this book bounces back and forth between poem and annotations, one character’s text, another’s notes about the text, their lives intertwining, and how they may actually be the same person.

Sound complicated? It is, and that’s the point.

The book defies any single reading. It challenges your ability to say “this means that.” Bill Simmons has often said he hated his college English classes because people would come up with ridiculous readings on what a book “is about.”* Well, he would’ve loved the slap in the face that Nabokov brings.

* Short joke: any book can always be made to be about sex. This is a fact that Nabokov attempted to destroy.

The point of Nabokov’s fiction is to abandon hope of a single reading. There is no easy high school reading, no silver bullet of meaning. “A” does not equal “B” because both are fiction. Nabokov kills books like “The Grapes of Wrath” that lead the reader to easy readings. There are no Christ figures, a spoon is sometimes merely a spoon. In short, fiction is entirely made up, and imposing an outside narrative onto it, restricting fiction to a single reality, is a fool’s errand.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

So how does this relate back to the Grizzlies? Modern fandom is about narrative, or more exactly, narratives at war. A meticulously crafted “this game was about X” piece inevitably begets a snide “well actually.” This season, we’ve heard about lack of leadership, minutes restrictions (or mandates, depending upon the author), mid-season acquisitions, rookies struggling, passive Marc, injuries, and above all, Chandler Parsons sucks.

What I want to suggest is that the season has been about all this shit. All of it, but no one single thing. Both “the game was about X” piece and the “well actually” might be worlds apart and both true. The season is an expansive place, and for a long time, we’ve used the lens of GnG to make sense of that landscape. We’ve all become unmoored because the identity of the team has been GnG for years but GnG doesn’t win every night. It’s tired; I’m tired; and part of the reason we’re tired is because nothing makes sense.

What I want to suggest is what Nabokov would have wanted for us. We need to give up the lens and just watch basketball. More on that in a bit.

The second touchstone for this season was Moonlight. I was floored by this movie. To use another Bill Simmons trope, Trevontae Parker’s performance was “pound for pound the best acting performance of the year and probably one of the best six of this decade…and he didn’t even get a nomination! Can we talk about how dumb the Oscars are? Look, I like Michael Shannon. He’s fine. But in five years when we look back on 2016, you won’t be bouncing your grandkid on our knee talking about Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals.”

{Five minutes later, in the midst of a conversation about the Patriots}: “The accents might have been terrible, but the movie about Boston got robbed.”

But back to Moonlight. This movie – the combination of fringe identity subject matter, low budget, stunning cinematography, Ali’s performance, Naomie Harris’s performance, PARKER’s performance - has never been made before, and may never be made again. To have penetrated the mainstream by being named the best picture of 2016, it stands as a singular work of cinema. But nobody is talking about it like that.

The movie itself is practically a footnote to the narrative of the historically embarrassing Oscar’s snafu (which, by the way, is both hilarious and not really that interesting). Mockery of {insert literally anything here} is the parlance of our time because it allows us to place the {insert the mocked thing again here} beneath us*.

* I realize I mocked Simmons earlier. I want to clarify that that came from a place of love; I am a devoted listener of his work; and above all, I am a flawed human being incapable of following my own rules.

The downside of mockery, of course, is it is awfully hard to engage in something when you’re looking down on it. I’m not suggesting that anything nefarious happened with Moonlight. What I am suggesting is that the more unfamiliar an idea or an identity is, the more people demand a lens through which it can be viewed comfortably. Moonlight the movie was subsumed by the mockery of the Oscars because it was a fringe movie.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Counterfactuals are impossible, which is why I’m not presenting one. We live in the timeline where few people have seen Moonlight but everyone knows the wrong Oscar’s envelope was read. All I suggest is that that means something.

So it was with Moonlight. So it is with politics. So it is with this Grizzlies season. Discussion of anything requires a lens, a take on “why,” a narrative. But to wrap this back to basketball {can you hear, dear reader, my editors breathing a sigh of relief}, basketball is like Nabokov. A single possession might be reducible to a single thing. “This is why our opponent scored.” Or “The opening line of Lolita uses silly sounds and playful to lull the reader into a false sense of security.” But a game or a text, possessions and sentences stacked on top of each other, defy reduction*.

* I’m about to try really hard not to reduce the season, and I mostly fail.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Can we not enjoy this team in their twilight? Joe Mullinax wrote about the Dying of the Light- can’t we let them rage while understanding they will stumble in the act? GnG is retiring in front of our eyes, or has already, and if the flood of narratives trying to explain this season is proof of anything, it is proof of that. We’ve lost our lens. The team’s identity has shifted but the players are still in the room. They simply don’t have it every night.

Doesn’t that make those nights where everything clicks –

December 29thTony Allen grabs nine boards, cops 2 steals, and holds Westbrook to 6 of 19 shooting.

January 6th – the Grizzlies come back from 24 down with the Core 4 playing down the stretch to win in OT.

January 28th - ZBo beasts Rudy Gobert for 28 and 9 in a win at Utah.

More than two Marc Gasol game-winners.

- all the more special?

Don’t these nights shine brighter now that they visit less frequently, or do we just resent that fact? Is the failed to this point Chandler Parsons signing the mockable La La Land envelope that has kept us from appreciating this Grizzlies season? “Chancun” is so far from the ethos of GnG that it might have been created in a laboratory to distract the animus of Grizzlies fans from another fact: the Core Four just cannot bring it every night.

Maybe in a quest to sound more interesting, to uncover the shiny new narrative, we’ve neglected the obvious fact that winning in the NBA is tough when your best guys are older. Maybe this narrative is too boring, too sad. Maybe Occam’s Razor cuts too deep.

Absence is harder to explain than presence. But those few nights where GnG returns should still be special, more special than ever before, because what comes next may not be as good. Then again, maybe that’s our fate as fans. Maybe letting go is too hard, the present too close to the future for comfort.

Maybe instead of pressing towards that uncertain future, we cling to a past that, if not fully present, is at least not absent of meaning.

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