While sitting in a Berkeley cafe trying to write something about Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals recently, this middle-aged guy sitting next to me and peering over my shoulder at my computer screen full of spreadsheets leaned over to ask a question that you might normally only use for speed dating (and even then, probably not as the icebreaker).
"What do you do?" he asked leaning over and grinning expectantly. "What's your passion?"
As though that wasn't ridiculous enough, I was already triply annoyed at this dude before he even asked the question. One, don't look at my damn computer screen and comment. Two, while I was standing around and looking for an outlet to use, this clown was using up a seat near an outlet to surf the web on his fancy unplugged phone. Three, why are you even trying to have a discussion about major life questions when the only thing I know about you is that you lack fundamental coffee shop etiquette?
Dude was wrong as three left feet.
"Those are two entirely different questions," I responded, turning back to my screen and trying to muster the frostiest tone possible, yet stupidly inviting a follow-up question.
And naturally the discussion led to basketball.
Anyway, I'm not going to bore you with any further details about the context of this bizarre encounter except to tell you that aside from finding out that this guy was a mathematician who had run a midnight basketball program for youth during the Clinton era and fell in love with the Golden State Warriors after moving to the Bay Area from Chicago during the Run TMC years, we didn't have much in common...which is to say that he successfully managed to sucker me into a discussion about why basketball is such a great game and why he found it to be such an amazing tool with which to work with youth.
But of all of that, it was the discussion about playing pickup ball that ended up being most interesting, even as I was trying to shut this guy out.
What he loved about playing pickup ball - as opposed to playing in the more structured Rec League he was in with local firefighters - was that at its best it's a totally organic interaction with other people in which you have to find a way to relate to total strangers in order to work toward a common goal. So with the midnight basketball program, he tried to leverage some of that (quite powerful) interaction on the court and teach the "at-risk" youth he was working with about the value of being aware of one's relation to others in the process of trying to accomplish a goal that will be satisfying individually.
Seriously, we discussed all of that. Or rather I listened to him tell me.
"We just learn so much about not being selfish," he noted, with a sort of glimmer in his eye that implied that he was at least as passionate about the game as I was, if not more.
He eventually told a story about a high school kid he had played with at Cal's recreation center back in the 90's who seemed to embody everything he loved about basketball. This kid stepped on the court and took over, seemingly having a total awareness of everything going on - where people were, anticipating where they would be, and being "two to three plays ahead" of everyone else, as the old cliche goes. The mere presence of this guy made everyone around him better than they even knew they could be.
In keeping with a narrative that sometimes seemed more like a caffeine-induced fantasy than reality, that player was a young Jason Kidd, just prior to entering Cal as a freshman and turning around an entire program.
Of course, this being Berkeley, all of that led to a discussion about how much he loves his wife and and the nature of finding love. I don't have much to report on that - even if I wanted to - because my mind had already drifted back to Game 2 between the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury.
Perhaps in an act of residual hostility despite the pleasant basketball conversation, I was rudely writing down ideas that later turned into posts about the Lynx as he continued to talk about life, basketball, and the nature of human interactions. The sum of what I was scribbling is pretty much in the earlier post about the Lynx' "3 Clear" play and the related post about "synergy".
But I also thought back to this conversation when Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was caught telling her team to "just play" in a huddle during the third quarter of Game One of the 2011 WNBA Finals against the Atlanta Dream. One commentator mentioned during the game that Reeve's comment showed how much she trusted her team, but I think the more important thing in a game of that magnitude is actually that she trusted that the team trusted each other enough to just play well and had bought into the team system to the point where they could pull that off.
Most teams in some configuration have a weak spot, something you can take away but even when the Lynx aren't necessarily running a set and "just playing" they really don't have a focal point. The reason is that the Lynx seem perfectly attuned to each other in a way that not only allows them to "play the right way", but - more importantly - the most beautiful way possible. Whether it's a structured set or not, the team features an elegant balance that makes them a pleasure to watch for anyone that is truly passionate about basketball.
But why bother bringing up an a discussion that I was mostly annoyed by to gush about the Lynx (again)?
If you've been keeping track of the NBA lockout news - and trust me, I don't blame you if you're ignoring that mess - you know that yesterday's news about the looming cancellation of regular season games was sort of a...downer...for NBA fans, whether they're just basketball starved or tired of billionaires bickering 60 miles north of reality. As much as that absolutely sucks, the 2011 WNBA Finals between the Lynx and Dream makes right now yet another great time for any true basketball fan to give the women's league a chance.
I'd even go further in saying that this matchup represents the best of what the game has to offer.
For all of the time I spend admiring how the Lynx play, it's not as though the Dream can't win. In direct contrast to what the synergy that the Lynx play with offensively, the Dream present them with a defense that tries to impost organized chaos; that is to say, they're organized in creating chaos for their opponents with a flurry of athleticism on the perimeter and pure grit. On the other end, while the Lynx play within a more structured, disciplined team concept, the Dream look to slash through defenses led by the dynamic Angel McCoughtry who defies all that talk about "purity" as one of the most aggressive and effective one-on-one players in the game.
I wrote a similar article at SBN Seattle last year, proclaiming that the Seattle Storm's playoff run was supposedly a perfect time to jump on the WNBA bandwagon. And I'm not going back on that - it was...for Seattle basketball fans who had already lost the Sonics. This year is different - these two finalists provide a perfect balance of speed and synergy, individual vs. collective play, and quality play on both ends of the court that few pairings can offer.
Any basketball fan can appreciate that.
Unfortunately, I didn't even get to talking about the WNBA with this guy at the cafe. By the time he stopped talking, I was ready for some peace and quiet and a chance to actually focus on putting words down - apparently, organic basketball interaction with complete strangers is more valuable to me than random organic coffee shop interactions.
Yet there are plenty of other random dudes out there who just appreciate the core elements of the game enough to get a temporary basketball fix from Game 2 tonight. And I suspect that if they did give it a chance they'd find it to satisfy at least the basic taste they have for basketball.