I go to a funeral this last weekend. It’s near Washington D.C. at Arlington National Cemetery. It’s for my girlfriend’s grandfather. The heat is sticky icky with puddles of sweat collecting on the backs of the flinching, sun-glassed attendees in seersucker and khaki as synchronized shots are fired by men in snow white uniforms.
That has nothing to do with the Thunder, but it was something to see.
* * *
A lot of conversations are had between me and people I’ve never met before over the course of the weekend. They ask me who I am. I tell them. They ask me where I’m from. I tell them Oklahoma. To this, they have only two responses. All weekend long it was one or the other.
1) Something about tornadoes.
2) Something about the Thunder.
All weekend, just those two topics. The tornadoes and the Thunder. Over and over.
And all weekend I tell them I don’t know what happened to the Thunder, aside from Westbrook getting hurt. I talk about what Bricktown is like on a game night. I talk about Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse and my Nick Collison jersey. I talk about whether or not I think the Thunder could’ve beat the Spurs or the Heat. I talk about why Scott Brooks doesn’t break out his glasses for games.
I talk about Hideaway Pizza and how I don’t know why they don’t sell it in the arena because, yes, that would be DOPE. I talk about Durant’s rip move and whatever other tangential Thunder related stuff presents itself for me to say so I’m not standing there sweating with chicken fingers in my mouth looking like an idiot who has no friends.
* * *
I meet a chess player named Raven. That’s his name. Raven. Like the bird or the NFL team or the Poe poem. The whole time I talk to him I think about making That’s So Raven jokes. I want to ask him if he can see the future and, if so, is it still so mysterious to him. I want to ask him what it was like being on The Cosby Show and if he ever keeps up with any of the other Cheetah Girls. Then I realize those are all stupid jokes he’s probably heard before, so I don’t say a word.
I meet him at a McCormick & Schmick’s, the seafood and steak eatery of the greater everywhere that people take dates to when they want to seem like they have big britches.
He’s my girlfriend’s cousin. He’s 19 and pretty unassuming. Real nice guy, actually. He’s wearing black low-top Chucks, grey slacks, and a grey, Tommy Hilfiger cardigan. The brown T-shirt underneath has something resembling a sun poking out from above the top buttoned button of the cardigan. It could also be an egg yolk or a chicken or a Bruins logo or some other strange something that chess players dig on that I have no clue about, like actual intelligence or the ability to have perspective.
He’s from New York but goes to college in Canada. He’s pumped for next week because he gets to go to Europe to play chess in a big tournament that he might make some money in if he wins. He’s the type of guy that says “That’s interesting” a lot, but means it. He really likes Seinfeld. More specifically, he really likes the character Kramer on the television show Seinfeld. He asks me what I do and I tell him about my dumb day job. Then I tell him that I also, on occasion, write about basketball for a couple sites, including this one.
His eyebrows go up.
“The Thunder,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“I like the Thunder,” he says, “They are great fun to watch. I wish they could have gone further.”
My mind kind of hits the fog at this. How on earth does a chess player who goes to college in Canada who uses phrases like “great fun”, who, up till now, has only wanted to talk briefly about Kramer and at length about the ins and outs of the international chess game, know about and have an opinion on the Thunder?
He’s admitted that, for the most part, his life in recent months has completely revolved around playing chess and preparing for the previously mentioned big tourney in Europe. Not a thing he’d said up till then would suggest any kind of passion for anything other than eccentric sitcom characters and a killer knight to rook combo move.
“Why do you think they struggled this postseason?” he asks.
“Well, Westbrook going down like he did,” I say, “That kind of did us in.”
“I guess that’s true,” he says, “I wish you guys had not traded James Harden.”
He knows about the Harden trade? What’s going on? Have I underestimated Raven?
“Yea,” I say, “Hindsight and all that. Definitely wouldn’t have hurt in the playoffs, but you don’t really plan on injury.”
“I guess not,” he says, “I hope that next year they will be back.”
I tell him I hope that, too, and he bails on the conversation to go talk to his other cousins named Boone and Ryder. Swear.
* * *
This is when I finally give myself over to the fact that, for better or worse, the Harden trade will be a talking point from now till the end of days. People won’t get over it. Maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know. I’d tend to think that the trade happened and you can’t take it back and we still wound up with the one seed in the playoffs without him so let’s just move on. But, some people look at the whole thing as a miss. Kevin Martin does nice things, but not NICE things. Lamb might be lazy. They see Harden’s numbers with the Rockets and add that, without context, into the Thunder mix. They look at Westbrook going down and think with Harden we might have still done some damage beyond the second round. They’re probably not wrong. It would’ve been a healthy dose of Angle, I’m sure, and we’d have got to live in the majesty of the Harden-Collison two man game for another year. All the felt factories in OKC continue their assault on the economy by selling fake beards like whoa and everyone is excited about their Fear The Beard t-shirts.
But people forget the distractions. They forget how much the Will They Won’t They Extend Him game would’ve dominated all things First Take-ish for the entire year. A years’ worth of questions about whether or not they want Harden back. The only positive to that would be more questions answered like this. People don’t know just how much going into the luxury tax would’ve hamstrung the squad for years to come. There’s just a bunch of What If’s.
Five years from now, barring injury, Harden will probably be an All Star Game starter along with Durant and, maybe, Westbrook. Even on that day there will be a clip or a picture of the old trifecta doing their thing in blue and orange and some talking head somewhere asking the great What If as though that ground hasn’t been tread a thousand times over by a thousand different men. It’s not going away if amateur chess players from Canada still have an opinion on it. We may as well get used to it.
* * *
Not sure what the point of this story is. Maybe it’s that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Maybe it’s that the Harden trade will haunt all Thunder related conversations forever. Maybe it’s that chess prepares you for anything. I don’t know.
I do know, though, that when you Boy Name Sue your kid like Raven’s mom did naming him Raven, then you make him make himself ready for whatever’s coming at him. If you’re named Raven, you learn to HANDLE and REPRESENT yourself well because you have to. Your name is Raven. There are no easy buckets with a name like that. I shouldn’t ever underestimate the overall conversational knowledge of a chess player who’s named after a bird.
I’m naming my kid Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. He’s going to be able to talk about anything.