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Bernie Sanders, Jayson Tatum’s fifteen free throws, and the myth of momentum

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A season on the brink.

2020 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

So, we beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals and let’s set aside whether or not you think the Lakers or Clippers would make it out of the West. We want the Lakers and LeBron. A Celtics-Lakers matchup this season would be unlike any in recent memory. Today’s teams are a contrast of style and age. The Lakers are big--really big--and a collection of experienced veterans. The upstart Celtics have embraced the modern NBA, small ball, and their youth movement. The rivalry would pit former teammates, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, against the teams that drafted them and renew a decade-old blood feud with LeBron James.

It’s hard to argue that Boston wouldn’t be at least competitive against LA. In January, the Celtics throttled the Lakers 139-107 in the Garden. Five weeks later, they coughed up a late-game lead at Staples and lost 114-112 after a handful of, well, superstar calls went LA’s way. After Jaylen Brown hit a corner three in transition to put Boston up two, Brown was called for a phantom foul with LeBron backing him down in the paint. LeBron would miss second free throw, but the Lakers retained the ball after Anthony Davis was not called for an over-the-back foul on the rebound. To his credit, James would hit a tough fadeaway to take a lead Los Angeles wouldn’t relinquish. It was the perfect microcosm of what the Lakers have and Boston doesn’t: superstars. Not good players or stars. Superstars. Super superstars.

Let’s detour a bit. Last week, Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign, conceding to the now presumptive Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. On Monday, he officially endorsed him. As a progressive voter, it’s a heartbreaking and bitter pill to swallow after two disappointing election cycles. Sanders will now shift his energies to focus on the pandemic. For the last five years, there’s been a narrative at play that pits The Establishment against a more populist agenda. Economist Robert Reich sees this duality replacing the traditional two-party system of American politics. This might be quarantine brain, but I can’t help but see a similar push-and-pull in the NBA.

Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Boston Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images

As fans, we’re fond of distinguishing between players and stars, stars and superstars, and superstars and the absolute elite. The NBA and NBPA have a hand in it, too. The collective bargaining agreement allows teams to allocate up to 35% of their salay cap to max veterans and the size and length of contracts can be influenced by post-season awards like All-NBA distinctions and All-Star appearances.

For the Lakers, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are part of that “establishment” elite and to be fair, it’s not a knock on them. They deserve that recognition, they’re awesome, and they’ve propelled the Lakers to the top of the Western Conference. But at that level, they’re afforded certain advantages: a friendly whistle, favorable media coverage, name recognition, etc. I’m not hating on it. It’s just a reality of sports that recently, I’ve frankly accepted in politics, too.

In that Sunday showcase at Staples, Jayson Tatum shot fifteen free throws in front of a national television audience. That was a career high and a vindication of not only a marked change in his aggressiveness and confidence, but a recognition of his standing in the league. February was an extended coming out party for the three-year pro that included his first All-Star appearance, shootouts with Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell, and C.J. McCollum, and averages of nearly 31 points and eight rebounds per game on 50% shooting.

This season, the Celtics have deftly navigated the minefield that blew up last year’s talented roster. They’ve instead been democratic with the ball and touches, not unlike the primary process that whittled down a field of over two dozen candidates. But in a field of veteran frontrunners and another young star in the spotlight, it’s been Tatum that’s asserted himself as Boston’s #1.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

This was going to be his time and it’s a shame that we didn’t get a chance to see him carry this energy into the playoffs. If you don’t think momentum exists in sports and politics, you’ve never felt the air get immediately sucked out of a baseball stadium after the opposing team hits a 2-2 breaking ball to take the lead in the ninth. When Super Tuesday results started trickling in early March, my reaction was visceral. The enthusiasm that had built up in me over the last five years bled out into a cold numbness. Bernie had missed his opportunity. What seemed like an rally cry growing louder and louder in Iowa, New Hamshire, and Nevada was really just a fading echo harkening back to 2016.

At some point, whether the NBA can salvage the 2019-2020 season or it starts fresh next year, we’ll see the follow up of Tatum Interrupted because for Celtics fans, he has to hit that next level. Deny the hard truth that you need superstars to win championships and you’ll be doomed to the NBA hamster wheel for years. You can draft them, trade for them, and sign them in free agency. Ainge has done all three during this rebuild, but Tatum could be the most important personnel move he’s made in his entire career. And it’s now on Tatum to keep this going.

Fifteen free throws in one relatively meaningless game in February won’t magically translate to duck boats in July. Sanders’ 930+ delegates unfortunately won’t pass Medicare for All, forgive all student debt, or raise a national minimum wage. But they’re hopefully a sign of things to come. For Bernie, this most likely signals the end of his presidential aspirations. However, the movement he spearheaded twenty-five years ago remains as active and vibrant as ever and will influence the platform in November and all Novembers to come.

For Tatum and the Celtics, this is just the beginning, but Sanders’ run, on some cosmic parallel, should serve as a reminder that momentum is a helluva thing. NBA careers can have fits and starts. The legend that Tatum is often compared to, Paul Pierce, was 25 when he went to his first conference finals and it took him six more seasons and another rebuild to get to The Finals. The wave that Tatum was surfing heading into this year’s post-season has already shimmered against the shoreline. He’ll have another shot at it, but this was going to be special.