Just before the pandemic walloped the world into submission with the brute force of a Tacko Fall layup rejection, I went to a Celtics home game. January 11, 2020, a 140-105 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Jayson Tatum recorded his then-career-high (41). Enes Kanter scored 22 points and had 19 rebounds, stealing some of the kid’s thunder. Since it was literally the last time I voluntarily stood shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers inside an enclosed space, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Well, not exactly the game itself, nor its specifics. (I had to pull those stats from the contest’s box score.) What I remember was leaving the game with my dad and being hit with compliment after compliment for the jersey I was wearing. I was... confused, to say the least. It was a Jae Crowder jersey; my favorite player.
He hadn’t been on the Celtics in two years at the time of donning, but he was a player who I’d always felt exemplified Celtics basketball in a way that few others from those mid-to-late 2010’s teams did. I dug his style, so I made his uniform an element of mine of this particular night. Looking back on that jersey now, I’m proud to have repped the league’s premier every man/playoff stalwart, even after he’d taken off the green garb.
But no one was complimenting my Jae Crowder jersey. It wasn’t until after I’d gotten back to the hotel, taken it off, and reconsidered its number — 99, pasted on the front and back in big, white blocks — that I realized why the people of Boston had been so kind.
They thought my deep cut of a jersey was an even deeper, even-if more current cut.
Those flocking from the TD Garden saw no. 99, and they thought of Tacko Fall.
See Tacko swim. See Tacko take swim lessons. See Tacko swim again. Honestly, see Tacko do it all (conduct the Boston Pops, or ride his bike around Disney World, or score a goal off a volley, or show us his showerhead).
That Tacko Fall — a 7-foot-5 specimen known more for being the butt of jokes about physical abnormality or enormity — is the center of attention is no shock. What is jarring is how he goes through life as unassuming as he does. But is that ever possible, really? His old college coach, Donnie Jones, told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in 2019 that he was “incredulous” at people in airports inquiring to Fall about “the weather up there” or implying that he belonged in a circus, an assertion they believed to be complimentary. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem all that incredulous to know that there are people wandering through life and believing that their cruelty is sportive.
To passersby, the Tacko Fall Experience isn’t watching an excessively tall basketball player perform the craft he “mastered” in small, bumbling doses. To most, the Tacko Fall Experience is Tacko Fall, in all his glory and joy, for better or worse.
Fall spends most of his time towering over his team’s bench as he and his potential alike wither away at the mercy of cursed, limited playing time. Part of me wonders if in an alternate timeline, Fall hid in the Quantum Realm as Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped away 50-percent of the universe, thus saving Fall but making his return to reality far more difficult to grasp hold of (a la Ant-Man). There’s a better than 50-50 chance that somewhere in the multiverse, Fall is wandering around Upstate Massachusetts, banging on gates and talking to cameras, praying a coach or teammate sitting on the other side will let him in and explain to him just what the hell is going on.
Fall often looks like he doesn’t belong, but consistently, he finds a way to piece a competent output that resembles proficiency at the game he plays professionally. Agility, he lacks, but ability, he has enough; this season, he recorded a season-high six points against the Orlando Magic on January 15, eight rebounds against the New York Knicks in the season finale, and four blocks against the Magic on May 5. In that first game against the Magic, he did this, causing the sun to erupt internally, starting with the core and stretching outward through its rays.
Watch his teammates, who explode along with the sun, leaping over the benches and so evidently beaming behind their masks in celebration of the seismic event Fall has just caused. The roster of professional basketball players capable of eliciting such a reaction after they sink a wide-open jump shot is a skeleton crew, but remember: Fall is an experience. And when something causes an experience to stray even further away from the norm, its reaction warrants inanity.
But really, wherever Fall goes, inanity follows. As MacMullan wrote in 2019:
Some have called Tacko Fall a basketball phenomenon, but that isn’t entirely accurate. He is still learning, not ready to stake a claim in the NBA game. Under the stipulations of his contract, he can play a maximum of only 45 games for the Celtics and will spend most of his time in the G League affiliate in Portland, Maine. His passionate followers should brace themselves for the very real possibility that Fall will play but a handful of NBA minutes this season.
That won’t stop them from dressing up in bulky fast-food costumes to pay homage. It won’t stop men, women and kids, basketball and non-basketball fans alike, to lose their minds when they see him.
In July, when he and teammate Grant Williams stood to leave a Red Sox game, the patrons abandoned their seats and their baseball team to pursue Fall for a picture, an autograph, a handshake. It took him over an hour and a half to leave Fenway; there was no place to hide.
When you’re Tacko Fall, there is never a place to hide.
MacMullan goes on to note how Fall never says no; how even when he’s off the court, he smiles, nods, and agrees to entertain those he’s used to entertaining while he’s on it. But as Grant Williams notes in the same piece, a tone I tend to echo from afar, “I worry about him. People don’t mean any harm, but they need to understand he’s a human being like the rest of us.”
It’s the qualities and ingenuities that turn this human being into an attraction. Forget the fact that he’s a basketball player. Like that matters to anyone.
Serious question: why do I maintain such a pessimistic view on the exposure of someone who oozes such cheer with regularity? Someone who never seems to have any issues with the fact that he plays very little, whose NBA career seems to exist on borrowed time, only for as long as the novelty with which he entered the league persists?
I suppose it’s because I’ve always had a soft spot for the end-of-the-bench dweller, having spent the better part of my teenage years as one. I tried my very best to sit closer to the front of the bench in an effort to be as involved as possible, especially since I was rarely bound to shed my warmup. I waved the same towel every game and often left the gym with a sore arm, as though I had attempted 14 field goals. I was sometimes louder than our point guard, who was naturally as soft-spoken as Tacko Fall seems to be. I was okay in that role; I embraced it tighter than some of my former teammates corralled rebounds. (I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?)
Perhaps Tacko is (and has), too. I wouldn’t know, nor do I have interest in putting words in his mouth. But I have, admittedly, been increasingly fascinated in Fall ever since those fans — of the Celtics and Pelicans, mind you — walked past me congratulating me on an article of clothing I chose to wear that night in freezing cold Boston. Maybe it was just a sense of familiarity for folks around town, those more intimately connected to the presence of Fall than I was at the time, that caused them to associate the number 99 with Fall. Not Crowder, nor Darko Miličić (remember that?) or Roy Rogers — yes, the latter two I understand. But it was always Crowder for me. Was I crazy?
For as long as it took me to decipher why I was getting so much praise for my shirt, it took me a bit longer to unpack why it was that Celtics fans had such an ardent affinity for a player who hardly played, let alone sat on the bench in Boston on a nightly basis. The night I wore “Tacko’s jersey,” he was in Maine, going five of six from the field for 14 points, plus eight rebounds and four blocks for the Red Claws as they defeated the Grand Rapids Drive 100-93. A pedestrian line for such a formidable presence, but impactful enough that people passing by shouted “Yeah, what a game, baby!” and “Killer night for 99.” I felt like I was in a simulation, or at least like I had a sign taped on my back that said, “this idiot hasn’t updated his jersey collection since 2018.”
But when I finally pieced together why the Fall fascination was so powerful, I was surprisingly dispirited, though I understood the conclusion. People love Tacko for the same reason they love the geysers at Yellowstone: it offers them something to look at that looks like nothing else, and when it appears, it’s only for a moment, making it rare and wholly distinctive. Tacko’s spurts of offensive flare and propense relationship with rejection often burst, in fact, exactly like geysers. He stretches sky-high before crashing down with equal bits of grace and fury. But in the end, the experience is limited in its impact, and will likely serve more as a fond, transient memory than a lasting one of actual consequence.
Sure, you may remember that you saw it — remember, when you’re Tacko Fall, there’s no place to hide — but will it keep you coming back?
I had never written about Tacko Fall before today because I didn’t feel I had anything to say about his game. He’s humongous. He makes people smile, whether it’s because he radiates raw happiness or because his otherwise every-day activities like swimming made you chuckle. What else was there to know?
I was missing the point. The Tacko Fall Experience™ has never been about what he can do (or does do) on the court. It’s been about the spectacle of it all — the spectacle of how he looks when he does what he does on the court, and simply how he looks when he’s nowhere near the court. He deserves more than that, no doubt. Will he get it? Time spent in his unique, inescapable spotlight will be the judge.