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Al Horford Has Angel Wings: Identity, Injuries, and Hope in the NBA

February 23, 2012

"We'll be alright once we get _________________ back."

What sports fan hasn't at some point uttered the above statement, whether out of confidence or sheer desperation? The imagination of sports fans exists in a realm of hypotheticals, what ifs, and naive wish fulfillment. Injuries to significant players flatten the playing field, allowing both wealthy and impoverished fans alike to create a parallel universe where, with one crucial addition, anything can happen. It’s the absence of a player that brings them down, and this absence also allows them to imagine the previously unthinkable: that a team whose achievement has grown stagnant can still shatter glass ceilings.

The New York Knicks are experiencing a form of this right now, as they imagine a world where the isolation of Carmelo Anthony returns to the lineup and is able to coexist with the constant movement of Jeremy Lin in some sort of lion lying down with the lamb rapture. While the Knicks are the only team to find a miracle such as Lin this season, they are  not the only team to have a marquee player miss major time due to injury, and they are definitely not the only team that has allowed missed time to ferment into splashes of graffiti on urban gray sidewalks. 

The Atlanta Hawks have been without All-Star Al Horford since January 11th, but it is only in the last week that they have begun to slide in the Playoff seedings. Their level of play has been just good enough to pass Horford’s torn chest muscle off as some sort of a weak talisman. The Hawks are neither particularly young, nor particularly old. They are neither on the rise, nor in distress. In 2005, they finished the NBA season with the League's worst record. Two years later they were the number eight seed in the Eastern Conference and gave the Celtics their toughest series of the postseason. Back then, things seemed limitless. Horford’s injury, in a more modest way, opens up a similar space of creative uncertainty.

Charles Barkley describes today’s Hawks as a collection of great role players. For that reason, the Atlanta Hawks have maxed out on all the good emotions that a rise from the League's basement to regularly finishing fourth or fifth, even as high as third, in the regular season can give birth to. That’s why Al Horford's injury is the best worse thing that could ever happen to a team like this; a team that by its very nature can't go anywhere other than where it already is. Seeing Al Horford on the sidelines in a sports coat allows Atlanta fans and their team to draw angel blue wings out of the center's shoulder blades and prop the cage door open, but the problem is, even if that cage is left open, just like in a Vonnegut book, these Hawks won't fly--they'll just flap their wings like they always do.

The ethereal hunt to make good on a season’s promise confronts more than just teams who have never been to the mountain top, and such is the case with the San Antonio Spurs, whose Sphinx’s riddle combination of youth and old age makes them a unique hybrid of infantile enthusiasm and decrepit old age, but the Spurs do not belong in a conversation about potential and expectations simply because they possess a bit of youth on their roster--no, the reason the Spurs belong in the discussion is because they have always made a habit of resurrecting their championship dreams with rebuilt rosters, diamonds in the rough, and foreign assassins. For a team that has never before found their efforts to be so consistently benign, as say the Atlanta Hawks, in achieving their end goals, the Spurs are finally coming to terms with the limitations that define most franchises and the fact that  their jersey alone does not make every role player into a Stephen Jackson. At times, potential is as much about what a team can’t do as what it can do, and San Antonio was set to learn this lesson prior to Manu Ginobili’s injury.

But his broken hand, while on the surface yet another reason to doubt, actually gives them new hope for the season. Manu is his own precedent here; two years ago it was his ankle and last season it was his elbow that thwarted the team's quest for a fifth title. And while some may write off such reasoning as an avalanche of excuses, what's really taking place is that rational fans, coaches, and athletes are looking for ways to deny the devestating erosion of their team's potential, to buy into the idea that those initial stages of continued growth can occur again by first taking steps backward.

Early on in the absence of Ginobili, Gregg Popovich picked up his intensity, the team responded, and he was left praising players such as former UNC standout Danny Green and rookie Kawhi Leonard. So, while Ginobili’s thirty-eight day absence served as a constant reminder of just how fragile the San Antonio landscape has become, the team was simultaneously given a chance to celebrate the development of the young role players who helped keep a sinking ship afloat. However, these small victories against time’s war of attrition do not guarantee that San Antonio will ever recover any of its old championship magic, just as the valiant efforts of the Hawks in Horford's absence do not guarantee that Atlanta will ever win its ongoing battle against Playoff mediocrity. But that does not render such victories meaningless. On their own, these small achievements ward off the complacency and frustration that settle over a city when its team is believed to have plateaued. When the normal cogs in the machinery are tossed out or broken, fanbases are forced into surrendering expectations, but when a team manages to then surpass even the lowliest of goals, a miracle is perceived; and these conquests make way for the belief that anything is still possible. And that initial spark between a team on the rise and a hungry fanbase is slowly rekindled one toughed out game at a time. 

Sometimes, though, loss is more than just a rallying cry but an identity. The same Memphis Grizzlies team that dispatched the number one seeded Spurs last season has been carrying on without their stalwart, Zach Randolph, who in last year's postseason proved definitively that he is the League's most unique combination of brute strength and raw precision. As if the tradition of defeat were a body to be hunted, killed, and devoured, he left the blues gutted on the Memphis sidewalk; his vendetta against his own past intertwined with that of the franchise's and the city's.

And while some teams would not survive the prolonged absence of their team's heart and soul, the Memphis Grizzlies are doing what a team such as the 1997 San Antonio Spurs without David Robinson could not do but the 1998 Orlando Magic without Penny Hardaway could: they are persevering, bonding together, becoming stronger, and not drifting into melancholy. Perhaps their ability to do so comes from their own experience: last year their rumble through the postseason came without forward Rudy Gay, who is now doing for the team what Zach Randolph once did, raging against all the trade rumors, doubts, and time lost to injury. Or maybe the Grizz define themselves by a mantra that is much less passive than the "We'll be alright once we get Zach back."

Early on in January, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, when asked about Randolph’s injury, bluntly stated, “That’s life. . . . We can’t worry about what ifs and what we should do to get him back. This is where we are.” This man is not an optimist and much too dire in his outlook to be a straight realist. No, Lionel Hollins is a natural born survivor; a man who finds himself at home in Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat,” not even bothering to bail water out of the shoddy hull but stubbornly rowing for shore nonetheless, and when that proves futile, he will surely dive into the ocean and swim against the ambivalent current.  

The earnest depravity of the Memphis Grizzlies offers a stark contrast to the illusion of flight that is the Atlanta Hawks on a nightly basis. Because of how physical the Grizz are, the idea that they must struggle seems inevitable, as if injury is a part of the plan when they take the floor. On the other hand, the Hawks have always been about mistaken identity: the face of ownership is constantly changing, Marvin Williams was taken over Chris Paul, they overpaid for Joe Johnson, and Josh Smith has always refused to be a true power forward. While the Grizz are their pain, the Hawks risk being viewed as impostors, that at some point their lack of identity will catch up with them, that they can’t play this bruised and battered role forever.

For some teams, this examination of will lasts even longer than a few weeks or even a season. This kind of hamster's wheel illusion of judging success by working nonstop to maintain the status quo, when the entire world believes disaster is only a few games away, is what has come to define both the Houston Rockets of the last decade and the entire existence of the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Rockets have written an Oddyssey's worth of poetic verse on how to band together and survive in the absence of their king, sometimes played by Yao Ming and at other times by Tracy McGrady. In fact, it was in 2008 that this team became pure duct tape and won twenty-two straight games, the second longest streak all-time, without Yao Ming. And a year later, in the Playoffs, against the reigning Western Conference champion Lakers, the Rockets echoed the resiliency of their streak by pushing L.A. to seven games despite the loss of their center, once again, in Game 3 of the series, which makes one wonder if the loss of a star player can serve as a crucible for those players believed to be of a lesser value than the stars they play beside, offering them a chance at validating, as both a team and individuals, their own rectitude. And, in some ways, perhaps even this year’s Rockets are hustling hard for the mythical day on which their giant center might return.

Meanwhile, the Portland Trailblazers have every excuse under the sun to have their history parallel that of the L.A. Clippers, but the ashes of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Ronnie Lester, Greg Oden, and Brandon Roy appear to be of more use to soldiers stranded behind enemy lines than the torn ligaments of Danny Manning, Shaun Livingston, and Elton Brand. Whether due to locker room chemistry, talent, or fate, not every team or franchise is stubborn enough to rebound from hardship, however brief or enduring. The Blazers and the Rockets have persevered, and are persevering, because they view fate as a challenge rather than a death sentence, but no matter what they were able to accomplish without their big names, the absence of such names created great, big roaring chimeras of what might have been, and perhaps the increased tempo of this year’s Blazers has as much to do with the addition of Ray Felton as it does with chasing down the phantasms and ghosts of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, that in some parallel universe are still running game.

These teams may not win championships. Some of them may not even reach the Playoffs, but there is courage to be found in their desperate flailings. Like teenagers scorned by heartbreak, they stand outside our windows holding radios over their heads that demand we hear them out, let the song run its course, and not write them off until they are done with romantic gestures. And while the songs they’re playing are not quite the same, their motives for playing them are.

Just a half decade ago, the Washington Wizards were a team that felt headed to somewhere, and somewhere can be a lot of places. For Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, somewhere was always the Finals, until a few years ago, and then somewhere relocated to the second round. For the Atlanta Hawks, somewhere has always been and always will be the second round. For Memphis and the Knicks, no one knows yet. And that’s the beauty of somewhere--until you get there, you have no clue where it is. You live in an unending moment of anticipation. And that’s where Washington Wizard basketball existed before guns and knee injuries, before Gilbert Arenas unraveled. But, before anyone in Washington was willing to admit that Agent Zero no longer existed, the 2008 season unfolded. And despite having its best player suit up for an unlucky number of games, the Wizards still made the Playoffs behind the play of Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, which was nothing new--the accomplishment capped off a run of four straight postseasons, all but one ending in the first round; the two most exciting runs coincidentally being the first one, because it whet the appetite, and the last one with Gilbert coming  off the bench, because it spoke to the quality of the whole and had everyone in the District thinking, “Wait until Gilbert’s back--healthy.”

The wait lasted until March of 2009, and the Wizards went 19-63; somewhere was in the first round; but no one knew it at the time, and, for the record, didn’t want to--because knowing would have tamed the wild fantasies that keep entire cities, states, and fanbases hungry and enthralled; filling in the blanks of their despair with whatever name can carry the burden of a season’s hindered hope.

**The credit for the Al Horford and Zach Randolph images goes to Langston, and much of the drafting process was aided by Nathaniel Friedman.

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.


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