So before any internet writer is allowed to talk about the basketball failures of an NBA player, he should probably have to start with some disclaimer. We never do, of course, because that’s an understated but nonetheless widely accepted truth of writing about sports: the people who do the writing don’t actually do the sports. Or at least not well enough for anyone to pay money to watch it. So, your writer’s disclaimer: I’ve definitely gone 1-17 before. In pick-up games against out-of-shape, former JV-ers, I’ve gone 1-17. Just shooting around in an empty church gym, with no one guarding me and all the time in the world to set up and shoot, I’ve gone 1-17. A month ago, in a series of five-on-five games with some college friends, I bricked eight straight threes. I’m a terrible basketball player.
Now your turn: You have also gone 1-17. You play on an intramural team at your college and over a three game stretch, you shot 1-17. After the third game, you went back to your apartment, cracked open a gatorade, and thought about how much you suck at basketball while you rehydrated. Well, you do. You suck at basketball. But then you went to sleep, and when you woke up the next morning, you realized you had forgotten to write a paper on a book you halfheartedly skimmed. So you wiki’d the book, maybe re-skimmed a few more pages, and pumped out your paper in a cool 45 minutes. Then you walked to class, turned it in, and felt good for a second. You’ve forgotten that you suck at basketball (which, again, you absolutely do), because at least for now, you’re a student, and you’re pretty good at that.
Well I also suck at basketball, but Gordon Hayward doesn’t. In fact, if he cared and sincerely tried, he’d beat me 11-0 in three straight games. But that doesn’t mean much for Gordon Hayward, NBA player and recent record-setting shot-misser, because on Wednesday, against a middling to mediocre NBA team, Gordon Hayward took 17 shots and missed 16 of them. He went 1-17 just like you and I have many, many times before.
Now I don’t say this to engender in anyone some kind of empathy for Hayward. Just the opposite, actually. We can’t empathize with him, at least not in any direct, specific way, precisely because when Gordon Hayward woke up yesterday morning, he didn’t have a paper to think about, or an upcoming test, or an assignment at work, or the next job application he had to fill out, because Hayward’s job is basketball. He gets paid, more or less, to make shots. And because of the nature of his job, when he misses instead of makes those shots, all kinds of people (like me) see it, and then a specific kind of person (like me, or Rob Mahoney, or David Locke) sits down and writes about it. So when Hayward goes 1-17, he wakes up the next morning and feels like crap. He can’t shake the nightmares of clanking shot after shot, wide-left, wide-right, too long, too short, because they weren’t nightmares. This is his life. He shoots. He misses. Everybody talks about it. (Go play some video games, Gordon. Or go back to bed, and sleep it off, but please, for your own sake, stay away from the internet.)
But just as overstated as the difference between pro athletes and the rest of us is how unnecessary the pity is that we may feel for them. After all, the rest of us go 1-17 free of charge because we think it’s fun and not because it’s our incomprehensibly lucrative livelihood. But that’s just it: we’re so different from Gordon Hayward that even when we think we’re playing the same game on the same ten-foot-high hoop with the same regulation basketball, we are not playing the same game. You and me, we suck at basketball, but Gordon Hayward, at least on Wednesday night, somehow sucked even more than any of us could ever suck. He was horrifyingly bad in a way we can’t even mentally digest. Because of the millions of dollars, and because of the bloggers who write about it, and because of the sports talk radio guys who endlessly blather about it, and most of all because of the paychecks he gets for doing it, a Gordon Hayward 1-17 is unfathomably more spectacular a failure than any of our basketball failures could ever combine to be. Those sixteen misses collectively shine more garishly, like the lights in New Orleans Arena or the ten million LED pixels of ESA’s jumbotron, than could the entirety of all our petty sporting exploits, happening in dimly lit gyms and on cracked asphalt across the country.
Sure those sixteen misses were painful and ugly things to witness, one after another after another, and sure they made me, non-NBA player as I am, feel a little bad when I woke up the next morning. But that he could do it at all? That he could fail that magnificently in the first place? That isn’t good, but It’s definitely not forgettable. And it reminds us that even to be really bad, you have to be pretty great.