I once got stuck in an airport for an extra twenty minutes that felt like several days. I had been home for a long weekend, visiting with a few friends who had stayed townie, hitting up old haunts with diminishing returns, driving out to the mall just to have somewhere to drive to, and remembering I hate the mall, and remembering I can’t smuggle a six-pack of Schlitz into Don Jon because I have to drive back, and driving back. I go home only under a vaguely Catholic sense of obligation, and because I think that I will find living memories of people who have long since moved away. The stupidity of this strikes me fully only after the plane touches down, and then I’m emotionally hungover and racked by a sense of loss for a few days, before another plane takes me back to Chicago, the city in which my life actually exists.
So I’m in the airport and anxious to leave. I press my phone’s screen against the TSA boarding pass scanner thing and it makes a dissatisfied beep. I give it another go, and it rejects me again. Syracuse’s Hancock International is a small airport, the kind of place where the TSA agents aren’t trying to corral thousands of enervated travelers and are more pleasant for it. There’s no one standing behind me, in fact, so I have time to puzzle over what’s wrong here. The guy at the security checkpoint is kind, but unhelpful. I apologize and say I’ll go down to the check-in desk, see if they can help. But the desk is swamped with seemingly nothing but Mormon-sized families checking several walk-in closets’ worth of bags. The automated check-in kiosks, for people who don’t travel with half their homes packed into rollaway luggage, are down. I sit in the creeping line for a while, knowing that at this rate, I’m going to miss my flight. I really, really don’t want to be stuck in central New York, even for a few more hours. I want to lie on my couch and feel like I’m somewhere I belong.
I take a closer look at my phone. The boarding pass on my wallet app is for today’s date, for the Syracuse to Chicago flight leaving at 10:15… two years ago. I fix the problem with a few taps and swipes, and when I get back to my friendly TSA agent, the boarding pass scanner thing lets me through. He asks what the problem was. “Just me being an idiot, man.”
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I don’t like disregarding NBA franchises out of hand, at least not the ones everyone else habitually dumps on. (Calling the Celtics overrated tryhards, without explanation, remains thrilling.) But the Orlando Magic don’t seem entirely real. It’s perhaps that they exist in a small central Floridian city built around a theme park, are curiously named after a quality that theme park’s parent company evokes, and despite employing Shaq, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, and Dwight Howard, have been mostly irrelevant throughout their relatively brief NBA existence. They’ve also been lousy for going on seven seasons now.
There’s this sense around the league, on the rare occasion that the New York Knicks are good, that a glorious state of nature has been achieved. You can grumble about this pretty justifiably, because, like, why do the Knicks deserve success more than any other franchise? They obviously don’t, but markets and history and iconography have deep meaning in ways that are hard to pin down. Orlando is an NBA backwater, fairly or otherwise.
And we feel sympathy for anyone trapped in a backwater for too long. Aaron Gordon is entering his fifth season with the Magic, and like with Victor Oladipo before him, we’re not sure what he is, despite having spent quite a bit of time with him. This ill-defined quality is the product of a botched rebuild. Gordon, we can say with some confidence, probably won’t ever break out the way Oladipo did for the Pacers last season, but he’s also never had a good coach, or a point guard who could feed him easy buckets. He’s played too many games (read: any) out of position, at small forward. He is, if not immensely talented, then in possession of an interesting combination of gifts. He’s strong and quick and has a better handle than you’d expect, given his bulky frame. He’s improving as a shooter. He can make plays for others when he puts his mind to it. You get the feeling the Spurs would figure out how to realize his potential. So far, the Magic haven’t come close.
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I often wonder if NBA players feel trapped. The Magic are set up to have yet another bad-to-mediocre season. Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, and Gordon compose a young core that’s absurdly athletic but offensively limited. Perhaps they’ll take a step forward under Steve Clifford and a new front office, but they’re certainly not going to soar. It’s not all bad; Gordon’s going to make $21.5 million next year. But you want to make something of yourself, not just money, and Gordon hasn’t done anything yet. Basketball being a team game and his teams being among the worst in the league every season he’s been in Orlando, that’s been too big of an ask for him.
Eric Bledsoe’s Suns-admonishing “I Don’t wanna be here” tweet was heroic, in its way, even though his lame excuse he offered afterwards was the opposite. We rarely see professional athletes admit that they’re having bad time, that they hate their bosses and wish their teammates were better, that they want to get on a plane right flipping now and never come back. So they can feel like themselves again.
Making it work where you are is an admirable feat. Coming to terms with your situation, finding ways to improve yourself with whatever’s at hand, etc. But there is also the overwhelming sense of Get Me The Hell Out Of Here, and the pleasure in Getting The Hell Out Of There. I landed at O’Hare, stepped off the plane, and I wanted to scream, it felt so good. Your surroundings matter, maybe too much. But there is something to be said for escaping them.