Fear and Loathing in the Playoff Race

This is a work of 100% fiction.

From: Lionel Mandrake, Editor

To: Edit Control; Main

Subject: Emergence of Rollin J. Mason from the road trip - Eastern seabord, USA and Ontario, Canada

Editor's note: Mason has been indisposed of late, citing road exhaustion and prolonged writer's block. Following is a transcript received in the early morning hours of March 15, 2014. Relayed in full. Rush to publishing.

If I had known the nature of the beast I was dealing with I would've stayed home and enjoyed the winter sun in Arizona. Back in July, Sarver needed someone to travel with the team in full and provide a contrasting account to allegations of angling for draft position. Things had bottomed out to unmistakable levels and the responsible parties were about to be cooked, if they weren't already.

The press were losing their damn minds over the 2014 draft and were leaping to absurd conclusions that all the have-nots in the league were conspiring to field teams full of patsy loser freaks in efforts to turn the odds against the house. They referred to this, with much gusto, as 'tanking'. It didn't register with any of them that the 2014 draft wasn't half as important to anyone else as it was to the press themselves, and even if it did, it wouldn't have mattered. The fluff stories were being churned out with extreme prejudice. Regimes were being accused of tanking the same way accusations of communism were fired off during the age of McCarthyism.

Sarver, always battling his partly-undeserved snake-oil salesman image, had, in a long-awaited moment of clarity, separated his heart from his head and his head from his ass by hiring the wunderkind McDonough from Boston to mop up the ghastly shit spillage from the Blanks regime.

McDonough and his own brilliant hire, Hornacek, exuded more charisma whilst trimming their nosehairs than did Sarver and Blanks combined every time they tried to explain away the ineptitude of their capsizing franchise. McDonough and Hornacek were here to put action behind the lip-service of throwaway terms like "winning culture", even if it wouldn't happen overnight.

I should've never answered the goddamn phone, but stagnation was starting to dig it's way into the base of my spine and I had some unfortunate debt to answer for. Sarver was on the other line, and immediately I resolved that he was more human than the press would have you believe. For some reason, separating his voice from his face did wonders for his charisma.

He relayed the score to me. 'Travel with the team, report back the progress, emphasize the goals of McDonough and especially Hornacek. Make it clear that this team is playing to compete and win.'

'So they're not tanking.'


'Won't the winning speak for itself?'

Long pause, and then 'There won't be much winning. At least not right away.'

Ah, there's the rub. He needed an outside correspondent to publish an account of how the culture here is pure and competitive, even as the losses inevitably piled up. Season ticket holders, what few there were left, hung in the balance.

'November to April,' he told me. 'All expenses paid, base salary, and we'll forgive your debt.'

Easy enough. No more questions for me.

The damndest things started happening after that. By the time of last night's game in Boston I had had to keep up for months with the most bizarre season in years, maybe ever. What was supposed to be a six month fuckaround of drinking free booze and narrating on the nobility the team showed in their failure ended up being a junkie hellride. Living on postgame spreads in the pressroom, hotel minibars, a healthy supply of adderall and the remnants of the stash I hid for Beasley last year that he never reclaimed, I sloughed along with a team that against all odds had found themselves in playoff position the whole damn time up until a few days ago.

The NBA is hopelessly tilted towards the elite, and although the merciful retirement of the death slug David Stern ostensibly offered a glimmer of hope, it still was nowhere near removing itself from it's Orwellian prophecy of dividing true success strictly among the marketable teams, even with Popovich and Cuban striking a few huge blows here and there. The winners would always be winners. But here was a Phoenix Suns team that began an inconceivable crusade to expose every twitter pundit and turn the whole goddamn system in disarray, and until recently it looked like they just might pull of something truly incredible.

I wasn't the only one feeling the crushing exhaustion these days. After another tough loss I convinced Hornacek to step away from the video room for an hour and offered him a drink. We sat in the bar and attempted to forget about our basketball addiction for a spell, but our efforts were futile. When we spoke of heroism we were obviously talking about Dragic. When the conversation shifted to unfair criticism, it was actually Channing Frye we were discussing. We were too far in to let anything else enter into our peripheral.

As I picked up on the fatigue in his voice and gestures, I realized: Great God, Hornacek and I are in the exact same boat. He didn't know what the hell he was getting into either. November and December were sheer jubilance - an adrenaline high that had us all feeling aces, from the players right on down. We were sticking a great damn monkey wrench into the intestines of the very machine that separated the chaff.

Watching the pigs squirm in their suits and scramble to explain the whole thing was beautiful. It was like opium.

Goddammit if we weren't reminded of how many games 82 actually is. The return of Bledsoe was supposed to be the last nail in the coffin of all our fears and doubts, but as we sat in the bar and stared ahead it was that same fear and doubt that perched itself on our tired shoulders.

Our travels have taken us to Boston tonight. An unsightly display it was against the Celtics, who are the exact kind of team I thought I'd be covering back in July. The Suns somehow dragged themselves to victory, but it looked more like a gastrointestinal procedure than a basketball game. Postgame now, and I'm looking for someone to convince me that they knew they were going to win this game the whole time. As I talk to a slumped over Dragic I feel an urge to unplug him from the machine of the playoff race out of sheer mercy. He's tossed himself into the fray every damn night since Bledsoe has been injured and now as he sits in front of me I wonder how aware he is that Bledsoe will make substantially more money than him starting next season. Paging Dr. Kevorkian.

He gives me the usual lip service about staying alive (which seems frighteningly literal, given the circumstances), and I don't expect anything more from him than that. Truth be told I feel bad for bothering him.

The Morris twins are busy arguing with each other over which tattoo to get next, so I move on to PJ Tucker. Ahh ... here it is. The spirit I've been looking for. If there's anyone in this room to will these guys into extending their season, it's Tucker. He talks to me about winning, about how they aren't done by damn sight, and I believe every word he says. I'm fairly certain that he has killed a man at some point in his life.

I'm not sure if there is an opposite condition from the 'thousand-yard stare' but if there is then Tucker has it. He can only see what is directly in front of him, and he seems to fixate on it until it pisses itself in fear.

Early morning now ... and the next stop is Toronto. This is where I get off. I have one more phone call to make. It will be to Sarver, to let him know that I am no longer needed and his franchise is in good hands. Their hard work and dedication will speak for itself. More importantly, there is only another month or so of good afternoon weather left in Arizona and I must return before I hurl myself out of this hotel window onto the pavement 29 stories below.

Something in me still believes that these Suns are going to do something amazing in the next month, but I need about a week of sleep before I can get back on track. One thing is certain: if Sarver doesn't need me anymore, then the players and Hornacek damn sure don't need me anymore. I will be returning with a debt paid in full and a story that will need some time in the decompression chamber before it can be relayed with any coherence. Goodbye, rotten weather.

RJM, 3.15.14

Boston, MA

As you can see, Mr. Mason has effectively tendered his resignation as the Phoenix Suns' unofficial anti-tanking correspondent. Mr. Mason would like to extend his gratitude for the fruitful experience it as been, and he trusts that you are satisfied with the level of professionalism he has showed and that his work has indeed been brought to an agreeable conclusion. He would also like to apologize for the damage to the room in Indianapolis. Things got a bit exciting that night.

- Lionel Mandrake, editor

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