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David Roth's Weak In Review: Not-Knowing, Hope, And Kristaps Porzingis

The NBA Draft was, as usual, both a celebration of possibility and a carnival of bullshit. At the end of a weirdly, wildly hopeful week, focus on the first part.

by David Roth
Jun 27 2015, 12:49pm

Illustration by Henry Kaye

There is a plush, exquisite comfort that comes with not knowing what the hell you're talking about. It is the one luxury that every person can afford, and even more popular in these United States than such traditional favorites as prescription painkillers and transfats. It's cheaper than either, for one thing, and it is also much easier to get. There is no need to rustle through an elderly relative's medicine cabinet or deal with the defeated, wearing-pajamas-out-of-the-house doomvibes of the average Taco Bell. Simply do nothing, and a lifetime supply of stainless certainty is deposited into your account. Leave it alone and the magic of compound interest guarantees that your balance will only grow and grow.

It's a fragile comfort, admittedly. It's only possible to feel the satisfaction that comes with sincerely bullshit beliefs if you truly believe in those sincerely bullshit things, and in order to sustain that they must not be disturbed by anything inconvenient or true. But, by these standards, when Stephen A. Smith went on ESPN late Thursday night—even though he was on vacation, he noted—to make sounds related to the NBA Draft, he did so as a very rich man.

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Stephen A. Smith was upset, or pretending to be upset, or more likely at the honking gridlocked intersection of the two where he spends most of his time. He was, as a "native New Yorker," upset about the team's selection of Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick of the NBA Draft. This was not a strange pick, really, and choosing a gangly Latvian teenager with the fourth pick of the NBA Draft is not appreciably riskier than entrusting any teenager, of any nationality or body type, with any type of responsibility. That is, it's crazily risky, but also the way that the NBA Draft goes.

The consensus among people who have seen him play basketball is that Kristaps Porzingis could be a big, franchise-changing star. He also might not be. Stephen A. Smith surely does not know a blessed thing about it, which doubtless made it easier for him to conclude that Knicks fans "have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, and run amok" by Phil Jackson. If you are going to paraphrase Malcolm Fucking X in the process of complaining that your favorite basketball team took the wrong tall guy born in 1995—and Stephen A. Smith is very much going to do that—you need first not to know how ridiculous a thing that is to do. Lock that part down and you can say anything. That happens to be Stephen A. Smith's job.

When you see your main dude and put you hand in his, and also he is the Dean from "Community." — Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

We don't know enough about Kristaps Porzingis to say much about him, and we know enough about Stephen A. Smith to know that there's nothing much worth talking about, there, either. There was something beguiling about how effortlessly Smith, doing his stupid job, delivered that meticulously enunciated polysyllabic boo. The bullshit that powers draft week—the poses of deeply sourced certainty, and the straight-faced pseudoscience and flubby humping away at various defective buzzwords—is not like that. It's nervous and effortful and insistent, it's sleep-deprived and clammy-palmed, and it's that way because every ostensible expert knows, at some level, that he does not really know what he's talking about.

The last hour of the NBA Draft telecast is a delight for specifically this reason. The pretenses of the first round gives way to slap-happiness and finally to honesty, as some exhausted analyst struggles to describe the towering Turkish teenager that the Spurs just drafted. Said teenager has never been photographed, and the only available scouting reports are really more, like...I guess you would describe them as folk songs, mostly. At some point, the performance of savvy is just not sustainable anymore; there is no sense in projecting knowingness when all that towering not-knowing is so plain to see. This is the moment when everyone laughs. It's a relief.

This is not defeat. To not know something and own that not-knowingness is a very specific and specifically adult type of victory. To live in a world that is larger and less orderly than we know—that is, this one—is to be humbled by it, and to be reminded constantly that we not only do not have the necessary answers, but have only a faint sense of the questions. There are two ways to go, broadly, upon realizing this. One is to retreat into the airless perfection of individuated bullshit, to shelter in place with the hand-picked factoids and rhetoric and hopeful lies that will be necessary to sustain a person during a life spent underground, or on Facebook. The other is the opposite, to step into the harsh elements, like an idiot, in the hope of learning something. The first way offers the comfort of always believing that you're right, and the satisfaction of knowing that every single thing really is about you, and what you believe it to be about. The second offers the possibility of actual wisdom, which is a satisfaction I personally know nothing about.

There is a good deal more hope at this week's end than usual, although it's the sort of fragile hope that we get from Supreme Court decisions. This is not just about the court's decision to fully sanctify the institution of marriage by making it more inclusive and just, or to reject a risible semantic challenge to the imperfect, multiply compromised, absolutely essential Affordable Care Act. Neither is it the sudden, past-due willingness to confront the poisonous sentimentality behind the Confederate flag in the wake of the horror visited upon Charleston's Mother Emmanuel by a murderer who took the beliefs behind that flag all too seriously. There is, in all of it, a sense of forward motion. After all this time spent in noisy, heated, extra-busy stasis, it feels both good and hopeful to be moving at all.

But all hope is fragile, or maybe it's more honest to say that all hope is wild and possessed of a will we can't know, and that we hold it so tightly precisely because we know how little control we have over it. It feels, in a way that is amplified by Friday sunshine but surely not solely a result of it, that we are at the edge of something—that, after the horror of recent weeks, we are perhaps ready to examine some things that we have long avoided examining, to think and speak honestly about what we might do to make things better for each other. This is not just about a judicial ruling breaking one way or another, or a flag maybe coming down; if it's going to last, or mean anything, this moment cannot only be about those specific things.

That is not a warning anyone needs, really. We know all that, and can identify these triumphs as monuments on a very long road. The victories of this week are the result of divergent but essentially parallel campaigns aimed at making the same ancient and radical point, which is that no life should be worth more than any other, and that the love and suffering of other people is as real and meaningful as yours, and that there are responsibilities that come with acknowledging that. That work is not done, and not even really begun in earnest.We do not know where any of this is going, or if we are really ready to look at the world differently, acknowledge our obligations to each other, and start the work that will be required if we are to honor those obligations. Of course we don't know. Let's start with that.