Zen And The Art Of Fantasy Basketball Maintenance

A lesson in learning to love The Beard from the biggest worst Nets fan

It all started with a fourth place draft pick. For whatever reason, even though he was top ranked by the algorithm, James Harden was still available. As a first time fantasy basketball player, naturally I swooped him up.

I often refer to myself as the “biggest worst Nets fan.” Despite a nearly decade long love affair with the team (and a wardrobe decked with their gear), my pre-pandemic life left little time to catch games on the reg. In normal times, my evening event shoots and busy social life conflict with the NBA schedule.

While I already lived a more isolated life then I’d like (being a freelance photographer can be incredibly lonely), the pandemic took that to the extreme. After a very challenging holiday season alone (my family had an interesting take on the CDC guidelines and testing), I knew I needed some human connection (albeit through digital communications) and a hobby to get through the winter. “I should join a fantasy basketball league!”

Although I’m pragmatic (and often skeptical), at heart I’m an optimist. I have tried my best to find the positives during these dark days, as hard as that is. “Well, at least I can watch all the Nets games this year, Kyrie and KD are back, it will be a great season.”

Like the new kid at school looking for a lunch table, finding a league wasn’t as easy or welcoming as I’d hoped. Basically a lot of “you can’t sit here” a la Forrest Gump vibes going on. This is harder than getting a table at Lilia! In a true millennial “feeling my feelings” moment, I turned to instagram and half jokingly posted this: “I have never felt more rejected than trying to join a fantasy basketball league.”

I have never felt more rejected than trying to join a fantasy basketball league.

An act of saving grace soon followed, my friend Will saw my very public display of desperation and generously offered to start a league with me. Between the two of us, we were able to form a group of ragtag sports fan misfits, mostly graduates of NYC art based colleges that lacked athletics and campus life.

Which brings me back to my first draft pick, James Harden. Within a few weeks of basketball season in play, it was clear why he wasn’t scooped up. Harden was visibly unhappy with his team and it was known he was looking to be traded. He wasn’t playing well and threw a basketball at his teammate. He was breaking covid protocols. My first pick was turning out to be more of a nightmare than a fantasy! I was stuck with him and his bad attitude.

On January 14, a few weeks into the season, I woke up and checked my phone. Usually, other than some spam texts to a woman called Neylah who apparently loves CBD products, there isn’t much going on in the morning. Today, my phone was blowing up. Had I heard the news? My nightmare number one fantasy pick is now coming to Brooklyn to join my team, the Nets.

“He better not throw a ball at the NBA’s ultimate team player, Joe Harris!” I thought to myself. In addition to the shake up Caris LaVert, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen got traded in his place, three players I love.

Now a fan who watches all games due to pandemic life, my disdain towards Harden def came with sharp criticism. Any miss, “fucking Harden.” Taking up a lot of minutes—ball hog. To say I didn’t warm up to him right away is an understatement.

As time went on, in true New Yorker fashion, I began to soften up to my top player. He appears much happier at his new home, and treating his new teammates with respect (he better be!). We share similar fashion choices—seriously I had worn almost this exact outfit once. Do I agree with his past behavior? Definitely not, but if he still has a bad attitude, I haven’t seen it. And of course, his playing massively improved since those first rocky weeks with the Rockets.

This year has been all about adapting to life in crisis. I rose to the painful challenge of isolation and created a strict daily routine. I barely drank alcohol, woke up three hours earlier, started working out in my tiny apt. I’ve left behind relationships that weren’t working, made new ones that lift me up. I walked five miles a day and stayed loyal to my transcendental meditation practice. I’ve embraced the art of radical acceptance – becoming more at peace with my life overall and letting go of any unhealthy attachments I have to it.

Fantasy basketball came to me at what was personally the loneliest and hardest point of the pandemic, and quite frankly, my life. It got me through the winter, gave me a new community to connect with. Maintaining my daily lineup has become its own form of a zen ritual.

Today, I opened my first pack of digital NBA Top Shot cards. I click the last of three mystery squares and immediately start laughing. Who other than The Beard pops up, forever scoring against the Bucks on loop in the NFT metaverse. His first “moments” highlight with the Nets, nonetheless. What are the odds? If the universe sends peoples signs, I wonder what this one is. I guess it’s meant to be.

Thank you to my main fantasy players Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Joe Harris, Pascal Siakam and of course, James Harden. You’ll be seeing him at the finals, no doubt.

photo: Victoria Stevens
Laura June Kirsch is a frequent Whalebone contributor and one jersey number away from “Fucking Harden.” Her first monograph, Romantic Lowlife Fantasies: Emerging Adults in the Age of Hope is available now from Hat and Beard Press.