Saturday, November 5, 2011

An open letter to the NBA regarding my son's relationship with a man in a wolf suit

I’m a big fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves. I know I don’t have to tell you that this is not the easiest thing to be. At its very pinnacle, Timberwolves fandom meant rooting for Latrell Spreewell and Rasho Nesterovic, and nobody really wants to do that. Yet there I am every November, huddled in front of my TV, feverishly deluding myself that maybe this will be the year that the Wolves climb back to the NBA’s lower-middle echelons.

I’ve been especially excited about the 2011-12 season, which looked to be Minnesota’s strongest shot in nearly a decade. They were all lined up with a Hall of Fame coach, an insanely talented lineup of young ballers and even a grizzled old center who might teach the kids a thing or two. Needless to say, the increasing likelihood that there will be no NBA season this year has me crestfallen.

But I’m not writing this letter on behalf of myself. I’m writing it on behalf of my son Selby. Selby will be turning two this December. He’s at a stage in life where he is soaking up knowledge at an alarming rate and developing the earliest vestiges of personal taste. He already has favorite toys, favorite foods and even a favorite album (Paul McCartney’s McCartney, oddly enough). He hasn’t chosen a favorite team or sport yet, but that’s not for a lack of effort on my part. The very first item of clothing he owned was a Minnesota Timberwolves sleeper that my wife and I purchased months before he was even conceived. He’s been attending games at Target Center in his tiny little Kevin Love jersey since he could just barely hold his head up (not to mention all of his in utero visits). And, of course, he loves Crunch.

Crunch, if you don’t know, is the longtime mascot of the Minnesota Timberwolves, an energetic, man-sized wolf who engages in all the capering and crowd-pumping one expects from a professional-grade mascot. I’m a big fan. I’ve sat through many a dreary fourth quarter where Crunch is the only thing in the arena worth watching.

Selby has had a Crunch hand puppet and bobblehead among his playthings since he was very small. He’s even met the wolf himself on a couple of occasions. He was too young at the time to remember those encounters, but he recently unearthed an autographed poster from last year’s big “Crunch’s Birthday” celebration (always my favorite game of the year). His fascination with the array of mascots pictured on the poster led to me showing him some YouTube clips of Crunch in action, which in turn led to a number of crying fits when I wouldn’t let him watch Crunch videos for hours on end.

This was to be the season when Selby really got to know Crunch. I couldn’t wait to take him to his first game of the year and watch his face during the first break in play when he realized, “Hey! That’s the guy from the poster!” I was going to take him to team events, let him swap high-fives with a giant wolf, snap another picture for his ongoing Crunch yearbook. Heck, that’s half the reason teams even have mascots these days, right? As a way to bond with/market to a demographic too young to maintain focus on a full four quarters of basketball? And Crunch was just the first step. I wanted to have the boy saying “Lazar Hayward” by mid-March. I hoped the sight of Nikola Pekovic on the TV screen would produce near-Big Bird levels of enthusiasm.

I mean, come on, NBA – I’ve been doing your job for you! This was a potential lifelong customer who would have required no additional indoctrination on your part. But you went and squandered that on a multi-billion dollar game of chicken. Look, I can’t claim to know all the specifics of the lockout. My gut (and virtually everything I’ve read about the situation) tells me the blame lies primarily with the owners, but the result is the same either way. If this season doesn’t happen, as it looks like it won’t, that’s a huge year of bonding over basketball that my son and I will never have. As much as I was looking forward to that, it’s not like Selby and I are hurting for things over which to bond. We’ll be just fine. I’m not sure, however, what this will do to Selby’s relationship with you.

The general mindset amongst NBA higher-ups seems to be, “There’s always next year.” True enough, but there's still this year. And this year matters. Even if this season disappears into the ether, I’m sure I’ll be back as a Timberwolves fan before too long. But I don’t know if I’ll be back with the same passion I’ve maintained up until now, or how eager I’ll be to pass that passion on to my son.

Look, I know that this whole situation is overblown in the grand scheme of things. A few dozen billionaires fighting a few hundred millionaires over a ball game is downright frivolous in contrast to most of what’s going on in the world at any given time. But on a personal level, this hurts, probably a lot more than it should. If you shut down the NBA now, you’re denying my son entry to a world I dreamed of sharing with him long before he physically existed. You’re denying him the pitiful passion of Minnesota Timberwolves fandom. You’re denying him Crunch.

I mean, who are we supposed to bond over now? Goldy friggin' Gopher?

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