Something I didn’t know much about before my daughter was born two years ago was that, though it’s less common than it is among women, postpartum depression is also something that happens to men. And when I say I didn’t know “much,” what I mean is that I didn’t know anything at all. I was a great reader during my wife’s pregnancy. She laughs to this day about all the broad, philosophical texts on parenting I devoured. (I was particularly fond of an essay collection by the Italian neo-realist Natalia Ginzburg.) In pregnancy, as in so much else in my life, I was focused on the broad strokes, the pictures a thousand miles in the sky. The concrete realities on the ground, the little details that make up a real life, passed me by.
Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to find myself so depressed for long stretches during my daughter’s first year. I hadn’t thought about the idea that it was possible, let alone likely. I knew enough to look out for the signs of postpartum depression, just not in myself. And then it hit, and there I was, and all the musings of an anti-fascist Italian raising her children in exile during the Second World War weren’t helping me at all.
For weeks at a time that year, my head and my heart felt weighed down beneath a blanket full of wet sand. I couldn’t make myself care about so many things — work, friends, what I ate or what I looked like. (For the record, I looked hairy, puffy and incredibly sad.) At night, I would lie in bed exhausted. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t relax. But when I really couldn’t sleep, after a late-night feeding or a crying jag, when my mind wouldn’t slow down, there was one incredibly trivial thing that helped: thinking about basketball. It sounds dumb. But it worked. I would tease out lineups, going through guards and bigs, figuring out combinations that in my mind at least could beat Cleveland or even Golden State. Eventually, my brain would stop whirring and I’d drift away.
I was able to do that, I think, because I cheered for a team that, while never quite great enough to win it all, was always just good enough to let me believe they might. For 82 regular season games and into several rounds of the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors of the era just gone by fought, won and allowed fans like me to dream. The teams led by Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan — and coached by Dwane Casey — set team records for wins four times in five years beginning in 2013-2014. They won four times more playoff series in the last three years than in the previous 20 combined.
Raptors fans have a complicated relationship to those teams now. As good as they were in the regular season — they finished second in the entire NBA last year — they always hit a wall in the playoffs. (That wall, not incidentally, was shaped like LeBron James.) And last summer, after another demoralizing playoff defeat, team president Masai Ujiri blew up the squad. He fired Casey. He traded DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. Six months later, he dealt Valanciunas, that lovable lunk, for the older, more polished Marc Gasol.
The team Ujiri built this year is unquestionably better than the one he broke up. Leonard, a perplexing weirdo with impossible skills , is a true superstar. He’s the biggest reason the Raptors are playing in Golden State Wednesday, in the NBA Finals, just three wins from a title. But the success of this team shouldn’t erase the accomplishments of the ones that came before.
In an interview posted Tuesday on Bleacher Report, DeRozan, the leader of those never-quite teams, called himself a “sacrificial lamb.” He had to fight and lose, he said, to create the platform for this team to win. “If it wasn’t for all the years and groundwork that I did before, then none of them things would have been possible,” he said. That’s true, in a way, but I don’t think it’s the point, really.
There’s a line of thought in the NBA that teams should either be competing for titles or bottoming out for draft picks. The Raptors were criticized for years, even as they were stacking up 50-win seasons, for existing in the mushy middle of the league. But the joy and value of sport isn’t just found in titles. A run like this one can create a civic moment, sure. It can lodge an experience of collective excitement into the minds of a generation of kids. But a good team, a team that fights every night, that wins more often than it doesn’t, a team that lets fans with ordinary lives think about something fun and possible, something other than their own problems for eight months a year, can be great in its own way too.
The DeRozan Raptors were great, for me. In my imagination as I lay in bed suffering a dark stretch in what was otherwise a beautiful time, they beat LeBron. They beat Steph Curry . They won their title. I don’t think I ever fully believed that would happen. But I was able to imagine that it might. And for me, when I really needed it, that was enough.
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