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An illustration of a basketball. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $199 I ever spent: an NBA League pass

As I stared down the barrel of my college graduation, it seemed like the last opportunity to be a true student.

Much as I love listening to men loudly agree with each other, I resolved to give up politics podcasts last year. They had made me sufficiently miserable, not because the news was miserable (though it was) but because of the vague, repulsive sense you got that the people babbling into the microphones were enjoying all of this, that they found some sporting rush in a country governed by entropy.

But the podcasts were noise — precious noise! — the sort of ambient, murmuring distraction I feared my restive brain might explode without. (It was my senior year of college; nothing felt worth paying full attention to anyway.) So last October, in the search for a new source and when opera proved beyond my grasp, I decided to turn to actual spectator sport and reawaken my long-dormant love for basketball.

I can’t say for certain why I had stopped following the NBA 10 years ago, though I suspect it was some combination of the Pistons trading away our sprightly floor general Chauncey Billups for a wilting Allen Iverson, and my more pressing middle school concerns, namely having no friends.

Now, it pleased me to find that the league had only gotten better since those aughts days when I gorged on tubs of arena popcorn the size of my torso while my dad grumbled about Steve Nash’s hair. In fact, the basketball was so good that the couple of games a week shown on ESPN soon felt inadequate for my appetite. I had to have more.

For every regular season NBA game that merits a marquee national primetime slot — the kind featuring rehashed rivalries or the star power of LeBron James — there are about a dozen others that won’t make it past their local broadcast stations. Enter NBA League Pass, designed to serve fandoms both eclectic and long distance (think the jilted Seattleite or the Berliner up at odd hours to cheer on Dirk Nowitzki). For a $199 annual fee, I could now watch any non-nationally televised matchup in the league — that is, the kind no sensible person would be interested in.

Being insensible, I watched all of them. Orlando-Charlotte on a Sunday afternoon, Memphis-Portland on a Tuesday evening. I tuned into eight or nine Sacramento Kings games, though — I’m ashamed to admit — I would probably not be able to point out the city on a state map. I was above nothing, not even when the sorry Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the mostly insentient New York Knicks.

Those last semesters ticked by and each day came with a new barrage of regrets: the fanciful ones (Why hadn’t I studied Greek?) and also the grimly practical (What was I thinking, not learning how to code?). I was growing unnerved by the fact that life after graduation seemed not to present many opportunities to be a student even in the figurative sense, to burrow myself in something new and inessential, to be keen and fascinated and nothing more.

The prospect of unemployment was daunting. But more frightening to me was the thought of being so engulfed by the daily grind of making a living that I no longer had the means to simply tend to my own curiosity.

Basketball, then, became my last hurrah. Sometimes I watched passively. But most nights I was a student of the game, taking stock of the assorted arcs and angles that might conspire to send a ball through a hoop. The real beauty of team sports lies in the way individual brilliance can function to serve some greater system. In basketball, the individual brilliance abounds. Kyrie Irving, exacting and acrobatic. Russell Westbrook, half man, half transient whoosh. At some moments, the experience of immersion felt quasi-religious. There is a brief, quiet deliverance in witnessing potential energy made kinetic.

Nothing is soothing about watching basketball. There were nights I lay awake until morning, still electrified by a preposterous buzzer beater. Frankly, I’m surprised I never keeled over from the dread that mounts when a team down two runs a last-second inbounds play. And still, this obsession felt like the most comforting thing in the world. It was relieving to know that I could assign each contest whatever stakes I felt like, and simply turn it off at the end, unbruised and untethered. It’s a nice change to be consumed by something that is, all in all, quite meaningless.

Because just as often as it was profound, basketball was ridiculous. If I ever began taking the game too seriously, League Pass offered a buffer against that temptation. Between quarters and during timeouts, when a broadcast typically cuts to commercial or to studio analysts, League Pass streams directly from the Jumbotron, where a feast of peculiarities awaits.

Large men racing on comically small tricycles. Small children racing in comically large sneakers. Dozens, if not thousands, of tweens flossing. Cascading cheery messages: “Welcome St. Joseph’s Academy Swim Team!” “Happy Birthday, Dennis! In my gloomier moments, it helps to remember the Milwaukee Bucks fan challenged to name as many varieties of cheese as she could in 30 seconds. She rattled off 27 like it was the Pledge of Allegiance.

If you’re like me and a miserable wreck, the minute you find yourself taking the faintest bit of pleasure in anything, you begin reaching for ways to rationalize it, because how dare anybody have fun at a time like this? Did You Know That Basketball Has a Rich, Meaningful History and Sports Are Fundamentally Inextricable From the Fraught Systems of Labor, Race, and Capital Underlying Our Society? I barked at anyone uninterested in whatever fastbreak lob sequence I had charitably spent the last half-hour describing. That’s not wrong; this sport is knotty and zeitgeisty, a window into the culture if there ever was one. But who was I kidding? I loved basketball because it’s basketball, a stylish, imperfect, sublime, intimate game.

A few years ago, I saw a production of Hamlet so rattling and curious that I went home and immediately bought a ticket to see it again the following night. The thinking — if you’re generous enough to call it that — was that if I could exist in that strange, pleasant fog of wonder for one more day, there was no price I wouldn’t pay for it. I flipped nomadically on League Pass, from stream to stream. A doomed road trip with the Bulls, a weekend with the Clippers. For each game that ended, there was another still waiting to be waged, on a different stage with different characters. There was always more to consume, more to admire, more to learn.

The playoffs began this April. League Pass discontinues when the regular season ends; the postseason games migrate over to national television and the stakes crescendo. My Pistons limped into the first round and limped right out of it. After the relief subsided (they’re a wearying team to watch), the despair set in: This season will be over soon, and then what am I supposed to do? A friend recommended baseball, which was nice, but only nice, never really invigorating enough for me.

The answer ended up being laughably simple: I’m shelling out another $17 for WNBA League Pass, which promises to fill my post-graduate summer months with the requisite friction and balletic fury, unassuming grace and sheer magnificence. The season never has to end.


Maitreyi Anantharaman is a writer and basketball fan living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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