The line between perspective and delusion was discovered this week in Memphis, Tennessee. Bill Simmons blamed a nervous basketball crowd on the assassination of a Civil Rights leader. He probably saw someone in a Grizzlies jersey share the face Peggy Olson wore when she found out Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and synergy, man.
Simmons’ hot take on the Memphis crowd is hilariously absurd. No one in Buffalo blames a nervous crowd on an anarchist putting a bullet in William McKinley’s stomach. Bills fans don’t blame four straight Super Bowl losses on elephant-murderer Thomas Edison’s worthless x-ray machine. The Braves didn’t leave town because of Leon Czolgosz. He was probably a baseball fan, anyway.
In his podcast with Jalen Rose, Simmons claims this theory came about after talking to people in Memphis. This is where the line is found. Bill Simmons talked to people from Memphis and came away crazy, while Spencer Hall spent a weekend in Memphis and came away with a brilliant perspective on the city.
Hall has his own criticism of what Simmons said, which is worth noting. Both of these men were in the building as media members for Game Three. The tremendous difference between what they produced as a result shows how important individual experience in sports. They saw the same game, the same crowd and the same city. They did not react the same way.
Hall did outstanding work with the resources he was given, creating a fascinating narrative about the city, its citizens and the basketball team they “bought off the sale rack at the NBA’s thrift store from Vancouver.” Simmons, meanwhile, clumsily injected 45-year-old national tragedy into the psyche of a basketball crowd.
So much of what makes Simmons, well, Simmons, is recapitulating the theme. The movies, theories and jokes have all been explained before. Teen Wolf. His buddies. Boston sports. His perspective and style is very well defined in his body of work. Reading a Simmons mailbag these days is like listening to an Anne Murray compilation album. The words are familiar and the whole thing is kind of embarrassing.
The context of his life permeates everything he does. After Game Four of the Western Conference Finals, Simmons compared the success of the Spurs to that of the New England Patriots. He prefaced the analogy by saying “I’m a Patriots fan” and the entire internet rolled its binary eyes. We know, Bill. We know.
Here’s the thing: swimming in an ocean of your own thoughts and theories can be dangerous. The first time I went to Memphis I bought Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy for 10 dollars at a Best Buy and listened to it on the way to Graceland. The fact that I think about the highways of Southwestern Tennessee when I hear “Corduroy” doesn’t mean anything to anyone existing outside of my skull. It doesn’t matter. We are trapped within the frameworks of our own existence. We should be keenly aware of this truth and constantly try to step outside and try something new.
What makes Hall’s piece about Memphis so good is that it is completely new. The lede is an anecdote about everyone knowing someone in Memphis. Right away, the piece is about the reader. After that, it’s about t-shirts and food and the weekend. Hall wrote about his weekend, but it’s not about him. He went well beyond his thoughts, and that’s what makes it great.
The fact is, it’s easier to connect the things that already exist than it is to examine the unknown. It’s what turns newspaper columnists into retreads and #NARRATIVE into truth. If the yarn is long enough, the pushpins can go anywhere on the map you’d like. You don’t even really have to believe what you’re saying as long as the check clears.
Going beyond that is what turns words into great stories. It’s what makes the map worth traveling in the first place.