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Tank Diaries: I’ll Be Missing Shai

The Thunder have won one game over the past month, and the longing to see SGA play again has started to set in

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

We used to get food after practice and ride out to Jared’s house. Watch AND1 mixtapes, Iverson games. Dead deer high on the living room walls. Satellite television. Eastbays in the bathroom. In small country towns, kids get creative looking for entertainment. One evening we drew a target on a paper plate. Then someone stood in the yard and held the dish while someone else lit a Roman candle and shot at it. A convoy of pink-orange light sprayed loud out of the stick and the guy holding the plate bailed, ran for the pasture. We’d drag the mini trampoline beside his hoop, throw alley-oops to each other, dunk on each other, get mad at each other. And sometimes we were boring. Drive into Muskogee and putter around the video store, skim preseason college football magazines, slander their position group rankings, try to agree on a movie. We sat in Taco Bell parking lots eating quesadillas and listening to Mike Jones. We drove to Tulsa for no reason, turned around, went back home. We did bits under the trophy mounts and played Madden and read Slam and quoted those old ESPN video game commercials with Tracy Morgan.

I loved those commercials. Sometimes, if I’m anxious about something or having a hard day, I’ll go watch them. Morgan’s character has one eye that just kind of roams free, does whatever it wants. He has the confidence of a tiger, wears fanny packs, and sometimes has a hard time keeping his balance. My kind of guy. There’s one 30-second spot in which Morgan tells Ben Wallace he has “achieved the iso motion” and one where I really like how he says the word “accurate.”

There are other videos I return to for similar reasons, pick-me-ups. Old Jiminy Glick stuff. Glick once said to Spielberg, “You’ve made so many films. When are you gonna do the big one?” In another interview, he told Julia Louis-Dreyfus her PR people had made it difficult because of all the demands in her rider. “There had to be Schweppes Ginger Ale and there had to be straws. And straws, I mean—we’re at war, dear.” Glick has a wife, Dixie, and “four strapping boys”—Morgan, Mason, Matthew, and Modine. Dixie’s a big fan of Rick Fox (One Tree Hill, Party Down). When Glick got the chance to interview him for his show, he rang up Dixie so Fox could say hi. She was euphoric. Fifteen seconds later, Glick interrupted, got Fox’s attention, and saidTell her I’m out of Trojans.

Some days I go watch live reactions to Landon Donovan’s goal vs. Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. Alcohol flying. Cameras zooming. Hands in the air. People screaming at televisions. People screaming at people. People screaming at the sky.

If I want to experience every emotion life has to offer, I watch the Jeremy Piven–starring promo for TNT’s coverage of the 2007 NBA playoffs. This is Piven at his Ari-est. He’s winning Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and his hair looks real. In his face, you can tell, every second he’s on screen, he’s certain he’s killing. The video is almost three minutes long and I cannot believe it exists. At one point, about 30 seconds in, he addresses Kobe. “Kobe, you have the talent, my brother. I swear you do. Now you’ve got to hold that bridge while your squad comes over. It’s the blessing and the curse of superstardom.” Take it from Pivs, Kobe. I know you’ve already won three rings at this point, but this man got fifth billing in Two for the Money. He knows a thing or two about superstardom. He also gets in a Grover Cleveland joke and who doesn’t love those? But these are extraordinary times we’re living in. Over the past week, two more clips have sauntered into this fray, two more videos added to the Depression Days playlist:

That’s right. Why wait? Life is fleeting. Sound the trumpets. We’re going there.



In a couple weeks they’re putting in a lazer tag next to the log ride. They spell it laser tag but I don’t. Lazer tag is better, more fun. I believe in the power of z. There are rumors they might be adding one of these new sword-swallowing/fire-breathing parlors. I guess, too, people have started seeing hippo tracks around the grounds? So, you know, head on a swivel. You have to approach Pokuland with a level of physicality some are unaccustomed to. Poku’s arms look like straws but he’ll give a chair a piece of his mind. And yes, he’s a pencil, but pencils have erasers.

He had six blocks against Toronto last Sunday. He also got dropped by Chris Boucher. You get the full menu with Poku, the sour and the sweet. Against the Raptors he had eight points, seven rebounds, five assists, and six blocks. He shot 4-for-14 from the field and missed every 3 he took, BUT …

I don’t know what to do with this information other than freak out. Five-plus points, five-plus boards, five-plus assists, and five-plus blocks? As we know, one of the street terms for this stat line is “Going Arby’s,” a nod to the “Five for $5.55” promotion they’ve run in the past. Some call it a KFC $5 Fill Up. Others call it a Chalupa Cravings Box. I guess they do it because it’s $5, too? I’m not sure why all the street names are fast food references. People are weird and often make no sense.

The passing is starting to feel special. During the Wizards game I got up to get a drink. A few seconds later, my wife said, “Oh, Tyler, come in here.” I walked in and rewound it. It was the behind-the-back pass to Bradley. I just started laughing. I told my friend Matt that story and he said, “Maybe you shouldn’t get a drink while Poku is in the game.” I never will again.

The skill at his size is one thing, but Poku has an imagination working in concert with his ability that leads to plays that make me yelp. Anybody can be effective. Not everybody can be creative. If he’s going to have people staring at him, he might as well give them a spectacle. Poku’s bringing glow-in-the-dark vaudeville back. Since he returned from the Gubble, his usage has swung up to 20.6 percent. I love it and want them to put the ball in his hands even more, get him as many reps as possible. I want this for many reasons: (1) It will make him better, (2) he’s fun to watch, (3) he’s sometimes super effective running things, and (4) might as well get the turnovers out of his system now when you’re trying to lose games.

Anyone know where I can get this shirt?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

I really like flannels and really love this one. Big-paned Carolina blue and white, the right amount of oversized. I don’t like to swim in my clothes but I also don’t need them grabbing at me all the time. I’m a person, not a piece of meat.

Roby wore it earlier in the season and I paused my television to take a picture. I don’t know where it’s from, how much it costs. Ty Jerome wore what looks like the exact same one? And also has it in another color? Where did they get them? Hopefully it’s at an attainable price. I see some NBA guys in jackets and I’m like, “Hey, that’s actually something I could wear.” Then I do some research and find out it costs as much as a house.

This is the most stress-free Thunder season since 2010. Before, I would be worried about an ineffectual first quarter, late-in-the-shot-clock situations, Derek Fisher getting playing time. I’d stress eat an entire Pizza Hut dinner box and die with each mistake. Now I can bother with flannels. Definitely I have some anxiety about the draft lottery and what it means for my favorite team’s future, but this type of hoping feels different than the hoping I experienced those years the Thunder were real-deal contenders. Oklahoma City has been fortunate to have had quite a few teams that were good enough to be considered failures if they didn’t succeed in the postseason. For me, that’s both a great place to be and exhausting.

When one of the teams I’m a fan of has a legitimate shot to win the whole thing, I bristle at every slight. “You, writer/announcer/podcaster/dude in bar, you don’t understand my team the way I understand them.” Sometimes I don’t trust their opinion anyway so it doesn’t bother me. But there are other times I’m like, “Oh no, this person usually knows what they’re talking about! What if they’re right about my team?! [Scoffs to pretend it doesn’t hurt.] Surely they’re not. Surely I am. Besides, they were wrong about that one thing once, and they clearly didn’t even watch the Miami game! We get stops when we have to!” Despite all that, if/when it arrives, I’ll welcome contention with open arms. It’s its own kind of fun to think about some yet to be achieved golden future filled with rings and MVPs, but that daydreaming can’t compare to what a title would feel like. I want to get back to our winning ways, just later, when we have better talent around Shai.

I miss watching Shai play. His absence is great for the Thunder’s quest for the bottom, but the games are not the parties they were. They’re not without their pleasures now, but he was really peaking before the injury. He played 17 games between February and March. During those two months, his shooting splits were 50.5 percent from the field, 46.0 percent from 3 (on five-plus attempts per game), and 85.6 percent from the free throw line. He did that on 33.6 percent usage. The top, top dog on the team, without much space to speak of, defenses keying on him every night. Even in losses, he was frequently the best player on the floor. In those 17 games I mentioned above, the Thunder went 8-9. Eight. That’s way too many wins. It’s showing off. The first game Shai sat with plantar fasciitis was on March 24. There have been 16 games since then. The Thunder have won one of them. I am chock-full of glee. “They’re currently on a 12-game losing streak,” he typed while dancing. Glad they’ve been able to right this ship and lose so many games here in such a short period of time.

Even though he’s out, SGA stays engaged on the bench, stays active. These are small things but they matter coming from the best player on the team. He seems to be constantly encouraging. On more than one occasion during this heavenly run of Ls, the Thunder have been down 20-plus and Shai will still be up on the bench clapping. I probably want it to matter more than it actually does but to hear Daigneault tell it, he’s sunshine.

“He’s building incredible equity with the group right now, because we’re going through obviously a difficult stretch, and there’s no one that brings more positive energy every single day than Shai does.”

I know they won’t do this but the league should keep the benches spread out going forward. I realize there’s too much money at stake for them to ever do that, but celebrations hit harder when guys have elbow room. They can move around and jump. Run a little bit, wave their hands. To go back to the close quarters of the old days, it will all become one thing again. Guys standing, holding each other back. Also it’s probably just a better experience for the players. They all get their own little area, their own personal Gatorade cooler. Room to spread out, stretch the legs. There is more space for joy. Their whole body has ample acreage to participate in the celebration. You get to see more. More of the player’s personalities, more of them being happy for each other, more of them having fun. Could put you a novel right there in your nook and read during free throws, breaks in the action. The teams should do even more to make them comfortable. Put recliners out there, or at least give them ottomans. I don’t think cupholders would be too much to ask.

It’s not as if Gilgeous-Alexander struggled last year. In the last 30 seasons, SGA is one of only two guards in the league to post a 20-point, 20-rebound triple-double. The other?

SGA’s just markedly better this year. The puzzle is starting to come together. There’s so much wiggle in his game now, so much detail, and his craftiness around the rim makes him full of surprises. He’s good at finishing through contact with his right or his left and the floater has become a weapon. The stepback is real. The playmaking’s improving. He has superstar tendencies. When he went down, he was leading the league in drives per game. His shot chart’s very similar to Harden’s, heat zones mainly in the paint and the top of the key. Pick your saying. He knows who he is. He knows where his bread’s buttered. He rides the horse that got him there. I’d like to talk about this as well.

And this.

Every Magic tweet reads like vanilla ice cream but sometimes vanilla tastes good! What’s more, I think this makes some interesting points.

Shai melts ankles, plays at different rhythms than other players. It’s fun to have someone like that on the team you love. You see what they are now when they’re young, and you start to extrapolate, let your imagination go, build for them multiple trophy rooms and empires in their future. You want that because you love watching them play, sure, but also because that means your team’s winning again. I want him to play. I don’t want him to play. The right hand fights the left.

During their game Wednesday night against Indiana, the Pacers’ play-by-play man said of OKC, “In games decided by nine points or less, Oklahoma City is 15-11.” Quinn Buckner, the Pacers’ television analyst followed that statistic with, “Because, Chris, they have active hands and they typically do the right thing.” After the Thunder’s six-point loss to Indiana, that record moved to 15-12. And thank the Lord. Most importantly, after that loss, The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, something I check more than the weather at this point, currently has the Thunder with an 11 percent chance at the no. 1 pick, the fifth-best odds in the league. What’s especially exhilarating is they have a 91 percent chance at a top-five pick. And that’s where you want to be, up near the top, soaking in the rays from all those bright futures in that green room.

I won’t be demoralized if the Thunder don’t wind up with a top-five pick. It will be a bummer, for sure, and I will curse the basketball gods like the unchecked teases they have always been, but in time I will tire of feeling bad and remind myself to chill out. A long rebuild is fine, too. Besides, there’s enough ammo in the coffers and talent on the roster, things are already looking up.*

*I reserve the right to decide everything in this paragraph is a lie. I reserve the right to get furious and flip out over both the draft lottery and the draft itself. I reserve the right to whine. So much. On the internet and in person. I reserve the right to play the victim for years and pretend the league is out to get me.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.