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The Poet, DLo and the quest for truth

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There is no surer sign of impending stardom than an obsessed poet.

Mikko Harvey is one of the rising talents in the world of literature. A Canadian, he received the RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award last year and he currently lives in New York, where he is the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation Online Editorial Fellow at the prestigious Poets & Writers Magazine. He comments on ND as mikharvey.

And he is admittedly “obsessed” with D’Angelo Russell. In an interview with Open Book, a Toronto-based review of the literary scene in his native Ontario, he’s asked, “What’s your current online obsession, and what do you love about it?”

“I’m obsessed with D’Angelo Russell, basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets. I watch his games, read think pieces about him on the NetsDaily fan website, keep up with his Instagram, etc. He occasionally appears in my dreams.”

(Pause to appreciate they joy of true obsession ... and wonder when we started publishing “think pieces” about anything. But we digress.)

Harvey explains that it all began when he was doing graduate work at Ohio State during DLo’s one year with the Buckeyes. What Kenny Atkinson simply calls “court vision” enthralls Harvey.

“I enjoyed feeling sneakily near to his evolution—that may have been one of the conditions that allowed my obsession to take hold. I once saw him in the campus art museum, for example. But most of all I just enjoyed watching his unusual and creative playing style.

‘Though not particularly athletic, DLo seemed to see angles and possibilities that other players didn’t. There was something enchanting about his intuitive sense of movement, about his ability to observe and predict the behaviors of multiple moving pieces and—with an admirable (admirable to me at least, though troubling to certain others) casualness—make a decision that seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else’s processing speed.”

“Angles and possibilities,” indeed. But Harvey’s obsession goes beyond watching DLo to examining who he is, what he can be and what he fears he will not ever be.

“I suspect the reason I love DLo is related to the reason he’ll probably never become a truly great player: his game is driven by aesthetics rather than competitiveness. He doesn’t seem to possess the brutal desire to win that great players must possess. He mostly seems to want to create individual sparks of excitement. It’s a playing style that lends itself to lots of sleek highlight videos, but not a lot of team victories.”

He notes as well the accusations of a “bad attitude,” and lack of leadership, even delving into his feelings about the Nick Young-Iggy Azalea Snapchat controversy, which he describes as “a kind of objective correlative indictment of my own character… though it wasn’t quite enough to end my obsession with him.”

Harvey also speaks of sharing his obsession with another Canadian writer, Andrew Battershill. Battershill, he notes, gets to the core of the obsession: Russell’s physicality, yes, his “swag.”

“One of the few people I have shared my obsession with is the novelist Andrew Battershill. For some extra perspective in answering your question, I asked Andrew what he found intriguing about DLo. Andrew says: ‘I think it’s the nexus he forms between being crafty and clever and completely clueless. Like, on a micro, beating his man level he’s got so many tricks, but then he makes a huge amount of stupid plays, and shows a very bad grasp of game flow. Also, let’s not lie, we’re obviously physically attracted to him. Not sexually attracted, but physically for sure. That sort of languid grace. And swag, obviously. The swag.’”

And he concedes, his friend is correct about the yin and yang of rooting for DLo.

“Andrew’s right: for every lovely move DLo makes, he commits an equally lazy, irresponsible mistake—he tries to make the fancy pass instead of the simple one, and it ends up hurting his team; he gambles for steals instead of playing patient defense; he takes heat checks at every possible turn. This nexus of brilliance and foolishness is tantalizing indeed. I keep waiting for DLo to land on one side of the seesaw, but he keeps flipping back and forth, in no great hurry to self-define. Meanwhile, off the court, he continues to be his fashionable, millennial, unknowable-by-me self. He arrives at a press conference carrying a box of Nilla Wafers—is the snack chosen to match the outfit, or is it a coincidence?”

From there, Harvey examines why he has “yoked part of my own identity to one of the least consistent players in the NBA.” He sees in DLo the writer’s conundrum.

“DLo’s fluctuations remind me of the swings between self-confidence and self-loathing so characteristic of the writing life. One moment he’s making seven three-pointers in a row against the Raptors, seemingly having caught a jolt of electricity and riding off into the sunset with it. But other times, when he doesn’t find the right jolt, he gets discouraged—and unfortunately, in those moments, he must continue to play basketball on live television against the best players in the world, who proceed to destroy him. Those are the sad times. DLo can look like he’s given up, like he’s playing with a sense of grim obligation, merely going through the motions, his body language suggesting that the game of basketball isn’t even worth his attention. A breaking of the fourth wall that makes me feel dirty for even watching. But maybe, on some level, I like when this happens?”

Harvey admits googling “d’angelo russell” maybe a thousand times. He cannot get enough. Indeed, in concluding, he describes DLo as “the scout the universe has sent to find out if you can live a life steered by intuition and imagination and still excel in a hard system that asks you to exchange your sense of play for efficient, unending labor.”

He even offers advice to his obsession...

“I keep watching DLo because I want to see him succeed. I want him to find the right balance of creativity and discipline, and I want to feel that it’s possible to step into a higher version of yourself, even after repeated failures. A self that doesn’t compromise the features of its own inner landscape, but also doesn’t trip over them so much.”

Sometimes, it takes a poet to see the larger aspects of sport, to fly at 30,000 feet, so to speak, above the nitty gritty of a single play, a single game, a single season. Harvey does. He “gets” it, “gets” DLo. He is not the first poet to be obsessed by sports or a sports figure.

Brooklyn’s own transplant, Marianne Moore, was obsessed with first the Dodgers, then after they moved to L.A. the 1960’s Yankees, of whom she wrote in “Baseball and Writing” She too made the connection between athlete and poet...

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting

and baseball is like writing.You can never tell with either

how it will go

or what you will do;

generating excitement

-a fever in the victim-pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.

Victim in what category?

Owlman watching from the press box?

To whom does it apply?

Who is excited? Might it be I?

Perhaps Harvey will write soon about DLo. We look forward to it ... and of course, wish to publish it.