In early January, 1995, as Michael Jordan was off playing baseball in retirement and the Bulls were struggling to maintain their win record without him, Scottie Pippen, now Chicago’s star, was having a hard time with the team’s portly, hot-headed manager, Jerry Krause—and he wasn’t shy about making it known. “Trade me or trade Krause,” he told reporters one night in Boston, who made those words a headline on the front page. Krause was furious. Pippen was chastened and feeling down. So Bulls coach Phil Jackson decided to turn it into a joke.
“So, Scottie, what do you think we can get for Krause?” Jackson asked him when he walked into practice the next day. Everyone erupted in laughter, Pippen included. “Suddenly the gloom that had been dogging the team for days lifted,” Jackson writes about the incident in his memoir, Sacred Hoops. Making light of a difficult situation eased the tension and helped improve morale. The all-important lesson, he concluded, was “just how effective humour can be as a catalyst for deepening team spirit.”
If you want humour in the 2020 basketball season, look no further than Kyle Lowry. Over the last week of seeding games in the NBA Bubble in Orlando, the Toronto Raptors point guard has been a constant source of amusement and distraction, laughing, joking, and dancing across the sterile courts of Walt Disney World as if he were there for a holiday at Magic Kingdom. The demands of rigorous isolation and the precautionary measures of the bubble have taken a toll on almost every returning player, understandably. But Lowry hasn’t just seemed unfazed. He looks like he’s having the time of his life—and his upbeat attitude has made this whole weird NBA season feel almost normal again.
It started with a virtual press conference. When Lowry took the mic to address the press from the Bubble in mid-July, everyone was still feeling a bit uneasy about basketball. The return of the sport amid COVID-19, confined to a sprawling resort facility and with only 22 teams, had struck a lot of people as at worst dangerous, and at best ill-advised. But when a reporter asked Lowry how it had been not playing basketball for the last four months, he defused the tension immediately. “It’s been great,” he said. “Because I haven’t had to talk to any of you guys.”
If there had been any doubt that the bubble had changed basketball, here was Lowry making clear that he was the same. And that same droll humour carried over onto the court. After the Raptors handily bested the Lakers on Saturday night in their first match inside the Bubble, the swaggering, irrepressible Lowry, coming off the high of a 33-point game, shuffled up behind Fred VanVleet and performed an impromptu dance to “Hip Hop Hooray.” VanVleet was busy answering a serious question about his mental health and how he was managing the hardship of life in the bubble. Lowry, looking like Piccolo with a towel around his head, videobombed him anyway.
Toronto’s next game, on Monday afternoon, found them against Miami, and it could hardly have been a more critical game—the Raptors needed to bounce back against the Heat after consecutive losses to them in the winter. Lowry, meanwhile, spent much of the game hounding and teasing his friend and opposition Jimmy Butler, reeling off monologues of good-natured trash talk between plays that made you wish the players were mic’d up. Once again, Lowry seemed like the only guy in the building without a care in the world, and his enthusiasm was utterly infectious.
Last night against Orlando, Lowry made a splash the second he stepped on court: his rainbow coloured sneakers—a custom pair of Adidas Harden Volume 4s—were the talk of the game from the start, lighting up the hardwood with Day-Glo insanity. The shoes were so lurid and over-the-top that it seemed as if he was trying to channel his personality into his wardrobe, and the effect was so pronounced that even the commentators couldn’t resist talking about it: “It must be the shoes,” they drolly remarked on Sportsnet, a clever nod to Spike Lee’s famed Jordan ad from the '90s.
Of course, this upbeat attitude would be for nothing if he weren’t playing well. But as coach Nick Nurse told the press before the start of the season, these are Kyle Lowry’s Raptors, and he’s been putting in the work to back up the claim. It wasn’t just his impressive 33 points in a decisive offense against Lebron’s Lakers on the weekend. He’s been spectacular defensively, dominating the court despite an obvious size disadvantage and capitalizing on everything. If the Raptors are “a threat to defend their championship,” as Raptors Republic put it earlier this week, Kyle Lowry “is the single biggest reason why.”
From the perspective of a fan, however, it’s Lowry’s sense of humour that has proven the most surprisingly invaluable. At a time when professional basketball has never seemed darker or more precarious—as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic looms over the proceedings like an invisible threat, and as the enormous social injustice in the United States has turned the NBA into a forum for political activism—the return of the NBA can sometimes feel difficult to justify. Without a live audience, the energy around the court has felt weirdly drained; for the most part, and for many reasons, it’s been impossible to mistake these games for ordinary bouts of basketball.
Kyle Lowry goofing around has made all the difference. His laughing, dancing, and having a blast on and off the court has given this incredibly strange NBA season a much-needed air of normality—it might sound strange to say, it’s made it easier to love basketball again. Lowry has lifted the gloom that’s dogged the Bubble. And for all of us, not just his fellow Raptors, his humour has deepened the team spirit.