There is this Russell Westbrook dunk that is seared in my brain. It was probably six or seven years ago against the Warriors, and was the fastest that I’d ever seen a human being move. His time between the foul line and the basket felt like it was excised from reality. He hit the rim with such force that, despite being a relatively undersized 6’3″, I was sure that he’d put a crater in the floor when he landed. I’d never seen anything like it, and just watched a 17-minute dunk compilation looking for it. Time well spent.

The last two+ minutes of the 2016 Finals between the Cavs and Warriors are maybe my favorite minutes of time. The Warriors were an absolute dreadnought but it did not matter. Kevin Love’s lockdown defense on Curry. Lebron’s chase-down block on Iguodala. Kyrie’s dagger 3-pointer. Lebron making the most important foul shot of the second-greatest career in NBA history. I just watched that video twice while I was writing this.

Last year’s Finals. The Suns were a dazzling defensive unit with a barrage of superstars on offense like Devin Booker and Chris Paul. But Giannis went thermonuclear (as did Middleton in Game 4) to get the Bucks their first title in fifty years. I do not like Giannis Antetokounmpo as a player but felt like I’d been raised a Bucks fan. The energy was that strong, even hundreds of miles away and filtered through a TV screen.

Have you ever watched Steph Curry, Trae Young, Luka Dončić, or Damien Lillard effortlessly sink a three-pointer from 30 feet out? Those were the shots that we’d try in high school once the coach had dismissed practice because we’d get cut from the team if we tried it in a live-ball situation. These guys are given carte blanche to take these shots because they make them.

Remember the way that Dennis Rodman would jump to get rebounds? I don’t know if it was a technique thing for him or just a way to freely tag nuts like Draymond Green does. But all four limbs extended like he was a Garfield window hanger, that’s how he did it and how I’ll remember it forever.

When the NBA became a slog-fest of people chasing fouls, they changed the rules to discourage the behavior, and 2021 is on pace for the lowest number of foul shots per game in a generation. Thing sucks? FIX IT.

Basketball is humankind’s greatest sport. Second place (hockey) is so far below it that they are not visible to each other.

It is the only sport wherein every single play is full-speed, acrobatic, injury-defying, gravity-defying. The scores are routinely in the 90s and 100s, so good defensive plays can make a huge difference. People shoot a bouncy ball at a basket from 30-plus feet away, they slam it into those same ten-foot baskets while in a dead sprint. They have to dribble it the entire time that they are moving and must stop moving once they’ve picked up the ball, which allows for good defenders to choke their passing lanes and run out their play clock. The play clock is short as hell too. The bounciness adds yet another wrinkle to the game because missed baskets carom wildly, and positioning for rebounds is itself an art form. Plus there’s the fast break. The bounce pass itself could be worth an entire essay, with all of the crazy physics involved.

And there is a women’s professional league too, WHICH RULES, if you have not had a chance to watch any games, and there are women coaches and referees in the men’s side. NBA League Pass is a worthwhile acquisition if, like us, you live in a place without an NBA team and tend to just watch whoever seems interesting at a given time. Just be sure to check the blackout-policy page before you commit. Pittsburgh, for example, falls within the Cleveland Cavs media market, so we can’t watch Cavs games unless they are on national TV.

NBA players are known worldwide by single names: Lebron, Curry, Harden, Durant, Kawhi, Giannis. Basketball is the coolest sport, inspiring the most musicians, inspiring fashion, inspiring us all to be like Mike.

But, and High-Flying Bird does a great job of highlighting this, the NBA exists because the relationship between the players and the team owners is clearly defined, and the NBA is such a superstar-driven league that the players hold slightly more power than the do the owners. (Just absolutely apropos nothing, will we even have an MLB season in 2022? –Ed.) And this drives the owners crazy, as they are a group of 30 trust fund heirs, oil tycoons, and tech bros who want to be seen as the important ones. High-Flying Bird shows us a fictional work stoppage because those owners want a larger piece of the pie. And the story focuses on an agent (played by the always-incredible André Holland) whose clients aren’t getting paid, which means he isn’t getting paid. So he must navigate the détente to get things moving again so everyone can get back to making money.

What is Ray’s leverage over the owners? He stages a one-on-one scrimmage between two superstar rookies at a high school gym, and he gets 100 million views on YouTube in a day’s time. It is not the jerseys. It is not the cachet of the league. It is not Bryce Worthington III in his owner’s box inherited from his dad. The players are the juice, the product of their labor is the value. And once that is acknowledged, there’s not much left to do except find a way to end the work stoppage with no one losing face publicly.

This movie rules so hard for a myriad of reasons. First, Steven Soderbergh shoots it with an iPhone 8. Seriously. Quick setups, huge depth of field, entire film on a budget of $2 million. That’s a hell of a flex by a legendary filmmaker. Second, the cast includes Zazie Beetz and Bill Duke and André Holland and Kyle MacLachlan, and you’ll find me first in line when you get that kind of talent in one picture. Third, Bill Duke gets to be Bill Duke, cutting through bullshit, spouting hard-earned wisdom (“there’s a game they built on top of the game”), and being the fierce-eyed moral center of the movie. Fourth, the story is intercut with interviews with actual NBA players who talk about the stresses of being new to the league, of learning how to manage their money, of learning how to navigate contracts and everything else while still being expected to play at the highest level. And fifth, we get this whole beautiful day-in-the-life story in 90 minutes flat.

I’m not going to tell you that the time is better spent watching High Flying Bird instead of watching an actual basketball game. That’s cuckoo. This movie is excellent at glorifying basketball while getting into the contract dispute trenches, but you’ll likely have a better time watching the Phoenix Suns smash into the Golden State Warriors, say on Christmas Day, 5pm eastern. You see, Christmas is the unofficial start date of the NBA. Yes, the season has been going on for two months now, but Christmas begins the leg of the season when we have an idea of who is good, who is on the cusp, and who’s gonna look for a trade. And once we get past the college bowl games, there will be more nights of NBA on national TV than not (remember, professional sports may be god, but gambling on unpaid children is bigger than god. #america).

2019 was a banger of a year for good movies, and it was not an easy decision to select one for this installment. I opted for High Flying Bird because I love Soderbergh and I love basketball and I like seeing labor able to bargain for better benefits from management. We’ve had far too many years of anti-union sentiment and union busting in this country that was once home to so many strong unions. Watching the NBA and High Flying Bird gives a little hope that we can get there again.


Other 2019 candidates: 1917; Uncut Gems; Knives Out; Ford v Ferrari; Dolemite Is My Name; High Life; The Vast of Night


I turn 40 in December. To commemorate the milestone, I’m writing 40 short biographical essays pertaining to a movie per year of my life.