Years ago, my dad’s friend Jeff acquired some ostriches. In the late ’80s and well into the ’90s, a good amount of people in Oklahoma thought ostriches were the next big boom, an exotic meat destined to sweep the nation. “It’s not a matter of ‘could be.’ It’s a big business and a good business.” They really believed in it. “I don’t look to see ostrich meat in any grocery stores. It’s primarily going to be a specialty meat, not unlike shrimp or lobster, in first-quality restaurants.” Like really, really believed in it, with all their hearts. “It won’t be long until you go out on the plains and you see more ostriches than you do cattle.”
In 1995, the Oklahoma Ostrich Association, a thing that existed, estimated there were some 350 ostrich farms in the state. The birds were billed as a healthy meat, an exciting new alternative to pork and beef and chicken. Low in cholesterol, high in protein, pink-faced money rakes. Jeff decided that all sounded pretty good, bought himself a flock. He put the flightless wonders on his grandfather’s land and set about to waiting on eggs. Bird of the future. Surefire deal. Buy, breed, sell. Repeat until rich.
It was an interesting move by Jeff. See, he hated birds. All of them. Swans, ducks, woodpeckers, seagulls, turtle doves, partridges in pear trees, whatever. They could all go straight to hell. As a boy, he’d been flogged by a rooster. This traumatized him. Roosters can be self-involved try-hards—just because you’re up doesn’t mean I have to be—and a bad childhood experience with a critter can turn you off that kind of creature forever. My sister got bit by a goose when she was a kid and wouldn’t go near them for years. This was a sure thing, though, these ostriches. And Jeff could deal with the winged demons for a time with the promise of big paydays in his future. He was getting in on Apple in 1980. Fear be damned. Scared money don’t make none. He bought the ostriches anyway.
One day he drove his Ranger out to his grandfather’s place to check on the ground-bound fowls. He smelled it as soon as he got out of his truck. Dead bird somewhere. It was summer. Thick stench in the air. He took his brother and followed the stink out into the fields, found the deceased decomposing there in the pastureland. They didn’t know how it died, only that it had. Now they had to find a way to dispose of the carcass. Jeff hooked the bird to the back of the Ranger and hauled it out. He decided they should just burn it. Quick, fast, and easy, no touching involved.
“You realize it’s August?” Jeff’s brother asked.
“It’ll be fine,” Jeff said. “Blaze gets loose we just stomp it out.”
There was a small can of fuel in the bed of the Ranger and Jeff took it and doused the remains. Oklahoma Augusts can get triple-digit toasty and it was hot in the fields. And the bird was bloated, swollen, and baked, filled with gas and heat and disease. Jeff struck a match and dropped it onto the gasoline-soaked corpse.
Then the bird exploded.
The burst singed his eyebrows and mustache, the hair on his legs and arms. All the stink went to his head and black feathers and white plumage and bright pink bits of scorched ostrich erupted into the air. Something else among them. Maggots, thousands. They landed in his hair, on his clothes, all around him—a summer maggot rain. They’d been steeped in the rank bird flesh, cruising around the decaying matter, noshing on guts, and were sticky now. And the larva reeked and glazed him, these foul death barnacles. And he was stunned. And he was disgusted. And even that would be a more pleasant experience than watching the Thunder beat the Celtics this past Tuesday.
I’ve never had my eyes filleted, but I thought about it during the third quarter. Sat on my couch and thought, “I don’t want to watch this anymore.” What a bad basketball game. I’m not even talking about the outcome, which was obviously frustrating. I’m talking about the on-the-court stuff, the play itself. It was like watching one of those dance recitals where only a few of the kids actually know the choreography so the whole performance flips to chaos in an instant. Some kids wave at their parents. Some wave at each other. Some do another dance entirely. Some cry. Some throw tantrums. Some stand there and do nothing. Some sit down. Some walk off the stage altogether.
You know the Thunder are bad when the win inspired headlines like “A new low for Boston,” “C’s show little desire to change their maddening ways,” and “Seriously, y’all, this was a disaster.” Oklahoma City turned the ball over 27 times and still won. Do you know how many turnovers 27 is? That’s a congregation of turnovers, a herd of them. The same number of dresses Katherine Heigl had in 27 Dresses and the whole point of that title was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of dresses.”
On the season, the Thunder lead the league in turnovers per game at 16.4. That average is up to 18.9 a game since the All-Star break. In their last 10 games it’s been even worse, at 21.2. The night before the Boston game, in a brutal loss to the Sixers, the Thunder set a season high for turnovers in a game with 29. That’s not just an Oklahoma City high; it’s a league high. What’s more, those 27 TOs against Boston tied them with Charlotte for the second-highest single-game turnover mark this season. They’ve gotten very good at giving it away. They’re on parade floats tossing basketballs like candy into the waiting arms of the other team. ’Tis the season for giving! And giving! And giving! They have turned into some regular Santa Clauses out there. Not sure why StatMuse had to make my sweet star-child the face of the failure but I do think they did a good job on the illustration, even if they are being super generous with the pec definition.
Oklahoma City just can’t stop losing the ball. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. It’s hard to win games when you never have possession, so by all means fling that thing around with reckless abandon. But if you win a game in which you turned it over 27 times, it’s clear even more drastic measures need to be taken. Offensively, from here on out, if we don’t have anything right away, just chuck it out of bounds and we’ll get it back on the other end. And defensively, I’m talking about no activity whatsoever. Might as well be a bunch of statues. I’m not saying they need to go out and lay down every time the other team’s on offense. Have them sit crisscross applesauce instead. That’s more dignified and it’s easier to stand from that position when they have to run back to the other end.
The inexplicable win over the Celtics snapped a beautiful 14-game losing streak for Oklahoma City. Some of those games gave new meaning to “slog.” There’s lopsided and there’s “Wait, is that score wrong? That says 133-85. That’s got to be a typo. That can’t be right.”
I force my eyes on these annihilations, tell myself they build character, make me stronger, prove I’m a real fan. I try to hold on to the glimmers, let them sustain me. Shiny things among the darkness, little flecks of starlight. I look for hope and hope to find some. And speak of the angel and he shall appear.
Make ready the doves. It’s time for another trip to …
WELCOME TO POKULAND, BIGWIGS. WHEN YOU GET TO THE GATES, ONE OF OUR P-LAND TEAM MEMBERS WILL BE THERE TO TELL YOU YOU’RE SPECIAL AND STRONG. YOU MAY REFUSE THE PERSONALIZED ICE SCULPTURES BUT, FAIR WARNING, WE WILL THINK YOU’RE WEIRD AND RUDE. HE SPENT A LOT OF TIME ON THEM. JUST BE NICE AND TAKE IT.
The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, a senior writer on the NBA and NBA draft, went on Down to Dunk, an OKC Thunder podcast, this past week. Among other things, he discussed my sweet Poku with host Andrew Schlecht. I might let Vecenie’s answer ride for way too long because it makes me happy:
I honestly can’t put a ceiling on that guy. … There’s just flashes where, I don’t know that I’ve seen a 7-footer outside of, like, Kevin Durant do? … And he’s nowhere near as good as Kevin Durant. It isn’t remotely close. At the same token … it’s the way that he decelerates, plays with patience, changes gears. He plays at a pace that is all his own and has the type of body control that 7-footers just don’t have. … With Poku you’re running side ball screens and doing all this weird shit and, look, the flashes only happen four or five times a game. The rest of the time it’s like he’s almost unplayable right now. … The passing thing is crazy. He’ll get a baseline drive, do a Euro-step around someone, and then throw a wraparound from the baseline up to the opposite wing and you’re just like, “What just happened? … Who is this? What is going on?”… A lot of his mistakes are born out of aggression that you can kind of tamp down at some point if it doesn’t work. But right now if you’re the Thunder … you want him to really, to quote Christopher Walken, “explore the studio space.” You want him to look dumb and do things that are expanding his game in some way, in learning where his boundaries are as a player. I think the way they’re handling it is perfect and I think he’s going to be helped by it. … I think his chance at being a super high-level star is higher than anyone else in this draft class other than LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards.
There should be a term for the type of unearned pride you feel when someone whose opinion you respect compliments a player or team you love. I don’t have a good idea for one right now and I don’t really want to Will Ferrell–as–James Lipton “scrumtrulescent” this thing. I guess I’m just saying I’m opening myself up to the universe and asking that it reveal to me some language that properly captures that feeling.
I always feel like I have to give several caveats when I talk about Poku. Really any young player of promise who can’t do great things on a consistent basis. I’m qualifying everything, leading with the negative so I can end with the positive. I like good tastes in my mouth. “Yes, there has been this bad stuff, I know, but look over here! Look at all this cool stuff! The vision! Pay no attention to that turnover! What business is it of yours what he does with the ball?!”
I try to view the young player’s weaknesses with rose-colored glasses to prove to myself and whomever I’m talking to that this guy they think is eons away from being a serious contributor on a good team, he’s actually super close. I forgive everything. Air balls, blow-bys, missed block-outs, anything. It’s OK, buddy! You’re doing great! I’m so proud of you!
Young players that are up and down, especially those on bad teams, I’m always saying, “If they could just …” If they could just learn how to shoot … If they could just learn how to lock in defensively … If they could just get a little quicker … If they just put on some muscle … If they could just understand all we need them to do is hit 3s and guard … Well, once they get those little ole things taken care of, it’s hardware time, baby. Let’s figure out some ring sizes, map the parade route. What’s your favorite champagne? I’ve been doing this with so many Thunder players this year. Poku, yes, but also Bazley and Maledon and Ty Jerome and Roby. I imagine I’ll be in this phase of fandom for a while. Wanting the world for the young guys, hoping they put it together, for their sakes and for mine. I’m supportive. I’m selfish. I care about my happiness way more than I care to admit. I’m a fan.
Poku has continued to flirt.
Against the Celts he stepped into a 3 above the break in transition and netted it in rhythm. Looked real smooth doing it, too. Scalabrine, the color man for the Boston broadcast, let out one of the more complimentary jeezes I’ve ever heard and I rewound it and watched it too many times. Later, Scal said, “Pokusevski’s like Kevin Durant out there.” And yes, that is twice you’ve heard that. This is, of course, ridiculous, but you see where he’s coming from.
The Thunder got back on track Thursday night with a nice loss to the Pelicans. You like to see that kind of response from a young team when their backs are against the wall. That L to Zion puts Oklahoma City at 21-42, a half-game back (ahead) of the Cavs, with the fifth-worst record in the league. According to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, the Thunder currently have an 11 percent chance at the no. 1 pick and a 56 percent chance for a pick in the top five. They’ve lost 18 of their last 20, have the worst offense, and the worst point differential in the NBA. It’s not fun but it is great.
With less than a month left in this, the strangest regular season of all time, nine games remain for Oklahoma City. There’s a three-game homestand with the Pacers, Suns, and Kings, then a four-game road trip in which they’ll play at Golden State twice in three days then head north to Sacramento to do the same thing there. They’ll close the season at home with the Jazz on May 14 and the Clippers on May 16.
I’m pretty dumb but not dumb enough to attempt to predict how any of these games will go. Minnesota’s riding a four-game win streak for some reason? Anything is possible. Phoenix and Utah will most likely still be duking it out for the 1-spot in the West and still trying to win. I hope that happens. Golden State will want to win both to keep a comfortable cushion between them and New Orleans for the final play-in spot out West. The Clips are joined at the hip with the Nuggets in the standings and could absolutely need that game, too. Indiana will be jockeying for play-in tournament seeding. And Sacramento, I don’t know what to think. I’m just glad most of these teams have something left to play for. Nine games. I want to lose all of them.
Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.