The Follow: Nathaniel Friedman, Pioneer

For the newest installation of The Follow, Abe Beame speaks to Nathaniel Friedman about the mental benefits of Tweeting, why Kyrie is an inventive player, what makes good basketball writing and more.
By    September 30, 2022

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Abe Beame thinks we can all agree that the worst days in New York are the days they cut off the water in your building because they have to do work in the basement.

The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people on Zoom shooting the sh*t.

You could argue that Nathaniel Friedman is on a shortlist of the most influential basketball writers of the last 20 years. Beginning with his generation-defining blog, Free Darko, the artist formerly known as Bethlehem Shoals liberated the NBA fan, who at the time was mired in the dark ages of a 2000s league in transition. But it wasn’t just the product on the court that was in need of a revamp, it was the way we thought about the game, and the way we discussed it. Nathaniel and his crew of overeducated English majors and keyboard philosophers helped change that.

The Moneyball era impacted everything, in every sport, and basketball was no exception. Some of ESPN’s high end, inside reporters are better at tinkering with their homemade analytics models than they are at, you know, writing about sports. And that has a value. Even the casual NBA fan in 2022 has a better, more intimate understanding of X-Os, of oncourt strategy, off court team building and the minutia of the salary cap, than some actual coaches and GMs did in the early 2000s. And that’s a good thing.

But that alone wouldn’t make basketball coverage better. You can imagine a world in which this newfound reliance on advanced statistics has drained the wit and soul out of the game and the way we talk and write about it. In fact, you don’t even have to imagine it, there’s any number of writers I don’t read and podcasts I don’t listen to in which this very future has been made real. And that’s where Free Darko came in. It articulated the ineffable joy basketball junkies have in our hearts for the game. It wrote down the romantic narratives many of us had in our heads, and took the silly things we fans project onto our favorite players very seriously. It explained through brilliant metaphor, allusion, and parable, how an awful, hapless Knicks season, a dark and strange and incompetant series of unfortunate events, also contains magic and wonder, is also fascinating and worth our time and consideration.

In the years since folding the blog, Nathaniel accomplished something very few of the people who helped make that iteration of the internet in the aughts did, and translated it into real success and a career. There were Free Darko books, he wrote about the league sporadically for GQ, and he actually crossed the aisle, moved to Portland, Oregon, and worked for an advertising company that made some of your favorite Nike spots in the 2010s. He made it into the room with basketball legends and Gods. The late, great Bill Russell once told him to go f*ck himself. Today, Nathaniel seems disenchanted with the game, which makes sense as a byproduct of what often happens when you make a passion your job. My impression is, after spending so many years focused on one thing, he’s restless for other passions, which again makes sense, because it’s his wide menu of interests and curiosities outside the game that made his writing on it so important, an importance he doesn’t seem to allow himself to fully embrace or acknowledge.

A few years ago I decided, on a whim, to attempt something that had always intimidated me, and start writing about basketball for this site. I had no idea what my voice would sound like, or what form the writing would take, because I’ll be the first to admit that I think I have a decent understanding of the game but it’s not my primary interest. When I watch games I get sucked into odd little obsessions and ephemera on a possession by possession basis. I can’t watch with the holistic discipline and nuanced expertise a “good” basketball writer has. What came out was this bizarre portraiture. I wrote about players on bad teams few people cared about, from odd angles. Coaches, announcers, NBA Players Association Directors, players who had fallen out of the league. In my work they became superheroes, tragic figures, archvillains, old friends. The game itself was often besides the point. And what I realized is I, like so many others, had my basketball brain shaped by Nathaniel Friedman without knowing it.

(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

(Second Author’s Note: This conversation cuts in after about 15-20 minutes discussing the Department of Buildings in both Portland and New York, and alternate Jewish readings of commercials, among many other things. In general, this was an incredibly wide ranging and discursive conversation, full of interruptions and off color humor standard to any conversation between two Jews, which I had to edit heavily to make legible for gentiles.)

All right, before anything else pops up, let’s attempt to talk about basketball. I know it’s a terrible segue.

Nathaniel Friedman: Yeah, I’m a master derailleur.

Do you still like talking about basketball? You mentioned the league isn’t as interesting to you these days. And do you also like talking about Darko, now that it’s been a considerable amount of time since the website went away?

Nathaniel Friedman: It’s just weird because, look, I’ve never really loved talking to basketball people. And I’m not just saying this in some sort of retroactive, but also banging the drums for all perpetuity, self deprecated way. I don’t f*cking know that much. I know more than the average person watching a game. I understand things and have heard scouting reports from insiders that other people haven’t, or at least I used to. It doesn’t mean I won’t watch a game with people at a bar for two and a half hours. I’m not going to eventually run out of things to say or put my foot in my mouth. But I generally feel like, what the f*ck? Why am I doing this? And it’s weird. I was thinking about it. I used to enjoy debates about basketball, but they all turned into who’s the greatest? Blah, blah.

Jordan v. LeBron.

Nathaniel Friedman: Everything has become a “best” debate and it just got old. It’s a good thing to talk about with people you don’t know, because it’s a good way for me to establish baseline credibility at these Nike meetings with athletes. I was older than everyone. So I had to say something smart and show that I got it for anyone to take me seriously. But that’s like, professional sh*t. The more I think about it, I really liked the NBA when the NBA was a version of itself that I could project stuff that I was interested in onto. And I just feel like now I’m just less excited about it because obviously the DNA of the league’s changed a lot over the last 20 years or whatever.

But it’s just like sports have distinct eras and then people have distinct eras. People who are interesting have distinct eras in terms of what they’re interested in, how they’re seeing things, what their general orientations of the world is. Where the league is now, where the game is now, it’s just not that interesting to me. There’s some stuff, like Ja Morant, I’d go into battle for, but people like that are fewer and far between.

It’s so interesting that you say that, because I feel like in a lot of ways Darko manifested the league as it is today. It’s like through player empowerment, and the way “liberated fans” are the dominant texture of the NBA fan, who follows players over teams and loves projecting their own stuff onto them in this musical, whimsical way. The game now loves the weirdos and the freaks that you guys made your rallying cry and your cause during your heyday, who are sort of the dominant players in the league now, and what teams are structuring around: that positionless wing with an unconventional skill set that can guard every position, shoot threes and pass. That player is the ideal player in the NBA at the moment, and the ideal Darko athlete. So I’m surprised that you are disconnected from where we’ve gotten to.

Nathaniel Friedman: Can you write that quote down? I’m just going to put it as my Twitter bio because usually when I think about the legacy of the website, I’m like, people used to write, a lot of people used to write in an over the top way because a lot of us cared less about all-out analytics and were into aesthetics. But then that ended and now I don’t know what’s happening. It’s interesting to hear you put it that way because actually like, wait, maybe we do still have some sort of lingering influence, but I also think there’s no f*cking way that made it up to X person in X organization. But then I hear something from someone about who was reading what when, and I’m like, maybe it’s just like a Zeitgeisty thing, but sometimes I’ll be like, wait, there is a distinct possibility that a person, when they said that thing, had read me saying that thing, because it was a relatively small world then.

Well specifically Chris Ryan (or Billups for Darko heads) is in the upper levels of at least media basketball circles (Author’s note: Also, Will Leitch, Dan Devine, Kevin Pelton, Brian Phillips, and Ethan Strauss were all among the many influential readers and contributors to the site). I would argue when people write Tank Diaries, or have these funny pieces covering jerseys, or a new court, or something fun about the way Jokic is throwing a chest pass or something, anything in that revels in the margins of the game, to me, that is your model continuing to carry the torch in the way we discuss, write and think about basketball.

Nathaniel Friedman: This has never occurred to me simply because it’s hard to ever really look at what you’ve done from an outsider perspective. And it’s even harder to do it when it’s the Internet and everything gets forgotten so quickly that even in your own head you’re like, wow, who wrote that? That was weird.

Again, to do some extemporizing for you, at the time you were competing against guys like Ahmad Rashad, not to call him out, but guys that were doing the very standard patter in their sideline and beat reporting, and in their recaps. Stans and sycophants or unsophisticated critics. It wasn’t the joy and the poetry of a bad team playing meaningless basketball. But I also am surprised you’re not just obsessed with Giannis or Anthony Davis at a certain point in his game, these guys who have unusual body types, unusual games, who have broken the mold as to what a position is in basketball on teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, for instance.

Nathaniel Friedman: I think the thing that’s interesting to me about that is we always had a couple of different running definitions of positionless basketball, which is what Jalen Rose now calls it. And it was always kind of like on the one hand, you had this model that was just the individual player that is just a complete, I think they’re called the unicorns now. And I think the person who is the most like them in the NBA right now is Draymond. You can’t classify them. But then there’s another part of it which is more about organizational structuring. A team where Morrey is like, hey, what if your big man is also one of your three point shooters? And so it becomes less about like, an individual player doing a zillion odd things and more about, what if your sense of the roles on a team becomes more fluid? And to quote, I think it was D’Antoni, he was like, my ideal team has all six, seven guys who can handle the ball and shoot. If they gave me that I could win 80 games, or something.

I think he was kidding. But that’s the thing. That it’s like, in some ways, it was a great time to think about the game that way because a lot of things about the game were a mess, or in transition, things the teams are figuring out now. And I think now it’s like, a lot of this stuff is just part of the game now. It’s baked in and not fun or surprising like it once was for me. I suffer very greatly from “Their First Album, Was Their Best Album Syndrome.” And in most cases, history has proved me correct. Sure, Hell on Earth is good, but The Infamous is still way better. And that’s how I think about the league now, it’s just watching sports.

I would argue that it does seem on almost an empirical level, like there’s more talent in the league than there’s ever been. Every single team has one guy that you just don’t want to miss when he’s in town. I would think. So I’d say, to use your metaphor, this is the NBA in its Infamous period, and what we’re basically advocating for in the late aughts would be Hell on Earth, the dark, weird, interesting album, as opposed to the perfect, well polished, front to back banger.

Nathaniel Friedman: I cannot argue with that at all. You’re right. That argument is an airtight construction. You know what though? Like if one were to use the previous model, Hell On Earth is like a third album in my mind, not in basketball. But maybe something that is derivative of a once great and original approach, even as it improves on the original form. You’re totally right though.

Well it is literally because Juvenile Hell was the first album.

Nathaniel Friedman: Yeah, that f*cks everything up. What you’re saying is right. The product is better than it’s ever been if you like the things that I like or liked about the game, the product is better than it was.

What’s your basketball diet like now?

Nathaniel Friedman: If I told you what my basketball diet is like you’d just be like, we’re not going to do this. We’re going to just scrap this interview.

Are you kind of just skipping around? Are there whole days that you take off? What’s the routine?

Nathaniel Friedman: I’m going to plead the fifth there.

What players are you into now?

Nathaniel Friedman: I like Kyrie. I like KD, Steph. Not anyone interesting. At some point, I realized the best stuff is the most popular stuff. Usually.

As a Knicks fan, I have a lot of under the radar guys that are still weirdos that I love that nobody else does yet, but hopefully they will at some point.

Nathaniel Friedman: Yeah. And I think I clearly was once equipped to know who those people were, but also it seemed more fun to know who they were because no one else knew who they were. Now this is the thing I’ve found. This is an analytics problem. People are now expected to know top to bottom the roster of every team. And so it’s no fun to be the person doing that. You don’t feel like you know anything special if you know the back half of the bench for the Hornets or whatever. Whereas it used to be like a funny scavenger hunt. Who the f*ck is this person?

That’s the thing. This is a Twitter problem too, where all of a sudden you’re supposed to be watching games as soon as they start on the east coast till when they end on the west coast. It’s the idea that writing about basketball can be an experiment versus it being like a clinical test that you can score well on. There’s stuff that I’ve written over the years, mostly because I did it for money or whatever. Who doesn’t do anything for money? But the editors would be like, hey, can you write the thing about X? And I say, you realize I don’t really know about this. Yeah, but you’re going to make it sound cool. You’re not going to write something boring. And then I’d run it by someone who actually knew about basketball to make sure I wasn’t getting anything wrong technically. Which should have been some writing on the wall sh*t for me. If my editors are asking me to do something where I have to consult someone else to see if I’m doing it correctly? Maybe I should be reconsidering how I fit into this kind of industry.

I get that. When I write about basketball, even the Knicks, I’m writing with this insecurity and I’m constantly trying to acknowledge this is my fan perspective. I’m not an expert and don’t want anyone to think I’m portraying myself as one, and I think there was a time that was ok, and that’s what a lot of very good and even generationally great basketball writers used to be. They weren’t people that cared about calling out when the offense was running horns or whatever the f*ck. They loved the players, they loved the team, they loved the game.

Nathaniel Friedman: That’s a good point because I think you sort of see that to some degree in the commentary network. The basketball commentators have gotten worse and worse over the years as far as talking about it is concerned. And I think it’s because basketball is a sh*t talking sport. Players talk sh*t to each other. You talk sh*t to people about it. The color team, all the color commentators, just say whatever the f*ck. It usually doesn’t make sense. And I think it’s weird that it’s like the writing of basketball has gotten less and less like that, and I think something was lost in the exchange.

Well, I do think Jeff Van Gundy threads the needle, but I miss Bill Walton. That was my guy when I was a kid. Everyone hated him, but he was my favorite announcer.

Nathaniel Friedman: There was this sad thing, though, where they brought him back to call a Blazers game. And he was just clearly trying very hard to do his “thing.” And the thing that made Walton so great is he had no idea how stupid he sounded.

There’s like a mental awareness now? Like the fourth wall broke?

Nathaniel Friedman: I think there were times he had no idea how stupid he sounded. Then he seemed to double down, because he got mad that people thought he was stupid. He spit out the most insane stuff he could. This one time I’m referring to though, he was trotting out his greatest hits, and he had a script in front of him of, like, things Bill Walton would say. He became a caricature of himself.

I loved how when he was in his bag it was just like hanging out with this guy at a Dead show that had done too much acid but also loved basketball and loved 19th century French sonnets and had some weird theories about the game he had to get out.

Nathaniel Friedman: Yeah, it’s like no one told him what he was supposed to talk about.

Yes. Or there wasn’t, like a house style that everyone was supposed to follow. Like that miserable f*cking hack Reggie Miller.

You brought up Portland, I don’t think that we talk enough about what an unlikely NBA market Portland is. What is the greater Portland community like in relation to the Blazers? There’s this reputation the die hard inner circle of fandom for the Blazers has. Do you have any relationship to the team in Portland or the fan community?

Nathaniel Friedman: I think that the best way to understand the Blazers is they were the only professional sports team in town for years, and people like them and basketball is important to them because that’s all there was. People didn’t understand the rules of basketball, but it was their city so they should be proud of it, and if the team won, they would have done something great for the city. It was interesting watching the Timbers siphon off some of that energy. Not that the Blazers can’t afford to take the hit, but it’s just interesting to see how easily some of these people became soccer people because it clearly was never about any specific team. They’re quintessential homers.

But Blazers fans like the Blazers, not the game. They’re not going to be able to converse knowledgeably. It’s weird because they’re very positive in certain ways, but they just like some random person on the team. They like one of their tattoos, so they get a T-shirt made of a tattoo, and then they sell it, which is weird coming from me because in some ways it does sound a lot like stuff I’ve done.

But it’s just also, like it’s just so nationalistic. Very Portland. It’s very white and very sweet. And it’s like you’re kind of missing the point of this thing. You’re turning this too much into your own thing. I can say for whatever I projected on the basketball over the years, at least I was sort of in the right zone culturally.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Kyrie is the “most Darko” player in the league at the moment, maybe ever.

Nathaniel Friedman: Yeah. I think that Kyrie is one of these inventive players. We don’t know what he’s going to do from one moment to the next. I think the thing with Kyrie to me is he’s a character, in a literary character study way. I think Kyrie is a tortured soul who is oblivious to the fact that he shouldn’t be one.

Literary is a good description of him, and how he sees himself in his own mind.

Nathaniel Friedman: Well, that’s the thing. It’s like his perception of himself is so incredibly off. Probably really insightful for us to have access to if we could, but also completely delusional in some ways.

At one point, I would have said it’s sort of a triumph of Darko that he has accomplished everything that he has. But now when we see he’s basically on the verge of destroying his third consecutive franchise, I don’t know. I wouldn’t say he is a referendum, but to me he begs the question: Can someone like this exist in a team sport?

Nathaniel Friedman: I think if you really want to get literal about it, what has he done? He’s found a way to both give himself an air tight case of being one of the greatest players ever, and also pretty much done and said whatever the hell he wanted for his time in the league and pissed a bunch of people off and he doesn’t really care. And he’s going to retire or quit or whatever on his own terms. He’ll be set for life financially because he doesn’t even care about being rich. I think he did it pretty damn well. If the measure here is, especially if you define Darko as a treatise of extreme, darker, individualism, which is really a kind of embarrassing but not unfair read, he won the game. There’s a chance no one has ever won the game like he has.

Do I think Kyrie likes basketball? Yes, he clearly likes playing basketball. Or he would have retired. But I don’t think he’s driven to prove himself or his legacy or anything. Like, I think he knows he’s good regardless. I wouldn’t say he’s egoist, but his ego is directed towards other things, like arguments with people on Instagram or something. He doesn’t really totally seem to understand how good he is at basketball and what that confers upon him in society. He sort of seems to think that people respect him as a thinker or something, which is totally a product of the whole post-LeBron, everyone’s opinion about politics all the time.

Alright, so what are you up to now?

Nathaniel Friedman: I haven’t written anything in, oh my God, what was the last thing I wrote? I know I wrote a thing about the bubble for Essence during 2020. But having trouble coming up with much else lately.

There’s a novel kicking around somewhere in my head that I’ve sort of gotten bites on. I’ve been told if you write this and it’s good, I’ll shop it for you, from my agent. But having never written a novel before, I’m not sure how confident I am. I don’t know what happened, but I just don’t write anymore. I think it’s because I’m a pretty firm believer in the fact that while people have to write about things that are tied to reality, you ultimately write about your own version of a thing, and it’s a version of the thing that excites you and sometimes maybe does or doesn’t have everything to do with the real version of the thing. I think that’s why I barely talk about the NBA anymore, not that anyone would’ve noticed.

And I’ve also realized it’s the same with politics too. I obviously was very vocal about a lot of stuff for a while and was very into whatever, structural analysis of X, Y and Z. But it doesn’t change anything. So what, I write 2000 words for the place about something. Who reads it? Why does it matter? A lot of it feels kind of like I don’t feel confident that anyone reads anything or that it does anything. And I don’t get enough joy out of writing for myself anymore about the things I used to write about. And I’m trying to figure out what I would want to write about. I’m realizing that when I loved to write and I wrote a lot, it had a lot to do with the fact that there were things I wanted to write about. I don’t think I just want to write for the sake of writing anymore.

So we’ve reached a place of hard nihilism.

Nathaniel Friedman: Yeah, I was trying to avoid that word. Look at what I Tweet about. All I Tweet about is Classic Rock. Because I’m like, why not? Everyone knows all I like is coke rap. It’s not interesting. And the most pure version of Tweeting is you just Tweet about the stuff you like and no one cares at all because it’s just the stuff you like to think about and do while you’re by yourself. It’s the indulgent purity of self enjoyment. There’s this necessary compromising of your pure joy to even interact with other people around it online. So I’ll just say what I think it was about the Doors that made me feel good. Someone was trying to explain spam. You get low engagement because you don’t really seem like you want to talk to anyone on Twitter. And it’s probably true. My approach is: here’s a thought I had. I’m not trying to game out, what can I say to get people to talk about the Doors with me.

I think a lot of people use it as a tool for social engagement or networking, and by direct association, career mobility or ascension or whatever. But I have no idea how one thing could feed the other. Personally, sometimes I’ll tweet something stupid in the myopic vein that you’re describing. And then after a couple of minutes, when no one likes it, I’ll be like, this is dumb, and I don’t want it on my record, and I take it down, but there’s a weird therapy in saying it for a moment?

Nathaniel Friedman: I’m a big proponent of the idea that Gen X destroyed their credibility with Twitter. There’s so many Gen X icons that suck and no one respects them anymore because of Twitter. And I’m one of them. I’m so much in that vein of thinking I knew how to be online when I really didn’t. And there was no question that did more harm than good, to be on Twitter. There have been several cycles of Fox News death threats. I should have been typing on a computer instead. I’ve alienated a lot of people because I’m annoying on there. It’s just really whatever it is, I made a lot of friends over the years through Twitter, but the idea of moving up the ladder by being on there?

I just know that at a certain point I realized what I missed about writing online, because I wrote about rap starting back in the blog era, was the comments section. I loved participating in the discourse following my piece as much as I enjoyed writing it. Then comment sections went away, and because I’m an idiot who just really was never interested in Twitter, which I never understood, what I didn’t realize is the comment section just found a new home. That was the appeal for me. I missed the comment section, as dumb as that sounds.

Nathaniel Friedman: The truth is that half the posts for Free Darko would be, I would write 500 words after a game I was excited about, use a bunch of big words and throw in a picture of some obscure third tier member of Al Qaeda. The end. That maybe made a point. But then there would be a comment section debate that was like a hundred comments long, longer than the post. And in a lot of ways that’s what made the site good. It was not the sh*t I ranted about when I was half asleep or whatever. It was the fact that people felt that was a forum where they could come and have certain kinds of conversations they weren’t having other places about basketball, et cetera. And Twitter might’ve been like that at some point, but isn’t anymore.

I think the rules of engagement have kind of been established and either you’re, like, one of these outmoded trolls nobody pays attention to, or you’re just playing the debate as safe as humanly possible. But I’m just like, let the chopper spray. I always go through this cycle where I think, okay, that’s it. I’m done. I’m never Tweeting about anything serious again. But in like, two weeks. I’m back doing it.

A lot of the reason why I started this series is because of this conversation. I don’t know how to explain this, and I don’t get it yet myself obviously, but you know a good Tweeter when you see them. And I’m so interested in what that is and how it works and who’s really good at it and who isn’t and why there are good writers who are bad Tweeters and great Tweeters who are not good writers.

Nathaniel Friedman: I’m solidly in Camp A.

Same, but it’s like whether or not you’re a good or bad writer doesn’t even matter anymore. I see these people, personalities who were writers in the last iteration of the internet that have just kind of become full time podcasters and they Tweet occasionally but never write anymore. And you’re like, how can that be? How is that possible?

Nathaniel Friedman: That’s another piece of what I’ve realized too. The place where people talk about stuff in a remotely smart way now is on podcasts. But I’m terrible on podcasts. I’ve come to realize over the last year or so that people think I sound completely hostile. And my voice is bad. I think what people want out of podcasts is to feel like there are people around the house with them that are cool, who like the stuff they like. That’s the point of podcasts.

As someone who also suffers from bad podcast voice, I perhaps self servingly question the idea of what is a good voice? Isn’t this kind of coded antisemitism? (Laughs) No, I’m just kidding, wait, we had never actually hit on it. So what is it that you’re doing?

Nathaniel Friedman: Oh, besides being bad at Twitter?

Yeah, besides that.

Nathaniel Friedman: I’ve gotten better at editing down, but I think and I’ve gotten a better understanding of how Tweeting works, structurally. You can only have one, maybe two moves in it. But I still have sentence brain. It’s made me a sharper writer outside of Twitter when I do write, but still, ultimately, at the end of the day, I think of it like prose and it’s not prose.

But what am I doing? Since 2012 I have worked in the field of advertising. I don’t know if people know this about me. It’s kind of funny that I do, but yeah. I worked at Wieden+Kennedy. I wrote Nike basketball ads that you may have seen over the years.

I agree that Twitter makes you sharpen your prose, make you more essentialist, even though I clearly have a lot of issues sticking to that when I’m not up against a character limit. What’s your favorite ad you’ve worked on?

Nathaniel Friedman: It’s either the one where Kevin Durant gets drafted first at a rec center basketball game, or the one that’s just that Gangstarr skit with the answering machines with people calling LeBron because he won the title. Actually, I’ll say the Kobe farewell ad.

Those three. I’m like, okay, cool. This is kind of worth it. And now, I don’t know what I do. I found out at one point that I’m really bad at writing normal ad scripts and that I’m good at having ideas. And then someone else who’s actually good at advertising turns into something that’s producible. So I’m just sort of trying to find places where some people will let me do that.

(Author’s Note: 30 minutes later)

All right. This stopped being an interview, like, 30 minutes ago, I just want to say I really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you for what you’ve contributed to basketball, and thanks for your time.

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