Volume 3, Issue 3: Too Far Apart

"You came to meet me out on the line. You couldn't believe I was feeling fine."

Thank you, everyone, for all the stories you’ve been sending for the daily CV Stories version of this newsletter. Please keep them coming: There will be a new installment on Monday-Thursday every week. Email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. I think the series is legitimately helping people. I know it is helping me.

One of the gruesome but undeniable questions most people are asking themselves at this point: What happens when someone I know gets it? Maybe some of you already know someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, but if you’re an American, honestly, probably not. That does not mean, of course, that you don’t know someone who has it. It just means you don’t know someone who has tested positive. Those have become two very different things.

As we’ve all been pared down to our bare minimums in the last week, it’s fascinating to see how our circles of separation actually work. We have those who are closest to us, the absolute essentials: If you are looking for these people, they’re the ones you’re stuck in the house with. (If you’re by yourself, know that those of us locked in with other people are both very, very worried about you and very, very envious.) There is the circle just outside of that: The people you’re talking to essentially with every day via text, or email, or chat, or even (gasp) over the phone. This is the core group: These are the people you’d go see to talk through all this madness, if you could. Then there is the next circle out: The check-ins. I’ve been surprised, actually, by some of the people I’ve felt an urge to reach out to in the last week. This is one of the few events of our lifetime that is simultaneously being felt by everyone, in similar and recognizable ways. I’ve checked in on old classmates, distant relatives, past work colleagues, all sorts of people I haven’t spoken to in years. There have been nights when I’ve honestly scrolled through my text messages and my emails just to see if I’ve forgotten anyone: They’re going through this too, and even if they’re not a regular part of my life, they once were. It’s worth making sure they’re hanging in.

But again: None of those people have tested positive for the coronavirus either. I do think there’s a current stigma involved in that, by the way, the idea that each individual positive test is some sort of sentence, or urgent tragedy: Daniel Dae-Kim has coronavirus that’s so sad I loved him on “Lost.” Daniel Dae-Kim is not dead, and he is very much not likely to be dead, but our reactions tend to be measured on that frequency. As more and more people are diagnosed, I suspect this tendency will abate; it won’t feel like that much of an aberration to learn that someone has it anymore. (It already feels more normal; I reacted less to Daniel Dae-Kim than I did to Idris Elba, and I reacted less to Idris Elba than I did to Tom Hanks.) Here in Athens, the university announced that someone in the athletic department had it and people gasped. There will be less gasping in the coming weeks, one suspects … at least in that regard.

I’ve seen a couple distant Facebook contacts test positive, people I admire and people I sort of worked with years ago but haven’t spoken to in years, which is just how Facebook works when you’re really not on Facebook very much. I’m not sure that counts. Here’s a good rule of thumb for how close one is, at least for the next week or so: Is there someone you have interacted with in any meaningful way in the year 2020 who has been positively diagnosed with coronavirus? We’re all going to be that close soon. But are you that close now?

I am that close. There is one person who has tested positive for coronavirus with whom I have spent multiple hours in close quarters, just the two of us, in 2020.

It is this guy:

For the past, oh, six months, I’ve been working on a massive cover story about Kevin Durant, and his manager Rich Kleiman, for New York Magazine. This story has gone through several permutations and countless edits, along with the normal negotiations that come with getting extended sit-down time with an athlete or celebrity of Durant’s stature. It has been all-consuming, like cover stories always are; the last edit was 6,000 words and encompassed essentially ever minute of my spare time over the last three months. My editor, David Wallace-Wells, and I thought we had something polished up and nearly ready to go, just two weeks ago; there was some last-minute fact-checking to do, some photo editor selections of the best Durant photo from the shoot, and maybe some tweaking here or there to make sure the piece fit. I was in Florida last week for the kids’ spring break, but neither David nor I thought that would slow down anything. We were almost done.

And then. I do not know New York’s exact plans for the story right now, but suffice it to say: I’m not sure we’re gonna get the cover again anytime soon.

My interview with Durant was Tuesday, January 30, in his apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Durant has one of those apartments where the elevator takes you directly into his living room, and his assistant greeted me, sat me down at a long glass table and handed me a glass of water. I’ll hold off on my observations of Durant’s apartment in case New York decides to run some version of the piece someday, but, as you might imagine, it’s a nice place. After waiting about two minutes, Durant kindly greeted me, shook my hand and sat across from me. We then spoke for precisely 84 minutes. (According to my audio file.)

I was impressed by him. He is clearly intelligent, and impressively straightforward and curious about the world outside of his personal experience, a trait I generally find rare in professional athletes. Durant has always been one of my favorite basketball players to watch; there’s an ease and grace to his game that makes a chaotic, frenetic sport look calm, almost orderly. He was surely putting his best face forward for an extended interview like any of us would, but, yeah, I was impressed. I liked him.

This piece, one I’d been working on for months, immediately dropped out of my brain entirely when all this happened. Like everyone else on the planet, I was worried about my family, my friends, the world; I hadn’t thought a second about the story, and I’m pretty sure my editor hadn’t either.

And then Durant tested positive for the coronavirus. It is worth noting that he did not have to make his diagnosis public; he chose to do so, with a statement of “Everyone be careful, take care of yourself and quarantine. We're going to get through this.” (I checked in with my contacts in his camp as well, and they’re all scared but fine.) I got an alert on my phone when the news came out, at last an excuse to use the ESPN scores app this week. I am ashamed to say that the first thing I did, after spending days of going nowhere but my own house and over to my parents to stand 10 feet away from them, was do the math.

Today’s March 17 … I interviewed him right when I got back from Mexico City … just three days after Kobe Bryant died … that would make it late January … that’s two days there, a whole February there, add a leap day, plus half the month … I’m fine. I should be fine. I haven’t given it to anyone. We’re good.

This is a fallacy. Not because I could have caught the virus from Durant on January 30—I couldn’t have; a month-and-a-half is far outside the window, so there’s no way he had it at that time—but because I could have caught it from anyone in the time since. I have had countless interactions with hundreds of people in close proximity since meeting Durant. I’ve been to nine different sporting events, a rock concert, multiple airports, and several schools. I was at a baseball game nine days ago; I shook hands with many people I had not met 10 days ago; I flew home with my family eight days ago. I could have caught it from anyone, at any time. Now, I don’t think I did: I’m fully healthy, I’ve been locked in this house with fellow fully healthy people for a week and we’re all just fine, there is nothing in eyesight that I haven’t washed at least 100 times in the last 50 hours. But focusing on Durant (who by all accounts is healthy and recovering just fine) is precisely the sort of illogical measure that’s going to seem incredibly quaint in about a week. The only reason I think he’s the only person I’ve interacted with in 2020 who has it is because he’s the only person I know who has actually been tested.

The hardest part about this pandemic is not having to stay inside, it’s not the children missing school, it’s not the daily dipshit cruelty of the executive branch. It’s not knowing. Not knowing who is sick, not knowing who is safe, not knowing where the invisible enemy is, not knowing what is happening, not knowing where this is all going to end up. The only thing I know about my personal exposure to the coronavirus and its part of my daily life is that I spent 84 minutes with someone who got it sometime later. That is not any different than knowing nothing. And yet my brain clings to it. It’s all that I have.

When all this is over, whenever that is, there will be a reckoning. There will be a reckoning for the charlatans, the liars, the insider traders, the grifters, the racists, the denialists, all the people who looked out only for themselves in this time of collective agony. But let’s not forget, when we look back at this someday, what is at the source of all this: We don’t know who has it, and we, unlike other countries who took this more seriously and did not try to wish it away with unfounded false assurance, have still somehow not set up a system to find out. With what may be coming in the next few weeks and months, it will be easy for that fundamental fact to be washed away. But it’s the core of all of it: I don’t know if I have it, you don’t know if you have it, none of us have any idea who has it … and there is no way for any of us to find out. That’s not a situation the virus made happen. It’s one that people did.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. How Will Sports Recover From the Coronavirus? The New York Times. That the NYT basically gave me a blank check to write about whatever I wanted about sports in the wake of the biggest story of our lifetime is something I have not really wrapped my mind around yet.

  2. Generation X Was Born for This Shit, Medium. It felt just to cut loose and write a silly, fun piece like this this week. I needed it.

  3. How Does ESPN Handle a World With No Sports? The Washington Post. Yeah, it was a busy week!

  4. Baseball Year in Review: 1987, MLB.com. This is a new series we’ll be doing every week until there is baseball again. It’ll keep me sane and hopefully it’ll do the same for anyone who reads it.

  5. The UFC Is the Last Sports League Standing, and That’s Because of Donald Trump, New York. It is … not often that I write about combat sports.

  6. Sports Is Going to Be Gone Longer Than You Think, NBC News. This is true, but I very much do not want it to be.

  7. What To Watch Instead: A Quiet Place, Part II, Vulture. This is a new semi-regular series Grierson and I are going to be doing.

  8. Sports Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with The Way Back.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discussed what to do when there are no new movies, and also The Hunt and Moulin Rouge.

Seeing Red, no show this week, but we are taping on Monday.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we did a couple of video shows to stay sane.

MAILBAG

We take one question a week around these parts: Send yours to williamfleitch@yahoo.com. This one comes from Greg Slack:

What are a few of your favorite Illini basketball teams? I know '89 and '05 are obvious. Two teams that are underrated are the '84 team with Bruce Douglas, Efrem Winters, George Montgomery and Doug Altenberger that got homered against Kentucky AT Kentucky in the Elite 8 game and the '01 team with Frank Williams, Cory Bradford, Sergio McLain and Lucas Johnson who had 6 players foul put in the Elite 8 game vs. Arizona. We got those bastards back 4 years later though.

As I still mourn the fact that this particularly wonderful Illini team was deprived of a tournament appearance, this question is right up my alley. Robert at IlliniBoard is doing a wonderful bracket of old Illini teams that I cannot stop obsessing over. I find his top five dead on:

1. 2005

2. 1989

3. 2001

4. 1984

5. 1987

I just don’t want anyone to forget Kiwane Garris, because he might be my favorite player—along with Frank Williams, Ayo Dosunmu and Lucas Johnson—who wasn’t on one of those two great top teams. And I’m gonna go cry again now.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

I’m, uh, not heading out to the post office a lot lately, but when I do, I’ll be very excited to read what you have.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“The Cool, Cool River,” Paul Simon. We all find out our true go-tos in a time of strife. And I have to say: Paul Simon has sort of been saving my life in the last week? I am not sure why. But I’ve been listening to him constantly. Like, non-stop. Huh.

Why yes, we are keeping them quite busy this week, why do you ask?

Please, be safe, everyone. See you Monday.

Best,
Will