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Two months after releasing his first book of poetry, Mikko Harvey insists on showing me a YouTube video. It’s an old high school highlight reel for Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell.
"Yeah, I recognize this dribble sequence from a game against Indiana," Mikko tells me. "A year later he would do this in a crucial possession against the Hoosiers."
This is how Mikko is when it comes to D’Angelo Russell. He can tell you the exact game that Russell used a certain dribble move — plus how many points he scored, and maybe what he said in the postgame interview, too.
"I google him constantly. I’ve watched all his interviews, all his highlights, almost all of his games," Mikko says.
Now, just to be clear, D’Angelo Russell is not a superstar. He’s never won an MVP award, never been on the All-NBA First Team, never even been an All Star.
Yet this is the player that Mikko — winner of PEN Canada's 2017 New Voices Award — obsesses about constantly.
"I mean, nobody think it’s weirder than me," he says. "Like, it’s the weirdest thing I do. But I would just say that most people have some weird little channel inside of themselves into which they pour leftover energies or obsessions. And for some reason, all that stuff in me attached to D’Angelo Russell."
For those who grew up with Mikko, this whole obsession actually isn’t that surprising. And I can say that with confidence, because Mikko’s one of my very best friends.
We met in seventh grade, and as long as I’ve known him, he’s always had fascinations with semi-obscure basketball players. For one stretch of our childhood, whenever we’d play NBA Live on his PlayStation 2, Mikko picked the Toronto Raptors so he could be Morris Peterson, a decent but forgettable swingman. And then there was a fixation on University of Louisville player Kyle Kuric, who never even made the NBA.
But none of those previous fascinations rival the intensity of Mikko’s current devotion to D’Angelo Russell. And none has become so intertwined with the way he thinks about his career as a poet.
'A Poet Out There'
The story of this obsession really starts in the fall of 2009, after Mikko and I parted ways for college.
"It was a Friday night at Vassar, and it was, like, a big party night," Mikko says. "And I was alone in my room — and kind of hiding from the party because I was just, like, socially overwhelmed. And I remember I looked through the keyhole in my dorm room looking out into the hallway."
Mikko saw one of his friends.
"He was on his way to throw up in the bathroom, so drunk that he was leaning on the wall. I don’t know what it was, but something about that inspired me to write a poem for the first time ever. I mean 30 seconds later, I wrote a line. Let's see if I can remember it. OK: ‘The narrator looks through his peep hole and makes a wish: to exist. A real protagonist. but the door is locked.’ "
Poetry became Mikko’s passion. At first he was too shy to tell me or his Vassar friends about it, so he’d wait until his roommate went to sleep before he started writing.
But, eventually, he fessed up. In 2013, Mikko started graduate school at Ohio State. He was studying poetry, of course, but he also embraced the Buckeyes basketball team.
And that first spring in Columbus, Mikko went online and looked up Ohio State’s incoming recruits.
"And I saw one of them was this guy D’Angelo Russell," he says. "And I remember watching his high school mixtape on YouTube."
D’Angelo Russell wasn’t one of those unbelievable athletes who everybody knew was going to spend a year in college and then jump right to the NBA. He wasn’t particularly fast. But he seemed to see the game two steps ahead of everyone else, and to relish throwing a beautiful pass.
"He had this silky smooth handle. He would beat you with misdirection and deception and trickery instead of power or speed," Mikko says. "He’s a poet out there, you know?"
In a very abstract way, Mikko could see something of himself in the way this incoming freshman seemed to value beauty for beauty’s sake.
But Mikko tempered his expectations.
"I was doubtful that he'd able to do it on the college level once defenses got better and were game-planning for him," he says.
But that’s not what happened.
"D'Angelo came in immediately and was throwing alley oops, no-look passes and was breaking down defenders off the dribble," Mikko says. "It was shocking how good he was."
This success seemed to send a message: that it was possible to play stylish basketball — to throw a no-look pass just for beauty’s sake — without sacrificing any efficiency.
Now, there’s a leap here — and it might be one that only a poet would make — but, for Mikko, seeing that made him optimistic about his own choice to pursue art.
"When he’s able to be his creative self and an efficient player, then I feel, ‘OK, there's a way of existing in normal human society and writing these weird poems on my own.’ That can coexist," Mikko says. "And each game felt like a revelation."
'A Vote For Art And A Vote For Imagination'
Mikko developed a routine at Ohio State. During the day he’d go to class, write.
"I would mingle with the poets. I would sit by the lake. I would do all the poet-y stuff a poet does," he says. "And then at night, I would go home and I would stream the Ohio State basketball game on my laptop."
As D’Angelo Russell continued putting up 20 points a game while making highlight-reel plays, Mikko certainly wasn’t the only person recognizing his skills. Russell kept rising up NBA draft boards.
And at the 2015 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers picked him with the No. 2 overall pick.
"And when he was picked second, I was afraid that they were setting up superstar expectations on a player that, through no fault of his own, just didn't have the raw materials to do it," Mikko says. "It just seemed liked at a certain point the fairy tale was gonna end."
"So when did it become clear that those concerns were correct?" I asked.
"It was clear immediately in summer league," Mikko says.
D’Angelo Russell didn’t become a superstar for the Lakers. In fact, after two seasons — and an infamous incident involving a secret cell phone recording (if interested, you can find plenty of content in the TMZ archives) — he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
Last year, in a season shortened by injury, Russell averaged 15.5 points and 5.2 assists per game.
"There are moments when D’Angelo tries to throw this cross-court pass, it gets intercepted, suddenly he looks almost, like, flamboyant — somebody who tried to make an aesthetic statement that failed and hurt his team," Mikko says. "And it’s not actually sustainable."
It’s on these nights that watching D’Angelo Russell makes Mikko question his own career choice.
"Should I give up on this thing I consider artful, but is it really just selfish? And should I instead get a marketing job where I can write little ads and it will pay me more?" he says. "And then I could have a child and support the child. And the human team would win, you know what I mean?"
But then there are also still nights — and weeks — when Russell plays brilliantly.
"Sometimes he gives me the treat of a glimpse of what he’s capable of — and that’s superstardom and a kind of genius," Mikko says.
So this fall, as D’Angelo Russell enters his fourth NBA season, Mikko will still be watching and cheering him on.
"There’s a question about whether there’s room for somebody like D’Angelo Russell," Mikko says. "And I feel similarly about, is there room for poets and painters and sculptors? Rooting for D’Angelo seems like a vote for art and a vote for imagination and a vote for whimsy."
This segment aired on September 22, 2018.
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