Time is a Flat Circle — Ernie Grunfeld as the Yellow King
This weekend one of the most talked about television shows in recent memory, True Detective, closed out its first season. Coincidentally, this past week also saw the Washington Post’s Mike Wise fire the first salvo over whether the Washington Wizards should retain the services of Team President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld after his contract expires.
At first glance, it may seem foolish to compare a procedural murder mystery set in Louisiana’s Bayou to the fate of a man running an NBA franchise. But the hook of True Detective is not the “cops solving a crime” aspect of the show, but the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that the show has veiled itself within, creating a frenzy of online speculation and internet sleuthing. These are the aspects of the show that Wizards fans can relate to and apply directly to their relationship with one Ernest Grunfeld. It further explains the vociferous reaction against Wise (whose piece argues for the retention of Grunfeld) that was above and beyond the normal outpouring of disdain for what is, on the surface, a simple click-bait article to “start a conversation.”
The moment that people became hooked on True Detective is when Detective Rust Cohle goes all meta-physical during interrogation and roughly quotes Nietzsche.
“Time is a flat circle,” states Cohle. “Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.” This statement, that we are doomed to keep repeating mistakes and find ourselves in a never ending loop, is something that speaks to the heart of what Wizards fans feel about their relationship toward Grunfeld and the franchise. Despite the fact that the team is headed to the playoffs for the first time in six years, despite the emergence of John Wall as a superstar, there is this pervading feeling: we have been here before, and despite evidence to the contrary, will return to the same spot from whence we began.
Someone will get hurt, an emerging player will get traded for a veteran who dogs out his final days in D.C., the Wizards will whiff on a draft pick. Through all of this, Grunfeld is eternal and unmovable, the one constant in an ever-shifting NBA universe. When people wonder why games are still not selling out (20th in average attendance behind such teams as the Jazz and Cavs), despite the fact that the team is playoff-bound, when they confront the fact that there is perpetual negativity surrounding the team and its coverage, it all comes back to one salient point: Ernie Grunfeld, leading Washington since July 2003, is still in the building, and he will never ever leave.
The other piece of the True Detective mythos that grabbed the imagination of viewers was the introduction of the Yellow King, the supposed mastermind behind cult ritual murders happening within the show. Astute viewers immediately traced the reference back to “The King in Yellow,” an 1895 collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. The work itself has one constant refrain throughout many of the stories, the mention of a play, “The Yellow King,” which drives anyone who reads it to insanity. Chambers’ work later inspired H.P. Lovecraft, who is famous for introducing the world-ending creature Cthulhu into popular culture and creating an entire sub-genre of horror fiction.
Now Grunfeld is probably not a tentacled creature that reaps minds and is dead set on seeing the destruction of the world. (Though, like Cthulhu, Ernie is a source of constant psychic anxiety for those who follow or cover the Wizards. Like Cthulhu, Grunfeld seems to feed and grow stronger off this anxiety.) However, his continued presence in the Wizards’ front office has driven many writers and fans to the point of irrational insanity, whether in defense of his tenure with the franchise, or the scribing of literally hundreds of articles on why owner Ted Leonsis should remove Grunfeld before he can commit another crime against team construct. However, mind-reaping might explain how Mike Wise could justify his poorly-executed article from Friday…. Or what was it (Sheriff) Steve Geraci said? Oh yeah: “chain of command.” … Orders. Wise trotted out the same cherry picked facts that people have been using to defend Grunfeld for years. Except now that dog-eared argument has received a fresh coat of paint due to the Wizards pushing their way to the playoffs. Ernie got rid of Gilbert! (He also gave Gilbert his shiny new contract.) Ernie makes savvy trades for veterans! (He does so by sweetening deals with 1st round picks, which are gold in today’s NBA economy.) Grunfeld got the John Wall era Wizards to the postseason! (He did so by subjecting everyone involved with the team to historic futility in consecutive seasons. By design… But worst Wizards teams ever?—the 19-win, 2008-09 edition, at least. Damn.)
The simple fact of the matter is that the Grunfeld regime has become immune to facts. Pixels have been wasted pointing to Grunfeld’s poor drafting history (not only with the Wizards, but with the Bucks and Knicks as well), the failure to recognize and develop NBA-level talent (Shelvin Mack, any D-Leaguer), or the fact that Grunfeld has been given the drafting pencil for not one but TWO rebuilding blueprints. Grunfeld perhaps less resembles Cthulhu and can find more in common with the other cops in True Detective, who do just enough to say they accomplished the job. Got to .500? Mission accomplished. Going to make the playoffs despite no obvious plan for the future outside of Wall or Beal? Well, the playoffs were reached and that was the bar. So any criticism has to immediately be shelved. Facts in True Detective actually lead Detectives Cohle and Hart further away from the killer perpetrating the heinous murders on Louisiana’s southern coast. Pointing to facts about the mistakes of the Grunfeld regime only leads to a further retrenching by ownership and time becoming a flat circle, destined to perpetually repeat itself.
The only argument that will carry any weight in an argument against Grunfeld is an emotional one, which is unlikely to remove Grunfeld from his position but explains the combination of apathy and virulent dislike that the mention of his omnipresence inspires. There have been years of the same moves repeated over and over again: the failure to resign the James Singletons, the trades that take place before properly gauging the market, the selling of second-round draft picks. These facts do not matter because they are facts, but because of the emotion they elicit from a broken and fractured fanbase. Grunfeld could wave a magic wand, clear out all the cap space in the world and blackmail LEBRON into signing with the Wizards and the majority of fans and reporters would react in horror, a sign that Grunfeld’s longevity has become a totem for which the failures and negativity of the franchise have come to collect.
Many watchers of True Detective expected the series to end on a down note Sunday evening. The mystery will not truly be solved, the killers are too ingrained into society to be removed, and the men who have self-tasked with bringing them to justice are too damaged to force a proper resolution. The same can be said for those who have patiently waited for ownership to wake up from their fugue state and realize that despite recent “success,” Grunfeld has caused too much psychic misery and apathy to be allowed to continue. However, as a fanbase, Wizards fans are too damaged to expect any actual change or hope. Grunfeld is eternal, time is a flat circle and to continue to follow the team is a pathway to madness.
True Detective discusses the “detective’s curse,” in which the answer is always right under your nose but you don’t see it because you are too caught up with your own pet theories and cannot see the forest through the trees. In Ted’s case, the answer to become a perennial playoff team and even bring a championship to D.C. (both stated goals in Leonsis’ Super Plan) is to part ways with Grunfeld. But he doesn’t see that truth, despite all the pixels, despite the obvious signs that it is the right move, because he’s so focused on making the Wizards a relevant NBA team. He’s obsessed with ticket sales. He wants the Wizards in the playoffs and for them to have nationally-televised games. And so, because these things are starting to happen, he doesn’t see that another GM could do Grunfeld’s job just as well … or that another GM could do Grunfeld’s job better. So while Detective Leonsis may think he’s hot in pursuit, right around the corner from his big break, he’s really anywhere, nowhere, lost in Carcosa. And so Grunfeld will remain forever.
You could superimpose Grunfeld on the revealed killer in True Detective, Errol Childress, and almost hear the same chilling words coming out:
“Yeah boss, my family has been here a long, long time.”
Nothing ever changes.