In his 2007 book Fantasyland, Wall Street Journal sportswriter Sam Walker sets out to join and win the most prestigious fantasy baseball league in the world. While he is up against the foremost fantasy baseball experts, Walker believes he has an edge — his access to players and managers as a journalist. Though his quest may seem like a trivial pursuit, Walker certainly doesn’t act that way.
Walker’s quest, and life, very quickly devolves into madness. In the months before the season, Walker hires two front-office employees, travels to Florida and Arizona for AL teams’ spring training camps, and spends thousands of dollars on research material. Before the season even starts, he’s burned through $20,000 dollars amassing the resources and intel to craft the best team possible.
And when the season starts, Walker goes even wilder, once running back into his apartment after a nearby fire just to watch his pitcher, Roger Clemens, give up a grand slam. “What happened?” his wife exclaims when she walks in, to which Walker replies, “Francona is an idiot.”
It’s a marvelously entertaining read, one that is made all the more engaging given the lengths Walker goes to achieve fantasy greatness. It’s a timely one, too. One of Walker’s main problems is balancing scouting and advanced statistics, and the data trends Walker describes have become the primary force behind baseball front offices in the years since. And fantasy sports in general have surged and legitimized as a major component of the Big Four sports leagues (and gambling operations).
Of course, the best part is just how much fantasy baseball warps Walker’s perspective (as deftly illustrated by the Francona incident). It’s the kind of hyperbole-filled tale that makes you say, “I’m a sports fan, but at least I’m not that crazy.”
I can say that, but it wouldn’t be entirely true. Though I didn’t drop $20,000 or traverse the country for information, my fantasy basketball season isn’t all that far off Walker’s crazed pursuit of a title. It was truly the stuff of legend.
The idea for a fantasy basketball league came, as so many ideas do nowadays, from my friend, former SI Kids reporter, and tortured Browns fan Patrick Andres. Sometime in October, Patrick asked if any of us would be interested in a fantasy basketball league for the winter. Sure, my friends and I said, why not? I was nearing my fantasy football retirement, but I was hopeful that fantasy basketball could get me more interested in the NBA regular season and, at the very least, provide a forum for friendly competition amongst sports intellectuals.
The rules were relatively simple: 12 teams with each team matching up head-to-head against an opponent over the course of a week and competing in eight different statistical categories. For example, I could have the lead in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks among my team, but unless I could muster an advantage in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-pointers, or steals, the most I could achieve was a split result. Each team could roster 13 active players and up to two injured players, with a free agency open for any player not on a team.
With Patrick, you never just get the baseline. The league, called the Northwestern-ish Basketball League, would have its own weekly newsletter, The Basket Case (subheadline: Hoops Happenings from Abrines to Zubac), that Patrick would type up every Sunday night and deliver to each dorm room. That escalated the tensions and trash talk among my fellow team owners on draft night, and by the start of the fantasy draft a bunch of us were determined to go all-in.
Turning Point 1: The Draft
The draft itself was low-key, with around eight of the league members sitting in our dorm’s game room with laptops running the draft on ESPN.com. I ran a couple mock draft simulations to get familiar with some of the names of players and equipped myself with a draft night cheat sheet from the sports/culture site The Ringer, but I certainly didn’t go to the lengths Walker did in his exhaustive fantasy baseball research. I also researched strategies on Google, including “tanking” categories, though I didn’t lock myself into one mentality. Drafting, whether on the schoolyard, in the franchise modes of video games, or in fantasy leagues, was something I loved to do, and I knew that as long as I didn’t mess it up with indecisive “iguana brain” thinking, I could field a pretty good team and be competitive.
The first info I got when the draft tipped off was my slot — 12th out of 12 teams. Since the format was a snake draft, meaning I would pick first in the second round, I wasn’t mad at all, but it just meant I wouldn’t have the surefire superstars of an owner picking in the top three. And when my first turn came up, I selected two excellent values, Toronto forward Pascal Siakam and Portland guard Damian Lillard. The next couple rounds were far from easy — Harrison Larner, who would turn out to be my biggest rival, picked in the slot directly before me and stole my prospective pick in three consecutive rounds. Still, I picked some players I felt like I could get behind, like exciting Memphis rookie Ja Morant, and picked players who could fill all eight of the categories, such as Pacers center Myles Turner. With each pick, I entered his name and projected statistics into a spreadsheet, and, looking across all the cells, I felt like I had one of the top teams in the league. Interestingly, I cut the last five players I selected in the draft at various points in the season, so the draft wasn’t the be-all, end-all — the work was still to come.
Turning Point 2: The Opening Stretch
Going into the first week, the jury was out on the best team. Harrison (owner of the Home Depot Narratives) was the most experienced fantasy player, while Drew Schott (Kawhi So Serious) had superstars like Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard on his roster. John Volk (Seattle Supersonics) had a wealth of talent, and I definitely couldn’t count out league commissioner Patrick (Toledo Bricklayers).
But after two weeks, there was a clear leader — Rock’em Siakam, owned by one John Riker. Playing against a teacher from Patrick’s high school (Lake Erie Islanders), I won six categories, tied two, and was the only team owner to not lose a category. Against my roommate Daniel Olinger (Powell On), I took a slight 5-3 lead, then pounded the immensely friendly and charmingly inactive Mike McDonough (Team McDonough) 8-0 to retain my lead atop the standings. There was skepticism around the league. “You’ve played a bunch of bad teams,” Harrison pointed out, while John touted his own team as “the team to beat.” And as it turned out, I wouldn’t need to finish with more wins that either to make the playoffs, as my division alignment was in the easiest of the three, the White division. Still, wins were wins. I let other teams know about it, too, and presented myself as an overly obnoxious, smack-talking character. It was all in good fun, and, since the prize was essentially bragging rights, the emotional investment of all the top teams made the stakes seem sky high.
I wasn’t content with my early dividends, and when Harrison came knocking on my doorstep with a trade offer I couldn’t refuse, I couldn’t look away. Harrison, looking to create a top-heavy roster with a couple megastars and big free agent contributors, packaged me Utah guard Donovan Mitchell and Golden State guard D’Angelo Russell for Lillard and Utah reserve Joe Ingles, who Harrison cut a few days later. Mitchell helped patch up my undermanned shooting guard spot, while I dangled Russell to Brooklyn fan Drew to get a big deal in the works. I also shot a text to John Volk and another to Patrick — all while I was at a newspaper social event. And, after contentious negotiation, I got a huge deal done. In exchange for my first-round pick, Pascal Siakam, plus Russell and Miami big man Bam Adebayo, I brought in a bona-fide top-three fantasy stud in Laker Anthony Davis as well as guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. In just a couple weeks, I shook up half of my roster and sent a message to the league — I was willing to take bold risks and do whatever it took to make my team, now christened The Morey the Merrier (after Northwestern graduate and controversial Houston general manager Daryl Morey), the best.
Turning Point Three: Turbulence
As the wins piled up, the presence of fantasy basketball in my life shot up. I checked the free agency pool and waiver wire for potential acquisitions every day and scoured the ESPN experts’ top 200 rankings every week. When I saw fellow league owners in the dining hall, I was prone to opening up trade negotiations, and when they were my opponent that week, I’d talk a little trash and explain how my team would come out on top. Going to a Bulls game wasn’t just entertainment, it was “a scouting trip”, as Harrison put it. Almost half the guys didn’t really try (Patrick also got the short-end of the stick when his top guy, Stephen Curry, missed most of the season due to injury), but to the ones who did, the season was quickly becoming an arms race to the top.
My stake atop the league seemed tenuous, but the success allowed me to take risks on players instead of trying to catch up. When Matthew Coronado (DeAndre Ain’t Playin) cut ties with Atlanta forward John Collins, who had recently been suspended for about a month for substance abuse, I quickly picked him up and stashed him on my bench. I also waited out injuries to players like Lowry and Morant, a luxury I could afford given my stature across all the categories (especially in points and field goal percentage).
Not only did checking fantasy become a part of my daily routine, but I switched out one of my players with a free agent each day to allow my team to have the most possible starts (since all teams don’t play every day and there are seven weekly acquisitions allowed). The tactic allowed me to run up the score on less active opponents, plus provided me with valuable contributors, such as Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen and New Orleans sharpshooter J.J. Redick. In addition to the ESPN rankings, I found a website that allowed me to manipulate recent statistics and projections to create my own rankings and evaluate trades and acquisitions. Suddenly, I had a working knowledge of nearly every NBA starter’s relevant statistical numbers (and a daily knowledge of my own players’ performances) and could contribute basketball knowledge about at least one player whenever my roommate Daniel turned on a game on the TV.
A definitive 6-2 win over Harrison boosted my ego further, but it was deflated the next week when John Volk pulled out a 5-3 win over me, claiming “The Battle of the Johns” as that week’s iteration of the Basket Case put it, and handing me my first overall loss of the season. The box score may have seemed close, but the categories said otherwise: a 50-assist deficit, advantages of 11 steals and 17 three-pointers, a huge difference in shooting efficiency, and a Volk win in my strongest category, points. It was an existential loss, one that made me question my whole roster construction and wonder whether there was any way I could knock off the Seattle Supersonics, who were very close to claiming the throne.
The most obvious way to weaken John Volk’s team would be through a lopsided trade that would make me better while at the same time diminishing the prospects of his own squad. But John wouldn’t open trade talks (for good reason), leaving trades with other teams as the alternative. Seeking to “tank” on assists, a category where John clearly had me beat, I included Minnesota dimer Jeff Teague and still-suspended John Collins in a winter break trade to Harrison for Dallas big man Kristaps Porzingis and a three-point ace in Washington’s Davis Bertans. Before agreeing to the trade, I ran the numbers against statistical models and player rankings for over two hours. The trade worked out terribly for me, as Porzingis and Bertans hit the injury list shortly after the trade and Collins took off as an elite point-rebound contributor, but my team could withstand a setback.
Turning Point Four: Coronation
January was a pretty quiet month, with my team notching a couple 5-3 and 6-2 victories against ho-hum opponents. I had the division lead all but sealed (I was the only white team owner to be active on a daily basis) and held a comfortable 5-10 game lead over the other teams in the league.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. Whenever I turned on my phone, my finger would, by habit, veer to the ESPN fantasy app, and I kept tabs on my team almost every night of games. I would check at all times of day — during Northwestern basketball games I was covering, during lectures, during meals, during bathroom trips — and the response to my proclamations about a three-steal performance by Patrick Beverley subsisted around some form of: “why do you care so much?” Like Walker, the frenzy of fantasy sports had warped my perceptions and habits. I felt like Adam Sandler’s character, a degenerate gambler, in Uncut Gems, constantly investing my emotions on the slightest of basketball occurrences (though it was bragging rights, not money, that was at stake). When All Star break rolled around, I felt withdrawal from the absence of basketball.
In the final weeks of January and going into February, I went from front-runner to runaway favorite. Aiming to bring back former draftee Bam Adebayo, I unloaded Porzingis, the centerpiece of the terrible Harrison deal, on Drew along with an exchange of Brooklyn Nets backups (Spencer Dinwiddie for Jarrett Allen). A couple weeks later, I struck again, sending Bertans and the slightly disappointing Tobias Harris to Davis (King Trask) for the mega-efficient LaMarcus Aldridge. And finally, the death knell, was an offer I received from Patrick, who was on the fringes of the wild card chase — Ja Morant, the likely Rookie of the Year but a more modest fantasy asset, for the soon-to-return Stephen Curry. In three moves, I had built a roster that seemingly eliminated any chance for defeat.
The results showed, too: February was bookended with 5-3 wins over Harrison and Drew and highlighted by an 8-0 revenge serving of John Volk’s Supersonics. I clinched the White division title with just over a month still to go, with the league lead not far behind. “Oh, it’s over,” Harrison relented after the Curry trade. I was the Michael Corleone of the Northwestern-ish Basketball Association. It was just a matter of time before the title was official.
Turning Point Five: Coronavirus
A championship win looked inevitable going into the penultimate month of the NBA regular season and the start of the fantasy playoffs. I had sizable advantages in almost every statistical category (nearly 100 assists and rebounds per matchup, plus one 400-point advantage in a matchup), and that was without Steph Curry in my starting lineup. The top challengers had conceded, with Harrison assuring me that he would definitely beat me at fantasy baseball.
All it would take to stop The Morey The Merrier would be something unprecedented, something unbelievable, the equivalent of a blue moon in the sports world.
A global pandemic would do it. And unfortunately, it did. Rudy Gobert, the star center of the Utah Jazz and a formidable fantasy player in his own right, was found to be positive for COVID-19 right before the tip-off of a March 11 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The NBA would not resume play again after that night, with the 2019-20 season being postponed. March Madness was cancelled. Outside of the sports world, my university announced it would extend spring break a week and make the first three weeks of our spring quarter online-only, while other schools closed for the year.
As I was packing up my things, my finger once again subconsciously drifted to the ESPN Fantasy app and I was reminded of another stoppage, albeit one that was now fully overshadowed by the real-life consequences of a worldwide catastrophe. It was laughably ironic that a team so sure to win the title, one I spent so much time researching and building, wouldn’t get that chance and that I’d never be there for the final night of games to celebrate a long-awaited ultimate victory. One of my top performers, Donovan Mitchell, was the second NBA player to test positive for the virus. There was no guarantee the NBA season would resume, and even if it did, the fantasy basketball season would surely be over.
Coronavirus prevention was bigger than basketball, and certainly bigger than fantasy basketball, but that irony was more humorous than crushing. After all, I had gone through the full journey of a fantasy player (in some people’s opinions, addict) and built a championship-worthy team. The chase, from the draft to the trade negotiations to the tireless research to the waiver-wire scouring, was gold itself and brought me closer to the NBA than I had ever been before. When the competition was over, it gave my friends and I a season of memories to remember after months of hard-fought battles.
Would I do it again after the price I paid to make The Morey The Merrier elite? That will take soul-searching after the disappointment of a season cut short, and in all likelihood I doubt the emotional chips will ever be as fully in the middle as they were this year. I could leave riding out into the sunset, like I have in fantasy football, and be more free to watch the league from the standpoint of a fan and student of the game rather than a compulsive owner clamoring after the most basic elements of a box score. Then again, we’
In Mario Puzo’s drama The Godfather, Vito Corleone says something that is as true of gangsters as it is of owners of fantasy basketball teams: “great men are not born great, they grow great.”
With The Morey The Merrier, it was the “growing great” that made it worth it. And, just maybe, this Northwestern freshman did his team’s namesake and fellow Wildcat proud along the way.