Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Remember when Kobe was here?

Somebody recently asked about my favorite Kobe Bryant moment of all time. I couldn’t come up with one. The thousands of games and tens of thousands of plays within all those games have somehow formed into composites—an athlete performing mind-boggling feats under washes of light and accompanied by a screaming sound chorus, moments that become isolated on sports shows and augmented by camera pans and time-altered effects until they simply become part of an ever-changing narrative. 

Glory, defeat, shame, redemption, injury, recovery, debate, the bloom of youth to the inevitability of age, from his rookie year to this—hours before his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers.

I haven’t written much about Bryant this season. I can’t begin to explain why, except that it is some form of avoidance. And a rationale that if everyone else is doing it, there is no need for me to. What could I possibly add to that vast lexicon?

During training camp I contemplated a story that would take place in the present while imagining the future—one without the man. The idea that he has touched so many people in so many different ways, and a vacuum that could have a more lasting impact than some might imagine.

But I couldn’t really wrap my head around it all. Instead, I simply looked at box scores and read the commentary. I winced at the truly awful games and took small pleasures in those rare moments when a guy who should be in a wheelchair managed some approximation of the greatness he once was.

And a season slipped by.

He has outlasted several generations of players when you consider the professional lifespan of an average NBA hoopster is 4.8 years. Bryant’s two decades have not only put him into the fringes of uncharted territory, but have also resulted in a shifting and evolving attitude toward him, from those who played with him and those who chronicled his career. He has earned the well-deserved reputation of a difficult person to be around.

Fierce, uncompromising, competitive beyond what is acceptable even in the cutthroat world of sports.

In a Nike commercial in which athletes were asked to sum Bryant up in a single word, Kevin Durant said quietly, “asshole.”

There was an implicit respect in the curse. 

Or as his onetime Lakers teammate Steve Nash mused on a different occasion, “a fucking asshole.”

But generational fluxes also play into these dynamics, the take-no-prisoners attitude exhibited toward peers becomes folklore observed by younger athletes growing up, who then become participants themselves.

What always struck me, above anything else, was the degree of difficulty.

Bryant set the bar impossibly high, Icarus flying too close to the sun but tinkering with the mechanics or “the process” as he always called it, in order to somehow avoid melting the wax and feathers. And when his plummet to earth inevitably happened, he took the road back as a Sisyphean challenge—a self-aggrandizing overachiever who pushed a too-large boulder up the hill over and over again, pausing only for ice baths or Orthokine knee treatments in Germany.

The impossible shot selections, the tendency to take over games, the tunnel vision that his way was not only the best but the only way, wasn’t the work of a guitar hero shredding without form or structure. Because his relentless film study, his analytical destruction and reconstruction of all known aspects of the game, recalibrated after each injury and the passing years, seemed to coalesce into airtight arguments, statements of fact and accomplishments so detailed and immense that it just became easier for others to simply give up in the end.

Until the end.

The last time I wrote at any length about Bryant was last summer, acknowledging the futility of adding to a story that has been so thoroughly covered for two decades by imagining what might lie ahead through a fictional construct:

Ask the average person how many articles have been written about Kobe Bryant and you’ll get a blank stare in return. Nobody knows but it is certainly a very high number. It would be like counting the mosaic tiles in the Basilica of San Vitale. 
There are no new angles to explore, there is no new information to report. Past glories have been repeated to death and there are only so many ways to spin predictions for his probably-but-not-absolutely final season of basketball. There can be no criticisms that have not yet been voiced, no chronicling of hero shots that have been launched or death glares cast toward teammates. Or teammates who worship him or those who hate him, or new ones he hasn’t yet met due to a top secret gyrocopter excursion to a mountaintop retreat where he’ll undergo molecular cartilage transfusions in an attempt to grow a new finger in place of that hideous turnip currently attached to his right hand… or left hand.

Twenty years of witnessing a particular player, on television, in person, listening left-to-right on the radio dial while stuck in rush hour traffic on the way home from some job or another. Chick Hearn’s words eye view gave the kind of accompaniment that transformed to actual visual memories years later. Because these are all snippets, brush strokes that form a collective over time. Watching pirate feeds on a shaky dialup connection, commenting with bloggers on long ago threads that no longer exist, bantering on social media with friends from another place in time.

The passing generations were not only the players Bryant encountered and outlasted along the way, they were also the observers and the very methods of observation. The snake is long, 20 miles long.

ESPN’s Baxter Holmes recently wrote a stunningly good piece about the last true days of Bryant. Seven brutal games in which the gift and curse of obsession was on full display, the refusal to rest, the chain reaction of a freeway pileup in order to achieve a cause, leading ultimately to a blown-out Achilles tendon:

It's possible, in retrospect, to see what happened three years ago as something foreshadowed by ominous portents. The last game of Kobe Bryant -- the gladiator Kobe Bryant, the bulletproof, monomaniacal Kobe Bryant -- was full of such moments. But that's how history works. After the fact, everything is clear.

That should have been the final chapter, the ultimate body betrayal and self-destruction after so many wars.

Of course, that wasn’t how it ended. There would be a surgery to reattach the tendon after so many previous surgeries on other body parts, and months of rehabilitation followed rapturously by the media, followed by another season in which he broke his left knee after just six games, with another torturously long recovery period made even longer by all the previous damage done to his body. And that was followed by the Lakers signing Kobe to a new $48.5 million two-year contract. And then he was trotted out once more, only to tear his shoulder, requiring yet another operation.

They shoot horses, don't they?

And finally, one last farewell tour, one that could only have been imagined by the spirits of the underworld. Bryant, his body completely broken, soldiering through the worst season in his team’s entire history. 

But somewhere along the line he finally came to peace with it all. The jaw-jutting anger from years past has been replaced by something we are far less familiar with. He smiles more easily now, laughs off questions he once would have bristled at, talks about gratitude and acceptance. Bryant has managed to hold his body together until the very end, the team leader in points per game, putting up 35 the other night against the Houston Rockets.

And the inescapable fact that he has been a pure joy to watch over these many years. We could still squint our eyes a little and see that guy.

How do you identify a favorite moment? It is elusive and subjective, with only one remaining sliver to grasp at. It is just hours before the final curtain. One more ice bath, the last drive to Staples Center and a gimpy stroll through a tunnel accompanied by cameras and shouted questions.

And then the wash of lights and the swelling sound.

Remember when Kobe was here?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Marcelo Huertas and D’Angelo Russell: The Parallax View

Coming from different places in time and space, two rookies will converge at the same point this fall. 

D’Angelo Russell is the Los Angeles Lakers’ prized No. 2 draft pick while Marcelo "Marcelinho" Huertas will make his NBA debut at the ripe old age of 32.

News of Huertas being signed by L.A. caused a ripple but certainly not a roar.

Perhaps it’s because the Brazilian point guard is relatively unknown in this country, or maybe it's just the dog days of late summer.

Then again, Russell can sell copy for days by simply tweeting about Tracy McGrady.

It’s understandable—the precocious playmaker is 19 years old and holds the promise of future fame and fortune. His star-crossed storyline hits the required notes of a journey yet traveled.

Huertas, meanwhile, has long been regarded as the one of the best non-NBA point guards in the universe. But that universe is “over there” and the 6’3” Euroleague star is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

Their parallel paths may have seemed worlds apart but now they have been placed on an intersecting course that could provide plenty of media fodder for the basketball season that lies just ahead. 

L.A.’s success rate with lead guards has been spotty in recent years. The three-year contract with future Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash produced just 60 games as he limped to an ignominious ending demanded by the gods of time.

Last season’s Jeremy Lin experiment fizzled out and before that, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar spent as much time on the trainer’s table as did Nash. Chris Duhon and Darius Morris existed on the roster at some particular point while Kendall Marshall was plucked from D-League obscurity to average 8.8 assists through 54 games during the 2013-14 season.

But while he tied with John Wall for 2nd on the APG leaderboard that season, Marshall wasn’t invited back by the Purple and Gold.

The brightest spot in all of this was Jordan Clarkson—last year’s No. 46 draft pick parlayed scrub minutes into a Cinderella success story, including All-Rookie First Team honors. His speed, athleticism and work ethic probably should have earned the 6’5” guard a chance to build on his success at the point. But L.A. pulled a draft night stunner when they chose Russell as the second overall pick, passing over Jahlil Okafor—perhaps the most potent offensive pivot of a generation.

Clarkson’s trajectory now shifts to the shooting guard slot where he may or may not succeed alongside Russell—imagine two souped-up street racers being asked by Lakers coach Byron Scott to proceed at a leisurely half-court pace while their internal RPMs redline frantically.

But as interesting as the Russell/Clarkson dynamic could be, the acquisition of Huertas serves as an unexpected late summer hip check. A wild card just entered the race and his credentials, though continents removed, are well established.

Born in Sao Paulo, Huertas grew up playing in local youth clubs before transferring to Coppell High in Texas for his senior year. The foreign exchange student landed a varsity spot at the small suburban school by unleashing a 70-foot bounce pass during a pick-up game.

Once his 2000-2001 season ended, Huertas returned to Brazil where he honed his skills at the Academy of South America before turning pro. Three years later he jumped the Atlantic to the Spanish ACB league, playing for DKV Joventut for three seasons and Bibao Basket for one. He spent the following year in the Italian league before returning to ACB with Saski Baskonia. For the past four years he has played for FC Barcelona—the powerhouse Spanish team that spawned both Pau and Marc Gasol.

The point guard is also a longtime member of the senior men’s Brazilian national team, playing in Olympic, FIBA and Pan American competition and winning several gold medals along the way. The international games have allowed him the experience of matching up against Team USA stars like Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and a guy named Kobe Bryant.

There have been lucrative Euro contracts and exorbitant buyout clauses, precluding the NBA dream. But with his most recent agreement having expired, Huertas was finally be able to cross one more thing off his bucket list.

The middle-aged rookie will be the first NBA player ever produced by Coppell High and it took just 14 years to get there.

Meanwhile, Russell was a prep sensation and played his one-and-done freshman year at Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the NCAA 2015 Tournament before losing in the round of 32 to Arizona.

But despite the vast differences in age and experience, the two NBA newbies also share common attributes.

Russell is heralded for possessing an uncanny court vision at a tender age and Huertas has been similarly celebrated for years. The teenager fires ridiculous wrap-around passes that seem to defy the laws of physics, while Marcelinho has been dealing spectacular dimes ever since that long-ago 70-footer.

Neither is an elite defender—Russell lacks strength and is slow getting around ball screens while Huertas doesn’t have great lateral mobility and is also relatively ineffective combatting screens. Each will benefit from being backstopped on the defensive end by L.A.’s biggest free agent acquisition this summer, man-mountain Roy Hibbert.

There are also important differences. Russell is a superior rebounder and more complete shooter whereas Huertas’ offense is streaky, featuring a funky-looking set shot and a one-legged runner.

One has already peaked while the other is just getting started. During an interview with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Huertas spoke about a potential secondary role in the NBA at this late point in his career, mentoring young players and assisting veterans.

“If you look at NBA rosters, there are unbelievable starting point guards, but maybe not as many guys who can come off the bench able to run the team, score the ball , as well as being able to be a leader for young players,” Huertas said. “Those are things I know I’ll be able to bring with me.”

But despite his expressed willingness to play a backup role, it’s doubtful the Lakers front office is viewing their overseas acquisition as mere insurance or an afterthought.

After all, if there is any chance for Bryant to experience one more playoff run, it will take more than the developmental curve of rookies and sophomores like Russell, Clarkson and Julius Randle. It will mean a heavy reliance on Hibbert, the steadiness of journeyman Brandon Bass and the scoring punch of reigning Sixth Man Lou Williams.

And you can now add one of the world’s great playmakers to the mix—a guy who dropped 13 dimes on Bryant and Team USA during an Olympic exhibition. But this time he’ll be on the Mamba’s side.

As for those wondering if an overseas point guard can succeed in Scott’s hybrid Princeton offense, not to worry—both the Brazilian national team and FC Barcelona feature traditional systems, including liberal doses of the Flex offense with its heavy reliance on passing, cuts and ball-reversals. Huertas has also run a lot of Horns sets in Spain, something the Lakers dabbled with last season.

None of this should diminish Russell’s potential—the immensely talented lottery pick represents the potential next face of the franchise. But it is also not fair to place outsized expectations upon a kid who will often err while reaching for greatness. His 175-to-102 assists-to-turnover ratio ranked him 175th among other college guards last season, and his 5.2 turnovers per game during Las Vegas Summer League was an inauspicious introduction to the NBA—especially stacked against an average of only 3.2 assists.

The princeling’s greatness will come in time, but he has to learn not to drink the entire ocean in one gulp. That said, the future belongs to the new generation and the Lakers front office has made no pretenses about their forward-looking rebuild.

But parallel lines don’t always have to go peacefully into the night. Maybe Huertas is a complementary second fiddle and maybe he gives a young kid a run for his money. Maybe he rips world-class passes to Bryant’s sweet spots all night long or maybe they both hobble off to the retirement farm before the season’s half over.

If recent years have proved anything for the Lakers, it’s that nothing seems to go by plan.

The point guard position can be viewed along two different lines of sight, measured by the angles of inclination between those lines.

Russell could grab the gauntlet and achieve his instant success. Or maybe a Euro legend throws a full-court skip pass to a swan song superstar, and all bets are off—across the basketball universe.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wag the Fandom: A Midsummer Night's Joint

There are two types of basketball fans, those who go to games and those who don’t.

It’s not a particularly accurate statement but it’s the kind of hook that can serve to illustrate a message.

What is the message? There isn’t just one, there are many. Wag the fandom!

And don’t forget the hook—bolster it, express it, worship it, pervert it, turn it into software and sell it by the bushel, baby.

One type of fan may go to as many games as he or she can afford, immersed in the live experience and feeling part of a community—celebrating the wins and feeling the abject misery of the losses, shouting themselves hoarse and knocking fists, hands, hips and spilled drinks with surrounding bodies.

Another fan mostly stares at a screen or multiple screens and is obsessed with social media. This fan may or may not attend the occasional game in person but crams in as much action as possible through the cyber experience.

There’s also the media types who may be part of the live experience by attending games on a regular basis in order to write/comment/observe, or may stare obsessively at a screen on order to do same.

Chronicling the game takes shape in many forms, including traditional global behemoths, city beats, national fan sites, networked oligarchies, team fan sites, boutique highbrows, egghead analysis and sublimely ridiculous basketball confessionals. For anyone who feels as if they have fallen through a crack, do not worry—the crevices aren’t all that deep.

As a collective, you can simply lump all human parts together like modeling clay—talking heads, old-school writers, college kids who are way too smart for their own good and basketball freaks and geeks of all colors and political/religious/economic persuasions—all part and parcel of the same soulful stew, contributing to an experience with an untold worth that in turn caters to the teams themselves and their estimated $30 billion gross annual value.

But while fandom is an intrinsic part of it all, there are still other equally important components. Such as players and coaches and executives, and owners and league operatives and sources—don’t forget the sources. These are the nameless shape shifters, from team personnel to snake oil salesmen and from “league officials” to friends, family and fans!

But the sources typically can’t have names—not in sports or anything else media related because that compromises the integrity of the message and the message is sacrosanct, no matter how ludicrous it is.

Journalism’s word is binding and that’s why the granting of anonymity is taken so seriously. This is important stuff and players’ careers, their earnings and the lives of their families depend on truth, accuracy and fair play.

Let’s examine a case study while protecting the anonymity of all involved.

A particular freewheeling player is coming off a career year and has been rewarded with a four-year deal, the final year of which is a team option. The money is good but nothing in the superstardom range. It may be $5.5 million per year.

We will call this player “Bill.” He is now our friend and we want him to succeed, even if he sometimes annoys us with his capricious shot-chucking ways.

Bill is at practice and he jams a finger. Most humans know how painful and commonplace this can be. It screws up everything. For hoopsters it is a routine occurrence and is often treated in a cursory way—ever seen the twisted, gnarled hands of professional athletes?

Our finger-hurting pal shows up to work and has an off night which is not surprising as he is a rather streaky fellow, even when healthy. Undeterred by the throbbing pain, Bill lofts up 13 attempts, connecting on only two. He laughs it off after the game and chuckles good-naturedly when a member of his entourage makes a trade reference.

A weary media member who arrived too late to get any actual worthwhile quotes, decides to tweet out the trade joke, omitting any elements of humor. The “possible trade of Bill according to an unnamed source” receives minimal attention on a slow night.

But an editor of a large fan site instructs a writer to pen 800 words about Team X Searching for Trade Partner for Bill, adding some helpful tips: “Use your unique perspective and expertise to make a credible argument that will convince your readers!”

As it turns out, the fan site is not alone, with several other media platforms milking the same message. It is assumed that this minor blip will be nothing but programming filler.

Two nights later, Bill’s finger is still swollen and stiff with a nice knob forming at the intermediate phalange of his index digit. He loves his social media and has laughed off the rumors but it’s another lousy game and he’s still jacking up rim-clangers. It’s starting to get into his head.

One of the traditional behemoths decides the little story could benefit from a few million extra hits and augments it with video auto-play commentary. There’s “what-if” pontification and a new unnamed source.

It is the third game since Bill’s boo-boo occurred and the team has headed out on a mini road trip, appearing on a cold winter’s night at a Really Big Arena where opposing fans have picked up on the gathering story and are only too delighted to add to the communal joy experience. Our erstwhile Volume Scorer forces up a rather large arsenal of air-balls and other wounded ducks as boos rain down from the rafters.

It’s a nationally televised game and a color commentator mentions the trade rumors. During the post-game presser, questions are coming at Bill and his coach—a guy who sometimes likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much. The team’s PR guru grits his teeth and pulls the plug.

The team’s general manager, "Joe," is well aware of all that is happening but he’s a veteran of these idiotic wars and considers it all bullshit. He has more pressing things to deal with, like a Megastar who will be a free agent at the end of the season—said centerpiece being a hell of a lot more important to the world than Bill.

A writer at an egghead stats-based site has been observing this nonsense from afar—living in Iceland as he does. After a day spent coding for a new game about baby sea turtles trying to cross a coastal highway, our scribe just needs to decompress. He believes he has found some interesting patterns cementing his existing belief that our finger-jammed hero is nothing more than a one-dimensional ball hog with a ludicrous usage rate. This turns into a scathing treatise filled with shot charts and analytic logic and the inescapable conclusion that the entire organization stinks from the top down. Most importantly, Bill must go!

Mount Quoranocco forms a lonely peak from which rains sluices down, gathering speed in a myriad of tiny streams and joining forces with runoff from neighborhoods, streets, yards, golf courses and factories, filtering into storm drains and carrying the collected polluted water into a giant discharge pipe that emerges from the side of a sandy cliff, spewing the frothy stuff into an otherwise peaceful ocean inlet.

"Ben," the owner of Team X and a man who made his fortune as an industrialist, is sitting by the window wall of his beach house, staring quizzically at the sewage spilling from that cursed pipe into his beloved ocean cove. The irony of the origins of his wealth and the gray damaged water do not escape him.

But there are other things on his mind as well. While Ben may be the only person in his entire organization who has never jammed a finger, he has formed definitive notions about the dynamics of business and sports and how that correlates on the court. He also had somebody create a special software analytics model at an exorbitant cost that he has been using to examine the chasm between where his team is and where he thinks it should be.

Ben also just finished reading the Icelander’s article. He picks up the phone and calls his GM.

Meanwhile, Bill has taken to wearing a part-time split on his wounded finger and the combination of rest, ice treatments, various drugs and the ability to semi-compartmentalize pain has resulted in a slight improvement.

Joe takes the call from his owner and is told to explore the trade market. This news is leaked immediately, of course, because by now, a very prominent writer who can deduce all transactional information within fractions of seconds with a 99.9 percent accuracy rate, is on the job.

But after a few days of calls, it becomes apparent there are no serious takers for Bill’s multiyear contract—the exception being a lottery-bound team who offers up a 23-year-old center with artificial knees who has yet to make his rookie debut, three years after being drafted.

On December 22, Bill scores 32 points off the bench, including all seven of his downtown bombs. His team still loses. The following night on a back-to-back, the guy with the healing finger defies all known logic with another 32 points, along with two steals, no assists and no rebounds. Basketball twitter melts and an editor instructs a writer to crank out 800 words about Why Team X Must Surround Bill With Worthy Teammates, adding, “Use your exceptional abilities to convince your audience of the credibility of your argument and make sure you reinforce the message every three sentences.”

Two days later the Superstar demands a trade to “any team possibly contending for the playoffs” and Bill’s up and down journey falls completely off the map after only getting as high as No. 37 on the All-Sports Media Syndicated Ratings Data for the second two weeks of December.

There are fans who go to sports events and those who don’t, and players who either play the “right way” or have no interest whatsoever in matters of subjective correctness, or in owners whose career successes have more in common with carcinogenic runoff than any actual tactile experience with a spinning orb on a rainbow trajectory toward an improbably small and distant target.

The sources and messages and interpretations, along with aimless wordsmithing can matter a lot or not at all, and who will really remember once the next evolutionary step of Frogger is released, 20 years later, this time starring baby sea turtles? 

Wag the fandom!

Somewhere a car floats around a corner with the music bumping and the windows dark. A 7-foot junkie is busted in Gold Bar with a stocking over his head, and a man who once roamed the sidelines in richly colored synthetic blends lies quietly in a sterile room, imagining the road ahead.

There’s no reason to reinforce the hook now, it was just a midsummer night's joint.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sasha Vujacic: The Machine Also Rises

Aleksander “Sasha” Vujacic—known for psycho-ferret defense, fastidious eyebrow-grooming rituals at the charity stripe and the constant need to be loved—is back.

The former NBA combo guard has reached a one-year, veteran’s minimum salary agreement to join the New York Knicks. Forget the relatively inconsequential contract details—this is a story that could beget many other stories.

Vujacic rejoins former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Derek Fisher (now coaching the Knicks) and former coach Phil Jackson (now running NY operations).

Born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which transitioned into present-day Slovenia, Vujacic blazed a precocious path of teenaged basketball excellence in the Italian League before being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004.

The 6’7” combo guard with mercury speed and erratic shot sniper tendencies, played the better part of six seasons in L.A., providing an impassioned bench presence that sometime bordered on a Cockatoo-like neurosis.

He was an irritant to opposing teammates as well as Jackson himself. In 2009, the coach zinged the five-year veteran, per the Los AngelesTimes (h/t @KG_NBA):

We just had to come to the conclusion that Sasha's just an emotional player that plays by the seat of his pants, and that's about it. He just doesn't have a brain. He's just out there whacking away and working really hard. He's not using his head out there at times. We're working with him, hoping that he will.

A decade later, Vujacic prepares to join forces with this year’s fourth overall draft pick, Kristaps Porzingis—a spindly and preternaturally talented 7-foot Latvian teen prodigy. This, amid an interesting and elusive time continuum as Jackson attempts to borrow from his own fading history books. He is trying to marry the past to the present in a league that, quite frankly, has moved on.

Vujacic picked up two championship rings during his run with the Lakers. But in December 2010, he was traded to the New Jersey Nets as part of a three-team package that returned 35-year-old Joe Smith and a couple future second-round picks. Smith averaged 0.5 points over 12 games and then retired.

In what might have been his last interview as a Laker before being heading East, Vujacic expressed frustration with reduced minutes while also providing a meandering insight into matters of fandom.

“It’s nothing in-between,” Vujacic said per Elie Seckbach. “Y’know, either to be or not to be. That’s what it takes to be on top. And that’s always why somebody will like you. But when I play I like to give everything I have. That’s one thing they will hopefully always appreciate.”

The Machine was once engaged to Maria Sharapova. He favors a miniscule headband that barely constrains his raven locks and is the founder and creative spirit behind Aleksander—a luxury red wine produced in Paso Robles, California. And, his basketball career continued after Los Angeles, albeit in a serpentine fashion.

The combo guard actually put up career numbers in New Jersey, averaging 11.4 points in 56 games. But then the NBA summer lockout of 2011 happened. Vujacic decided not to wait it out, signing for a full season with Turkish League powerhouse Anadolu Efes which subsequently led to a second season.

There were attempts to return to the NBA, usually heralded by Vujacic through cheerful social media workout messages and gauzy beach sunset photos.

In February 2014 he appeared in two games and a total of 10 minutes for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nothing speaks NBA oblivion more clearly than a 10-day contract with no further services required.
Not to be deterred, Vujacic headed back overseas, playing in both the Spanish and Italian Leagues before returning to Turkey.

Brief articles that have encapsulated Vujacic’s signing by the Knicks invariably question whether he has anything left in the tank. Yet, the Slovenian converted 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc for Istanbul BB during the 2014-15 season.

He’s always had the ability to catch-and-shoot or let fly off the dribble, using his height and a high release to avoid approaching traffic.

The question isn’t necessarily whether the nomadic baller has the means to contribute, but the larger context of Jackson’s revisionist remake of the Knicks.

The Zen Master has a long habit of retreading veteran players, bringing Ron Harper and Horace Grant from his Chicago Bulls heyday to the Lakers in the early 2000s for instance. In returning full circle to New York where he began his career, the man with all the NBA bling assembled a coaching staff that not only included Fisher, but Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons as well—all longtime operatives in his Triangle system.

There aren’t many active NBA players left from Jackson’s coaching days—Kobe Bryant is entering his 20th season with the Lakers, Pau Gasol is with the Bulls and Trevor Ariza is with the Houston Rockets.

That left few viable options, save for the return of the Machine.

Vujacic will be joining a team that bombed out last season before restocking over the summer. His teammates will include Carmelo Anthony, Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, Russian shooting guard Alexey Shved, rookie guard Jerian Grant (nephew of Horace), and Porzingis.

Notwithstanding Jackson’s long-ago lack-of-brain comments, the veteran guard shouldn’t have any problem snapping back into the old off-ball cuts and curls. He has also played under some true coaching legends overseas, including Duda Ivkovic and Zalijko Obradovic.

“Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms,” is one of Jackson’s favorite sayings, borrowed from Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen.

Vujacic has also been immersing himself in the ways of wisdom as of late, retweeting quotes such as: “The heart of the wise man lies quiet like limpid water.”

Come the fall, the onetime Celtic-slayer will break the glassine surface once again, part of a generation of basketball that is quickly fading away.

It’s not Vujacic’s last best chance to return to the NBA, it’s his last chance period.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kobe Bryant: The Things We Know but Do Not Say

Ask the average person how many articles have been written about Kobe Bryant and you’ll get a blank stare in return. Nobody knows but it is certainly a very high number. It would be like counting the mosaic tiles in the Basilica of San Vitale.

There are no new angles to explore, there is no new information to report. Past glories have been repeated to death and there are only so many ways to spin predictions for his probably-but-not-absolutely final season of basketball. There can be no criticisms that have not yet been voiced, no chronicling of hero shots that have been launched or death glares cast toward teammates. Or teammates who worship him or those who hate him, or new ones he hasn’t yet met due to a top secret gyrocopter excursion to a mountaintop retreat where he’ll undergo molecular cartilage transfusions in an attempt to grow a new finger in place of that hideous turnip currently attached to his right hand… or left hand.

Kobe was last seen somewhere east of Eden. He has been busy creating a new monetary system for Greece. He has a soft spot for small yappy dogs. He only sleeps in five-minute increments. He is still a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and will begin his 20th season in the NBA in the fall.

He has five body doubles, three of which are robots. He does not consume salt or sugar or flour. He has a world-class chef who has learned how to extract protein from tree roots, which is then served on top of poached salmon with toasted watercress.

But the man who would be Sisyphus is far more than a complex superstar.

He is a teacher, a husband, a father and a friend. He is a soothsayer.

Bryant is known for summoning select teammates to early morning workouts at a clandestine location that is actually his home basketball court. The reality of the domestic whereabouts is never actually specified in the media, out of fear and respect. Instead, it remains mysterious and unobtainable.

Recently, the man with five—“count ‘em”—championship rings (apart from those received in an alternate universe that have not yet been revealed) invited a new rookie teammate who shall remain nameless to the above-mentioned undisclosed location which is between five and 50 miles from the team’s official workout facilities in El Segundo, California. There, the rookie was instructed to make 300 shots in a row from half-court, blindfolded and without the use of his hands or feet.

At some point, one would imagine that there should be more than just backstory and aimless narrative. But one could also simply select another of the countless mosaic tiles if one needs insight into whether Kobe’s going to shift over to the wing this season for 12 games before his femoral artery spontaneously detaches, requiring an adjustment in minutes played on odd/even days.

Last Tuesday, I was invited by Mr. Bryant to a sushi restaurant in (location redacted) for an exclusive interview. There were no limits on subject matter except that the spoken word could not involve a language known to modern man. I wish I could begin to convey the joy and enlightenment that ensued during our telepathic conversation, augmented by birdsongs and clog dancing. I have not yet found a means of translation and it may not really matter. I find myself humbled, contemplative. I have begun reading all known works pertaining to Helen Keller.

He’s a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.

On January 23, 2006, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a basketball game against the Toronto Raptors. The absurdity of that statement is made all the more poignant by knowing it can never happen again. Analytics won’t let it happen. In fact, the science of advanced basketball analysis was invented solely to prevent such occurrences.

Do you actually doubt the veracity of this statement?

In April of 2006, a series of emails encrypted through MIT’s Cray supercomputer were exchanged between Daryl Morey who had just become general manager of the Houston Rockets, Henry Abbott of ESPN and David Stern who was then the commissioner of the NBA. The purpose was to invent a new way of examining basketball logic; to prevent an 81-point atrocity from ever happening again and to install a set of curbs that would reduce Bryant’s point average on a yearly basis.

It has worked on an incremental level but Bryant’s shot attempts and usage have remained stubbornly high and fiercely self-justified.

These are the things we know but do not say. Instead, articles are written about fading glory, a difficult personality, a litany of unimaginable injuries and money.

Offered $48.5 million as an octogenarian hoops star, Bryant simply said, “Okay.”

During an interview with GQ’s Chuck Klosterman earlier in the year, the 36-year-old was asked about any negative effect that advanced metrics have had upon his career, and about the perception by Abbott and others that he shoots too much. Bryant responded by comparing himself to an 18th century Austrian composer.

“Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions,” Bryant said. “Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much.”

Basketball as an on-court professional enterprise will end for the longtime Lakers cornerstone at 9:31pm on February 19, 2016 just seconds after nailing a contested fall-away jumper from the top of the key. At that point, his left leg which will have swollen to twice its normal size from the diverted femoral artery, will cease to support his weight properly.

He will answer questions from the media for approximately 22 minutes before going to the hospital for emergency surgery.

It’s four in the morning, the end of July. I have managed to translate a small passage from my telepathic conversation with Mr. Bryant. During the course of our discussion he predicted many things, some of which he wishes to share with you… (unintelligible bird sounds).

The start of Lakers training camp is still more than two months away. During that time there will be countless new articles to add to the Bryant lexicon, most of which will in some way center on his age and predictions of failure. Each piece will also contain no less than three sentences of obligatory homage to the Mamba’s greatness.

But his job is a job, after all. And he’ll probably transition to the next stage of his life without the painful soul-searching that causes actual humans to resort to the toolbar for alternate synonym suggestions and information about the Basilica of San Vitale.

Somewhere, a gyrocopter sails through a glorious rose-colored sky. Daughters wake their father and ask what’s for breakfast. A basketball bounces softly, repetitively. Birds sing mysterious songs.

You say you know but you don’t know.

One more article about Kobe Bryant is now in the history books.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jeremy Tyler: Across the Universe

Jeremy Tyler recently wrapped up an engagement with the Dallas Mavericks summer league squad. At 24, the 6'11" basketball nomad has been with 11 pro organizations and counting.

He's hoping this gig will lead to something more permanent.

Tyler was once a famous phenom, a player who jumped the gun way too early. Not only did he skip college but his senior year at San Diego High as well. At the time, the 17-year-old decided the best path to the NBA was through European pro ball—it would take just a couple years to reach that pesky minimum age requirement imposed by David Stern.

The precocious prodigy was counseled in this regard by his father James Tyler, sneaker huckster Sonny Vaccaro, and agent Arn Tellem, then of the Wasserman Media Group.

“This hopefully will turn out to be one of the great life lessons for Jeremy,” Tellem said per Pete Thamel of the New York Times.

That was back in 2009 but it seems much longer ago. That was when Tyler was being described by NBA veteran Olden Polynice as a young Hakeem Olajuwon, and as “one of those guys who comes along once in a lifetime.”

That was when Polynice described the young protégé as being “pimped.”

Jeremy’s plan was to go overseas and come back a star. He’d become the top overall pick in the draft, shake Stern’s hand on stage, make $200 million over a glorious basketball career and then segue into modeling.

But the trans-continental divide didn’t quite work the way Vaccaro had pitched it to the high school dropout. Tyler’s first team was Maccabi Haifa in Israel where he butted heads with tough veteran players and a head coach with no time for coddling.

The teenager was benched, disciplined and lectured. He responded with complaints and accusations. And he played just 10 games before quitting and returning home to San Diego.

Vaccaro was nonplussed, saying per ESPN: “It would’ve been beautiful, utopia, if he had played and helped his team win a championship."

Tyler’s older and wiser now, a tough, solid player who averaged 11.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in Las Vegas. He has learned the tricks of the trade during his globetrotting years. Perhaps Tellem was right, but it wasn’t just one grand epiphany.

Back in San Diego, Tyler examined his options—no high school diploma and no longer eligible for college ball after signing a $140,000 pro contract. And he wouldn’t be draft legal for another full year.

But he still had Vaccaro in his corner. The godfather of the sneaker wars hooked Tyler up with Tokyo Apache, a Japanese basketball team that had just been purchased by a Los Angeles-based investor group led by Evolution Capital Management.

Tyler’s dream was still alive, he’d just get made in Japan.

The new head coach of Tokyo Apache was Bob Hill, a seasoned basketball operative from both the college and pro ranks, including the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics. Bob and his son Casey had been working out prospects for their new venture in Dallas. It was now July, 2010, and the Hills had a reclamation project they would partner Tyler with—Robert Swift who would ultimately become a junkie with a stocking over his head in Gold Bar, Washington. But that hadn’t yet happened.

Swift had been another teenage cautionary tale, drafted at 18 out of Bakersfield High in California before Stern had instituted his age limit. Like Tyler, Swift had been repped by Tellem.

By the time Tokyo Apache happened, the 7-foot Swift had played parts of four seasons with the SuperSonics and the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had wrecked his knee more than once, picked up some nasty habits and scorched all his bridges. Hill had been one of Swift’s coaches in Seattle.

Things didn’t start well for either Tyler or his new mentor in Tokyo. Swift was holed up in his downtown apartment, drinking himself into oblivion. And Tyler, who was still not privy to certain basketball fundamentals, was being ripped a new one at practice by Hill.

But things turned around with interventions and tough love. Swift stopped drinking, turned 25 and began collecting double-doubles. He was also relating well with Tyler who was now 19, and starting to figure out how the game should be played. The universe was coming back into alignment.

“Being in Japan is amazing, especially in Tokyo,” Tyler said per Christopher Johnson of the Times. “Everybody is so positive, my coaches, my teammates. There are so many different things to explore here. Basketball is taking care of itself.”

But on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake shifted the earth on its axis and caused a tsunami that washed out entire cities. In the aftermath, Tokyo Apache disbanded—their L.A. investors decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle anymore.

That was the end if basketball for Swift whose life spiraled into heroin and minor crime sprees. But for Tyler, there was still hope—he was finally eligible for the NBA draft.

He returned home again, convinced there was still salvation to be claimed. And to the surprise of many, the basketball exile began snaking his way up the draft board with the gift of gab.

Per Scott Howard-Cooper of "In interviews with team executives,Tyler has shown himself to be more than a perceived ungrounded basketball soul wandering the globe in search of the next start, and has impressed clubs with his maturity and ability to address his image—even spinning his tangled past into a positive."

Just days before the draft, there were rumors that Tyler could be a fringe lottery pick. But on the night of June 23, those hopes failed to materialize. Perhaps there was simply too much baggage, too many missteps. Tyler slipped out of the first round and was ultimately selected at No. 39 by the Charlotte Bobcats and immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors for cash.

It wasn’t exactly the dream he’d been peddled as a high school junior, but Tyler was now in the NBA—maybe.

The 2011 lockout began a week after the draft and lasted until December. Summer twitterdom and media opinions turned in on themselves like dogs chasing their own tails. And when a shortened season finally got underway, the Warriors found themselves in transition under new head coach Mark Jackson.

It was the beginning of something good for Golden State but it was still a choppy ride—Stephen Curry played just 26 games with ankle issues and the team wound up going 23-43.

As for Tyler, he played 42 games with the Warriors, starting 23 of them but averaging only 13.5 minutes per game. His stat line of 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds during his rookie season still remains his high water mark in the NBA. He was also assigned to the Dakota Wizards in the D-League on multiple occasions.

Despite the low numbers, Tyler was improving. His starts came toward the end of the season on a team decimated by injuries. In the last game of his rookie campaign, he played 44 minutes and delivered a career-high 16 points, plus nine boards.

The team even put together a brief “swagger and power” clip of the rookie’s highlights.

But the following season Tyler only averaged 1.1 point over 20 games for Golden State, along with more D-League assignments—the Wizards had by now moved west and become the Santa Cruz Warriors. And more changes were still in store.

Right before the February deadline, Tyler was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for future draft considerations. It was nothing more than a cost-cutting move—owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber wanted to get under the luxury tax ceiling. And whatever portion was left of Tyler’s second round minimum rookie contract, was enough to do the trick.

The onetime high school sensation played exactly one game in Atlanta before getting waived. Tyler was becoming a nonstory.

He appeared with the New York Knicks summer league team in 2013 and was signed in the fall before suffering a stress foot fracture that required surgery. He was subsequently cut to make room for J.R. Smith’s brother and signed by the Knick’s D-League affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks.

Tyler was brought back in late December by New York, playing 41 games for a team that had reached its nadir, featuring the endless death march of head coach Mike Woodson.

Zen master Phil Jackson took over basketball operations in March. Tyler was excited about new opportunities. He studied up on the Triangle offense, feeling that its inside-out nature could benefit his game. He listened in April as Jackson addressed his players in an impromptu group meeting. And when summer arrived and Derek Fisher was hired, Tyler praised the new coach’s leadership.

“Everyone is following his plan,” Tyler said of Fisher during summer league in July. “Everybody respects his system of the Triangle. Even off the court I’ve been replaying different sets in my mind.”

But Tyler was traded to the Sacramento Kings a month later and immediately waived. He managed a training camp invite with the Los Angeles Lakers who were coming off a train wreck season and about to embark upon one that would be even worse. Tyler lasted three preseason games before getting the axe.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes, they call me on and on across the universe.

The NBA washout did what anyone still chasing the dream would do—he headed to the People’s Republic of China. And there in an ancient mountainous province, he played basketball for Shanxi Zhongyu and a roster of Chinese nationals…plus Von Wafer.

Tyler was a star in Asia once again. He was living in the large industrial city of Taiyuan and took in the outlying sights—massive crumbling Buddhist statues and cliff-hanging temples. But this northern region isn't particularly suitable for tourism in the cold winter months, Mostly, Tyler practiced, played and enjoyed the hospitality of his hosts.  

The Shanxi Brave Dragons finished their season by losing on the road in the CBA quarter-finals to the Quindao DoubleStar Eagles. The game deconstructed in its latter stages, with the tempestuous Von Wafer kneeing an opposing player in the family jewels before tossing a chair into the stands.

Not to be outdone, Tyler got into a fight with Iranian man-mountain Hamed Haddadi and later deigned the giant’s act of contrition—matters escalated into a full-scale hallway rumble replete with security forces and ongoing Brave Dragon/DoubleStar Eagle skirmishes.

Another basketball season was over.


During the first week of summer free agency, DeAndre Jordan fled the Los Angeles Clippers for greener pastures, feted by select organizations before agreeing to terms with the Dallas Mavericks. Owner Mark Cuban went all in on the endeavor, according second-choice waiting status to Tyson Chandler who promptly signed with the Phoenix Suns.

But Jordan changed his mind after nearly a week of being a de facto Mav, leaving Dallas conspicuously lacking at the pivot.

A couple years back, Cuban blogged about the capricious nature of free agency and his penchant for seeing something in retread players who had failed in other organizations or systems. “I like our ability to work with what I call 'fallen angels.'"

How can a man who has been mentored by Robert Swift, engaged in fisticuffs with Haddadi, and failed to launch a $200 million career, not be a fallen angel? Tyler rebelled against the Basketball Gods and was cast out time and again. He has chased the rainbow, worked on his craft, become a father and played in every hoops system known to mankind—all by an age at which some prospects are just getting started.

Jeremy Tyler’s greatest sin wasn’t in listening to influencers. It was daring to be a teenager. Sure, he made a mess of things, like a kid with an electric guitar—just take some time and learn how to play.

But while sports is generally big on redemption stories, there is also a coded structure—a beginning and a middle and an ending. And if you take too much time getting to the hook, all is lost.'

Maybe Cuban will play the smart business angle, filling a hole with a minimum salary deal. And maybe a kid once bound for glory will knuckle down in Texas and finally deliver on his much-delayed promise.

But NBA training camps are still months away and professional basketball has increasingly become a year-round globalized business.

For Tyler, the great life lessons continue, across the universe.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Robert Swift Longform: Leaving Bakersfield

My brother once emptied a clip at his apartment door—someone was trying to break it down from the outside. Both parties lived to see another day, until they didn’t. This is par for the course for heroin addicts. It is not a lifestyle destined for longevity.

When I read the latest news about Robert Swift—the onetime center for the Seattle SuperSonics and Oklahoma City Thunder—it seemed like the logical next drop-step for a basketball curiosity. Because downward spirals are not complicated patterns. The personalities might be, but not the slide itself—it’s just a sucking hole and it is rarely denied.

The former NBA prospect pleaded not guilty on weapons charges in a Seattle courtroom Monday. He was arrested January 6, in the town of Gold Bar, along with 28-year-old Carlos Abraham Anderson. The inept duo were apparently attempting to rob a home in broad daylight.

As Shari Ireton of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office recounted: “I believe there were a couple of people who called in, they saw masked subjects on the property, reported that at least one of them was armed with a weapon, one possibly with a baseball bat. It appeared they were either trying to make an entry or knocking on the door.”

Gold Bar, Washington—pop. 2,075—began its existence as a prospectors’ camp in 1889 but more recently faced bankruptcy. Swift, a 7’1” heavily inked-up dude who averaged 4.3 points per game over an injury-plagued five-year career in the NBA, earned about $9.8 million as a pro baller. He went broke a long time ago.

At the time of his arrest, Swift had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court the day after Thanksgiving. The admitted junkie had initially been arrested October 4, during a SWAT raid, and was charged with possession of a sawed-off shotgun, along with a grenade launcher and several other firearms on or under his bed.

Also arrested in the ATF-led operation was his roommate and owner of the house, Trgve Bjorkstam. Known as “Trigg,” the 54-year-old was booked for illegal firearms and dealing heroin within 100 yards of the Hellen Keller Elementary School in Kirkland. Other items confiscated included methamphetamine, meth pipes, used needles, a blackened fry pan with heroin residue, and dozens of weapons, some fitted with suppressors.

During their search, agents also discovered a hidden underground bunker initially used to grow weed before being turned into a firing range.

According to police reports, Trigg said that the former hoopster was just a “good guy” who was trying to help him collect on a heroin debt. There are yet no indications whether the more recent botched robbery was in any way connected.


East Bakersfield is a fairly typical inland community—desert heat, strip malls and ranch-style houses. Swift grew up as a tall, gangly white kid, with a younger sister, Samantha, now 22, a brother Alex, 28, and parents Bruce, 52, and Rhonda, 59. Robert’s dad was an air conditioning repair man who didn’t work for a few years following a car crash. His mom was dealing with cancer and seven surgeries. There wasn’t always enough food on the table.

Swift was 6’4” by the time he entered junior high. He did what super-tall skinny kids usually do and began playing basketball. He got pretty good too, good enough to go to the MacDonald's All American Game, good enough to attract the favor of AAU leeches armed with promises. Good enough for his parents to encourage pursuing a straight shot from high school to the NBA.

His high school coach suggested the college path instead. “His body was so frail and if you are seven feet tall at 16, your body has some growing to do,” said Gino Lacava during an interview with the UK Daily Mail. “That NBA schedule is rigorous and it doesn’t take much to hurt you. Me and the other coaches were all thinking the same thing, that Robert had definitely nothing to lose by going to college for a few years.”

But Swift’s parents, described as “middle class at best” by Lacava, had dollar signs in their eyes. “They got tied in with these AAU coaches who were constantly throwing around free offers and shoes and all the money and I think to them…it seemed like free money.”

For Swift, a quiet kid who averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks per game as a senior, there was the dream of getting lots of tats, and throwing parties and buying cars. His coaches almost won out though—Swift committed to playing for USC and Henry Bibby.

But his father hired Arn Tellem at SFX and USC went out the window. Heading into the draft, Tellem took an unusual approach. Robert wouldn’t attend predraft workouts, wouldn’t talk to teams, wouldn’t take physicals and wouldn’t attend the Chicago combine. In fact, he wouldn’t even be in New York City on draft night.

The sports agent didn’t want his client’s weaknesses exposed.

Bruce revealed the plan at the time, per ESPN: "His daily routine is to hang out with his buddies and get into some open gyms, shoot a bit, play against local guys here in Bakersfield."

Absence made the hungry hearts of NBA teams grow fonder—the skinny kid from the high desert began zooming up draft boards. On June 24, 2004, he was selected as the 12th overall pick by the Sonics.

The Swift family soon left Bakersfield, courtesy of an 18-year-old meal ticket in a custom pinstripe suit. Their ship had finally come in and the timing couldn’t have been better—Bruce had filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and again in 2003.

That summer trip may have been the best part of what would ultimately become Robert Swift’s long losing streak.

He earned $1.6 million for his rookie season, minus agent commission, taxes and other sundry expenses. He leased a Cadillac Escalade EXT pickup with a 3,500-watt sound system and bought his parents a pair of new SUVS for Christmas. He also bought them a home in Seattle’s upscale Sammamish suburb. And he rented himself an apartment near the team’s facility and started growing his hair long, and acquiring tattoos.

But he didn’t play much basketball. Nate McMillan was the Sonic’s coach at the time and had little patience for the new teenaged center—the paint was already packed with Jerome James, Danny Fortson, Vitaly Potapenko, and Nick Collison who had been drafted the year before but sat out his rookie season with injuries.

McMillan banished Swift to the weight room and told him to bulk up. The kid complied dutifully, and also got more tats, threw parties for local college kids, began collecting guns and visited his family a few times a week. When the team went out on the road, Swift’s dad would usually tag along. Bruce never held a job during his son’s time in the NBA.

During his rookie year, Swift averaged 0.9 points and 0.3 rebounds in 4.5 minutes per game, over 16 games.

McMillan left after 19 years with the Sonics organization in order to join the Portland Trail Blazers. Bob Weiss was promoted from assistant coach to head coach for all of 17 games and was then fired. Bob Hill—the man with the year-round tan—was the next Sonics assistant to take over the lead chair.

Hill saw something in Swift and began giving him floor time. He also showed him tough love and tried preparing him for a career in basketball and life beyond.

Jayson Jenks for the Seattle Times wrote about Swift’s flameout and the relationship he built with Hill. During summer workouts, the 19-year-old gushed about a Dodge pickup he had just purchased.

“Robert, I don’t give a (expletive) what your truck looks like or what you drive,” said Hill. “I’m more concerned about making you better here so you can get another contract and maybe another, so by the age of 28 or 29 you can be finished in life. That’s my concern. Not your truck.”

Those words would ultimately be prophetic, although not in the way Hill had hoped.

Swift played his best basketball in the NBA that season, starting 20 out of 47 games and averaging 6.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He had improved his strength and his footwork, could hold his own in the post and had a nice feathery touch on mid-range jumpers, converting 50 percent of his shots from 10-to-16 feet.

The Sonics renewed Swift’s contract for his third season. Hill was planning on making the 20-year-old his starting center for the 2006-07 season. Swift even purchased his own house that July in Sammamish—a sprawling four-bedroom home valued at $1.3 million. Life was starting to look pretty rosy.

But during the preseason, Swift dived out of bounds for a loose ball and tore his right ACL. He wound up missing the entire season. For all intents and purposes, Swift’s NBA career was over but it would take a couple more years for the final nail to be driven into his basketball coffin.

Swift gained weight during his year off, got more tattoos and partied hard at his new mansion. Hill was fired over the phone at the end of the season, after a 31-51 record and failing to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.

The Sonics exercised their option to bring Swift back for another season. He tried making a comeback under new head coach PJ Carlesimo but appeared in only eight games before wrecking his knee again.

The Seattle franchise had been going through their own painful transition since changing ownership from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz in 2006. The team eventually relocated to Oklahoma City as the Thunder, leaving longtime fans in the Pacific Northwest with a bitter taste.

In July of 2008, Swift signed a qualifying offer with the Thunder for $3.6 million. It was a bump up from his previous salary by nearly a million bucks, and would make him a restricted free agent the following spring. It would also allow a draft bust who had played just 71 games in four years, one last opportunity to make good.

The kid from Bakersfield was now 22 years old. He was big and had a body covered in black ink, and had begun painting his fingernails black as well. He was lugging a bulky knee brace up and down the court, but had also dedicated himself to losing weight. He was used sparingly—playing spot minutes for a few games, sitting out a lot more.

Swift averaged 3.3 points and 3.4 boards in 26 games his final NBA season. Carlesimo was fired after going 1-12, and Scott Brooks took over. It was a team heading in a new direction, and that direction would not include a redheaded center who had once been compared to Bill Walton.

Swift was now a free agent and without a paycheck for the first time since high school. He played for the Boston Celtics in summer league action, averaging seven points and 3.6 boards over five games. Danny Ainge had once coveted the teen prospect and had promised to pick him at No. 15 in the 2004 draft. But Seattle got there first.

Summer league ended without an offer and Swift returned to his eastside home in the Seattle outskirts. He began drinking heavily and getting high again. He put the weight back on, plus some. He wandered down to Bakersfield that fall and began hanging out with old friends.

Swift decided to give his hometown another try. In December, he signed with the Bakersfield Jam in the D-League. But after just two games he headed back to Seattle, citing personal issues with his family. The former lottery pick had also just learned his girlfriend was pregnant.

In July of 2010, Bob Hill was with his son Casey in Dallas, working out some prospects. Hill had just landed a job coaching Tokyo Apache. The Japanese pro basketball team first formed in 2004, had been purchased in June by a Los Angeles-based investor group led by Evolution Capital Management.

Hill contacted Swift, and wanted to know if he’d like to play some ball again. The season would begin in September. Swift grabbed at the chance for some semblance of redemption and was also intrigued by the setting—his paternal grandmother was Japanese. He booked a flight to Texas and arrived weighing 335 pounds and sporting a Mohawk.

He told Bob and Casey he’d get a haircut and lose the weight. He’d get right.

But when the season began in Japan, Swift had trouble adjusting. He’d lost 70 pounds of mostly water weight but hadn’t gotten his timing or his confidence back yet. There were things that were bothering him.

According to Jenks and the Seattle Times, Bob and Casey walked into the troubled center’s darkened Japanese apartment in December. He was alone and hung over in bed, an empty vodka bottle nearby. His fiancé had phoned to call off their engagement.

Bob Hill told Swift to get out of bed and read him the riot act: “Maybe being drafted at the age of 18 wasn’t fair. Maybe making all that money at that age wasn’t the right thing for you. But it happened and you have to deal with all this. You’re going to have to plant your feet on the ground and take control of your life.”

Swift began to cry. And then he began putting himself back together. He stopped drinking and worked on his game. He turned 25 and began collecting double-doubles—something that had occurred only twice during his entire time in the NBA. He also mentored 19-year-old Jeremy Tyler—another cautionary tale who skipped college.

The transformation was so dramatic that NBA scouts started calling. The Celtics and New York Knicks wanted to bring Swift in for workouts when his season was done. Hill said it was fun to watch somebody turning their life around.

On March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean, 231 miles northeast of Tokyo. The shock was so big that it shifted the earth on its axis and caused 130-foot waves, including a tsunami that washed out entire cities.

That was the end of the basketball season for Tokyo Apache, and for their existence altogether. The L.A. investors decided it just wasn’t worth it and scuttled the enterprise.


Swift returned to his home in Sammamish. In April, he worked out for the Portland Trail Blazers. A brief YouTube video of a tall, slim ginger with a wispy beard shooting jumpers may be the last known basketball footage of the former McDonald’s All-American.

On July 1, 2011, the NBA went on a lockout. It lasted five long months. It wasn’t a good time for a basketball reclamation project to be wishing for a job.

Instead, he started putting harm in his arm and stopped paying the mortgage on his house. Nearly $10 million had slipped away over the years. It would take another 12 months before the bank finally foreclosed on the property.

Swift began shutting down and shutting people out—people like Bob and Casey Hill, like his old coach Lacava, like childhood friends from Bakersfield, and even some members of his own family.

In text exchanges with the UK Daily Mail, Robert’s mother said she hadn’t spoken to him in years, adding: “He bought and did things for his dad and sister but not for his brother or me.”

She also mentioned a book she was writing that would “tell the whole truth.” Because a tell-all book deal will certainly explain how parents helped a multimillion dollar meal ticket grow into a broke heroin addict with a bunch of guns under his bed.

The foreclosure on the house in Sammamish wasn’t a quick and tidy affair. Swift, who owned more than $160,000 in back payments did not want to leave his home. He just wanted to be left alone—with his friends and his dogs and a girlfriend, and his gun collection and various cars in the yard including an El Camino without an engine.

And so he became a squatter in the house he bought with NBA money and then that became the Robert Swift story—for another nine months. He stayed there even after a young couple bought the house at 50 cents on the dollar in January of 2013.

Once the media outlets got hold of the story, little bits of information became malleable. The former draft bust became “Seattle’s basketball savior” and the $10 million he earned turned into $20 million. One local news anchor with a stentorian voice described Swift as the “No. 1 overall draft pick.”

And everybody wanted to know how it came to this.

The nice young couple tried calling Swift and writing letters and knocking on the door of the house they now owned but couldn’t move into. They hired a lawyer and filed legal charges and did TV interviews. News crews tried peeking in the windows.

And finally, one weekend at the beginning of March, Swift and his girlfriend and their dogs were gone. But they left almost all their belongings behind.

The nice young couple rolled in a giant dumpster almost as tall as the house and invited a news crew to come and film. And they wrinkled their noses at the filth as the cameras rolled.

“A lovely way somebody lives,” said the young husband. "The first thing you get when you walk in the door is kind of whiff of whatever is festering in here,” said the young wife.

But what else were they supposed to do? They paid their money just as Swift had paid his. And they wanted to fill their new house with things they had purchased, just as the onetime basketball prospect had done.

The TV footage and the photo galleries from mainstream outlets to basketball blogs showed a myriad of images and some were shown more frequently than others.

There were guns and bullets and empty shell casings. There were bullet holes in the walls and windows and foundation. An article mentioned 100 pizza boxes and 1,000 beer and liquor bottles. Did somebody actually take the time to count?

The empties included dozens of cardboard 18-packs of Coors Light, and there was Mountain Dew and Coca Cola and Twister Tea as well. And cupcakes squashed on the granite kitchen breakfast bar, and outside there were blackened hot dog buns by the grill. There were beds and clothes and a bathroom with blow dryers and toothpaste, and a towel on the vanity that looked like it had simply been used and left before someone headed out for the day—as if they might be coming back later. There was a pool table and computers and stereo equipment, and speakers that once pumped out music, loud and strong. And board games and a model of a covered wagon and a large fishing net and a graveyard of remote controls. The basement had been turned into a firing range and the deck was a place for dogs to poop.

And then there were the photographs of an all-too-short NBA career, and photos of Bakersfield. And a box of letters from colleges with scholarship offers. And outside was a brightly painted basketball court that unlike the interior of the house, seemed oddly clean and well-cared for.

After Swift left, and the dumpster got filled to overflowing, the stories began to recede into the background. Few people seemed to know or care where a washout had wandered off to. Casey Hill said the last he heard, the former basketball player was working as a salesman somewhere in Seattle.

Eight months passed and another NBA draft came and went, as did another summer league. And a new NBA season began and there were new draft busts to write about.

And then the stories came flooding back. A guy who admitted to doing heroin every day got popped in a drug den 100 feet away from an elementary school and didn’t show up for his hearing. And a month later he turned up in a small town that had fallen off the map.

How do you end a downfall story about a homeless seven-foot junkie who decides to put a stocking over his head and knock on someone’s door in Gold Bar?

With a convenient tag about hope for brighter days ahead, or an improbable return to a profession that never quite worked out? Swift’s basketball career didn’t have to end when the earth shifted on its axis and a giant wave hit the Japanese coastline.

He could have played for dozens of other teams that provide refuge and employment for NBA outcasts. But a house and guns and dogs and pizza boxes, and bindles of heroin, were infinitely warmer and easier.

By the time Swift was arraigned on possession of a sawed-off shotgun Monday, he looked frailer than any time since high school. He is being represented by the King County department that works with indigent defendants. His next court date will be January 26.

Ultimately, we look at stories through the lens of our own existence, and sometimes seminal journeys and family memories. Like a string of bullet holes stitched in an apartment door, left by someone who died long ago.

This one is for you my brother.

                                                                                                                    (updated 1/12/15)