Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SEARCHING FOR SLAVA


The season hasn’t gone as planned, and the season before didn’t go as planned, or the one before that.

The mind-numbing tape-loop of sequential injuries provided fodder for a while, as did an avalanche of losses that finally lost their power and simply continued to accrue, silently, impotently.

Like snow falling at night.

You mined the controversy and misery, you found effective hit-seeking hooks and far-reaching narratives that fed upon themselves until all the good stuff had been chewed out, and what was left felt tasteless and plasticine. The concentric circles of hell began to flatten out and dissipate.

It felt this way long ago but you were younger then and media strip-mining hadn’t yet sucked your soul clean of caring. Losing meant more, then.

You go from watching three games at once to none at all. You pretend to become deeply obsessed in the story of a missing airliner instead. You take too much time choosing between a five-dollar frozen pizza and the one that cost 3-for-$10 with your store discount card.

The lockout season was better than this.

You decide that it’s all part of the greater good. That stuff—about renewal and Sisyphusian challenges—and you devote a small portion of think-power to constructing something grand and beautiful but then Netflix happens instead.

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently at 22-44 and have a few days off. They were dead last in the Western Conference standings, but somehow, Utah must have lost additional games faster than the Lakers lost additional games, so now the Jazz are dead last.

You stare at the screen, knowing that the Lakers paragraph should move up several spaces for maximum efficiency. And that you need to put a block quote some place.

You forget that the oven timer went off. The 3-for$10 pizza is now an unappealing shade of brown around the edges.

Someone from Milwaukee or Cleveland would hit you in the face with a two-by-four just to shut you up.

You take a moment to gather small pieces of foam rubber from a destroyed dog bed and kneel on a damp spot from puppy piss from many hours earlier, or even days ago.

Every now and then, people still wonder whatever happened to Slava. The answer is actually quite simple—he returned to the Ukraine several years ago and has been working with youth basketball, including the U16/17 National Team.

Per Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer, Mike Fratello, coach of the Ukrainian National Team during tournament play, recently visited Kiev, as violence was escalating:
"Obviously, it has escalated in the last five days. Things have gotten much worse. They closed the basketball federation offices last week. I think that was the smart thing to do. A bullet doesn't know where it's going when it leaves the gun."
It’s one thing to have a few bad seasons in a row. It’s another thing when the tanks start rolling in.

On Monday, the Lakers announced that Jordan Farmar had strained his right groin in practice. His return to the lineup is uncertain.

It's just one more stumbling block in a larger narrative of loss, and an ongoing sense of dysfunction that feels murky and ill-defined, like a recipe randomly put together by bored children. 

The Lakers host the San Antonio Spurs, at Staples Center on Wednesday.

And I’m still searching for Slava.

Friday, September 6, 2013

SOMEONE'S NUMBER NINE: THE RETURN OF SHAWNE WILLIAMS




The Los Angeles Lakers are in a gathering mode leading up to training camp. Mindful of vagaries of age and health, management is stockpiling multi-positional projects in hopes of plugging a hole left by the amnesty of Metta World Peace. Forward Shawne Williams has faced well-publicized off-court challenges, including multiple drug busts and the loss of his older brother. This will be a low-risk deal from a financial standpoint – his minimum salary is only partially guaranteed. The initial press blurbs were slimmer than they once were. You burn enough opportunities and the story tends to downsize. 

I was driving cross-country a few summers back and took a detour into downtown Memphis. A couple random historic district signs led past abandoned buildings and empty lots. The Housing Authority came in during the 1950's and wiped out about half the area. Things were never quite the same again. Nearly 1,500 acres have been deemed a “menace to public safety, health, morals and welfare” according to the current Community Redevelopment Agency. Another eminent domain razing is being planned in the name of gentrification. Here come the warm Starbucks. For a guy making random lefts and rights in an old green Explorer, it simply looked like a place you could get lost in real easy. About 30 minutes later I was refilling my ice chest and buying post cards at a convenience store and heading back to ten lanes of mind-numbing banality that now passes for a road trip.

A “cautionary tale” is one of sports' pet phrases, often used in primetime style and easily applied to athletes who never quite got there. Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell dunked over cars on the mean streets of Oakland. He grew up with the likes of Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Brian Shaw, and has been called the greatest player to never make it to the NBA. Instead he played for weed and crack and wound up in and out of prison. Lamar Odom faced more loss than anyone should but eventually reached the pinnacle of NBA success, as well as marrying into the kind of tabloid status that keeps buzzards like TMZ well fed. Lamar's current woes took another turn when he checked out of rehab a day after checking in.

Getting high happens on different levels. There aren't enough prisons in the world to hold everyone who has ever smoked a joint or done a line of coke, or who has hung with someone that's just not going to make your life simple and easy, although it might seem simple and easy in the moment.

Shawne Williams grew up in South Memphis in a neighborhood marked by crime and prostitution. He and his brother Ramone, one year his senior, were primarily raised by their grandfather, Lou Williams. Shawne wasn't really seen as a bad kid by Coach Ted Anderson at Hamilton High, though he later observed that the troubled player had nine lives. It's probably a cliché to say Williams has used most of them up. It's also probably true. He was courted by Coach John Calipari and the University of Memphis. Anderson admits he lobbied for Shawne to declare for a different college, someplace far away from friends and temptation.

A standout freshman season led to Williams being taken as the 17th pick in the 2006 draft, by Donnie Walsh and the Indiana Pacers. Things were good for a while until they weren't. Off-court troubles started piling up. Shawne was traded to Dallas and wound up being paid by Mark Cuban to stay away from the team. Dallas traded his contract to the Nets and he was subsequently released. Kiki Vandeweghe later said, “I'm glad he's not our issue.” Out of the NBA and hanging out with old Memphis friends, Williams said “a light switched on” and he decided to get out of town and back into shape.

Timelines don't always tell the whole story but they're a part of the story nonetheless. Shawne Williams has been arrested three times during his NBA career and stopped, questioned and ticketed at various other junctures. Aggregate causes have included smoking a blunt, driving without a license, associating with a murder suspect and being part of an “Operation Lockdown” dragnet in Memphis. Williams plead guilty to four misdemeanor charges for that one, including intent to sell hydrocordone, aka sizzurp in styro cups. He was placed in a six-month diversion program and tested positive for weed four times during that period. In 2012 he was popped again for codeine-based syrup.

In the spring of 2010, Williams traveled to the IMG Basketball Academy in Brandenton, Florida and started playing again. He lost weight and dedicated himself to the game. He received a summer league invite from the Charlotte Bobcats and coach Larry Brown, who was likely influenced by the recommendation of John Calipari. Summer league lead to two NBA training camp offers: the Bobcats and the NY Knicks. Williams went with the Knicks for personal reasons. Madison Square Garden was the last place his brother saw him play – this during a college tourney. Ramone was murdered shortly thereafter. It's also worth noting that Donnie Walsh who drafted Williams, was now running operations for the Knicks.

Likened to a reclamation project within a reclamation project, Shawne Williams thrived in NYC. Mike D'Antoni admittedly tested him, tossing the 6-9 forward into various rotations and situations. Williams slowed down LeBron James, was choked by an agitated Metta World Peace, was even put in at center against Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic. The size mismatch was ridiculous but the forward didn't back down. He's never been accused of playing soft. As D'Antoni said, “He's coming at you. And I like that about him.” His minutes increased and his role solidified. He shot .401 from behind the arc and helped the team to their best season in a decade.

The following fall found Williams at the Knicks training camp, waiting for a free agent offer. He ultimately signed with the Nets for two years and $6.1 million, calling it a business decision. Things didn't work out in New Jersey. He was traded after 25 uneventful games to the Portland Trail Blazers. Williams didn't play in Portland and was arrested again the following winter. According the affidavit, the 26 year-old said, “Officer, I ain't gonna lie to you, there's a blunt in the car and some syrup.”

Williams hasn't seen any NBA action in well over a year. Still, his tough-nosed play caught on with D'Antoni that one season and his coach remembers. The Memphis product will be playing for a spot against a glut of other question marks. He's burned his bridges and used up at least eight lives. Still, if you're going to be someone's number nine, it might as well be the Lakers.

A predictable thing happened after the first Lakers beat stories about the signing of Williams. National basketball writers started to circle. They remembered the cautionary tales, they might have even played a part once. During a slow summer news cycle, events like this can generate interest. Phrases are dusted off, links are explored and parsed.

Somewhere a car floats around a corner, the music's bumping and the windows are dark and you don't know if it's a guy going somewhere or if it's just another ride with a group of friends. Headlights, taillights, it could be Los Angeles or it could be Memphis. Another season's about to begin.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

NBA DRAFT 2013: ANOTHER SHADE OF PALE





The year had been a long strange drift for Kiovanic Atomik. It had been just as strange for the NBA team that nearly drafted him in June, a team decimated by injuries and poor luck. Kio wondered if he could have made a difference. The way he sees it, things couldn't have gotten any screwier, even if the word doesn't literally exist in his native tongue. The good people of Ingushetia speak the Ingush language which shares a high degree of intelligibility with neighboring Chechnya. At least that's what Wikipedia says. Kio shrugged and lit another cigarette and hacked deeply and spat.

Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers had the #55 and #60 draft picks, ultimately selecting Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre. They dropped Johnson-Odom in early January and hung onto utility center Sacre. They didn't sign Atomik, a streaky 6-9 point guard with off-the-chart passing skills and the admiration of a consortium of part time Lakers scouts. That was then, this is now. The team's ownership situation has become a bit loose around the edges in recent weeks, with rumors of Jim Buss's new interest in eastern religion.

This time around the Lakers have the #48 pick. That's better than #55 or #60 but then again it's only half as many. You take what you get though – the team parted with a number of other draft options through a byzantine ponzi scheme that nobody seems willing to discuss. As for Kio, he returned to another impressive season with Euroloeague's elite Montepaschi Siena before blowing out his knee in a collision with Alba Berlin's Robert Swift.

The Los Angeles Lakers are in a luxury cap bind at the moment, unable to sign any meaningful free agents other than their own. The current priority is convincing Dwight Howard to sign a new long-term contract. On Wednesday, management hung a large banner outside Staples Center, imploring the All-Star center to stay. There has not yet been an official reaction to the sign from Howard's camp. The other three members of last summer's Four Horseman are currently rehabbing from injuries. With limited options, the #48 pick begins to take on added importance. Among names being bandied about are 6-2 point guard Ray McCallum from Detroit, 6-5 wing Archie Goodwin from Kentucky and 6-9 power forward Bojan Dublijevic from Montenegro.

If Atomik was a long-shot last year, his NBA path is becoming increasingly narrow. Friends have voiced concern about his emotional well being after a painful breakup with one of the lesser-known members of Russia's Pussy Riot punk collective. Former teammate Bobby Brown recently offered that “Kio's knee is about 90 percent back but his soul is hurting.” Why even mention the Ingush baller then? Perhaps longtime Euro scout Antonio Scariolo said it best. “You should have seen the kid a couple years back with CB Bruesca. He blew everyone away with his beautiful game and that's a tough fucking crowd.”

Kiovanic's mother was a political activist from Ingushetia, his father a soldier from South Ossetia. He escaped a civil war, lived on his own from an early age, traveled the nomad's life through smoke-filled arenas. He has an uncommon gift for seeing the floor, for reading nearly impossible situations. This Thursday night in the pale predawn hours, Kio will be sitting somewhere in a far-off land, watching an internet feed from Barclay's Center. Waiting to see if his name is called.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

FREE FALLING





My writer's path has been both logical and clear cut - from a blog named after an obscure Ukrainian to to Craig Sager fiction to Forum Blue and Gold links and finally, a novel about a kidnapped movie dog with diabetes. I have been rewarded with great riches for my efforts, having sold a grand total of ten eBooks to date. I am convinced now more than ever that I have found the true golden thread.

The history of electronic books goes way back to 1930 when Bob Brown predicted a machine that would evolve the art of reading, even considering a future in which the written word could be recorded 'directly upon the palpitating ether'. Various inventions ensued over the coming decades but the words didn't really hit the fan until the introduction of the Sony Reader in 2006 and the Amazon Kindle in 2007. Electronic devices are now the preferred mode of consumption - Amazon alone recorded over $61 billion for all media revenue in 2012. Is it so wrong to salivate over a slice of cyber-pie?

Friends have been mostly circumspect about my new venture, neither encouraging or discouraging. It's a wise move - the path of least resistance when somebody you know writes 300 pages about an advertising executive, three wannabe young white gangstas and a half-baked crime. I'm not complaining though. I'm meeting new friends who churn out boatloads of literary marvels about steely-eyed assassins and passionate widow women heading along the dusty trail to a life of loneliness way out west. I have been told the proper way to market one's work is by tweeting it every five minutes rather than every few days. I'm trying to imagine how that would fly alongside discussions of Kobe's pop heard 'round the world.

But where's the free stuff? For those unable to contain their want, look to the right hand margin. See the large Coma Dog widget that looks like a reader with a little blue arrow at the lower left corner? That's the mother lode. Don't be alarmed by the initial jumble of words on the title page – simply choose your font and line spacing and click “apply”. The typeset will crystallize and carry you away to 58 pages of unabashed joy.

I know that some may find the first chapters a bit slow. Not to worry, it's a thrill ride from page 60 on. Of course, that will cost you $2.99 which is two bucks more than when I first wrote this post. Bummer. If you're a clever person you can read it for free at Goodreads but I'm not telling you how. Regardless, don't you want to know if Peppy lives or dies? Don't you want to know whose blood pools on the dirty floor of the Fabulous Forum?

Harry Debec was a child of the sixties, born between two worlds. He came into advertising at a time when the old ways were still the stuff of legends, as technology was just beginning its virulent explosion. It was the corridor between martini lunches and coffee bars, a time when print advertising still meant something, when there were still three networks and then four and soon hundreds more. Computers and video changed everything, illustrators went out of business, keypads took over the earth, the internet devoured conscious hours like a flesh-eating disease, new media existed in ever shortening cycles, louder, faster and cheaper trumping almost every known aspect of marketing.

The stories about Lindsay Lohan and Michael Phelps never did lead to a job with Rolling Stone and ESPN has yet to offer their Page 2 slot. I may yet write novellas about nubile zombie girls and I may not. Words can be addictive though in all their many forms and fashion. Is Peppy the diabetic dog so far removed from the Jim Kjelgaard books I cherished as a kid? Then again, the Big Red stories didn't feature junkie directors or a Pilates babe. Conquering the literary world, ninety-nine cents at a time. All the vampires, are walkin' through the valley...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

PROLOGUE





I became enamored of the idea of writing a book some years back. Ultimately, does it matter why? One inconsequential problem, I had no story to tell. Fortunately, the hands of divine intervention appeared, sparing me the necessity of creative thinking. A buddy gave me a book for Christmas – a simple field guide to Birds of North America. I didn't have much interest in the subject but the dryly laid-out text began to interest me with its repetitive minutiae.

It wasn't enough but again, happenstance. I was in the Pasadena Library, standing in front of rows of musty books and closed my eyes, let my hands trail and randomly stopped on A Unit of Time, A Unit of Water: Joel White's Last Boat. It was a beautifully written accounting of the last days of a legendary boat builder, dying of cancer. It was not only about Joel's life and his boats, but his relationship with his father – none other than E.B. White, author of marvelous children's literature and scholarly essays and my favorite writer growing up. Now I was intrigued.

I needed more though and after a considerable struggle, came up the idea of writing about a guy who doesn't know what comes next. I had my book! I would write about Harold, a middle-aged advertising executive who sails his boat up along the Atlantic seaboard, following the migratory path of birds. I even came up with a brilliant title – Birds, Boats and Middle Age.

I wrote at a snails pace, day in, day out. Slowly amassed details, lots and lots of details. This was important stuff. The Birds of North American Guide was not enough – I purchased the definitive work on the subject – the Sibley Guide to Birds. There would be nothing left out. And books about boats. Lots of books about boats. About a year went by. I now had 300 pages with lots of marshes and birds and plant life and sailing and a guy named Harry who's kind of a dick.

The next logical step was to dump the manuscript off on a good friend who was also a very good writer. I needed affirmation. My friend found it to be boring and repetitive with an unlikable main character. He had enjoyed one random section however, in which Harry flies out to Hollywood to meet with studio types about running the ad campaign for a hopelessly snake-bitten sequel to a talking dog movie.

The scrapping of all but 40 pages didn't come easily. But it came, along with other characters and story devices and drafts that topped out at 450 pages and were again stripped down. And years of stops and starts and crashing computers and lost files and lost interest and eventually a found memory stick with an old draft and more revisions and at the end, an unstable mess as a result of different software systems and who knows what.

Perhaps the best thing about the process is just that – the process. The story about an ad exec and a dog with diabetes, a trio of entitled white wannabe gangstas and a Hungarian junkie director won't win any awards but it will exist in cyberspace as a drawn-out exercise that hopefully helped me become a better writer.

One final circle of hell presented itself – an abomination called e-formatting. I basically gave up on that battle – Coma Dog is on Smashwords, Nook and Kindle for 0.99 cents and there's free chapter samples available. The Smashwords reader is the larger widget to the right and there's about 58 free pages - click the arrow at the lower left corner, choose your fonts and spacing and you're all set. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

BOOKMARK



There are just seven games left in the Los Angeles Lakers' regular season. I am painfully aware that this blog has received little attention lately, especially from me. This has been my first entry this year. Many excuses, from work to other sites to real life – and all are only that, excuses. The Lakers have had a difficult and often perplexing year. In the past I would have chronicled the missteps with nearly as much enthusiasm as the victories – this team has been nothing if not story-worthy in many ways. Yet, I have procrastinated.

I'm surprised sometimes to see that traffic still filters through here. Lately, some of it has been not dissimilar to the tiny scrabbling feet you might hear between the walls late at night. It began with a few cleverly worded comments left on old posts, complimenting them and adding tidy little links. Soon the trickle became more than a trickle, I would log in an find a dozen or so comments. Fantastic post, I wonder why other experts in this sector don't notice this? Or, this recent gem, unquestionably consider that you stated your favorite reason seemed to be at the internet the easiest thing to have in mind to you. And always with ever-helpful links to sites at the end, from garden tools to kitchen appliances. I changed my security settings but the comments come in ever faster, now piling up in a spam folder. My assumption is that the various “Anonymous-es” don't actually bother checking to see if their comments appear.

What's next for Searching for Slava? I have no clue. I somehow doubt that a rash of inspiration will take hold as the Lakers begin a glorious resurgence, coming from eighth place in the west to resume their rightful place among the halls of great comeback stories. If they do somehow make a run at it though, I may memorialize it here. And if not, I'll certainly cover it during my twice-weekly reports for ForumBlue and Gold.

A few years back I spent too much time penning a manuscript for a full-length novel that never saw the light of day except for a brief excerpt I used as filler during the dog days of the NBA lockout. The laptop housing it crashed and I thought it was lost forever and didn't much care. I recently found a draft on an old memory stick and have been toying with edits. I may decide to release it into the cyberverse before I come to my senses. If nothing else, this particular bookmark will serve as an additional repository for rapt readers who like to leave comments about their own moneymaking schemes – those however will continue to be deleted.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A VERY SAGER CHRISTMAS




Life had been good lately. Or, had at least been stable. As stable as a life spent largely on the road enduring universal disdain could ever be. If the sparkle had somehow left Sager's eyes, it was replaced by grim acceptance. And, there were the weekends at home in Scottsdale as well. If you were to happen by the floor-to-ceiling windows of a stucco McMansion off the 18th green, you might observe domestic bliss. Or something.

The afternoon had been spent at Santa's Village. The penultimate Colorado Blue Spruce had been delivered by truck and wheeled into the living room. Craig was pleased. It was a living tree with its root ball encased in damp burlap and would be a proud addition to his back lawn after the holidays – he had just the spot picked out. Anne however was less than thrilled. She had been holding out for something made of metal, and was now swirling ice in a tumbler. Chipper meanwhile was plucking living needles and sticking them in his sister's angora sweater. Bunny Bear proceeded to wail and Craig exited to the patio and the comfort of his Adirondack, as the sun went resolutely down.

He thought about firing up the grill but a toothache was coming on. Inside, the sound of rending angora and a fresh anguished wail. Bunny Bear shared his reverence for natural fibers. An angry yell from Anne, the sound of Chipper's stomping feet as he headed upstairs to his wireless weather station kit. Craig found himself wondering how Betty the library assistant was. She didn't judge.

It was dark outside. A cold front was moving in. And still he sat. He imagined the smell of pine, a yellow moon and dream comfort memory. The familial pull wouldn't leave. And he knew it wasn't right, that toys by themselves weren't enough.

***

The early light revealed passing fields, now barren and cold. Faded barns and swayed ridge beams. He'd taken the old highways up through Utah and now into Wyoming. The RAV4 was doing yeoman's work. There was no shortage of food wrappers, seven hours out now and eyes burning. His cell had rung incessantly, until it hadn't. Anne would be making coffee, the children would be up soon. And questions and tears.

A long sweeping bend. A motorcycle by the side. An older gentleman with a leather bomber jacket. Sitting patiently by his backpack. Watching nothing in particular, facing away from the road. Sager pulled in and turned off the motor. The pings and ticking sounds. A warm engine and cold air. The man turned slowly, and also smiled slowly.

Big birds flying across the sky.

The man climbed in, slowly. The long pain that is simply accepted now. The backpack went into the back seat. Some strange stringed instrument stuck out through the top flap. It looked like a harpsichord. But it wasn't.

“Sager.” Just a statement. As if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“Phil. Problems with the Road King?”

Phil Jackson is a man who is careful with his answers. “Where are you headed my friend?”

“Saskatchewan. And you?”

Phil turned his attention to the passing barren fields. “I'm to host the kids at Deer Lodge for the holidays. Saskatchewan's nice this time of year though.”

Sager shrugged. He was already into Wyoming. He had not yet crossed across any borders.

Phil eyed the photos on the dashboard curiously. “Deer Lodge can wait.”

***

Night had turned to day and had turned to night once again. Craig Sager had tried to hide the smile but he felt like someone with a brother from another mother, you take it where you get it and sometimes you have to hide a grin. Like when you have a chance gelato spill and stop at a thrift store catering to the cabaret crowd. And then your whole life changes. 

Walter and Doris stood blinking at the door, bathed in the ambient glow of a single strand of holiday lights, zig-zagging across the clapboards.

Walter squinted, and then his countenance lit up. “Well, Phil Jackson, how are you sir? Come on in out of that cold night air!”

Doris beamed happily as well. She and Walter didn't know Phil personally but they certainly watched television, and while their son's parade of pastels and plaids had long worn thin, there was something different about a brush with eleven rings.

Phil stepped aside and motioned for the son to enter first. He followed behind, as Walter and Doris murmured anxiously about “the peat moss.” A moment later Doris did an about face and led him back out to the dining table.

“You just sit a spell and let the boys do what they have to do. No reason to trouble yourself. Would you like a glass of sherry?”

Phil pondered the question and sat slowly. “Is there anything else?”

“We have limeade.”

“I guess I wouldn't mind a small glass of sherry.” And then watched a curious spectacle as America's sideline reporter and his father made a series of hallway trips, carrying large bags of garden fertilizer over their shoulders out into the cold night air. He looked to Doris and raised his eyebrows. She just smiled sweetly. In due time, the procession ended and there was the sound of extended vacuuming. Craig finally stepped into the living room with a red, sweaty face.

“You'll be bunking with me. I got twins. But I have to take a shower first.”

***

It was late now. The faint smell of an apple-scented candle wafted from down the hallway. Phil was sitting at the dining table with Walter and Doris, playing canasta. Craig watched from the recliner, scowling and checking his cell messages now and then. “We could listen to music in my room if you want.”

Phil waved off the suggestion. “It's your draw, Walter.”

The gray dawn arrived and Craig was awoken by the strange sound of oddly-chiming strings. It sounded like flowing high-mountain water to him. He wiped the sleepy-bugs from his eyes and sat up, wrapping his blanked around him. “Where did you learn to play like that?'

Phil was sitting cross-legged on his twin bed, cradling his zither and plucking the strings. “It's my version of 'Rolling in the Deep' by Adele."

Sager nodded. “Do you know any Leonard Cohen songs?”

Phil shook his head slowly as if bemused by the man-child's questions, then looked back levelly. “No. But I can play this.” And began a languid version of Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun', speaking the words as he plucked the zither's strings.

Sager watched and listened, wide-eyed.

***

Days came and days passed. Craig and Phil took to visiting Rosthern's Main Street. They browsed the racks at Pogo's Bargain Center, sat on the park bench. Some nights they would stop at Bumpy's Bar. If a game was on, Phil would share his wisdom with the regulars. Craig attempted to join the conversations but his old pals simply slapped him on the back as if they were in on some familiar joke. He finally stopped trying.

At home, Phil helped make salads and watch the local weather reports with Walter and Doris. Christmas was just days away. At night by the glow of the twinkling bulbs, songs would be sung – joyous renditions of Burl Ives and Frankie Lane classics. Doris would accompany on the piano and Phil would strum his zither. Craig sang along at first but didn't feel appreciated, and eventually went to his room and listened to his own music, trying to drown the grownups' revelry. It just didn't seem right. He yelled out in the general vicinity of the living room. “Mom! Do we have any more pudding cups?”

Phil's bemused voice drifted back. “Sorry sport. I had the last one.”

It was a cold, clear day. The sun was shining through the windows. Phil was sitting on the couch, lost in thought. Craig wasn't sure what was wrong. He only knew that the legendary coach has been on the phone earlier, having a “private conversation” with someone. And now he looked sad and lonely.

Craig spoke up. “D'you want to go for a walk in the woods? That's what I do if I'm feeling troubled about anything. I bring my cassette recorder with me and sit on my favorite rock.”

Phil thought about this and shrugged. “Okay”.

***

They sat there by the stream, Craig perched on one rock eating goldfish crackers from a baggie. Phil sat on an adjoining rock, looking toward the water. The beavers could be seen, poking their heads their heads up briefly now and then from their pile of sticks and logs in the water.

“Those are my friends, Chipper and Mrs. Sleek.” Craig held out the baggie of goldfish crackers. Phil accepted them companionably. Sager continued. “You seemed sad in there. Is it because of the Lakers?”

Phil shook his head and smiled. “No, my friend. If you love something you have to let it go. If it comes back to you it is yours forever, if it doesn't, then it was never meant to be.”

Craig cocked his head, seemed about to say something, then closed his mouth and wrinkled his brow. He seemed to be working this out in his head.

Phil spoke again. “Well, it is about one Laker actually. Jeanie. That's who I was talking to on the phone earlier. She arrived in Deer Lodge. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. She and my kids are wanting to see me. And I want to see them. This has been a fine past few days though. And I thank you.”

Sager's shoulders slumped. “It seems like we didn't even hang out that much. You just wanted to play cards with my parents.”

Phil Jackson stroked his white beard. “Why are you here, Sager? You have your own kids, you have a wife. It's Christmas time for crying out loud. Your bedroom isn't all that cool. It kind of smells in there to be honest.”

Sager thought hard on this. “Lately, the black dog has been with me. I'm questioning everything. I have an annoying ringing in my ears that won't go away. I don't know why I keep coming back here. I don't even think Walter and Delores are my real parents. They just tolerate me. I'm supposed to be from Batavia, Illinois. That's what Anne keeps telling me. And I don't think she's my real wife. Which means Chipper and Bunny Bear wouldn't be my real kids. What am I supposed to do?”

Phil tossed a couple goldfish crackers to the beavers. “Of course you're from here, sport. Nobody pretends to be from Rosthern, Saskatchewan. All your changes were here. But it is Christmas. And those kids deserve to have their dad with them, black dog or not. You could get a Santa suit.”

Craig considered this. “Not just any Santa suit.”

***

Craig Bartholomew Sager arrived at his own front door sometime after dark on Christmas Eve. It had been a long, bone-weary drive. He'd dropped Phil Jackson off in Wyoming, and they had thanked each other for the company. Now he stood at the threshold, and rang the doorbell.

Anne opened the door and put her hands on her hips. “Santa. Nice of you to stop by.”

Craig was wearing a glorious red leisure suit trimmed with faux ermine around the cuffs and collar, and a red velvet pimp hat. And a giant black patent leather belt. And a fake beard. “Ho ho ho!”

The kids came running out and hurled themselves against his legs. Their daddy was home. Anne shook her head. “You'd might as well come in then.” And she turned and walked inside. Sager grinned.

***

Christmas day had been splendid. The children opened an obscene amount of presents by the glorious living Spruce, and a wonderful meal from Whole Foods was consumed. And candy and treats and snack trays galore. Anne had appreciated the David Yurman jewelry and had polished off a goodly amount of Veuve Clicquot. And now the sun was going down. Again.

Craig had retreated to the patio and was parked in his Adirondack. Shadows crept across the golf greens below until the darkness consumed him. Anne had thoughtfully plugged in a strip of Christmas lights that crept across the patio fence. The tiny twinkling bulbs tried burning their way through the thickening black syrup of night. His cell phone vibrated silently. He looked at it and then spoke cautiously. “Yes?”

The voice sounded far away. “Hi Craig. It's me, Betty. From the library.”

Craig answered. “Yes, I know.”

A long pause. “Are you with your wife and children?”

“Yes, I am.”

“That's nice. Everyone should be with family on Christmas. So, have you been thinking about me at all?”

“Well, yes. Sometimes.”

“I bought a new dress. It's blue with a snowflake pattern. I think you'd like it.”

Sager sighed heavily. The tinnitus in his ears began again. Inside, he could hear the sound of the children. They were beginning to quarrel and the sound mixed with the ringing in his ears. Anne's voice was raising in timber but he could not make out the words. The voices seemed to ebb and flow in some strange rhythm that he hadn't yet figured out.

“Craig? Are you still there?”

Sager clicked the phone off and reached into a paper bag that was by the side of his chair. Inside was the old cassette recorder, it had come back from Saskatchewan with him. He pulled a wrapped chocolate from his pocket and put it in his mouth. And pressed play. The comforting rasp of a singer from his past.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

THE SHOTGUN SINGS THE SONG




I felt resentful of Mike Brown from the beginning. It didn’t have that much to do with him really. It was more about the way the season had ended, the way the players had given up on Phil Jackson during his well-publicized last run. It had to do with the way management cleaned house and the way Brian Shaw was treated like a pariah. It felt toxic. And the new boss came along, smiling and affable and filled with reasonable plans. And the summer became a bitter lockout.

He had been to the finals, had been a coach of the year. He had dealt with an outsized ego in LeBron James. He preached defense. I for one, made fun - he wasn’t my choice. As if I had a right. And the lockout-shortened season began and he was thrown into it with a blockbuster trade that was vetoed and a jerry-rigged amalgamation of aging stars and average journeymen. The season didn’t go so well and we weren’t that surprised.

Coach Brown seemed like a nice guy. He had an easy laugh and a love of work. He held long practices and his players seemed to accept it because the intentions seemed good and sincere. And he seemed reasoned when he explained his cockeyed rotations and pedestrian offense. Because they were figuring this thing out, y’know? It took time. And the season ended with another second round exit and there was the usual talk about what he was and what he wasn’t and another summer rolled along and then the lid blew off in the form of Steve Nash & Dwight Howard. Rock Stars! Salvation! Bring on the rings, encrusted with jewels, for surely they are ours to lose.

There was a small matter - the team needed direction and a system. And low and behold the Princeton Offense was brought forth and this seemed good because there were familiar principles involved. It had a lofty name and it was about ball movement and off-ball movement and wasn’t it kind of like the triangle, kind of? And a new crop of assistant coaches were summoned and a smattering of new role players and the table was set. Signed, sealed, delivered.

There were a few minor wrinkles. Dwight Howard was coming off back surgery. The team was somewhat geriatric. This danged Princeton thing seemed awful tough to figure out. Kobe hurt his foot and Nash fractured a shin and Jordan Hill did the same thing to his back that Dwight Howard had done but that was okay because he’d just rest it a little and besides, Dwight himself was coming back after many months of inactivity. No worries.

It was easy to blame Mike Brown and yet it was also reasonable to blame injuries and unfamiliarity and a host of other events on the ground. And Mike still had his smile and his work ethic and his screwy rotations. The team lost three in a row to start the season and finally beat the lowly Detroit Pistons and with five minutes left in the game and a 25-point lead, Mike Brown stood on the sidelines with his hands on his hips, shouting out directions as Kobe and Dwight and Pau huffed and puffed down the floor.

And yes, there was something about this that didn’t quite seem right. Just like there was something lost in translation when Brown explained why he played Pau for such heavy minutes during the preseason. He said he knew Gasol had played a ton of ball during the course of the previous year so he would play him more now because it would be uncomfortable in the moment but wouldn’t seem uncomfortable later.

And then came the fateful fifth game of this almighty season and the Lakers were blown out in Utah. And the needle swiped across the vinyl with an ugly squawk and everything stopped. And Mike Brown talked his talk and the players said it would take some time and Jim Buss said he had every confidence in his guy. And pulled the trigger.

It was a surprise but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Jim Buss is a numbers guy. He looks at percentages, at returns, at stats and data. And he has no aversion to dropping the hammer. He has been handed the keys to a kingdom that’s about winning, about major media market deals and signing superstars and great expectations. There's also talk that the grand patriarch himself wanted Brown gone. To be honest, it's remarkable that he lasted as long as he did.

Mitch Kupchak gave a presser and spoke thoughtfully and pragmatically. They’ll make some calls and sort through the candidates. They’ll probably talk to their superstar veterans about it, he said. Not for validation but just for information – who they know and that kind of thing. The team will take many things into careful consideration and won’t be rushed. I don’t buy it. I think Buss has been running the numbers for weeks. And the winner is.....

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.


(*update: I wrote the above hours after Mike Brown was let go. I felt as so many did, that Phil Jackson would return for one more go-round. It was a wonderfully sweet and toxic 48hr ride until management took a sharp and sudden turn. Mike D'Antoni is nothing like the old boss but he should be just as entertaining.)


Saturday, October 27, 2012

NOT FADE AWAY




Searching for Slava isn’t consistent and it has no particular rhyme or reason. It will never be part of a network and it will never be invited to be part of a network. The top rated Slava post ever? Not Kobe, not Lamar, certainly not Craig Sager. As much as I like writing about woodland creatures and synthetic fibers, those posts are like the last kid who straggles across the finish line. Adam Morrison and a post called Shooting Star brought in the most traffic I’ve ever had, by far.

Ammo was waived by the Portland Trailblazers on Friday. He’d managed a training camp invite after lighting it up for the Clippers in summer league. He didn’t get the call from the Clippers. He played in Vegas after playing for the Brooklyn Nets in their summer league. That after playing for Besiktas in Turkey and KK Red Star Belgrade. Morrison was fired up in Serbia, he said he would have run through a wall the night of the viral ejection. He was fired up for the Clippers, averaging 20 ppg in six games. The Clippers should have signed him. He’s their kind of player. They didn't, but Portland gave him a shot.

Ammo’s not particularly consistent and he has no rhyme or reason except he loves the game. When he’s firing he’s amazing, transcendent. And when he’s not he’s like a stone-faced pedestrian. I have no illusions about why my hit counter's still running ten months later. I understand what 'Google images' means. I get that people click on a picture of a meteorite streaking across a nighttime sky. I also remember that when I first wrote it, the connection wasn’t about a photograph. Adam Morrison said he’d retire if Portland let him go. He’s got a couple young daughters in Seattle. Time doesn’t wait forever.

Was there ever a player who showed more emotion than Morrison with Gonzaga? Maybe. He has no more of a lock on passion than a million other ballers. Was there another player who shot himself up with insulin on the sideline? I have no idea. Was there another player who blew out his knee and failed to live up to lottery expectations? Sadly, too many. Morrison spoke to the geeky kids who lit joints on deserted playgrounds and let fly from obscure asphalt cracks that served as markers. And he never cared about that. He cared about the loss to UCLA in the sweet sixteen. If you didn’t see it you don’t know and it was only six years ago. It seems like a lifetime.

Ammo turned 28 this past summer. He will finish school at some point and he will live a life. And do something to earn a living because the expenses don’t stop. And at some point many years from now with his daughters grown and water under the bridge, he may track down old friends and look at photographs. You can blow off the sentiment in the moment but it will catch you in time. It always does. And you know that he was a shooting star. And the world will love you, just as long as you are a shooting star.