Friday, January 14, 2011
LIONS IN WINTER
I was listening to the game the other night and watching on a separate internet feed, shaky but clear enough to notice things - or was it? How much is remembered the day after, when sleep has divided experience from perception? How much is as I want it to be? The Lakers were up in Oakland, having slaughtered the lambs of Cleveland in the previous frame. And now they were sucked into the Warriors run and gun once again, Nellie’s gone but he’s still here.
It terms of time and space, it was somewhere in the 4th quarter, maybe halfway in, Lamar bringing us back on a nice run and Kobe on the bench taking a breather. I didn’t see Jackson call his number or make eye contact - maybe it was one of those zen mind meld things - but Kobe got up, went over and whispered something in Phil’s ear and headed back out onto the floor. What followed was no surprise, just a stretch of classic basketball, Kobe picking up Monta Ellis’s gauntlet and sending it back, a blur of age and injury-defying moves, time standing still once more as it always seems to in this game when brilliance unfolds. The body shouldn’t be able to anymore but it does. I saw a glimpse of faces, barely discernable, Phil looking up from his study of the woodgrain pattern, an eyebrow raised behind his glasses, maybe a smirk. Kobe giving just the slightest look toward the bench, like are you catching this?
Holly MacKenzie wrote a piece in The Basketball Jones about Kobe growing old and I linked it a previous post and I’ll do it again here because it’s on point - she tells of the bittersweet nature of the end game and bemoans its necessity, ruing the fact that our favorite players are taken away and vowing to enjoy the moments nonetheless. It’s heartfelt and it’s true but it’s also the perspective of a 25 year-old.
Being young does not diminish the clarity of observation. Indeed, age brings a somewhat scratchier view, analog versus digital, vinyl versus CD. Time becomes our bedfellow, an uneasy and sometimes unwilling alliance we make because we know its inevitability. By now we’ve seen much of life and death, hardships and joy. We don’t welcome the ravages of time but we take them as they come, stretching like old cats for the remaining patches of warm sun. In much the same way, aging athletes pick their spots. In my lifetime I’ve seen Ali come off the ropes with devastating flurries; Namath letting fly into the darkening rain and Kobe, taking over fourth quarters time and again. Wednesday night was just one more example; rebounds, assists, steals and a dizzying array of slashing, spinning, posting and scoring - capped off by a 3-point dagger with 43 seconds left, taxiing back up the runway, arms spread.
Kobe and Phil are lions in winter now, all too aware of their respective places on stage. Kobe’s written nakedly about his climb to the mountaintop and Phil’s written a lot more than that. A native son of the northern plains with Holy Rollers for parents, he has been seasoned by decades of hard court wars; as a player with the championship Knicks and coming up though the coaching badlands of the CBA, the Puerto Rican summer leagues, finding a home with the Bulls and finally two marathon stands with the Lakers, separated by the prickliest of divides. And now, his self-described grand last stand. He may toss off ironic lines with a bemused smile but he wants this last ring more than he wanted his first.
These aren’t the only aging icons in the game of course. Every team has its lions and even more at home, there’s still Joe Smith and Theo Ratliff and Derek Fisher who started with Kobe and will likely end with him. And then there’s Lamar Odom whose light doesn’t seem to be fading but it’s his 12th season after all. He might finally have a chance at an All-Star berth but wouldn’t you know it, there’s young Blake Griffin and Kevin Love in the West.
We’re now six games into a winning streak, the doldrums hopefully behind. There will be infuriating moments ahead to be sure, stops and starts, ice bags, laryngitis and tea - but the muscles and joints are warming up, winter’s end will come into view and spring will once again bring rejuvenation and a flight toward the Holy Grail of our sport, the finals. So I’m glad you’re determined to enjoy these bittersweet glory days, Holly. All things must pass but as Phil Jackson is fond of saying, "unceasing change turns the circle of life".