Friday, June 12, 2020

NBA 2020 Season 2: The Starting Line is Thataways?

Anyone possessing a basketball pulse should know by now that the NBA will likely resume its 2019-2020 basketball season in a self-sustaining bubble community known as the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney World, Florida, beginning with practices and scrimmages, and progressing to a reboot of competitive play sometime around July 30. By the time teams battle each other again for supremacy—assuming the magic ship doesn’t sail off the rails again due to rising cases of Covid-19 and contentious union negotiations—approximately four months and 20 days will have passed since things came to a screeching halt. With eight seeding games per team in a 16-day period followed by four rounds of a traditional best-of-seven playoff format, the new schedule will stretch out until about October 13. As welcome as this all is, it seems a bit ridiculous to refer to a novel concept as anything resembling the resumption of the regular season. Instead, let’s call it NBA 2020 Season 2, and assume that what we’re currently in qualifies as the preseason. There’s plenty to sort through during this waiting period, although the more important strokes will ultimately be left to historians to wrestle with. Basketball is only a small portion of it, part of the parcel, a footnote, a diversion, a necessity for some, an addiction, welcome solace, a thing to think about late at night when all is dark and sleep comes slowly and uneasily, when stresses and isolation and social inequities and survival all swirl together in a new normal that is anything but normal in any sense of the word. Remember when we took it all for granted? Remember when choices seemed simpler, even if there is nothing simple about the world we now inhabit?

The year was less than a month old when Kobe Bryant and eight other precious souls were lost in a fiery crash, a cataclysmic event that threw more than just the sports world into shocked disbelief and grieving. It was so sudden, so strange. It put us all into a shell-shocked stew of question marks and reminisces. We struggled to come up with words, but we all wanted to make words, and to relive and recount memories. Even as all that was unfolding, early news of Wuhan, China and the wariness of an uncontainable contagion had been seeping into our collective consciousness, and it wouldn’t be long before we were all asking, or at least thinking, about the where and when of a larger spread. By the time of the inevitable cessation of NBA play, our thoughts were not so much a result of surprise, but the inevitability we all knew or suspected. Matters only mushroomed from there, in each and every facet of life.

The rapid proliferation of a lethal disease came at us in waves, a sea of tragedy compounded by sheer ineptitude and negligence at the highest levels of the federal government, embodied by a petulant and narcissistic loaf of a man with an incongruous blonde up-and-over swirl of hair offset by an orange spray tan and pale piggish eyes. If there happens to be an insulted reader or two out of a scant handful that still pays any attention to a microblog that’s way past any imagined prime, that’s okay—I don’t give two fucks at this point. We’re three and a half years into a Category 5 shit storm of non-leadership, ripped from any norms of governance that still exist, with no standing left among nations we once held as allies, and with even less at home. But months of sickness, death and a shattered economic collapse from coronavirus wouldn’t deprive other societal disorders of their needed oxygen, case in point being the slithering rot of white nationalism spoon-fed by Dear Leader to fear mongers and blunderers, aggressors and dog whistlers, slack jaw feeders, bleaters and red coal carpet creepers. A steady stream of protectionism, harassment, brutality and murder amalgamated like a freeway pileup during a pandemic that had already rubbed a nation raw, culminating with an eight-minute, forty-six-second asphyxiation of George Floyd by a white cop who was so fucking nonchalant about a public execution that he actually kept his hands in his pockets while kneeling on the man’s neck, like a golfer lining up his next putt on a flawless green. That policeman and his three cohorts uncorked a levee that has been threatening to breech for a very long time. We don’t know where the surging tide will lead—it’s righteous hurt and anger, a human shapeshifter, purpose and peace, visible from space on 16th Street.

Sports is not a panacea for all that ails us, but it’s an endeavor that deals with success and failure, domination and disintegration. It can be inspiring and frustrating, unifying and dividing and whatever other words you want to toss into the bubbling stew, but I sure as hell would be okay watching a high-arcing shot from way downtown hitting nothing but net right around now. It has also become a late-night diversion that begins with rewatching NBA games from earlier in the season on a mobile device, and proceeds toward vain attempts to lull myself to sleep by imagining exactly what this sports experiment will actually look like. There have been all kinds of rumors and tidbits about the possibility of not having actual on-site play-by-play and color commentators, perhaps using drone cameras and positioning remote analysts in studios safely removed from the action, or even more confounding, the notion that head coaches over the age of 65 might not be allowed to roam the sidelines. That’s not gonna fly. There’s also news of a faction of players holding conference calls to debate the sustainability of playing in the Disney bubble and you can’t blame them for asking or wondering, given the volatility of the situation on the ground, as well as the optics of a league largely made up of black men being sequestered to entertain the masses. I have loads and loads of questions, like what will it be like for athletes to train and compete on an obstacle course that has never existed before, what will the viewing experience be like for an audience, and whether fans will be replaced by cardboard cutouts perched on blacked-out bleachers with subtle backlighting and ambient noise from an NBA 2K20 soundtrack? Where will the players live, what will they eat, what teams will advance and what’s the weather like in that neck of the woods in August anyway? I’m assuming high-90s and constant humidity that feels like a hot, wet towel draped across the face. Plus mosquitos the size of mutant bats.

I find myself with a lot of time on my hands these days. I’m not exactly hermetically sealed off in an alternative timeline but I do find myself staring at the screen a lot. I’m not sure whether up is down or down is up. I go to sleep later and I wake up later and I’m not entirely convinced that dreams are any less real than reality. The never-never land is a fragmented journey to get somewhere but the finish line is forever changing. References to the upcoming basketball reboot inevitably use Orlando as a key word but the resort is actually in Bay Lake, a city that was incorporated 53 years ago yet still only has a population of 51. The 23 square mile municipality is owned and controlled by the Walt Disney Company and its original residents were relocated a long, long time ago. These days, the only permanent townspeople live off the grid in a tiny cluster of mobile homes, surrounded by thick stands of pine trees and bodies of water. These hand-picked good folks are supposedly there to keep the cogs of bureaucracy running when it comes to matters such as land use and planning, but in truth, they mostly just live there, paying $75 a month in rent and watching the bobcats and manatees play. These aren’t your day-to-day Disney World employees tasked with actual nuts and bolts jobs at the theme parks, such as cashiering, food service and frolicking in brightly-colored tunics. Those people are uniformly referred to as Cast Members, and live in different residential communities where their rent is automatically deducted from electronic pay deposits. Regardless, it’s all part of Orange County, Florida, where coronavirus numbers are rapidly spiking upwards, even as the state continues on track to a full reopening. You can insulate a reboot of the National Basketball League all you want, but somebody’s got to serve Woody’s Box Lunches to hungry athletes. And at some point, the ripple effect of flag-draped boat rallies and 55 Other Best Things to Do in Orlando is going to make itself known. I could go on for a couple thousand more words but I won't. Which way was the starting line again?

Monday, March 16, 2020

Our Collective Kid

How can you begin to write about a season upended, of sickness and panic and utter strangeness, stemming from a microscopic piece of genetic material taking its first uncertain toddler steps before exploding into a dead run? The enormity of the entire NBA closing down over the course of an evening was juxtaposed with the ever-growing and sobering reality of local, national and global events, swarming our senses like a giant cloud of locusts. As days passed, a larger reality of societal shutdown began to dwarf a game in which two opposing teams—with no more and no less than five players each at any one time—advance an inflated ball from one end to the other and then back again, in hopes of putting that cylindrical object through a metal hoop ten feet off the ground. That magical portal is composed of high tensile carbon steel, draped in nylon netting. It is a transcendental thing, the be-all, end-all culmination of great effort, of sprinting, pounding, dribbling and passing, of blocks and rebounds, misses and curses, slips and tumbles and taunts, of elbows and teeth and whistles, of stops and starts and leaping and soaring, crashing and burning, layups and jams, of hanging on the same steel circle as its supporting structure sways and strains precipitously. This is the place where the netting dances, almost silently, as a full-grain leather orb completes its perfect rainbow arc from somewhere downtown, swishing through a split second before the roar of the crowd climbs over 100 decibels, louder than a freight train thundering past, and mingling ever so perfectly with the incandescent blur of LED lighting powerful enough to melt the average cornea. It's the place where spirits soar and fall, where pure joy happens, where drinks are sloshed and relationships begin and end. And a game that can be akin to a scorching solo or a perfect choir, that is both objective and unabashedly opinionated, and one played and observed from inches to miles and miles away, is suddenly silenced.

“Shut the light, go away. Full of grace, you cover your face.”

The NBA did what it had to do. And all the shuttering, the social distancing and hoarded goods and claustrophobia, the unanswered questions and staring at screens doesn’t begin to compare to the larger losses and suffering around a globe that we all knew was in some kind of trouble waiting to happen. We just didn’t know exactly what, even with warning signs all around, even with all that we read and hear and consume and ignore. I want a moment back in time, to make dinner and grab a beer out of the fridge, to turn on the warming rays and sit on the couch, to sit and grin, to get up and pace and frown and curse, to share the experience on social media, to win or lose, but ultimately, to be absolutely lost in the moment. The beauty of these shared experiences—sports or otherwise—is that even when the season draws to its inevitable close, there’s always the security of knowing that it will roll around again, that the year is broken up into segments that are part and parcel of an unbroken picture. It’s all changed now, we’re emptying shelves and straining to see—specks in our eyes, we were dropping like flies.

Time passes imperceptibly and the path begins its gradual ascent, a late afternoon sun bouncing off canyon walls. A thousand dimpled footprints from a time gone by. Hawks drift lazily on thermal banks, a contrail arcs across the azure sky. Somewhere, a skillet is sizzling, hunks of onion curl and wine burbles slowly from a dark bottle’s neck. Pings of music echo from a distance away and lights are slowly crackling to life. We want our moments back.

“I think I know, some things we never outgrow.”

Lyrics from "Kid"/Pretenders/C. Hynde

Monday, January 27, 2020

Kobe Bryant: The Things We Know and Things We Say

It was a day. A long, drawn-out, numb day. A day spent scrolling and reading, a day spent silently tapping the "like" icon, as if by that mute acknowledgement, something was actually being communicated. But mostly, it was a day of vague and scattered thoughts, of melancholy and a strange disconnect—even while wholly connected to the moment.

People I know and respect were posting and reposting, old articles from years past, new pieces conceived in the moment, a time in space where a grieving community comes together. I considered reposting something I wrote during the lead-up to Kobe Bryant’s final season, something that was whimsy and absurd invention and sincerity as well. But I hesitated, partly because of the image, a gyrocopter gliding through the air. Regardless, for all the things I wrote about the guy over the years, this was the one I liked the best—the clickety-clack of the keys under my fingers felt right at the time. Now, staring at a new word doc, my keystrokes feel all wrong.

I take a break from it all and go for a walk, along some Austin residential streets a block or two removed from the urban bustle. A young couple is strolling slowly ahead of me and my pace takes me past. The guy is saying to his edgy, raven-haired girlfriend: “I feel like going and adopting a dog today, and naming him Kobe.” A simple sentiment, yet infinitely relatable.

Here in Austin, on a street with three visible people on it, one is talking about Kobe and one listens to another talk about Kobe, as a stranger walks past with his eyes on the ground, also listening. It's here, there and everywhere. Because Bryant wasn’t only Los Angeles even if he was essential Los Angeles. There was and is a global admiration that has always gone beyond what anyone can say in the moment; whatever anyone’s favorite memory or game or take on a game is. And, a personality and a style of play that engendered controversy and more than a few scorching analytics debates devoted to the unseemly notion of taking contested mid-range, ball-hogging, jab-stepping, fadeaway jumpers when everyone knew, or claimed they knew, that easy 2’s and spaced-out 3’s were where the game is at now, man.

I was all-in with Kobe, from the moment he arrived in L.A. as an untamable teenage rookie through to his final limping chapter, topped of by that 60-point swan song finish. There were years spent, many of them, driving back from work with Chick’s "left-to-right on your radio dial," getting home in time for the second half on TV, or the trips to Staples, or at a club or a bar, talking to friends about the Lakers and Kobe, at a time when that was what the city needed it, when purple and gold pennants on car antennas were part of a unifying message that was embraced, even in unsaid ways. Kobe was the face of it, a high-flying and completely combustible Robin to Shaq’s Superman. And, he seized a mantle he already believed was his, once the Big Fella actually did leave the building. Remember how the headstrong Bryant fought with and resented Phil Jackson and the idea of system basketball in the early years, and how he came to accept and actually embrace the Zen Master’s teachings once Jackson returned for a second stand? There was the tough and ugly time in Denver and the hurt and repercussions rumbling across the Western Conference’s fractured tectonic plates and beyond—a messy era engendering anger and mistrust and bandages ripped off as soon as they were applied. And if the first portion of a 20-year career was filled with dazzling smiles and improbable dunks, the second chapter was marked by a grim assassin’s look, pounding away at opponents until his own tendons and bones would break, as if by torturing himself as well as others, there could be some redemption that only Mamba himself could fathom. Still, he continued his relentless Sisyphean challenge, pushing the heavy boulder uphill, partnering with Pau Gasol and gathering two more rings to add to the three others he already possessed. By the time Jackson left for good, Kobe was showing pleasure in the game again, except for a body that was betraying him in increasingly obvious ways.

Three more head coaches would follow, as would a ruptured Achilles and a fractured knee, just to mention a couple of the mind bending litany of medical mishaps. There would be no more titles, just an extended Lakers' march toward the basement of the league’s standings. But there were still moments to enjoy, and Bryant himself seemed more at ease with the world—if that’s possible for perhaps the most driven athlete of his time. If asked to pick a favorite memory from the last days of Kobe’s career, it would certainly be that 60-point storybook finish. Because how could it not be? It began in halting, painful fashion with shots clanking off the rim and it morphed into something spectacular and impossible and textbook Kobe; a cacophony of ridiculously hard shots and ragged breath and the very definition of leaving it all on the court. But that was just the capper of a two-decade run. Through all of it, the good, the bad and the infinitely complex, there was the undeniable truth of beautiful basketball, served up in outrageously large portions.

The tragedy of Sunday is not only the passing of a sports icon, it is the unfathomable loss of a father and his daughter and seven other precious lives, taken without warning in a fiery crash in California fog. It’s the bereavement of a widow and three other daughters, including an infant too young to know what was lost in the moment—that pain will unfold over years to come. It is unthinkable but still we think about it, these are the things we know and the things we can never know, the things we say and will never say.

A long, drawn-out day turned into another and a league and fans continued to try and process an unfathomable reality. Bryant was fond of talking about process, a word that seemed like a touchstone for a complex personality. How do you break something down into logical bites, when not a single part makes any sense at all? He lived in the incandescent moments, the deafening noise and the wash of light, the impossible and improbable, the kicked-out leg and jutting jaw, moments we wished would last forever. Kobe famously said that he never saw the end of the tunnel. We never got to see the ending we wanted.

The one that lasts and laughs, long after the game fades away.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

LA Lakers: A Decade Ends and Another Begins

After an indeterminably long summer, a roster overhaul and endless anticipation and speculation, the Los Angeles Lakers blasted into the regular NBA season, showing early strength and lengthy winning streaks that turned to signs of mortality as 2019 drew to a close. Case in point: a four game losing streak that caused heads to spin, holiday joy to ebb and trade machine fantasies to rise lazily from the complacency of a season in progress that looked nearly unstoppable for about two months.

But despite some peaks and valleys, the team is still leading in the West and will end the decade at 26-7, off a pair of back-to-back wins. At its best, this year’s edition has been a vet-heavy Goliath that steamrolls human asphalt in its path. But flies in the ointment have certainly been revealed—2020 will tell if a finer-tuned monster will emerge.

The Lakers last reached the postseason in 2013. Countless players have passed through the doors since then, along with three head coaches (four if you count Bernie Bickerstaff’s five interim efforts; five if you count Mike Brown’s final gasps to kick off the 2012-13 season and six if you include current HC Frank Vogel). Toss in multiple training staff turnovers, two general managers and two team presidents, the last being Magic Johnson who threw in the towel during an impromptu resignation/heartfelt tell-all to reporters prior to the start of the last game of last season, aka the team’s sixth consecutive losing frame. Years of downward plunges, endless injuries, annual trips to the lottery, the acquisition of LeBron James and a passing parade of scintillating young talent that was consistently frittered away until finally, almost as an incongruous last gasp—Los Angeles pulled the trigger on a trade for Anthony Davis. There was a moment last June, when the roster consisted solely of James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma—the latter being the sole survivor of all the young dudes who walked through the door during countless teen spirit rebuilds.

Credit goes to Rob Pelinka who waited out the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, and, after getting burned by the Claw as the vast majority of remaining free agents waltzed elsewhere, managed to put together a roster of credible bodies. There would be one last gut punch over the summer when DeMarcus Cousins blew out his ACL during a pickup game, leaving Lakers management to sort through the scrapheap of leftover big men, settling on a minimum unguaranteed contract to Dwight Howard—the only current Lakers to have played on the last Purple and Gold roster to taste the playoffs, seven long years ago.

Overbaked days of summer and the drone of cicadas fade away and the welcome cool gives way to drudging gray and cities of hacking flu/colds. The confessional’s eponymous muse comes to Los Angeles now and then for retirement ceremonies but mostly stays in his native Ukraine—a place now thrust into the forefront of our national discourse. But for a seminal biscuit-in-a-bucket-chucker, it’s simply terra firma and a place to coach youth basketball for the nation’s state run sports system. 

Searching for Slava began in 2010 as a whim, an ode to the mighty Medvedenko and an attempt to meld creative writing exercises with a beloved sport. It was an era of basketball blogging adventurism but the FreeDarkos of the world mostly fell to the side, replaced by other sports models or not replaced at all.

The current Lakers feel like a throwback in more ways than one. The Howard experiment has delivered pleasant results this far in. A guy who torched every bridge behind him until little was left ahead, has settled into an effort-intensive role. He and starter JaVale McGee evoke traditional big man schemes in measured minutes, a two-headed monster so to speak, seguing into small ball units with Davis sliding up to the 5. It’s all part of a decently managed rotation that uses more bodies on the floor than has been the norm in the modern NBA. A case in point is the phalanx of guards and wings, none of whom are stars, but are snapped neatly in and out of place like human Lego pieces.

There have been injuries to be sure—there are always injuries. Avery Bradley’s hairline fracture, Kuzma’s foot stress reaction, and Rajon Rondo’s calf and hamstring issues have resulted in multiple games missed, while Davis’ nagging sore shoulder has been mostly managed day-to-day. But physical maladies haven’t been as draconian as seasons past, and they also haven’t slowed the train’s chugging forward progress in any real demonstrable manner.

Going hand-in-hand with the number of veteran bodies is Vogel’s allocation of playing time. Every Laker not named James and Davis has seen a reduction in individual stats from previous seasons. There was early anticipation for a breakout third season for Kuzma but the dual superstar-driven model hasn’t truly benefited a still-developing scoring talent who previously shined through a more freewheeling game plan and a whole lot more touches.

Bradley, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Rondo, Alex Caruso, Howard and McGee have been playing in a range of 16 to 25 minutes so far this season, with none except Kuz averaging double figures. But they manage to fill in spaces like pencil marks on a Scantron test, and as weeks turn to months, some in the pack have been emerging. KCP, in particular, had a strong December with increased confidence and consistency, both as a starter and off the bench. Caruso, the kid from College Station, has also been a steadying presence, doing all the little things that matter and often in crunch time. His Achilles heel continues to be over-deference when open shots are presented.
Ultimately, it’s left to James and Davis to be the clear and obvious stars, far outpacing all others in scoring yet dedicated to defensive effort as well as the art of sharing. James leads the NBA in assists per game while Davis has been at or near the top of the league in blocks all season, not to mention filling up stat sheets across the board. The sum total effort is not unreminiscent of Phil Jackson’s star driven turns backed by solid veteran role players. Even so, there is not the level of drama or newspaper headline intrigue that often accompanied those particular halcyon days. Indeed, Vogel—himself a longtime admirer of the Zen master—keeps an even and affable keel, as the team itself keeps churning out wins. If and when the offense does starts kicking into more advanced sets, it could resemble a perfect storm of explosive weather fronts, all coming together to blow straight into the NBA Finals and beyond.

It seems hard to reconcile that nearly half an NBA season has passed in the blink of an eye, when a summer of waiting seems so recent. It may be indicative of a fleeting and transient period that will continue to accelerate. This is not a bad thing, considering that losing spells often drag on for an eternity. It is a healthy hope, that successes come fast and frequent once again, to be devoured in the moment and quickly digested before the next feast appears on our collective plates. If that seems greedy or presumptive so be it. Six years of defeat would have any fan grasping for hope.

A decade ends and another begins. The team with the best record in the West kicks off 2020 with a New Year’s Day game against the 10th place Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, Searching for Slava pokes its head out of a frozen burrow, looks for a shadow and ducks back down again.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

LeBron James and the summer of the Lakers’ content…or discontent

Dear Laker Stans,

Your team began its offseason by drafting a couple of intriguing floor-stretchers and then signed LeBron James—aka the World’s Best Player—on a 3+1 deal.

Yeah, you let Julius Randle go but you kept a potent young core in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Plus, KCP is back in the fold at a discount. Hooray!

Additionally, three veteran role players are on board in Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson. Two of the three knuckleheads own rings, one is a three-time assists leader and one is nicknamed “Born Ready.”

You’re not yet over the cap, you’ll have cash to spend next year, you didn’t give up any future picks and your glut of meaningful rookie contracts mean you’re financially well-positioned for years to come. 

So why the long faces; the gnashing of teeth; the panicky outcries and lighting of creosote torches?

Apparently, because the front office didn’t see fit to trade its best young assets for Kawhi Leonard and his degenerating quad, nor did they invest in Boogie Cousins’ shredded Achilles.

Meanwhile, all of NBA fandom—not just the Lakers—has declared next season to be over before it even begins. Because, naturally, the Golden State Warriors who had until now been casually chilling in their championship afterglow, took a moment to toss the MLE at Cousins (when nobody else would), knowing full well that he might not actually play, or that he might not play well.

Back-to-back champions can afford to do that. A rebuilding team fresh off five losing seasons—and who finally, incongruously, hit the honeypot with LeBron—can-not-and-should-not-do-that.

Nonetheless, there is a sizable contingent of soothsayers—armed with empirical data and abstract dot-connecting—that is tilting at the interwebs in the firm belief that Rondo’s flameout in Dallas four years ago, or Stephenson’s wild inconsistency and/or character issues, or JaVale’s limited yet effective 9.5 minutes per game last season (including starting three-out-of-four in the Finals) somehow impinges disproportionately on LeBron’s consistent greatness and will, in fact, send everything hopelessly spinning down the drainage hole of oblivion. Also inherent in the doom-and-gloom scenario is a belief that too many playmakers and not enough firing power is at stark odds with the modern-day game.

But as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne write, all of the memes and jokes may actually be part of the Lakers’ master plan: a blueprint for a superstar to age successfully.

What if somewhere in a parallel universe—a place where palm trees gently sway and every day is the perfect temperature, where limos glide past homeless encampments and ultra-fit bodies scamper up dusty canyon trails—the Los Angeles Lakers actually wind up having a semi-awesome season? Sure, there may be cringe-worthy moments here and there, and probably too many game that are won based on James’ inherent greatness overcoming the opposition while his teammates stand and stare (not that Laker fans have ever witnessed such a thing before, centering around any other geriatric franchise superstars). But the overall idea remains that entertainment abounds and wins happen more frequently than not. For good measure, let’s also toss in all the unexpected injuries, losing streaks, winning streaks and general force majeure that are part of the long NBA season and life itself.

The locusts swarm of free agency began at midnight Saturday EST, blazed furiously for a few hours, took a Sunday morning pause and then went supernova that evening with LeBron’s signing. It was the beginning of the end of meaningful money deals—roughly 90 percent of all free agent spending occurred within a 24-hour-period, yet the majority of actual free agents are still in limbo, unsigned and uncertain of what comes next.

And if the undulating nature of Laker fandom—the long faces and teeth-gnashing and creosote torches on one side, offset by optimism and joy from the other—had blazed so fiercely during the initial spasm of free agency, Monday and Tuesday brought a more temperate rehashing of issues and analysis, and a barely existent trickle of players being signed to table scraps. By July 4, traditionally a hot time for the basketball marketplace, attention had drifted away to hotdog-eating contests and a woman scaling the Statue of Liberty.

At some point the Lakers will have to sign a starting center, using what’s left of their money. The odds are fairly decent that Brook Lopez will be persuaded to return back for a year at an approximate 75 percent discount. Meanwhile, Leonard’s prospects for a trade seem increasingly dim, his management having grossly misplayed its hand. At least he’s still collecting a max contract for not playing.

A holiday comes to a close and a new workday is about to begin. And life slowly restores its balance, like ebbing ripples from a skipping stone. The start of the NBA regular season is only 105 days away.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mitchell Robinson: A Path Less Taken

The NBA Draft can be screwy proposition: a volatile mix of potential stars, role players and cautionary tales. And while the top of the totem pole is where the major media casts its blinding beam, the descending order with its gathering chaos and uncertainty has no shortage of other storylines. 

Enter Mitchell Robinson, a former 5-star prospect who came up with the dubious strategy of dropping out of college before his freshman year actually began, hence guaranteeing himself plenty of alone time in which to “concentrate on my training.”

There may be a consolation prize for a player once regarded as a lottery lock: whispers of a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers to take Robinson with their No. 25 pick, first from and more recently from the New York Times’ Adam Zagoria.

But these kind of agreements—when they actually exist apart from rumors—can be fluid and uncertain things, especially outside the lottery as the selection process devolves into a mad scramble.

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.