Friday, February 25, 2022

Searching for Slava: Over the Hills and Far Away

It can be difficult to find the right arc for a story. Harder still, when there isn’t an apparent beginning or an end.  

Kyivan Stanislav Medvedenko is still the ember that inspired both the title and ethos of an obscure microblog some 12 years ago. The content was rarely about the undrafted former Laker, but more a quest for something elusive and hard to pin down. Slava had seemingly come out of nowhere—the Ukrainian pro leagues, actually—and disappeared from view just as quickly once his NBA career had run its course. In truth, there was no real mystery. The taciturn shot-chucker who blazed an erratic orbit across our basketball firmament in the early 2000s, simply headed home to Kyiv.

The capital city is receiving 24/7 news coverage at the moment, due to the Russian invasion. From the most available updates, Medvedenko is still in Kyiv, defending "the city from crimes against humanity." An exodus is clogging major roadways, with many leaving and a lot more sticking it out as sirens wail and bombs fall. It’s a dire situation that shares no commonality with whimsical hoops tales, apart from sticking another pin in the notion of circular time.

As his former coach Phil Jackson was fond of quoting, “Unceasing change turns the wheels of life. And so reality is shown in all its many forms.”

Medvedenko is no stranger to war and political instability. He was born in the village of Kiev Oblast in 1979, moved to Kyiv while still a child, and was balling in local youth clubs when the country declared its independence in 1990. He returned to the city in 2006 during an era of escalating political upheaval and instability. The former Laker (and Atlanta Hawk for all of 14 games) was working with the Ukrainian national team as well as his own local basketball club in 2014, when pro-Russian forces seized key parts of the capital, setting up the invasion of Luhansk and Donetsk, and the ultimate annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin.

Veteran NBA coach and TV analyst Mike Fratello served as the head coach for the Ukrainian national team from 2011 to 2014, with Medvedenko shepherding the team’s U16/17 division. Fratello left during the height of the turmoil in 2014.

“Obviously, it has escalated in the last five days,” Fratello told Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer at the time. “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."

Eight years later, the tanks are rolling once again. This time, the prognosis is infinitely grimmer with ballistic missile strikes reported in Kyiv Thursday night. An uglier part of circular stories.

Medvedenko turned to grassroots politics and activism in recent years, heading up a small non-profit in his Mykilska-Slobidka neighborhood in Kyiv’s left bank. His causes have been local, entrenched in multiple battles against corrupt land developers. In one notable case he was able to thwart the construction of several waterfront skyscrapers. A basketball court and skate park were built by the non-profit instead.

“It’s an accomplishment of our organization that we stopped further construction projects,” Medvedenko told the Kyiv Post. “There would have been not two, but 10 buildings. Everything you see here would’ve been gone.”

The backup center and power forward, and two-time NBA champion for the Los Angeles Lakers, also ran for Ukraine's parliament in 2019 and for Kyiv’s city council in 2020. A member of the small progressive Voice party, Medvedenko didn’t win either of those particular battles.

When the Pro-Russian Opposition Platform came calling with a plum offer, Slava gave them a hard pass.

“For me, a democratic pro-Western party is a must,” Medvedenko said. “My decision to take a part in politics is a weighted approach. It’s an opportunity to do something good for the city.”

After his failed city council bid, Medvedenko continued pushing initiatives with his non-profit, including the building of a community center where kids can learn English, play sports and chart their own paths forward.

For now, dreams of democracy, safety and self-realization are on hold in a fragile country that is largely standing and fighting alone. It’s a long way from the bright lights of the NBA. It’s not quite so far, geographically speaking, from allied nations who sit and watch, decrying the brutality of a madman who is looking to rewrite Russian history.

The pragmatic truth is that boots on the ground from the United States and other NATO members would spark the next world war. The alternative, is economic sanctions. The decision may be a “weighted approach” to borrow a phrase from Slava. But it sure as hell doesn’t feel right in the moment, as images of heartbreak and destruction flicker across our screens.

How do you end a story about a 12-year allegorical search for a quixotic power forward, and a country that has been contested, divided and torn since the Middle Ages? Unceasing change has been an oft-repeated bookmark and device, words that feel increasingly inconsequential and distant as Friday’s early morning hours arrive in a place under martial law, on the far side of the globe.

Hoping for safety and eventual autonomy for you and yours, Slava. In the meantime, we’ll keep these faint lights on at an eponymously named blog, over the hills and far away.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Ghosts, Grease Fires and Sinking Ships


Lead balloon, lemon, loser, this years’ Lakers, we hardly knew ye.

The inexorable creep of squandered talent and lost expectations has been bumping along in various directions for 55 games now. There’s probably not much we don’t know and less that we should expect.

“You all know we are only passing by. We only walk over these stones a few times, our boats float a little while and then they have to sink,” said Billy Pretty, a forgotten character in the sublime novel The Shipping News.

The floundering regatta of the Los Angeles Lakers is a cause that has no hope as it slowly but surely spirals downward.

I was never a Russell Westbrook acolyte but I can remember when it was a ton of fun to watch him ball. There was the slew of playoff runs with the Oklahoma City Thunder that never quite resulted in the ultimate coronation. There were even some games in Houston where, in the moment, he did Russell Westbrook things that defied imagination. He has had the ability to ignite a game, to be a relentless and unstoppable attack dog. He has also, all too often, come crashing down to earth.

At age 33, Westbrook could still potentially salvage a piece of his elusive prime. But the game has passed him by and his stubborn way or the highway surely doesn’t fit this particular team. The deafening silence of any kind of legitimate trade rumors in the hours leading up to the deadline means that other organizations are equally loathe to take on the bloated contract of a recalcitrant Brodie.

The Lakers’ woes don’t fall entirely upon Russ. There has been yet another season of Covid protocols and too many injuries to rehash. The combined age of everyone on the roster does not translate to numbers that are yet known to the human species. But excuses are also beside the point. At some level you’d expect a roster with 57 All-Star selections to do basic basketball things through instinct and desire, like toss the biscuit toward the bucket and have someone actually flush the damned thing.

Granted, there have been sporadic highlight reels along the busted process. Personally speaking, the most entertaining part of the whole morass boils down to marveling at LeBron James’ ability to elude Father Time, especially during those moments when surrounded by a small retinue of still-young draft busts and those who were never drafted in the first place.

An honorable mention goes to Carmelo Anthony for consistently clicking from beyond the arc at .392, as well as saying all the right things and generally giving a shit. I would also shout out the effort of Anthony Davis except I’m literally afraid of jinxing an athletic yet oddly unbalanced gazelle who seems at constant risk of bad landings and lengthy rehabs.

Just a few of the ghosts of seasons past would include a string of lottery picks that are now playing their best ball elsewhere, ill-fated coaching hires, and contractual decisions by “management” that border on criminal negligence: cue the $132 million paid to Luol Deng and lumbering Timofey Mozgov to basically do nothing.

Back to the here and now, there’s seemingly more than enough talent and experience to get things right. There’s also an obvious case of too many creators in the cook space, and this current Lakers season has descended into a worst-ever episode of Hell’s Kitchen.

It’s not even fun to watch it, let alone write about it. A quixotic Oz-like journey gone horribly wrong. Sinking ships, ghosts and grease fires. The clichés feel staler than the team itself.

The 2021-22 season endures for now, however painful it may be. The 9th place L.A. Lakers face the 11th place Portland Trailblazers tonight. LeBron and Russ are both questionable, with left knee soreness and lower back stiffness respectively. Asked about fans’ boos after the Milwaukee blowout, Westbrook called it a “sign of respect.” If he does suit up tonight he’ll likely be treated to even more respect.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, things change on a dime. A team finds its unity, fourth quarter comebacks become sustained efforts, pitchforks are tossed to the side and the chants and cheers become infectiously good and inspiring. Boats are righted and souls are saved.

Somewhere, beyond the yellow brick road.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Ode to a Bald Eagle


Pic SS&R

There’s no more joy in Mudville, the cake got left out in the rain and Lakers nation turns its lonely eyes inward. The bald eagle has landed…somewhere else.

There’s no way of figuring out this turn of events, although we’ll probably learn someday. "Cheaping out" is one way of explaining the Lakers' malfeasance, per Harrison Faigen at Silver Screen and Roll.

But for more than a few shining moments over the past few years, an improbable kind of Camelot happened, if you count shining knights as pasty white everymen who hail from the red dirt of College Station, Texas. There was no royal pedigree save for that inherited from a dad who cut his own teeth as a standout at Creighton before signing on as a lifer in high school and college sports at various places and various jobs, from administration to promotions to spectator sports safety and security, including a 30-year mainstay in Aggie athletics where he ultimately retired as Associate Athletic Director for Game Management. 

Mike Caruso passed his love of the game on to his son, or his son simply took the ball and ran—whether that meant Alex’s own unlikely white-men-actually-can-jump antics or chasing after the loose ones that got away as a ball boy for Texas A&M. By the time the father retired in 2018, he was able to watch on TV as his progeny carved out a career in Los Angeles. Now he’ll pop a cold one and watch the kid move on to his next chapter with the Chicago Bulls for a reported $37 million over four years. That cash sure beats the $35K the 6’5” combo guard was pulling in when he first started out in the G-League.

It remains to be seen why the Lakers, who owned the dude’s Bird Rights, couldn’t or wouldn’t cough up the money to keep him. But see paragraph 2. Maybe it will all make sense someday, or even sooner than later, or maybe never at all. You say you know but you don’t know. Sometimes things go sideways.

I wrote about Alex Caruso for Forum Blue and Gold back in his two-way contract days and I wrote about him again this past season. I didn’t think I’d be saying so long this way.

He was a big fish from the scrublands, from the place of cul-de-sacs and Ford Rangers. He never seemed to be “L.A.” in the way that is commonly hyped and amplified, but he certainly fit in with a more bedrock aspect of the city—that being sports culture, and more specifically, the kind of grind-it-out, no complaints, no star trips, balls-out effort, and even the self-effacing good humor that allows one to cut a straight-faced commercial about manscaping—kudos to whatever creative genius came up with that one. 

Memes and Laker fandom and GOAT jokes aside, Caruso is one of the best defenders in the league, a guy who reads the angles, organizes the team and in almost intangible ways, automatically elevates the play and attitudes of fellow teammates as soon as he subs in. You might have missed the moment coming out of a commercial break on national television when the music’s loud and the lights are blinding, but a minute later you notice that fortunes somehow seem to have changed, that momentum has shifted, and that the guy with the headband and sparse mustache just went flying out of bounds while flicking the ball back in. And, somehow made it back to the other end of the floor in time to set a pick or dish a dime or even throw it down.

That’s how you wind up with unworldly plus-minuses and net ratings, even when the highlight reels might not notice. It’s how you go from non-drafted to being very much on the radar of front office execs around the league who are more than happy to open up their wallets. It’s how hearts are broken and hard questions are asked.

It’s how dormant keys are dusted off in the wee hours of the morning, how a chapter closes here and opens there. Past the hour when normal people read, on a barely flickering search for something elusive. Soar on wingman, we wish you well and we'll be watching. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021



Time drifts imperceptibly. We’re in our sanctuaries, waiting it out. Screens swipe left to right. The passing parade is like a drug, until particular milestones jar us awake.

During a glorious career, you flew higher than we ever thought possible. We couldn’t have known what would follow. A year has passed, a millions new angels circle in the dark…or light? You never got to say the things you might.

Close our eyes and remember. The jutting jaw, the pump-fakes and step-backs, the drives into waiting thickets. The anger and joy. Down the line, you went further. Past the line, past all limits. Soaring out of bounds.

He was the most uncompromising athlete of his generation, or at least the most successful implacable athlete. There are too many stories to tell or that have been forgotten, about those who never found the fame or heights of Kobe Bryant. He willed, worked, pushed, struggled and succeeded, past his contemporaries. Years after the countless headlong rushes, he began to rein it in. Could it be called compromise? Perhaps. There’s a middle territory where battles occur. Sometimes, there’s nothing but the battle.

“I never saw the end of the tunnel," he wrote. "I only saw myself running out of one.”

Time passes, slowly. It didn’t use to feel like this. A year of living in a dark viral overload, of hearing numbers that harden us. Statistics used to be fun. Anniversaries pass, markers are extended, goals are questioned and repositioned. We live with loss, and living itself becomes a labyrinth. The walls grow higher and the journey more uncertain, our voices absorbed in a dream state.

He would not have seen things so ephemerally. He would have considered the places where lines intersect. He would have planned a new line of attack. We aren’t you. Our angels are still crying in the dark.

An outpouring of love and remembrances puts a pause on our day. Former teammates, family and friends remember a girl and her dad. We read and remember as well. My own daughter still has a Lakers t-shirt I gave her, brought home long ago from a fan giveaway game. It became her familiar and comfortable night shirt through the many years. She is careful these days about the world around her, a product of the times. I can’t imagine what I couldn’t even write.

You can try to shape a memory through words, but there is only who he was and what he did. A younger player who fired in all directions, a scowl turning to smile, pieces of light jabbing through the haze. Someone isolated before he was revered, an iconic statesman in his retirement years. There was a family, healthy and happy. He learned and came out the other side in real and meaningful ways. But a tear occurred in the time continuum. A ruffling sound, blanketed and stilled.

The temperature is dropping and I put a leash on the dog. Heading out to capture what’s left of the fleeting sun, passing giant aloes that rim the sidewalk. The world of temporal time and space. Down inside, you remember. He flew higher than we ever thought he might.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Prime of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope


He’s never played in an NBA All-Star contest and will likely never sign a max contract. But a small town kid who made it to the biggest stage in sports, has clearly emerged as an indispensable cog on a championship roster.

At age 27, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is in his prime.

Coming off a banner year, the Los Angeles Lakers weren’t widely expected to rain long ball fury on the league. Their reputation last season was built on suffocating defense, and they’re just five years removed from the Byron Scott era—the arms-folded coach having famously opined on 3-pointers, “I don’t believe it wins championships.”

Under Frank Vogel’s leadership the Lakers did indeed win big last year, and they did it by combining star power (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), rim protection, pace and an efficient scoring game. Shooting from deep wasn’t their obvious weapon of choice—23rd in 3-point attempts and 21st in made 3s during the regular season, although the stat did improve to 11th in downtown makes during the playoffs.

And here we are again in another season marked with a pandemic asterisk, following last year’s scourge of the very same mutating virus. It has been a dark time in many ways, a serpentine journey connecting the dots from outbreaks past to today’s tribalism. Rays of light flash through along the way, diffused by cloud cover, postponements and protocols.

The Lakers have upped the offensive ante in 2021, hovering near the top of the NBA leaderboard in long-distance acumen. Caldwell-Pope is a key component, averaging .553 on 3.8 attempts per game from beyond the arc; good for third in the league in decimals behind his own teammate Alex Caruso and current leader Steph Curry. When it comes to the actual number of Laker lengthy launches, Caldwell-Pope lags behind LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma.

But make no mistake, KCP is the designated sniper, at least in the eyes of one teammate. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin recently polled team members as to who’s actually their King of 3-ball. James handed some props to Caldwell-Pope, but he still said he’d bet on himself.

Davis, however, sees it differently. “I would have to say Kenny is always our guy who we always look to for shots,” said the Brow, referring to the man who wears No. 1.

Caldwell-Pope has never been a big gabber, but he didn’t hesitate to second that notion.

"Numbers don't lie," he said, alluding to the career-best 55.3% he's shooting from 3 so far this season. "But I'm really enjoying LeBron shooting the ball. He's shooting it at a tremendous clip. He's knocking them down and it's fun seeing him have [success] shooting the ball as well. But we all know, I'm the real shooter, for sure."

Caldwell-Pope grew up in Greenville, Georgia. It’s one of the smaller cities you’re apt to come across—population 855, the last time anyone bothered to check. The largest structure is a looming century-old courthouse that dwarfs everything around it, positioned at the epicenter of a small turnaround that doubles as a two-lane highway. Residents are predominantly African-American; the median income is less than half the state level and staple items can be purchased at the local Piggly Wiggly.

The 2.36-square mile nondescript county seat won’t evoke memories of any small town southern flick you might have rented back when VHS reigned supreme. But there is a Greenville High and there was a Coach Carter. And a quiet kid who let his playing do the talking, became the big fish in a small town, ranked nationally and playing in the 2011 McDonald’s All-American Game where he scored six points in 12 minutes for the East. That same game saw future teammate Anthony Davis pouring in 14 points and four swats in 21 minutes for the West.

The guy Davis calls Kenny went on to two years at Georgia, and was selected by the Detroit Pistons as the No. 8 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. AD, of course, was the top overall choice the following year. The seven-time All-Star willed his way to L.A. last season.

The Pistons were in the middle of a dispiriting slump when they drafted Caldwell-Pope, failing to make the playoffs for three of his four seasons, and bumped from the first round without winning a game in 2016. The 6’5” guard was a starter for most of his stay, honing his skills and upping his minutes under Mo Cheeks, John Loyer and mostly, Stan Van Gundy. But losing doesn’t engender longevity, and high hopes in the Motor City sputtered out—KCP’s rights were renounced in 2017 and he landed in Los Angeles, scoring a one-year deal worth $18 million. There was some online grumbling about the payday but the larger story for months had been an executive shakeup that left Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in charge. One-year deals were stepping stones forward.

As a 24-year-old starter in a season that mixed young talent, losses and booing fans in equal measure, Caldwell-Pope performed just well enough to land a second one-year contract. This time, it was in a lesser role at a six-million dollar discount. The fact that he shared an agent with the newly arrived James, no doubt helped him stick, even if the wheelbarrows filled with cash went to a player whose place in the pantheon of all-time greats is obvious. And when Luke Walton exited and Frank Vogel arrived, followed by a blockbuster trade for Davis (also a Rich Paul client), the Lakers brought Caldwell-Pope back once more to help fill a roster that had been cleaned out to the nubs. This time around, the capable role-player had to make do with a two-year contract for a total of $16 million, less than half of his original welcome to the City of Angels.

The season ended in the strangest championship run of all, hermetically sealed in Orlando, framed by an unrelenting pandemic and following on the heels of unrest, brutality and the unfathomable loss of a father and his daughter and seven other precious lives, taken without warning in a fiery helicopter crash in the California fog. Out of an untenable morass came the Lakers’ first ring in a full decade. Caldwell-Pope started every game in the Disney Bubble, replacing Avery Bradley who elected not to attend. The speedy wing was a key component of the team’s eventual success, from corner 3s to sneaky steals.

The Georgia native opted out of his player’s option during the short offseason and was rewarded with a three-year deal for $40 million. It afforded some stability and longevity after all the short term contracts.

“I believed in myself,” Caldwell-Pope said. “This year, to come out and perform how  I performed, I’m truly blessed and humbled they believed in me enough to give me a comfortable deal that I haven’t had in so long.”

Rural Georgia is a place of cracked country roads, dragonflies and dollar stores. The state may be going through a tale of political and demographic change, but Greenville dwells in its own sleepy time capsule where summer days are hot and sticky and cold winter winds whistle through the pines. But in the far-off land of Los Angeles, where celebrations exist remotely during uncertain times, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is clearly on the map, and in his prime.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Searching for Caruso


Last year’s fan favorite has now devolved into a categorical anomaly. Alex Caruso, who provided defensive moxie and team glue in 24 minutes per game inside the Orlando playoff bubble, has appeared for token moments in just three appearances so far this season; ultimately falling victim to an antiseptic designation known as “health and safety protocols.”

The term translates roughly into anything having to do with a global plague that has decimated the population, split ideologies and turned sporting events and the teams who participate in them into traveling time bombs. Caruso may have tested positive, he may have been exposed to someone who tested positive, or the most unlikeliest of scenarios—he could have pulled a Harden and been caught on tape at Jucy Lucy’s Landing Strip behind the interstate access road. The NBA simply isn’t saying, it’s part and parcel of the new non-speak, designed to create the most palatable and undefinable version of something that’s all kinds of scary and likely won’t get better before it gets worse.

Putting aside the above word salad, the uncertainty goes well beyond Caruso as the NBA attempts to cope with the logistics of running a show in the middle of a surging health crisis. As ESPN’s Baxter Holmes observes, the task has already exhausted those who manage their teams’ collective health, with a season that is still in its infancy.

 “As the NBA tries to hold a season outside a bubble during the coronavirus pandemic, team health officials and others filling protocol roles are essentially the NBA's front-line workers. Roles that have been largely delegated to team health officials, as outlined in the NBA's 158-page protocols, include testing officer, contact tracing officer, facemask enforcement officer, facility hygiene officer, health education and awareness officer and travel safety officer, among others. Some team health officials hold more than one of those roles, along with their original roles.

A Western Conference GM added, "There's just not enough hours in the day to read the memos, the nuances, compliance, testing, the things that quickly change." The Western Conference GM continued, "You have constant scenarios happening where the memos don't cover that particular situation...That's no one's fault. It's just where we're at."

Returning to matters of the missing Bald Eagle, he’ll be in absentia again tonight for the Lakers’ second game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Silver Screen Roll’s Harrison Faigen tweeted a screenshot of a succinct official team statement: “Alec Caruso (health and safety protocols) is out.”

Players who fall into the new criteria can’t be anywhere near their team—not during a game, practice, a bus or a plane. They simply have to vanish until meeting a series of negative tests or timelines.

Even Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel seemed flummoxed about Caruso’s whereabouts recently, per Silver Screen and Roll’s Christian Rivas.

“Forrest Gump: that’s all I can say about that,” said Vogel.

Cue Alex Michael Caruso, running along a two-lane blacktop with his arms pumping, heading somewhere only he knows, as the crowd recedes from view.

*Update: This piece had the lifespan of a mayfly, with Caruso now expected to return Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs. That’s it—revision over, keep reading, or don’t. 

The undrafted success story last appeared in uniform on December 27 in a blowout win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, logging just 11 minutes off the bench but chipping in seven points and a couple boards. Beyond the obvious challenges of a pandemic that is nearing its one-year anniversary, there are other reasons to question Caruso’s role, whenever he does return. It has nothing to do with his value as a player, and much to do with his team’s shifting usage.

As Basketball Reference’s play-by-play data shows from this year compared to last, there’s a trickle-down effect creating a backcourt logjam. Whereas JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis divvied up pivot duties last season (Davis playing 40/60 at center and power forward), this year’s model has Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell carving up almost all the 5 intervals, with Davis now spending 92 percent of his time at his preferred 4 spot. This in turn results in Kyle Kuzma increasingly shifting to small forward, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leaning 3 but also playing 2, Wes Matthews taking some of Danny Green’s former responsibilities, Talen Horton-Tucker picking up his sophomore game and Dennis Schröder kicking off a new chapter in fine fashion as a starting guard, with 16.3 points and 4.9 assists in 30.4 minutes per frame. That slots him right behind Davis and LeBron James in moments spent on the court—the 36-year-old power point forward and perennial All-Star continuing to confound Father Time, as well as any earthly positional definitions. 

Where does this leave Caruso? His few appearances have been entirely at the point this season, compared to last year when he split duties between both guard positions. Of course, it’s early and there will be plenty of unseen scenarios in the months ahead, whether related to injury, coronavirus or adjustments that inevitably occur as coaches tweak and explore lineups over the course of a long NBA roadmap.

Searching for Caruso alludes to the obvious; a player who has gone MIA as of late. But it's also an allusion to a microblog that began with an allegorical quest for a Ukrainian power forward who seemingly vanished into the ether. The quest mirrored the site itself, as it blossomed to some minor degree before its inevitable slide back into soul-sucking obscurity. It’s highly doubtful that the subject of this piece will travel the same path as Medvedenko or this eponymously named basketball confessional. During the lead-up to Caruso’s first year with the Lakers, I wrote for Forum Blue and Gold about his humble beginnings in the sport, and where his journey might lead.

“The heat eases imperceptibly in the Texas Triangle but seasons do change, just as sure as kids hang out at the Dairy Queen and oversized pickups rumble along a cracked two-lane highway. It’s a land of cul-de-sacs and limestone facades.  A thin contrail arcs silently, high across the azure sky. It’s much too soon to hazard a guess as to Caruso’s NBA future. But he’s somewhere on the map, living a dream and tossing the ball up ahead.”

Caruso’s quixotic vision quest has advanced considerably since then, and it’s doubtful that a kid from College Station will wind up cashing in his chips for a steakhouse franchise in the American hinterlands. But the game can move on quickly when you’re on the outside looking in, especially when rejoining a rotation that’s already 11-deep.

Ultimately, I want to see the dude back in uniform and back on the floor. I’m hoping he didn’t actually contract this fucked-up disease and if he did, that there’s no lingering aftereffects. I miss his presence, his dogged determination, his leave-it-all-on-the-floor mentality and those glorious, mind-boggling plus/minus ratios that spike as soon as he enters the game, even when other stats wouldn’t seem to justify it. Caruso just makes good stuff happen; he gets guys their touches, makes the game easier and in general, does the right thing. He’s an unlikely internet cult figure and everyman hero, with a rec-league game that has translated to championship bling. But for now, he’s nowhere in sight.

The New Year has begun, uncertainty remains and another bookmark appears in a 10-year-old trip down an oft-forgotten rabbit hole. Be well and stay healthy. The lights are still on at Searching for Slava.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Into the Unknown, Again

For all of the slow-motion, frustratingly lonely and tragic dumpster fires of 2020, there has been a deceptively fast and infinitely welcome lead-up to the new and now current NBA season. Yes, exiguous readers, it’s here and now and will soon burgeon past preseason play to the real enchilada.

The futility of attempting yet another sporadic reboot of a dormant basketball blog is painfully clear. Its moment slipped away long ago, summers of a decade past seem ever more distant now. In 2010, Phil Jackson was beginning his final year as the Lakers’ head coach and Slava Medvedenko was three years out of the league. I wrote about anything and everything under the guise of hoops, from my dog Otis—gone these many years—to the Sages, also long gone. I used a black format with a white font during the portal’s nascent days.

I wanted to make it personal. And, I wanted it to be read. Oh, how I’d plant my links on other sites’ comment pages, or laboriously ping to the far corners of the earth with search engines that no longer exist. Independent basketball journals were flourishing then and the culture felt more connected. Or perhaps it still is and I no longer am.

This past season was uniquely interrupted, truncated and endlessly analyzed. It came to an end after 96 days in the Walt Disney World Bubble. The confetti dropped and piped-in noise ratcheted up to a banshee wail. Pixilated spectator images laughed and cried, affixed to a stretch of giant screens, as players celebrated on the court below in an oddly juxtaposed yet somehow endearing semblance of what was once taken for normal. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned World Champions after ten long years. And suddenly the grand experiment was over, players and coaches and staff heading home like astronauts returning from a space oddity to a world that must have felt very different and strange. Left behind was an army of health workers packing up their test kits, steam cleaners advancing across garish hotel carpets, cooks and servers, security guards and shipping clerks, invisible camera operators and digital technicians packing massive equipment bags and leaving en-masse. And the memories of player vlogs, when those were what we had to acclimate to a strange new world.

A couple months have passed and once again, we’re heading into the unknown. Training camp is shorter and somewhat later, with two preseason games played to date and another looming on Wednesday. The Lakers are back in their own environment, both the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo and Staples downtown. But if anything, it can seem even weirder—a carefully crafted capsule that was nearly akin to a video game in structure has been replaced by cavernous and nearly empty sports arenas that have not been adjusted to scale. The punctiliously controlled Disney setting was remarkably free from a deadly contagion that flared back and forth across the outside nation, spreading in the simplest and most organic of ways—human contact and interaction. Now, the NBA will try its best to contain things on the fly, as teams hit the road again, albeit in a structured and complicated format intended to minimize travel and exposure, and best deduced by swiping a slide rule across a PDF printout.

The team also went through changes during a compressed NBA draft/free agency period, with Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee exiting stage left, and Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schröder, Wesley Matthews and Alfonzo McKinnie arriving stage right. All-in-all, a decent haul, augmented by the respective extension and re-signing of megastars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the retention/re-signing of the remainder of last season’s supporting cast.

Among the early storylines were a double beat-down of the Los Angeles Clippers as James and Davis rested, with new players impressing on alternate nights, including sophomore Talen Horton-Tucker going supernova like the next Big Thing. Last year’s No. 46 draft pick resembles a human fire hydrant with extraordinarily long gadget arms and legs, a preternatural savvy and the chops to play both ends of the floor with a grounded ferocity that belies his age and experience. On the second of two nights, the 20-year-old from the Windy City dropped 33 points, 10 boards, four dimes and four steals, matching up against the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. At this rate he’ll be stealing thunder from fan favorite Alex Caruso, which is just fine—they both possess a team-first grind mentality that leaves room for all and all for one.

Despite the sum of the Lakers’ star power, depth and found-again championship swag, we can’t yet foresee how the impending season will play out. This is true under the most stable of circumstances and it is doubly indubitable with the vagaries of the Covid-19 era. Thirty teams along with their accompanying personnel structures, are now in wholly different environments compared to the novel summer bubble. Throw in new players, shortened conditioning regimes and the potential for injury—a constant bugaboo for ballers under the best of circumstances—and the prospect for change in any number of ways increases exponentially.

Still, it has been evident through just two exhibitions, that this is a mature squad that benefits from veteran leadership both on the floor and on the sidelines. Management and the coaching staff deserve more than a brief nod, and if this latest web restart persists beyond the immediate moment, that nod might turn to outright headbanging. Perhaps Frank Vogel can take an existential trip to Flathead Lake, and a meeting of the minds with the ZenMaster among the juniper and pine, the wild roses and brittle fern. Until then, these 1,000 words will serve as yet another bookmark in an oft-interrupted journey that began with the quixotic search for a Ukrainian power forward who vanished as unexpectedly as he appeared, a quest more figurative than literal.  

You say you know but you don’t know, unceasing change turns the circle of life and you can return to a place but not a place in time. Don’t forget to keep your head warm this winter, the lights are still flickering at Searching for Slava.


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