Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Anniversary

 


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

Monday, January 27, 2020

Kobe Bryant: The Things We Never Had Time to 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.

There were things that we never had time to say. So long, down the line. You called us, but we never had time to say. Goodbye. 
 

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.