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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
November 20, 2013Posted by on
Hard to imagine it was over 20 years ago that Michigan’s Fab Five played Duke in the NCAA Finals, but we’re 21-years on and counting. I was reminded of the Fab Five charging into the basketball world like bald mayhem bringing news of change wearing long shorts, black socks, and attitude to spare. I was just 11-years-old at the time. A University of Iowa fan (read: Jess Settles, Chris Kingsbury, Andre Woolridge, Tom Davis); I didn’t catch on to the blue and gold bandwagon until Webber and Rose were on the way out. It was more about the cool than it was any Schembechlerian blood coursing through my veins. I had to have that maize Jalen Rose jersey because the little version of me attached value to material things. It couldn’t be Webber because he was the obvious superstar. It had to be Rose; the subversive 6’8” impossibly long point with the bald head, mumbling motor mouth, and pencil thin mustache that he wouldn’t actually grow for a few years – it’s just how I remember him. I read Mitch Albom’s Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, The American Dream with the enthusiasm of a teenage hoop dreaming disciple somehow merging my athletically-challenged basketball fantasies with the realities of the black kids Albom so meticulously framed in Fab Five.
Over the years, I haven’t dwelled on the Fab Five or their back-to-back finals appearances in ’92 and ’93. Then I was reading the Sports Illustrated college hoops preview issue with a little section dedicated to John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and the seven freshmen in line for big minutes this season. These days, it’s standard operating procedure to reference the Fab Five any time you’re talking or writing about a strong freshmen class, but this group of Wildcats, while they may or may not be better, are deeper, and may end up more accomplished; they won’t make a mark anywhere remotely similar to that Michigan group. Even Aaron Harrison, one of the freshman starters on this Kentucky team acknowledged as much: “It’s amazing not just what they did on the court but how they were a part of pop culture.” Granted, Harrison wasn’t alive when the Fab Five were reshaping basketball in America, but he’s seen the Fab Five 30 for 30 on ESPN.
It was in this SI piece where I came across a reference to the NCAA Vault; a strange archival warehouse free to anyone with a computer and halfway decent internet connection that includes over 300 games and over 4,000 highlights from the NCAA Tournament dating back to 1976. How do I know these exact numbers? Because the site also includes a handy Media Guide with quick-access URLs for every game. The user interface is simple to use as it allows visitors to apply a variety of different filters to find old games and revisit old memories. There are no registrations, no usernames, no passwords, and, best of all, it’s free. As I stumbled into this vast record of nostalgia, I had to cast a shifty glare in the direction of the NBA where a cavernous library of game footage sits in some giant safety deposit box, gathering dust, waiting for the NBA to figure out how to best monetize the content.
Now’s a good time to mention that my former love affair with college basketball has grown cold with the knowledge of the exploitation that takes place at the collegiate ranks (the one-and-done trend destroys continuity as well). That Jalen Rose jersey I mentioned earlier? It was Rose’s number five, inspired by Rose, in existence only because of Rose, but the young guard from Southwest Detroit didn’t benefit from its sale. I used to spend hours in front of the TV, playing Coach K on Sega Genesis; using old school teams with player numbers instead of names – because the NCAA and EA Sports used a little loophole to make gaggles of money without having to give any to these kids for profiting on their likeness. There were eight classic teams and I was so overzealous about this squad that I wrote EA Sports inquiring as to why Michigan’s Fab Five teams weren’t included among the other classic rosters. They even responded and I walked away satisfied; not at having made a change in the world of video games, because of course they didn’t magically add the Fab Five, but because I had been heard. I also have this foggy memory of playing Coach K and using Ed O’Bannon’s UCLA team; ironic given the recent class action lawsuit against the NCAA led by O’Bannon.
So my relationship with college basketball is complex. There are these memories that date back over twenty years, as real as the games that Chris Webber played in at Michigan and the banners that once hung in the rafters there, but which have been vaporized from the record books like simple signs of dissent in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In other ways my memories are stained with the knowledge of a ruling class of college athletics, made up of TV execs, Athletic Directors, and university presidents, preaching the gospel of an unbelievable and outdated amateurism while lining their bulging pockets with money spent by parents on jerseys and video games and other useless collegiate memorabilia.
I’m human though with all my breakable bones and shitty ideas and so I gave into the muse of nostalgia and indulged the NCAA Vault. With my leftover chicken fried rice and a beer, I sat down with a notebook, clicked the play button and watched the 1992 NCAA Final.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I knew the outcome, knew that Michigan lost 71-51, that the dreaded (Blue) Devils of Duke walked away with their second title in a row. I know I’d be disappointed and all along found myself looking for these what-if moments. What if Webber didn’t get in foul trouble (two of his first three fouls were tick-tack) and play tentative defense as a result? What if Michigan could hit a shot outside of the lane? What if Billy Packer didn’t say dumb shit like, “Kamikaze pressure?” None of it mattered though. No basketball mind tricks could change the truth: It was a terrible basketball game that happened to be close for about 33-and-a-half minutes. Even when Michigan kept it tight and took a lead into the second half, Duke looked like the better team. Michigan made stupid mistakes, dumb passes, had child-like miscommunications while Duke just missed shots and gave up offensive rebounds. Combined, they committed 34 turnovers (20 for Michigan, 14 for Duke) and shot 41% from the field with the Wolverines going 1-11 from three. Not surprisingly, a 45-second shot clock didn’t enhance the watchability of the second half. As Duke established a lead and their scrawny senior point guard went to the bench with foul trouble, their offense shifted into clock-wasting mode and spent at least 35-seconds/possession playing hot potato with the ball 40-feet from the hoop – and this started with something like eight minutes to go in the game.
The very little redemption I could pick out of this shit-stack of unfulfilling basketball was the obviousness of Webber’s ability. Where Laettner, Hurley, and even Grant Hill appeared to be merely strong college players with questionable pro futures ahead, Webber’s fluid athleticism was on full display and punctuated by his gracefully pushed fast break through defenders and behind-the-back pass to a cutting teammate for the score. Packer, for all his Laettner-jocking, compared one of Webber’s post moves to James Worthy and it made perfect sense: the freshman version of Webber had the quickness and explosiveness of an NBA small forward. Rose, Jimmy King, and Grant Hill had flashes of the pro-style ability, even those moments were fleeting and overshadowed by poor decision making and execution.
There’s so much and so little to take away from this experience. I don’t know if I’ll watch another game on the Vault, but I could see it being useful for re-watching old classics (don’t be surprised if you walk away underwhelmed and unfulfilled) or exploring the early developments of players like Patrick Ewing, MJ, Olajuwon, etc, or maybe just passing the time on a rainy day in the off-season. The NCAA’s delivered its fair share of dramatic sporting experiences and memories over the years and I’m thankful for that, but it’s difficult to watch these events unfold, even in retrospect, with the knowledge that so much has come from lies, greed, and hypocrisy.
October 27, 2013Posted by on
I’m a Lakers fan. Make no mistake about it. Beneath all my demands for fairness and bridging the rich-poor gap acrimony, I still cheer for the Lakers and their “see money, throw a problem at it” philosophy. So you can imagine my curiosity last year when I’m watching the Lakers slowly implode like a basketball version of an ugly, slow, painful deterioration of something or someone you know. Maybe it’s like when Brittney Spears fell off the rails in public and her fans just sat there and watched and they probably wanted to help her … “If I just had a chance, I could help Britt.” I can see some Lakers fans convinced they had solutions to the incurable problems the team had last season. But not me. I wasn’t one of those fans. I sat back and watched in enraptured entertainment. Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol. So many of us presumed that the star power alone would blind opponents, leaving them defenseless to an onslaught of well-aged skill and Howardian beastliness down low. And when the reality of age and fragility set in and the team underachieved for so many games, those shining stars dimmed to a cynical glow and Lakers fans frowned and grunted through an extended shit show where nothing made sense and everything went wrong.
All the while I sat bewildered, but unexpectedly entertained. In the NBA more so than the NFL or MLB, you can pick a handful of contenders at the beginning of the season and be fairly confident in your assessments. For all of us to whiff so badly last year; including the Kupchaks and Busses of the world … well, it was like watching a Hollywood blockbuster with one of our favorite action heroes as the star, but only the script goes off somewhere. The hero doesn’t fit the prototype we’re trained to recognize. Superman can’t change into his blue spandex in the phone booth let alone fly through the air. The Batmobile catches a flat and Bruce Wayne has to wait for Alfred to show up and change the tire. Meanwhile, Lex Luther and the Joker are taking a big ol’ dump on Metropolis and Gotham. That was the Lakers we saw last season.
Now in the fall of 2013, on the cusp of another NBA season, I’m all settled in, prepared for a crummy Lakers campaign that rivals the miserable outcomes of the post-Shaq Lakers like 2005 when Kobe “led” the team to 34 wins. But the difference is obviously that we’re prepared for it now. That preparation or expectation is the critical piece. When we know what to expect, we can maintain an even keel while still experiencing fluctuations in emotions. It’s the unexpected that challenges our conditioned responses.
You might be wondering why I’m just now drifting back to these Lakers memories. After all, we’re several months removed from the realization that the Lakers were not who we thought they were. A couple of my other favorite teams are presently walking through their own purgatories of expectation and I’m reflexively flashing back:
The current Manchester United team, another team I support (go ahead, make your front-runner jokes, but know I’m a long-suffering Cubs fan as well and experience both sides of the winning/losing of fandom), is enduring a challenging season with their new skipper, David Moyes. Moyes is replacing the living legend, Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed the world’s most recognizable sports franchise for over 26 years. In that span, he etched out a profile for himself that, on a global scale, exceeds that of Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and all the rest. Ferguson was an anomaly in the English Premier League where clubs cycle through managers more frequently than most of us go through a pair of jeans. United has mostly the same roster they had last year when the dominated the league and secured the title with multiple weeks still to play. It was fantastically anti-climactic and Ferguson left the new manager with a sturdy foundation on which to build a new legacy for himself and his new club. Instead, nine matches into the new season and United has struggled with a miserable defense that is regularly outplayed and compounds their shortcomings with knuckleheaded decision making and lapses in discipline. Yet … as I watch the team, I’m taking a strange satisfaction in the struggle. It’s not a sporting masochism. In the case of United, there’s this part of me that’s enjoying the uphill climb of this underachieving group. Maybe it’s because it’s still early in the season and I have faith that they’ll figure it out, that patience will win the day. Or maybe it’s just the feeling of stepping into a different, less comfortable role. Maybe I feel better being on more relatable terms with my friend who’s a Tottenham supporter? Or maybe I’m just a confused elitist who’s confusing the struggle with a footballing equivalent of slumming. Either way, it’s a more engrossing feeling than the anticlimactic sprint away from a pedestrian pack.
At home, my Seattle Sounders are flailing through the final few weeks of a grueling MLS regular season. Where the team was riding the natural high of an eight-match unbeaten streak that saw them climb to the top of league standings, they’ve now lost four straight matches by a 2-12 deficit. The Sounders haven’t won a match since mid-September. Players are hurt, the defense is in shambles, luck favors their opponents and yet, I find their matches more magnetizing than ever. I tune in or go to matches wondering if this is the game they turn it around. I anticipate the euphoria that must come with a break from these autumnal doldrums. With the MLS playoffs a week away, the Sounders somehow backed into the playoffs, and instead of drinking myself to sleep or crying tears of blue and rave green discontent, I’m cautiously hopeful that things will turn and we’ll look back on this rough stretch as nothing more than a funky smelling aberration. Something to share a beer over and thank the soccer gods it’s passed.
Let’s be real here … maybe I just don’t know how to be a fan. Maybe there’s some twisted gene hiding in my DNA that’s afraid of the pressure that accompanies a winner. Maybe I just don’t get what it means to be a fan, because I’d expect a different reaction. I’d expect to be pissed off or pouty about these things, but I just accept it with curious observation. The 2013 Lakers, Sounders and Man United teams have stumbled into strange playoff positions with dust-covered aging rosters and defenses that can be exploited by younger, less-skilled opponents. And I sit back and take it all in with a chuckle at the unexpected deviation from the narrative and the strange satisfaction I feel from not knowing what’s coming next. The Lakers, Sounders and United … my teams, my disappointments, my entertainments through winning, losing, and all points beyond and between.
October 21, 2013Posted by on
In the October 21st issue of Sports Illustrated, the one with Kobe on the cover, the always professional, crisp-writing Chris Ballard wrote a thoroughly-researched and touching piece about the life and disappearance of Bison Dele; a former NBA player formerly known as Brian Williams. If you’re unfamiliar with Dele’s story, I’d highly recommend Ballard’s piece. In lieu of its online availability; here’s a quick, far-too-brief summary (Ballard’s piece as posted online after I wrote this and can be found here):
Williams was a curious, artistic man with world class basketball ability. He reached the Mount Olympus of basketball achievements – an NBA title. And at the age of 29, Dele walked away from the game. He traveled the world – Lebanon, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and had intended to sail all the way to Hawaii from Tahiti. The final trip was made with his brother, Miles Dabord (formerly Kevin Williams), his girlfriend Serena Karlan, and the captain, Bertran Saldo. Somewhere along the way, Dele, Karlan, and Saldo disappeared. Dabord later surfaced in Phoenix, was seen in Mexico and died in a San Diego hospital a few months after Dele’s catamaran set sail. Dabord’s death was ruled a suicide while the bodies of the other three were never found. While no evidence exists, it no longer appears Dele & Company are with us.
This happened back in July of 2002; somehow over ten years have passed. I was 21 at the time, in college and followed the story from afar. That Dele had changed his name was peculiar enough in a league where a follow-the-leader mentality is so strong. I remember him as a very good player; one of the better bigs the Bulls had during any of the championship seasons. I remember him being very intense on the court with those piercing green eyes that added to the mystery of his person and intensity of his play. At the time of his disappearance, which was even more confusing because Dele and his brother had both changed their names so news stories often mentioned multiple names and made it seem like more people were involved than there actually were, details kept trickling out that increased my intrigue in Dele. Keep in mind, I was 21 going on 22 at the time; heading into my fourth year of college, still attracted to the romance of the alternative Beatnik lifestyle and Dele, in all his willingness to step away from the golden handcuffs an NBA contract affords, was a fascinating and tragic story.
All these years, Dele’s story has sustained my interest. If someone drops a Dele reference, I try and insert myself into the conversation. The topic excites me, it invigorate me. And as I read Ballard’s SI piece, which so elegantly did justice in profiling the man Dele was and how he became that man, I started to make the connections to the magnetism of Dele’s story and my own experiences. If you’ve read Dancing with Noah with any regularity, you’ve likely picked up on themes of pain, loss, the intrigue of lost potential. Whereas my focus here has always been about who or what a player could’ve become if he’d stayed healthy; how the NBA landscape would’ve changed if Greg Oden and Brandon Roy were healthy; how these painful splashes reverberate out and change the basketball panorama overtime. Well, Dele’s disappearance didn’t have much of an impact on the NBA’s future. For me, the allure of Dele was his maverick eccentricity. The strength of his individuality to step away from a $36-million contract is a courageous and enviable trait for me (and some might call it a stupid or poor decision – hence the courage to make it). Furthermore, there are elements of Dele’s spirit in this blog’s namesake, Joakim Noah. Both players have partaken in rich, vibrant existences off the court where music, art, and individual celebration are mutual themes. It only makes sense that the ethos that attracted me to Noah attract me to Dele as well.
In Ballard’s piece, he recounts a story of Dele reading a biography of Miles Davis and tearing up during the reading. A teammate asked him why he was crying and Dele responded, “I just wish I had the same passion for basketball that Miles had for music.” Dele was more comfortable financially than most of us can ever wish to be so I don’t want to go overboard in honoring him for walking away from a job he didn’t love when he was in the rare financial position to not be dependent on a career, but in a modernity where many of us feel trapped in soulless, thankless careers, Dele offered a hopeful alternative of escape; the pursuit of self through travel and adventure.
Bison Dele was a beautiful, open human being who wrestled with his own monsters like so many of us do. He had a troubling childhood and a problematic relationship with his family that drove him halfway across the world. He was willing to walk away from the material world our culture values and explore his own need for meaning. While doubtful it was his intent, the echoes of Dele’s spirit can still be heard, over ten years after his disappearance and will continue to be both a tragic and hopeful tale for anyone willing explore it.
*Note: I don’t write this to mythologize or hold Dele up on a pedestal of any sort. Rather, to communicate my experience with Dele’s free-spirited decision to break away from what has the appearance of being a dream life full of money, security, women, competition, friendships and games. As Dele’s and Dabord’s own mother put it, “Brian was not a saint, and Miles was not the monster he’s been made out to be.” Dele was far from perfect, but within that imperfection was fully and complexly human.
May 7, 2013Posted by on
What a night. What a fucking night for the NBA, for the game of basketball, for Nate Robinson, Steph Curry and Manu Ginobili. What a night for Twitter and the screaming woman at the Spurs game. What didn’t happen? Game ones of the second round: Bulls @ Heat in the early game and Warriors @ Spurs in the later game.
The Heat were 11.5-point favorites and for good reason. Coming into tonight, Miami was 39-4 at home (counting playoffs) and was mostly healthy with the exception of Dwyane Wade’s nagging knee injury. We all know about the Bulls: Kirk Hinrich’s out with a calf injury, Luol Deng’s dealing with fallout from a spinal tap gone wrong and we’re all depleted from the media throwing Derrick Rose on repeat and forcing us to listen over and over. So the Bulls rolled out Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. They did everything. Every damn thing you could ask for from a group of rejects (Robinson and Belinelli), outcasts (Noah), overlooked (Butler) and scorned (Boozer) players.
Down the stretch of this game, with Noah compulsively hustling and diving, scowling at opponents and teammates alike with long tendrils of hair stuck to his sweaty face, the Bulls stared up at a slight fourth quarter deficit of four points; but if felt like a Miami’s game all the way. How many times this season have we seen the Heat cruise through three quarters against lesser-talented teams only to turn up the intensity late in the game and walk away with easy victories. And when Jimmy Butler, all 6’7” and 220lbs of chiseled Jimmy Butler, attempted to wrap up LeBron on a fast break, but was overpowered by Bron’s lefty layup, I was impressed and relaxed, thinking Miami was just closing out another victory against another helpless victim. But I was oh-so-fortunately wrong and had no idea what was about to happen. The Bulls hit three threes (two by Belinelli and one by Butler) in the final five minutes, they shot 9-10 from the line and they frustrated the defending champions into missing all five of their shots in the final 97-seconds of the game. Somehow, the Bulls went down to the hardly hostile American Airlines Arena and beat the Heat 93-86 including a 35-24 fourth quarter.
For all that happened (Nate Robinson) and didn’t happen (Miami scoring points—they had their lowest point total since an 86-67 victory over these same Bulls on 2/21), what stood out most to me was Dwyane Wade’s irrationally selfish decision, coming out of a timeout, to chuck up a contested three at the 1:07 mark of the 4th quarter with his team down two points. On so many levels this was a bad shot. Many of us have become accustomed to the “hero ball” or “toilet bowl” offense where we get Paul Pierce or Kobe or Melo pounding the air out of the ball followed by a contested three. We all know it’s a bad shot, but there’s a level of latitude for the players I just mentioned. And Wade’s earned plenty of latitude in his career as well, but not enough to pull the shit he pulled on Monday night. Miami couldn’t have possibly drawn up the Wade-from-the-top-of-the-key special, could they have? Let’s look at some Dwyane Wade stats:
- Dwyane Wade shot 25.8% from three this season
- He was 2-18 from three over his previous 33 games
- Wade was one of the least accurate three-point shooters in the league; finishing just a few percentage points better than only three other players (Lamar Odom, Reggie Jackson and Kevin Love) who made at least 17-threes this season
I’m elated for the Bulls. It feels good and I don’t want to take away from their resilient victory, but I can’t get over Wade’s three; just a baffling, baffling shot.
It took a while to get over that first game. There was a sense of low-level adrenaline running through my body after the Bulls withstood the Heat’s meager comeback attempts. But during the NBA playoffs, there’s no time for dwelling on the past. I opened my celebratory beers and was pleasantly surprised seeing the Warriors confident and comfortable on the Spurs home court. Up four at the half in the AT&T Center? Well yes, yes of course.
All hell broke loose in the third though. Steph Curry started raining fire from the skies like a light-skinned basketball-playing Zeus firing bolts into the round cylinder. The Spurs crowd cringed with every blow, flinched at every shot release. At one point, the camera showed Gregg Popovich standing still, his eyes closed, his head hung down, but far from out. He looked like he was attempting to visualize the solution to this problem and for a split second I imagined Popovich taking the law into his hands Tanya Harding style and whacking Curry’s knee with a baton of sorts. We both snapped out of it though and after a patented succession of Warriors mistakes to end the third quarter, the dust had settled and Curry’s third looked like this:
- Minutes: 11 minutes, 56 seconds
- FG/FGA: 9/12
- 3p/3pa: 4/6
- Assists: 3
- Turnovers: 0
- Points: 22
Golden State 92, San Antonio 80 (end of third)
There was a sense, I think, in many of us who had been here before, who had sat through the Warriors’ near collapse on Thursday night in game six against the Nuggets, that trouble loomed ahead, that all the Curry-fueled momentum in the world wasn’t going to make this any easier. And it wasn’t. The Spurs used every ounce of savvy and veteran poise and whatever other cliché you want to dress them up with to outscore the Warriors 26-14 in the fourth quarter.
The Curry third quarter, the Spurs comeback; it all evolved or devolved into some kind of brilliant basketball game that etched itself deeper into our minds and stomachs, intertwining itself within the gray matter of our brains and the slimy coils of our intestines. Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Andrew Bogut, Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack … a professionally-trained youth movement apparently oblivious to the fear that rides shotgun on their road to fate. On the opposite side, it was the familiar faces that have stalked the league so patiently with their secretive wisdom and insider humor: Pop, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and a strange cast of characters that plug into roles that feel tailor made: Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green. They came and they came and they came. The old men with their flu bugs and bald spots and interchangeable pieces; a group of calm Texans embodying the same ethos of the Bulls. And somehow, after being down 18 points in the third quarter, the Spurs won in double overtime. Do you believe in Boris Diaw corner threes or nights where Manu Ginobili shoots 5-20, but hits the one that really matters? Fuck man, I don’t know, but I saw it happen.
Some notable items from this insane game in San Antonio in May:
- Golden State shot 14-24 (58%) from the free throw line
- Golden State is a 79% free throw-shooting team on the regular season (good enough for fourth in the league)
- Boris Diaw: The big Frenchman had a series of big plays that helped this Spurs team achieve victory:
- He somehow became the only Spurs player able conceive of not leaving his feet to guard Steph Curry. At the 1:22 mark in the fourth quarter, with GSW up five, Curry attempted a little shake move and pull up on Diaw; likely underestimating his defender’s length and discipline. Diaw blocked the shot without leaving the ground.
- He went to the line and hit a pair of FTs to bring the Spurs to within one late in the 4th.
- Diaw set the screen to free up Danny Green for the OT-forcing three.
- He was on the floor for all of both OTs, contributed rebounds, screens and a clutch three.
There were heroes on both teams. Ginobili, Parker and Curry were special tonight, but in the thick history making moments, Diaw’s hand never shook. He played intelligent, confident basketball and is a big reason the Spurs are up 1-0 in this series.
I’ll close this with a line from Jim Morrison that embodies unknowing excitement of tonight and hopefully the days to come: I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames…Alright!
May 5, 2013Posted by on
Free Darko gave us the concept of “Spirit Animals” in their first book and five years late I’m still inspired enough to imagine “Spirit Weapons” for the 2013 Playoffs where NBA players are partnered up with ideal weapons that suit their style and personality. Since my own experience with weapons doesn’t extend much beyond handling a machete, using a rake as a staff, and familiarizing myself with the basics of nunchakus in my teenage years; I may not be qualified to make these connections, but we’re wasting time dwelling on it, so let’s get down to the bloody business of weaponry:
Mike Conley: A well-crafted, handmade, pearl-handled switchblade:
When I think about switch-blades, my first thought is greasers with slicked back hair, white t-shirts, leather jackets, cigarettes. I don’t think about Mike Conley. But when I think about a switch-blade, its conveniently compact style able to be tucked discretely in the pocket of your jeans; the easy access and ability to operate with a single hand; I think about economy. Mike Conley is a point guard of economy and efficiency. He’s a law-abiding player, quick to stick to Lionel Hollins’ plays and plans, but like the greaser, he’s a lethal opportunist, happy to heartlessly carve up opponents who discount or disrespect him.
Zach Randolph: Brass knuckles
The man known as Z-Bo is the physical embodiment of brass knuckles. He’s like a human knuckle: Curved, but solid, blunt, powerful, made of raw American brutishness. Z-Bo’s fists do plenty of damage on their own (just ask Ruben Patterson’s orbital bone), but his spirit animal is the loaded fist; a lethal weapon residing in the painted area of basketball courts from Memphis to Los Angeles. When Z-Bo’s around, learn to duck.
Steph Curry: Flame thrower
One thing you’ll notice about all the weapons here is that they’re handheld and no guns or machinery are included. But for Curry, the flamethrower is remarkably appropriate. Opponents feel the intense threatening pressure of his jumpers which come from anywhere at any time. He creates his own shots and dazzles and intimidates with his constant heat checking. For further evidence of this flame throwing point guard, refer to the deep burns left on the 2013 Nuggets.
Russell Westbrook: Wolverine’s adamantium claws and skeleton
I read some comics back in the day, but was never sucked into the sub-culture and have never been to Comic-Con. I know enough to know that Wolverine’s claws and skeleton were made of some imaginary substance called adamantium which is apparently an indestructible metal alloy. Wolverine has super-human healing powers and up until last week, we all thought Westbrook did too. The man hadn’t missed a single basketball game in his entire career: That’s high school, college and five full seasons of NBA brutality. Add in the dichotomies between the on-court/off-court Russell Westbrooks which are akin to the Wolverine/Logan personas and the circle is complete.
New York Knicks: Vega claw
For those of you familiar with Street Fighter II, you’ll remember Vega as the masked matador from Spain who’s equipped with a long metal claw on his left hand. Vega’s claw and speed allow him to excel at long-range attacks, but he’s also one of the weaker characters on the game. Vega is the video game version of the Knicks: A diverse amalgamation of talents (Vega combines Ninjutsu with his bull-fighting skills), finely tuned and highly skilled, but more than susceptible to being popped in the mouth and defeated by opponents of a greater mental fortitude.
Chicago Bulls: Broken beer bottle
This isn’t to say the Bulls are like a gang of marauding drunkards going from bar to bar and smashing beer bottles over the
heads of any man, woman or child crazy enough to incite them. The broken beer bottle in this case symbolizes toughness. I don’t know if the Bulls are being struck with beer bottles or they’re doing the striking, but I feel like you could put this group in any situation and they’d find a way (whether through broken beer bottles or some other non-traditional method) to make their
opponents rue the day they confronted the Bulls.
Paul George: Rattan sticks
Rattan is described on Wikipedia as “hard and durable, yet lightweight.” George’s lean muscle, length and versatility are the basketball-version of a pair of rattan sticks thwacking away at foes too dumb or naïve to challenge George. Imagine his harassing defense as a painful rap across the knuckles; his dunks as a vicious head-body combination. His understated expressiveness wound tightly in the simplicity of these dangerous weapons. Don’t be stupid, avoid the George.
Blake Griffin: War hammer
The most famous and well-known war hammer is probably that of Thor, the comic-book character based on the thunder god of Norse mythology. Thor’s hammer had a name (Mjolnir) and could be picked up only by those who were worthy. This is Blake’s spirit weapon. Others can dunk with violence and aggression, but none approach the dunk shot with the fury of the NBA’s god of dunk, Blake Griffin. And like the war hammer which is used in close combat, the dunk typically occurs in close quarters where giants battle and more often than not, it’s Blake and his war hammer slaying inferiorly talented or poorly-positioned supersized humans.
Jarret Jack: Head
I’m convinced Jarrett Jack’s skull is thick, hard like steel and impervious to pain (this isn’t a euphemism for Jack’s questionable decision-making). Is it possible for your spirit weapon to be part of you? It’s never happened before, but Jack’s the perfect guy to test it out on. Like his game, Jack’s dome is cleanly shaven, suggesting honesty and openness—you know what you’re getting with Jack. He’s strong for a guard, casually shrugging off defenders with his strength and intimidating them with his battering ram-like head. I’ve often wished the Warriors would celebrate wins with Jack ceremoniously crushing a brick with his skull, aka his spirit weapon.
Kevin Durant: Trident & Cast net
I struggled to find the appropriate spirit weapon for Durant and in the end the trident coupled with the cast net seemed to jive best his spiritual basketball self. The trident is described as being “prized for its long reach and ability trap other long-weapons between prongs to disarm their wielder.” The cast net is used in tandem with the trident as a way to trap or ensnare enemies; almost like a massive human web paralyzing prey, leaving them vulnerable to the trident attack. How appropriate is that for Durant? His nickname Durantula is due in part to his spidery-like limbs. Not known for physical strength; his length, skill and deliberateness are complemented by the trident’s long reach and deadly attacks. It’s completely possible Durant carries a net in his post-game backpacks.
Chris Bosh: Bull whip
Many of us were likely introduced to the bull whip through the adventures of Indiana Jones, but unless Bosh is scared of snakes and has a fetish for brown fedoras, the similarities between the two begin and end with the whip. It’s a weapon that requires a high level of skill to best utilize and for all the Bosh-hating that goes on, he’s one of the better-skilled big men in the league. His range brings to mind one of the whip’s most valuable attributes: its length, which allows its user to maintain a safe distance from any assailant. Additionally, Bosh has never had a reputation for bruising and banging.
Tony Parker: Meteor Hammer
Before you shriek out, “Tony Parker? Meteor hammer?” in complete disgust, let me explain. The meteor hammer is a chain with two weights (think steel objects, like steel globes) at either end (see image). The main strength is described as “its sheer speed” and it was named as such because it strikes “as fast as a meteor.” Additional descriptions: “When used by a skilled fighter, its speed, accuracy and unpredictability make it a difficult weapon to defend against.” That’s the perfect description of Tony Parker; a lighting quick guard with abnormal accuracy from the field who uses his head-to-head speed to keep defenders on their heels.
James Harden: Chakram
I had never heard of the chakram prior to writing this story. The chakram is a disk without a center that has razors around its outer edge. It’s used as a throwing tool, but can also be used in up-close combat. The razors on the outside were sharp enough to chop off limbs. Sooooo … we’re talking about a deadly metal Frisbee that can be thrown with accuracy from anywhere between 40 and 100 meters. And if you get close to the chakram master, watch out because he’s likely to use it defensively or to hack off an arm with it. Harden’s not chopping any limbs that we know of, but the combination of his outside shot (finished 6th in the league in threes made) and inside attack (led the league in free throws attempted) are frighteningly chakram-esque.
Dwyane Wade: Macuahuitl
Wade’s always been a physically imposing player. He’s 6’4” and built more like an NFL player than one of the best two guards in the league. In that regard, he’s always been unconventional. The macuahuitl (don’t ask how to pronounce) is similarly unconventional. Consider it as an earlier, more aesthetic version of a baseball bat with barbed wire wrapped around the barrel. The macuahuitl was a wooden club with sharp chunks of obsidian embedded in its sides. The obsidian was sharp enough to decapitate enemies. The blunt force of the club and the shredding capacity of the obsidian cut to the core of Wade’s on-court skills. His strength and speed have delivered two championships, a scoring title and numerous individual accolades. The macuahuitl is a weapon that knows no mercy, just like Wade.
LeBron James: Katana
The Samurai sword, known and revered for its “sharpness and strength” is the perfectly crafted weapon for the perfect warrior our league has. You can make a case that this blade is more suited for Kobe who’s come to define the basketball-playing warrior archetype with his commitment to winning and playing through injury if at all human possible, but for now, LeBron is the katana. The gods gifted him with the perfect physique for the game today. He’s too strong, too fast, too skilled and just too damn good for any of his contemporaries to slow down let alone defeat. Whether or not he follows the Samurai codes of honor is debatable, but it doesn’t change that he’s masterfully suited to be paired with the most resplendent of weapons.
Other players who just missed the cut (no pun): Tim Duncan (hook swords), Ray Allen (cross bow), Rajon Rondo (claws of some sort), Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan (battle axes), Milwaukee Bucks (scissors), Reggie Evans (baseball bat). Weapons that missed out cat o’ nine tails, flash grenade, nunchakus, mace (the spray, not the mallet), chain whip.
Good luck to all the remaining playoff participants and please stay safe. Dancing with Noah doesn’t condone the use of any of the weapons listed above. For more information about local laws, please check your government websites.
April 30, 2013Posted by on
On the eve of Dancing with Noah’s two-year anniversary, I’ve been through a Monday (4/29/13) overflowing with reverberating NBA news:
- Jason Collins came out of the closet – this is a beautiful thing and people who don’t realize that or see this as a non-story would be wise to take some time to listen to the struggles faced by anyone who’s ever had to hide a part of themselves for fear of being judged, blackballed, ignored or rejected. You don’t have to be thrilled about it, but this is one more person who’s making a massive leap into the world. Be happy for him.
- The NBA’s Relocation Committee voted unanimously to deny the Kings request to move the franchise to Seattle. For whatever it might be worth, the NBA Relocation Committee is made up of: Clay Bennett (the NBA can’t not see this as a terribly ironic placement), Peter Holt (Spurs), James Dolan (Knicks), Herb Simon (Pacers), Larry Tanenbaum (Raptors), Glen Taylor (Timberwolves), Jeanie Buss (Lakers), Robert Sarver (Suns), Greg Miller (Jazz), Wyc Grousbeck (Celtics), Ted Leonsis (Wizards) and Micky Arison (Heat).
So here we sit with a day that will reverberate throughout the NBA’s near-term, and potentially long-term, future. I’ve lived in Seattle since 2004 and I attended around 10-15 games per season when the Sonics called Key Arena home. It’s a progressive city, one that promotes diversity and supports alternative lifestyles. You can find anything from thriving art and music scenes to reenactments of medieval battles. It’s a populace that takes full advantage of the gifts nature has bestowed upon it which include the Cascade Mountain range, Mount Rainier, Olympic National Park, the San Juan Islands, Lake Washington, Lake Union and a million other outdoor activities enjoyed by Pacific Northwesterners year-round.
This past summer I read Jim Bouton’s classic insider account of life in Major League Baseball: Ball Four. Bouton was a 30-year-old knuckleballer who pitched for the then expansion Seattle Pilots. In a nod to the city’s long-standing struggle with pro sports franchises, the Pilots lasted a single season in the Emerald City before relocating to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers. It wasn’t until 1977 that the Mariners came into existence. Bouton spent the spring and summer of 1969 with the Pilots and I recall a small portion of the book touching on the lukewarm support from Seattleites. This is dating all the back in the late 60s. A forward-looking view shows the city’s often strained relationship with the pro franchises they simultaneously support:
- In the mid-90s, the Mariners owners threatened to relocate the team if a new arena wasn’t built. In 1995, voters defeated a ballot to pay for a new stadium. Then the M’s made the playoffs and the state Legislature capitalized on the momentum to come up with an alternate funding plan which included a .5% tax on restaurants, taverns and bars and a 2% tax increase on rental cars. Disaster was averted and the M’s got the stadium they demanded. The balance came out to $340mill from the public in the form of tax increases and $75mill from the M’s owners.
- In 1995, there was a proposal to issue county bonds to pay for a remodeling of the Kingdome (the Seattle Seahawks stadium at the time). The proposal was rejected (not surprising given the Mariners had just asked for public money as well). At the time, Seahawks owner Ken Behring did what comes so naturally to businessmen and sports franchise owners: He threatened to sell or move the team. Microsoft founder and billionaire, Paul Allen stepped in and committed to buy the team if a new stadium could be built. After some legal/political wrangling, there was a final public/private partnership that included the public contribution capped at $300million and Allen’s company First & Goal Inc. to contribute up to $130million.
- On June 16th, 1994, construction began on what was then called Seattle Central Coliseum and would eventually be renamed as Key Arena. The city picked up $74.5mill while the Sonics covered ~$21mill. The intent of the makeover was to bring the then-32-year-old arena up to par with other NBA arenas.
- And of course, the Sonics/Howard Schultz/Clay Bennett clusterfuck that resulted in the Sonics being sold to an out-of-town group on October 31st, 2006—so strangely appropriate that the deal was consummated on Halloween.
It’s no surprise that pro sports teams make threats and cities respond. In many cases, new arenas are necessary and the threats are nothing more than negotiation tactics that happen to play on the hearts and minds of local fanbases. But in my limited experience as an observer of these scenarios, it’s somewhat unique for a city to face three of these threats in just over a ten-year span. For a city that was already lukewarm on supporting pro teams with public funds, the Bennett/Stern false ultimatum was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For me personally, this was a watershed moment. I initially sided with the “Save Our Sonics” contingent and would cringe at the numerous editorials telling Stern and Bennett to pound sand. Over the next three years, I would reverse that stance.
Kevin Durant’s rookie year in 2007 was a disaster. The Sonics had been gutted in a way that reminded me of the plot from Major League where widow of the Cleveland Indians’ owner builds a crappy team with the purpose of moving to sunnier climes in Florida. The 2007 Sonics were in full blown rebuilding mode in a city they’d soon be saying goodbye to. They finished with the 2nd worst record in the league and ranked 28th out of 30 teams in attendance. The “save our Sonics” chants that would randomly ring out throughout the season were painfully pathetic; pathetic in the sense that it was a futile chant from a half-empty arena of half-enthused fans. As a regular ticket buyer, I would get promotional emails every few weeks offering lower bowl seats for $15. I’m talking 10 rows back at an NBA game—for $15! No one else was going to the games, so they damn near gave tickets away. Every Durant jumper or glimpse of success was lifeline of hope for Seattle fans that somehow, someway the team would remain here. There were lawsuits, talks of Steve Ballmer buying the team, dreams of investors who preferred Sonics jerseys to shining suits of armor. But it was all for naught and over time I accepted that the team would relocate. It certainly helped that from the time the Bennett group purchased the team up to the release of Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team in 2009, evidence mounted revealing what most people suspected already: The Sonics had been purchased with the intent of relocating to OKC. After so many months of being lied to, the confirmation of these assumptions at least validated the anger. And with that in mind, please forgive the people of Seattle for not rallying with a Kings-like battle cry.
Watching Durant and Russell Westbrook thrive in OKC didn’t enflame the ill feelings I felt for Bennett or Schultz or Stern. Rather, it hardened me to the cold reality that sports are a business; a chillingly merciless business that, as a collective, isn’t concerned with fans beyond the amount of money they spend or demographics they fall into. This was the end of the child-like innocent fan that lived inside of me. Maybe being 26 or 27 is too old to come to that obvious conclusion, but it reshaped the way I watch and interact with sports and to some degree, I’m thankful for it.
Fast forward to 2013 when the owners of the Kings agreed to sell the franchise to Seattle-born billionaire Chris Hansen. The Seattle streets were covered in throwback Sonics hats, shirts and jerseys. Oskar’s, a local bar just a few blocks from Key Arena, owned by former Sonic icon Shawn Kemp, has been aglow in the potential return of the team. Sonics fans and Kings supporters have sniped at each other on blogs, Twitter and in comments sections. It was a petty, trite game being played; as if mutual love for basketball teams was reason enough to fight with a stranger. Meanwhile, the actual men in control of the situation (Stern, Hansen, Kevin Johnson, the Maloofs, the Kings new prospective ownership group) skated by with minimal criticism outside of Seattle and Sacramento. All of us sat and waited anxiously for the verdict of a 12-man jury; the aforementioned Relocation Committee. They voted unanimously to keep the Kings in Sacramento. For once they voted to eschew the money in favor of doing the right thing; of doing what they should’ve done six years ago when Clay Bennett purchased the Sonics. For once, this money grubbing association got it right. With any luck, the league’s setting a new precedent for itself; one that will see it work more closely with local politicians instead of divisively as we saw with the Sonics situation. (The Sacramento arena deal breaks out like this: the city takes on $258mill [primarily from parking fees and ticketing fees] while the investment group would account for $189mill and be responsible for all capital improvements.)
In the process of the vote, the NBA changed the rules of the game on the people of Seattle while simultaneously getting it right for the fans in Sacramento. For the people of Seattle who supported this team and league uninterruptedly for 40 straight years, this vote is grossly unfair. The league created an environment where inconsistency exists and it’s within that environment that they should have alienated a market, but sadly that won’t be the case. People will still invest time, money and emotion in getting pro basketball back to Seattle and I do respect their resilience; their ability to separate the anger from their passion.
As for Jason Collins … I’m happy for the man. I find it amazing that this is still a topic for discussion. Part of my amazement may stem from the fact that I’ve become an adult in ultra-liberal Seattle where terms like “social justice” and “white privilege” stay on the tips of tongues; where marijuana and gay marriage are both legal. I spent my Saturday night at the Seattle Poetry Grand Slam where young, creative, expressive, strong poets stood vulnerable on a stage and expressed themselves and, in some cases, their sexuality in front of a packed Seattle Town Hall. They expressed their struggles through beautiful emotive words with a raw, but harnessed energy, but their descriptions of their love didn’t escape my realm of knowing or comprehension. The pain and sadness of not being accepted rang through their voices and met the crowd who groaned in painful understanding. And I think about Jason Collins alone in locker rooms, on buses and planes, surrounded by homophobic slurs that stung; sometimes more than others. That loneliness is so unbelievably unfair. For this man to finally reach a level of comfort to expose himself on the largest stage in the world makes me want to hug him in acceptance and support.
After John Amaechi came out in 2007, I think there was a hope that his revelation would lead to more gay athletes following suit, but in terms of the major sports leagues, that hasn’t been the case. With gay marriage gaining nationwide support, the issue has again risen to the forefront of athletics where former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo recently commented that four NFL players may come out on the same day as a way to relieve the pressure of going it alone. Whether or not Collins’s decision is based in large or small part on the current climate of improved gay rights awareness, his coming out is nothing but a positive and it feels good to see an NBA player leading the way and getting the overwhelming support he received today.
It’s a good day to celebrate the two-year anniversary of a blog and it’s a good day to honor what this game has brought me not just over the past two years, but the past 25 years of my life where basketballs have been bouncing, nets splashing, struggles struggling—be it labor wars, substance abuse, homophobia, media, marketing, or the actual on-court product. Basketball has provided me an outlet from the stresses of being a living human being in the 21st century and given me a lens through which to see the world unfold in a most a familiar context. I’m thankful for days like this when the league gets it right even if they’re jobbing my city in the process.
April 26, 2013Posted by on
What oh what, have the playoffs become?
No Rose, no Rondo and now no Russ
Kobe’s Achilles, we lost Dr. Buss
D. Lee’s hip and the eggshell pacing Spurs
Tyson Chandler’s neck and Noah’s fascist fascia
Pain, disappointment and injurious-expecting paranoia
We’re lost and wandering in D. Wade’s aching knees,
And the strange Baker’s Cyst of MWP’s
Supporting characters’ ankles so brittle and Meek(s)
Under x-ray machines Steph Curry’s ankle still weak
The Linsane have crumbled under bird-chested contusions
While the unhealthy continue to foster successful allusions
Steve and Steve are baked in sunny LA, we put out a missing person’s report on Stoudemire, Amare
The most shocking of all is the tearing meniscus of a bionic man
Russell Westbrook has fallen; it’s more than we can stand
Reminds me of the woe I felt back in nineteen-and-ninety
When I watched another unbeatable, unbreakable, mythological man
Get pummeled to a pulp, his wobbly legs not allowing him to stand
Mike Tyson, meet Russell, Russ, this is Mike
So different, so same, made of futuristic metals and the like
Yet falling so sadly, the mortal myths settle
The excitement is waning, the birds are chirping
Turn off the TV because the hope has splintered
Let’s go outside because spring is here and it’s been a long winter
April 22, 2013Posted by on
*Note: I first started writing this story back in November of 2012. It’s a long, fictional speculation/assumption of how/why certain players have been able to maintain high performance for so long.
It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere and Kobe Bryant’s daydreaming of endless beaches, Newport sunshine, half naked women and anonymity. His fantasy is interrupted…
“Kobe, Kobe, you ready?”
He locks eyes with Tim Duncan, wearing a massive down-insulated, weather-resistant coat. The hood is up and Duncan’s sad eyes and gentle oblong face look out at Kobe. Kobe nods and the two men set off in the frigid morning. The third member of their party is a couple hundred feet ahead, his movements natural, innate. There’s no second guessing, no doubting. Just trust. From behind, Duncan and Bryant see the outline of his body, his dark coat and pack an easy beacon to follow in the white washed morning of snow and clouds and crystalline air.
Tim stays about fifteen feet behind Kobe. He’s aware of the contrasts between himself and Bryant; he’s always been aware, but at the moment he’s questioning this trek, this climb in sub-zero temperatures while his family’s no doubt kicking back in St. Croix. Robotically following Kobe’s path, he can hear his wife’s voice, tender in his mind, tender in reality: “This is the last time, Tim. I know you’d rather stay here with me and sleep in and swim and be lazy, but think about how much fun you’ve had these past couple years. We’ll be here for you…”
His breath visible, Duncan mutters “God damn this mountain…”
The climb is steady, not too treacherous. This is the third time these men have made the summer climb and each time they’ve returned better, rejuvenated, younger. Their limbs more pliable, their joints loosened, their cores stronger, their minds sharper.
At night they cook together and Kobe usually retires after brief conversation, leaving Tim and Manu to their never ending talks over thermoses of hot yerba mate; a drink Tim grew to love on their first climb, a drink Kobe’s referred to as some “hot bullshit.” Manu and Tim rarely talk about Bryant. He’s not mysterious; he’s not fun or funny. The only thing about Kobe that actually interests the two friends is his unquenchable drive, his homicidal motivation. There was a time on their previous trip when the topic of homicide actually came up. Was Kobe’s drive that intense, manic enough to kill one or both of them? They shook it off, tried to laugh at their own paranoia, rationalize that he was a prick, but had some twisted sense of honor, but the seed of fear had been verbalized, the doorway to possibility slightly ajar; just enough for Duncan and Ginobili to have a shred of doubt, of anxiety lurking in their thoughts.
While Manu and Tim fill cold night time silence, Kobe reclines in his state-of-the-art tent; a tent equal parts efficient and extravagant. He sits quietly focused on the music driving through his purple and gold Dre Beats headphones: The Doors’ Riders on the Storm. He methodically sharpens a dagger embossed with his strange KB24 logo replete with a slithering black mamba and the Latin phrase Carpe Diem…all the while the electric piano of Ray Manzarek’s music intertwining with the sounds of a storm warmly coming together with Kobe’s thoughts…
In terms of technical difficulty, the climb isn’t the most challenging. The weather is treacherous at times, but it’s more of inconvenience for Tim and Kobe who prefer the warmth; albeit for different reasons. For Manu, it’s vacation. There are times during the grind of the NBA season or the Olympics or the World Championships when he wants nothing more than to let all the air out of the basketball, rip up the floorboards of the court, pile the varnished wood at center court, douse the whole thing with lighter fluid, flick a match on the pile and walk into the anonymous embrace of nature. The mountain air has always cleared his lungs and thoughts, unshackled his body and allowed him to love in a way that’s different from basketball with its rules and egos, social implications and responsibilities.
Tim would often ask him why he bothered; why not retire and move to Patagonia? Manu would laugh and respond in his heavily accented English that Tim was accustomed to hearing…he’d respond with genuine feeling, poetic descriptions of teamwork, athleticism as self-expression, basketball as a union of the creative spirit and physical wonderment; explaining how precious it was to be blessed with the physical abilities and size they had, how, despite the drawbacks, it wasn’t a gift to be ignored, how men and boys around the world would kill (“I mean it Timmy, they would kill to have what we have”) for this blessing. Tim would smile and nod, sipping his warm mate. It made him feel good to hear Manu describe his feelings with that honesty. He felt lucky for sure, but so much of that luck he felt had to do with his good fortune of being surrounded by people: Manu, Pop, his wife Amy, teammates he loved; all possible because of basketball, because of a game.
In the clear night sky, up so high that Tim felt he could reach out and brush the firmament with his outstretched fingers, Manu would continue to talk: I read a book by a great Chilean writer, I only wish he was Argentine. Roberto Bolaño, you’ve heard of him? Tim nodded. He died far too young, but he wrote this mountain of a novel, 2666 and when I’m out here in the night, so close to heaven, I often think about a few lines from that book, a few lines I memorized because I love the concept. Would you like to hear? Tim nodded again, ‘If it were possible to convey what one feels when night falls and the stars come out and one is alone in the vastness, and life’s truths (night truths) begin to march past one by one…’ And of course he goes on, because the book is like a thousand pages long, but when I’m up here with the stars, I think about those truths…night truths. Tim nodded.
The last day of the mountain leg of the journey was a steady decline, mostly slow and easy, but occasionally declining steeply. Like the previous two times they’d done the climb, Manu went well ahead of Tim and Kobe. Both would look on in the morning as the Argentine bounded downward like a Mountain Goat version of himself; his feet barely touching the surface except to push off or propel himself in a different direction. He climbed the way he played ball: Naturally unpredictable, unorthodox. Kobe privately thought to himself that what he was seeing wasn’t human, but some kind of mystic oneness.
Tim and Kobe enjoyed the final climb. Both were out of their element up in the clouds and snow and the narrow strip of the green valley below was a finish line of sorts; at least the end of this strenuous portion of the trek.
As they scaled downward, the two men joked and laughed easily the way people do when they complete something which they’ve been dreading. Anxieties lifted, the conversation was light…future, how many more years would they play, what happens after basketball, cheap shots at Shaq from Kobe which Tim laughed at—mostly out of politeness. At a particularly tricky spot, Kobe lost his footing and fell. There was a deep drop off into a bottomless crevasse littered with frozen skeletons dressed in oversized climbing gear, but Tim and Kobe couldn’t see that far into nothingness and now Kobe hung onto the rim of the crevasse, his gloved fingers dug in tightly. Duncan reacted without thought; diving and wrapping his massive hands around Kobe’s wrists. “I gotcha I gotcha” he said, breathing heavily, his long, lean body stretched out like a giant eel with limbs. Kobe’s face, inches from Duncan’s, didn’t relax, there was no smile or relief to match Duncan’s. “Let go.”
Duncan’s smile turned into confusion, misunderstanding. He held on tighter. Holding eye contact, intensity rising, Kobe repeated: “Let. Go.”
“No. I got you; pull yourself up.”
“I got it. Let go.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot man. You got nothing to prove.”
“I don’t need your fucking help.”
“I don’t care. I’m not letting go.”
It was a stalemate that lasted less than thirty seconds. Manu’s shadow fell over the two tall men followed by his strong grip pulling up a protesting Kobe and hauling him to safety with Tim’s help.
Manu made eye contact with Duncan and picked up on Kobe’s growing aloofness. No one said anything and the descent continued with Manu in the lead at a much slower pace than he preferred, then Tim in the middle and Kobe in back.
The temperature warmed as they reached the base of the mountain, but Kobe stayed icy with ease. They passed through a village filled with little normal sized people with dark skin who paid them no mind despite their comical heights and various ethnicities. No one gave a damn; life was hard enough without human spectacles.
Manu and Tim settled into lazy conversation as their feet propelled forward along the familiar path. There were no attempts to reach out and bring Kobe into the conversational fold because he inserted himself on his own terms and his present terms were separate, but still moving forward. The cold they’d been subjected to up on high had changed into a much more agreeable, almost balmy air where the three men, all weighed down with heavy packs, sweated without exerting much effort.
The schedule called for an early night camp, then the last day of hiking and arrival at their final destination the following afternoon, but when they came to the clearing where they’d camped on previous journeys, Tim and Manu happily slowed and dropped their packs. Kobe looked at them, continued to walk and said he was hiking straight through. Manu and Tim looked at each other. Kobe disappeared from view.
It was as it had to be; a break, a fracture, a fissure. It wasn’t anger or abandonment that the two men felt; maybe, at its worst, there was a twinge of disappointment, but no one can really say. Kobe hiked alone through the darkness of night; his path illuminated by the crescent moon and his obnoxiously unnaturally bright headlamp. Animals and creatures of the night saw the light bobbing from miles away and recoiled in apocalyptic fear. To them, the light was so out of place as to instill feelings of supernatural dread, but it was just Kobe Bean Bryant winding through the night in solitude, stalking the trail, focused, driven by a compulsion he struggled to identify. Accept? Yes, that had happened so long ago that it became part of him, something to use for his benefit, a way to stand out and separate, but now it had occasion to feel heavy, lonely. He continued on until daybreak; silently, fearless, sad, but without self-pity.
As dawn broke, Kobe could see the silhouette of the pagoda rising through the morning mist. The air was fresh, cool; he wore a thick, fitted sweater over a KB24 Dri-Fit shirt. The morning air chilled any sadness nightfall had brought on and he felt better as the pagoda came into full view. An outdoor porch wrapped around the pagoda and there he saw a large man sitting in a large chair. As he neared, the man rose…and rose. He was tall, lean, wearing unnecessary sunglasses in the gray morning. His skin was brown, but lighter than Kobe’s. His hair was black and not cropped as close as Kobe’s. It was thinning in front. He wore a thick black beard and a thinner moustache. Even by Kobe’s standards, he was a tall man. He smiled without showing his teeth. Kobe returned the gesture, but revealed his teeth. He was happy to see the man.
“Kareem!” he shouted as he neared.
“Mr. Bryant! You’re early.”
“Yep, powered through the night. How you doing?”
The men shared a sturdy handshake and hug.
“Good, good” Kareem responded nodding. He knew better than to inquire about Tim and Manu. He knew they’d be there on time. “If you hiked all night, you must be tired.”
“You know that.”
“Why don’t you head inside. Habiba and Cheryl are there. They’ll get you fed and get you set up in your room. I’ll be out here or in my study if you get restless…which I know happens from time to time.”
Kobe nodded, still smiling. There was a reverence both men were aware of, but didn’t need to speak about. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man of accomplishment whose life had spanned several decades and personalities, it was something he was used to. But for Kobe, a man who struggled to defer to even his father, it was something altogether different. And again, both men were aware of this and Kareem gave Kobe a wide berth to explore his own self and reactions in this regard. By now, after the previous two visits, they had realized their compatibility and friendship and settling in was relaxing despite the fact that they hadn’t seen each other in several years.
Kobe was hungry and tired and took Kareem up on his suggestion. He greeted his wives with warmth and ate their food and settled into the comfortable bed they provided and slept long and deep as he had always been a man who could appreciate and take advantage of the comforts the world bestowed upon him. Although he didn’t remember his dreams, he dreamt deeply and widely of conquest, victory and acceptance. He dreamt of being held and loved. The arms that held him were strong, but caring. They were his own arms and his hands rested on his chest and his abdomen. He could feel his heart beating strongly and his stomach rising so slowly, filling with oxygen. He was alive and accepted himself…but this was just a dream and he didn’t remember any of it when he woke up several hours later to the sounds of Manu’s accent and Tim’s heavy feet arriving and being greeted by Kareem and his wives.
Kobe didn’t care about missing out on talking and catching up, but now that he was awake, he got up and joined the rest of the house for what smelled like dinner. He didn’t have a clue what time it was and found the low key reunion at the huge bamboo table Kareem had built himself. The table was covered in pasta dishes; Kareem always espoused the benefits of carbs, red sauces, oil-based sauces, fresh vegetables, sautéed vegetables. Kobe thought it looked like they robbed a Whole Foods, but kept his thoughts to himself. The talk was expectedly strange given Kareem’s transcendence of time. That didn’t stop Manu and Tim from updating him on LA’s (and Kobe’s by extension) ability to get one of the top point guards and the top center in the game. Kareem enjoyed the laugh at Kobe’s expense. He laughed about Dwight Howard—who he’d never met—and Steve Nash—who he had met and said it sounded like something Auerbach would’ve pulled off. I know the game’s changed, he said, but it sounds like things are still the same. The rich get richer. And then he asked Tim and Manu what or who the Spurs had added and it was Kobe’s turn to get a laugh at their expense, comparing the Spurs to the old folks who’ve been driving the same Buick for 30+ years. Yes, it’s in immaculate condition and still runs great, but it’s old and filled with that old folks’ smell…that smell of pending death.
It was a holistic, healthy trip, but after a long journey, the men were happy to share the wine and fresh food Kareem provided. And it didn’t take long for the meal and the laughs to segue into Kareem pulling out a hookah filled with homegrown herb and mixed with shisha. Kobe and Manu passed on the weed as they always had, but Tim joined Kareem and the women and smoked himself straight from the table to a healthy helping of bean pie, through halls of laughter and relaxation, directly into bed.
It was late and the bed felt good; long, made for a man his size, but Kareem had always been able to relate to him on that level. He was tall and had been tall when it was less accepted. And he’d been black at a time when it was less accepted and he’d written extensively about that blackness and that period in his life. Tim had read the books, Giant Steps first and then Kareem, and felt a kinship with this man who had been through so much and was so misunderstood. To be misunderstood was to be Tim Duncan. So he snuggled up tightly to the blankets and pillows, alone in the quiet with his thoughts, free from the whipping winds and howls of the lonely night under the stars and a million miles from Manu’s “night truths.” He thought about home and basketball and legacy. Touches of paranoia and cyclical thoughts raced through his head competing with his need for sleep. He questioned himself, his accomplishments and how they stacked up against Kareem’s or Lew’s or whoever he was, however old he was. Without knowing it, he was exhausting himself with his own thoughts and as he dozed off, he thought: I love Kareem, but I could’ve taken him. Sleep took him instead and he snored so loud that the ground trembled, monkeys screamed, leaves fell from trees.
Kobe was right behind him. Even with a day spent in bed, he was worn out mentally and physically and wanted to feel good for tomorrow when they’d re-engage with their training. So that left Manu with Kareem. The women had disappeared and Manu didn’t have any recollection of them getting up from the table. It wasn’t that he was that drunk, but rather that their departure occurred so naturally like everything else here. So he sat at the table with Kareem who took a couple more hits off the hookah. The sound of the water bubbling through the pipe and Kareem’s deep inhales and exhales filled the dining room and he suggested they go out on the porch where the weather beckoned.
Outside they looked on the same stars he had seen with Tim nights before. I would’ve liked to play with you, Manu. Even though I’ve never seen your game or style, I know what’s what. Manu replied with a soft “Gracias, Kareem. It saddens me that I’ve seen you play, I’ve read your books and met you out there, in time, but here you are in a place where you don’t play anymore, you don’t get to see the world unfold the way I can.” It saddens me too, Manu.
The morning began early with a full breakfast, always breakfast. This was followed by a long walk, followed by breathing exercises and around mid-morning the four men would be in the stretches of an intensive yoga session. The first session wasn’t much different from the beginning of a training camp: The three men were world-class athletes, but the physical maintenance they performed during the regular season didn’t compare with the demands a rigorous yoga routine put on muscle elasticity and pliability. And the breathing was essential. Kareem would drill it home, repeating tenets and techniques over and over. His words were inhaled by eager ears, thirsty for knowledge revealed through his secret teaching; this mystique that allowed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to actually exist as a 30-year-old man when he had actually lived 65 years.
Yoga was followed by a hike into the lush low hills rolling out behind the pagoda. The hike was a mix of light jogging and brisk walking on a dirt path that rose and fell with the earth’s contours. Heart rates and pulses quickened as they neared their destination. The trail pitched and rolled for eight miles with Kareem leading the way with his long, light strides deftly maneuvering the trail. Kobe competitively kept close behind with his eyes fixed on the delicacy of Kareem’s well-placed steps. The four men were encapsulated within the nature of the trail. Living organisms swarmed about their hike in various degrees of existence, each of the men calmly inhaled the rich air as Kareem had taught them to do. Manu and Tim would smile at each other in complete concert with one another, knowing and appreciating and respecting the life-giving power of the air they soared through.
At about seven miles, Kareem broke off onto a barely visible narrow path, barely wide enough for a single foot, let alone two larger-than-average sized feet. The forested canopy encroached closer, skimming the top of Kareem’s afro which shook branches and leaves and alarmed the residents of these trees who screeched and scurried in response. The column of giants grew closer, their strides tightening up to a single cadence until hidden twists and turns led to a naturally concealed manmade fountain. The stones of which were overgrown with thick moss and leafy tangled vines.
The men stopped and panted, heavy with breath and sweat. Kareem turned and smiled, Here we are, my friends. Here to quench the thirst brought on by vigorous journey. Here to drink from the life that the earth provides. Here to give thanks to the abundant blessings of our fathers and mothers. And here to replenish that which time takes from us.
Kobe gave thanks and nodded to each of the men, then cupped his hands and drank deeply from the icy water.
Manu smiled broadly and nodded around to the men saying, “Thank you, Kareem” and proceed to dunk his balding head and bearded face into the chilling fountain. His enthusiasm drew laughs and smiles from his compatriots.
Not to be outdone, Tim looked at Manu who shook the water from his head like a soaking dog, planted his hands on the ledge of the fountain and lifted his fully clothed body into the fountain with water splashing out. Kobe shook his head in joking reproach while Tim allowed himself to sink into the pool until just his mouth, nose, eyes and head were above the surface and let the pristine liquid roll into his mouth. As Tim soaked, Kareem revealed his statesmanlike maturity and took small sips from his giant cupped hands.
This was the purpose of the trek. The weeks of climbing, the bonding, the hikes through the waist-deep snow, the beards, the struggle, the fresh air, weeks away from home and away from loved ones. It was for this moment of replenishing drink which soaked into the human beings who demanded and received every iota of their physical potentials and then some.
An extended stretch with discussions around basketball history preceded the hike home. The discussion was fascinating in that the men present had each achieved all that could be achieved in the sport, from troves of individual accolades to team honors that stretched across every decade from the 1950s on. And yet, and yet elements of competitiveness still came to the fore. Even in the embrace of nature and friendship, Kobe made outlandish claims and excuses for only having won five rings. In his mind, there should’ve been more: ‘2004, 2009, 2011.’ He swore his longevity was unmatched and would continue to do so. He claimed Michael Jordan’s break for baseball was the only thing that allowed to him three-peat a second time and that playing through those two seasons, which he should’ve done, would’ve ended the run and changed perceptions about him. Kareem countered that Jordan had never made the trek to the mountains, that Jordan’s longevity, whether furthered by baseball or not, was unhealthy and bordered on maniacal, but that there was still an element to it that was preferable for combat; which the NBA was at its core. Kareem talked about the time he’d spent in the mountains, at the pagoda with John Stockton, Karl Malone, Robert Parish, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton, John Wooden. He described Wooden as a scrappy, fiery hiker who, even in the 1970s could blaze across the mountains and trails while Kareem and Walton struggled to find air for their lungs and strength for their burning quads. John Wooden, he said, had actually lived 147 years. No one knew what to believe and Kobe simultaneously shuddered and relished the idea of living a life so long.
They drank again and then returned to the pagoda.
The routine was repeated every day for the next two weeks. The long days gave way to relaxing, peaceful evenings. The humidity of the day broke at night. The silent songs of slumbering creatures was interrupted by sober, drunk, high conversations on everything from basketball to spirituality to racism to bigamy. Men slept, talked, ate, exercised, slowed down the aging process, then rose and did it all again tomorrow. Manu, Tim and Kareem would take days off to rest mentally and physically, but Kobe pushed forward each day with varying results.
With just two days of the trip remaining, Tim and Manu decided to skip the hike portion of the workout. They stretched out and went through the yoga portion of the workout, both a little on the giddy side like people who choose to take a half-day on a whim. Kobe was serious, more serious than normal Kareem noticed. His nostrils flared almost angrily. It was a visceral, edgy side of Kobe. A side that Kareem had encouraged him to learn how to channel into useful energy instead of give in to. To Manu and Tim, it felt like Kobe’s mood change was directed at them; Kobe’s disapproval of their decision to skip the full workout.
As Kareem and Kobe took off on the trail, the older afro’d man wasn’t surprised to feel Kobe bearing down on him from the beginning. He maintained his pace, aware of himself, his body, his surroundings. By contrast, Kobe focused on nothing but Kareem. He was like a hunter stalking a prey he thought was ignorant of his intentions, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Once they arrived at the fountain, both out of breath, both shirtless with long, muscular torsos dripping in sweat, they drank together. They didn’t take turns, but each dipped his hands into the refreshing water and drank in the mysterious goodness.
Something troubles you, Kareem said as he felt the intensity of Kobe’s eyes boring into him.
Kobe said nothing, but drank again.
Now isn’t the time to turn inward. Share with me whatever it is that pains you.
Kobe stepped back and drew out his sharpened dagger, reflecting through the slivers of light creeping through the jungle canopy. He breathed heavy looking into the deep wells of Kareem’s eyes, his deep knowledge.
At that moment, the wind kicked up and carried their conversation into the vast tangle of surrounding jungle. When the wind had calmed, Kobe was nowhere to be found and Kareem lay dying on the cool undergrowth of the jungle ground.
A gust of bad vibes came rolling out of the jungle in all directions. Manu had been napping while Tim was eating either a papaya or a mango, he wasn’t quite sure. They both rushed outside separately and neither could say exactly why except that they were drawn there and without words they set off on the trial. An hour later, they arrived at the fountain, where Kareem’s lifeless body lay with a single puncture wound to the heart. It was afternoon and it was hot. The jungle was eerily quiet as they carried Kareem’s long, limp body down the path; the only sounds were the crunching of the ground beneath their feet. They found the pagoda empty when they arrived. Kobe’s room was cleared out, the bed made, everything in its right place. Habiba and Cheryl were gone, but with no indication they had packed anything.
It was over. The pagoda, the fountain, Kareem, the mountain hikes. It was all finished and Tim and Manu sat on the porch taking in the mountain and the jungle, breathing in the thick air of the early evening. Their words were few, their minds burdened with questions and self-blame. After a subdued burial in a shallow grave, they locked it all up, closed the shutters, and embarked on the long trip back to the west.
November 13th, 2012 – Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
It’s a warmer-than-normal day evening in Los Angeles. The season’s young, but already narratives are being woven around the continued greatness of the league’s elders: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili. They’re each playing with a finely-tuned combination of veteran savvy and healthy athleticism. The results so far in this young season have been more than promising: in his 17th season, Kobe’s proving he’s still the best two-guard in the NBA (even if James Harden and Dwyane Wade disagree) while the Spurs have opened the season with routine dominance on the slightly sloped shoulders of Duncan and the improvisational artistry of Ginobili.
Tonight is the first night Kobe’s come into contact with Tim and Manu since the last day at Kareem’s jungle pagoda. During the pre pre-game warmups, Kobe practices form shot after form shot, fixated on the repetition, making the next one and erasing any misses from his mind. His rhythmic breathing is second nature and allows him to remain centered and focused throughout the routine. The Spurs’ team bus arrives, Manu and Tim both get pre-game treatments and saunter out to the still-mostly-empty Staples Center where a few ushers and security guards are lazily making rounds and TV and radio crews are setting up. It’s a world away from their last interaction. Tim and Manu are shooting around with Matt Bonner and a couple Spurs assistants when Manu walks down towards the Lakers end, dribbling through his legs the whole way down.
“Kobe, Kobe,” he says as he nears Bryant.
Kobe nods “what up” in his direction.
“Why’d you do it?” Manu asks. “Why’d you have to kill him?”
A few Lakers warming up with Kobe are watching the interaction out of the corners of their eyes, curious at the content of the discussion and the palpable tension between the men.
“Kill who? What the fuck are you saying to me?”
“Don’t play stupid, man. Just tell me why you did it.”
Kobe stops dribbling and stares at Manu: “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but you should probably stop before you say something that pisses me off.”
“You didn’t have to do it man. You didn’t need to do that.”
Kobe turns his back on him and hits a jumper from 27-feet. His form is perfect, his muscles aligned, his balance centered. Manu’s words are replaced by the bouncing balls and the sound of the net ripping. The game is played without eye contact between Kobe and Manu or Tim. There are no words, just growing chasms of unspoken feeling.
April 18, 2013Posted by on
We used to get 20s & 10s more frequently than we do these days. In the 2000s, we’ve seen at least two players average twenty points and ten rebounds in every season until now. We have scorers who are just OK rebounders and rebounders who aren’t so offensively evolved. But I’m not here to deceive you. This isn’t about that 20/10 club, it’s about the 20-rebound/10-assist club that Pau Gasol, (the greatest Spanish-born NBA player in league history) joined on Wednesday night in a critical victory for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Gasol has re-focused himself since his return from injury and is averaging a dynamic 17.5ppg, 12.1rpg and 6.6apg on 51% shooting in eight April games. His performance against the shallow Rockets front court on Wednesday night was just a further reminder of why all of us thought this Lakers team would be so much better than they have been this season.
As is and has so often been the case, a unique performance this season has opened up my eyes to another great performance from days gone by. This time, it was Charles Barkley on April 4th, 1986. Barkley, a 6’4”-ish power forward, went for 27 points, 22 rebounds and 10 assists on 12-18 shooting. I’m not calling this out just because Charles Barkley is a member of the 20/10 club. Certainly Tim Duncan’s 21-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist, 8-block game—in the NBA Finals—is a more dynamic and historical event. What’s more impressive is that it seems like Barkley shows up on every other “Guess I’m Strange” post I do:
- John Henson’s filter: 17pts/20rebs/7blks. Barkley achieved the same feat on November 28th, 1986
- Spencer Hawse’s filter: 18pts/16rebs/8assts/7blks. Yep, Barkley’s same game on 11/28/86: 31pts, 21rebs, 9asts, 7blks
- Reggie Evans’s filter: 16 FTAs/24rebs. On December 9th, 1987, Chuck had 38pts, 24rebs and attempted 21 FTs.
- Pau Gasol’s aforementioned line: 20/10
This post seemed appropriate after Henry Abbott’s interview on TrueHoop TV with Tim Grover where Grover (Michael Jordan’s long-time personal trainer and the current trainer for Kobe and D. Wade) singled out Barkley as the greatest athlete he’s ever worked with. When you think about the size and speed of Barkley (his 76ers fast breaks were frightening) and what he was able to accomplish as a player who measured between 6’4” and 6’6”, it’s hard to fathom. In 1987, he led the league with 14.6rpg. That same season he averaged 23ppg, 4.9apg and 1.8 steals with a TS of 66%. The only other players in league history put up the 23/14/4 are Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Unbelievable, Barkley and unbelievable trails we find ourselves on when we stray just a little bit off the paths that are paved for us.
Now let’s all kick back and soak in the animal style of the one and only, Charles Barkley:
April 14, 2013Posted by on
We started with what could only be described as an audacious idea; a crazy idea that only whackos disconnected from reality, out of touch with the space-time continuum, stuck in a world of imaginary fantasy where Rick Barry can exist in the prime of his basketball heyday not just with a singular existence, but a dual existence right alongside his sons: Two prime Rick Barrys, one prime Jon Barry and one prime Brent Barry. But we somehow pulled it off with dynamic storylines mixing 80 years of combined NBA wisdom with caffeine-fueled fantasies to arrive here, at the Final Four of the NBA Fathers & Sons 2-on-2 tournament. If you’ve been following along since the beginning, we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. If this is your first exposure to greatest 2-on-2 tournament in Naismith history, I’d suggest reading the initial post which laid out the concept that I was never sure we’d see through to the end.
And I’d be doing my cohorts and myself a disservice if I didn’t thank them for their more-than-generous contributions to this project. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I usually fly solo, a one man parade as James Taylor would say. But with 31 games to cover, it would’ve been like hiking to Mordor by myself with nothing but a staff, a cloak and some corn nuts to get me through. So I solicited the assistance of my trusted friends and colleagues and thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative process of working with Jacob Greenberg from www.TheDissNBA.com (for those who were wondering, Jacob describes his hooping style as an Eric Snow-type of guard who sets sturdy screens and rebounds well for his position) and my old mates Bug and Hamilton (we go all the way back to Monroe-Rice Elementary so if you sense any chemistry, now you know why). But my co-conspirators have lives and careers and child and spouses and pets and partners and Golden State Warriors and seeing how they’d already donated so much of their time, I decided to relinquish them of their vows and finish the tournament on my own. (Logistically speaking, it was also easier to divide three matchups across one writer instead of four.)
I’ve babbled on long enough this Sunday morning. It’s time to stop waxing nostalgic and deliver what I set out to do:
In a matchup of highly-skilled perimeter players, the contrast is one of balance. The Bryants are top-heavy with Kobe being his usual dominant, fearless self and dad Joe acting in various capacities as a catalyst, instigator, button pusher, but most of all: a positive influence. Both Walker and Rose had seasons where they averaged over 20ppg and are the only father/son combination in league history to each score over 10,000 points. Their strength is in their balance, in the capability of each player to score from anywhere on the court or act as a facilitator if the situation demands.
Despite the success of both of these #1 seeds, all is not copacetic on the courts of fathers and sons. Walker and Rose have been able to ignore the massive elephant in the room of their relationship: the fact that there is no relationship. Walker was absent during Jalen’s childhood and as much as the younger Rose wants to believe the relationship can come together through chemistry and cohesion on the basketball court, there’s too much that needs to be healed and as the game warms up, so too does Rose’s resentment of the man who failed to be present so many years ago. As for Joe and Kobe, while Joe’s always been a present and supportive father to Kobe, there’s a low level of resentment building here as well. The lack of symmetry between Joe’s career stats and his actual ability has always been a sore spot for the elder Bryant and playing second fiddle to his own son (regardless of Kobe’s worldly talents) has reopened some of the disappointments from Bryant’s lackluster NBA career.
And so the game begins with both father/son duos existing within friction. Jalen retreats into himself, passing up open shots and firing bullet passes to Jimmy who picks up on what his son is really saying with his passive play: You didn’t need me all those years ago, so now when you really need my help, forget it. On the other side of the ball, Joe’s forcing shots, attacking, not necessarily playing outside of himself, but focusing on proving to everyone, and especially himself, that he’s more than capable of carrying the Bryants when it matters.
The game opens with fits and starts. The crowd surrounding the court in bleacher seating is fidgety, picking up on the tension that’s led to a just a couple buckets in the game’s first several possessions. It’s almost as if there are two separate games going on in within the actual contest that everyone showed up for. Icy stares shoot across the court with more purpose than the shots that keep clanking off the rim. Jimmy’s stung by Jalen’s clear discontent, Jalen’s passive aggressiveness is giving him the attention he never received as a kid, Joe’s trying so hard he’s fumbling passes and missing everything. For once it’s not all about Kobe. He’s the only player on the court who’s focused on winning the game and his awareness of the on-court dynamics at play gives him an opportunity to start dictating and feeding Jellybean Joe the ball in places where he can be most successful. Kobe finds Joe on post-ups and pick-and-rolls; his one-on-one game is so great that even in this two-on-two scenario he draws the off-defender’s help and exploits the help to find Joe again and again. The Bryants are up 13-4 when Jimmy walks off the court.
It’s a painful moment for everyone. The refs don’t bother intervening in family business and stand around talking about Joe Bryant’s gold chain and wondering what the correct call would be if the chain somehow affected play. They come up with no conclusions. Kobe and Joe are nodding at each other with the younger Bryant kidding his old man about the forced start. Joe responds with an embarrassed smile, “Your old man can play. Sometimes I gotta remind folks.” “You ain’t gotta remind me. I saw you put up 50 in Italy. I heard em singing those songs about you. I know!” “That’s right…”
Jalen’s drinking Gatorade with a towel draped around his shoulders. He’s not thinking about the game. He’s not thinking about the Bryants. He’s caught somewhere between hanging onto his anger and/or sadness (he’s not sure) and walking across the court to extend a hand out to Jimmy who’s in in the middle of an impassioned conversation with his friend Dave Bing. Bing is directly honest, “You’re his father, Jimmy. His father. It’s on you man. You brought that boy into this world and never even met him before this tournament and now you the one who gets to be pissed off ‘cause he’s upset? You got some nerve, Jimmy.” Jimmy tries in vain to plead his case, to recite the laundry list of excuses for why it never worked with Jalen, but he doesn’t even believe it himself.
By the time Jimmy makes his olive branch-bearing way across the court, Kobe and Joe are chilling on the bench wrapped up in towels and Dri-Fit shirts provided by Kobe’s generous/capitalist sponsor. Kobe made a move to bitch about the delay, but was quickly hushed by his pops who recognizes “there are more than a few things in this world bigger than a damn basketball game, kid. I thought I raised you better than that.” In moments, Rose and Walker are moist-eyed, the pain of a lifetime of knowing a father through second and third hand accounts streaming down Jalen’s cheeks and a half-a-lifetime of guilt slowly lifting off Jimmy’s shoulders. They’re done, they don’t want or need to play in this 2-on-2 tournament anymore, but Bing and Joe Bryant encourage them to finish up even if it’s just for fun. After a few minutes of pushing, Rose and Walker agree.
The game resumes with the crowd and the refs and even the Bryants (to a very, very, very low degree) rooting for Jalen and Jimmy who seem like a couple that was committed to a painful split, but finally agreed on reconciliation and rejoice in the love they share for each other. The feel good story is good enough for a couple buckets and growing senses of hope to roll through the crowd like gentle waves of euphoria, but the Bryants are comfortable being the big bad favorites. They block out the boos, they block out the emotions and play a clean two-man game with Joe owning the inside and Kobe owning everything else. As much as we love to love and see love, love doesn’t conquer all tonight. The Bryants win an easy, if not emotionally taxing, game 21-13.
If there’s anything that this 2-on-2 tournament has revealed, it’s been the uniquely disagreeable disposition of Rick Barry. This arrogant basketball savant with his pro-basketball playing sons rolling out one-by-one like the Barry family was some sort of pro-basketball-player-producing factory with a trash talking patriarch. The Thompsons aren’t much different with Mychal acting as a strong guiding hand in the life of Klay and the Thompsons producing three basketball-playing sons with two going pro. Between the fathers in this matchup, five of their sons played in the NBA.
Mychal Thompson possesses the size and skill to harass Rick into tough, challenging shots, but Rick doesn’t give a damn about any Bahamian big man. Like any hunter, he knows to attack the weakest link in the Thompson family and physically and psychologically, that’s Klay. He tells Brent before the game: “You’re guarding Mike. He’s bigger, he’s strong and he’s gonna kick your ass, but you won’t feel a thing when we’re in the finals. I’m taking that soft ass Klay. He’s weak. Trust me on this and if you end up on him, beat him up.”
The other pre-game speech is also fatherly dominated with Mychal dictating to Klay exactly how the game’s going to go: “It’s the inside-outside, Klay. They can’t guard me and if they try to go one-on-one, I’m scoring buckets all day. If they even they turn their head on you, I’m kicking it out and you know what happens then: Splash!” Klay nods like he’s been doing since he was a little kid and to some outside observers, it seems like he still is a little kid.
The Thompsons start the game the way they’ve done all tournament long: They put their hands together and chant: “1, 2, 3, Thompsons!” Rick snickers and mumbles something about “fucking pussies.” The game is underway.
The Barrys get the ball first and Rick isn’t surprised to see Mychal guarding him. Brent occupies the high post, catches the first pass and hears his dad’s words ringing through his head: “Beat him up.” It’s not in his nature, but he makes a hard turn to face the hoop and his intentionally extended elbow catches Klay square on the jaw. The refs call the foul, but Rick is pleased. The tone is set, but Brent’s already feeling guilty and extends a hand to help Klay up only to find that hand swatted away by Mychal. “Sorry, Klay,” he says.
The first Thompson possession goes pretty similar to how Mychal described it before the game: Klay checks the ball, dumps it inside to Mychal, but the double team never comes. A pissed off and embarrassed Klay calls for the ball and Mychal kicks it back out to him a couple feet behind the line and where he pulls up in Rick’s smug, doubting face. Splash. Thompsons 3, Barrys 0.
The Barrys answer back with Rick easily beating Mychal for the bucket and telling the big man, “Get used to it.”
And so it goes back and forth with elbows flying, hip shots catching cutters, pushing, shoving, illegal screens, trash talk and hurt feelings. Numerous times the players have to be separated and Jon Barry’s incessant heckling of Klay leads to the refs having him removed from the court. As he’s being carried off by security, he’s yelling at Klay: “Make sure daddy gives you a fair cut of the winnings!”
Rick’s plan to attack the weaker Thompson has fueled the younger man who’s scored 11 of the Thompson’s 15 points and has been the best player on the court. With things all even at 15-apiece, Klay dumps the ball into Mychal who has perfect position on the much smaller Brent. A drop-step dunk later and the Thompsons are up 17-15 with the Barrys on the ropes for the first time all tournament. The Barrys run a pick-and-roll and on Rick’s roll, he sets a clear moving screen on both Thompsons, but the refs ignore the foul and Brent sinks an uncontested go-ahead three: 18-17, Barrys. Another Mychal post-up and Rick a jumper put the score at 20-19, Barrys.
Klay checks the ball and works his ass off to get free of Rick who’s deep in his chest and seems to be a step ahead of every Klay cut or attempt to get free. And this is one of the most frustrating aspects of Rick Barry. For all the trash talk and bullying, he plays hard on both sides of the ball and has consistently been one of the best players in this tournament; his play demanding the respect of his opponents. This Final Four match has been no exception and the defense he’s playing on Klay has the kid pushed out to near half court before he can finally catch his dad’s pass. Klay puts the ball on the floor in an effort to create space, but Rick’s long arms are able to reach in and tap the ball away. Klay recovers, but his confidence in his handle is gone. The last thing he wants to do is turn the ball over to lose the game. Instead he passes off to Mychal who’s at the three point line. And the world stops.
Brent’s mind shoots back to research he had done a few weeks before when he saw the bracket and thought: “Hm, I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up playing the Thompsons.” And he went to Mychal’s basketball-reference.com page and saw the elder Thompson shot 1-12 from three for his career. Brent, in a rare show of the gambler’s mentality steps back, arms wide open, staring Mychal directly in the eye: “You ain’t got shit.” Rick laughs, Klay says nothing as he fears Brent is right: Mychal ain’t got shit from out there.
Mychal can’t resist a chance to be the hero and lets it fly despite having not taken a single three all tournament long. It’s a brick that Brent chases down. The Barrys now have the ball and any bucket will seal the deal. They toss a few passes back and forth, feeling the rhythm of the game. Brent takes the ball at the high post and Rick runs off the screen created by Brent’s position. Klay tries to go over Brent, knowing an open Rick jumper will end it all. Mychal, unable to see if Brent’s handing the ball off or keeping it himself, cheats to help Klay, but little does he know Brent’s keeping it. Both Thompsons are chasing the decoy Rick and Brent turns, takes a single step and elevates for the game-winning dunk: 22-19, Barrys. A few halfhearted “fuck yous” are exchanged, but no one’s really too upset about this game. The Thompsons shake their heads and go get some ice cream.
After that, I could use some ice cream as well. Or maybe a beer. I can’t stress how unplanned these outcomes have been. While it’s not surprising that the two best players in the entire father/son tournament (Rick Barry and Kobe) have made it to the finals, the routes these teams have taken and the unexpected twists, turns and modes of attack have been completely improvised and arrived at organically.
The finals will be covered in the next few days and it’ll be a fun battle between a pair of highly-skilled, versatile father/son combos. In a universe where Kobe’s Achilles is still fully intact, we’ll find out if he can do enough to will the Bryants to father/son glory or if the brash Rick Barry can overcome one of the greatest all-around scorers in league history and what roles will Brent and Jellybean Joe play in the game? Check back in a couple days to find out.