Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: Alternative Chapters

The Lost Years of Magic Johnson

You can lose all sorts of things. There’s Nas’s “Lost Tapes,” the Lost Boys and the Lost Boyz. People lose themselves, lose their keys, lose games. Lost lives, lost loves. You can lose anything tangible or intangible. Then there’s the four-plus seasons Magic Johnson lost to a lack of understanding around the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Losing a few seasons wasn’t life or death, it exceeded basketball in the sense that it challenged misconceptions around HIV/AIDS and continues to do so today – over 22 years later. When I write about “lost years” here, I’m referring specifically to an on-court context as Magic’s contracting HIV had a broader, further reach than anything he could’ve done a on basketball court. To that point, the power of Magic’s very public relationship with HIV has been covered more in depth and with more consideration than I can hope to, but what I remain curious about is what would’ve happened from 1991 to 1996 when a post-prime Magic still would’ve been gliding up the court, knees braced, fingers wrapped in tape, freezing indecisive defenders will telegenic lookaways, gold jersey with big purple 3-2 shadowed in white, pumping out stats so rare that he has no statistical comparison. What would’ve been?

It was last week I stumbled across a piece on Deadspin titled “The Beautiful Infographics of Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting.” I emailed the story to a couple friends and we exchanged a few back and forths about Teddy Ballgame and the three seasons he lost in his prime to WWII service. Williams somehow won the Triple Crown both before and after his military sabbatical and, like Magic, doesn’t need any extra stats to pad his legendary résumé, but you still wonder about those three seasons and 450+ games he missed out on.

After referencing Magic in one of my email exchanges, I meandered over to Magic’s basketball-reference page and took a look at his outputs during his short return to the Lakers as a 36-year-old PF/PG: 14.6ppg, 5.7rpg and 6.9apg. The numbers on their own aren’t eye-poppingly revolutionary. 67 other times, NBA players have accomplished this line or better, but no player 36 or older has ever done it and no one else who’s posted these numbers did it while playing under 30-minutes/game like Magic did. It took most players at least 36-minutes/night to generate these well-balanced numbers.

I reached out to some of the stat guys at Hickory-High and chatted with Jacob Frankel about age-based regression statistics. Jacob explained to me that “players generally decline in everything except shooting and rebounding after 28,” but also cautioned that Magic might be a completely different animal. He offered to crunch the numbers for me using his own methodology and I was kind of excited when I heard back from Jacob a day later with the following: “I think Magic breaks the system … the system is based on similar players and Magic was so unique that it’s misfiring.”

I’m tempted to write something silly like “Magic breaks math,” but he’s just so much different from any other player that it’s difficult to systematically project his impact during those lost years. Where just a handful of players have been able to put up at least 14, 5 and 6.5 over the course of a season, Magic did it in every one of his 13 NBA seasons and the last one in 1995-96 was done after spending four full seasons away from the game and playing a career-low in minutes. His per-36 minutes that final season showed a slight decline against his career averages which is to be expected when comparing a 36-year-old with rust to a 31-year-old All-NBA first teamer who carried his team to the finals in 1991. Some other things to keep in mind: Magic split time between power forward and point guard on Del Harris’s 95-96 team. Despite playing in an unfamiliar position, he still exceeded his career average usage rate with 22.7%.

When I finally arrived at some oddball projections that wouldn’t pass muster in an elementary stats class, I found myself sort of empty. The numbers decline uniformly because my regressions are unimaginative, but the sum of what we missed out on amounts to a couple thousand rebounds, a few thousand more assists (he’d still be behind John Stockton), almost 5,000 points and a little over 10,000 more minutes. There would’ve been more memories and intrigues, battles with MJ and playoff triple doubles, but the extra codas these years would’ve added to his narrative are so significantly outweighed by his response to his own reality that I walk away from this piece with both a sense of failure at articulating any statistical intrigue and a greater sense of appreciation for the impact of the post-HIV Magic.   

 Magic

[POSTSCRIPT: It was eye-opening that as I sat down to write this, what is intentionally a piece focused on stats, I quickly became aware of how miniscule these thoughts are in relation to the impact of Magic’s announcement 22 years ago. What happened since then has been nothing short of world changing. In terms of bringing HIV/AIDS awareness to a mass audience and challenging stereotypes, Magic’s story is profoundly positive. In addition, his bottomless vaults of money and resources, his access to the best doctors and drugs, have cast a different-shaded light on what should be a problematic question of access and affordability of life-saving drugs. What I will continue to take away from Magic Johnson and HIV is that basketball created a platform with a massive, but relatively (on a global scale) limited audience. HIV offered a direct connection to millions of people in the same way cancer allowed Lance Armstrong to connect with people who never gave a damn about the Tour de France.

No matter how big they are, Magic’s trophy cases are overflowing with the awards and accomplishments from a life on the court. He’s on imaginary Mount Rushmores, is considered the greatest point guard to ever play the game, has the stats and hardware to back it all up. And no matter how great he was on the court, his impact off it has been infinitely more valuable to our species. Everything above, as curiosity-piquing as it may sometimes seem, is little droplets of salt water in the sprawling ocean of Magic’s life.]

Against Time

*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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pain: Defining our Future one Injury at a Time

I definitely have multiple fascinations and mini obsessions in my life. In this space here and in the space residing in the smooth casing of my skull I like to imagine how the NBA could be different and by different I mean in a plausible sense. I don’t mean I want to see how Dwight Howard would compete in a league with Hakeem, Ewing, David Robinson, Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, Mutombo, etc; although if my mind’s in the right place, I do like to imagine how players would overlap generations. But alas, today is about plausibility, disaster, fragility and mortality—but not in the literal sense on that last piece, more in a basketball sense.

A month or so ago, I explored the ongoing agonies of number one overall picks; a pick that’s had to endure what seems like an abnormal amount of injuries relative to the rest of the pro basketball playing universe. When injuries happen, it’s not just the players and the organization that suffer; but rather it’s a massive boulder being tossed in a kiddie pool and me and you, the fans and writers and hoop heads are the little kids sitting around in our swim trunks, wondering what we’re going to do now since the water’s all gone and that boulder simply can’t be moved—because we can’t, with all of our will power and technological advances, make Greg Oden get well soon. This business about number one overall picks having health issues is nothing more than a sad coincidence, but when the wheels in my mind start spinning, I begin to obsess, little by little, with possibilities, alternate realities, the what could’ve been and that’s how I arrived at the post today. My mini obsessions take hold in daily emails to friends of hoop, take root in my mind, are validated through Basketball-reference.com’s encyclopedia of NBA information and finally flushed out here in some polished format … or not depending on your definition of “polish.”

Today, I’m exploring the impact bad luck or bad genes (it’s something bad) have had on all of us as basketball fans and the course of the league as a whole. I’m not making a case for butterfly effect theory on an NBA level, but rather investigating the massive ripples stemming from the painful belly flop of a few of our brighter, yet possibly cursed, stars:

Pain In words, numbers and images

Besides being ridiculously cluttered, the image above is somewhat functional. It tells the story of six men, six men blessed with unique combinations of size and athleticism who proved, at varying degrees, that they not only belonged in the NBA, but could actually thrive (and some may still thrive) as faces of franchises. These are all stars and guys who could’ve given induction speeches in Springfield in some kind of strange future, but instead they’ve danced with pain and lost. Some have given up, while others keep at it with mixed motivations of love, need, pride and stubbornness. No one’s here to judge the reasons of the retired or the motivations of the mad, but just to stroke our wise basketball beards and wonder what could’ve been, what we lost:

Andrew Bynum: Bynum, like Eric Gordon, is less tragic than the other members of the All Pain team because he’s younger. But his youth doesn’t take away from his injury-prone lower body which has been plagued by floating kneecaps, dislocations, surgeries, injections and probably crueler fates that we haven’t heard about (alien dissections, anyone?). Bynum’s highly decorated with rings, All NBA (2nd team) honors and an all-star appearance, but descriptions of his NBA existence or his immense potential are prefaced with references to his oft-injured body and missed games; a preface Philly fans likely precede with a “See, told ya so.” The Atlantic Division with Boston, the new-look Knicks and Nets and a Bynum-led Sixers squad should’ve been one of the more competitive divisions in the NBA this season; instead it’s all about New York and Brooklyn while the other three teams bore us with their flat storylines (no offense as in I didn’t mean to offend, not a reference to basketball scoring ability). And the tragedy here doesn’t end at the city limits of Philadelphia. It stretches across the country to Los Angeles where Jim Buss is likely still shedding tears over Bynum’s departure. It looms like an afro-wearing shroud over a league bereft of talented big men. What does health mean to Andrew Bynum? Would he still be in LA? Would he be dominating an Eastern Conference that has no answer for his 22 points/game and 12 rebounds/game? Will we ever know or will we all be swallowed in Bynum-less lament?

Bynum Dreams:

  • Do the Lakers trade a healthy Bynum? If no, then this Lakers team looks the same, but with Bynum instead of Howard. Not sure that solves their problems though.
  • No Dwight in Los Angeles means the dominoes fall in a different direction; one that I can’t possibly be expected to imagine since four franchises were involved.
  • And of course, Doug Collins agrees Bynum’s healthy presence would change things in Philadelphia, the Atlantic and the East.

Brandon Roy: I remember watching Roy at the University of Washington. He patiently waited his turn while more extroverted personalities like Nate Robinson’s shaped the team. But he waited and in his senior year, I recall seeing a kid possessed of absolute control, both physical and mental, whose game flowed like water, contorting himself to whatever the situation required, coolly flowing in waves or droplets—depending what look the opposition presented. He arrived as a pro in Portland with the same composure and pace. He spoke softly and was capable of the always-enjoyable “quiet” 35-40 point night. Genetics or fates weren’t having it though and young Roy’s knees began to deteriorate, or perhaps disintegrate is a more appropriate term (or perhaps someone injected his knees with cartilage-corroding acid), at the tender age of 24-25 and eventually resulted in retirement at 27 only to attempt a comeback this year at 28—a comeback with Minnesota that’s sadly been marred by more knee issues. But what could’ve been in Portland if Roy had been gifted with health instead of chronic pain? Stretch your imagination like one of those physical therapy rubber bands … pull it, stretch it and think of a Portland team starting Roy at the two (and don’t forget, he was a three-time all-star by age 25), Batum at three, Aldridge at four and a defensive anchor in Oden (more on him below) at five. Alas, my tears are dripping on the keyboard and it’s not because I have a Pacific Northwestern loyalty to the Blazers, but because as an NBA fan, I want a chance to witness what should be and what should be is the team I just described; instead it’s LaMarcus running with Wes Matthews and JJ Hickson.

Roy Dreams:

  • A title-contending nightmare in Portland with Oden, Aldridge and Batum
  • No Damian Lillard in the Rose Garden—because of course they never end up with that pick; unless the Nets are feeling generous all over again.
  • A Pacific coast rivalry with the Lakers: Roy vs. Kobe, Oden vs. Bynum

Eric Gordon: He’s back and since I built out the graphic a couple weeks ago, it doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that Gordon has actually appeared in games this season after curious rumors about microfracture surgery never came to fruition. He’s never made an all-star game or the playoffs, but he’s undeniably talented. At 6’3”, 220lbs, he’s the NBA’s answer to Earl Campbell; a battering ram of a two-guard with a smooth stroke that looks like it was crafted by the basketball gods of the Hoosier State. Three years into the league and the 23-year-old Indiana native was scoring 22/game and well on his way to something exciting, something special, some kind of explosive basketball device tucked in a compact package of muscle and talent. Of course, that was until he started breaking down with an assortment knee and wrist injuries. Gordon’s the youngest player on this list at 24-years-old which means he has the greatest opportunity to right any wrongs attributed to faulty genetics or mutations. In Gordon, New Orleans trusts and prays.

Gordon Dreams:

  • If he’s a healthy all-star guard, do the Clippers send him to New Orleans in 2011?
  • If the Clippers pass on the CP3 trade, then they move forward with Blake Griffin and Gordon at their core and Lob City becomes nothing more than the Lost City of Atlantis; an unverified utopia that gains beauty as time passes.
  • No Clippers-Hornets trade throws a wrench in the league’s attempts to sell the New Orleans franchise and puts David Stern in a tighter spot after he became inexplicably involved in the CP3-to-Lakers trade veto. Like the Dwight scenario above, there are too many possibilities to explore.
  • A healthy Gordon in 2011-12 (he played in just nine games) means the Hornets likely finish with a better record which means the Hornets don’t luck into Anthony Davis which means Davis likely ends up somewhere like Charlotte—a city desperate for a pro basketball savior. Instead they’re suddenly a tandem in New Orleans and David Stern is … well, I don’t know, but it feels like Stern’s name should be mentioned.

Gilbert Arenas:  Over a three-season span at what appeared to be extremely near his prime (or anyone’s prime), Arenas had point averages of 25.5, 29.3 and 28.4. Over that span he scored 6,489 points in the regular season and scored 34/game in the 2006 playoffs while playing 47 minutes/game in that first round series. At the peak (this is an assumed peak because after the injuries was downhill, but it’s OK to wonder if he could’ve gotten even better) of his career, his primary rival was LeBron, he scored 61 in LA against Kobe and was the king of all that is swag in the NBA. And then all the weight of those self-created expectations collapsed inward and took him with it, robbing Gilbert of his all-important swag and once that was gone, it was time to move on (to China). It started with a torn meniscus and ended with a gun suspension. For a player of Gilbert’s showman caliber, it’s not that big of a surprise that things devolved the way they did. He could only be a comet; never meant for longevity, but given his upward trend and relative youth at the time of his meniscus injury (25), it’s appropriate to wonder where Arenas could’ve taken the Wizards or his own career. Could he have been a 30-point-per-night scorer? Would he have had an existence comparable to Dominique Wilkins? Or would he have gone the other route and provoked Javaris Crittendon into killing him?

Arenas Dreams:

  • Five more years of oodles of points, threes, clutch buckets and quotes that beg for attention. If he played 70+ games/season, it’s likely we’d just now be entering the downward arc of his career—he just turned 31 two days ago! Please consider this when you see the Wizards leaning so heavily on Jordan Crawford and Bradley Beal (nice shot last night, kiddo).
  • No bad meniscus means no John Wall means John Wall’s somewhere else.
  • Of the nightmarish variety; with the cast of characters this Wizards team employed, it’s not hard to imagine a prank gone terribly wrong and resulting in death or dismemberment.
  • The course of the Eastern Conference might not be altered with a healthy Arenas, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Greg Oden: It’s hard to dive as deeply into the pool of Oden’s potential and possibility as it is the rest of these players simply because he’s endured more physical challenges and his broken body of work as a professional is a fraction of theirs. I included him on this list because any discussion of injury-prone players of the past twenty years must include him. The ceiling was high: He played a total of 82 games in the two seasons he appeared in Blazer games and shot 57% from the field while averaging 15pts, 12rebs and 2 blocks per 36 minutes over that pain stained stretch. Assuming the worst, that we saw Oden peak as a 22-year-old (highly unlikely), if he can produce 15 and 12 and change games on the defensive side of the ball, he’s a more offensive version of Tyson Chandler. We all missed out on this career and it’s truly tragedy in the greater theater of basketball.

Oden Dreams:

  • I mentioned the Roy/Aldridge/Batum/Oden Blazers above; a lineup that would challenge any team in the Western Conference and would likely have ended a in similar situation to OKC in being forced to move one of their primary producers because the cost would’ve been too great.
  • The league would no longer have been dominated by a singular center and this would’ve been a good thing for Dwight for multiple reasons.
  • It’s easy to forget Oden is only 24-years-old. We’d just be entering the beginning of his prime. And at this point, I can’t help but drive down to the Columbia River which sits at the border of Washington and Oregon and toss a single rose into the rushing water and watch it sail away into the depths of the Pacific Ocean and take some kind of poetic comfort in its fleeting beauty.

Yao Ming: Yao’s tale is sadder than Oden’s, but less mysterious. He proved himself as a dominant post in the NBA with that massive backside and lower body and his elite skill around the rim. He had better touch than his peers and learned how to use his size as a great advantage. We knew what he was capable of; we just didn’t get the opportunity to see it all the way through. Over the course of his first five seasons, Yao improved statistically every season and then at age 25, his body (mostly his feet) began to break down. Those feet just weren’t made to support a frame that big running, jumping and pounding on a hardwood floor 35 minutes a night for hundreds of games and eventually the feet rebelled without mercy; the bones cracked and fractured and simply gave out. His last full season was 2008-09 when he averaged ~20, 10 and 2 blocks. This was casual for Yao, but only one player in the league has been able to equal this consistency since and that’s Howard.

Ming Dreams:

  • His last full season was 2008-09, so that’s three-plus years we’ve missed out on Yao delivering fits in the form of 30s and 10s to the rest of the Western Conference.
  • In this re-imagined West where bigs stalk the paint, demanding respect and instilling fear, the game is altered and while it’s still a guard’s league, the Lakers, Blazers and Rockets each has an oversized weapon with which to do battle.
  • If Yao’s healthy, Daryl Morey’s still going to be Daryl Morey which means he’s still going to make ballsy moves, moves that I can’t possibly predict, but it’s safe to say the Rockets would have a radically different roster today—no Jeremy Lin, James Harden or Royce White.
  • Thanks to the China voting bloc, Yao would’ve continued to represent the West in the All Star game; whether he earned it or not.

This entire post has been built in a combination of facts and speculation and assumptions on what could’ve been. There isn’t any extra effort here to apply advanced forecasting models to project what kind of numbers these players could’ve achieved or how many wins they could contribute over players who replaced them. I thought about including Jay Williams and a case can be made for Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, but I decided Williams’s career was too short and not as impressive as Oden’s, McGrady wasn’t racked/cursed in the fashion of the players above, Hill and Penny came too early and I just thought about Francis while I’ve been writing. Additionally, it’s a creepy coincidence how some of these guys have played together and single franchises and fan bases have lived through the agonies right alongside the players (condolences go to Houston, Orlando and Portland)—and often felt the pain even more deeply than the men sustaining these future-ravaging injuries.

Injuries always have and always will be a course-altering part of sports. It’s a death of sorts for all athletes and one of the greatest obstacles preventing athletes from realizing potential. I’m not making a case to the AMA or the league’s doctors and trainers to do a better job of injury prevention, but rather taking this long moment to acknowledge the unfair impacts injuries have on the league while considering how our world of basketball could’ve (plausibly) been a different place.

Original photo by Richard P. Fennimore

Original photo by Richard P. Fennimore

Legends, Myths and Man: James Harden

Not so long ago a little black boy showed up at a mountain temple somewhere in Europe or South America. At the gates of this immaculately hidden temple, a giant stood guard. He wore a long robe that had once been pristinely white, but over time became a slushy gray. On his feet, the brown giant wore a pair of Nike Force 180 Pumps, casually untied. The giant looked down at the little black boy with his zip-up hoodie and duffel bag whose brown eyes peered upward towards the giant’s gaze. Their eyes met and the little boy didn’t blink or swallow or reveal any indication of nervousness.

The giant’s mouth opened, it was big enough to swallow the boy whole, but instead of cannibalizing the kid, words rained down on the boy like an avalanche of sound: “What do you call yourself, boy?”

The boy puffed his chest out with pride: “James Edward Harden.”

“Why are you at my gate?”

The boy puffed his chest out even more and rocked onto the balls of his feet, stretching to his maximum possible height and he recited the words that had become a part of him: “I’m here to learn the great game at the feet of the world’s greatest teachers…the disciples and descendants of Wooden, Auerbach, Naismith, Russell, West, Irving. And with all humbleness in my being, I ask for your acceptance.”

The giant stared back and began questioning James Edward Harden with a rapid fire assault of questions: “Who invented the game? What’s a diamond press breaker? Who is Black Jesus? Describe John Wooden’s pyramid of success. How many squares make up Boston’s parquet floor? What’s your personal definition of leadership? How do you respond to adversity?” It was an intense interview for a man of knowledge, let alone a pre-teen like James. But Harden, being a well-studied prodigy rattled off staccato answers: “Naismith, Earl Monroe, 112…”

The big man revealed a faint smile stretched across his giant’s lips: “Yesss…” the boy looked up at him, “Yes…YES!” the giant shouted and began to exhale a great embracing laugh that shook his whole body and scared James Harden more than it reassured him. He felt the sonic vibrations in his bird chest, the ground rumbled, the birds cried, the trees shook and the temple opened up to him. The giant stepped aside and James Harden crossed the threshold.

James Harden may or may not have perfected his ball-handling by dribbling up and down these stairs while being pressed and trapped by multiple defenders.

Boys and men in sandals and high tops, jerseys and robes moved throughout the temple and its surrounding gardens, all moving quickly, but without hurrying. There was a palpable sense of purpose inside these gates and James wanted to be a part of it. He slowly became acclimated with his surroundings and the tears that silently streaked down his cheeks at nightfall during the first few weeks eventually dried up and pain was replaced with peace; dreams of gyms full of basketballs; bouncing, soaring, nets splashing and swishing, floating down lazy rivers in rafts made of basketballs, men with round Spalding faces, faces he would caress and men he could trust. He would wander the temple grounds, in his oversized robe, thin ankles and wrists poking out, revealing his youth. The clouds hung low, the air was cold, but his robe warmed his body, his immense black beard protected his boyish face. The first few months, he didn’t touch a single ball and only occasionally did he glimpse one. He didn’t step foot on a court or hear the sound of nets or rims snapping. He walked calmly, exploring himself and his surroundings while the black beard grew into his skinny, hairless chest. He took a special interest in rocks, pebbles, stones and would drag his long, thin fingertips across the cool surfaces feeling the texture: Earth-worn, wind-washed, rain-rinsed. James preferred the smooth stones instead of rough or abrasive ones, round edges to sharp jagged ones. Fingers on both hands would explore these, reaching into an ancient geology through touch and sense. In particular moments of focus, he let his eyes relax, let the eyelids droop and trace the history of existence through the curves and indentations of the rocks. At night, he clutched them closely like pets or parents and fell asleep patiently awaiting his turn.

By the time he was introduced to a basketball for the first time, his hands explored it delicately, feeling the worn dimples, the weathered leather and his favorite part of the ball: the smooth black rubber channels that any hand naturally seeks out, but which James had an elevated appreciation. His first teacher was a dark, thin man with great white teeth, a mustachioed man with thinning short hair who would spin and pirouette with the ball and obsessively pounded basketballs in a complex manner: through the legs, behind the back, inside out, right-to-left-to-right in motion with impeccably timed spins and herky jerky fakes. Young bearded James would mimic his teacher, pounding basketballs until his arms and hands were fatigued, sweat pooling in his nest-like beard, sweat dripping, hanging from the tip of his nose, exhales blowing sweat through the air while he ran or spun bouncing balls with both hands baseline to baseline. But this was just the first of many teachers.

The ball became an extension, a new, more versatile version of the stones. His innate sense of touch allowed him to freely use both hands with equal dexterity; a trait he assumed all humans had…like walking with both feet or breathing through both nostrils. Once he began working with the architects, older men of all colors, men with thick, out-of-style glasses, men with silver hair, men who drew diagrams and repeated myriad theories; he was quickly identified and drilled more intensely due to his ability to identify a defense and its weaknesses. His sense of attacking and passing and when the situation called for one instead of the other was uncanny and quietly, out of earshot of little James, the silver-haired and bald men who were too stoic to express themselves with excitement and pride would overflow in awe; each attempting to outdo the others in praising the young boy with the old man’s beard.

In the hands of these master builders; players, coaches, Woodenites and Auerbachers, Harden’s prodigious talents were sculpted and groomed (his game, not his beard which became something of a black hair-covered elephant in the room; a beard so massive it was tied up in rubber bands or a net and collected burrs, thorns and leaves like animal fur would). With a largely diverse collection of styles and his obvious athleticism, Harden quickly developed a hybrid style built on the foundations of American street ball, collegiate fundamentals, European improvisation and timing; a game not predicated on speed, but on timing, deception, acceleration and deceleration with broad strokes of the mysterious South American style so influenced by the beautiful game of football with its passing, cutting and interwoven pieces. His teachers were legends and scholars; wise in the language of basketball…a game in which he became fluent in all styles.

James Harden glided over every hurdle they put in front of him with ease and grace. And it was decided, with James’s reluctant, but eventual agreement, that in order for him to achieve his true potential, he would have to return to the land of his birth and reveal a new style, a new to way to play—and although he took great joy in basketball, James never considered a game, but rather an expression of art, of self, of unity. So it was he accepted his eventual departure. To say goodbye to his second family, his world of extremely tall and talented fathers, a family of brothers, older and younger, was difficult, but necessary. He shaved his beard, packed up his meager possessions—basketball shoes, shorts, sweatpants and sweatshirts and a few of his favorite rocks—and set out on a journey to California to a high school called Artesia…fitting since in ancient dialects it translates to “Many will enter these doors, but James will be chosen.”

There are no known photos or even artwork of James Harden’s time at the mysterious (mythical?) temple, but if you close your eyes at night, you can almost conjure up the image of the young James Harden resting with his lean back and narrow shoulders against the trunk of a giant tree, his eyes soft with meditation, a smooth stoned cradled caringly in young hands with dirty fingernails.

*(The rest of the James Harden story is well-known and has been thoroughly documented by many sources. A simple web-search for “James Harden bio” will reveal multiple results—most of which contain mostly factual information.)

**The history above is in no way meant to indicate that James Harden arrived at Artesia High School with all of his skills intact, as a fully-developed, NBA-ready guard, but rather that the foundation of his game was created in the aforementioned idyllic setting. Additionally, the nuance and details of his style reflects numerous coaches and former players. The degree to which his style is more reflective of one player than another is a point that continues to be debated even by the men who raised him.

Alternative Chapters: OJ Mayo

Once or twice before, I’ve mentioned my yet-to-be-published (or even started) Choose Your Own Adventure, NBA-style doorstop of a book based on trades or signings that didn’t quite happen (Chris Paul to Lakers is and will continue to be the Mount Everest of What-Ifs based on circumstance alone). Well, today is the first extension of that concept; what I’ll refer to as an Alternative Chapter. It’s nothing more than me channeling my imagination to come up with a (somewhat plausible) scenario for a team or player that strays away from reality. Today’s Alternative Chapter features the pride of Huntington, West Virginia, O.J. Mayo.

Mayo’s only in his fourth season in the NBA, but it feels like we’re all old friends because his name has been plastered across prep headlines since he was named to the all-state first-team in Kentucky … as an eighth grader.

At this point, I’ll stop and posit a theory about O.J. Mayo. Scouts, high school beat writers, opponents, fans and junkies (of the hoop variety) accelerated the Mayo hype-wagon in part (large, small, medium part?) because of his name. O.J. Mayo is not a name we easily forget. Oh-jay-may-oh (or you could say it like this). Say it enough and it will stick to your mind like bugs splattered across your windshield. Had he been named Jeff Ridges, the likelihood of his rapid rise through the prep rankings may have taken a longer, more traditional and healthy route. Instead, Mayo’s been ingrained in the basketball zeitgeist since 2002. Great exposure brings great expectations and that’s where the reality of Mayo has fallen short. This whole concept is applicable beyond the basketball court and should likely be addressed by Malcolm Gladwell if someone else hasn’t cracked the code already.

Onto the Alternative Chapter …

Every few weeks, O.J. Mayo’s name is mentioned in trade rumors … to the Bulls, to the Pacers, to the Nets. There’s the consoling, “Well someone wants me,” but after multiple failed trades, even a basketball vagabond like Mayo wonders, “Am I really wanted … by anyone?” These doubts are human (and potentially canine), but they make any of us feel unwanted and unloved. And since we the fans have been reading about the great O.J. Mayo for years already, maybe we’re tired of his undersized two-guardness, his catchy name, the constant trade rumors and the confusion of his game not living up to the hype (“I thought he was supposed to be better?”). Maybe we don’t want him either.

Fast forward to May 2012 when the sixth seed Grizzlies are bounced in game six against the Lakers in Memphis. After suffering a sprained ankle in game five, Tony Allen is forced to sit out the next game which means Mayo draws the start and gets the luxury of guarding Kobe Bryant. Between games five and six, reporters bait Mayo into a headline-making comment and he sadly takes the hook; cracking a joke about the time he “locked Kobe up” in a game of one-on-one. Not that Kobe needed more motivation for an elimination game, but he attacks Mayo inside and out, abusing the smaller guard without mercy. After Bryant scores 16 in the first quarter, Mayo’s confidence is shaken and it shows on offense where his performance brings up Starksian memories from the early 90s—just another small shooting guard lining up the sights for a soon-to-be-Hall of Famer. He shoots 1-14 from the field. His coach, Lionel Hollins ends his misery with two minutes left in the third quarter and benches Mayo in favor of the rangy Quincy Pondexter. Mayo exits to a cold chorus of boos from the hometown fans; his last time in a Grizzlies jersey.

The season over, a team option on his fifth year, Mayo gets out of Memphis as soon as he’s able. Bags packed, he ventures to the Caribbean for a couple weeks of quiet, uninterrupted reflection. His beard grows unkempt, his hair ‘fros out, unbrushed. Despite the images of a black Castaway, his mind is clear and upon return stateside, he meets with his agent Rob Pelinka. While the Grizzlies have rejected the team option, Pelinka excitedly rattles off teams that have contacted him regarding his client’s services. The refreshed Mayo cuts him off. He’s done, he says. Tired of the games and politics. Tired of the unfair expectations (“Don’t they know Kobe’s 6’7” … at least 6’7”!?!?”). He demands Pelinka look into Spanish opportunities (“I’ve already talked to Marc (Gasol) about it.”).

The first hint that Spain offered refuge

And that’s how O.J. Mayo came to join FCB Regal (aka, FC Barcelona) of the Spanish top division. He signed for one year to “get your confidence back” as Pelinka put it. Mayo didn’t disagree. He arrived in September and played for about a third of the money he would’ve made in the NBA. Sadly, Euro legend Pete Mickeal retired due to a degenerative knee condition, but close one man’s window and another man often hurls a basketball through it, then climbs in and that’s what Mayo did.

Like so many expats before him, Mayo was revived by a new culture and new people. The passion of the fans brought back nostalgia for the high school crowds he played to nearly a decade before and his game thrived. In his first season alone, Barcelona won the rare treble: the domestic Copa del Rey, the ACB Championship and the Euro League title. This wasn’t any indictment of the quality of Spanish league basketball; just the realization of O.J. Mayo’s potential.

The record books and tales of Mayo’s long stay in the Spanish league are much too long for the meager space allotted here. Just know that the acceptance and sense of inclusion that was so hard to come by in the Association was made readily available by his teammates and fans in Barcelona.

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