Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: Characters

The Timeless Legacy of Bison Dele

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.

Patrici Phillips2 .jpg

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.

The Odyssey of Terrence Williams

“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time” – Homer, the Odyssey

It only seemed appropriate that I should be traveling on foreign soil and wake up under a Mexican sun when I found out Terrence Williams was being invited back into the NBA; this time signing a 10-day contract with the Boston Celtics. This basketball-playing vagabond of sorts with hush hush off-court baggage and the on-court potential of an NBA all-star has been a ship without a port since departing Louisville back in 2009.

A quick review reminds us the Nets grabbed him in the 2009 lottery with the 11th overall pick followed by a demotion to their D-League affiliate where he casually averaged a triple double in three games. The Nets tired of his antics (publicly communicated that he missed practices, but if you’re willing to trade a lottery pick after less than two full seasons, there’s likely more tumult occurring beneath the surface) and shipped him southwest to Houston where he failed to establish himself, so they outright cut the problem child and in the process GM Darryl Morey essentially plagiarized Nets’ GM Billy King’s rationale for dumping the kid:

King in December of 2010: “He’s getting a clean slate in Houston, a new start. He was not going to be a good fit for the future here. The opportunities are better for him in Houston.”

Morey in March of 2012: “We’ve got a very strong wing rotation…and we wanted to give Terrence an opportunity to play somewhere in a contract year.”

Aw, the GMs of this league are a caring bunch, so eager to provide kids with opportunities on the rosters of their opponents. I don’t mind calling bullshit on these quotes and acknowledging that while yes the opportunities are better elsewhere, the real reason is that anything that was going on off the court outweighed the few positives Williams delivered on the court. The coaches and front office in New Jersey were a little more honest in their dealings with the media whereas Houston didn’t even bother.

Like so many Americans before him, it was a westward journey for Williams and he landed in Sacramento last season where he appeared to thrive on the court, but again couldn’t establish himself enough to be offered a contract this past summer. Most official reports out of Sacramento were positive; they appreciated what Williams did in his limited tryout, but when it came time to make a long-term decision on the 6’6”, 220lbs combo guard/forward, they were simply unwilling to commit. Next on the Official Terrence Williams Pro Basketball Tour was an invite to the Pistons training camp. This time around, Williams couldn’t even find a spot on the roster and instead found himself homeless (n the basketball sense) and contract-less to start the season so he did what many before him have done and took his talents to China where he signed on with the Guangdong South Tigers where he played on his first winning team since his Louisville days and helped lead the Tigers to a league-best 27-4 record. 

What a long strange trip it's been

What a long strange trip it’s been

I don’t claim to have the keenest, most well-developed scout’s eye, but I swear talent isn’t the problem with T-Will. And the fact he’s been able to consistently find work despite his miserable shooting and the whispers about his off-court unprofessionalism lead me to believe NBA front offices and scouts see something similar. Fellow Seattleite and Celtic Jason Terry articulates what a lot of fans and scouts see in Williams:

“Playing with him in the summer, playing against him, just seeing him and seeing his work ethic, I know he’s a tremendous talent … A freakish athlete, can handle the ball, and he’s a physical guard. I just can’t wait to see him get an opportunity.”

There it is again; this word “opportunity” follows Williams around like a sad little puppy, or more likely it’s Williams who’s crisscrossing the globe in search of opportunity. His ex-GMs use it as an excuse to dump him (“You’ll be happier without us…”) and his new teammates use it to tout him. Meanwhile, Terrence travels in pursuit of it and along the way encounters unseen sagas and imaginary enemies.

Beyond my wholly fallible eye-assessment, why do I keep getting sucked into this nebulous web of Terrence Williams? I took a look at the scattered sample size that makes up his career and was crestfallen to see how bad things have been. In questing for statistical redemption, I came up mostly (and sadly) empty-handed. I’ve searched the stats of 129 career games that include nothing more than a handful of games where he’s appeared in more than 35 minutes and see he has a total of nine career starts, he’s an above average rebounder for his size and positions, and has a fairly robust usage rate relative to the amount of action he’s seen. His shooting can generously be described as putrid and you can apply that description to nearly any spot on the floor. Unless he’s dunking, he doesn’t have a “sweet spot.” Interestingly enough, a little sliver of light shines through in increased playing time. For Terrence, his efficiency improves as he sees more on-court minutes:

Min Total Min FG%
0-19

665

35.0%

20-39

1846

41.3%

 

Not only do his ratios improve when he sees more floor time, but his per-36 numbers improve almost across the board with the exception of steals and blocks:

t-will per36

 

Williams appears to get better as he gets more opportunity and in-game rhythm. I think a lot of us can relate to this in that the more we do something, the better we are at that task which of course doesn’t make it acceptable to shoot 35% from the field, but at least provides some possible color around his deficiencies. If it feels like I’m grasping at straws of efficiency, then maybe it’s because I am. But this is part of what I wanted to discover in this investigation: Why am I fascinated with Terrence Williams? I can tell you the fascination began back at Louisville when I first witnessed his awesome athleticism, his versatility, his above average court vision and who’s not excited about a 6’6” playmaker?

Sadly though, the numbers hardly validate my fascination in the same way occasional on-screen Hollywood plots put countless obstacles in between two characters that are madly in love with each other despite the obvious hurdles and incompatibilities. Sometimes we just can’t let go even when all the evidence suggests, no, demands we should. To follow and support T-Will is to bet your whole hand on a Joker wilder than JaVale McGee. There’s a reason T-Will’s being offered 10-day contracts while Joel Anthony flaunts his championship ring and it has little to do with actual ability—which isn’t a knock on Anthony. To bet on Terrence, to write this story on vacation with skin burning under the high Cabo sun is to invest in the hope that people can change.

The data above tells me there could be a formulaic element to Williams’s success and it includes steady minutes (20-30/night) on a team where his role is clearly defined; a team that takes advantage of his ball handling and playmaking while encouraging him to scale back his three-point attempts. We’ve never seen Williams on a winning team in the NBA so it’s difficult to assume how he’ll perform with a veteran Celtics squad, but if his previous roles in winning situations are an indicator (at Louisville and Guangdong), he’ll hopefully be able to blend his strengths (rebounding, ball handling, defense) into the existing structure in a supporting role. And this would merely cover the on-court piece of the equation and it appears the off-court stuff has often been a challenging aspect for Williams.

Having undergone a series of changes in my own life since crossing the age-30 threshold, I can only hope that young Terrence (he’s still only 25) can discover his own path towards NBA success; which for him should simply be stability. And if not, perhaps he’ll just become the greatest D-League player of all time.

*I wanted to add a note here that I was and still am unable to resolve about Williams. As an outsider, the only off-court transgressions I have access to are those reported by teams to the media. In Williams’s case, that means a couple run-ins with Avery Johnson during his time in New Jersey and public comments by Williams regarding playing time in Houston. There weren’t any notable issues in Houston or Sacramento, but off-court issues in Sacramento have been alluded to and it’s unlikely the Rockets would outright cut the kid just to give him more opportunity to play in a contract year. I acknowledge that I don’t recall how far out last year’s trade deadline was extended, but it seems the Rockets would’ve at least tried to get something for him in a trade. And lastly, yes his stats leave something to be desired, but there’s something odd about a 25-year-old kid with his unique set of skills who is unable to latch on in the league. It’d be a lot more understandable if there were more published instances of him having run-ins with coaches or getting into trouble with the law, but there are just a handful of documented issues so I/we are forced to speculate on how/why this kid has struggled to latch on somewhere. I tend to believe there’s more going on off-the-court as opposed to teams avoiding him due to his poor shooting.

Jarrett Jack: Author of Indispensability

It wasn’t always about Jarrett Jack, but for now at least it will be about him; this burly, hard-headed (in appearance) man with his brick wall frame, compact like a boxer’s, eyes locked in what appears to be a perpetual squint—in anger or humor—eyes given by mom or dad, eyes passed through the gene pool generations ago perhaps, a head that looks almost too big for its body; always cleanly shaven as if he calmly stands in front of the mirror before games and at halftime, straight razor in-hand, head covered with thick white shaving cream, slicing the hairs away from that immense rock-like brown dome with the same precision he’d cut open an adversary’s throat; a face and appearance (particularly in scowl mode) that draws comparisons to emcee Sticky Fingaz and could land him a spot in the aforementioned’s aggression-fueled hip hop group from the 90s, Onyx, with their furious black baldness, black hoodies, black pants, black boots. This is about Jack, who’s traveled the jet streams of the NBA; from and to teams I couldn’t even recall off the top of my head (completely blanked out on the long lost Pacers days). A journey begun back at Georgia Tech with BJ Elder and Paul Hewitt and moved on to Portland and Indiana and Toronto and New Orleans and now Oakland. Always steady, but never anyone’s first choice. Passed over in favor of Jose Calderon, traded for Jerryd Bayless not once, but twice, a multi-time trade casualty …

Typically in the background

Typically in the background

When I see Jack in 2012 playing with Steph Curry (as a replacement of sorts for Monta Ellis) I see indispensability and luxury. In terms of pure ability, it doesn’t matter how he compares to Monta, but in terms of the Golden State Warriors, he’s a flawless fit, pragmatic and versatile, complementary and embraceable. He’s glue, Velcro, a viscous player that appears in 83 games in an 82-game season, oblivious to any limitations. He’s the kind of dude every team needs even though they’re quick to send him on his way. Call him a liberator in that he can relieve Curry of his playmaking duties.

2012 isn’t the Year of Jarrett Jack, it’s just another in a career of underappreciated years. What’s so profound about Jack is that there’s nothing profound about him. He does what he’s called on to do and in a league of specialists and superstars, he’s easily taken for granted—just like the PJ Browns and James Poseys of the world. I’ve been thinking about this all season and now I’m expressing it in full, or maybe just in part because I’m fairly certain Jack will provide plenty more reasons to write and think and consider his uniquely simple place as a backup guard in a league gone mad with awards, titles (of the individual variety) and over-analysis.

(and no, this hasn’t turned into a Golden State Warriors fan blog)

Conquistadors in California, alternately: Channeling Emotion into Effectiveness: A Contrast of Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins

Two of the league’s youngest, shiniest, brightest and most volatile stars are residing in the same Sunshine State and we all get the luxury of watching these mountains of agility, power and skill square off four times this season. I’m not talking about Dwight Howard (not that bright), Pau Gasol (not that young), Andrew Bogut (not that volatile) or DeAndre Jordan (just not enough). Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins are captivating for what they’ve done in two short years and maybe even more for what they haven’t done; which is reach their stratospheric potentials.

Last night, Monday night, these two giants competed; not against each other, but for my attention. Big Cuz did his thing in Sacramento and went bananas during a third quarter stretch where he seemed to galvanize himself, his team and fans. His emotion rises in pitches and can be tracked by events: A blocked shot on the defensive end leads to Cousins making a face, a scowl that takes place while the 22-year-old barrels down the court, sprinting to get to the offensive end where his excitement almost results in turnovers, but instead it’s a hustle play, a jumper that extends the Kings’ lead and it’s followed by more sprinting and obvious satisfaction. There are sequences like this throughout the game: Cousins makes a layup, gets a steal on the other end and never missing a play, he gets a dunk going back the other way. He’s uplifted, raised to the rafters by a combination of his own energy (barely harnessed) and the sounds of the crowd urging him on, lifting him higher.

Down I-5 in Los Angeles, I focused of my attention on the Cavs-Clips game, Chris Paul vs. Kyrie Irving; which somehow turned into the Dion Waiters show. Point guard and ball handling clinics aside, I kept an eye on Blake Griffin; one of the league’s most recent poster boys. His face is more recognizable than Arian Foster’s, maybe better known than Mitt Romney among the 25-and-under set. And tonight he’s just OK. He catches lobs from CP3 that have a similar impact on the crowd as Cousins’ antics. The big difference is where Cousins wears his heart on his sleeve, unable to contain even the faintest emotion; wearing the worst poker face in the NBA, Blake is cool, expectant, nonchalant. In a deadpan tone, “I ferociously dunked on that man’s face, put him on a poster, got seven million views on YouTube, so what? It’s what I do.” And the crowd reveres him for it—it’s LA, it’s Hollywood, it’s cold, emotionless, unfeeling, sunglasses at midnight—swaggalicious! But it’s not enough tonight, the 20 points, the dunks, the improved post game, the passes, the increased defensive activity; it’s not enough and he ends the game with the poorest plus/minus of any Clippers player. The stat’s not all-indicative or all-encompassing, but it does tell us that the Clips were outscored when Blake was on the court tonight. The above isn’t to say that Griffin is emotionless. Rather, his furies are selective; taken out on rims and refs. A man can’t dunk with the aggression of Griffin without having something built up, pent up, bottled up…waiting to explode.

Griffin’s an embraceable face, a marketable style, a chiseled athlete that Subway and Kia throw wads of cash at in attempts to lure him into promoting their products. He’s rugged and competitive; he’s the perfect athlete to place on a pedestal. But DeMarcus? Last season he demanded a trade and (in a roundabout way) got his coach fired. To casual fans, he’s known as much for his outbursts and tantrums as he is for his dominant play and potential. To the unknowing, he’s the enfant terrible. How much of is this fueled by anger compared to immature indiscretion is impossible to know, but it’s fair to assume both parts sources drive Cousins’ madness.

And of course these two young innocents have exchanged words and occasional elbows on the court. After a physical game last season, Cousins called Griffin an “actor” and said the NBA “babies” him. Griffin responded with some jokes and questioned Cousins’ reputation. It was a nice tit for tat that can link players together through the media while driving them apart as people and potential teammates (all-star games, Olympics).

Despite Griffin developing somewhat of a reputation as being one of the league’s golden children (especially from a marketing and advertising perspective), he’s simultaneously becoming known for his flopping and posturing. He’s prone to the extended stare after a big play, the glare after a hard foul; he can be seen as a tough guy who doesn’t back it up. If you’re a Clippers or Griffin fan, you see him getting under the skin of his opponents, helping his team win while maintaining his cool. His cool is part of his being, part of his on-court persona and skill set. Given his effort and physicality, it’s hard to make a case that his cool results in any on-court detachment. This is where the primary break with DeMarcus occurs. Where Griffin’s immaturity and petulance are merely annoying for fans and opponents, Demarcus’s antics and eruptions are distracting for him and his teammates. He’s battling the refs, battling opponents, battling coaches and worst of all, fighting himself.

At risk of delving into a wormhole of sociological speculation, I’ll only briefly touch on the drastic life differences these two young men endured growing up. Griffin was raised in a two-parent home in Oklahoma; one where he was homeschooled until eighth grade and played for his father in high school. Alternately, Cousins grew up in a single-family household, attended multiple high schools in Alabama and steadfastly refused to take any responsibility for his behavior. A fully fleshed-out essay could easily be built around the differences in their childhoods and the challenges they face today as a result, but other than this brief review, I’d rather stick to the men we’re dealing with today, not yesterday.

Literally speaking of yesterday, I watched Griffin and questioned whether or not he’d actually developed over his first couple seasons. While Cousins’ statistical arrow is pointed straight up, Griffin’s stats have been slightly, but steadily, dipping down. Looking at it from a purely statistical standpoint or even watching the games, you can see Griffin’s impact isn’t what it was when he was a rookie. Meanwhile, Cousins has become the heart, soul, tears and pulse of this Kings team. Instead of looking at this as Griffin already reaching his ceiling, it’s not as simple as that. Both players are filling a void on their respective teams. In Los Angeles, Chris Paul has revised the climate from the Blake Show to a CP3-led, guard-initiated attack. It begins and ends with Paul; an on-the-court general; one of the league’s most intense competitors who’s willing do whatever (ask Julius Hodge) it takes to win. The team (Blake included) has followed his lead. Griffin’s learned to play off of his PG, drifting towards the basket on CP’s defense-collapsing drives, hitting the offensive boards on CP misses or kick out misses, he takes advantage of slower fours by hitting what’s become an improved mid-range jumper. In Sacramento, as Tyreke Evans has either plateaued or regressed, Cousins has taken on the role of catalyst. When Paul Westphal was fired last season, it was evident there was a Westphal-Cousins conflict and new coach Keith Smart was wise to tap into the mercurial big man’s psyche and give him the confidence and latitude to succeed—which he clearly did last year: 4th overall in rebounds/game, only center to finish in the top-20 in steals/game, 3rd in TRB%, led all centers in usage rate. Cousins arrived with heavy footsteps and swinging limbs, announcing his arrival to anyone in earshot or sight.

None of this is to say one player is better than the other, but rather each player’s giving his team exactly what they need. CP3 might be the Clips’ version of Jean-Luc Picard, but Blake is the swag, the electricity, the vitality. And Cousins fulfills both of those roles in Sacramento…because that’s what he has to be for them to have any chance of success. These kids leave everything on the court every time they play. They play, they care, they’re upsettable, excitable, irritable, irrationally talented. And for all their differences (vertical vs. horizontal, NoCal vs. SoCal, one-parent vs. two-parent, stability vs. volatility), they have just as much in common, although both would probably puke if they had to admit it.

Tale of the Tape

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