*Note: I first started writing this story back in November of 2012. It’s a long, fictional speculation/assumption of how/why certain players have been able to maintain high performance for so long.
It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere and Kobe Bryant’s daydreaming of endless beaches, Newport sunshine, half naked women and anonymity. His fantasy is interrupted…
“Kobe, Kobe, you ready?”
He locks eyes with Tim Duncan, wearing a massive down-insulated, weather-resistant coat. The hood is up and Duncan’s sad eyes and gentle oblong face look out at Kobe. Kobe nods and the two men set off in the frigid morning. The third member of their party is a couple hundred feet ahead, his movements natural, innate. There’s no second guessing, no doubting. Just trust. From behind, Duncan and Bryant see the outline of his body, his dark coat and pack an easy beacon to follow in the white washed morning of snow and clouds and crystalline air.
Tim stays about fifteen feet behind Kobe. He’s aware of the contrasts between himself and Bryant; he’s always been aware, but at the moment he’s questioning this trek, this climb in sub-zero temperatures while his family’s no doubt kicking back in St. Croix. Robotically following Kobe’s path, he can hear his wife’s voice, tender in his mind, tender in reality: “This is the last time, Tim. I know you’d rather stay here with me and sleep in and swim and be lazy, but think about how much fun you’ve had these past couple years. We’ll be here for you…”
His breath visible, Duncan mutters “God damn this mountain…”
The climb is steady, not too treacherous. This is the third time these men have made the summer climb and each time they’ve returned better, rejuvenated, younger. Their limbs more pliable, their joints loosened, their cores stronger, their minds sharper.
At night they cook together and Kobe usually retires after brief conversation, leaving Tim and Manu to their never ending talks over thermoses of hot yerba mate; a drink Tim grew to love on their first climb, a drink Kobe’s referred to as some “hot bullshit.” Manu and Tim rarely talk about Bryant. He’s not mysterious; he’s not fun or funny. The only thing about Kobe that actually interests the two friends is his unquenchable drive, his homicidal motivation. There was a time on their previous trip when the topic of homicide actually came up. Was Kobe’s drive that intense, manic enough to kill one or both of them? They shook it off, tried to laugh at their own paranoia, rationalize that he was a prick, but had some twisted sense of honor, but the seed of fear had been verbalized, the doorway to possibility slightly ajar; just enough for Duncan and Ginobili to have a shred of doubt, of anxiety lurking in their thoughts.
While Manu and Tim fill cold night time silence, Kobe reclines in his state-of-the-art tent; a tent equal parts efficient and extravagant. He sits quietly focused on the music driving through his purple and gold Dre Beats headphones: The Doors’ Riders on the Storm. He methodically sharpens a dagger embossed with his strange KB24 logo replete with a slithering black mamba and the Latin phrase Carpe Diem…all the while the electric piano of Ray Manzarek’s music intertwining with the sounds of a storm warmly coming together with Kobe’s thoughts…
In terms of technical difficulty, the climb isn’t the most challenging. The weather is treacherous at times, but it’s more of inconvenience for Tim and Kobe who prefer the warmth; albeit for different reasons. For Manu, it’s vacation. There are times during the grind of the NBA season or the Olympics or the World Championships when he wants nothing more than to let all the air out of the basketball, rip up the floorboards of the court, pile the varnished wood at center court, douse the whole thing with lighter fluid, flick a match on the pile and walk into the anonymous embrace of nature. The mountain air has always cleared his lungs and thoughts, unshackled his body and allowed him to love in a way that’s different from basketball with its rules and egos, social implications and responsibilities.
Tim would often ask him why he bothered; why not retire and move to Patagonia? Manu would laugh and respond in his heavily accented English that Tim was accustomed to hearing…he’d respond with genuine feeling, poetic descriptions of teamwork, athleticism as self-expression, basketball as a union of the creative spirit and physical wonderment; explaining how precious it was to be blessed with the physical abilities and size they had, how, despite the drawbacks, it wasn’t a gift to be ignored, how men and boys around the world would kill (“I mean it Timmy, they would kill to have what we have”) for this blessing. Tim would smile and nod, sipping his warm mate. It made him feel good to hear Manu describe his feelings with that honesty. He felt lucky for sure, but so much of that luck he felt had to do with his good fortune of being surrounded by people: Manu, Pop, his wife Amy, teammates he loved; all possible because of basketball, because of a game.
In the clear night sky, up so high that Tim felt he could reach out and brush the firmament with his outstretched fingers, Manu would continue to talk: I read a book by a great Chilean writer, I only wish he was Argentine. Roberto Bolaño, you’ve heard of him? Tim nodded. He died far too young, but he wrote this mountain of a novel, 2666 and when I’m out here in the night, so close to heaven, I often think about a few lines from that book, a few lines I memorized because I love the concept. Would you like to hear? Tim nodded again, ‘If it were possible to convey what one feels when night falls and the stars come out and one is alone in the vastness, and life’s truths (night truths) begin to march past one by one…’ And of course he goes on, because the book is like a thousand pages long, but when I’m up here with the stars, I think about those truths…night truths. Tim nodded.
The last day of the mountain leg of the journey was a steady decline, mostly slow and easy, but occasionally declining steeply. Like the previous two times they’d done the climb, Manu went well ahead of Tim and Kobe. Both would look on in the morning as the Argentine bounded downward like a Mountain Goat version of himself; his feet barely touching the surface except to push off or propel himself in a different direction. He climbed the way he played ball: Naturally unpredictable, unorthodox. Kobe privately thought to himself that what he was seeing wasn’t human, but some kind of mystic oneness.
Tim and Kobe enjoyed the final climb. Both were out of their element up in the clouds and snow and the narrow strip of the green valley below was a finish line of sorts; at least the end of this strenuous portion of the trek.
As they scaled downward, the two men joked and laughed easily the way people do when they complete something which they’ve been dreading. Anxieties lifted, the conversation was light…future, how many more years would they play, what happens after basketball, cheap shots at Shaq from Kobe which Tim laughed at—mostly out of politeness. At a particularly tricky spot, Kobe lost his footing and fell. There was a deep drop off into a bottomless crevasse littered with frozen skeletons dressed in oversized climbing gear, but Tim and Kobe couldn’t see that far into nothingness and now Kobe hung onto the rim of the crevasse, his gloved fingers dug in tightly. Duncan reacted without thought; diving and wrapping his massive hands around Kobe’s wrists. “I gotcha I gotcha” he said, breathing heavily, his long, lean body stretched out like a giant eel with limbs. Kobe’s face, inches from Duncan’s, didn’t relax, there was no smile or relief to match Duncan’s. “Let go.”
Duncan’s smile turned into confusion, misunderstanding. He held on tighter. Holding eye contact, intensity rising, Kobe repeated: “Let. Go.”
“No. I got you; pull yourself up.”
“I got it. Let go.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot man. You got nothing to prove.”
“I don’t need your fucking help.”
“I don’t care. I’m not letting go.”
It was a stalemate that lasted less than thirty seconds. Manu’s shadow fell over the two tall men followed by his strong grip pulling up a protesting Kobe and hauling him to safety with Tim’s help.
Manu made eye contact with Duncan and picked up on Kobe’s growing aloofness. No one said anything and the descent continued with Manu in the lead at a much slower pace than he preferred, then Tim in the middle and Kobe in back.
The temperature warmed as they reached the base of the mountain, but Kobe stayed icy with ease. They passed through a village filled with little normal sized people with dark skin who paid them no mind despite their comical heights and various ethnicities. No one gave a damn; life was hard enough without human spectacles.
Manu and Tim settled into lazy conversation as their feet propelled forward along the familiar path. There were no attempts to reach out and bring Kobe into the conversational fold because he inserted himself on his own terms and his present terms were separate, but still moving forward. The cold they’d been subjected to up on high had changed into a much more agreeable, almost balmy air where the three men, all weighed down with heavy packs, sweated without exerting much effort.
The schedule called for an early night camp, then the last day of hiking and arrival at their final destination the following afternoon, but when they came to the clearing where they’d camped on previous journeys, Tim and Manu happily slowed and dropped their packs. Kobe looked at them, continued to walk and said he was hiking straight through. Manu and Tim looked at each other. Kobe disappeared from view.
It was as it had to be; a break, a fracture, a fissure. It wasn’t anger or abandonment that the two men felt; maybe, at its worst, there was a twinge of disappointment, but no one can really say. Kobe hiked alone through the darkness of night; his path illuminated by the crescent moon and his obnoxiously unnaturally bright headlamp. Animals and creatures of the night saw the light bobbing from miles away and recoiled in apocalyptic fear. To them, the light was so out of place as to instill feelings of supernatural dread, but it was just Kobe Bean Bryant winding through the night in solitude, stalking the trail, focused, driven by a compulsion he struggled to identify. Accept? Yes, that had happened so long ago that it became part of him, something to use for his benefit, a way to stand out and separate, but now it had occasion to feel heavy, lonely. He continued on until daybreak; silently, fearless, sad, but without self-pity.
As dawn broke, Kobe could see the silhouette of the pagoda rising through the morning mist. The air was fresh, cool; he wore a thick, fitted sweater over a KB24 Dri-Fit shirt. The morning air chilled any sadness nightfall had brought on and he felt better as the pagoda came into full view. An outdoor porch wrapped around the pagoda and there he saw a large man sitting in a large chair. As he neared, the man rose…and rose. He was tall, lean, wearing unnecessary sunglasses in the gray morning. His skin was brown, but lighter than Kobe’s. His hair was black and not cropped as close as Kobe’s. It was thinning in front. He wore a thick black beard and a thinner moustache. Even by Kobe’s standards, he was a tall man. He smiled without showing his teeth. Kobe returned the gesture, but revealed his teeth. He was happy to see the man.
“Kareem!” he shouted as he neared.
“Mr. Bryant! You’re early.”
“Yep, powered through the night. How you doing?”
The men shared a sturdy handshake and hug.
“Good, good” Kareem responded nodding. He knew better than to inquire about Tim and Manu. He knew they’d be there on time. “If you hiked all night, you must be tired.”
“You know that.”
“Why don’t you head inside. Habiba and Cheryl are there. They’ll get you fed and get you set up in your room. I’ll be out here or in my study if you get restless…which I know happens from time to time.”
Kobe nodded, still smiling. There was a reverence both men were aware of, but didn’t need to speak about. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man of accomplishment whose life had spanned several decades and personalities, it was something he was used to. But for Kobe, a man who struggled to defer to even his father, it was something altogether different. And again, both men were aware of this and Kareem gave Kobe a wide berth to explore his own self and reactions in this regard. By now, after the previous two visits, they had realized their compatibility and friendship and settling in was relaxing despite the fact that they hadn’t seen each other in several years.
Kobe was hungry and tired and took Kareem up on his suggestion. He greeted his wives with warmth and ate their food and settled into the comfortable bed they provided and slept long and deep as he had always been a man who could appreciate and take advantage of the comforts the world bestowed upon him. Although he didn’t remember his dreams, he dreamt deeply and widely of conquest, victory and acceptance. He dreamt of being held and loved. The arms that held him were strong, but caring. They were his own arms and his hands rested on his chest and his abdomen. He could feel his heart beating strongly and his stomach rising so slowly, filling with oxygen. He was alive and accepted himself…but this was just a dream and he didn’t remember any of it when he woke up several hours later to the sounds of Manu’s accent and Tim’s heavy feet arriving and being greeted by Kareem and his wives.
Kobe didn’t care about missing out on talking and catching up, but now that he was awake, he got up and joined the rest of the house for what smelled like dinner. He didn’t have a clue what time it was and found the low key reunion at the huge bamboo table Kareem had built himself. The table was covered in pasta dishes; Kareem always espoused the benefits of carbs, red sauces, oil-based sauces, fresh vegetables, sautéed vegetables. Kobe thought it looked like they robbed a Whole Foods, but kept his thoughts to himself. The talk was expectedly strange given Kareem’s transcendence of time. That didn’t stop Manu and Tim from updating him on LA’s (and Kobe’s by extension) ability to get one of the top point guards and the top center in the game. Kareem enjoyed the laugh at Kobe’s expense. He laughed about Dwight Howard—who he’d never met—and Steve Nash—who he had met and said it sounded like something Auerbach would’ve pulled off. I know the game’s changed, he said, but it sounds like things are still the same. The rich get richer. And then he asked Tim and Manu what or who the Spurs had added and it was Kobe’s turn to get a laugh at their expense, comparing the Spurs to the old folks who’ve been driving the same Buick for 30+ years. Yes, it’s in immaculate condition and still runs great, but it’s old and filled with that old folks’ smell…that smell of pending death.
It was a holistic, healthy trip, but after a long journey, the men were happy to share the wine and fresh food Kareem provided. And it didn’t take long for the meal and the laughs to segue into Kareem pulling out a hookah filled with homegrown herb and mixed with shisha. Kobe and Manu passed on the weed as they always had, but Tim joined Kareem and the women and smoked himself straight from the table to a healthy helping of bean pie, through halls of laughter and relaxation, directly into bed.
It was late and the bed felt good; long, made for a man his size, but Kareem had always been able to relate to him on that level. He was tall and had been tall when it was less accepted. And he’d been black at a time when it was less accepted and he’d written extensively about that blackness and that period in his life. Tim had read the books, Giant Steps first and then Kareem, and felt a kinship with this man who had been through so much and was so misunderstood. To be misunderstood was to be Tim Duncan. So he snuggled up tightly to the blankets and pillows, alone in the quiet with his thoughts, free from the whipping winds and howls of the lonely night under the stars and a million miles from Manu’s “night truths.” He thought about home and basketball and legacy. Touches of paranoia and cyclical thoughts raced through his head competing with his need for sleep. He questioned himself, his accomplishments and how they stacked up against Kareem’s or Lew’s or whoever he was, however old he was. Without knowing it, he was exhausting himself with his own thoughts and as he dozed off, he thought: I love Kareem, but I could’ve taken him. Sleep took him instead and he snored so loud that the ground trembled, monkeys screamed, leaves fell from trees.
Kobe was right behind him. Even with a day spent in bed, he was worn out mentally and physically and wanted to feel good for tomorrow when they’d re-engage with their training. So that left Manu with Kareem. The women had disappeared and Manu didn’t have any recollection of them getting up from the table. It wasn’t that he was that drunk, but rather that their departure occurred so naturally like everything else here. So he sat at the table with Kareem who took a couple more hits off the hookah. The sound of the water bubbling through the pipe and Kareem’s deep inhales and exhales filled the dining room and he suggested they go out on the porch where the weather beckoned.
Outside they looked on the same stars he had seen with Tim nights before. I would’ve liked to play with you, Manu. Even though I’ve never seen your game or style, I know what’s what. Manu replied with a soft “Gracias, Kareem. It saddens me that I’ve seen you play, I’ve read your books and met you out there, in time, but here you are in a place where you don’t play anymore, you don’t get to see the world unfold the way I can.” It saddens me too, Manu.
The morning began early with a full breakfast, always breakfast. This was followed by a long walk, followed by breathing exercises and around mid-morning the four men would be in the stretches of an intensive yoga session. The first session wasn’t much different from the beginning of a training camp: The three men were world-class athletes, but the physical maintenance they performed during the regular season didn’t compare with the demands a rigorous yoga routine put on muscle elasticity and pliability. And the breathing was essential. Kareem would drill it home, repeating tenets and techniques over and over. His words were inhaled by eager ears, thirsty for knowledge revealed through his secret teaching; this mystique that allowed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to actually exist as a 30-year-old man when he had actually lived 65 years.
Yoga was followed by a hike into the lush low hills rolling out behind the pagoda. The hike was a mix of light jogging and brisk walking on a dirt path that rose and fell with the earth’s contours. Heart rates and pulses quickened as they neared their destination. The trail pitched and rolled for eight miles with Kareem leading the way with his long, light strides deftly maneuvering the trail. Kobe competitively kept close behind with his eyes fixed on the delicacy of Kareem’s well-placed steps. The four men were encapsulated within the nature of the trail. Living organisms swarmed about their hike in various degrees of existence, each of the men calmly inhaled the rich air as Kareem had taught them to do. Manu and Tim would smile at each other in complete concert with one another, knowing and appreciating and respecting the life-giving power of the air they soared through.
At about seven miles, Kareem broke off onto a barely visible narrow path, barely wide enough for a single foot, let alone two larger-than-average sized feet. The forested canopy encroached closer, skimming the top of Kareem’s afro which shook branches and leaves and alarmed the residents of these trees who screeched and scurried in response. The column of giants grew closer, their strides tightening up to a single cadence until hidden twists and turns led to a naturally concealed manmade fountain. The stones of which were overgrown with thick moss and leafy tangled vines.
The men stopped and panted, heavy with breath and sweat. Kareem turned and smiled, Here we are, my friends. Here to quench the thirst brought on by vigorous journey. Here to drink from the life that the earth provides. Here to give thanks to the abundant blessings of our fathers and mothers. And here to replenish that which time takes from us.
Kobe gave thanks and nodded to each of the men, then cupped his hands and drank deeply from the icy water.
Manu smiled broadly and nodded around to the men saying, “Thank you, Kareem” and proceed to dunk his balding head and bearded face into the chilling fountain. His enthusiasm drew laughs and smiles from his compatriots.
Not to be outdone, Tim looked at Manu who shook the water from his head like a soaking dog, planted his hands on the ledge of the fountain and lifted his fully clothed body into the fountain with water splashing out. Kobe shook his head in joking reproach while Tim allowed himself to sink into the pool until just his mouth, nose, eyes and head were above the surface and let the pristine liquid roll into his mouth. As Tim soaked, Kareem revealed his statesmanlike maturity and took small sips from his giant cupped hands.
This was the purpose of the trek. The weeks of climbing, the bonding, the hikes through the waist-deep snow, the beards, the struggle, the fresh air, weeks away from home and away from loved ones. It was for this moment of replenishing drink which soaked into the human beings who demanded and received every iota of their physical potentials and then some.
An extended stretch with discussions around basketball history preceded the hike home. The discussion was fascinating in that the men present had each achieved all that could be achieved in the sport, from troves of individual accolades to team honors that stretched across every decade from the 1950s on. And yet, and yet elements of competitiveness still came to the fore. Even in the embrace of nature and friendship, Kobe made outlandish claims and excuses for only having won five rings. In his mind, there should’ve been more: ‘2004, 2009, 2011.’ He swore his longevity was unmatched and would continue to do so. He claimed Michael Jordan’s break for baseball was the only thing that allowed to him three-peat a second time and that playing through those two seasons, which he should’ve done, would’ve ended the run and changed perceptions about him. Kareem countered that Jordan had never made the trek to the mountains, that Jordan’s longevity, whether furthered by baseball or not, was unhealthy and bordered on maniacal, but that there was still an element to it that was preferable for combat; which the NBA was at its core. Kareem talked about the time he’d spent in the mountains, at the pagoda with John Stockton, Karl Malone, Robert Parish, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton, John Wooden. He described Wooden as a scrappy, fiery hiker who, even in the 1970s could blaze across the mountains and trails while Kareem and Walton struggled to find air for their lungs and strength for their burning quads. John Wooden, he said, had actually lived 147 years. No one knew what to believe and Kobe simultaneously shuddered and relished the idea of living a life so long.
They drank again and then returned to the pagoda.
The routine was repeated every day for the next two weeks. The long days gave way to relaxing, peaceful evenings. The humidity of the day broke at night. The silent songs of slumbering creatures was interrupted by sober, drunk, high conversations on everything from basketball to spirituality to racism to bigamy. Men slept, talked, ate, exercised, slowed down the aging process, then rose and did it all again tomorrow. Manu, Tim and Kareem would take days off to rest mentally and physically, but Kobe pushed forward each day with varying results.
With just two days of the trip remaining, Tim and Manu decided to skip the hike portion of the workout. They stretched out and went through the yoga portion of the workout, both a little on the giddy side like people who choose to take a half-day on a whim. Kobe was serious, more serious than normal Kareem noticed. His nostrils flared almost angrily. It was a visceral, edgy side of Kobe. A side that Kareem had encouraged him to learn how to channel into useful energy instead of give in to. To Manu and Tim, it felt like Kobe’s mood change was directed at them; Kobe’s disapproval of their decision to skip the full workout.
As Kareem and Kobe took off on the trail, the older afro’d man wasn’t surprised to feel Kobe bearing down on him from the beginning. He maintained his pace, aware of himself, his body, his surroundings. By contrast, Kobe focused on nothing but Kareem. He was like a hunter stalking a prey he thought was ignorant of his intentions, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Once they arrived at the fountain, both out of breath, both shirtless with long, muscular torsos dripping in sweat, they drank together. They didn’t take turns, but each dipped his hands into the refreshing water and drank in the mysterious goodness.
Something troubles you, Kareem said as he felt the intensity of Kobe’s eyes boring into him.
Kobe said nothing, but drank again.
Now isn’t the time to turn inward. Share with me whatever it is that pains you.
Kobe stepped back and drew out his sharpened dagger, reflecting through the slivers of light creeping through the jungle canopy. He breathed heavy looking into the deep wells of Kareem’s eyes, his deep knowledge.
At that moment, the wind kicked up and carried their conversation into the vast tangle of surrounding jungle. When the wind had calmed, Kobe was nowhere to be found and Kareem lay dying on the cool undergrowth of the jungle ground.
A gust of bad vibes came rolling out of the jungle in all directions. Manu had been napping while Tim was eating either a papaya or a mango, he wasn’t quite sure. They both rushed outside separately and neither could say exactly why except that they were drawn there and without words they set off on the trial. An hour later, they arrived at the fountain, where Kareem’s lifeless body lay with a single puncture wound to the heart. It was afternoon and it was hot. The jungle was eerily quiet as they carried Kareem’s long, limp body down the path; the only sounds were the crunching of the ground beneath their feet. They found the pagoda empty when they arrived. Kobe’s room was cleared out, the bed made, everything in its right place. Habiba and Cheryl were gone, but with no indication they had packed anything.
It was over. The pagoda, the fountain, Kareem, the mountain hikes. It was all finished and Tim and Manu sat on the porch taking in the mountain and the jungle, breathing in the thick air of the early evening. Their words were few, their minds burdened with questions and self-blame. After a subdued burial in a shallow grave, they locked it all up, closed the shutters, and embarked on the long trip back to the west.
November 13th, 2012 – Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
It’s a warmer-than-normal day evening in Los Angeles. The season’s young, but already narratives are being woven around the continued greatness of the league’s elders: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili. They’re each playing with a finely-tuned combination of veteran savvy and healthy athleticism. The results so far in this young season have been more than promising: in his 17th season, Kobe’s proving he’s still the best two-guard in the NBA (even if James Harden and Dwyane Wade disagree) while the Spurs have opened the season with routine dominance on the slightly sloped shoulders of Duncan and the improvisational artistry of Ginobili.
Tonight is the first night Kobe’s come into contact with Tim and Manu since the last day at Kareem’s jungle pagoda. During the pre pre-game warmups, Kobe practices form shot after form shot, fixated on the repetition, making the next one and erasing any misses from his mind. His rhythmic breathing is second nature and allows him to remain centered and focused throughout the routine. The Spurs’ team bus arrives, Manu and Tim both get pre-game treatments and saunter out to the still-mostly-empty Staples Center where a few ushers and security guards are lazily making rounds and TV and radio crews are setting up. It’s a world away from their last interaction. Tim and Manu are shooting around with Matt Bonner and a couple Spurs assistants when Manu walks down towards the Lakers end, dribbling through his legs the whole way down.
“Kobe, Kobe,” he says as he nears Bryant.
Kobe nods “what up” in his direction.
“Why’d you do it?” Manu asks. “Why’d you have to kill him?”
A few Lakers warming up with Kobe are watching the interaction out of the corners of their eyes, curious at the content of the discussion and the palpable tension between the men.
“Kill who? What the fuck are you saying to me?”
“Don’t play stupid, man. Just tell me why you did it.”
Kobe stops dribbling and stares at Manu: “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but you should probably stop before you say something that pisses me off.”
“You didn’t have to do it man. You didn’t need to do that.”
Kobe turns his back on him and hits a jumper from 27-feet. His form is perfect, his muscles aligned, his balance centered. Manu’s words are replaced by the bouncing balls and the sound of the net ripping. The game is played without eye contact between Kobe and Manu or Tim. There are no words, just growing chasms of unspoken feeling.