Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: Kobe Bryant

The Fireballs of Winter

Happy New Years, friends. Back in early December, I slogged through a handful of season-to-date performances to see who was performing at historical levels and now we’re here again to revisit those players, their performances and add a few more to the list:

  1. Andre Drummond 531 rebounds in 33 games. Back in December, his company included Dennis Rodman (twice) and Kevin Willis once. In January, it’s four Rodmans and still one Willis. Drummond’s still dominating the glass, but his November/December splits show a two rebound/game dip in production. That’s accompanied by an increase in plus/minus from +2.7 to +6.8 so all’s fair in Drummond and rebounding. For those keeping score, Drummond is 22.
  2. Hassan Whiteside 125 blocks in 31 games. When we last checked in with Whiteside he was averaging 4.7 blocks/game. That’s down to four/game which invites a lot more company than we saw at the end of November. The last player to block at least 125 shots in 31 games was Alonzo Mourning in 1999-00 when he averaged 4.5 bpg through 31 games. The most on record through 31? David Robinson back in 1991-92 averaged 5.2/game. Blah blah blah, this is the Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood.
  3. James Harden 152 turnovers in 34 games. Since 1985-86, just four players in the league have committed more turnovers than Harden has through 34 games. Not too surprisingly, Allen Iverson appears on the list twice along with Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and, oddly, Gary Grant who marshalled moribund Clippers teams back in the early 90s. His monthly splits show a slight decrease in TOs in December, but this is a season that’s been pockmarked with team and individual struggles. I have no idea where Harden goes from here.
  4. Steph Curry 140 threes made thru 32 possible games and 916 points thru 30 games played. Just because I’m not a Curry fan doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put together one of the best openings to a season in recent memory. His 140 threes made thru 32 possible games (he’s sat two, but I handicapped the criteria just because he’s so far ahead of his historical peers) is 29 more made threes than the next closest player: Ray Allen with 111 in 2001-02. At the end of November he was averaging 31.5. That’s fallen a full point and where he was 22nd all-time on total points thru 19 games, he’s dropped to 30th all-time thru 30 games. Injuries, massive margins of victory, and what should be a desire to keep their most valuable player healthy into June make me think this number will continue to drop.
  5. Draymond Green 230 assists and 290 rebounds thru 32 games. When we looked at Draymo’s 130 assists and 150 rebounds thru November, he had a lot of company – LeBron, Bird, Pippen, Magic, Kidd, and Fat Lever. Nice company, ay? A month and 13 games later and Draymo has no company. In 32 games, no other player has ever picked up as many assists and rebounds – 7.2apg and 9rpg. He’s also averaging nearly 1.5 steals and blocks/game. Green’s versatility reminds me most of Jason Kidd and he’s taken the Swiss Army Knife metaphor to some kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre levels where the knife has motorized blades that hack flesh without discrimination. He’s a nightmare.
  6. Kristaps Porzingis 30 threes made and 67 blocks in 33 games. The Zinger may have hit some sort of rookie wall, but his combination of range and rim protection (looking at you, Jeff Teague) have become even rarer over the past month. Sure, Serge Ibaka accomplished similar stats last season, but before that it was Eddie Griffin (RIP) in 2002-03, then Lamar Odom and Raef LaFrentz (twice) before that. Strange bedfellows indeed.
  7. Paul George 98 threes made and 240 rebounds in 32 games. George’s November vs. December splits reveal some Jekyll & Hyde-lite disparities, but with over three threes and seven rebounds/game, he’s still in lonely historical company with Antoine Walker circa 2001-02.
Stats courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com, a great website.

Stats courtesy of http://www.basketball-reference.com, a great website. NOTE: all non-points stats are 1985-86 to present.

The remaining players are new additions to the list:

  1. Kawhi Leonard shooting 48% from three, 88% from FT, 50% from field in 32 games. One of the more intriguing lists in that it’s made up of guys that were always known as shooters: Kiki Vandeweghe, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Drazen Petrovic, Kyle Korver. Then there’s Kawhi, whose reputation is probably best known as a defender with giant hands and cornrows, but who’s expanded his game into the realm of shooters. The all-enveloping nature of Kawhi’s game is reflected in the steals and block totals on this list where Leonard exceeds every other historical peer thru 32 games and features second in total rebounds to Detlef Schrempf. Kawhi is a diamond with cornrows.
  2. Karl-Anthony Towns 311 rebounds and 62 blocks in 33 games. Towns is the most polished rookie I can recall seeing in some time. His game and athleticism have a refinement that shouldn’t be prevalent in a 20-year-old kid. The last time we saw a rookie put up this many rebounds and blocks thru 33 games, the year was 1997-98 and the rookie was Tim Duncan. The other guys on the list? Zo, Shaq, Mutombo, the Admiral, and Patrick Ewing. For further reading, explore Shaq’s rookie season. In his first 33 games, he was averaging nearly 15 rebounds, over four blocks, and 23 points/game.
  3. Kobe Bryant 499 field goal attempts and 170 makes in 29 games. Kobe’s November-to-December splits show much-needed improvement in field goal shooting, but it doesn’t change the fact that since 1985-86, Kobe’s the only player to take at least 499 shots and hit so few. In 08-09, Baron Davis shot 36% on 501 attempts and 03-04, Quentin Richardson shot 40% on 499 FGAs. Those are both extremely bad and still preferable to Kobe’s 34% thru the end of December.
  4. Ricky Rubio 218 field goal attempts and 73 makes in 27 games. Speaking of horrific shooting, Ricky Rubio’s somehow shooting worse than Kobe from the field although he’s taken less than half as many shots so the impact is significantly reduced. Kobe comparisons aside, we haven’t seen someone shoot as poorly as Rubio on as many shots since Toney Douglas cursed us all back in 11-12 when he shot 32% thru 27 games. The most interesting inclusion this list of sub-standard shooters is everyone’s favorite Canadian back-to-back MVP winner, Steve Nash who spent the first 27 games of 98-99 languishing in shooter’s hell where he shot 36% from the field in his first year as a Dallas Maverick.
  5. Tony Parker 320 field goal attempts and 173 makes in 33 games. I thought Tony Parker was washed up, but like John Matrix in Commando, I thought wrong. Parker’s 173 makes on 320 or less attempts isn’t too rare. Drummond did similar last season and J.J. Hickson the year before, and Nikola Pekovic the season prior. What is interesting though is that Parker’s the only point guard on the list. You have to scroll back to 91-92 (Blue Edwards) and 90-91 (Kevin Gamble) to see perimeter players pop up on this list. How does this happen? Kawhi and LaMarcus Aldridge likely help.
  6. Russell Westbrook 800 points and 300 assists in 33 games. Thru 33 games, Russ put up 854 points and 310 assists. No player since 85-86 has put up those numbers. The only way we can find company for the Oklahoman hero is to open the filter to the nice, rounded 800/300 club and doing so pulls in the little leg-pumping jumper Michael Adams, who back in 90-91 averaged 25 points and nearly 12 assists/game to start the season.
  7. James Harden 358 free throw attempts and 232 assists in 34 games. It stands to reason that Harden appears on this list twice. Once in a positive context and another in a negative. With a game that is the anchor of an entire offense, Harden constantly has the ball in his hands. He takes and makes more free throws than anyone in the league and as part of that attacking barrage, he frequently turns the ball over. Whether charging into defenders, getting stripped or making errant passes, the same tree that yields all those free throw attempts and open looks for teammates contributes to the messiness of nearly five turnovers/game. The Beard giveth, and the Beard taketh, my Houstonian friends.

Meet me back in here February where we’ll compare notes on historical Valentine’s Day performances and see who’s falling off and who’s still going strong.

Proxy Wars of Kobe Bryant


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.


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.

Final Four: Fathers & Sons 2-on-2 Tournament

We started with what could only be described as an audacious idea; a crazy idea that only whackos disconnected from reality, out of touch with the space-time continuum, stuck in a world of imaginary fantasy where Rick Barry can exist in the prime of his basketball heyday not just with a singular existence, but a dual existence right alongside his sons: Two prime Rick Barrys, one prime Jon Barry and one prime Brent Barry. But we somehow pulled it off with dynamic storylines mixing 80 years of combined NBA wisdom with caffeine-fueled fantasies to arrive here, at the Final Four of the NBA Fathers & Sons 2-on-2 tournament. If you’ve been following along since the beginning, we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. If this is your first exposure to greatest 2-on-2 tournament in Naismith history, I’d suggest reading the initial post which laid out the concept that I was never sure we’d see through to the end.

And I’d be doing my cohorts and myself a disservice if I didn’t thank them for their more-than-generous contributions to this project. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I usually fly solo, a one man parade as James Taylor would say. But with 31 games to cover, it would’ve been like hiking to Mordor by myself with nothing but a staff, a cloak and some corn nuts to get me through. So I solicited the assistance of my trusted friends and colleagues and thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative process of working with Jacob Greenberg from www.TheDissNBA.com (for those who were wondering, Jacob describes his hooping style as an Eric Snow-type of guard who sets sturdy screens and rebounds well for his position) and my old mates Bug and Hamilton (we go all the way back to Monroe-Rice Elementary so if you sense any chemistry, now you know why). But my co-conspirators have lives and careers and child and spouses and pets and partners and Golden State Warriors and seeing how they’d already donated so much of their time, I decided to relinquish them of their vows and finish the tournament on my own. (Logistically speaking, it was also easier to divide three matchups across one writer instead of four.)

I’ve babbled on long enough this Sunday morning. It’s time to stop waxing nostalgic and deliver what I set out to do:

Kobe Bryant & Joe Bryant (1-seed) vs. Jalen Rose & Jimmy Walker (1-seed):

In a matchup of highly-skilled perimeter players, the contrast is one of balance. The Bryants are top-heavy with Kobe being his usual dominant, fearless self and dad Joe acting in various capacities as a catalyst, instigator, button pusher, but most of all: a positive influence. Both Walker and Rose had seasons where they averaged over 20ppg and are the only father/son combination in league history to each score over 10,000 points. Their strength is in their balance, in the capability of each player to score from anywhere on the court or act as a facilitator if the situation demands.  


Floating through the Cosmos

Floating through the Cosmos

Despite the success of both of these #1 seeds, all is not copacetic on the courts of fathers and sons. Walker and Rose have been able to ignore the massive elephant in the room of their relationship: the fact that there is no relationship. Walker was absent during Jalen’s childhood and as much as the younger Rose wants to believe the relationship can come together through chemistry and cohesion on the basketball court, there’s too much that needs to be healed and as the game warms up, so too does Rose’s resentment of the man who failed to be present so many years ago. As for Joe and Kobe, while Joe’s always been a present and supportive father to Kobe, there’s a low level of resentment building here as well. The lack of symmetry between Joe’s career stats and his actual ability has always been a sore spot for the elder Bryant and playing second fiddle to his own son (regardless of Kobe’s worldly talents) has reopened some of the disappointments from Bryant’s lackluster NBA career.

And so the game begins with both father/son duos existing within friction. Jalen retreats into himself, passing up open shots and firing bullet passes to Jimmy who picks up on what his son is really saying with his passive play: You didn’t need me all those years ago, so now when you really need my help, forget it. On the other side of the ball, Joe’s forcing shots, attacking, not necessarily playing outside of himself, but focusing on proving to everyone, and especially himself, that he’s more than capable of carrying the Bryants when it matters.

The game opens with fits and starts. The crowd surrounding the court in bleacher seating is fidgety, picking up on the tension that’s led to a just a couple buckets in the game’s first several possessions. It’s almost as if there are two separate games going on in within the actual contest that everyone showed up for. Icy stares shoot across the court with more purpose than the shots that keep clanking off the rim. Jimmy’s stung by Jalen’s clear discontent, Jalen’s passive aggressiveness is giving him the attention he never received as a kid, Joe’s trying so hard he’s fumbling passes and missing everything. For once it’s not all about Kobe. He’s the only player on the court who’s focused on winning the game and his awareness of the on-court dynamics at play gives him an opportunity to start dictating and feeding Jellybean Joe the ball in places where he can be most successful. Kobe finds Joe on post-ups and pick-and-rolls; his one-on-one game is so great that even in this two-on-two scenario he draws the off-defender’s help and exploits the help to find Joe again and again. The Bryants are up 13-4 when Jimmy walks off the court.

It’s a painful moment for everyone. The refs don’t bother intervening in family business and stand around talking about Joe Bryant’s gold chain and wondering what the correct call would be if the chain somehow affected play. They come up with no conclusions. Kobe and Joe are nodding at each other with the younger Bryant kidding his old man about the forced start. Joe responds with an embarrassed smile, “Your old man can play. Sometimes I gotta remind folks.” “You ain’t gotta remind me. I saw you put up 50 in Italy. I heard em singing those songs about you. I know!” “That’s right…”

Jalen’s drinking Gatorade with a towel draped around his shoulders. He’s not thinking about the game. He’s not thinking about the Bryants. He’s caught somewhere between hanging onto his anger and/or sadness (he’s not sure) and walking across the court to extend a hand out to Jimmy who’s in in the middle of an impassioned conversation with his friend Dave Bing. Bing is directly honest, “You’re his father, Jimmy. His father. It’s on you man. You brought that boy into this world and never even met him before this tournament and now you the one who gets to be pissed off ‘cause he’s upset? You got some nerve, Jimmy.” Jimmy tries in vain to plead his case, to recite the laundry list of excuses for why it never worked with Jalen, but he doesn’t even believe it himself.

By the time Jimmy makes his olive branch-bearing way across the court, Kobe and Joe are chilling on the bench wrapped up in towels and Dri-Fit shirts provided by Kobe’s generous/capitalist sponsor. Kobe made a move to bitch about the delay, but was quickly hushed by his pops who recognizes “there are more than a few things in this world bigger than a damn basketball game, kid. I thought I raised you better than that.” In moments, Rose and Walker are moist-eyed, the pain of a lifetime of knowing a father through second and third hand accounts streaming down Jalen’s cheeks and a half-a-lifetime of guilt slowly lifting off Jimmy’s shoulders. They’re done, they don’t want or need to play in this 2-on-2 tournament anymore, but Bing and Joe Bryant encourage them to finish up even if it’s just for fun. After a few minutes of pushing, Rose and Walker agree.

The game resumes with the crowd and the refs and even the Bryants (to a very, very, very low degree) rooting for Jalen and Jimmy who seem like a couple that was committed to a painful split, but finally agreed on reconciliation and rejoice in the love they share for each other. The feel good story is good enough for a couple buckets and growing senses of hope to roll through the crowd like gentle waves of euphoria, but the Bryants are comfortable being the big bad favorites. They block out the boos, they block out the emotions and play a clean two-man game with Joe owning the inside and Kobe owning everything else. As much as we love to love and see love, love doesn’t conquer all tonight. The Bryants win an easy, if not emotionally taxing, game 21-13.

Rick Barry & Brent Barry (1-seed) vs. Mychal Thompson & Klay Thompson (1-seed):

If there’s anything that this 2-on-2 tournament has revealed, it’s been the uniquely disagreeable disposition of Rick Barry. This arrogant basketball savant with his pro-basketball playing sons rolling out one-by-one like the Barry family was some sort of pro-basketball-player-producing factory with a trash talking patriarch. The Thompsons aren’t much different with Mychal acting as a strong guiding hand in the life of Klay and the Thompsons producing three basketball-playing sons with two going pro. Between the fathers in this matchup, five of their sons played in the NBA.

Mychal Thompson possesses the size and skill to harass Rick into tough, challenging shots, but Rick doesn’t give a damn about any Bahamian big man. Like any hunter, he knows to attack the weakest link in the Thompson family and physically and psychologically, that’s Klay. He tells Brent before the game: “You’re guarding Mike. He’s bigger, he’s strong and he’s gonna kick your ass, but you won’t feel a thing when we’re in the finals. I’m taking that soft ass Klay. He’s weak. Trust me on this and if you end up on him, beat him up.”

The other pre-game speech is also fatherly dominated with Mychal dictating to Klay exactly how the game’s going to go: “It’s the inside-outside, Klay. They can’t guard me and if they try to go one-on-one, I’m scoring buckets all day. If they even they turn their head on you, I’m kicking it out and you know what happens then: Splash!” Klay nods like he’s been doing since he was a little kid and to some outside observers, it seems like he still is a little kid.

The Thompsons start the game the way they’ve done all tournament long: They put their hands together and chant: “1, 2, 3, Thompsons!” Rick snickers and mumbles something about “fucking pussies.” The game is underway.

The Barrys get the ball first and Rick isn’t surprised to see Mychal guarding him. Brent occupies the high post, catches the first pass and hears his dad’s words ringing through his head: “Beat him up.” It’s not in his nature, but he makes a hard turn to face the hoop and his intentionally extended elbow catches Klay square on the jaw. The refs call the foul, but Rick is pleased. The tone is set, but Brent’s already feeling guilty and extends a hand to help Klay up only to find that hand swatted away by Mychal. “Sorry, Klay,” he says.

The first Thompson possession goes pretty similar to how Mychal described it before the game: Klay checks the ball, dumps it inside to Mychal, but the double team never comes. A pissed off and embarrassed Klay calls for the ball and Mychal kicks it back out to him a couple feet behind the line and where he pulls up in Rick’s smug, doubting face. Splash. Thompsons 3, Barrys 0.

The Barrys answer back with Rick easily beating Mychal for the bucket and telling the big man, “Get used to it.”

And so it goes back and forth with elbows flying, hip shots catching cutters, pushing, shoving, illegal screens, trash talk and hurt feelings. Numerous times the players have to be separated and Jon Barry’s incessant heckling of Klay leads to the refs having him removed from the court. As he’s being carried off by security, he’s yelling at Klay: “Make sure daddy gives you a fair cut of the winnings!”

Rick’s plan to attack the weaker Thompson has fueled the younger man who’s scored 11 of the Thompson’s 15 points and has been the best player on the court. With things all even at 15-apiece, Klay dumps the ball into Mychal who has perfect position on the much smaller Brent. A drop-step dunk later and the Thompsons are up 17-15 with the Barrys on the ropes for the first time all tournament. The Barrys run a pick-and-roll and on Rick’s roll, he sets a clear moving screen on both Thompsons, but the refs ignore the foul and Brent sinks an uncontested go-ahead three: 18-17, Barrys. Another Mychal post-up and Rick a jumper put the score at 20-19, Barrys.

Klay checks the ball and works his ass off to get free of Rick who’s deep in his chest and seems to be a step ahead of every Klay cut or attempt to get free. And this is one of the most frustrating aspects of Rick Barry. For all the trash talk and bullying, he plays hard on both sides of the ball and has consistently been one of the best players in this tournament; his play demanding the respect of his opponents. This Final Four match has been no exception and the defense he’s playing on Klay has the kid pushed out to near half court before he can finally catch his dad’s pass. Klay puts the ball on the floor in an effort to create space, but Rick’s long arms are able to reach in and tap the ball away. Klay recovers, but his confidence in his handle is gone. The last thing he wants to do is turn the ball over to lose the game. Instead he passes off to Mychal who’s at the three point line. And the world stops.

Brent’s mind shoots back to research he had done a few weeks before when he saw the bracket and thought: “Hm, I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up playing the Thompsons.” And he went to Mychal’s basketball-reference.com page and saw the elder Thompson shot 1-12 from three for his career. Brent, in a rare show of the gambler’s mentality steps back, arms wide open, staring Mychal directly in the eye: “You ain’t got shit.” Rick laughs, Klay says nothing as he fears Brent is right: Mychal ain’t got shit from out there.

Mychal can’t resist a chance to be the hero and lets it fly despite having not taken a single three all tournament long. It’s a brick that Brent chases down. The Barrys now have the ball and any bucket will seal the deal. They toss a few passes back and forth, feeling the rhythm of the game. Brent takes the ball at the high post and Rick runs off the screen created by Brent’s position. Klay tries to go over Brent, knowing an open Rick jumper will end it all. Mychal, unable to see if Brent’s handing the ball off or keeping it himself, cheats to help Klay, but little does he know Brent’s keeping it. Both Thompsons are chasing the decoy Rick and Brent turns, takes a single step and elevates for the game-winning dunk: 22-19, Barrys. A few halfhearted “fuck yous” are exchanged, but no one’s really too upset about this game. The Thompsons shake their heads and go get some ice cream.

After that, I could use some ice cream as well. Or maybe a beer. I can’t stress how unplanned these outcomes have been. While it’s not surprising that the two best players in the entire father/son tournament (Rick Barry and Kobe) have made it to the finals, the routes these teams have taken and the unexpected twists, turns and modes of attack have been completely improvised and arrived at organically.

The finals will be covered in the next few days and it’ll be a fun battle between a pair of highly-skilled, versatile father/son combos. In a universe where Kobe’s Achilles is still fully intact, we’ll find out if he can do enough to will the Bryants to father/son glory or if the brash Rick Barry can overcome one of the greatest all-around scorers in league history and what roles will Brent and Jellybean Joe play in the game? Check back in a couple days to find out.

fathers and sons final four

Kobe Bryant: over 38 over 34

In a vacuum, I think all of us can agree that what Kobe Bryant’s doing in his 17th NBA season is mostly ridiculous. With a handful of games remaining this season, Bryant has amassed 1,456 games (playoffs and regular season) and spent 53,897 minutes on the court. To list off his accomplishments, both statistical and of the award variety, would be like reading through a ledger that includes every sin any of us committed. It would go on and on and we’d fall asleep out of monotonous exhaustion and boredom and then we’d wake up and the voice would still be droning on.

For me, and I assume, for many of us, one of the most impressive aspects of Kobe’s long, long run has been remarkable consistency of it. So many games and years later and the man is still performing at a level that exceeds his career averages (his career averages are admittedly tipped by his first three years in the league). His game is as identifiable as any player’s in the league. Just when we think he’s lost a step and is on the decline (2011 appeared this way), he bounces back with Orthonkine therapy and back-to-back 27ppg, +20PER seasons—at ages 33 and 34.

Being the lightning rod he is, Kobe’s accomplishments come hand-in-hand with overreaction from the pro-Kobe and con-Kobe camps which are both bolstered by millions of basketball fans who sit at computers or on smartphones pounding away at the keys and venting through Kobe-based superlative arguments. The objective or indifferent fans marvel at Kobe’s resilience and shot-making ability while shaking their heads at the head-scratchingly bad shots or lackluster defense that we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing.

But as I started this post, I’ll reiterate: In a vacuum … I’m not interested in opening up or hashing out or re-hashing debates that have no ending. After Kobe’s game yesterday, a 14-point loss to the Clippers that gave them a 4-0 sweep in the Battle for Los Angeles; a game in which Kobe played 47 minutes (Mike D’Antoni’s never been shy about running guys into the ground and most elite athletes need someone to force them to rest, so the Kobe/D’Antoni combination is mostly a poor match when it comes to the long-term consideration of Kobe’s physical health), I found myself asking: Who does this? Who plays 47 minutes at 34-years-old? Who’s 34 and putting up 25 points and 10 assists? So I did what I do, I had to answer this question for myself and the answer was interesting enough to share it with you:

I took Kobe’s season-to-date stats (as of 4/8/12) and plugged them into Basketball-Refrerence.com and took a look at how this season compares historically at a couple different levels. First off, I just focused on players who have averaged at least 38 minutes/game at age 34 or older. I don’t know what my hunch was going into this, but as I think more about it, it makes sense that only a few times in league history has circumstance demanded a player of this age pour so much of himself into the game and only so many times has the player actually been able to hold up to the rigorous demands of an NBA schedule for so many minutes every night:

 over 34 over 38

It’s an interesting list. Of the 15 seasons included there, only three players went on to win titles (Jordan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in 1972). With the exception of Lenny Wilkins’ Cavs in 1973 and Anthony Mason’s Bucks in 2002, each player did make the playoffs, although it’s worth noting that several teams were low-seeded playoff teams that needed every ounce of production available from their best players—similar to the Lakers dependency on Bryant this year.

To take it a step further in terms of production at age 34 or older with 38 minutes or more played each night, I layered in points, PER and Usage%. Only a single other player compares favorably to Kobe in these measures:

 kobe and mj

MJ edged Kobe in PER (25.2 vs. 22.7) and usage rates (33.7% vs. 31.8%), but in both cases, these teams relied on these shooting guards for so so much production. The results were drastically different and the purpose of this post isn’t to delve into that aspect of these post-34 seasons, but to explore the rarity of what an aging Kobe Bryant’s doing this season which is about as rarefied company as you can come across. As an aside, these explorations often reveal some unexpected random piece of information and in this case it’s Karl Malone’s 2001-02 season where he averaged 38mpg as 38-year-old power forward and had a usage rate of 28.8%. For perspective, that 28.8 would rank 8th overall this season and place him ahead of James Harden—and he was 38.  

Someday we’ll say goodbye to Kobe, but it appears it’ll be a lot later than a whole gang of people thought…

An LA River Runs through It


It feels odd seeing two NBA juggernauts collapse in the span of a week, but that’s what’s happening. Last week it was the Spurs who were not unable to adapt. They did everything possible (swapped out values, souped up the system, cozied up with the three point line) to keep title hope floating, but the legs can’t always do what the mind demands of them. Now it’s the Lakers turn to take the painful escalator down, but what’s waiting for them at the lower levels is foggy and I assume it’s hot like a cool hell would be.

Expectations absolutely matter, but at the same time, predictions and prognostications don’t. We didn’t expect the Lakers to be down three games to none after Friday, yet here we sit. We could see the Spurs slide coming and we had time to digest it, play with the thoughts, accept it and move along to a Lakers vs. Celtics III or Lakers vs. Heat or something along those lines. This Lakers devastation (for them and their fans at least, devastation seems wholly appropriate) has been sudden even though it’s been in the making for over 1,300 games. This is a team that has been remarkably consistent over this most recent four-year span. They’ve lived in the Finals for the past three years and in three of the past four years, they’ve landed on the same 57-25 mark for the regular season. Statistically speaking, they’ve been a better team in 2010-11 than they were in 09-10.

Then Andrew Bynum was born. After his annual stint on the Lakers sideline with the standard issue Bynum-knee-injury, Andy resumed basketball activities with anger. He’s played better for longer in the past. We’re all familiar with the promise of this deer-legged 23-year-old who the younger Buss preferred to build the team around back in that tornado-ish start to the 2007 season when Kobe-to-Chicago was story du jour. While Bynum over Bryant was laughable in 2007, the hints of greatness are revealing themselves every time Bynum scowls, calls out his teammates or dunks without jumping. Whether Bynum’s tapping into some of that compulsive dark matter that fuels Kobe or just doing what many 23-year-olds do: Becoming Himself, we don’t know. Whatever the case, Bynum is developing which should be a great thing for the Lakers.

Here they sit in a 0-3 shithole, surrounded by their own foul odors in Dallas, Texas of all places. Who shot JR? Who the fuck stole the Lakers’ basketball brains is the more confounding mystery. A better, meaner, nastier Bynum, an improved bench, another year in the triangle for Artest—the Lakers aren’t favorites just because they still hold the crown. Beyond the stats, the players and the stories tell us the Lakers should beat the Mavs. This series hasn’t even been close though. The Mavs have been the better team every game and have deserved each of their three wins.

From Madrid to LA, everyone expected Pau Gasol to be his usual, steady, all-star-ish self. Over the past four seasons, he’s probably been the Lakers most consistent player and shown us that he’s capable of true, honest growth. For Pau, it was never a question of technical expertise. Perhaps it was too easy to slap a Euro label on him and call him soft. When Pau was bullied physically and mentally in the 2008 finals it reinforced the stereotype, but Gasol reinvented himself as a bearded Spaniard who screams, awkwardly initiates confrontation and is willing to do so while still maintaining the grace of technical mastery of game that has made him an all-star. Prior to this playoff matchup, the Lakers were 8-2 against the Mavs since Gasol joined the team in 2008. It’s never been about Pau vs. Dirk (who’s battled his own Euro stereotypes over the years) or Spain vs. Germany or anything even remotely along those lines. But in 2011, these graceful seven footers can be defined by their contrasting performances in this second round series. Dirk is acting as a conduit for greatness for this Mavs team. He’s the center of everything they’re doing whether he’s scoring the ball or attracting double teams that lead to hockey assists and it’s led to renewed appreciation of his game. Meanwhile, Gasol has been a case study in fatigue—likely mental and physical. Something indescribable and indefinable has finally caught up with Pau Gasol. Maybe it was stalking him all these years or maybe he contracted it like a sad disease striking when the Lakers required any and everything in his vast arsenal. You can’t read or listen to anything about the Lakers in this series without hearing “What’s wrong with Pau Gasol?” At the moment, that’s the unanswerable riddle.

By comparison, Kobe’s performance is easy to grasp. We’ve become accustomed to him living on the edge with acrobatic jump shots, triple pivots and old man shot fakes. He’s walked that line and teetered between success and failure, and mostly landed on the positive side. Only now it’s harder. It’s nothing but jump shots for 48 minutes, but that makes perfect sense. The guy has logged over 1,300 games and  48,000 minutes of basketball, consistently at the most meaningful levels of the sport—Christmas day games, games on national TV, playoff games, finals. Like his post peer Tim Duncan, it’s been inevitable. Kobe didn’t take two years off to refresh himself like MJ. Instead, he won titles and played 201 games (not counting USA basketball) over the previous two seasons. He’s still breathing fire and instilling fear in fans and hyperbolic commentators, but he’s not carrying the Lakers like he has. That the team is folding into the playoffs as Kobe’s game becomes less dynamic confirms the obvious (but still taken for granted) value of his on-the-court performances to this Lakers team. For all Kobe’s dramatic shots and game winners, the losses have been equally magnificent beginning with the Pistons demolition in 2004, the blown 3-1 lead against the Suns in 2006, the Celtics record-setting comeback in 2008 and finally the Mavs shock and awe campaign in 2011. When Kobe’s Lakers lose, it’s typically so definitive that it precludes a drastic change.

This isn’t a time for tears or eulogies though. If the end is near, there are a couple of obvious choices you can make: The first is to adapt. Adjust your lifestyle or habits to survive for as long as you possibly can. The other is to get settled into a recliner with a pack of cigarettes and a six-pack and stay committed to your values. For the Spurs, the decline was protracted enough that Pop could make survival-based adjustments. Phil hasn’t had that same luxury, but for all his Zen methods, you get the feeling he’s loyally married to his system. The old, rusty triangle worked long enough and well enough to leave Red Auerbach in the rear view of Phil’s gaudy accomplishments for all of eternity. And with Phil forcing the sun to set on his own watch, there won’t be any re-tooling or Pop-like adjustments. It’s sudden and confusing (mainly the Gasol piece of the puzzle), but Phil’s Lakers are finally on the precipice good-bye.

(Altnerate considerations: Kobe as player-coach, aside from Phil; what drastic changes will defeat bring?)

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