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Tag Archives: Tim Duncan
July 18, 2016Posted by on
We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.
It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.
If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.
In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.
A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.
If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.
Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.
About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.
I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.
When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.
Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.
In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?
So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.
How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.
July 11, 2016Posted by on
A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
After that game, Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports wrote of Duncan:
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.
April 22, 2013Posted by on
*Note: I first started writing this story back in November of 2012. It’s a long, fictional speculation/assumption of how/why certain players have been able to maintain high performance for so long.
It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere and Kobe Bryant’s daydreaming of endless beaches, Newport sunshine, half naked women and anonymity. His fantasy is interrupted…
“Kobe, Kobe, you ready?”
He locks eyes with Tim Duncan, wearing a massive down-insulated, weather-resistant coat. The hood is up and Duncan’s sad eyes and gentle oblong face look out at Kobe. Kobe nods and the two men set off in the frigid morning. The third member of their party is a couple hundred feet ahead, his movements natural, innate. There’s no second guessing, no doubting. Just trust. From behind, Duncan and Bryant see the outline of his body, his dark coat and pack an easy beacon to follow in the white washed morning of snow and clouds and crystalline air.
Tim stays about fifteen feet behind Kobe. He’s aware of the contrasts between himself and Bryant; he’s always been aware, but at the moment he’s questioning this trek, this climb in sub-zero temperatures while his family’s no doubt kicking back in St. Croix. Robotically following Kobe’s path, he can hear his wife’s voice, tender in his mind, tender in reality: “This is the last time, Tim. I know you’d rather stay here with me and sleep in and swim and be lazy, but think about how much fun you’ve had these past couple years. We’ll be here for you…”
His breath visible, Duncan mutters “God damn this mountain…”
The climb is steady, not too treacherous. This is the third time these men have made the summer climb and each time they’ve returned better, rejuvenated, younger. Their limbs more pliable, their joints loosened, their cores stronger, their minds sharper.
At night they cook together and Kobe usually retires after brief conversation, leaving Tim and Manu to their never ending talks over thermoses of hot yerba mate; a drink Tim grew to love on their first climb, a drink Kobe’s referred to as some “hot bullshit.” Manu and Tim rarely talk about Bryant. He’s not mysterious; he’s not fun or funny. The only thing about Kobe that actually interests the two friends is his unquenchable drive, his homicidal motivation. There was a time on their previous trip when the topic of homicide actually came up. Was Kobe’s drive that intense, manic enough to kill one or both of them? They shook it off, tried to laugh at their own paranoia, rationalize that he was a prick, but had some twisted sense of honor, but the seed of fear had been verbalized, the doorway to possibility slightly ajar; just enough for Duncan and Ginobili to have a shred of doubt, of anxiety lurking in their thoughts.
While Manu and Tim fill cold night time silence, Kobe reclines in his state-of-the-art tent; a tent equal parts efficient and extravagant. He sits quietly focused on the music driving through his purple and gold Dre Beats headphones: The Doors’ Riders on the Storm. He methodically sharpens a dagger embossed with his strange KB24 logo replete with a slithering black mamba and the Latin phrase Carpe Diem…all the while the electric piano of Ray Manzarek’s music intertwining with the sounds of a storm warmly coming together with Kobe’s thoughts…
In terms of technical difficulty, the climb isn’t the most challenging. The weather is treacherous at times, but it’s more of inconvenience for Tim and Kobe who prefer the warmth; albeit for different reasons. For Manu, it’s vacation. There are times during the grind of the NBA season or the Olympics or the World Championships when he wants nothing more than to let all the air out of the basketball, rip up the floorboards of the court, pile the varnished wood at center court, douse the whole thing with lighter fluid, flick a match on the pile and walk into the anonymous embrace of nature. The mountain air has always cleared his lungs and thoughts, unshackled his body and allowed him to love in a way that’s different from basketball with its rules and egos, social implications and responsibilities.
Tim would often ask him why he bothered; why not retire and move to Patagonia? Manu would laugh and respond in his heavily accented English that Tim was accustomed to hearing…he’d respond with genuine feeling, poetic descriptions of teamwork, athleticism as self-expression, basketball as a union of the creative spirit and physical wonderment; explaining how precious it was to be blessed with the physical abilities and size they had, how, despite the drawbacks, it wasn’t a gift to be ignored, how men and boys around the world would kill (“I mean it Timmy, they would kill to have what we have”) for this blessing. Tim would smile and nod, sipping his warm mate. It made him feel good to hear Manu describe his feelings with that honesty. He felt lucky for sure, but so much of that luck he felt had to do with his good fortune of being surrounded by people: Manu, Pop, his wife Amy, teammates he loved; all possible because of basketball, because of a game.
In the clear night sky, up so high that Tim felt he could reach out and brush the firmament with his outstretched fingers, Manu would continue to talk: I read a book by a great Chilean writer, I only wish he was Argentine. Roberto Bolaño, you’ve heard of him? Tim nodded. He died far too young, but he wrote this mountain of a novel, 2666 and when I’m out here in the night, so close to heaven, I often think about a few lines from that book, a few lines I memorized because I love the concept. Would you like to hear? Tim nodded again, ‘If it were possible to convey what one feels when night falls and the stars come out and one is alone in the vastness, and life’s truths (night truths) begin to march past one by one…’ And of course he goes on, because the book is like a thousand pages long, but when I’m up here with the stars, I think about those truths…night truths. Tim nodded.
The last day of the mountain leg of the journey was a steady decline, mostly slow and easy, but occasionally declining steeply. Like the previous two times they’d done the climb, Manu went well ahead of Tim and Kobe. Both would look on in the morning as the Argentine bounded downward like a Mountain Goat version of himself; his feet barely touching the surface except to push off or propel himself in a different direction. He climbed the way he played ball: Naturally unpredictable, unorthodox. Kobe privately thought to himself that what he was seeing wasn’t human, but some kind of mystic oneness.
Tim and Kobe enjoyed the final climb. Both were out of their element up in the clouds and snow and the narrow strip of the green valley below was a finish line of sorts; at least the end of this strenuous portion of the trek.
As they scaled downward, the two men joked and laughed easily the way people do when they complete something which they’ve been dreading. Anxieties lifted, the conversation was light…future, how many more years would they play, what happens after basketball, cheap shots at Shaq from Kobe which Tim laughed at—mostly out of politeness. At a particularly tricky spot, Kobe lost his footing and fell. There was a deep drop off into a bottomless crevasse littered with frozen skeletons dressed in oversized climbing gear, but Tim and Kobe couldn’t see that far into nothingness and now Kobe hung onto the rim of the crevasse, his gloved fingers dug in tightly. Duncan reacted without thought; diving and wrapping his massive hands around Kobe’s wrists. “I gotcha I gotcha” he said, breathing heavily, his long, lean body stretched out like a giant eel with limbs. Kobe’s face, inches from Duncan’s, didn’t relax, there was no smile or relief to match Duncan’s. “Let go.”
Duncan’s smile turned into confusion, misunderstanding. He held on tighter. Holding eye contact, intensity rising, Kobe repeated: “Let. Go.”
“No. I got you; pull yourself up.”
“I got it. Let go.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot man. You got nothing to prove.”
“I don’t need your fucking help.”
“I don’t care. I’m not letting go.”
It was a stalemate that lasted less than thirty seconds. Manu’s shadow fell over the two tall men followed by his strong grip pulling up a protesting Kobe and hauling him to safety with Tim’s help.
Manu made eye contact with Duncan and picked up on Kobe’s growing aloofness. No one said anything and the descent continued with Manu in the lead at a much slower pace than he preferred, then Tim in the middle and Kobe in back.
The temperature warmed as they reached the base of the mountain, but Kobe stayed icy with ease. They passed through a village filled with little normal sized people with dark skin who paid them no mind despite their comical heights and various ethnicities. No one gave a damn; life was hard enough without human spectacles.
Manu and Tim settled into lazy conversation as their feet propelled forward along the familiar path. There were no attempts to reach out and bring Kobe into the conversational fold because he inserted himself on his own terms and his present terms were separate, but still moving forward. The cold they’d been subjected to up on high had changed into a much more agreeable, almost balmy air where the three men, all weighed down with heavy packs, sweated without exerting much effort.
The schedule called for an early night camp, then the last day of hiking and arrival at their final destination the following afternoon, but when they came to the clearing where they’d camped on previous journeys, Tim and Manu happily slowed and dropped their packs. Kobe looked at them, continued to walk and said he was hiking straight through. Manu and Tim looked at each other. Kobe disappeared from view.
It was as it had to be; a break, a fracture, a fissure. It wasn’t anger or abandonment that the two men felt; maybe, at its worst, there was a twinge of disappointment, but no one can really say. Kobe hiked alone through the darkness of night; his path illuminated by the crescent moon and his obnoxiously unnaturally bright headlamp. Animals and creatures of the night saw the light bobbing from miles away and recoiled in apocalyptic fear. To them, the light was so out of place as to instill feelings of supernatural dread, but it was just Kobe Bean Bryant winding through the night in solitude, stalking the trail, focused, driven by a compulsion he struggled to identify. Accept? Yes, that had happened so long ago that it became part of him, something to use for his benefit, a way to stand out and separate, but now it had occasion to feel heavy, lonely. He continued on until daybreak; silently, fearless, sad, but without self-pity.
As dawn broke, Kobe could see the silhouette of the pagoda rising through the morning mist. The air was fresh, cool; he wore a thick, fitted sweater over a KB24 Dri-Fit shirt. The morning air chilled any sadness nightfall had brought on and he felt better as the pagoda came into full view. An outdoor porch wrapped around the pagoda and there he saw a large man sitting in a large chair. As he neared, the man rose…and rose. He was tall, lean, wearing unnecessary sunglasses in the gray morning. His skin was brown, but lighter than Kobe’s. His hair was black and not cropped as close as Kobe’s. It was thinning in front. He wore a thick black beard and a thinner moustache. Even by Kobe’s standards, he was a tall man. He smiled without showing his teeth. Kobe returned the gesture, but revealed his teeth. He was happy to see the man.
“Kareem!” he shouted as he neared.
“Mr. Bryant! You’re early.”
“Yep, powered through the night. How you doing?”
The men shared a sturdy handshake and hug.
“Good, good” Kareem responded nodding. He knew better than to inquire about Tim and Manu. He knew they’d be there on time. “If you hiked all night, you must be tired.”
“You know that.”
“Why don’t you head inside. Habiba and Cheryl are there. They’ll get you fed and get you set up in your room. I’ll be out here or in my study if you get restless…which I know happens from time to time.”
Kobe nodded, still smiling. There was a reverence both men were aware of, but didn’t need to speak about. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man of accomplishment whose life had spanned several decades and personalities, it was something he was used to. But for Kobe, a man who struggled to defer to even his father, it was something altogether different. And again, both men were aware of this and Kareem gave Kobe a wide berth to explore his own self and reactions in this regard. By now, after the previous two visits, they had realized their compatibility and friendship and settling in was relaxing despite the fact that they hadn’t seen each other in several years.
Kobe was hungry and tired and took Kareem up on his suggestion. He greeted his wives with warmth and ate their food and settled into the comfortable bed they provided and slept long and deep as he had always been a man who could appreciate and take advantage of the comforts the world bestowed upon him. Although he didn’t remember his dreams, he dreamt deeply and widely of conquest, victory and acceptance. He dreamt of being held and loved. The arms that held him were strong, but caring. They were his own arms and his hands rested on his chest and his abdomen. He could feel his heart beating strongly and his stomach rising so slowly, filling with oxygen. He was alive and accepted himself…but this was just a dream and he didn’t remember any of it when he woke up several hours later to the sounds of Manu’s accent and Tim’s heavy feet arriving and being greeted by Kareem and his wives.
Kobe didn’t care about missing out on talking and catching up, but now that he was awake, he got up and joined the rest of the house for what smelled like dinner. He didn’t have a clue what time it was and found the low key reunion at the huge bamboo table Kareem had built himself. The table was covered in pasta dishes; Kareem always espoused the benefits of carbs, red sauces, oil-based sauces, fresh vegetables, sautéed vegetables. Kobe thought it looked like they robbed a Whole Foods, but kept his thoughts to himself. The talk was expectedly strange given Kareem’s transcendence of time. That didn’t stop Manu and Tim from updating him on LA’s (and Kobe’s by extension) ability to get one of the top point guards and the top center in the game. Kareem enjoyed the laugh at Kobe’s expense. He laughed about Dwight Howard—who he’d never met—and Steve Nash—who he had met and said it sounded like something Auerbach would’ve pulled off. I know the game’s changed, he said, but it sounds like things are still the same. The rich get richer. And then he asked Tim and Manu what or who the Spurs had added and it was Kobe’s turn to get a laugh at their expense, comparing the Spurs to the old folks who’ve been driving the same Buick for 30+ years. Yes, it’s in immaculate condition and still runs great, but it’s old and filled with that old folks’ smell…that smell of pending death.
It was a holistic, healthy trip, but after a long journey, the men were happy to share the wine and fresh food Kareem provided. And it didn’t take long for the meal and the laughs to segue into Kareem pulling out a hookah filled with homegrown herb and mixed with shisha. Kobe and Manu passed on the weed as they always had, but Tim joined Kareem and the women and smoked himself straight from the table to a healthy helping of bean pie, through halls of laughter and relaxation, directly into bed.
It was late and the bed felt good; long, made for a man his size, but Kareem had always been able to relate to him on that level. He was tall and had been tall when it was less accepted. And he’d been black at a time when it was less accepted and he’d written extensively about that blackness and that period in his life. Tim had read the books, Giant Steps first and then Kareem, and felt a kinship with this man who had been through so much and was so misunderstood. To be misunderstood was to be Tim Duncan. So he snuggled up tightly to the blankets and pillows, alone in the quiet with his thoughts, free from the whipping winds and howls of the lonely night under the stars and a million miles from Manu’s “night truths.” He thought about home and basketball and legacy. Touches of paranoia and cyclical thoughts raced through his head competing with his need for sleep. He questioned himself, his accomplishments and how they stacked up against Kareem’s or Lew’s or whoever he was, however old he was. Without knowing it, he was exhausting himself with his own thoughts and as he dozed off, he thought: I love Kareem, but I could’ve taken him. Sleep took him instead and he snored so loud that the ground trembled, monkeys screamed, leaves fell from trees.
Kobe was right behind him. Even with a day spent in bed, he was worn out mentally and physically and wanted to feel good for tomorrow when they’d re-engage with their training. So that left Manu with Kareem. The women had disappeared and Manu didn’t have any recollection of them getting up from the table. It wasn’t that he was that drunk, but rather that their departure occurred so naturally like everything else here. So he sat at the table with Kareem who took a couple more hits off the hookah. The sound of the water bubbling through the pipe and Kareem’s deep inhales and exhales filled the dining room and he suggested they go out on the porch where the weather beckoned.
Outside they looked on the same stars he had seen with Tim nights before. I would’ve liked to play with you, Manu. Even though I’ve never seen your game or style, I know what’s what. Manu replied with a soft “Gracias, Kareem. It saddens me that I’ve seen you play, I’ve read your books and met you out there, in time, but here you are in a place where you don’t play anymore, you don’t get to see the world unfold the way I can.” It saddens me too, Manu.
The morning began early with a full breakfast, always breakfast. This was followed by a long walk, followed by breathing exercises and around mid-morning the four men would be in the stretches of an intensive yoga session. The first session wasn’t much different from the beginning of a training camp: The three men were world-class athletes, but the physical maintenance they performed during the regular season didn’t compare with the demands a rigorous yoga routine put on muscle elasticity and pliability. And the breathing was essential. Kareem would drill it home, repeating tenets and techniques over and over. His words were inhaled by eager ears, thirsty for knowledge revealed through his secret teaching; this mystique that allowed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to actually exist as a 30-year-old man when he had actually lived 65 years.
Yoga was followed by a hike into the lush low hills rolling out behind the pagoda. The hike was a mix of light jogging and brisk walking on a dirt path that rose and fell with the earth’s contours. Heart rates and pulses quickened as they neared their destination. The trail pitched and rolled for eight miles with Kareem leading the way with his long, light strides deftly maneuvering the trail. Kobe competitively kept close behind with his eyes fixed on the delicacy of Kareem’s well-placed steps. The four men were encapsulated within the nature of the trail. Living organisms swarmed about their hike in various degrees of existence, each of the men calmly inhaled the rich air as Kareem had taught them to do. Manu and Tim would smile at each other in complete concert with one another, knowing and appreciating and respecting the life-giving power of the air they soared through.
At about seven miles, Kareem broke off onto a barely visible narrow path, barely wide enough for a single foot, let alone two larger-than-average sized feet. The forested canopy encroached closer, skimming the top of Kareem’s afro which shook branches and leaves and alarmed the residents of these trees who screeched and scurried in response. The column of giants grew closer, their strides tightening up to a single cadence until hidden twists and turns led to a naturally concealed manmade fountain. The stones of which were overgrown with thick moss and leafy tangled vines.
The men stopped and panted, heavy with breath and sweat. Kareem turned and smiled, Here we are, my friends. Here to quench the thirst brought on by vigorous journey. Here to drink from the life that the earth provides. Here to give thanks to the abundant blessings of our fathers and mothers. And here to replenish that which time takes from us.
Kobe gave thanks and nodded to each of the men, then cupped his hands and drank deeply from the icy water.
Manu smiled broadly and nodded around to the men saying, “Thank you, Kareem” and proceed to dunk his balding head and bearded face into the chilling fountain. His enthusiasm drew laughs and smiles from his compatriots.
Not to be outdone, Tim looked at Manu who shook the water from his head like a soaking dog, planted his hands on the ledge of the fountain and lifted his fully clothed body into the fountain with water splashing out. Kobe shook his head in joking reproach while Tim allowed himself to sink into the pool until just his mouth, nose, eyes and head were above the surface and let the pristine liquid roll into his mouth. As Tim soaked, Kareem revealed his statesmanlike maturity and took small sips from his giant cupped hands.
This was the purpose of the trek. The weeks of climbing, the bonding, the hikes through the waist-deep snow, the beards, the struggle, the fresh air, weeks away from home and away from loved ones. It was for this moment of replenishing drink which soaked into the human beings who demanded and received every iota of their physical potentials and then some.
An extended stretch with discussions around basketball history preceded the hike home. The discussion was fascinating in that the men present had each achieved all that could be achieved in the sport, from troves of individual accolades to team honors that stretched across every decade from the 1950s on. And yet, and yet elements of competitiveness still came to the fore. Even in the embrace of nature and friendship, Kobe made outlandish claims and excuses for only having won five rings. In his mind, there should’ve been more: ‘2004, 2009, 2011.’ He swore his longevity was unmatched and would continue to do so. He claimed Michael Jordan’s break for baseball was the only thing that allowed to him three-peat a second time and that playing through those two seasons, which he should’ve done, would’ve ended the run and changed perceptions about him. Kareem countered that Jordan had never made the trek to the mountains, that Jordan’s longevity, whether furthered by baseball or not, was unhealthy and bordered on maniacal, but that there was still an element to it that was preferable for combat; which the NBA was at its core. Kareem talked about the time he’d spent in the mountains, at the pagoda with John Stockton, Karl Malone, Robert Parish, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton, John Wooden. He described Wooden as a scrappy, fiery hiker who, even in the 1970s could blaze across the mountains and trails while Kareem and Walton struggled to find air for their lungs and strength for their burning quads. John Wooden, he said, had actually lived 147 years. No one knew what to believe and Kobe simultaneously shuddered and relished the idea of living a life so long.
They drank again and then returned to the pagoda.
The routine was repeated every day for the next two weeks. The long days gave way to relaxing, peaceful evenings. The humidity of the day broke at night. The silent songs of slumbering creatures was interrupted by sober, drunk, high conversations on everything from basketball to spirituality to racism to bigamy. Men slept, talked, ate, exercised, slowed down the aging process, then rose and did it all again tomorrow. Manu, Tim and Kareem would take days off to rest mentally and physically, but Kobe pushed forward each day with varying results.
With just two days of the trip remaining, Tim and Manu decided to skip the hike portion of the workout. They stretched out and went through the yoga portion of the workout, both a little on the giddy side like people who choose to take a half-day on a whim. Kobe was serious, more serious than normal Kareem noticed. His nostrils flared almost angrily. It was a visceral, edgy side of Kobe. A side that Kareem had encouraged him to learn how to channel into useful energy instead of give in to. To Manu and Tim, it felt like Kobe’s mood change was directed at them; Kobe’s disapproval of their decision to skip the full workout.
As Kareem and Kobe took off on the trail, the older afro’d man wasn’t surprised to feel Kobe bearing down on him from the beginning. He maintained his pace, aware of himself, his body, his surroundings. By contrast, Kobe focused on nothing but Kareem. He was like a hunter stalking a prey he thought was ignorant of his intentions, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Once they arrived at the fountain, both out of breath, both shirtless with long, muscular torsos dripping in sweat, they drank together. They didn’t take turns, but each dipped his hands into the refreshing water and drank in the mysterious goodness.
Something troubles you, Kareem said as he felt the intensity of Kobe’s eyes boring into him.
Kobe said nothing, but drank again.
Now isn’t the time to turn inward. Share with me whatever it is that pains you.
Kobe stepped back and drew out his sharpened dagger, reflecting through the slivers of light creeping through the jungle canopy. He breathed heavy looking into the deep wells of Kareem’s eyes, his deep knowledge.
At that moment, the wind kicked up and carried their conversation into the vast tangle of surrounding jungle. When the wind had calmed, Kobe was nowhere to be found and Kareem lay dying on the cool undergrowth of the jungle ground.
A gust of bad vibes came rolling out of the jungle in all directions. Manu had been napping while Tim was eating either a papaya or a mango, he wasn’t quite sure. They both rushed outside separately and neither could say exactly why except that they were drawn there and without words they set off on the trial. An hour later, they arrived at the fountain, where Kareem’s lifeless body lay with a single puncture wound to the heart. It was afternoon and it was hot. The jungle was eerily quiet as they carried Kareem’s long, limp body down the path; the only sounds were the crunching of the ground beneath their feet. They found the pagoda empty when they arrived. Kobe’s room was cleared out, the bed made, everything in its right place. Habiba and Cheryl were gone, but with no indication they had packed anything.
It was over. The pagoda, the fountain, Kareem, the mountain hikes. It was all finished and Tim and Manu sat on the porch taking in the mountain and the jungle, breathing in the thick air of the early evening. Their words were few, their minds burdened with questions and self-blame. After a subdued burial in a shallow grave, they locked it all up, closed the shutters, and embarked on the long trip back to the west.
November 13th, 2012 – Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
It’s a warmer-than-normal day evening in Los Angeles. The season’s young, but already narratives are being woven around the continued greatness of the league’s elders: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili. They’re each playing with a finely-tuned combination of veteran savvy and healthy athleticism. The results so far in this young season have been more than promising: in his 17th season, Kobe’s proving he’s still the best two-guard in the NBA (even if James Harden and Dwyane Wade disagree) while the Spurs have opened the season with routine dominance on the slightly sloped shoulders of Duncan and the improvisational artistry of Ginobili.
Tonight is the first night Kobe’s come into contact with Tim and Manu since the last day at Kareem’s jungle pagoda. During the pre pre-game warmups, Kobe practices form shot after form shot, fixated on the repetition, making the next one and erasing any misses from his mind. His rhythmic breathing is second nature and allows him to remain centered and focused throughout the routine. The Spurs’ team bus arrives, Manu and Tim both get pre-game treatments and saunter out to the still-mostly-empty Staples Center where a few ushers and security guards are lazily making rounds and TV and radio crews are setting up. It’s a world away from their last interaction. Tim and Manu are shooting around with Matt Bonner and a couple Spurs assistants when Manu walks down towards the Lakers end, dribbling through his legs the whole way down.
“Kobe, Kobe,” he says as he nears Bryant.
Kobe nods “what up” in his direction.
“Why’d you do it?” Manu asks. “Why’d you have to kill him?”
A few Lakers warming up with Kobe are watching the interaction out of the corners of their eyes, curious at the content of the discussion and the palpable tension between the men.
“Kill who? What the fuck are you saying to me?”
“Don’t play stupid, man. Just tell me why you did it.”
Kobe stops dribbling and stares at Manu: “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but you should probably stop before you say something that pisses me off.”
“You didn’t have to do it man. You didn’t need to do that.”
Kobe turns his back on him and hits a jumper from 27-feet. His form is perfect, his muscles aligned, his balance centered. Manu’s words are replaced by the bouncing balls and the sound of the net ripping. The game is played without eye contact between Kobe and Manu or Tim. There are no words, just growing chasms of unspoken feeling.
April 30, 2011Posted by on
I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t dig into Ready to Die until after Life After Death had already been released. My hip hop journey started left and moved to the right, geographically passing over me in the process and so I was always catching up to the east coast. I was at the University of Iowa with a Case Logic book stuck full of CDs. Notorious was already dead, but when I threw on Ready to Die, it was like my Iowa City dorm room had been transformed into some grimy denizen in Brooklyn.
“Things Done Changed” is the introduction into the nightmares to come on Ready to Die, but here it’s a postscript for the Spurs. Biggie focused on the strapped youngsters changing the game, but he neglected to tell us about the old heads unable or unwilling to assimilate into the gun culture. The Grizzlies, with all their scrappiness, Brooklynese griminess, Tony Allens and Sam Youngs are the stickup kids:
…for the stupid motherfuckas wanna try to use kung fu/Instead of a Mac-10 he tried scrappin/slugs in his back and that’s what the fuck happens…
Yep, that’s what the fuck happens. From the Grizz bum rushing the Spurs in Memphis in game four to the Spurs sneaking by on a Gary Neal three in game five to the inevitability of Memphis stomping out the embers of hope in game six, the Spurs done changed. This isn’t anything new: teams age, superstars fade, Zbos come up and Ernie Johnson holds down the fort through it all. The incarnation of the Spurs that we know: the systematic offense (even you, Ginobili, with your behind the backs and violent head fakes, are systematic), constricting defense, the method, practiced and refined, perfectly improvised; this version is gone. It’s the same group of guys wearing the same jerseys and coming up with the same regular season results (61 wins and a number one seed in the west), but with different method.
The regular season is the key qualifier though. I always thought injuries and health would catch up with this iteration of the Spurs, but with the exception of Manu missing game one, the Spurs stayed as healthy as a team can after playing 80+ games and traveling across the United States for seven straight months. “Little motherfuckers with heat” may have pulled the final trigger, but they didn’t do the Spurs either.
Outside of San Antonio, the Spurs weren’t considered a strong option to win the title or even make the Finals. We know a fake when we see one and while you can’t fake your way to 61 wins in 82 games, you can fake being yourself. Time and circumstance forced Pop’s hand to come up with a new team out of old basketball players. And somehow he pulled it off with the second-most regular season wins in a 15-year career and the third-most in franchise history. The Spurs had slowly been trending toward this style over the past three or four years, but this season seemed more real and at times genuine because they were pulling it off so effectively. It’s almost harmonious for fans and analysts to see the Spurs in first place and be lulled into thinking they had returned for another voyage into the deep.
Then the playoffs started and the ruse was over. In terms of the Spurs postscript, the reverse-Biggie perspective, the Grizzlies have little to do with the Spurs’ aging wrinkles and saggy skin. If it wasn’t Memphis, it would’ve been Portland, Denver or OKC. Has a number one seed ever had so many poor potential matchups in the first round? The only two teams that matchup favorably for San Antonio are Dallas and New Orleans. This version of the Spurs relied on a magician’s bag of tricks: Manu’s leaning tow-on-the line two to keep hope alive in game five, his half-court shot in game six, his double behind-the-back dribbles—the same stuff he’s been doing for years. Only in the past, it was just one part of a larger ensemble. Manu went vintage in the 2011 playoffs, but it was a solo act. He stayed true to the game we’ve been watching for the past decade, but the rest of the club couldn’t keep up with his pace or rhythm. The Spurs fumbled In the fourth quarter of game six, dropping passes, miscommunicating on must-foul situations, were routinely beaten to loose balls and collapsed at the end with what felt like a sense of relief.
Change is inevitable, but doesn’t make it any less challenging or difficult to swallow. Today the future doesn’t matter in San Antonio any more than it does in Memphis. Both cities and fan-bases are stuck in the present for all the right reasons.