Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sasha Vujacic: The Machine Also Rises




Aleksander “Sasha” Vujacic—known for psycho-ferret defense, fastidious eyebrow-grooming rituals at the charity stripe and the constant need to be loved—is back.

The former NBA combo guard has reached a one-year, veteran’s minimum salary agreement to join the New York Knicks. Forget the relatively inconsequential contract details—this is a story that could beget many other stories.

Vujacic rejoins former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Derek Fisher (now coaching the Knicks) and former coach Phil Jackson (now running NY operations).

Born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which transitioned into present-day Slovenia, Vujacic blazed a precocious path of teenaged basketball excellence in the Italian League before being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004.

The 6’7” combo guard with mercury speed and erratic shot sniper tendencies, played the better part of six seasons in L.A., providing an impassioned bench presence that sometime bordered on a Cockatoo-like neurosis.

He was an irritant to opposing teammates as well as Jackson himself. In 2009, the coach zinged the five-year veteran, per the Los AngelesTimes (h/t @KG_NBA):

We just had to come to the conclusion that Sasha's just an emotional player that plays by the seat of his pants, and that's about it. He just doesn't have a brain. He's just out there whacking away and working really hard. He's not using his head out there at times. We're working with him, hoping that he will.

A decade later, Vujacic prepares to join forces with this year’s fourth overall draft pick, Kristaps Porzingis—a spindly and preternaturally talented 7-foot Latvian teen prodigy. This, amid an interesting and elusive time continuum as Jackson attempts to borrow from his own fading history books. He is trying to marry the past to the present in a league that, quite frankly, has moved on.

Vujacic picked up two championship rings during his run with the Lakers. But in December 2010, he was traded to the New Jersey Nets as part of a three-team package that returned 35-year-old Joe Smith and a couple future second-round picks. Smith averaged 0.5 points over 12 games and then retired.

In what might have been his last interview as a Laker before being heading East, Vujacic expressed frustration with reduced minutes while also providing a meandering insight into matters of fandom.

“It’s nothing in-between,” Vujacic said per Elie Seckbach. “Y’know, either to be or not to be. That’s what it takes to be on top. And that’s always why somebody will like you. But when I play I like to give everything I have. That’s one thing they will hopefully always appreciate.”

The Machine was once engaged to Maria Sharapova. He favors a miniscule headband that barely constrains his raven locks and is the founder and creative spirit behind Aleksander—a luxury red wine produced in Paso Robles, California. And, his basketball career continued after Los Angeles, albeit in a serpentine fashion.

The combo guard actually put up career numbers in New Jersey, averaging 11.4 points in 56 games. But then the NBA summer lockout of 2011 happened. Vujacic decided not to wait it out, signing for a full season with Turkish League powerhouse Anadolu Efes which subsequently led to a second season.

There were attempts to return to the NBA, usually heralded by Vujacic through cheerful social media workout messages and gauzy beach sunset photos.


In February 2014 he appeared in two games and a total of 10 minutes for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nothing speaks NBA oblivion more clearly than a 10-day contract with no further services required.
Not to be deterred, Vujacic headed back overseas, playing in both the Spanish and Italian Leagues before returning to Turkey.

Brief articles that have encapsulated Vujacic’s signing by the Knicks invariably question whether he has anything left in the tank. Yet, the Slovenian converted 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc for Istanbul BB during the 2014-15 season.

He’s always had the ability to catch-and-shoot or let fly off the dribble, using his height and a high release to avoid approaching traffic.

The question isn’t necessarily whether the nomadic baller has the means to contribute, but the larger context of Jackson’s revisionist remake of the Knicks.

The Zen Master has a long habit of retreading veteran players, bringing Ron Harper and Horace Grant from his Chicago Bulls heyday to the Lakers in the early 2000s for instance. In returning full circle to New York where he began his career, the man with all the NBA bling assembled a coaching staff that not only included Fisher, but Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons as well—all longtime operatives in his Triangle system.

There aren’t many active NBA players left from Jackson’s coaching days—Kobe Bryant is entering his 20th season with the Lakers, Pau Gasol is with the Bulls and Trevor Ariza is with the Houston Rockets.

That left few viable options, save for the return of the Machine.

Vujacic will be joining a team that bombed out last season before restocking over the summer. His teammates will include Carmelo Anthony, Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, Russian shooting guard Alexey Shved, rookie guard Jerian Grant (nephew of Horace), and Porzingis.

Notwithstanding Jackson’s long-ago lack-of-brain comments, the veteran guard shouldn’t have any problem snapping back into the old off-ball cuts and curls. He has also played under some true coaching legends overseas, including Duda Ivkovic and Zalijko Obradovic.

“Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms,” is one of Jackson’s favorite sayings, borrowed from Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen.

Vujacic has also been immersing himself in the ways of wisdom as of late, retweeting quotes such as: “The heart of the wise man lies quiet like limpid water.”

Come the fall, the onetime Celtic-slayer will break the glassine surface once again, part of a generation of basketball that is quickly fading away.

It’s not Vujacic’s last best chance to return to the NBA, it’s his last chance period.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kobe Bryant: The Things We Know but Do Not Say




Ask the average person how many articles have been written about Kobe Bryant and you’ll get a blank stare in return. Nobody knows but it is certainly a very high number. It would be like counting the mosaic tiles in the Basilica of San Vitale.

There are no new angles to explore, there is no new information to report. Past glories have been repeated to death and there are only so many ways to spin predictions for his probably-but-not-absolutely final season of basketball. There can be no criticisms that have not yet been voiced, no chronicling of hero shots that have been launched or death glares cast toward teammates. Or teammates who worship him or those who hate him, or new ones he hasn’t yet met due to a top secret gyrocopter excursion to a mountaintop retreat where he’ll undergo molecular cartilage transfusions in an attempt to grow a new finger in place of that hideous turnip currently attached to his right hand… or left hand.

Kobe was last seen somewhere east of Eden. He has been busy creating a new monetary system for Greece. He has a soft spot for small yappy dogs. He only sleeps in five-minute increments. He is still a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and will begin his 20th season in the NBA in the fall.

He has five body doubles, three of which are robots. He does not consume salt or sugar or flour. He has a world-class chef who has learned how to extract protein from tree roots, which is then served on top of poached salmon with toasted watercress.

But the man who would be Sisyphus is far more than a complex superstar.

He is a teacher, a husband, a father and a friend. He is a soothsayer.


Bryant is known for summoning select teammates to early morning workouts at a clandestine location that is actually his home basketball court. The reality of the domestic whereabouts is never actually specified in the media, out of fear and respect. Instead, it remains mysterious and unobtainable.

Recently, the man with five—“count ‘em”—championship rings (apart from those received in an alternate universe that have not yet been revealed) invited a new rookie teammate who shall remain nameless to the above-mentioned undisclosed location which is between five and 50 miles from the team’s official workout facilities in El Segundo, California. There, the rookie was instructed to make 300 shots in a row from half-court, blindfolded and without the use of his hands or feet.

At some point, one would imagine that there should be more than just backstory and aimless narrative. But one could also simply select another of the countless mosaic tiles if one needs insight into whether Kobe’s going to shift over to the wing this season for 12 games before his femoral artery spontaneously detaches, requiring an adjustment in minutes played on odd/even days.

Last Tuesday, I was invited by Mr. Bryant to a sushi restaurant in (location redacted) for an exclusive interview. There were no limits on subject matter except that the spoken word could not involve a language known to modern man. I wish I could begin to convey the joy and enlightenment that ensued during our telepathic conversation, augmented by birdsongs and clog dancing. I have not yet found a means of translation and it may not really matter. I find myself humbled, contemplative. I have begun reading all known works pertaining to Helen Keller.

He’s a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.

On January 23, 2006, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a basketball game against the Toronto Raptors. The absurdity of that statement is made all the more poignant by knowing it can never happen again. Analytics won’t let it happen. In fact, the science of advanced basketball analysis was invented solely to prevent such occurrences.

Do you actually doubt the veracity of this statement?

In April of 2006, a series of emails encrypted through MIT’s Cray supercomputer were exchanged between Daryl Morey who had just become general manager of the Houston Rockets, Henry Abbott of ESPN and David Stern who was then the commissioner of the NBA. The purpose was to invent a new way of examining basketball logic; to prevent an 81-point atrocity from ever happening again and to install a set of curbs that would reduce Bryant’s point average on a yearly basis.

It has worked on an incremental level but Bryant’s shot attempts and usage have remained stubbornly high and fiercely self-justified.

These are the things we know but do not say. Instead, articles are written about fading glory, a difficult personality, a litany of unimaginable injuries and money.

Offered $48.5 million as an octogenarian hoops star, Bryant simply said, “Okay.”

During an interview with GQ’s Chuck Klosterman earlier in the year, the 36-year-old was asked about any negative effect that advanced metrics have had upon his career, and about the perception by Abbott and others that he shoots too much. Bryant responded by comparing himself to an 18th century Austrian composer.

“Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions,” Bryant said. “Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much.”

Basketball as an on-court professional enterprise will end for the longtime Lakers cornerstone at 9:31pm on February 19, 2016 just seconds after nailing a contested fall-away jumper from the top of the key. At that point, his left leg which will have swollen to twice its normal size from the diverted femoral artery, will cease to support his weight properly.

He will answer questions from the media for approximately 22 minutes before going to the hospital for emergency surgery.

It’s four in the morning, the end of July. I have managed to translate a small passage from my telepathic conversation with Mr. Bryant. During the course of our discussion he predicted many things, some of which he wishes to share with you… (unintelligible bird sounds).

The start of Lakers training camp is still more than two months away. During that time there will be countless new articles to add to the Bryant lexicon, most of which will in some way center on his age and predictions of failure. Each piece will also contain no less than three sentences of obligatory homage to the Mamba’s greatness.

But his job is a job, after all. And he’ll probably transition to the next stage of his life without the painful soul-searching that causes actual humans to resort to the toolbar for alternate synonym suggestions and information about the Basilica of San Vitale.

Somewhere, a gyrocopter sails through a glorious rose-colored sky. Daughters wake their father and ask what’s for breakfast. A basketball bounces softly, repetitively. Birds sing mysterious songs.

You say you know but you don’t know.

One more article about Kobe Bryant is now in the history books.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jeremy Tyler: Across the Universe




Jeremy Tyler recently wrapped up an engagement with the Dallas Mavericks summer league squad. At 24, the 6'11" basketball nomad has been with 11 pro organizations and counting.

He's hoping this gig will lead to something more permanent.

Tyler was once a famous phenom, a player who jumped the gun way too early. Not only did he skip college but his senior year at San Diego High as well. At the time, the 17-year-old decided the best path to the NBA was through European pro ball—it would take just a couple years to reach that pesky minimum age requirement imposed by David Stern.

The precocious prodigy was counseled in this regard by his father James Tyler, sneaker huckster Sonny Vaccaro, and agent Arn Tellem, then of the Wasserman Media Group.

“This hopefully will turn out to be one of the great life lessons for Jeremy,” Tellem said per Pete Thamel of the New York Times.

That was back in 2009 but it seems much longer ago. That was when Tyler was being described by NBA veteran Olden Polynice as a young Hakeem Olajuwon, and as “one of those guys who comes along once in a lifetime.”

That was when Polynice described the young protégé as being “pimped.”

Jeremy’s plan was to go overseas and come back a star. He’d become the top overall pick in the draft, shake Stern’s hand on stage, make $200 million over a glorious basketball career and then segue into modeling.

But the trans-continental divide didn’t quite work the way Vaccaro had pitched it to the high school dropout. Tyler’s first team was Maccabi Haifa in Israel where he butted heads with tough veteran players and a head coach with no time for coddling.

The teenager was benched, disciplined and lectured. He responded with complaints and accusations. And he played just 10 games before quitting and returning home to San Diego.

Vaccaro was nonplussed, saying per ESPN: “It would’ve been beautiful, utopia, if he had played and helped his team win a championship."

Tyler’s older and wiser now, a tough, solid player who averaged 11.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in Las Vegas. He has learned the tricks of the trade during his globetrotting years. Perhaps Tellem was right, but it wasn’t just one grand epiphany.

Back in San Diego, Tyler examined his options—no high school diploma and no longer eligible for college ball after signing a $140,000 pro contract. And he wouldn’t be draft legal for another full year.

But he still had Vaccaro in his corner. The godfather of the sneaker wars hooked Tyler up with Tokyo Apache, a Japanese basketball team that had just been purchased by a Los Angeles-based investor group led by Evolution Capital Management.

Tyler’s dream was still alive, he’d just get made in Japan.

The new head coach of Tokyo Apache was Bob Hill, a seasoned basketball operative from both the college and pro ranks, including the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics. Bob and his son Casey had been working out prospects for their new venture in Dallas. It was now July, 2010, and the Hills had a reclamation project they would partner Tyler with—Robert Swift who would ultimately become a junkie with a stocking over his head in Gold Bar, Washington. But that hadn’t yet happened.

Swift had been another teenage cautionary tale, drafted at 18 out of Bakersfield High in California before Stern had instituted his age limit. Like Tyler, Swift had been repped by Tellem.

By the time Tokyo Apache happened, the 7-foot Swift had played parts of four seasons with the SuperSonics and the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had wrecked his knee more than once, picked up some nasty habits and scorched all his bridges. Hill had been one of Swift’s coaches in Seattle.

Things didn’t start well for either Tyler or his new mentor in Tokyo. Swift was holed up in his downtown apartment, drinking himself into oblivion. And Tyler, who was still not privy to certain basketball fundamentals, was being ripped a new one at practice by Hill.

But things turned around with interventions and tough love. Swift stopped drinking, turned 25 and began collecting double-doubles. He was also relating well with Tyler who was now 19, and starting to figure out how the game should be played. The universe was coming back into alignment.

“Being in Japan is amazing, especially in Tokyo,” Tyler said per Christopher Johnson of the Times. “Everybody is so positive, my coaches, my teammates. There are so many different things to explore here. Basketball is taking care of itself.”



But on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake shifted the earth on its axis and caused a tsunami that washed out entire cities. In the aftermath, Tokyo Apache disbanded—their L.A. investors decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle anymore.

That was the end if basketball for Swift whose life spiraled into heroin and minor crime sprees. But for Tyler, there was still hope—he was finally eligible for the NBA draft.

He returned home again, convinced there was still salvation to be claimed. And to the surprise of many, the basketball exile began snaking his way up the draft board with the gift of gab.

Per Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com: "In interviews with team executives,Tyler has shown himself to be more than a perceived ungrounded basketball soul wandering the globe in search of the next start, and has impressed clubs with his maturity and ability to address his image—even spinning his tangled past into a positive."

Just days before the draft, there were rumors that Tyler could be a fringe lottery pick. But on the night of June 23, those hopes failed to materialize. Perhaps there was simply too much baggage, too many missteps. Tyler slipped out of the first round and was ultimately selected at No. 39 by the Charlotte Bobcats and immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors for cash.

It wasn’t exactly the dream he’d been peddled as a high school junior, but Tyler was now in the NBA—maybe.

The 2011 lockout began a week after the draft and lasted until December. Summer twitterdom and media opinions turned in on themselves like dogs chasing their own tails. And when a shortened season finally got underway, the Warriors found themselves in transition under new head coach Mark Jackson.

It was the beginning of something good for Golden State but it was still a choppy ride—Stephen Curry played just 26 games with ankle issues and the team wound up going 23-43.

As for Tyler, he played 42 games with the Warriors, starting 23 of them but averaging only 13.5 minutes per game. His stat line of 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds during his rookie season still remains his high water mark in the NBA. He was also assigned to the Dakota Wizards in the D-League on multiple occasions.

Despite the low numbers, Tyler was improving. His starts came toward the end of the season on a team decimated by injuries. In the last game of his rookie campaign, he played 44 minutes and delivered a career-high 16 points, plus nine boards.

The team even put together a brief “swagger and power” clip of the rookie’s highlights.



But the following season Tyler only averaged 1.1 point over 20 games for Golden State, along with more D-League assignments—the Wizards had by now moved west and become the Santa Cruz Warriors. And more changes were still in store.

Right before the February deadline, Tyler was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for future draft considerations. It was nothing more than a cost-cutting move—owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber wanted to get under the luxury tax ceiling. And whatever portion was left of Tyler’s second round minimum rookie contract, was enough to do the trick.

The onetime high school sensation played exactly one game in Atlanta before getting waived. Tyler was becoming a nonstory.

He appeared with the New York Knicks summer league team in 2013 and was signed in the fall before suffering a stress foot fracture that required surgery. He was subsequently cut to make room for J.R. Smith’s brother and signed by the Knick’s D-League affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks.

Tyler was brought back in late December by New York, playing 41 games for a team that had reached its nadir, featuring the endless death march of head coach Mike Woodson.

Zen master Phil Jackson took over basketball operations in March. Tyler was excited about new opportunities. He studied up on the Triangle offense, feeling that its inside-out nature could benefit his game. He listened in April as Jackson addressed his players in an impromptu group meeting. And when summer arrived and Derek Fisher was hired, Tyler praised the new coach’s leadership.

“Everyone is following his plan,” Tyler said of Fisher during summer league in July. “Everybody respects his system of the Triangle. Even off the court I’ve been replaying different sets in my mind.”

But Tyler was traded to the Sacramento Kings a month later and immediately waived. He managed a training camp invite with the Los Angeles Lakers who were coming off a train wreck season and about to embark upon one that would be even worse. Tyler lasted three preseason games before getting the axe.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes, they call me on and on across the universe.

The NBA washout did what anyone still chasing the dream would do—he headed to the People’s Republic of China. And there in an ancient mountainous province, he played basketball for Shanxi Zhongyu and a roster of Chinese nationals…plus Von Wafer.

Tyler was a star in Asia once again. He was living in the large industrial city of Taiyuan and took in the outlying sights—massive crumbling Buddhist statues and cliff-hanging temples. But this northern region isn't particularly suitable for tourism in the cold winter months, Mostly, Tyler practiced, played and enjoyed the hospitality of his hosts.  


The Shanxi Brave Dragons finished their season by losing on the road in the CBA quarter-finals to the Quindao DoubleStar Eagles. The game deconstructed in its latter stages, with the tempestuous Von Wafer kneeing an opposing player in the family jewels before tossing a chair into the stands.

Not to be outdone, Tyler got into a fight with Iranian man-mountain Hamed Haddadi and later deigned the giant’s act of contrition—matters escalated into a full-scale hallway rumble replete with security forces and ongoing Brave Dragon/DoubleStar Eagle skirmishes.

Another basketball season was over.

***

During the first week of summer free agency, DeAndre Jordan fled the Los Angeles Clippers for greener pastures, feted by select organizations before agreeing to terms with the Dallas Mavericks. Owner Mark Cuban went all in on the endeavor, according second-choice waiting status to Tyson Chandler who promptly signed with the Phoenix Suns.

But Jordan changed his mind after nearly a week of being a de facto Mav, leaving Dallas conspicuously lacking at the pivot.

A couple years back, Cuban blogged about the capricious nature of free agency and his penchant for seeing something in retread players who had failed in other organizations or systems. “I like our ability to work with what I call 'fallen angels.'"

How can a man who has been mentored by Robert Swift, engaged in fisticuffs with Haddadi, and failed to launch a $200 million career, not be a fallen angel? Tyler rebelled against the Basketball Gods and was cast out time and again. He has chased the rainbow, worked on his craft, become a father and played in every hoops system known to mankind—all by an age at which some prospects are just getting started.

Jeremy Tyler’s greatest sin wasn’t in listening to influencers. It was daring to be a teenager. Sure, he made a mess of things, like a kid with an electric guitar—just take some time and learn how to play.

But while sports is generally big on redemption stories, there is also a coded structure—a beginning and a middle and an ending. And if you take too much time getting to the hook, all is lost.'

Maybe Cuban will play the smart business angle, filling a hole with a minimum salary deal. And maybe a kid once bound for glory will knuckle down in Texas and finally deliver on his much-delayed promise.

But NBA training camps are still months away and professional basketball has increasingly become a year-round globalized business.

For Tyler, the great life lessons continue, across the universe.



Sunday, January 11, 2015

Robert Swift Longform: Leaving Bakersfield




My brother once emptied a clip at his apartment door—someone was trying to break it down from the outside. Both parties lived to see another day, until they didn’t. This is par for the course for heroin addicts. It is not a lifestyle destined for longevity.

When I read the latest news about Robert Swift—the onetime center for the Seattle SuperSonics and Oklahoma City Thunder—it seemed like the logical next drop-step for a basketball curiosity. Because downward spirals are not complicated patterns. The personalities might be, but not the slide itself—it’s just a sucking hole and it is rarely denied.

The former NBA prospect pleaded not guilty on weapons charges in a Seattle courtroom Monday. He was arrested January 6, in the town of Gold Bar, along with 28-year-old Carlos Abraham Anderson. The inept duo were apparently attempting to rob a home in broad daylight.

As Shari Ireton of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office recounted: “I believe there were a couple of people who called in, they saw masked subjects on the property, reported that at least one of them was armed with a weapon, one possibly with a baseball bat. It appeared they were either trying to make an entry or knocking on the door.”

Gold Bar, Washington—pop. 2,075—began its existence as a prospectors’ camp in 1889 but more recently faced bankruptcy. Swift, a 7’1” heavily inked-up dude who averaged 4.3 points per game over an injury-plagued five-year career in the NBA, earned about $9.8 million as a pro baller. He went broke a long time ago.

At the time of his arrest, Swift had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court the day after Thanksgiving. The admitted junkie had initially been arrested October 4, during a SWAT raid, and was charged with possession of a sawed-off shotgun, along with a grenade launcher and several other firearms on or under his bed.

Also arrested in the ATF-led operation was his roommate and owner of the house, Trgve Bjorkstam. Known as “Trigg,” the 54-year-old was booked for illegal firearms and dealing heroin within 100 yards of the Hellen Keller Elementary School in Kirkland. Other items confiscated included methamphetamine, meth pipes, used needles, a blackened fry pan with heroin residue, and dozens of weapons, some fitted with suppressors.

During their search, agents also discovered a hidden underground bunker initially used to grow weed before being turned into a firing range.

According to police reports, Trigg said that the former hoopster was just a “good guy” who was trying to help him collect on a heroin debt. There are yet no indications whether the more recent botched robbery was in any way connected.

***

East Bakersfield is a fairly typical inland community—desert heat, strip malls and ranch-style houses. Swift grew up as a tall, gangly white kid, with a younger sister, Samantha, now 22, a brother Alex, 28, and parents Bruce, 52, and Rhonda, 59. Robert’s dad was an air conditioning repair man who didn’t work for a few years following a car crash. His mom was dealing with cancer and seven surgeries. There wasn’t always enough food on the table.

Swift was 6’4” by the time he entered junior high. He did what super-tall skinny kids usually do and began playing basketball. He got pretty good too, good enough to go to the MacDonald's All American Game, good enough to attract the favor of AAU leeches armed with promises. Good enough for his parents to encourage pursuing a straight shot from high school to the NBA.




His high school coach suggested the college path instead. “His body was so frail and if you are seven feet tall at 16, your body has some growing to do,” said Gino Lacava during an interview with the UK Daily Mail. “That NBA schedule is rigorous and it doesn’t take much to hurt you. Me and the other coaches were all thinking the same thing, that Robert had definitely nothing to lose by going to college for a few years.”

But Swift’s parents, described as “middle class at best” by Lacava, had dollar signs in their eyes. “They got tied in with these AAU coaches who were constantly throwing around free offers and shoes and all the money and I think to them…it seemed like free money.”

For Swift, a quiet kid who averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks per game as a senior, there was the dream of getting lots of tats, and throwing parties and buying cars. His coaches almost won out though—Swift committed to playing for USC and Henry Bibby.

But his father hired Arn Tellem at SFX and USC went out the window. Heading into the draft, Tellem took an unusual approach. Robert wouldn’t attend predraft workouts, wouldn’t talk to teams, wouldn’t take physicals and wouldn’t attend the Chicago combine. In fact, he wouldn’t even be in New York City on draft night.

The sports agent didn’t want his client’s weaknesses exposed.

Bruce revealed the plan at the time, per ESPN: "His daily routine is to hang out with his buddies and get into some open gyms, shoot a bit, play against local guys here in Bakersfield."

Absence made the hungry hearts of NBA teams grow fonder—the skinny kid from the high desert began zooming up draft boards. On June 24, 2004, he was selected as the 12th overall pick by the Sonics.

The Swift family soon left Bakersfield, courtesy of an 18-year-old meal ticket in a custom pinstripe suit. Their ship had finally come in and the timing couldn’t have been better—Bruce had filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and again in 2003.

That summer trip may have been the best part of what would ultimately become Robert Swift’s long losing streak.

He earned $1.6 million for his rookie season, minus agent commission, taxes and other sundry expenses. He leased a Cadillac Escalade EXT pickup with a 3,500-watt sound system and bought his parents a pair of new SUVS for Christmas. He also bought them a home in Seattle’s upscale Sammamish suburb. And he rented himself an apartment near the team’s facility and started growing his hair long, and acquiring tattoos.

But he didn’t play much basketball. Nate McMillan was the Sonic’s coach at the time and had little patience for the new teenaged center—the paint was already packed with Jerome James, Danny Fortson, Vitaly Potapenko, and Nick Collison who had been drafted the year before but sat out his rookie season with injuries.

McMillan banished Swift to the weight room and told him to bulk up. The kid complied dutifully, and also got more tats, threw parties for local college kids, began collecting guns and visited his family a few times a week. When the team went out on the road, Swift’s dad would usually tag along. Bruce never held a job during his son’s time in the NBA.

During his rookie year, Swift averaged 0.9 points and 0.3 rebounds in 4.5 minutes per game, over 16 games.

McMillan left after 19 years with the Sonics organization in order to join the Portland Trail Blazers. Bob Weiss was promoted from assistant coach to head coach for all of 17 games and was then fired. Bob Hill—the man with the year-round tan—was the next Sonics assistant to take over the lead chair.

Hill saw something in Swift and began giving him floor time. He also showed him tough love and tried preparing him for a career in basketball and life beyond.

Jayson Jenks for the Seattle Times wrote about Swift’s flameout and the relationship he built with Hill. During summer workouts, the 19-year-old gushed about a Dodge pickup he had just purchased.

“Robert, I don’t give a (expletive) what your truck looks like or what you drive,” said Hill. “I’m more concerned about making you better here so you can get another contract and maybe another, so by the age of 28 or 29 you can be finished in life. That’s my concern. Not your truck.”

Those words would ultimately be prophetic, although not in the way Hill had hoped.

Swift played his best basketball in the NBA that season, starting 20 out of 47 games and averaging 6.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He had improved his strength and his footwork, could hold his own in the post and had a nice feathery touch on mid-range jumpers, converting 50 percent of his shots from 10-to-16 feet.

The Sonics renewed Swift’s contract for his third season. Hill was planning on making the 20-year-old his starting center for the 2006-07 season. Swift even purchased his own house that July in Sammamish—a sprawling four-bedroom home valued at $1.3 million. Life was starting to look pretty rosy.

But during the preseason, Swift dived out of bounds for a loose ball and tore his right ACL. He wound up missing the entire season. For all intents and purposes, Swift’s NBA career was over but it would take a couple more years for the final nail to be driven into his basketball coffin.

Swift gained weight during his year off, got more tattoos and partied hard at his new mansion. Hill was fired over the phone at the end of the season, after a 31-51 record and failing to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.

The Sonics exercised their option to bring Swift back for another season. He tried making a comeback under new head coach PJ Carlesimo but appeared in only eight games before wrecking his knee again.

The Seattle franchise had been going through their own painful transition since changing ownership from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz in 2006. The team eventually relocated to Oklahoma City as the Thunder, leaving longtime fans in the Pacific Northwest with a bitter taste.

In July of 2008, Swift signed a qualifying offer with the Thunder for $3.6 million. It was a bump up from his previous salary by nearly a million bucks, and would make him a restricted free agent the following spring. It would also allow a draft bust who had played just 71 games in four years, one last opportunity to make good.

The kid from Bakersfield was now 22 years old. He was big and had a body covered in black ink, and had begun painting his fingernails black as well. He was lugging a bulky knee brace up and down the court, but had also dedicated himself to losing weight. He was used sparingly—playing spot minutes for a few games, sitting out a lot more.

Swift averaged 3.3 points and 3.4 boards in 26 games his final NBA season. Carlesimo was fired after going 1-12, and Scott Brooks took over. It was a team heading in a new direction, and that direction would not include a redheaded center who had once been compared to Bill Walton.

Swift was now a free agent and without a paycheck for the first time since high school. He played for the Boston Celtics in summer league action, averaging seven points and 3.6 boards over five games. Danny Ainge had once coveted the teen prospect and had promised to pick him at No. 15 in the 2004 draft. But Seattle got there first.

Summer league ended without an offer and Swift returned to his eastside home in the Seattle outskirts. He began drinking heavily and getting high again. He put the weight back on, plus some. He wandered down to Bakersfield that fall and began hanging out with old friends.

Swift decided to give his hometown another try. In December, he signed with the Bakersfield Jam in the D-League. But after just two games he headed back to Seattle, citing personal issues with his family. The former lottery pick had also just learned his girlfriend was pregnant.




In July of 2010, Bob Hill was with his son Casey in Dallas, working out some prospects. Hill had just landed a job coaching Tokyo Apache. The Japanese pro basketball team first formed in 2004, had been purchased in June by a Los Angeles-based investor group led by Evolution Capital Management.

Hill contacted Swift, and wanted to know if he’d like to play some ball again. The season would begin in September. Swift grabbed at the chance for some semblance of redemption and was also intrigued by the setting—his paternal grandmother was Japanese. He booked a flight to Texas and arrived weighing 335 pounds and sporting a Mohawk.

He told Bob and Casey he’d get a haircut and lose the weight. He’d get right.

But when the season began in Japan, Swift had trouble adjusting. He’d lost 70 pounds of mostly water weight but hadn’t gotten his timing or his confidence back yet. There were things that were bothering him.

According to Jenks and the Seattle Times, Bob and Casey walked into the troubled center’s darkened Japanese apartment in December. He was alone and hung over in bed, an empty vodka bottle nearby. His fiancé had phoned to call off their engagement.

Bob Hill told Swift to get out of bed and read him the riot act: “Maybe being drafted at the age of 18 wasn’t fair. Maybe making all that money at that age wasn’t the right thing for you. But it happened and you have to deal with all this. You’re going to have to plant your feet on the ground and take control of your life.”

Swift began to cry. And then he began putting himself back together. He stopped drinking and worked on his game. He turned 25 and began collecting double-doubles—something that had occurred only twice during his entire time in the NBA. He also mentored 19-year-old Jeremy Tyler—another cautionary tale who skipped college.

The transformation was so dramatic that NBA scouts started calling. The Celtics and New York Knicks wanted to bring Swift in for workouts when his season was done. Hill said it was fun to watch somebody turning their life around.

On March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean, 231 miles northeast of Tokyo. The shock was so big that it shifted the earth on its axis and caused 130-foot waves, including a tsunami that washed out entire cities.

That was the end of the basketball season for Tokyo Apache, and for their existence altogether. The L.A. investors decided it just wasn’t worth it and scuttled the enterprise.

***

Swift returned to his home in Sammamish. In April, he worked out for the Portland Trail Blazers. A brief YouTube video of a tall, slim ginger with a wispy beard shooting jumpers may be the last known basketball footage of the former McDonald’s All-American.

On July 1, 2011, the NBA went on a lockout. It lasted five long months. It wasn’t a good time for a basketball reclamation project to be wishing for a job.

Instead, he started putting harm in his arm and stopped paying the mortgage on his house. Nearly $10 million had slipped away over the years. It would take another 12 months before the bank finally foreclosed on the property.

Swift began shutting down and shutting people out—people like Bob and Casey Hill, like his old coach Lacava, like childhood friends from Bakersfield, and even some members of his own family.

In text exchanges with the UK Daily Mail, Robert’s mother said she hadn’t spoken to him in years, adding: “He bought and did things for his dad and sister but not for his brother or me.”

She also mentioned a book she was writing that would “tell the whole truth.” Because a tell-all book deal will certainly explain how parents helped a multimillion dollar meal ticket grow into a broke heroin addict with a bunch of guns under his bed.

The foreclosure on the house in Sammamish wasn’t a quick and tidy affair. Swift, who owned more than $160,000 in back payments did not want to leave his home. He just wanted to be left alone—with his friends and his dogs and a girlfriend, and his gun collection and various cars in the yard including an El Camino without an engine.

And so he became a squatter in the house he bought with NBA money and then that became the Robert Swift story—for another nine months. He stayed there even after a young couple bought the house at 50 cents on the dollar in January of 2013.

Once the media outlets got hold of the story, little bits of information became malleable. The former draft bust became “Seattle’s basketball savior” and the $10 million he earned turned into $20 million. One local news anchor with a stentorian voice described Swift as the “No. 1 overall draft pick.”

And everybody wanted to know how it came to this.

The nice young couple tried calling Swift and writing letters and knocking on the door of the house they now owned but couldn’t move into. They hired a lawyer and filed legal charges and did TV interviews. News crews tried peeking in the windows.

And finally, one weekend at the beginning of March, Swift and his girlfriend and their dogs were gone. But they left almost all their belongings behind.

The nice young couple rolled in a giant dumpster almost as tall as the house and invited a news crew to come and film. And they wrinkled their noses at the filth as the cameras rolled.

“A lovely way somebody lives,” said the young husband. "The first thing you get when you walk in the door is kind of whiff of whatever is festering in here,” said the young wife.

But what else were they supposed to do? They paid their money just as Swift had paid his. And they wanted to fill their new house with things they had purchased, just as the onetime basketball prospect had done.

The TV footage and the photo galleries from mainstream outlets to basketball blogs showed a myriad of images and some were shown more frequently than others.

There were guns and bullets and empty shell casings. There were bullet holes in the walls and windows and foundation. An article mentioned 100 pizza boxes and 1,000 beer and liquor bottles. Did somebody actually take the time to count?

The empties included dozens of cardboard 18-packs of Coors Light, and there was Mountain Dew and Coca Cola and Twister Tea as well. And cupcakes squashed on the granite kitchen breakfast bar, and outside there were blackened hot dog buns by the grill. There were beds and clothes and a bathroom with blow dryers and toothpaste, and a towel on the vanity that looked like it had simply been used and left before someone headed out for the day—as if they might be coming back later. There was a pool table and computers and stereo equipment, and speakers that once pumped out music, loud and strong. And board games and a model of a covered wagon and a large fishing net and a graveyard of remote controls. The basement had been turned into a firing range and the deck was a place for dogs to poop.

And then there were the photographs of an all-too-short NBA career, and photos of Bakersfield. And a box of letters from colleges with scholarship offers. And outside was a brightly painted basketball court that unlike the interior of the house, seemed oddly clean and well-cared for.

After Swift left, and the dumpster got filled to overflowing, the stories began to recede into the background. Few people seemed to know or care where a washout had wandered off to. Casey Hill said the last he heard, the former basketball player was working as a salesman somewhere in Seattle.

Eight months passed and another NBA draft came and went, as did another summer league. And a new NBA season began and there were new draft busts to write about.

And then the stories came flooding back. A guy who admitted to doing heroin every day got popped in a drug den 100 feet away from an elementary school and didn’t show up for his hearing. And a month later he turned up in a small town that had fallen off the map.

How do you end a downfall story about a homeless seven-foot junkie who decides to put a stocking over his head and knock on someone’s door in Gold Bar?

With a convenient tag about hope for brighter days ahead, or an improbable return to a profession that never quite worked out? Swift’s basketball career didn’t have to end when the earth shifted on its axis and a giant wave hit the Japanese coastline.

He could have played for dozens of other teams that provide refuge and employment for NBA outcasts. But a house and guns and dogs and pizza boxes, and bindles of heroin, were infinitely warmer and easier.



By the time Swift was arraigned on possession of a sawed-off shotgun Monday, he looked frailer than any time since high school. He is being represented by the King County department that works with indigent defendants. His next court date will be January 26.

Ultimately, we look at stories through the lens of our own existence, and sometimes seminal journeys and family memories. Like a string of bullet holes stitched in an apartment door, left by someone who died long ago.

This one is for you my brother.


                                                                                                                    (updated 1/12/15)


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Will Slava Medvedenko Coach the New York Knicks?




Kyivan Stanislav Medvedenko blazed an erratic orbit across the basketball firmament in the early 2000’s before pulling a vanishing act worthy of Greta Garbo or Amelia Earhart.

Phil Jackson hasn’t forgotten though.

In January 2014, Jackson appeared on Fox Sports Live for an extended interview with hosts Charissa Thompson, Andy Roddick and Gary Payton. 11 Rings listened as Payton described injuries, adversity and unlikely heroes during the Los Angeles Lakers’ run to the Finals in 2004, before falling to the Detroit Pistons.

And then the Zen Master spoke, just two words: “Slava Medvedenko.”

Payton blinked a few times, as if temporarily short-circuited.  And plowed ahead: “Oh he makin’ big shots, big shots!”

Now, of course, Jackson is running operations for the New York Knicks and facing the challenge of finding a coach in the aftermath of being turned down by Steve Kerr.

But we know there’s a plan B. And perhaps, it was plan A all along. As in “unceasing change turns the wheels of life. And so reality is shown in all its many forms.”

For Jackson, the cycle completes by returning to the city where he first made his mark as a player, drafted in 1967 in the second round.

As for Medvedenko, the lines of reality can become more blurred. At long last, after years of self-imposed exile, could a bear emerge from the forest?

Pros of Slava coaching the Knicks:

Medvedenko may have pretended not to understand the intricacies of the triangle offense but he understands coaching. He's been stalking the sidelines with the Ukrainian national team's youth division (U16/17), as well as his own basketball club, for the past several years.

Coaching Ukrainian basketball is fraught with challenges these days. The unrest that has broken out across the country isn't making as many headlines but continues regardless,with pro-Russian gunmen seizing control of key sectors and local forces often seeming powerless. Kiev, the capital city and Medvedenko’s home since childhood, has been especially rocked by violence and political instability and now moves toward an uncertain future as citizens go to the polls to elect a new Ukrainian president. 

Mike “the Czar” Fratello, known for his work as an analyst for TNT as well as being head coach for the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies, has also served as head coach for the Ukrainian national team since 2011.

Per Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer, Fratello visited Kiev in February as violence was escalating: "Obviously, it has escalated in the last five days. Things have gotten much worse. They closed the basketball federation offices last week. I think that was the smart thing to do. A bullet doesn't know where it's going when it leaves the gun."

It’s one thing to be turned down by Kerr, it’s another thing when the tanks start rolling in.

Does this ever feel like Déjà vu?

Imagine the small hours of the morning. Two tall figures walk down a lonely city canyon, impossibly tall skyscrapers on each side blocking out all but a ribbon of inky sky overhead, peppered by tiny distant lights. One figure has a gate that seems far too painful for leisurely strolls through high-walled city canyons with a ribbon of inky sky above.

They see the city sleep tonight. They see the stars are out tonight. 

Why it won't happen:

Basketball would be too beautiful, causing the fabric of the universe to tear asunder.

Because who would teach the children, now?

Because if you coach the Knicks, at some point you’ll have to deal with James Dolan which would actually be a picnic compared to dealing with Mother Russian masked thugs with Pecheneg machine guns. Maybe this should be a pro not a con.

Take a moment and imagine the fourth quarter of an important game at MSG with lights shining hard and teenagers screaming with twisted faces and Medvedenko calling a time out and stolidly trying to make his instructions known to Carmelo Anthony.

Medvedenko: “Vy rozmovliajete ukrajinśkoju?”

Anthony: “No, I don’t understand what you’re fucking saying, dammit! Where’s Phil?”

In truth, Slava Medvedenko is never coming back.

He was just another big eastern European dude who went undrafted in 2000 and might never have caused a ripple beyond that. But something happened—perhaps a rift in the basketball time continuum, and he was signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Lakers where he made an immediate impression—freelancing and jacking up shots at will, pretending not to understand the language and trudging back to the bench with cheeks aflame when Jackson yanked back on his leash—usually about five minutes after sending him in.

There was something wonderfully elusive about him. He made some of us laugh and never knew about it. And the laughter was good then—it was an intoxicating era of basketball, with wins and championships coming fast and free. And then his time was done—a operation on his back never quite panned out right.

Medvedenko had one last shot in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks in 2006—just 14 games and his back simply wouldn’t allow him to continue at the level he wanted. 

He dabbled in film production for a short while, due to his marriage to producer Svetlana Anufrieva. They had a son together but eventually broke up. Slava returned to Kiev and began devoting time to youth sports and education.

Anufrieva remained in the U.S. and produced a documentary entitled “Divorce: A Journey Through the Kids’ Eyes", released in 2014.

Medvedenko’s journey also began as a child, in the village of Kiev Oblast. He wasn’t all that interested in basketball—preferring swimming, volleyball and especially soccer—until a coach named Alexander D. Kovalenko pointed out the obvious. Namely, that Stanislav was getting rather tall.

Like a bear, which was also his family nickname. Medved, meaning Bear.

As Slava later said, “Alexander D. instilled in me a love of basketball and I realized it was mine. From hatred to love in one step.”

And a career that took him from the youth league to professional basketball in the Ukraine and Lithuainia, and then to the US., getting summer league invites from the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns before signing with the Lakers.

Medvedenko began toying with the idea of founding his own basketball school during the Lakers offseason in 2001 and it became a reality in 2004. “Vedmedi” (UKR) or “Medvedi” (RUS) translates to “Bears from Kyiv”. More commonly known as BC Bears, the team became the official cadet division of BC Kyiv (the Ukrainian national team) in 2012. 

During an interview with the Ukrainian sport site iSport, Medvenko spoke of the end of an NBA career:

“Frankly, after a serious injury you’ll never be able to return to the previous level. You constantly have fear and dread.  As I have said, when you finish with basketball, everything in life becomes different. Other colors and sounds. People need to rebuild their lives completely, to find their place, where you can be useful, where you can feel interested again.”

Stories don’t always play out as we imagine. And in many cases, we don’t imagine them at all. A world away, kids get into a gym when they are able, trying to find some escape from a war-torn landscape in which the various sides and alliances can be hard to figure out.

On Sunday, polls will open in critical presidential elections that could determine the future of Kiev and other western parts of Ukraine, while to the east, violence will continue to rage on, and voting will be unlikely.

And in New York City, Jackson will continue to look for a coach for the Knicks.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Looking Back on Mr. D’Antoni’s Wild Ride



It wasn’t quite two seasons long but that’s just a trifle—Mike D’Antoni was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers ten games into the 2012-13 campaign and took them on an unapologetic spin through his uniquely myopic, often entertaining and ultimately disastrous brand of basketball.

Along the road were too many injuries to recount, empowerment for minimum-salary castoffs and 67 wins and 87 losses. Yowsa!

The overall total reads better than the denouement—his second season accounted for 55 of those misfires and will go down as the worst loss record in franchise history.

Toward the end, it had become a screaming banshee death spiral capped off with one last flourish that says more about D’Antoni’s lack of tether to the franchise than any other singular action.

The Lakers ended their train wreck with back-to-back wins, thus squandering any chance to move up the ladder in the all-important draft lottery.

And when told by reporters of the implication of beating the Spurs in the last game of the regular season, the onetime COY responded, “They played hard, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the same number of ping-pong balls, right? They flip a coin, or something.”

Oh, you impish wag.

He was informed of his misperception, of course.

But in the end it really didn’t matter—D’Antoni had long since gone all in on a basketball philosophy that could just have well been told in iconic theme park verse:

“We’re merrily on our way, to nowhere in particular!”

I never wanted him to coach the Lakers. I was a Zen Master devotee through and through—it was all  about the guy with the rings and the soul patch, and that absurd fascination with staring at the floor while seated, as important basketball business transpired on court.

The decision just didn’t make any sense in my mind, I spent too much time recycling through an endless tape loop of “but, why?”

I probably missed too many memorable moments over the almost-two seasons, simply because I found obstinate fault with a system that never had a prayer when married to guys like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

It was prideful and wrong and basically stupid of me, like parents who turn away from a class performance because they don't approve of the silly bumblebee costumes.

Yes, it was an abomination like no other. But how those pom-pom antennas waved merrily through the air, as an array of giddy gunners launched gobstoppers toward a distant honeypot.

“We’re always in a hurry, we have no time to stall!”

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride lasted 154 games, the likes of which we won’t see again. If there’s any comparison in the annals of Laker lore, it might be Dennis Rodman’s 23-game party rager during the 1998-99 season, in which he averaged 2.1 points and 11.2 boards before taking an impromptu detour from the Forum to Vegas, causing Jerry West to remove the tap from the keg.

D’Antoni wasn’t the right coach for the Lakers, at least not for a team assembled from such disparate elements. And of course, nobody could have won with all those injuries. Just because it’s been repeated ad nauseam, doesn’t change that inherent truth.

He rejected the star system in an organization that personifies it.

And the villagers with their pitchforks and fiery torches helped hasten a foregone conclusion. Or maybe not, does it even matter?

He went out the way he came in, suddenly and amidst contradictory reports and predictions.

And despite the dark days, D’Antoni delivered some shining moments—diagraming brilliant timeout plays, reviving the careers of young NBA rejects and never once wavering from an extreme form of tunnel vision that belongs to life’s true believers.

I never supported him but I find myself wishing I had paid better attention nonetheless.

Actually, I kind of did pay attention. I think I watched all 55 losses. Sometimes, wild rides can be god-awful.

Fare thee well, Mr. D’Antoni—may the wind be always at your back, though our roads are perpendicular!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mike D’Antoni, Life Journal, Day 576




Laurel is annoyed with me for playing Dark Side of the Moon all night on the stereo system. She said that’s why she bought me ear buds, but I don’t like how they feel. 

Woke up, had a half-grapefruit and some turkey sausage. Sat on the patio and texted Kupchak, asked if they were ready to guarantee my fourth year. I don't do things half-ass, you gotta burn the house to the ground if you really want to rise to the sun. 

Mitch is alright, though. It’s that Jimmy kid that worries me. Can’t trust amateurs like that.

Goals for the week: No. 1, make a rock garden. No. 2, grow some tomato plants. No. 3, take up watercolor painting.

I’m gonna miss Dan.

If I come back next season, Shawne’s coming back too. That’s non-negotiable.

Made good progress last night on new treatise for next season—cribbage analytics as applied to skill-ball. Always lead your opponent during play. For example, if you start with a 7, the other guy could play an 8 for 15 and score 2 points. By leading, you can play a 9 to score 3 points for a Run.

Three is always better than two.

If I could get some of these new number junky bloggers on my side I could rule the basketball universe. I wonder how much that would cost me. I bet some of them would do it for free.

We take what the league gives us and that basically means less physicality under the basket. If you suck more defenders out toward the three-point line it opens up paths to the rim even more. Occam’s razor says it’s pointless to do with more what is done with less. Big guys who stand around in the paint are more. Scoring a three-pointer is less because it means more points with one possession.

I'm not coming back for a third year if they won't give me a fourth. 

“Run, rabbit run—dig that hole, forget the sun.”

I still miss the wildflowers in Abruzzo. We used to drive there in the spring. It was just Laurel and I, then. Bombing along in our old Fiat Spider, not a worry in the world. Lilies and orchids and primrose. And the silver birch trees in the forest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SEARCHING FOR SLAVA


The season hasn’t gone as planned, and the season before didn’t go as planned, or the one before that.

The mind-numbing tape-loop of sequential injuries provided fodder for a while, as did an avalanche of losses that finally lost their power and simply continued to accrue, silently, impotently.

Like snow falling at night.

You mined the controversy and misery, you found effective hit-seeking hooks and far-reaching narratives that fed upon themselves until all the good stuff had been chewed out, and what was left felt tasteless and plasticine. The concentric circles of hell began to flatten out and dissipate.

It felt this way long ago but you were younger then and media strip-mining hadn’t yet sucked your soul clean of caring. Losing meant more, then.

You go from watching three games at once to none at all. You pretend to become deeply obsessed in the story of a missing airliner instead. You take too much time choosing between a five-dollar frozen pizza and the one that cost 3-for-$10 with your store discount card.

The lockout season was better than this.

You decide that it’s all part of the greater good. That stuff—about renewal and Sisyphusian challenges—and you devote a small portion of think-power to constructing something grand and beautiful but then Netflix happens instead.

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently at 22-44 and have a few days off. They were dead last in the Western Conference standings, but somehow, Utah must have lost additional games faster than the Lakers lost additional games, so now the Jazz are dead last.

You stare at the screen, knowing that the Lakers paragraph should move up several spaces for maximum efficiency. And that you need to put a block quote some place.

You forget that the oven timer went off. The 3-for$10 pizza is now an unappealing shade of brown around the edges.

Someone from Milwaukee or Cleveland would hit you in the face with a two-by-four just to shut you up.

You take a moment to gather small pieces of foam rubber from a destroyed dog bed and kneel on a damp spot from puppy piss from many hours earlier, or even days ago.

Every now and then, people still wonder whatever happened to Slava. The answer is actually quite simple—he returned to the Ukraine several years ago and has been working with youth basketball, including the U16/17 National Team.

Per Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer, Mike Fratello, coach of the Ukrainian National Team during tournament play, recently visited Kiev, as violence was escalating:
"Obviously, it has escalated in the last five days. Things have gotten much worse. They closed the basketball federation offices last week. I think that was the smart thing to do. A bullet doesn't know where it's going when it leaves the gun."
It’s one thing to have a few bad seasons in a row. It’s another thing when the tanks start rolling in.

On Monday, the Lakers announced that Jordan Farmar had strained his right groin in practice. His return to the lineup is uncertain.

It's just one more stumbling block in a larger narrative of loss, and an ongoing sense of dysfunction that feels murky and ill-defined, like a recipe randomly put together by bored children. 

The Lakers host the San Antonio Spurs, at Staples Center on Wednesday.

And I’m still searching for Slava.

Friday, September 6, 2013

SOMEONE'S NUMBER NINE: THE RETURN OF SHAWNE WILLIAMS




The Los Angeles Lakers are in a gathering mode leading up to training camp. Mindful of vagaries of age and health, management is stockpiling multi-positional projects in hopes of plugging a hole left by the amnesty of Metta World Peace. Forward Shawne Williams has faced well-publicized off-court challenges, including multiple drug busts and the loss of his older brother. This will be a low-risk deal from a financial standpoint – his minimum salary is only partially guaranteed. The initial press blurbs were slimmer than they once were. You burn enough opportunities and the story tends to downsize. 

I was driving cross-country a few summers back and took a detour into downtown Memphis. A couple random historic district signs led past abandoned buildings and empty lots. The Housing Authority came in during the 1950's and wiped out about half the area. Things were never quite the same again. Nearly 1,500 acres have been deemed a “menace to public safety, health, morals and welfare” according to the current Community Redevelopment Agency. Another eminent domain razing is being planned in the name of gentrification. Here come the warm Starbucks. For a guy making random lefts and rights in an old green Explorer, it simply looked like a place you could get lost in real easy. About 30 minutes later I was refilling my ice chest and buying post cards at a convenience store and heading back to ten lanes of mind-numbing banality that now passes for a road trip.

A “cautionary tale” is one of sports' pet phrases, often used in primetime style and easily applied to athletes who never quite got there. Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell dunked over cars on the mean streets of Oakland. He grew up with the likes of Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Brian Shaw, and has been called the greatest player to never make it to the NBA. Instead he played for weed and crack and wound up in and out of prison. Lamar Odom faced more loss than anyone should but eventually reached the pinnacle of NBA success, as well as marrying into the kind of tabloid status that keeps buzzards like TMZ well fed. Lamar's current woes took another turn when he checked out of rehab a day after checking in.

Getting high happens on different levels. There aren't enough prisons in the world to hold everyone who has ever smoked a joint or done a line of coke, or who has hung with someone that's just not going to make your life simple and easy, although it might seem simple and easy in the moment.

Shawne Williams grew up in South Memphis in a neighborhood marked by crime and prostitution. He and his brother Ramone, one year his senior, were primarily raised by their grandfather, Lou Williams. Shawne wasn't really seen as a bad kid by Coach Ted Anderson at Hamilton High, though he later observed that the troubled player had nine lives. It's probably a cliché to say Williams has used most of them up. It's also probably true. He was courted by Coach John Calipari and the University of Memphis. Anderson admits he lobbied for Shawne to declare for a different college, someplace far away from friends and temptation.

A standout freshman season led to Williams being taken as the 17th pick in the 2006 draft, by Donnie Walsh and the Indiana Pacers. Things were good for a while until they weren't. Off-court troubles started piling up. Shawne was traded to Dallas and wound up being paid by Mark Cuban to stay away from the team. Dallas traded his contract to the Nets and he was subsequently released. Kiki Vandeweghe later said, “I'm glad he's not our issue.” Out of the NBA and hanging out with old Memphis friends, Williams said “a light switched on” and he decided to get out of town and back into shape.

Timelines don't always tell the whole story but they're a part of the story nonetheless. Shawne Williams has been arrested three times during his NBA career and stopped, questioned and ticketed at various other junctures. Aggregate causes have included smoking a blunt, driving without a license, associating with a murder suspect and being part of an “Operation Lockdown” dragnet in Memphis. Williams plead guilty to four misdemeanor charges for that one, including intent to sell hydrocordone, aka sizzurp in styro cups. He was placed in a six-month diversion program and tested positive for weed four times during that period. In 2012 he was popped again for codeine-based syrup.

In the spring of 2010, Williams traveled to the IMG Basketball Academy in Brandenton, Florida and started playing again. He lost weight and dedicated himself to the game. He received a summer league invite from the Charlotte Bobcats and coach Larry Brown, who was likely influenced by the recommendation of John Calipari. Summer league lead to two NBA training camp offers: the Bobcats and the NY Knicks. Williams went with the Knicks for personal reasons. Madison Square Garden was the last place his brother saw him play – this during a college tourney. Ramone was murdered shortly thereafter. It's also worth noting that Donnie Walsh who drafted Williams, was now running operations for the Knicks.

Likened to a reclamation project within a reclamation project, Shawne Williams thrived in NYC. Mike D'Antoni admittedly tested him, tossing the 6-9 forward into various rotations and situations. Williams slowed down LeBron James, was choked by an agitated Metta World Peace, was even put in at center against Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic. The size mismatch was ridiculous but the forward didn't back down. He's never been accused of playing soft. As D'Antoni said, “He's coming at you. And I like that about him.” His minutes increased and his role solidified. He shot .401 from behind the arc and helped the team to their best season in a decade.

The following fall found Williams at the Knicks training camp, waiting for a free agent offer. He ultimately signed with the Nets for two years and $6.1 million, calling it a business decision. Things didn't work out in New Jersey. He was traded after 25 uneventful games to the Portland Trail Blazers. Williams didn't play in Portland and was arrested again the following winter. According the affidavit, the 26 year-old said, “Officer, I ain't gonna lie to you, there's a blunt in the car and some syrup.”

Williams hasn't seen any NBA action in well over a year. Still, his tough-nosed play caught on with D'Antoni that one season and his coach remembers. The Memphis product will be playing for a spot against a glut of other question marks. He's burned his bridges and used up at least eight lives. Still, if you're going to be someone's number nine, it might as well be the Lakers.

A predictable thing happened after the first Lakers beat stories about the signing of Williams. National basketball writers started to circle. They remembered the cautionary tales, they might have even played a part once. During a slow summer news cycle, events like this can generate interest. Phrases are dusted off, links are explored and parsed.

Somewhere a car floats around a corner, the music's bumping and the windows are dark and you don't know if it's a guy going somewhere or if it's just another ride with a group of friends. Headlights, taillights, it could be Los Angeles or it could be Memphis. Another season's about to begin.