Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Heartache and Melancholy of Temporality

More than any other team in this summer's olympics, I was interested in watching the Spanish team. Yeah, they had that tacky slanty eyes ad and all, but there was something exciting about the individuals on the team and the way they fit together.

Watching the team, I wasn't disappointed. They had flash with substance, Jose Calderon bounce passes, Rudy Fernandez dunks, Pau Gasol post moves and face ups and fast break dunks, Marc Gasol looking surprisingly mobile while guarding the pick-and-roll on the perimeter (a la Kendrick Perkins last year), and a remarkably poised 17-year-old Ricky Rubio playing solid defense against some of the best guards in the world. And their last game against the U.S. was just lovely to watch.

But there was also a weird twinge of sadness to the whole affair, resulting from looking ahead too much. I imagine most of the significant contributors to this team will be back in 2010 for the World Championships in Turkey (I wonder about Garbajosa's health though . . .), but this particular manifestation of the team will be gone. The younger players on the team (such as Marc Gasol, Rubio, and Fernandez) will likely have larger roles as the program transitions from the slightly older generation, and perhaps a couple of new young exciting players will have joined the mix. Perhaps more relevantly, the mystery of Marc, Ricky, and Rudy will be gone as I'll have had a year or two to watch them in the NBA.

There will be other exciting teams, and new storylines, but getting focused on the winning and losing just takes away from the uniqueness of the present. There will be other teams, and other players, but they won't be these players.

This is kind of more about life than it is about basketball. But bear with me: one of the things we live with as sports fans is how quickly things change. Careers are short, and what with salary caps and such players don't stick around together for long anyways. It's weird to talk about how quickly things change when the NBA has such a grueling schedule coupled with a seemingly endless playoffs, but, as in life, each moment is its own lifetime. And sometimes, in the moment, it's easy to take for granted the presentness of what is happening, to remember that afterwards, all that will be left are memories, themselves fading.

We have, in the aftermath, numbers to keep us company. I can tell you how many points Wilt Chamberlain scored, or how many rebounds Dennis Rodman got. These are pale reflections, the sporting equivalent of faded photos.

It's the "how" that's missing. Earl Monroe's career statistics aren't often presented in italics, they don't look any smoother or flashier than anyone else's.

Even watching old game film is a different experience. It was one thing to watch Shawn Kemp in the early 90's, his every move an undreamed of rebellion against physics. It's quite another to witness those same moves in hindsight, with vision clouded by a knowledge of players such as Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. That revelatory feeling is gone.

Growing up, I spent most of my summer vacations in India, visiting family and making new friends out of the neighbors. Each summer I had three months to develop these bonds, with the knowledge all along that at the end of the three months that life would come to an end when I stepped on the plane to return home. The next year I would go back, but everything would be different -- neighbors had moved away, friends had grown up, and so forth.

Right now, the Portland Trailblazers are (rightfully) the next big thing. They're stocked with extremely talented young players and it's fun to imagine how they'll play together, what sort of excitement they'll generate. The fact that the results are completely unknown only makes it more fun. But a few years from now the Blazers will be, at best, the status quo. Fans will have moved on to the Grizzlies or the Oklahoma City Whatevertheyare (probably the Thunder) or whoever else happens to be the up-and-comer of the moment. But the tremors right now of tentative expectation and the anticipation of uncertain dominance, they'll be gone and forgotten. And that's a much longer moment than the post-Steven Jackson trade Warriors, who had a few months of glory before shipping off Jason Richardson and then watching Baron Davis leave a year later. They'll be a new and exciting team with all of their talented young players, but that doesn't lessen how exciting those couple of months were.

It's with these thoughts in mind that I recently read Tom Ziller's post on Gerald Wallace. Wallace has, for the last couple of years at least, been the only reason I tune in for Bobcats games. On the court he's volatile, with occasional completely unpredictable explosions. Even his flaws make him more watchable. But his style is also a paragon of unsustainability, built as it is on headfirst forays into the hoop and hardnosed defense against much larger opponents. He's been averaging what seems like a concussion a year for a while now, and that statistic is much more befitting of a football player than it is of a headband-clad basketballer.

Wallace is still young, even in NBA years, and Ziller seems to think that recent changes in his playing style are more due to incompetent coaching than to an age- and concussion-related mellowing, but I can't help but wonder if his days of demolition derby-style are over.

Wallace is one illustration of that fact that it's not just retirement that pushes player-moments back into the graveyard of memory, but also stylistic changes brought on by age (for instance, dominant Shaq vs. decoy Shaq), injury (Antonio McDyess before and after knee surgery), or the pragmatics of the win-column (pre- and post-Hubie Brown versions of Jason Williams). This isn't to deny recognition of what a huge accomplishment it is for a player to successfully change styles mid-career and continue to be able to compete at a high level. One of the most remarkable things about Kobe Bryant's career so far, for example, has been his ability keeping changing and adding to his game as he's gotten older and the players around him have changed, all the while never once stumbling in terms of efficiency. Since 1999, his points produced per 100 possessions have never dipped below 110 (and has been increasing as he approaches 30), while he's consistently used well over 26% of possessions. This is while gaining and then losing 20 or 30 pounds, undergoing multiple knee surgeries, improving his three-point shot, adding a fadeaway and a drop-step and improving his mid-range game and losing Shaq and gaining Gasol and so on and so forth.

While it's easy to begin to take Kobe's adaptability for granted, it's just as easy to underrate the highest moments in the careers of players like Steve Francis, who was brilliant early on but didn't really develop his game and saw his effectiveness leave him when his knees went out. What happened later in his career, though, shouldn't affect the memories of these moments:

Magic Johnson was absolutely brilliant for an entire decade, and not just because of the success his teams had, but because no one had ever seen a player like him, and it was always exciting to see what he was going to do next. His game hadn't dropped off at all yet when he announced that he had contracted HIV. He talked about continuing his career (and indeed has remained in good health since then), but Karl Malone said some ignorant stuff and Magic stayed retired. Over a decade later, Malone joined the Lakers trying to win a ring, took Magic's jersey number (which was un-retired just for Malone), got injured in the playoffs and played ineffectively while the Pistons demolished the Lakers in the playoffs. Malone hung around L.A. for a while longer in order to hit on Kobe's wife a few months into the next season. (In retrospect, Karl Malone is like that complete jerk in the office who you invite over for dinner because you're trying to be the bigger person, only when he arrives he refuses to take his shoes off in your house, complains about the food, tries to bang your wife, and then leaves with your crock-pot, claiming he brought it with him to keep the nacho cheese that he brought warm -- and everyone at the dinner party clearly remembers that his nacho cheese was not only not warm, but required a can-opener before consumption). A year or so ago, Nate Jones wrote about what might have been. Personally, I quite enjoyed the post-Magic pre-Shaq Lakers teams, but that doesn't take away from acknowledging that parts of Magic's game never came to light, and how important it was to enjoy what he did offer while he was around.

When Lamar Odom came into the league and everyone thought he was going to be the next Magic Johnson, I kept thinking about how I hadn't gotten enough of the original version . . ..

The Rise of 2.0

A main storyline of this year's U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball Team was the resurgence of Dwyane Wade. He'd been injured for so long, it almost seemed like his career was going to join Penny Hardaway's, Darius Miles', and so forth in that graveyard of vague memory. And then, out of nowhere, he showed up huge for the Americans, not just playing well, but finishing windmill alley-oops and showing off his increased strength. In interviews, he talked about adjusting his game so that he can lengthen his career while still being effective for 82 games and the playoffs every year. And he's being called Wade 2.0.

Last season, Amare Stoudemire added a mid-range jumpshot to his game, and thus was able to remain offensively dominant despite multiple knee surgeries. He had become Amare 2.0, a new more mature player.

I'm happy for both of these guys, that they've been able, so far, to be resilient and adapt to the whims of injury fortune. But I'm not under any illusions that Wade is or will be the same guy who would beat 5 defenders on the way to the hoop during the 2006 finals. Nor that Stoudemire will be the same player who was jumping over and through Tim Duncan in the 2005 Western Semifinals. In a way, their being forced to adapt makes their ongoing success all the more impressive, but still, the excitement and novelty of what they did before is hard to communicate or recreate. The memory of their performances is still vivid, but the memory of my own awe has more or less faded completely.

Monta's Injury
And so, in a related note, we hear the Monta Ellis will miss at least a month of the upcoming season, and it just so happens that this particular season is one that I've been very curious about. Not that there's ever a good time to have a serious injury, but it seems like the worst possible time for this -- already expected to change his game significantly in the upcoming season, how will he adjust when he's inevitably slowed as he works himself back into shape, trying simultaneously to learn a brand new role in an offense that will surely look quite different without Baron Davis? Sure, this is a time to contemplate whether Marcus Williams and C.J. Watson can handle the point guard spot, whether it might be a good time to take a flier on Shaun Livingston, and so forth. But it'd be nice also to pause and remember that, regardless of how the team adjusts, this is going to be a hugely difficult time for Monta . . ..

Even less related notes
I think it's important to pay respects to Kevin Duckworth and Wayman Tisdale. Duckworth passed away, and Tisdale has had part of his leg amputated due to cancer. So, RIP Duck, and get well soon Tisdale . . ..

And Finally
I think this is worth a read. I hope you'll take the time to do so, here on the eve of Gustav. Really, this is probably the most important part of this whole post, so it's a shame it's down here at the bottom, but I hope you do make time to check out that link.

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