Author Archives: Danny Chau

органско млеко

stairway

Photo via a77ard on Flickr

 

There were two armed robbers somewhere on campus, but at the time, seeing the Low Battery message flash on our phones seemed like the direr situation. That’s what happens when six hours are spent cooped up in a small classroom with 15 other people, who all had plans that didn’t include voluntarily participating in a campus lockdown while local police and SWAT officers went on a building-by-building manhunt looking for the men responsible for shooting a jewelry sales clerk and leading police on a high speed chase that ended across the street from Cal State Fullerton. There was no sense of panic or dread in our small, makeshift commune, only a strong sense of annoyance. We pulled up live news coverage on the projector. When it proved to be useless, we switched over to episodes of Arrested Development to keep from going stir-crazy. It wasn’t helping; I was close to my breaking point. By 8:30 p.m., more than four hours into the ordeal, my frustration had toppled my fear and I headed toward the stairs. I looked down a flight. It was barricaded by SWAT team officers armed with assault rifles that nearly eclipsed their bodies. None of us were leaving. Not any time soon.

D.J. and I didn’t even need to be there.

Hours earlier, we walked into an empty classroom. It was the first of two weeks entirely devoted to final presentations. The presentations would be given in a panel format, with three different speakers exploring three different issues, lumped into topically related groups. D.J. and I were lumped in a panel, but we weren’t set to present until Week 2. To kill time before the rest of the class arrived, we struck up our normal conversation: the state of Cal State Fullerton basketball (of which he was largely responsible for, given that he was arguably the best player on the squad), the state of the Lakers and the relief of having only one semester left in our college careers. We’d both thought about skipping class, but figured we had nothing better to do. If only we’d known what was coming.

I also figured it would be one of the last times I’d see D.J. My final semester would be spent off-campus and he still had classes to take in Fullerton and basketball games to play as a Titan. The thought that our paths might cross again in the future, especially considering what we want to do for a living, never entered my mind. It should have.

***

After a solid defensive effort from Los Angeles Lakers guard D.J. Seeley in a summer league game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, an audible “Good job, Seeley!” came down from the stands. He had a small, but dedicated cheering section, ready to erupt at even the less perceptible contributions he’d made on the team. It took the discerning eye of those who knew Seeley best to recognize the little things he’d done while on the floor. It took his family.

“Yeah, they’re here,” Seeley said. “My family came up here on vacation from California. They’re having fun. Man, I’m having fun, too.”

Seeley was all smiles in Las Vegas, and it’s hard to blame him. Seeley was in Atlanta working out with the Hawks in the predraft process when he got the call. He made the team after showing well in the Lakers’ summer camp and team workouts leading up to the 2013 draft. His time with the Lakers in Las Vegas was the first big step of a childhood dream coming true. It’s the astronaut training before making the voyage into space; it’s the passing the physical exam on the way to becoming a firefighter. It only gets tougher from there, but making the first step affirms a certain level of commitment to the dream.

Last week, D.J. got a step closer. He signed with Serbian club Radnički Kragujevac of the Adriatic League, the team that Terrico White, the Detroit Pistons’ 2010 second round pick, played for last season. Only a day after the signing, Seeley was already listed on the team’s Wikipedia page as the projected starting shooting guard. He’ll be the only player on the team not from Eastern Europe.

White talked to me about how much he matured playing on Radnički. He was forced to grow up, forced to dedicate all of his waking hours to basketball because “there ain’t nothing else to do but ball.” Basketball will be Seeley’s job, but it’ll also have to be his mode of communication and cultural exchange, at least until he figures his way around life overseas.

D.J. won’t have a problem finding a taste of home—there are McDonald’s in Kragujevac and White was able to find more Americanized cuisine under different names—but fast food wasn’t exactly his scene. His final presentation was on athletes and nutrition, so I’m sure he’ll be happy about Serbia’s organic food output, which Serbia’s department of tourism is totally promoting right now. (Hey D.J., just so you know, “organic milk” is “органско млеко” in Serbian.)

***

It’s still strange. I knew D.J. as the guy I sat next to in class when I decided to show up, not as the student athlete who made the All-Big West team in his two years at Fullerton. I’d seen him play in person. I knew his talent. But questions about whether he was considering the NBA Draft never crossed my mind in class. College is about expansion, but it’s still very much an insulated environment. We’re taught to dream big, but my imagination couldn’t render that possibility. Every school has its star athletes, but most see their progress cap off early, and move on from their childhood dreams. Few keep going, even fewer actually reach an attractive destination.

We’ve all fantasized about playing for our favorite team as kids. D.J. lived that dream for five games. The moments were fleeting, but they happened. They really happened.

I walked up to D.J. after the Lakers-Clippers summer league game. We approached each other as classmates who hadn’t seen the other in a while, but there was a noticeable difference. I had a voice recorder in my hand. How we were talking about the Lakers now wasn’t how we talked about it then. The unavoidable interviewer-interviewee format changes things.

I asked him about the Cal State Fullerton lockdown. I knew where it ranked in my “Worst College Experiences” power rankings, but was curious where it had landed in his.

“Eh,” Seeley said. “It was up there, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. Probably Top-8, I would say Top-8.”

…Top-8? Being locked in a room with people you hardly know for six hours, and being greeted at the stairs by armored men with firearms the size of German shepherds barely makes the cut in a Not-Top-10?

I’m not sure if this means I did college right or wrong.

 

2013 All-Star Profiles: Blake Griffin

Photo from was1 via Flickr

Photo from was1 via Flickr

Here are a few reasons why Blake Griffin is an All-Star starter for the second consecutive year:

I: Outside of maybe JaVale McGee, there isn’t a player in the league whose in-game dunks generate more shock, awe, and bewilderment. Griffin is completely willing to test the limits of his athleticism in both fullcourt and halfcourt situations, which often make his missed dunks more enjoyable than his successful ones. I’ve seen it from near-courtside and from the upper decks; there’s a different tone that resonates after one of Blake’s missed dunks. The reaction lasts longer. Five, ten minutes after, the heavy sighs are still audible. The dunk is no longer a dunk—which kind of goes without saying, since it didn’t successfully happen—but an “if”, a wish you didn’t know you had before it descended upon you. For Griffin, whatever results from his time in midair is a formality. Success or failure, he’s left a dent in your memory.

II: He’s got an unlikeable, “punchable”, face, but he’s also got surefire charisma, and it’s an irresistible combination. While his stoic, condescending face is a bit of a bother at times, I never blamed him for it. I never bought into the “fake tough guy”—one of the worst terms in sports—accusation. I always figured it was his face’s natural predisposition, and I’m still of that opinion. There’s a disconnect between the exhilarating ride he takes us on with every single dunk/failed dunk and his face upon liftoff and landing. It’s not natural, and clearly upsetting to most, but that’s only because we aren’t Blake Griffin. We don’t know what it feels like to propel oneself so violently skyward, only to be ripped down by an opponent because of his fear of embarrassment. Or the crisis of wanting to give a show, but knowing that somehow, that same act of fearsome athleticism will eventually morph into a biting criticism. And for a player who does it night in and night out, we don’t know the mundanity of his exhibition.

He’s smiled more this season, which is fine, but only because it comes from a genuine place—the Clippers are very much a success story this season and he’s playing great basketball. And while we don’t enjoy his blank glares, we really don’t like wide-eyed smiles from fake people. So he has that going for him.

III: He is an incredibly marketable player making great commercials for one of the NBA’s most reliable sponsors. Kia’s Blake Griffin ‘90s Loopercommercials are funny, taking full advantage of Griffin’s well-known deadpan-ity. Griffin’s self-deprecation both affirms and softens the prevailing criticisms of his game (inability to shoot, one-trick dunking pony). It’s a twin-headed joke that gives a nod to those who only know Griffin as a SportsCenter phenomenon and a wink to those who have witnessed his improvements.

IV: And he has improved. His numbers over the last two seasons still don’t match the raw numbers of his rookie year but that’s what happens when you stop playing the entire game and stop being the only player on the team worth a damn. The only real noticeable decline is in his offensive rebounding, which can be attributed to actually running back on defense. He’s improved on that end. He’s showing off a more confident passing game, which we saw glimpses of his rookie season. He’s using turns and spins to both get closer to the basket and to create separation for hook shots that will never look like Kareem’s, but are far more natural than what he’s done in the past. It’s not a drastic yearly ascent like Kevin Durant, but it’s not nothing, either.

The All-Star game is a place where expectations from all aisles coalesce and reduce. Everything about the weekend is all in good fun; nothing more, nothing less. Griffin is encouraged to bring the ball upcourt and execute his crab-legged crossover and spin dribbles and dunk to his heart’s content. It’s what fans want of him, but more importantly, it’s the only thing they expect. To call Griffin a one-trick pony at this point in his career is ignorant, but there was a point when his highlight reel was the only thing that mattered. Not to say it was meant to be a ceiling or limitation to Griffin as a player—he is much, much more than just a dunker—but when the perception of a player shifts so suddenly from medium-defying visual phenomenon to hollow sideshow, being able to enjoy his talents without actively probing for demerits is a welcomed respite. Last year’s All-Star game was enjoyable, but was sullied in the end by LeBron’s failed heroics, providing an opening for the criticism outside of the All-Star capsule to seep in. Maybe Griffin’s supposed shortcomings as a player will one day reach that level of ubiquity, but it’s not there yet. Or maybe Blake is already well on his way to erasing them, straight-faced and plain, as though it was just one big joke of his.

A Divine Pull

Photo from jakeb via Flickr

Photo from jakeb via Flickr

If Kevin Durant had broader shoulders, imagine how often we’d compare Anthony Davis to him.

The narrative that surrounded Davis leading up to the Draft centered on his past life as an unheralded point guard; a guard whose fate was irrevocably changed by a freak growth spurt. The whirlwind of dominance turned Davis’ early high school reality into something mythic. Of course, it’s happened before. Kevin Durant was also a 6’3” point guard who found himself six inches taller over the course of a single summer. But for Durant, the focus was rarely, if ever, on his transformation.

“I was a point guard before I got to be 6’11”. In a whole summer, I grew about six inches. I just wanted to keep everything [his PG skills] with me. All the players in the NBA, they can dribble and shoot, they’re versatile, they do it all pretty well.” – Kevin Durant, via DraftExpress

Davis’ growth spurt unlocked inherent and instinctual talents that otherwise would have never come to the fore. The difference between the player he was and the player he became, in physique and in the notions of positionality, was a puzzle worthy of special attention. His experience as a guard informed the way he plays as a 4/5, but his guard skills aren’t hallmarks of his game. Conversely, there might not be much dissonance at all in the player Durant was and who he has become—he simply became a stretched out version of himself. It isn’t hard to imagine a 6’3” Kevin Durant—a player whose anatomical equivalent already exists in the Dallas Mavericks’ rudderless gunner Rodrigue Beaubois. Durant’s narrative at that point wasn’t centered on the spectacle of an unlikely transformation, but on the potential for him to retain and apply guard skills to his new, ridiculous frame like Tracy McGrady and Rashard Lewis had before him. Durant’s transformation, unlike Davis’, didn’t feel like alchemy. When Durant tortures a defense with crossovers and shots from impossible angles, his size seemingly amplifies the difficulty factor but doesn’t serve as an impediment. His size takes a guard’s game and broadcasts it from a giant’s perspective, making the end result all the more foreign, spectacular.

Durant’s blitzing of the Clippers last night in the second half, the latest awe-inspiring offensive performance of the past two weeks, should be enough to have you taking up religion. Believing in God. Believing that God has little scoundrel kids. Because had things gone according to plan, maybe Durant would’ve been the greatest scoring point guard the league has ever seen. Instead, God’s clay model was stretched, pulled in a tug-of-war—surely the act of a punk kid or two. Because only a child’s imagination could create a player so disproportionately built with all the skills that were never meant for a player his size.

Durant’s ball handling, like many areas of his game, has become unfair.

Ball handling became an emphasis by the end of 2009-10 in his first playoff series, when subtle shifts of the body weren’t enough to shake Ron Artest, who feasted on Durant’s lack of agency on the court. He had been unstoppable all regular season en route to his first scoring title, but none of that mattered in the playoffs. Artest bodied him up and Durant had few answers. Granted, Durant still managed to average 25 points in the series, but that wasn’t the point. It was the principle. He shot a downright un-Durant 35 percent from the field. We should have seen what was coming. If Durant couldn’t let go of his missed shots after going for 52, there was no way he would simply concede to immobility on the court.

There was a push for better off-ball movement and post play, which really feeds into our own expectations for what a player his size can or can’t do. While Durant is capable of both, neither addressed the fundamental flaw that Artest exposed; they merely evaded it. Durant’s confidence creating with the ball in his hand is a testament to hard work and never forgetting where you came from—his test laboratory was the 2011 Goodman League Pro-Am games in hometown Washington D.C. Durant has one of the most effective crossovers in the game today, but I can still imagine Kevin Durant replaying the scenes of Artest’s one-man crowd around him—pushing him further and further away from the basket, knocking him out of orbit entirely—whenever he hits a perfect right-to-left that has him at the rim for a dunk.

His drives aren’t devastating because he’s blindingly fast. While he’s become much more maximal with the appropriation of his athleticism, his drives don’t rely on burst; they rely on a kind of deception only Durant can manufacture in today’s NBA. Two years ago, Durant had a crossover, but it (literally) didn’t go anywhere. It was too meek, too unsure. It was an ornament, not a device.

Now Durant’s crossovers leverage his full functional width against the defender. His near-7’5” wingspan exaggerates lateral movement which forces the defender to commit to a particular direction because of how much ground his limbs can cover. The ball glides from side to side and if a defender’s caught watching the ball being manipulated by Durant’s arms, he might miss the head swivel or the shoulder shift downward or the legs in continuous motion, propping themselves in new configurations to achieve the best angle of attack. Durant’s arms are a natural wonder, and an intrinsic focal point, but they only reveal so much of the drive. A butterfly’s wings tell you it is capable of flight, but its antennae tell you where it’s going.

Kevin Durant allowed himself a second to break character in his post-game interview with Lisa Salters after scoring a career-high 52 points against the Mavericks. As Royce Young pointed out, he’s obsessive about his in-game stats. So when Salters asks him if he was aware of the career high, Durant couldn’t help but smile. Only a few beats later, Durant is back to being stoic, calmly pointing out the excessive amount of missed shots he had in the game, dwelling on the negative in an otherwise exceedingly positive outcome. Durant scored 52, but that wasn’t the point. It was the principle. Sometimes the process means more than the result. And sometimes an inability to escape the bad breeds a whole lot of good.

 

The Long Game

Photo from bhalash via Flickr

Photo from bhalash via Flickr

Lance Stephenson’s season has been a quiet success. Two years ago, this would have been an impossibility.

Stephenson’s amateur career is packed with accolades. He is New York’s all-time leading scorer at the high school level. Playing at Lincoln High School, he sought to obliterate the milestones set by past alumni Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair and did. He was the king of New York. That title came with bragging rights, and the type of collective zeal that would spawn a nickname like “Born Ready.”  But the preordainment as New York’s basketball savior created some dissonance on the court once he stepped outside of familiar turf. Shot selection was for the mortal, or at least that’s how it seemed to Stephenson when he could have a dreadful night and still have an icy look of detachment that broadcasted superiority. New York is a hub for basketball and a global pillar, but it is still a small world with real boundaries. And when Stephenson took a step beyond, the demeanor, the erratic play, and the legal issues all became clearer without the clout of New York’s hype machine obscuring the view.

It’s a tough task to redefine reputations and revise expectations once they’ve been given time to solidify. This season has had its fair share of road bumps from players living up to their high risk, high reward branding between DeMarcus Cousins’ third –annual implosion detrimental to the team and Royce White’s well-intentioned, but misguided, crusade for righteousness putting his NBA career in jeopardy—one that hasn’t even started. For Cousins, success is measured by his offensive dominance and how his temperament can serve as an amplifier, not an impediment. For White, the idea that basketball can and should overshadow his loftier pursuits is itself a moral defeat.  The routes and circumstances are always different. But hope, as it always does, resides in the same place for all young, wayward athletes—in the potential for change.

And that capacity for change sets up the wager. It’s a gamble. It’s an investment both financial and personal. Every GM would love to live life as though it were a loop of the last quarter of Coldplay’s “Fix You”—overblown triumph in the face of serious doubt. But we know it hardly ever works that way. It takes guts and patience to take on a new project because of the dual nature of potential.

It’s hard to watch Lance Stephenson without seeing specters of Isaiah Rider. The sturdy frame, the confidence, the lingering questions that preface every conversation. He is an impressive athlete, though not nearly as skybound as Rider, which isn’t necessarily a slight—Rider’s flightiness on and off the court was hardly something worth championing.

Even with all of his red flags, I couldn’t help but root for Stephenson and marvel at his first Summer League game in 2010 thinking it was the beginning of some kind of revolution, allowing myself to forget the fact that Summer League is the rabbit hole that Expectation and Reality plunge into, never to return the same again. That’s the thing about young phenoms, prodigies, etc. Their promise is a promise. Suspending truths and beliefs come natural when observing their growth. To even imagine the level of specialization required to reach the professional level calls for such suspension. But it’s a strange hurt when success doesn’t materialize in the way it was once envisioned. Promises aren’t meant to be broken as much as they’re meant to gauge the strength of one’s conviction, which inherently has an expiration date.

Year after year, some of the best stories of the season come from players thriving from new opportunities. Though he was impressive enough in the 2012 Summer League to warrant playing time, there is no way Stephenson has as much of an effect on the team as he has now without Danny Granger’s glaring absence. The Pacers are still a low-key team, even after their signature second round series against the Miami Heat last season. Paul George has been impressive, but he’s (characteristically) gliding toward apparent stardom, not crashing into it. Again, Lance Stephenson’s season has been a quiet success, inside and out. Jared Wade at Eight Points, Nine Seconds wrote an extensive breakdown of Stephenson’s impact on the team last week. But, wait, this is a Lance Stephenson that is shooting a team-high 48 percent from the field, and a team-high 39.7 percent from 3 as a key contributor.

What the hell changed?

Well, for starters, he changed his jersey number from No. 6 to No. 1. Perhaps the calm of backcourt mate George Hill has rubbed off on him, or maybe it’s in part due to his ongoing relationship with Larry Bird, the man who rolled the dice by drafting him. Whatever it is, this Lance Stephenson is worlds away from who he was. Per-36 minutes, he’s never shot less (probably ever in his life), but, and this might not be coincidence, he’s probably as efficient now as he’s ever been. It has a lot to do with shot selection. What used to be anything and everything is now streamlined—70.6 percent of Stephenson’s shots come around the rim or from the 3-point line.  While Stephenson having the highest shooting percentage on the team says quite a bit about the Pacers offense, it says even more about how much smarter Stephenson has gotten with his approach to the game.

I suppose it’s fairly obvious what happened with Stephenson. He’s grown up—on the court, at least–but there’s always room for more, especially at 22. The glory of high school jockdom and the “Born Ready” adulation is what got him to this level, but the superlatives eventually wear away once you break away from the small insulated world of your youth. It’s a performance-based, numbers-driven world thereafter. It’s about playing the long game and being willing to sacrifice a portion of your old self to keep from sacrificing everything. He isn’t expected to be a supernova on offense anymore, but he’s still given opportunities to flash his creativity in setting teammates up and in transition finishes. Stephenson is making a solid impact on a playoff team with pedestrian individual numbers. It’s not everything, but it’s enough. And there is a litany of alternative scenarios that aren’t as appealing.

Stephenson may never be a legend outside of his city, but the player he’s become is a player that can survive in this league. That’s what changed.

Via De Los Muertos

Here’s a photo of my brother and his friends (no, really).

In the NBA, the peak is the only thing that matters. It’s a frame of mind driven home by the nature of the game, the physics, the release on a jump shot, the premium on verticality; the arbitrary emphasis on years 27 and 28, and how we treat players who hit their 30s like a dog with cataracts, counting down the days until the pain is over. Professional athletes are a reflection of the ideal physical form, and it’s naturally depressing to see something once immaculate begin to break down. Sports are constantly renewed. Seasons and games begin with a clean slate day after day and year after year. But the years where we see the deterioration of our favorite athletes throw a wrench into a cyclical process that does its best to maximize the chances for optimism. Death is taboo, so we go about our lives finding outlets to keep those thoughts at bay.

I’ve been reading American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture by Kyle William Bishop for one of my classes. It’s a short read, but covers the zombie story’s Haitian origins all the way through the news of The Walking Dead being adapted to television. Bishop covers the paradigm shift initiated by George Romero and his influential “Living Dead” series particularly well, pointing out the divergence of the zombie mythology. Romero steered the zombie away from its voodoo roots and the primary fear of losing one’s autonomy and magnified it tenfold. The fear wasn’t simply losing one loved one to the hands of a voodoo practitioner; it was losing all of society to an outbreak.

Since then, the image of the zombie has seldom been seen as an individual threat. The threat lies in the droves of them, an endlessly generative mass of animated, decaying flesh. An overwhelming reminder of mortality, if there ever was one. Fans and media alike have tried to kill off the Spurs as a threat for about five years now, citing what makes sense: the Spurs still rely on the same core, and they’re old and only getting older. Yet each year passes and another playoff berth is marked. Years in which the team look particularly vulnerable only means the following year will bring forth a new revelation. There really is the feeling that the Spurs are endlessly generative. Of course, so are the Lakers, but more so in the capitalistic sense, which Romero fervently critiqued in his “Dead” series. With the Spurs, it wouldn’t shock anyone if we found out Duncan, Popovich, Ginobili, and Parker were zombies. At least, it wouldn’t shock anyone paying attention. The Spurs have cycled through niche players over the years, all more or less serving the same duties as their forebears. Yes, there have been stylistic and tactical changes in recent years, but even the habits and capabilities of the undead can evolve. The names and faces blur and become indistinguishable from the mass. The four in charge have created their undead army in the likeness of teammates past, and it’s a cyclical process that creates a rather disorienting effect. The Spurs bludgeon teams with sameness. It’s possible to hold them off for a while, but there is an endless revolving door of cold, rotting hands waiting to break the game down.

From Bishop:

Freud defines the abstract concept of the Unheimlich, which is generally translated as the “uncanny,” as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The true manifestation of this fear occurs, therefore, when something or someone familiar (such as a friend, spouse, or other loved one) returns in a disturbing, physical way (such as a corpse, ghost, or doppelganger); in other words, the familiar (Heimlich) becomes the unfamiliar or uncanny (Unheimlich). Furthermore, the psychological effect of the uncanny becomes decidedly terrifying when the Unheimlich represents a manifestation of death. (109).

The Spurs are the Unheimlich; the beings that, in an NBA that is all about the exuberance of youth, creates dissonance in the expected arc of a player. Players worry about not being in a position to exercise their potential. They worry about wasting years of their prime. In a profession of finite years, time can only be an ally for so long before the clock ticks become deafening. It’s a snail’s race against time The Spurs are respected, but few teams want to follow their lead, and even fewer are capable. Even their model for success has been revamped and renamed by the Thunder organization. Youth will always be placed on the pedestal because youth is easier to manage. There is more room for error. Few teams are willing to test the limits of mortality like the Spurs, to hinge so much on creaking joints. But it’s not a question for the Spurs. It isn’t a matter of choice. There is no autonomy. There is only answering a primal urge until it is sated.

So, happy doomsday everyone! This will be the first doomsday since the last, and the first before the next. If the world ends in a flash and nuclear reactions reanimate our rotting corpses, and somehow these hardly-sentient sacks of flesh reconstruct society and recreate the NBA, nothing will change. The San Antonio Spurs will be the supreme overlords of basketball, as they have essentially been for more than 1.5 decades. You see, because they’re already dead.

Converging Lines

As I type this, Minneapolis and Moscow are both exactly 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Moscow is trending downward in the next few days, heading down into the 30s while Minneapolis will be entering the 50s. The Wolves have a promising future, but Minneapolis still isn’t exactly an NBA hotspot — it’s still really freaking cold and the franchise’s most talented and beloved cornerstones are still at high risk to bolt at the first opportunity. But despite the clusterf—k of injuries the Wolves have had to deal with so early on, there is positive buzz and excitement for what this team could be a few months from now. It’s in large part due to Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, two Russians at completely different junctures in their careers, finding comfort in their new surroundings.

Maybe it’s the depleted rotation and increased time talking, but there is an element of joy at play, of liberation, in their contributions on the floor. For Shved, his journey to the NBA is about breaking away and playing in a league with a style compatible with his own. For Kirilenko, it’s a trip back to the land that brought him along in his crucial young adult years and broke him. After a soul-searching sojourn in Russia, it’s confirmed: he’s as dynamic a basketball player as ever despite being on the wrong side of 30. Minnesota is as close it gets to Russia in the States in climate and scheme. Still, they are worlds away from home. That it looks like they never left is a testament to how good they are and how quick we are to forget.

I missed watching Andrei Kirilenko last year, but I didn’t realize it immediately. It was hard enough to focus on what was right in front of you with calamity abound, let alone worry about a player on the other side of the globe. The Utah Jazz became a rising team to watch without him, but I couldn’t help but wonder how Kirilenko would’ve fared given a full year on a team managed by anyone but Jerry Sloan. And with the way Kirilenko has played in extended minutes this season, it’s hard to shake the idea that he was capable of more in his last few seasons in Utah. That whatever Sloan and Kirilenko feuded over wasn’t worth stifling one of basketball’s most unique players in his prime. It’s hard not to feel robbed—I’m sure Andrei feels the same.  He was drafted in 1999 at 18, came into the league at 20, and was recognized as an All-Star and one of the game’s best defenders by 22. It all happened so quickly. Now, with his startlingly good play, we’re left to wonder where that had been hiding all these years.

I used to call him Android Kirilenko as a kid. And if it weren’t for the self-awareness it took to choose 47 as his lifetime jersey number, Android Kirilenko could have definitely caught on. After all, he is the spitting image of an emaciated Ivan Drago, with all the piercing intensity intact.

He was built to play the game: long arms, athleticism, absurdly high basketball IQ, defensive fervor. The only glaring trait that proved him mortal was his odd, old man gait—opposite of a rigid, upright sprint that you’d imagine a mechanized warrior to be programmed with. It looked stranger when he was young, seeing someone cover so much ground with an awkward, hunched lunging stride. Now that he’s lost a step or two, it’s a bit more natural. Even the finest machinery loses efficacy over the years.

There are few players as multifaceted as Kirilenko, but it’s difficult to call him a “jack of all trades.” The title itself is a truncation of a longer axiom. Jack of all trades, master of none. That’s not the case. He was, and remains, a defensive maestro; the type of player that entire offenses have to account for. Even at 31, he’s still mobile enough to latch himself onto most perimeter threats while remaining one of the league’s most effective weakside defenders. That doesn’t even get into Kirilenko on the offensive end, where he was the best facilitator on his Russian national team and is probably the best playmaker on this Wolves team with Rubio out and Alexey Shved still finding his way. Watch any highlight mix of his on YouTube and you’ll unavoidably witness all of the passes he’s made throwing a ball between legs, be it his own or an opponent’s. It happens so frequently you’d think it was a fetish of his. And lost in his hawkish gaze and defensive acumen was just how creative he is as a passer and a cutter. Behind the icy, Drago-ian veneer is a player who played exuberantly. So it’s heartbreaking when Sloan quashed Kirilenko’s dream of being a true star, pigeonholing him as a glue guy best used as a reserve. He never recovered fully after 2006, despite, yes, being a very good glue guy on a Jazz team that was on its way down from its peak. (An android’s ingrained inclination is to do as it is programmed, even if it achieves sentience.) He couldn’t break Sloan, so he was the one broken.

Returning to Russia for Eurobasket 2007, playing for CSKA Moscow all of last season, and all of his national team obligations, was a way of keeping his dreams alive. He was coveted by NBA teams at 18, becoming the youngest European to be drafted at the time. He made his NBA debut at 20. He became an All-Star and was recognized as one of the elite defensive players in the league by 22. It all happened so fast. Stardom was right around the corner. His offseason success with Russia was a double life, a way of reclaiming all that he wasn’t able to grasp in the NBA. Returning home meant rediscovering the freedom that made him such a unique basketball player. Joining Minnesota was no coincidence. It was the closest he’d get to home, to merging the trajectories of his main and alternate storylines.

Alexey Shved’s fledgling NBA career thus far has been a success, though it doesn’t translate too well to Russian. Transplanting Shved’s play from the NBA to the Russian Superleague would create entire black voids in the replay footage — entire segments of the game, and of time, lost or erased. There is dissonance in how the game is managed in the NBA and in the European game, and what would be allowed in the NBA would be immediate grounds for removal in Russia. Barring catastrophic play, the NBA game allows a player the freedom to monitor his own ebb and flow, adjusting accordingly in the end goal of boasting a net positive for the team. But there is a strong culture of micromanagement in European basketball hell-bent on the systematic eradication of errors. It’s not a thrilling process for young upstarts who haven’t yet come to terms with their own fallibility.

“Here, if you’re open, you go,” he said. “If you have an open shot, you take it. If you miss a shot, it’s not so bad. In Europe, if you miss a shot early, coach will sub for you. You can make a mistake here. That is very important for a player.”

via Wolves’ Shved is a stranger in a strange land | Kent Youngblood, Star Tribune (10/24/12)

So, after spending the last six years with CSKA Moscow (though he was loaned out to other Moscow clubs on several occasions), the proverbial weights have been lifted by the Wolves and Rick Adelman, albeit at an accelerated rate due to there being about seven players on roster without something broken—seriously, the amount of injuries the team has dealt with this season can’t be overstated. The sighs of relief are almost audible from Shved on the court. He’s been struggling mightily with his jump shot, but there are no slumped shoulders, no dips in expression. He plays with supreme confidence knowing he has Adelman’s trust.  That freedom is why Shved’s NBA arrival seemed inevitable despite the many years it took to get here.

Shved was incredible against the Golden State Warriors last Friday. Without Ricky Rubio and Brandon Roy, there is a lot of pressure on Shved to aggressively make plays for the team, and when given ample time, he’s proven himself capable. I’ve said it before, but Shved has the ability to make the simple play sexy. At the 10:40 mark in the second quarter, Shved uses a pick from Dante Cunningham and drives down the left side of the court. Carl Landry picks him up on the switch and attempts to funnel him down the baseline, thinking Shved was going to take it all the way to the rim. He doesn’t. As soon as Landry turns his shoulder to get in a better position to defend the drive, Shved pulls up instantaneously, jumping straight up and drifting forward, nailing the jumper. It wasn’t quite as showy as a crossover, but it was just as disarming. It was a beautiful shot, and a play Shved is capable of making on a regular basis. Shved is undoubtedly benefiting from being a relative unknown on the NBA stage. It helps that he doesn’t look a day older than 16, with a body that would give a hanging skeleton model unwarranted hubris, sending awkward-sophomore-year-at-prep-school vibes instead of that of a six-year professional.

An aside: Is jump passing still a cardinal sin in the NBA? Only LeBron is given a free pass, right? Well, whatever the case, Shved hasn’t gotten the memo, or he’s just really good at it and no one has bothered to question his actions—that or he’s shrugging and flashing his innocent “I don’t understand what you’re saying” face. Dude loves his jump pass. He’d throw one crosscourt to the corners. He’ll throw one right under the basket with two defenders on his target. It’s just his thing. He can do it in a static position, but he loves throwing one on the run. He invents angles with the elevation (in addition to his already preposterous height for the position) that compensates for his relatively short wingspan, and it’s been working. It doesn’t exactly fall in line with the league’s conventions, but in an era where traditional notions of good and bad, right and wrong, are crumbling, the only real conventions worth adhering to are the ones that help define the self.

Kirilenko’s gaudy numbers won’t last, and Shved probably won’t have too many 22-point, 7-assist outings in the future, but that’s a good thing. The numbers aren’t as important as the understanding that they can. Kirilenko and Shved will go back to more complementary roles once Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic all return to full form, but that’s not anything new for either player—they’ve seen their minutes vanish and their confidence dwindle in the past. Their games, expansive and wildly creative, require a coach’s trust. It’s something that they’ve earned so far in the young season. It’s something worth leaving home for, whether it’s the first time or not.

Hardwood Paroxysm Presents The 5-Year Paroxy-Versary: The New Mutation

You’ve probably noticed a bit of a celebration around these parts. This is both a celebration of the past, and an ushering in of a new era. But I’ve written about “era” multiple times on this blog. They don’t just have a set start and stop point. They are fluid, and as with all change, they occur over an unspecified amount of time. We choose to mark eras to make change easier to understand, but it’s hardly ever that simple.

Look up in the header. Click the About section. Aside from the ongoing carousel of writers, the section has remained the same. It doesn’t exactly explain what Hardwood Paroxysm means, but it somewhat gives an idea what the site values. The crest of HP hasn’t changed in five years.

In that time, “Athletic big men who will never live up to their potential” has remained on this site’s crest. So it must be a subject worth discussing.

Rasheed Wallace, against the odds, has a spot on the New York Knicks roster, playing the role of the cantankerous uncle who waxes shouts poetic loudly of the good old days. He makes his return as part of a crusade against the injustices being done to post play in today’s NBA by all the bratty little youngsters running amok. At some point in his two-year absence, Wallace lost his way. By romanticizing a past he wasn’t truly a part of, Wallace not only downplays, but erases his foothold in the evolution of the modern big man, or as Ball Don’t Lie’s Dan Devine put it, the “development of a new dominant style of offense”.

Of course, at 38, Wallace has almost spent as much time coming to terms with his basketball mortality and declining athleticism as he has enjoying the fruits of his athletic peak. Time forces a player to adjust and figure out what of their game is worth saving and what will inevitably perish. In a way, Sheed is simply being a walking PSA of the pitfalls of relying on one’s physical prowess. But to address the matter with such a conservative outlook is disheartening coming from a man who spent so much time questioning the structures in place.

Yet I can’t help but envision a momentary silence washing over Sheed as he watches Anthony Davis from the Knicks bench next month in New Orleans. It’d be something like a visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Davis is surely among the young players Sheed hopes to drop knowledge on, but the two are similar.

Anthony Davis, the most recent addition to the University of Kentucky’s pantheon of championship greats, was born on March 11, 1993.

Less than a month after Davis was born, a 19-year-old Rasheed Wallace was in Memphis, relaxing. It was the day before the ’93 McDonald’s All-American game and he was watching the NCAA Final Four games. He had the Kentucky on the mind:

“I’m pulling for Kentucky, because to me, they’ve got the best player in collegiate sports now in Jamal Mashburn. . . . That’s who I’ve been with all year,” said Wallace, who led Simon Gratz to a 31-0 record and a No. 1 high school ranking by USA TODAY.

via “Wallace stalls after whittling list to final four” | Gary Milhoces, USA Today (4/1/93)

(Kentucky would end up losing their semifinal game against Michigan, who would then go on to lose against North Carolina in the championship game.)

Wallace was the top high school recruit of 1993 and he took his sweet-ass time picking a team. He was 6’11” with long arms, a long stride, and a god-given ability to swat basketballs.

“One thing that always came easy to me was blocking shots,” Wallace said. “It was more of a natural instinct. I only fouled out once in my high school career. Everything else came hard.”

via “Wallace crafts complete game” | Dave Krider, USA Today (4/7/93)

…Which sounds a lot like:

“I had to get accustomed to playing in the post, rebounding, the whole shot-blocking ability came naturally, I don’t know where it came from,” Davis said. “I had never blocked shots, I blocked a couple of shots in high school because I was so much taller than everybody but in college I wasn’t sure where it came from.”

via “Anthony Davis’ unexpected rise” | Andy Katz, ESPN (6/28/12)

In their senior years, both Wallace and Davis averaged seven blocks a game. Yet their methodologies differ greatly. After all, Wallace has been a big man all his life. His blocks are contingent on eyeing the ball and estimating the distance between the ball and his outstretched hand. How high Wallace jumps rarely factors into the success rate because he targets the ball before it hits its apex.  Wallace was 6’3” in junior high. Davis was still 6’3” in his sophomore year of high school. Despite having a freaky growth spurt, he has guard sensibilities, and more importantly, guard reflexes. He can do everything Sheed can, but he can also make preemptive attacks without compromising his position. And even if he does, he’s still a threat to get to the ball. He can go for the ball at its apex no matter the distance from the rim because he knows how to guard the wing. His unfathomable defensive ability is informed by his past as a hungry, unheralded combo guard. It makes him, at 19, as complete a defender as we’ve seen in a long, long time.

He had a past life that Wallace didn’t. Sheed was immediately placed in the starting lineup his freshman year of high school after his high school’s starting center was shot in the thigh in a drive-by shooting. He’s been in the public eye ever since.

They both entered college with shot blocking as their only true elite skill. The other skills came later. In Sheed’s case, his skill set took on a mind of its own. We’re still waiting on Davis. If Rasheed’s career helped establish a new standard in the NBA, Davis is ready to unveil an exciting mutation.

Side question: When under the same roof, do you think Sheed’s spot of white hair and Davis’ unibrow have some sort of telepathic connection?

So, as you may have heard, our captain is stepping down. But Hardwood Paroxysm lives on in the legion of HP writers old and new. It’s been five years since this blog was started by Matt Moore and Tyrus Thomas isn’t anywhere close to being a great (or even good) player. It’s a shame, but there’s a reason why Thomas and the many bigs that came and failed before him still belong on this blog’s mantle. Their stories still deserve attention.

If I’ve gained anything from my time with this blog, it’s being able to own up to why I love basketball. I don’t care about who wins and who loses. I care about the little things that make the NBA weird and wonderful. If Moore can find joy in watching several Detroit Pistons preseason games annually, then there must be other untapped reservoirs of joy in basketball waiting to be found. Hopefully this new era of the blog can aid in your discovery. Hopefully we can all share our findings.

Rasheed Wallace breaks from his hibernation just as Anthony Davis makes his grand entrance. There isn’t much connecting Sheed and Davis – I was admittedly digging for coincidences. But unintentional or not, Wallace was a prototype for what Davis may one day become, even if Sheed may have already lost sight of who he was.

Time changes everyone. Priorities must be set and first loves must be set free. But if you’ve made enough of an impact, there will be others willing to pick up the slack. Whether any of this success was intentional or not, Moore has created something special. We’ll do our best to keep the (weird) spirit alive.

Here’s to the last five years. Here’s to five more.

Skipping To The End

Photo via markdodds on Flickr

I haven’t written about Steve Nash often in the last few years, but in the few times I have, it’s disturbing how often the pieces read like eulogies. Fair or not, in discussing Nash’s legacy amid the decay of the once-peerless Phoenix Suns offense, and in writing about Consigliere, Nash’s venture in marketing consultancy, I’ve effectively been laying out pillows and cardboard for the inevitable fall.  I’ve subconsciously been anticipating the death of his NBA playing career mainly because I couldn’t imagine how distraught I’d be if I allowed that kind of reality to catch me by surprise.

Though Nash’s retirement may not be an immediate concern, in this stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, we are almost assuredly witnessing the death of the Steve Nash we’ve known for the past decade. And no matter how many times I attempt to coax myself with “He deserves to play on a contender” and “Playing with the Lakers could extend his NBA longevity”, there aren’t enough pillows to cushion this blow.

I found out about the trade sitting next to the pool at my brother’s July 4 party evacuating the imprisoned flesh of sea snails from their shells with a safety pin. The act is laborious; the toothsome morsels are so small the mind barely recognizes them as food, and because of their size, there is so little room for error digging the meat out, keeping it skewered onto the pin while dipping it into a sauce before finally bringing it toward your mouth. It’s not too stressful of a process until you realize you’ll have to do it at least another 30 times to whet your appetite. It’s tasty (if you’re into that kind of eating), but by the end of it, you’re only half enjoying it. The other half is wondering if there’s a market for sea snail eating as a sport.

My brother’s house had become a site of life-changing news seemingly delivered as to not make a sound. Exactly one year before, my brother proposed to his longtime girlfriend under a sky of fireworks. Had he waited a few minutes, maybe we all would’ve known. Instead, he chose to do it at the climax of the fireworks display (his backyard has a clear and unobstructed view of the city’s annual show). Both sets of parents were present, but her side of the family had no idea what had gone on. He had to walk over and inform them a few minutes after. Not that it mattered much. It was a formality – a semicolon preparing for what has seemed like a half-century in the making. This weekend’s ceremony will deliver the long-awaited period. Then a new sentence, a new paragraph, a new chapter.

I wonder now just as I wondered in July and two Julys ago: What will change?

Steve Nash was traded to the freaking Lakers and I had no connection to the internet, no exposure to the outrage that was surely overflowing Twitter and other outlets at the time. My source was one of my brother’s friends, whom I overheard while flipping the carne asada.  There was joyous tableside discussion from the Lakers fans at the table (all of them) claiming this was just the beginning – obviously referring to Dwight Howard’s imminent arrival. How right they would be. I wanted to chime in and offer my thoughts on what just happened. I suppose I did. I rattled off all the words you’d expect to hear in Steve Nash discussions: “pick and roll”, “shooting”, “infinitely better than Ramon Sessions, even if Nash came into training camp with half of his body paralyzed”.

But it didn’t fully register at the time. Hell, it won’t fully register until he plays the first exhibition game in those downright alien yellow jerseys. My favorite player of all time is playing for the team and the fans I’ve spent my entire life defending myself against.

I’m happy for Steve. I’m worried.

For the second consecutive year, Erik Spoelstra wants the Miami Heat to play faster. It all stemmed from Spoelstra piecing together some tactics from the Oregon Ducks’ college football playbook into his own. And if it played any role in last year’s championship, then it’d be wise to amp it up (Though, if one were to compare the two teams’ most magnetic stars, who would win in an efficiency contest: LeBron James or De’Anthony Thomas?).  With the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis mirroring the Suns’ acquisitions of Raja Bell and Tim Thomas – two players integral to the Suns’ 2005-06 Western Conference Finals berth  – the Heat can take Run ‘N Fun to the heights it was supposed to reach in Nash’s time. Of course, the difference is Miami having the sense to know when to slow all the way down, and having a truly elite defense to do so.

Perhaps playing with the Flying Death Machine would’ve been an apt way to go out. There was surely no shortage of rumors suggesting such. It would’ve been a gesture to sign the prophet, the uptempo revivalist of the new millennium, but an unnecessary one. For Spoelstra, blitzkrieg is just something in the toolbox. For Nash, it was a way of life he fought to maintain. The Heat may be committed to the run, but it’s a strategy, not a backbone. Nash’s ability and conviction made the uptempo attack a lifegiving entity.

Los Angeles is a far more unlikely situation for Nash, given the prior history and the systems in place. But part of the allure in ring chasing for past superstars is the challenge of adaptation — to learn new tricks as an old dog, or at least perform the old ones in a slightly different order. Any team with Nash figures to feature the pick and roll prominently, especially with one of the best finishers in the league. In that sense, some things regarding Nash won’t change. But percentages, at least in terms of possession splits, will.

The drastic change will come in Nash not getting the ball back if nothing is in place. With four dominant offensive options, the control that has come to define Nash’s game will diminish. He may initiate the offense, but if opportunity collapses and the offense resets, he most likely won’t be the one pressing the button. Mike Brown calls Nash the quarterback leading a new system, and it’s true. Yet, even that sounds like a demotion when he’s been his own system for the past seven years.

It’s difficult to expect anything less than improvement with Nash on the Lakers. Barring injury, the worst case scenario would be similar to Gary Payton’s one-year stint with the Lakers in 2003-04, a suitable precedent to Nash’s situation. Still, all things considered, Payton had a pretty decent year considering his strengths weren’t completely aligned with the team’s needs. Nash comes in essentially as a miracle elixir, curing much of the team’s woes in one fell swoop. He is immediately the team’s best shooter and facilitator, and a leader capable of standing up to Kobe’s gruffness. While his ceiling is lowered somewhat because of the system and other limiting factors (the miracle of Nash isn’t going to cure Bryant’s insatiable appetite for isolation jumpers), his floor is much higher than Payton’s. At worst, he is a spot-up shooting cog in a championship-caliber machine. Even then, it’s an enviable position.

Even then, it’s crushing.

In a few days I’ll be standing awkwardly along with the other groomsmen watching my brother formally enter a new stage in life, wondering where the years have gone. In a month or so, it’ll happen all over again as I watch Nash run the offense alongside honest-to-goodness all-stars again. I should join in the celebration; I should mourn the passing of an era. I don’t know what I should do, and I just wish I knew the precise moment in life when feelings started getting so convoluted all the time.

This is more of a beginning than an end, and I’m excited to see the impact Steve Nash has on this Lakers offense. But the excitement I have isn’t as pure as the first day of sixth grade when I told my English teacher that my name was Danny Chau and Steve Nash was my favorite basketball player because he’s smart and an amazing shooter. The joy that I had back then didn’t make me anxious. And it didn’t come with the foresight of knowing he won’t be in the league for much longer.

This is all a psych-out, a way to preempt the shock of: 1) Steve Nash in a Lakers jersey. 2) Any significant signs of decay in his physical abilities. 3) Nash potentially hoisting the trophy over his head as a Laker, effectively rewriting his legacy and belittling the impact of his days as a Phoenix Sun.  Somewhere in this coil of conflicting thoughts and fears is something pure; something I’ve always believed. No other player has had such a grip on my imagination. If the next three years serve as the final chapter, all I can do is heave a sigh and wish him the best.

Brook Lopez Enjoys Filipino Food, Few Things Make More Sense

Photo from heywoodindustries via Flickr

Last week Brook Lopez was in the Philippines to support a few of the NBA’s global initiatives in Manila, the country’s capital city. It was Lopez’ first time in the Philippines, but it wouldn’t be the first time an NBA player was smitten by the country’s intense love for the game. Of course, the cultural exchange between the foreign parties didn’t end at basketball. According to Filipino sportswriter and commentator Joaquin Henson, Lopez ate more than his fair share of the local cuisine:

It was Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez’ farewell lunch in the country before heading back to the US last Monday and as usual, he “demolished” the food on the table. Lopez developed a love for Filipino cuisine during his four-day visit to promote the NBA 3×3 and NBA Cares programs in Manila.

Lopez, 24, confessed to being a big eater as he devoured the sumptuous food at Café Laudico in the Fort.

via Lopez ‘demolishes’ Pinoy food | Joaquin Henson, The Philippine Star (8/22/12)

Unlike most other Asian food cultures, Filipino cuisine hasn’t really taken off in the States, though it surely isn’t due to a lack of one. Having a history of colonization, Filipino food is at a unique intersection of Chinese and Spanish influence, with other southeast Asian influences through trade. Much of the food prepared is rich and cooked over long periods of time, and isn’t the most visually striking – a lot of dull, brownish colors. It’s hard to break into America when the most popular dishes — like lumpia (egg rolls) or pancit (stir-fried noodles)—either already have other more prominent cultural variations, or just aren’t all that interesting to look at.

But beyond its rather humble, unexciting appearance lies something pretty damn good – not unlike Brook Lopez himself. I’d like to imagine Lopez taking his first bite of pork adobo and have something go off in his mind. Adobo is brown. It’s really brown. And it’s really simple. A few ingredients: meat (usually chicken or pork), garlic cloves, soy sauce, black pepper, and vinegar braised together until tender/dry. Yet what the process yields is something completely different depending on who’s behind the apron. It’s intensely flavored, but not as jarring as you’d expect from the rather scant list of ingredients. There’s harmony in its collision of overpowering flavors, and nuance in its simplicity. It’s easy to make adobo. Making it taste just right is difficult. But in any iteration, it’s not going to look any better than what it looks like. It’s hard to get too excited over Brook Lopez. He’s a lumbering 7-footer with the terrible burden of being an atrocious rebounder. But less than a handful of centers in the league can match or surpass his litany of skills on the offensive end, which, he reveals, may diversify even further:

“I’m definitely working out on some new moves. I wouldn’t want to give it away or anything. I’m not going to spill it out yet but all of you should be ready for a brand new and better me,” he [said].

via Brook Lopez believes Nets can win NBA title | Aldo Avinante, The Philippine Star (8/24/12)

Since Lopez will probably never become a good defender in the NBA, it’s nice to see Brook embrace the good. His ambidextrous hook shots are right out of the Jurassic eras of basketball, and seeing as how the Nets have greatly improved their perimeter talent, it would make sense for Lopez’ new moves to be more advanced footwork down on the block to truly take advantage of the opportunities inside. It’s his calling card, and what the Nets have wisely started to market (among other things) in their quest to dominate New York.

via the New York Daily News

Of course, it’s hard to talk about Brook Lopez without talking about his quirks. Peel away at the athlete, and what’s left is a comic book-obsessed kid who would prefer to suspend reality in favor of stories and more compelling than his own, just like the rest of us. Yet for a high-profile NBA player, it’s not only a distinguishing feature, it’s a transparent display of personality — something all too rare in the league.

Incidentally, one of Lopez’ high school teammates is Filipino and recommended a few things for his stay in Manila; chief among them a trip to Jollibee, a popular Filipino fast food chain (which has locations in the U.S.), for their signature Filipino spaghetti. Filipino spaghetti is irreverent — a brazen showing of personality — but offers a smile and a wink as consolation. The tomato sauce used to dress the spaghetti is sweet — almost cloyingly so. It has ground beef like a standard meat sauce, but the slices of hot dog wieners steal the spotlight. It’s an interesting and perplexing addition. I’m not exactly sure how the dish entered the Filipino food lexicon (and from my attempts at research, neither are most Filipinos), but it’s traditional in a sense. Reinvention and repurposing are in the culinary DNA of the Philippines.

Though Lopez was over there for basketball reasons, it’s almost uncanny how compatible his life is to the Filipino culture, basketball and otherwise. There are time-tested traditions in the country, yet their time as a colony for multiple countries has given them the opportunity to be playful in their interpretation of the world. Their food is wholly reflective of the national identity, as is their basketball — chaotic and full of characters*. His stay in Manila may have been brief, but I’d like to think he forged a connection with the people. If there’s anything Brook Lopez can appreciate, it’s a good character.

(* To get a sense of how much Filipinos value a sense of humor, click that link, then click this one. It’s zany. It’s awesome.)

Dwelling On Yesterday

I created this monster.

“For we are like tree trunks in the snow. They seem to be resting smoothly as if one could push them away with a slight nudge. No, one cannot, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But lo and behold, this too is sheer semblance.”

“The Trees” by Franz Kafka, as translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Five years ago, Michael Beasley was readying himself for his freshman season at Kansas State. His childhood friend Kevin Durant had completely dominated the NCAA months earlier en route to becoming the second pick in the NBA draft. In only a year, it would all cycle back with Beasley as the protagonist.

He delivered, which is a bit of an understatement. His numbers across the board were astounding, scoring and rebounding more than Durant had at Texas (who had done both at a ridiculous clip) in four fewer minutes of playing time a game. Durant’s descent upon the NCAA was an unearthly spectacle, but Beasley’s season was equally groundbreaking (if not more so). He looked the part of a strong NBA wing at a touch over 6’8” with an effortless brand of freak athleticism and a good enough shooting touch. Yet he was undoubtedly a power forward, ready to redefine positional limits the second he stepped onto an NBA court. He danced around slow-footed defenders and attacked with raw aggression. His body control in midair was peerless. He was short for the position, but it really didn’t look like it mattered. Watching Beasley dominate at K-State was watching Amar’e Stoudemire, fully formed, without having to nag about crashing for boards. He was similarly mainly a scorer and incidental rebounder, but there was so much authority in his actions. His play was joyous, visceral. He was compelling. And it all looked ready to be packaged for the NBA.

…What happened?

Arms got longer, bodies got bigger; defenses smarter. Numerous athletic anomalies more garish than Beasley himself. The NBA happened, and he wasn’t ready to adapt in a manner that didn’t diminish his most attractive qualities. At the professional level, Beasley’s multifaceted offensive talents became his biggest obstacle to stardom. Instead of making inroads in consistently being the player he was, he reversed his tendencies, gradually looking less and less like the inside-out power forward he seemed so capable of being. Since his rookie season, the percentage of shots Beasley has taken around the rim has tapered down from 30.9 percent in 08-09 to 23.9 percent in 11-12. If the trend continues, eventually, Beasley’s shot chart will resemble a glorified Travis Outlaw’s.

Beasley is entering his fifth NBA season and some fans are still daydreaming of his lone year at Kansas State. With a new environment down in Phoenix, Beasley believes himself an all-star and apparently there is a legion of those who agree. The Suns are one of the few teams desperate enough to even think of giving Beasley the opportunity to be a first option, so if there is a breakthrough in the works, he’s found the ideal environment. Regardless of the position he plays, there should be more opportunities for him to play inside. Last season, 16.2 percent of Beasley’s shot attempts came in post-up situations, according to mySynergySports – the highest percentage in his career (though he converted less than 40 percent of those shots). If there is any optimism in this department, it lies in 10-11, where he shot 50.3 percent from the post, though it only accounted for 9 percent of his total attempts. While getting his shot off against the more imposing bigs in the league has proven to be a challenge, he should have no problem exploiting the post defense of weaker small forwards. He (still) has a quick and powerful spin move from the right elbow, and it should be good enough to get most defenders off balance, if he’d only dedicate himself to it more often.

But perhaps more interesting than Beasley’s self-prophecy is the large contingent who are still holding out hope, four years later. Situation does matter, as players like Tracy McGrady (who played three seasons before his big break) and Jermaine O’Neal (who played four) can attest, but for those two, if they didn’t outright show improvement, they at least provided a glimpse of forward progress in their formative NBA years. Beasley has run away from what made him a success – in part because of the reality of his abilities – and has shown few signs of coming back. Yet there are still those who believe he has what it takes to be a superstar. It says a lot about what we choose to remember, the strength of our memories, and the portability of dominance. I am absolutely rooting for Beasley to become a great player, but it’s not something I can claim with any conviction. The idea that Beasley will actualize his potential — despite much of the evidence siding with the contrary — assumes that the dominance is fluid; something that can be bottled and reactivated. Alas, dominance is temporal. Existence at one point doesn’t ensure existence at another.

The Suns will be on my radar not only because I enjoy me a good train wreck, but because it’ll be interesting to see what Beasley proves to himself. Expecting a miraculous transformation is probably setting up for disappointment, but perhaps the newfound freedom in Phoenix can help Michael Beasley rediscover what made him so compelling all those years ago.