Kobe, Jackie, and Me: Stars and MinutesThomas Beller
We hosted our first slumber party the other night. Three girls came over. One was a drop off. The parents of the other two hung around for drinks; one of them, Jackie, brought some smoked salmon on a platter with dill and capers; the kids had hot dogs, then popsicles. There was wine. It was a party.
One couple brought a friend from out of town. He had a wild look in his eyes and wore an Oregon Ducks T-Shirt. He was once a track star, was briefly sponsored by Nike, and trained for a while in Portland. He said he lived for years eating noodles, trying to survive on his meager earnings as an athlete. He said he had been in situations when he was living with people and they only had enough money for a snickers bar. They cut it and half and that is what they ate for the day. He said, “It’s not about money. Athletics isn’t about money. It’s about respect. It’s about people looking up to you. It’s about when you die. When you die people are gonna say ‘He did that.’”
I thought he was a bit insane. Also interesting. Our chat lasted about two minutes. The night rushed on.
Dusk fell. There was a dance party in the livingroom. I blasted some of the tunes that make my daughter and her friends go nuts (current top request, Tik Tok by Keisha). Six years old girls going crazy, with some young siblings milling around, staring at the dervishes. And eventually the grownups got into it, too. Which is when Jackie pulled something in her calf. She was almost laughing about it at first, saying something to her husband along the lines of, “Can you believe this?” But then she added, “I heard a pop.”
I went to the freezer, got an ice pack. I ran upstairs for Advil. I was in host mode. I got something for her to tie the ice pack to her leg. She propped it up on a chair, knocked back the advil with some wine. The party continued.
This morning, when her husband came by to pick up his daughter, I asked after Jackie and her leg.
“Is it better?” I said.
“Not really. She got out of bed. And then she got right back in bed.”
“Is she a runner?” I asked. I was faintly aware she ran. The insane former track star was their friend.
“Sort of,” he said. “She used to a lot. But not too much recently. Though she just ran the other day.”
We both paused over this. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was thinking about drugs. How the overdoses always happen when the user stops for a while, and then comes back to their old dose. But they have lost the stamina, or resistance, or tolerance. The word choice here is tricky.
“Did you hear about Kobe?” he said, sort of changing the subject, and sort of not.
“No,” I said.
“Tore his achilles. Out for a year.”
“No way!” I said, shocked but also not shocked.
It’s now about thirteen hours later and I have not read an article about Kobe Bryant or seen any video or any televsion. I am on a Kobe media blackout. In spite of this, or because of it, I thought about it all day. I feel everything I read will be redundant. Every NBA fan knows the story. Henry Abbott of True Hoop just devoted a long column to the issue of stars and the number of minutes they play; the notion that the best teams rest their stars. With Kobe the story has been ongoing for years: The minutes. The miles. The total commitment veering between leading by example and a kind of deluded meglomania. The murmurs about the coach’s weakness in allowing Kobe to play so many minutes will become roars. The press will flirt with the temptation to eulogize a career but will be drawn to a even more tempting narrative, which is to speculate on the rehab, the training, the journey back. Kobe Bryant: Black Mamba, soon to be the black Lee Majors. He can rebuild himself.
The day swept on. I left to work, and then rushed over to play in the Saturday full court run at the JCC. I came late. Everyone else was drenched with sweat, tired, in a flow. If I could get loose I would have fresh legs. I was a bit tight. I ran around, did squats, took shots, and wondered when it will happen.
Athletes stop being athletes in the same way Hemmingway described how people go bankrupt: “Slowly. Then all at once.”
Of course it will happen. As sure as death, for which it serves as foreshadowing, your body will break down. Basketball is a physical sport; it’s actually pretty violent if you play hard, with decent players, even decent JCC/YMCA level players. Especially if, like me, you are a big man and have to go down low. Don’t get me started about the purgatory of the post. That is another matter. I think I have lasted this long because I am not that athletic and never get that high off the ground. The knees have survived, so far. But it could be anything. The Achilles is especially mythological. Especially if you are a Knicks fan; echoes of Patrick Ewing.
Kobe Bryant’s career, I would bet, is not over. But one day it will be. Do these gunners, the superstars, the Jordans and Iversons and Bryants, ever go out gracefully?
The sport, for me, is like a playground, where it is often played. When you see a playground from outside the surrounding fence you see a bunch of people jumping around, huffing, getting sweaty, playing a game. Sometimes they yell and curse. It is recreation.
But when you are within the confines of the playground, the game is the world. It is all that matters. The triumphs are huge and so are the defeats. Basketball is my last drug. I can’t stand the idea that the moment will come. I almost feel like these tiny exploits, these pick-up games or league games at the JCC, or the special invite only games I sometimes play in at the Dalton gym Saturday morning, all feed into a truth that the track guy was getting at. Except the pick-up basketball artist is the only one who can transfer their myth from inside the playground to outside in the world.
I jumped around and stretched until my game got underway. As with a drug, the world dissappeared. The last thought I had, and this comes up often these days, was the hope that I can still really play by the time my little kids can play, too.
But meanwhile, I throw caution to the wind. I am all in. I play to win. I don’t see the point in holding back.