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October Thoughts in the House of Hoops or Halftime

(last edited December 24, 2017)


I woke up late this morning; I’m usually up between 5 and 6AM. At home, these early hours are a peaceful refuge for writing and catching up with friends and family before they go to sleep back in the states. But on roadtrips the same hours can be a bit imprisoning, spent wondering when the hotel breakfast opens and whether my tossing and turning will wake my roommate.


This morning we have a later than usual airport departure that’s not helping the situation. The team bus leaves at 11AM for the hour drive to Stuttgart and our 2:10PM flight back to Istanbul. Usually when we can’t leave immediately after the game, we’re dragging out of the hotel at the crack of dawn to catch the first available flight home. These early starts are a small sacrifice to ensure that the week’s only off-day isn’t spent entirely in transit. Still, the 11AM in today’s itinerary is an anomaly, and I have no intention of spending the next three or four hours in bed staring at the ceiling or worse yet, my phone.

I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude in the airport. It was stacked in one of those lazily curated collections of english bestsellers. Just the kind of lonely shelf you find in an international terminal bookstore. One that feels specially carved out for all the wandering American tourists who sadly only speak english. Our team was returning from a week in the Italian alps or maybe it was on our way to the preseason tournament in Antalya. I get the airports and trips mixed up. In an early season defined by a relentless fog of fatigue and hurried shuffles between check-ins and passport controls, international airports are all very much the same. The same colognes in duty free. The same monopoly pricing at Starbucks. The same dated selection of bestsellers at the book stores. It was on the last checkpoint of this methodical stroll that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landmark novel again caught my attention. Over the years, I’d heard of the book on countless occasions, the first of which dating back to Señor Samiljan’s spanish lit class. That was once upon a time when I was near fluent in the language and I read Cronica De Una Muerta Anunciada not Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Seems so long ago standing amongst those bestsellers. From what I knew, 100 Years of Solitude was a classic, just one I’d never picked up because I assumed I’d missed my chance to enjoy it in high school. But I figured I would eventually have to read it. Hell, standing there book in hand, the cover featured a quote proclaiming it “The greatest novel in any language of the last fifty years”. Better late than never right? So I bought it, along with Murakami’s “Kafka On The Shore” because I’d already read Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and the adjoining selection of dated Malcolm Gladwell titles. The other books, the likes of some self help business title, “Talk Like Ted” and “50 Great Short Stories”, simply didn't interest me. What did interest me and what did catch my eye was the 100 years. I am fascinated by time. I know, probably a natural interest especially as one begins hurdling into the clutches of adulthood. But this curiosity has been alive since my youth. Somewhere between 2nd and 3rd grade, I wondered beyond the understanding of its everyday conventions. It was then that I stumbled on H.G. Wells during a voracious binge of the Great Illustrated Classics and pondered impossible, inconsequential thoughts like when would I like to visit? The magical, albeit terrifying, nature of time became tangible during my adolescence. I returned home from Exeter one holiday break and felt the full weight of its relativity. How over a few years all my classmates, the campus, and cheerful enchantment of boarding school seemed to stay the same, yet my younger brother had sprouted, my parents had moved, and I’d all but lost contact with the few kids from my neighborhood and youth basketball teams. For the first time I wondered where time went.


Frozen between the aisles reading back covers and Google book reviews, it was a continuation of this curiosity, this invitation to think of time from another perspective, that ultimately rescued the pair of books from their lonely shelf of misfits. Happy with my purchase despite the inflated airport pricing, I retired to our empty gate. I opened Kafka On The Shore and waited for our flight.


As my sixth year of professional basketball launches into the bizarre pace of the regular season, I find myself thinking about Marquez’s novel and the fictional inhabitants of Macondo. A couple of weeks after finishing Kafka, I read the book over the course of a nostalgic Eurocup road trip to Ulm, Germany. It’s pages filled the odd, basketball-less gaps in the team itinerary. These are the waking stretches resigned to uncomfortable airline seats, bus transfers and early afternoons in the hotel when one onlys wait for practice or the next team meal. The moments during a road trip when I find sleep isn't possible and exploring a foreign city with my camera simply isn't appropriate. So I read. I think about Ursula, presumably the oldest person in the book, and her steadying presence throughout the novel’s sequence of time. In particular, I think about how with each passing generation of fateful names and relationships, she began to understand, to everyone else’s naivety, “that time was going in a circle”. I think it was in her final years, losing her vision and teaching little Jose Arcadio, and myself, restless in that Ulm hotel room the morning after a tough loss, that I began to fear the same. I just couldn't yet place my finger on why I felt this way, and more so, this immediate association with fear.


Initially it was the immediate sense of nostalgia catalyzed by fresh memories of people and places. This was not my first time visiting Ulm; two seasons ago I played one of my first Eurocup games there. In particular, I remember the walk I took the morning before the game.


We stayed in a hotel just across a small river from the city center. From the back courtyard, yellows, oranges, and reds framed postcard views of the Ulm Munster, its massive steeple rising into the October clouds, attempting to break through and shed some sunlight on the sleepy town below. The city center was a short distance, impossible to get lost, and thus an inviting destination for my camera and I. I figured I’d visit the church, the tallest in Europe, and then hurry back to the hotel before the next team obligation.


Inside the Ulm Munster, I remember half heartedly walking the empty pews, admiring the architecture, and snapping wide lens photos of the colossal interior, all the while consumed by an itching curiosity. I wondered how long would it take to reach the top, up into those clouds, where I was certain the views would be amazing. I remember standing frozen at the entrance unable to exit as I contemplated the 768 step ascent, contemplated whether I’d ever again be back in Ulm with an opportunity to see what waits above. So I trudged up the claustrophobic stone spirals, legs burning, teeth chattering, and disappeared into a cold fog convinced I’d return to the hotel before someone started looking for me, convinced I still had time.



That year, I was enjoying my second season living in Italy and playing for a team Umana Reyer in Venice. One of my best friends, introduced and bonded through the happenstance of the game, PAC 12 opponents in college, NBA summer league comrades in Las Vegas, rookie year teammates in Idaho, the same a season and a few thousand miles later in Tel Aviv, he played for Ulm and was once again an opponent. And as irony would have it, two of my current teammates played there at the time as well. But the repetition doesn’t stop at people and places, my last visit to Einstein’s birthplace also ended in a loss.






But these (dare I say) coincidences happen. I had a similar moment of pause full of vivid memories during this season’s training camp. I returned to the Italian alps of Bormio and the same Hotel Palace and looming mountain views that welcomed me four seasons ago when I, discouraged from a rookie year in the NBA Development league, decided I’d continue my journey in Europe. I think about last season while playing for a team in Izmir, how by the luck of the Champions League group draw, I returned to Venice to play my old club. How odd it felt to play a team largely unchanged with so many familiar faces. How foreign it was to walk the canals I once leisurely strolled now as a tourist with a time limit. As I sit here writing, the same stroke of luck will soon take me back to Trento where I’ll compete against the team that gave me my first opportunity in Italy three seasons ago.



But is this early evidence of time repeating itself or simply the coincidence afforded by a career spent on the road bouncing between countries, leagues and clubs? Maybe it’s natural to see past adversaries and fellow travellers in transit. After all, the career of a european pro basketball player is often the tale of the journeyman. Ask most veteran players and they’ll probably recount a humble start in a second division or maybe some small country with an even smaller reputation for basketball. Perhaps looking back at that first year they’ll tell you how they “played for peanuts” with the intent of “killing” just for the chance to get noticed not only by a bigger club, but hopefully by a more reputable league. The climb begins.


For each player, it takes a different number of seasons to reach that next opportunity, one where you feel like you might actually make a living. And for some, that opportunity and feeling never arrive. Others stop voluntarily, inelastic to the reality that 10 months away from home isn’t for them, or exhausted by Europe’s normalization of late payments and missed salaries, or maybe just due to a waned passion for the game. For the vast majority of the remaining players, the climb continues. These nomadic athletes move with the seasons from one place to the next in search of greener pastures--more money, bigger clubs, better competition.


But then, every so often you hear about the few who find some root worthy force strong enough to halt that frantic, migratory climb. The same way Ursula consigned herself to the family home, House Buendia, some people find the right country or league, some find the right club or coach and others even find love. These were the players in my mind, most susceptible to this circular flowing of time and these seasons that I imagined to pass with the same methodical wonder as my walks through the airports.


I catch myself asking teammates about opponents from seasons past, ones I haven’t heard about or seen in while, only to learn they’ve been in South Korea for the last 5 years or making a great living in second division Turkey since their rookie season. I met teammates that spent their entire decade-plus careers in Italy. And I’d wonder what kept them in place the same way I now wonder why Ursula never left the home in Macondo.


Up to this point in my career, I firmly clung to this journeyman’s narrative. I thought it the remedy to my subconsciously creeping fears of stagnation. It was 100 Years of Solitude and the trip back to Ulm that reawakened these contemplative feelings and doubts. Surely a few repeat experiences in foreign cities didn’t doom or imprison me. In fact, it was therapeutic to reminisce on memories of these same places separated only by earlier times, earlier selves. But it did make me question whether these recurrences were the first evidences some looming boundaries forming around my athletic pursuits and aspirations.


I’ve never wanted my basketball life to get boring. Never wanted to feel like a 90’s desktop screensaver, bouncing back and forth between invisible boundaries waiting for someone to wake me up. Yet, it’s a funny thing to say about a profession in which success is inherently built on monotonously, repetitive habits and behavior. Drill after drill, shot after shot, video clip after video clip, all for the sake of building muscle memory and instinct. This process is one of the things I love most about the game.


But there’s no denying that even on a macro level, the flow of the season also has a rhythm drummed along to practices, travel and games. In the heat of the season, I find myself oblivious to the minutiae of dates. In the heart of it, I couldn’t tell you if it were Monday or Thursday, the 1st of or the 15th, but without fail I could tell you the number of days to the next match or coveted off day the same way Ursula, in her blind state, could pinpoint the location of Fernanda’s lost ring.


Sitting in the dark stillness of the hotel room, hoping not to wake my sleeping teammate, I realize time has a nostalgic way of repeating itself--running in circles-- in the protective, familiar worlds we construct for ourselves. Ursula built hers inside a house and small town. It was her century long devotion to her family and home that allowed her to clearly witness, interpret and understand the subtle nuances of her family’s generational habits and tendencies. It allowed her to watch time repeat. She knew how each generation of Aurelianos were quiet and reserved and how the Arcadios were hulking and adventurous. She could predict the outcome of both their love lives and their looming fates. She understood the madness and solitude that haunted her husband was the same that would torment her sons and grandchildren. But I can’t help but think, had she never returned to Macondo, or had she lured her husband Jose Arcadio to the modern town she found at the other end of the swamp, perhaps detached from the opportunity to data-mine every detail of her family, her perspective of time might be a bit different.


For myself and other pro athletes wandering abroad, maybe we build our world not in some singular physical location like a house, but within the game itself. The same way Ursula would renovate her home to accommodate the expanses of her world, to some extent, we choose how far we place our boundaries with basketball. Whether that world only exists in the local rec center for Saturday morning pick up games, across a decade worth of seasons in Italy, or stretches around the globe with the NBA, no two worlds are identical; we’re all searching for something different out of the game.


The one universal truth our unique worlds do share, one I’ve contemplated before ever falling in love with basketball, the one my parents warned me about while preaching academics, the truth I wrestled with and almost conceded during that fateful junior season at Stanford, and the one truth with which time has allowed me to make peaceful amends, is that none of us will play this game forever. None us will cheat reality as gracefully--mystically-- as Ursula, who spent more than a century protected in her own fantasy. Chances are, in our separate ways, we will each outlive basketball only to be launched into a new reality, one that has been there all along but somehow just out of reach. So in the meantime I’ll keep building--tearing down, renovating and expanding, smiling when I re-encounter memories already once lived, hopeful for new experiences and thankful for this purely magical time.


This visit, we’re staying further out on the edge of Ulm. There are no Ulm Munster or city views this time around, but there are the same warm colors and tree-lined walking paths that are inviting in their own autumn-in-Germany kind of way. There’s also a light rail line that conveniently stops in front the hotel. I imagine this wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for the adjoining convention center.


I turn down the brightness on my phone, wait for the WiFi to reconnect, then open Google Maps. I scope out the transit line and a potential path into the center. The 1 Line arrives every 12 minutes and is a short 5 stop, 9 minute ride to the nearest station to downtown. From there I can walk directly south and allow the steeple to direct me if I ever get lost.





Still in bed, I perform a couple of quick rounds of mathematical gymnastics, each iteration accounting for different travel contingencies and unforeseen mishaps. If I can be on one of the next two trains and start heading back no later than 10:15 AM, at the very least I’ll have an hour and a half to wander with my camera and still have time for a comfortable breakfast before boarding the bus.


Mind made up, I slide from under the covers. For a few moments in the dark, I’m Ursula in House Buendia as I blindly navigate the cramped hotel room to dress, brush my teeth and retrieve my camera. Under the glow of my iPhone screen I break the spell and double check that I have everything, that my packed bags are in place for my return and that my roommate is still asleep. I set an alarm for 10 AM and do one final check of the 1 Line schedule. I can catch the next train. I press play on "For Emma, Forever Ago" and slip out of the hotel room. I head into Ulm for a second visit, hoping to experience something new, maybe find something to bring back home while I still have time.



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