Klay Thompson's country of interlude
What Thompson found when his world stopped.
I keep a fortune on the fridge, in the middle of the jumble of photos and postcards and souvenir magnets, that says, ‘You emerge victorious from the maze you’ve been travelling in’. I like it because the tense implies both that it’s constantly happening, I’m always emerging from a maze, any maze, all mazes, and that it’s final. Is the ultimate maze life? Probably. Is emerging from it death? I guess. But the no-nonsense, disarmingly pluckiness of the statement always manages to pull me out of whatever imagined quandary I’m in. The fact that I’ll drop myself right into another one is my own problem.
The last time I was in San Francisco I took a bus from Nob Hill to Land’s End, a straight shot along California Street, which felt cloyingly fitting. I took a lot of busses that trip and was permanently footsore, and that ride doesn’t stick out as much in my memory as a ping-ponging one from Golden Gate Park to Chinatown in the smudged lilac evening, or another from Union Square to the Castro that passed, I think, The Warfield, where I was buzzed enough to try and get Dylan and Julian to get off and go see Bryan Adams.
But I remember getting off the bus at Land’s End. It was anticlimactic. I’d been expecting a big roar of the ocean, maybe the bus tipping toward it as we got closer, but the last stop was halfway down a hill so we climbed, my calf muscles numb, to the top and were met with some confusion and a parking lot. Another descent, rough stairs down to an out-of-service guest area and nobody else in sight, we eventually got on a path and pushed our way close to what we hoped was the shorn end of the city.
We were sweaty. It’d been sunny and hot the whole week and we’d burned off so many burritos and 40s by climbing up so many hills with parks perched at the tops where we’d slump, happy and slick, and look back out at the city. When it clarified for me that we’d made it to where we’d pictured this place to be in our heads, it was like everything — smell, sight, sensation, scope — aligned at once. Eucalyptus and the dried out pine needles underfoot, a pod of dolphins loping along through the surf, a calf throwing its small body up between the group’s slick backs. Heat and light, the Golden Gate Bridge, which no one is immune to, stretching out at a distance that made it feel like we’d been travelling for half a day instead of maybe an hour. It wasn’t overwhelming, just very beautiful, and if you’re lucky you have a few handfuls of memories like that where expectation, or the idea you already have of a place, reconcile as-pictured or even better. Detailed enough that you can gently pry them apart years later like plies of Kleenex and set each separate layer of stimulus aside to examine.
I remember we burst from the end of a trail into a fully formed neighbourhood of gated houses, more like a suburb, which pressed on the feeling we’d gone farther away from the city, mixing with that other rare feeling you get when you travel that you are in fact far away from home. The map tells me it’s Sea Cliff.
We took another bus back, I don’t remember that one at all. Only that on it we realized we didn’t go and see the Land’s End Labyrinth, the maze of 300 spiralling rocks out on a ledge at the northwest point of the park.
That night we picked up a bottle of red wine and climbed Russian Hill, looped around streets and pockets I could never get back to if I tried to retrace, handed the bottle around between us. I think I tried to point out the hotel I stayed at on another trip that burned down in middle of the night, but body-tired and heads fuzzed out we just walked around, aimless and happy, for hours. Most of the best times on the best trips I’ve had have me doing the same. That end result, that exactitude of the place I’d pictured, never materializing.
The last time Klay Thompson was on the floor he had been on an incline since 2012. It wasn’t new territory and he wasn’t shy of the big stage, it was his 5th time in the Finals and watching him, and Steph Curry and Draymond Green take their places out there was like seeing actors find their marks by a particular subtle groove in the stage’s floor. Secondary sense.
The last time Thompson was on the floor Notre-Dame cathedral sat covered in tarpaulins, its charred spires wrapped in plastic film like half finished cucumbers in the fridge; the first picture of a black hole had just been released, described by one of the astrophysicists who found it as feeling “like looking at the gates of Hell”; the Amazon was on fire, Russell Westbrook was still in Oklahoma and protests in Hong Kong were rising but Daryl Morey hadn’t tweeted about them yet.
Time is tricky. We either register it too closely or not at all. For Thompson, that stretch of mid-April to June 13, 2019 likely existed in tunnel vision. It was the exacting, exciting but familiar climb through the postseason with easy pickings in the West. Basketball wasn’t a puzzle to Thompson, he was in the middle of it, its structure hugging so tight to him he was vital as an organ, fixed and fast. The first injury must have felt awful, but manageable, with a measurable shift in scope for his return and where he would fit back in. The second injury was a severing, from the game but also from the team, the future, time.
“It’s hard to see during the early and middle stages of Achilles rehab,” Thompson said recently about his recovery and the sensation of being plucked out of any familiar understanding of time, “it’s such a slow and tedious process.”
The Warriors, like the world, changed. Thompson kept a satellite’s orbit, swinging in at different intervals depending on where he was in recovery. At some point, so far removed from basketball as job, lifeline, diversion, Thompson decided he needed new hobbies. He took to swimming, kayaking and motoring around the Bay, usually recording it on his phone with the camera flipped toward himself. At first the videos were a little pained, Thompson squinting in the bright sun or peering through morning fog, straining to be light, to make jokes. It felt like he was insisting. And if you’ve ever started something new, under conditions unfamiliar to you, then you know the feeling. You do insist. Specifically, to yourself, that you can do this. Thompson just happened to be telling himself at the same time he was showing us because sometimes it’s easier to believe yourself in the third person.
But the videos got better, in that they got worse. Less prepared, sometimes starting up in the middle of whatever was happening, and with other people around. In one, Thompson is already halfway down a dock, running to jump into the ocean, the phone so steady it’s either in the very firm hand of somebody else or he’s set it up with a delay on something static. In another that opens abrupt in a bobbing sway of navigational screens of depth charts and a map, the Bay bright through his boat’s water-flecked windshield, Thompson turns the camera around ten seconds in to reveal a nervously smiling James Wiseman sitting behind him. There was one where Thompson was out in what looked like the middle of the ocean, sitting in his kayak, the audio beginning with a loud “OOOOO”, probably because he was halfway through a “Woo”.
He was starting to look at the world in front of him as-is, in motion, with himself as a joyful part of it, instead of like a strange country of interlude until he could get back to basketball.
There were still cruel dips. Like when Thompson stayed on the bench for a half hour after the Warriors beat the Blazers at home in November, alone except for when Curry came over to sit with him for a little while.
“He can't help but stop and think about how much he's lost the last couple of years, just on a personal level,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “He loves the game so much and not being able to play, not really being able to be a part of the team the way he wants to, it's been pretty emotional for him. He's very human, I guess that's what I'm trying to say. He's vulnerable, he's emotional.”
A stat that I found particularly wrenching and probably used to seem throwaway, is that in his first two seasons in the NBA, Thompson was a league leader in games played. In his first season he played 66, in his second, 82. That’s every game. And with someone like Thompson, even when his games and minutes started to be more closely managed, all the offseason ever is is an interlude. A breather. With not enough time or real desire to take your regular life out of basketball, because they’re one and the same.
"He's right there, getting toward the end of the road,” Green said the same night Thompson sat for so long staring at the floor, like it was a puzzle he was trying to find the last few pieces for, “Or the beginning of the road, however you choose to look at it.”
The end of the road is just turning onto another one, and Thompson hasn’t stopped moving in one sure, necessary as breathing direction since he was a teenager. Basketball was the answer sheet to the puzzle page that comes in the next day’s newspaper for him, and he suddenly had 29 months without it. He never sat with so much unoccupied time before. Time he had to eventually use to sift through his expectations and reconcile them with reality or time itself, like an obnoxious fortune telling him he would emerge victorious from the maze he was travelling in and here he was, dizzy from coming out of the first maze of maybe his adult life.
The labyrinth at Land’s End keeps getting destroyed by vandals. Which is easy because it’s just a bunch of rocks, and somebody just keeps throwing them all into the ocean. Most mazes we make for ourselves are like that, interminable until we realize we can toggle between the perspective in front of us and one that’s birds-eye, until we huck the whole thing into some proverbial ocean, or whatever we picture oblivion best to be.
Thompson’s set to get his answer sheet back when he steps out onto the court again, potentially as soon as this weekend, but I don’t think he needs it anymore. Between the floor and his new, bright and resolved ceiling, he knows the game as closely as he does himself.