Mr. Leonard, I presume: A quest to uncover the NBA’s lost season

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images   Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images   Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images   Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images   Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images /

An unfinished NBA season is full of blank spaces and unanswered questions. Join Professor James Harden on a journey through the NBA’s lost season.

Professor James Harden is believed to be the author of the following unfinished account:

The world is without basketball, and yet not. I see the outdoor courts full of players. They are not social distancing, and as far as I can tell, they are not even playing zone — they are playing man defense. I do not know what these sightings bode for the future, if anything. I do know that as the courts clear I might sneak out of my house once more. My university classes have all been canceled, and with everything from the public libraries to even the strip clubs closed, I don’t really have anywhere I can go. I might dribble a basketball to where a crowd has recently dispersed. I might play H.O.R.S.E. against myself in the setting sun. The image will be stunning; full of noble silhouettes and long shadows; a duet of bricks and swooshes. And like an archaeologist overseeing a confidential excavation, I will trace all the old pathways and maneuvers — I will reenact the moments that brought me here. I will become lost in a history of disappearances.

The world, after all, is full of vanished civilizations. Open an ancient history book and that is the lesson. War and plague and commerce swallow human effort whole. In the absence of my students, I have been thumbing my way through Douglas Preston’s 2017 book The Lost City of the Monkey God.

It begins as a real-life search for a lost city but in the discovery of those lost ruins Preston and those he traveled with all brush up against real death. They come out of the Honduran jungles infected by the Leishmania parasite, and this occurrence transforms an archaeological endeavor into a meditation on epidemiology. He concludes his book: “No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate” (302). And these are wise words I will save for my next meeting with Professor Westbrook.

In the universe, whole planets and stars have come and gone, so even the grand narrative is shaped against something so small as individual character. In February, scientist and historian Kobe Bryant — a great man whom I once considered both a colleague and a rival of mine — died in a helicopter crash. He was ever in search of the jaguar’s blood. He was in search of game. He was not the only one. This continent is an old witness to a long parade of journeymen making for the map’s blank spaces, and that is what I am currently wrapping my head around — these so-called adventurers.

I first heard the tale of the Shortened Season in 1999. It was at the end of a century. It was to be expected. A leading man in the field had recently retired to other pursuits. His name was Michael Jordan. He was something of a cartographer, and aside from Kobe Bryant, he was said to be one of the last real swashbucklers. They were, after all, both enlisted members of the Stern Geographical Society. They were men of scientific processes; they were men of rabid idealism. I know them well; I have written books about them.

And maybe it’s apocryphal, but many believe Jordan kept in contact with Bryant in the two decades since the Shortened Season, even as his young rival’s efforts threatened to eclipse his own. They were working on some major breakthrough or another, and if the rumors are true, then the success of the one man would have opened doors for the other. You see, they were seeking a lost wisdom, traipsing about in wooded isolation, digging for abandoned headwaters and hidden reservoirs. They carried machetes and probed with madness. In his book The Lost City of Z, which is really all about such matters, the esteemed David Grann asks a rather rhetorical question: “Wasn’t an explorer really just an infiltrator, someone who penetrated alien lands and returned with secrets?” And these two men of the Stern Society answered boldly in the affirmative: Yes, that really was it. And I have proven as much in the volumes I have written reassessing their works and contributions to the field. I have acquainted myself with the two through study.

But, to say the least, neither has much to offer us in this present moment, not in our own civilization’s present condition. One, the elder, is rather silent, whispering meekly through famished avatars, and the other, the younger, is departed by way of unspeakable tragedy. I, however, can offer something in this barren age of ours: Despite Hollywood efforts to reboot the archetype, Indiana Jones is no more, at least not without sabbaticals. I kid — everyone should rest according to his and her needs.

I would like to tell you I am currently on assignment for National Geographic or some other important magazine. I would like to tell you I am on location, basking in the shade of the Amazonian overstory, uncovering the civilization’s underpinnings. But I am not. I am recently arrived home from a closed strip club, or shuttered library.

When I first heard the tale of the Shortened Season draw to a close some years ago, I dreamed I was on a small boat navigating its way through the watery veins of San Antonio. I didn’t think much about it then. I thought, there’s no science behind it — surely, this is a fluke —, and I know well-respected men such as Phil Jackson would agree with me: But the local yarn of the local preacher was a long yawn, if anything. And yet the people — that is the natives of the city — came out to celebrate the delivery of a golden statue to their doorsteps, at least that’s what I envisioned, having never touched the golden residue myself.

Since then, and that was all many years ago, San Antonio historians have speculated on whether such visions as my own sprung from fact. Can geographical proximity conjure true history? DeMar DeRozan, once an expert in dinosaur linguistics, stated: “While I have never seen these golden relics, the locals all tell me they exist. They describe glyphs and limestone foundations. What reason do they have to tell anything other than the truth of their experience?” LaMarcus Aldridge, a former charge in the Lewis and Clark Trail Blazing Academy, responded to DeRozan’s words: “I concur, but any path back to the Lost Season is nearly impossible to trace. You might as well be launching midrange jump shots two decades into the twenty-first century.”

Nearly impossible, however, is not impossible. The legend lives and breathes in locations far from San Antonio’s riverbanks. The year was 2011. Weather reports were flying out of Oklahoma City and Miami Beach. Winds across the plains, and winds off the ocean. These things happen, you could easily tell yourself, and so we told ourselves, these things happen. We would all pick up the pieces and go about our daily lives. There was no real story here. We were not locked out of paradise, or Xanadu. El Dorado this was not, and so the myth remained, in large part, untold, except from the lips of a local legend. “Oh, it’s there alright, but it’s a mirage. And any man willing to chase it is rarely heard from again, at least not in these parts,” Steven Adams commented. Then, after a long meditation, he added, “There’s no man from that 2011 sighting left.” And having not been there myself, I took him at his word.

Chris Paul was a well-traveled academic. He was much too austere to be found anywhere with any permanence, but on the day when I spoke to him via a Zoom video conference, he stood near the old Sooner land rush — sunlight settling like a fine layer of embered debris along his furrowed brow. In the image, the angle of his mouth was slightly askew, and he spoke like he was about to start a belabored poem he would never finish: “The skyline here used to be different.” He held Sam Anderson’s book Boom Town in his right hand.

A.I.N.G.E., which is a great deal like NASA I’ve been told, started aiming radar at the deeply wooded areas on the planet’s surface, listening for a ping, squinting through the mist and into the deep foliage. After running the data — and there was always plenty of data —  the organization released a report that they didn’t know whether they were staring into the deep past or catching a glimpse of the not-so-distant future, and I can imagine what you’re saying now. You’re saying either these things have happened or they are not the kind of things to happen, and you’re either believing the story or dismissing it as wild pretense. The A.I.N.G.E. report, however, was released years ago and added very little new information to the Lost Season’s discourse. Moreover, even then, many experts in the field dismissed the organization’s findings as conspiratorial along the lines of a flat earth’s horizon.

Kyrie Irving studied for a time at Duke University, learning the rigid floor-slapping rituals of Professor Mike Krzyzewski, a man rumored to have studied with the Knight’s Temper some decades ago. Irving was a believer not only in the Lost Season but in almost all fictitious accounts. “I grew up watching Lost,” he said, “and I have yet to give up on finding Walt.” He added that every time he opened a door he expected to see the boy standing there, “only taller.”

But many have dismissed the legend of the Shortened Season because its main advocate — this believer in Shangri-Las — was a convert to Theosophy, or what writer David Grann refers to as the “wisdom of the gods” (41). At A.I.N.G.E., Irving initially headed the Department of Physical Research, with a focus on collapsing and expanding physical perimeters, which is to say, he was into the particle sciences. And yet much of his work undermined the founding principles of what he termed “Coach K philosophies” — of what one might term knowledge itself, and he turned the place upside down.

Finally, when Irving proclaimed himself “a conduit for a brotherhood of reincarnated Tibetan mahatmas” (Grann 40-41), it was not long before his rivals proclaimed him a heretic. Dr. Brad Stevens replaced him in the Department of Physical Research with Kemba Walker, the last man believed to have spoken to that old sage named Michael Jordan, and then Stevens jettisoned Irving to a location of lesser renown — somewhere in Brooklyn, or not quite Manhattan —, stating, “there is something gloriously subversive about those [Bostonians] who succumbed to the Wisdom of the [Archives]” (Grann 42). What might be more telling, however, was how Stevens renamed the Department of Physical Research. Kemba Walker had become head of the Department of Theoretical Discoveries, and the man looking for Walt had, in a sense, had become Walt, only taller.

Nothing of import has yet to occur in those Brooklyn laboratories of Kyrie Irving’s banishment, but a well-respected peer of his, a man named Kevin Durant, spent the last year out of sight and out of mind. Supposedly he had been working in isolation for the last year, adapting years of specialized particle learning at the Golden State Institute under the scrutiny of Steve Kerr for more generic uses. He had made sacrifices and was now out for personal profit. He was selling theories of relativity for the common man.

Durant’s research, however, rendered him ill, and when I paid him a visit, he resided inside what could only be described as a bubble. He said it was good for the blood, and one could take him at his quantum word. After all, how does one test the integrity of every claim in the world? “The science at the Golden State Institute is on another level,” said Durant, and even with the bubble acting as a transparent partition, his excitement had a contagious air about it. He continued, “Old Man Kerr won’t even tell people what he’s really up to, but he’s basically moved away from science and toward being a shaman. He’s been studying ancient cultures so long it’s difficult to tell where they end and he begins. He’s got this chamber — used to be housed at the Oracle — that’s just a room full of doors and in the center of the room’s just a bunch of barber’s chairs. He got the idea from reading The Lost City of the Monkey God, but he’s moving his guys through spiritual planes. It’s like teleportation, but it’s like ancient burial magic too. He’s gone full jaguar.” In his excitement, Durant began to cough and was forced to end the interview. An eeriness settled into my psyche as I left Brooklyn, as did a curiosity to read Preston’s book. More to the point, talking to someone inside a bubble is a bit like receiving a narrative account from a ghost, and I was haunted.

Few people realize that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is on Oak Grove Dr. in Pasadena, California. Few people not realizing the location of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is not surprising. Most people do not think about jet propulsion on a daily basis, and even fewer people need to visit a laboratory about it. When I showed up at 4800 Oak Grove Dr., I was only 17.4 miles from the Staples Center and only about 18.5 miles from Hollywood Boulevard. In the hills of Southern California, entertainment and science bask within the same physics. I rang the doorbell and was immediately greeted with a hazmat suit, as in I was given a hazmat suit to wear. I was assured such conditions were standard practice and not due to a national health crisis. My host, who was also wearing a hazmat suit but appeared to have what I could only assume was a unibrow, then escorted me down a long corridor. He talked longingly about his days having been exposed to the avian flu, to which he was immune. When we arrived at a sealed metal door, he pressed a glowing circle. I could hear the sigh of released oxygen, and then the door opened. I entered a glass antechamber. A female voice, like something from a Spike Jonze movie, instructed me to remove the hazmat suit — I had tested negative and could now strip down to my true identity.

“Do you drink wine, Damian? I was about to pour some vino.”

LeBron was not your stereotypical scientist. He was bearded, rugged, and fit. Clear, algebraic glasses framed his eyes and a jaguar-printed ascot flashed under his bearded chin from the folds of his smoking jacket. On top of his head, he wore a weather-beaten fedora. The effect of the costume was that of a man in transition.

“Seriously, I need a wine-drinking partner.”

I accepted a glass, but I didn’t drink from it. I simply wanted to respect social graces as I interviewed this man internationally famous for having found evidence of Atlantis off the coast of Cuba and an ancient metropolis in the heart of the Ohio River Valley. And yet I had to be wary of the fact that his best discoveries already felt themselves like relics of an ever-fading past.

I opened with a volley of questions. Some of a basic nature and others quite bold in their foreshadowing. He nodded. He offered facts and data. He sipped his wine. He poured another glass. He nodded some more. He asked me questions, and the whole time, I felt like he was hiding some valuable set of information.

“I can’t say much, not really. It’s simply too early in the process. But we are already searching other sites.”

I asked him where, and he said vaguely, “In the Americas.”

I attempted other questions, but he waived them off. He gestured toward the ornamental artifacts scattered throughout his office that was much more like a luxury hotel suite. Then our movements paused in front of a series of monitors and radar screens embedded in one of the walls.

“I really can’t tell you more,” he said, “but all of this is for monitoring the area. Once upon a time, I would have gone in there on foot, but now we can map whole road systems and limestone foundations by satellite. The day of the archaeologist in a fedora is long gone. This space-imaging data, though, isn’t so unique. No, the uniqueness comes from knowing where to look, and I have Rondo and AD and others aiding me. We have a private backer who knows decades worth of stories and gossip. We’re well on our way. The Golden State Institute isn’t what it was, and Kyrie doesn’t know where to look. No, I strongly believe we’re the only ones.”

A beep sounded through the speaker system. Then a lime green blip appeared on the bottom right of a dark green screen. The beep sounded again. The blip moved, as if sentient. And the beep pulsed once more.

“What’s that?” I asked.

The wine glass slid out from LeBron’s hand and shattered on the marble floor.

On ground level in that dense jungle somewhere in the undisclosed Americas, a tall, sinewy man knelt at a curve of brown river. With a guitar strapped across his shoulder blades, he dipped his canteen into the water’s piranha-colored ebb. He lifted the canteen and dropped a white capsule into it. He screwed the lid onto it. He shook the canteen. He turned it upside down. He turned it right side up. He paused at the sound of underbrush being trampled. He looked toward the trees and vines and interior darkness of an untouched world. He saw the white flash of approaching tennis shoes — somehow miraculously clean despite all the mud and moisture they must have suffered. He recognized the logo and offered a knowing question.

“Dr. Leonard, I presume?”


The man approached, his beard unkempt and his braids somewhat frayed. The other man stood. He unscrewed the canteen’s cap. He took a sip. The liquid was now purple and fruit-flavored. He offered the open canteen to the man in the New Balance sneakers. The man accepted it, wiping his brow with his opposite arm. He too sipped from the canteen.

“Can’t be long now.”

“Can’t be long.”

The man returned the canteen with the cap screwed tight. Then each unsheathed a machete and began trekking a separate path through the jungle, knowing they had a limited amount of time to beat the competition, to arrive at what was surely the same destination somewhere in the unmapped Americas.

Bryan Harvey is the author of the NBA fan fiction epics, Everything that Dunks Must Converge and With the Memphis Blues Again.