After years of trying, I finally parlayed my film/TV producer credentials, slight as they may be, into a roster spot on the Detroit Pistons of the NBA Entertainment League. The NBAEL, which is now in its ninth season, was established to aid in the marketing and branding of the National Basketball Association. The teams are composed of actors (including Will Ferrell, Ashton Kutcher, and Jamie Foxx), musicians (Snoop, Ice Cube, and Justin Timberlake), and film, TV, and music executives/agents/muckety-mucks. Games are played each Sunday at a private high school in Santa Monica in front of referees and fans. The parking lot tends to resemble a car show, with chrome dubs, Lamborghini doors on SUVs, and a host of aftermarket modifications on Rolls-Royce Phantoms, Maybach Mercedes, Aston Martin Vanquishes, and ubiquitous Escalades. The season begins in November and ends with a championship game at the Staples Center in March. We wear NBA-issued uniforms modeled after the Spurs, Knicks, Bulls, et al., and we get a lot of free gear. The socks are a bit of a conundrum, in that they go to midcalf—not high enough to sport a Van Exel look nor short enough to be hidden by our high-tops. Most people in the biz will tell you it’s important to look good out there.
Our team captain is a screenwriter: former seminarian, daily communicant, Motor City enthusiast. He’s also one of my best friends. Ever since I’ve known him he’s been obsessed with basketball, Catholic iconography, and the political philosophizing of George Will, which makes him an anomaly in the biz. He is also very charitable, making trips to orphanages in Tijuana, volunteering as a Big Buddy to a Down-syndrome teen, and taking in itinerant layabout friends. The Captain has devoted himself to preparing for the season: two-a-days at Bodies in Motion gym and a supplement-popping regimen that could choke a hippo. Last year he and I were called in to participate in a playoff game for the New Orleans Hornets because they lost so many of their players to out-of-state movie shoots. If we hadn’t played, they would have forfeited their game, because only three players remained. During that game, an actor specializing in sports movies exploded to the hoop and dunked on the Captain.
“You know what I have in store for him?” the Captain asks me in between 40-pound curls in the weight room.
He pulls up the right sleeve on his workout shirt, revealing a religious tattoo of a woman, and flexes. “A little something I call Our Lady of Sorrows.”
Game One: The Shame
It’s a Midwest tilt with the Pistons battling the Chicago Bulls. The Pistons’ starting lineup: myself at small forward; the Captain at center; “the Silver Fox” (former show-runner of a long-running network sitcom and co-creator and executive producer of a current network sitcom), a TV heavyweight known for his intellect and his luxurious mane of salt-and-pepper hair, at the other forward; “Coach’s Son,” an aspiring actor and the progeny of a professional-sports coach, at the two guard; and “English,” an executive with an agency that represents clients such as Yao Ming and Carmello Anthony, at point guard. Our guards should be our strong suit, as they both played college ball. Coach’s Son lives near the ocean and has the requisite surfer hair—he looks like he just smoked some of the kindest herb this side of British Columbia. English, though proud of his Continental ancestry, is darkly complected with short black hair and could easily be mistaken for a Middle Easterner. An actor on a noted half-hour sitcom accused English of being a “Persian” last year at a game. The slur had his swarthy skin blazing red with anger.
Our bench: “New York,” the prolific film actor who transitioned to TV and has a thick East Coast accent. He is quick to exercise his spleen—in our first huddle, he barks, “If they come into the lane, break their fucking arm.” He’ll talk to the crowd, the commissioner, the refs, the trainer, the ball girl, anyone. “Bigs,” an imposing actor who’s hit show on basic cable partially redeems the network’s past programming abortions Homeboys in Outer Space, Shasta McNasty, and The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer, is our backup center; “Date Show Host” substitutes at forward; “Music Producer” comes in at forward and has worked with artists such as Janet Jackson. The little brother of a subpremier boy band (i.e., not ‘N Sync or the Backstreet Boys)—we’ll call him “B3,” boy-band brother—comes in at guard. “Young Actor” is from L.A. and subs at guard as well. Truthfully, we’re not exactly dominating the Q scores. For comparison, the Lakers’ starting lineup features Snoop, Timberlake, Ice Cube, Frankie Muniz, and One on One star Flex Alexander. What we lack in star power we compensate for with basketball IQ and background. The problem: we have too many guys who want to play, which negatively affects our chemistry. League rules stipulate each player must get in the game, and B3, a player with more fervor than skill, knows the dictate like the back of his hand.
From the opening tip, we play crappy. Our guards are black holes, Coach’s Son chucks up a shot from anywhere on the court, and our frontcourt doesn’t rebound effectively. The Bulls, captained by the brother of an actor and a charismatic guy in his own right, are small and quick, with one explosive big man. They run circles around us as we miss threes, commit turnovers, and defend poorly. Date Show Host takes to heckling the refs: “Is that a bus uniform you’re wearing?”
Such celebrity inoculates them during the game. Executives and guys who aren’t “faces” are brooked no insubordination. We would get teed up for a cross look. I stand up from my seat on the bench after an egregious call and a ref immediately orders me to sit down, his hand fumbling for his whistle. Meanwhile, the stands are teeming with groupies. Hotties in waistless jeans, breasts spilling out of their unzippered Juicy Couture tops—it’s a little distracting. Frankly, there’s a lot of smoking-hot ass in the gym. Carl Jung once observed, “A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror.”
We played scared. Bottom line: Bulls roll us, 52-44.