The playoffs arrived, and not a moment too soon, as our collective basketball obsession had billowed and mushroomed and was overwhelming all ability to behave like a sane adult or conduct any work or be productive in any professional sense. Our first-round game pitted our Pistons against the defending-champion Miami Heat. It wasn’t exactly a matchup we wanted. Their center played college ball with their 3-point-shooting guard and their signature was playing smart team ball. Meanwhile, the Captain was beside himself, in a froth before the game, adrenalized chemical messages flooding his veins, dilating his capillaries and making his heart pump triple time. He must have called me at least a dozen times—his excitement to get the playoffs started knew no bounds. I joined him at Bodies in Motion and we worked out until a fine glaze of sweat covered us both, then we quickly donned our Piston blue armor and headed over to the gym. White iPod earpieces blocked out the conversations from people milling about at the entrance. My stomach was light and the oxygen saturation felt suboptimal.
And then I looked over at their squad and I noticed they didn’t have their trash-talking, cashmere-V-neck-favoring, allegedly sensitive R&B crooner.
And that meant they were short on firepower.
We didn’t start out that well, and they kept the game very close. Playoff basketball is a different beast: each shot is contested, every possession is valued, all decisions—movements, shots, passes—take on an unprecedented level of importance. I guarded a blond actor who didn’t do much on the offensive end but was relatively tough on defense. He prevented me from having much success scoring. As the game progressed, I got more comfortable, but wasn’t able to ever truly find my shooting rhythm.
The Heat kept feeding their center, a rather large-boned agent who was partially responsible for the ABC hit Lost, as he will be quick to tell you. No one could match his girth, though we felt that his size was his blessing and his curse, that we could exploit his penchant for consuming battered and fried foods, dark beers, and high-quality Viennese sausages. We thought he would wear down over the course of the game, which, in fact, he did, lugging an extra 40 pounds up and down the court. He got his points, and did manage, without the benefit of any running lead, to jam one time, much to the amazement of the packed house and our team. Did he really just drop-step dunk? Frankly, I had always thought he was someone for whom gravity would present too much difficulty, an insuperable obstacle that would be senseless to try to surmount. How he reached escape velocity from his terrestrial moorings I don’t know, but it was impressive.
We maintained our intensity throughout, and though we never trailed, we also never built a big enough lead to ever feel comfortable. Then, with one of their players out with an injury, another made a crucial mistake: he committed his fifth foul, which sent him to the bench. The game was still within reach, but the Heat were now forced to play four on five, and with three minutes left in regulation, we were up 6, and English isn’t someone susceptible to on-ball pressure. We ran some clock, got a shot off, scored, and it became clear there wasn’t enough time for them to mount a comeback. We held them off and escaped with a 9-point victory that felt much smaller. The agents—their center and shooting guard—each scored 23 points; the rest of their team had 10 points combined. Poor balance didn’t serve them well, and we advanced to play the Raptors in Round 2. The next day I e-mailed the Heat’s center, prodding him about his silence, asking if he was OK. His response was curt: “Good game. Blow me.”
Our second-round game brought a high degree of anxiety. The Raptors equaled our regular-season record, and though we beat them earlier in the year, they had perhaps the best player in the league, a sports agent who had played for UCLA. He was very tall, around 6 foot 7. He was smart and highly skilled. We decided to put the Captain on him to free up English, who could then race around and attack their point guard, who we felt was competent without posing a real threat. I guarded an actor from Scream, which allowed me to freelance on defense. I didn’t presume that, under the section marked “Skills” on his résumé, he would be able to list basketball with much confidence. The idea was that I would leave Scream and double down on their center, giving the Captain help against a player we feared could go for 40 points.
From the opening tip the game was very, very tight. And the deeper we got into the game, the more nervous we became. We put intense pressure on ourselves to perform and get to the title game, where we felt anything could happen. Collectively, we exhibited a very rare psychosis, a folie à huit, a shared delusion about ball, which resulted from the Captain’s general Catholic crazed mental condition destabilizing our fragile limbic systems. The DSM states the criteria:
A. A delusion develops in an individual in the context of a close relationship with another person or persons, who have an already established delusion.
B. The delusion is similar in content to that of the person who already has an established delusion.
C. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another psychotic disorder (e.g., schizophrenia) or a mood disorder with psychotic features and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., drug abuse, medication) or a general medical condition.
I think the case is pretty open-and-shut. We wanted those platinum-and-ice championship rings commissioned by the league and crafted by a prominent Beverly Hills jeweler. We had a finger to bejewel and we were going to do whatever it took.
The game itself was ugly, in large part due to the pressure that both teams felt. Curiously, the agent, their best player, didn’t do an inordinate amount of damage, and the Captain defended him aggressively and smartly. The Ivy League actor, who played Superman on a long-running TV show, demonstrated his athleticism and was able to make some plays, as was their point guard, who had deceptively long arms. Meanwhile, I got into foul trouble in the second half as our lead teetered precariously. My third foul occurred when I raised my arms setting a pick, and the fourth I couldn’t even begin to explain, given the ref’s glancing knowledge of basketball rules and regulations. Then, disaster struck—my fifth foul was called when I jumped for a rebound and Scream Actor, in better position than I, snagged it. Conscious of my situation, I elevated but didn’t really challenge for the ball, knowing I needed to stay in the game. Then, the horrifying high-pitched scream of the whistle, and my stomach sank like a lead weight tossed into a lake, and I couldn’t believe I was done for the day. Then, it got worse. A couple minutes later, English committed his fifth foul and he was now out of the game, bitching at the ref and coming within an ace of drawing a devastating technical. I leapt up from the bench and dragged him toward the water cooler. With a minute to play, we were down and our title hopes were on the verge of extinction.
The Raptors could feel the charge of victory surging in their team. All they had to do was hold tight to their small lead. And that’s when Coach’s Son, feeling no remorse about bombing from 3-point land in any situation, came down and nailed a trey. There was under a minute to play and the Raptors lead was just sliced to the narrowest of margins. The Raptors were up with the ball and the agent took it out after the made basket and looked to make an inbounds pass. Whether he saw someone or thought a teammate would cut I am not sure, but he delivered the ball to an empty area of the court. A Piston had his back turned and sensed something was amiss and nimbly pivoted and scooped up the loose ball. Had they made the inbounds pass successfully, the game would have been nearly impossible for us to win. Coach’s Son got the rock and, with time ticking down, prepared for the final shot. Wary of his long-range shooting, they got up on him, and he put his head down, made a quick move, drove to the bucket, scored a contested shot, and was fouled. Fortune had smiled upon us in a most shocking turn of events, and when Coach’s Son hit the free throw, we had pulled the victory out. The dark cloud of defeat had suddenly lifted, and we piled on Coach’s Son in pure elation as the Raptors walked off the court, stunned. We were now in the Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team we beat handily during the regular season. And we were feeling very, very good about our chances.