The NBAE finals pulls out all the stops: Clipper cheerleaders tossing NBA-issue swag to the packed stands, a DJ spinning hip-hop records during the breaks in action, a professional sports broadcaster calling the game over the public-address system, local camera crews covering the action, and a Chicago Bulls-style game-time introduction where the arena goes dark except for a megaphone of bright light shining on each player as they are announced to the crowd. If there was ever a boyhood fantasy of playing in a big game, the pomp and circumstance of the NBAE finals reproduced it.
After the finals, there was a skills competition featuring a 3-point-shooting contest followed by the East-West All-Star game. The wrap party was held in Studio City later that night: images from the season were projected on giant screens and waiters circulated appetizers and booze to the crowd. Late in the evening, the dogfather of West Coast rap arrived with the Jeeves to his Bertie Wooster, Bishop Don Magic Juan, his pimp/chaperon/valet/éminence grise, and a team of rather large bodyguards wearing black leather jackets. There was a small stage peopled by some of the music-affiliated players from the NBAE, and the opening act was a pintsize actor who kept repeating the following chorus from a forthcoming album I can only assume he wrote:
I’m a superstar, you’re a superstar
I’m a superstar, you’re a superstar
I’m a superstar, you’re a superstar
I’m a superstar driving a superduper car.
Everyone was told to evacuate the stage as the rap legend ascended, and there was a buzz in the normally jaded crowd while he performed a medley of his classic tunes, of which there are many. That was the unquestionable high point of the party.
Earlier, of course, there was the matter of the East and West Conference finals: our Pistons against the 76ers and the Spurs against the Mavericks. The semis landed on a Wednesday night, and no work was accomplished that day. Even the Silver Fox mentioned that he felt useless trying to write anything with the game looming.
The Captain decided I would start out on the 76ers’ point guard and that Coach’s Son would guard their shooting guard, a hip-hop video director who was last year’s NBAE MVP and who is a trash-talker of Gary Paytonesque proportions. The rest of the matchups would find themselves.
The opening was a nightmare. Their point guard was older, in his early 40s probably, but had played D-1 ball and was simply too quick for me. I just wasn’t into the game early and he drove twice to the rack. I then gave him space, because he isn’t known as an outside shooter, and he buried a long shot. The music-video director took little time to start yapping, and he called at his team to clear out so the point guard could take me one-on-one. It was exactly how you don’t want to start a game, especially in front of a big crowd. My own brother said I looked slow and inactive out there. He wasn’t wrong.
The 76ers jumped off to an early lead, 12-4. We called time-out, switched English onto the point guard, and moved me over to an actor from the HBO series The Wire. The Silver Fox guarded that actor’s injury-prone brother, one of the stars of a new TV series. It wasn’t long before he crumpled in a heap on the floor, some calf injury it seemed, and they put in one of their reserves. We finally hit a couple shots and got it going and, in the blink of an eye, we had erased the lead and quickly built one of our own.
And then things went sour.
English was able to drive to the basket but kept taking off a half step too early and leaving the ball on the lip of the rim. Finishing was normally his strong suit. I was out of my sync, and every time I touched the ball a talent manager on the 76ers bench, who was not known for being the friendliest representative in the film business, would bark at me and yell at his team to let me shoot.
Then, too, Coach’s Son got cold while the music-video director was on fire, scoring nearly every time he touched the ball and talking mad trash. Former NBA All-Star Mitch Richmond told me Jordan would do some talking but that Larry Bird was the one who could really get on your nerves. He said that Bird would say little stuff to get under your skin, things like “Here’s a present”—swish!—and “Merry Christmas” followed by another perfect shot. Tom Tolbert was in Bird’s grille once and Bird jerked from side to side with the ball held up over his head, finally launching a precarious, high-arcing shot. Tolbert immediately yelled, “Off!,” to which Bird responded, “Awfully good.” Music-Video Director was really feeling it, and finally the referees pulled both captains aside and ordered them to get their guys under control and shut the woofing up. Me, I just felt airless out there, sluggish, and was mentally out of my game. I missed open looks and didn’t take it aggressively to the hole. At halftime the 76ers were up almost 20.
We came out on a mission in the second half, but the 76ers kept the ball in their point guard’s and their music-video director’s hands and we weren’t able to generate turnovers. We tightened our D and settled down, and English got mad, which was good for us and bad for them. Music-Video Director had friends among the crowd and they kept heckling English, saying he was too slow—he is anything but—until he came flying across the court to save a ball that was going out of bounds and slid all the way into the stands, smashing his head. He popped up like a champ, and they didn’t say another word.
Slowly but surely, the lead was getting whittled down. The 76ers were playing as well as they could play, and we felt we weren’t near the top of our game. A couple of their players, including their actor center, were making shots and rebounding and playing at a level to which they are usually unaccustomed. Late in the second half, we closed the lead to 6 and had the momentum, as the 76ers were now on their heels and looking timid. I set a pick that Music-Video Director tried to run through, and I elbowed him in the mouth. We drew double technicals.
Then, three critical plays: The first was a bad call when I returned from out of bounds to retrieve a long rebound along the base line and had re-established my feet inbounds. Regardless, they gave the ball back to the 76ers. Then, Date Show Host came into the game and made two critical turnovers, one time passing the ball straight to a 76er who raced down the floor and promptly hit a 3-point shot. No one person can be blamed for our collective performance; it’s just that plays at the end of the game are magnified, and turnovers are especially catastrophic.
The clock wound down and we were behind 5 points with 15 seconds left. We hurried across half court, and Coach’s Son elevated and nailed a three, cutting the lead to 2 points. It was too little too late. The clock had four seconds left and the 76ers didn’t need to inbound the ball. The realization that the game was now over—the ball was just idling on the floor—made me sick. We couldn’t believe our season just ended. It didn’t feel real.
As we stood around absorbing what had just happened, their forward, a sometime actor who was the inspiration for the talentless brother of Vince on Entourage, got in English’s face and yelled at the top of his aged, weathered lungs, “Fuck yeah, how do you like it now!” I couldn’t believe the lack of class, especially coming from a guy who scored 4 points and looked like he suffered from rickets. Some pushing and scuffling ensued, and people came over and broke it up—though English would have been within his rights to give the actor a light dusting of the knuckles. He would have dropped him like a bowling pin.
The hangover of the loss made the week after thick with distaste. Date Show Host wrote an e-mail to apologize; I followed suit, frustrated by my poor play. Messages were flying back and forth, and we all agreed that we wanted to keep the team intact for next season, recognizing that we were 2 points away from the championship game against the Spurs, a team we had beaten handily. As it turned out, the Spurs—featuring an Oscar-winning actor who is one of the biggest names in entertainment, a standup comedian turned sitcom star turned serious actor turned sometime soul singer—beat the 76ers, which was a surprise to us all. Not that we shed a tear for the team that vanquished us. As Robert G. Ingersoll once said: “The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.” We’ll be ready for next year.
And it can’t come soon enough.