The new NBA Entertainment League season began as it always does, with a party and a spotty selection of hors d’oeuvres. This year’s festivities were held at the Adidas Concept store in Santa Monica, California, and featured the complex harmonies of Boyz II Men, each member of which looked, at this point, like he had crossed the adolescent passage and resembled more the latter and less the former. After a brief performance of some early-‘90s pop hits, the San Antonio Spurs ascended the stage—led by their Academy Award–winning actor, whose new musical film is getting strong reviews—to receive their championship bling. I had heard that Oscar Winner, born and raised in Texas, harbored no love for white folks, aka Mr. Charlie, but I thought I would nonetheless bide my time and introduce myself when the opportunity presented itself. Because I’m a producer, there is always pressure to know everyone.
The party is also where the new teams are revealed, and, as I gazed upon the roster, I noticed that my Pistons of last year were switched to the New Jersey Nets. We maintained the same nucleus: The Captain, our fitness-obsessed, rabidly Catholic screenwriter; English, a handsome, superbly athletic, and temperamental marketing executive for a sports agency; The Silver Fox, a comedy-television-show creator/writer and a man of discerning taste; Bigs, the charismatic former NFL athlete turned sitcom actor; New Yawk, the voluble Manhattan transplant and lead actor on a rival network sitcom; and Coach’s Son, the progeny of an NBA Hall of Famer. Coach’s Son had finally managed to escape the safe confines of his parents’ condominium and was now a production assistant on a film starring a comedian whose Hanukkah song has become a holiday staple. I listened to the tune on the way to the party and thought that it engendered a certain goodwill toward the Kosher nation, a bonhomie that the various JDate.com billboards along Sunset and Wilshire Boulevards, with their trio of bachelors grinning Jewily with different spellings of “Hanukkah” underneath, completely sabotage. I am fairly certain there was a spike in Hezbollah fundraising after the dating service papered their distressing marketing campaign around L.A.
Forsaking the spread of mottled cold cuts, I munched on a small plate of suspiciously warm sushi, pulling the bristly, antisocial beard I had let grow since the conclusion of last year’s disappointing season. The Captain thrust his roster in my face.
“You see this?!” He then barked a profanity.
“We did get Rickets,” I noted, referring to the gimpy 44-year-old literary manager whose knees were knobbier than a camel’s. Rickets was a true mensch, and we had lobbied hard to get him into the league. He played college basketball at a small Pennsylvania school back in the day, and, though age and gravity took their toll, he was still unselfish, smart, and effective.
“But then look who we got stuck with,” he moaned. After some brief recon, we learned that two were hosts of an afternoon drive-time show on an FM hip-hop station, Tha Wiseguys, and another was a dreadlocked TV personality and X Games broadcaster for ESPN, The Host. After committing two catastrophic turnovers in our playoff loss last year, Date Show Host had been jettisoned, as had a couple others, but their replacements didn’t appear to make us stronger. Meanwhile, an undergraduate with whom we play pickup at UCLA on Saturdays and who made the Bruins football team as a wide receiver wasn’t given to our squad, and instead will suit up for the Cavaliers, a team that has already won three championship rings. The Cavaliers’ CAA-agent center has a habit of daintily placing the rings on a red crushed-velvet cushion and walking around his house parties with the pillow held triumphantly above his head.
“Can’t you orchestrate a trade?” I ask, knowing that The Captain has a considerable amount of sway with the commissioner. The selection of players and the composition of teams were always shrouded in mystery and the commissioner never liked to reveal how he determined who played with whom. I do know that every actor wants to get his bodyguard or chef or pilates instructor in the league and that balancing the demands of stars who are used to being coddled is never an easy task. The league was created as a marketing tool for the NBA proper, and so catering to recognizable celebrities was always a big part of the equation.
“We’re gonna find out.” He immediately made a beeline to plead his case.
I was eating a cracker when a young actor buddy came by with New Superman and expressed dismay that we weren’t all placed on the same team. As we talked, a ruddy-faced actor who played TV Superman walked by. Superhero in stereo. Becoming faintly suspicious that there might be some crumbs trapped in my beard, I excused myself and set down the stairs to the bowels of the store to find a bathroom. After being directed by three different security guards, I finally found my destination. Once I was inside, it was your basic Big Trouble in Little China situation. I could barely stand up straight as the wave of stench hit me like an anvil. The smell was not to be believed. I grabbed an industrial-sized can of Glade and sprayed wildly. This was no time to be a hero, and I relieved myself as quickly as humanly possible. It was as if someone had siphoned gas directly from an NBAE Leaguer’s colon and fumigated the room. If the event were in Napa and we were using the aroma wheel as a guide, I would say the offending odor contained a bouquet of dead carcass, a nose of egg salad left in the summer sun, and a hydrochloric-acid finish. I stumbled out of the room and warned a partygoer against ingress and eating the bulk sushi. The first notes of putrescence tickled her nasal septum and she aborted the mission.
Shakily navigating my way upstairs, I spied Oscar Winner idling next to his mountainous bodyguard, so I fortified myself with a bourbon-and-ginger and made my move.
“Hey, I don’t want to bother you,” I began, always performing poorly in such social interactions. The title of producer is so general and all-encompassing that I am frequently put on the spot, expected to orchestrate social interactions when I can barely manage my own. “I just wanted to say that I really admire your acting. You’re a real … artist.” I’m not sure whether the Grizzly Adams beard confused him—there are a lot of homeless trolling the Third Street promenade where the store is located—but he looked at me for a long time before he said, with that actory nonchalance, “Thanks.” The DJ was playing 50 Cent at ear-splitting volume, so I decided to quit while I was ahead.
The following Sunday was the season opener, and our Nets were pitted against the Chicago Bulls. The league doesn’t hold official practices, so this was the first time we played together as a unit. Both teams wore eye-tricking red uniforms, but the outcome was very clear: we stomped them. English was our bell cow, scoring, defending, flying around the court, and asserting his dominance. The bench? Tha Wiseguys weren’t much help, but Wiseguy No. 1, more confident than his slightly shorter and less athletic co-host, was already in The Captain’s ear about playing time. Welcome to the world of entertainment ego, a universal affliction in the business. As The Captain and I walked to our cars, sweat-soaked uniforms hanging over our shoulders, I could tell he was already debating the starting lineup for Game Two and deciding at what point he was going to have to placate our new addition.