Everything is magnified in the playoffs, and there are two schools of thought: One is that the stars have to step up, be aggressive, and force the action if the game doesn’t come to them. The other is that the team must rise together, holistically, and that players must sacrifice some part of their game for the betterment of the squad. When LeBron James held back, it didn’t do the Cavaliers any good in their series against the Pistons last season. However, when he took the game upon himself, the Cavaliers advanced. But that is more of an exception to the rule. The Chicago Bulls sealed two NBA-finals victories with shots made by players who’d had the ball passed to them by Michael Jordan—he didn’t always force the action. Generally, I believe, you win as a team.
The ultimate example of sacrifice is explorer Lawrence Oates. He was the apotheosis of WASP heroism. (Forget the fact that he had impregnated a 12-year-old Scottish girl a year earlier.) Oates joined the doomed British expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Falcon Scott. When they had to turn back (the Norwegians had gotten to the Pole first) and were running out of kerosene, which was needed to melt ice for drinking water, they got caught in a second blizzard 11 miles from a food depot. Oates didn’t want to slow down his party, so he exited the tent to die alone in the cold after saying, simply, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Self-sacrificing, courageous, humble. These traits are nearly extinct in modern athletic culture.
The Captain was in his usual pre-playoff frenzy and demanded that I accompany him to Bodies in Motion for two-a-days. He recently completed a screenplay for an Indian financier and had a little time on his hands. At the gym, an existential and semi-literate pugilist-turned-fitness-instructor strutted around like he owned the place. There was a boxing ring in front of a row of cardio equipment and a studio with heavy bags where people took classes. The instructor had created a 12-step fitness program that was purported to enrich your spiritual understanding. He used mangled Zen koans as tag lines and had them printed on gaudy banners hanging from the ceiling.
My first problem was that I saw more of the instructor than I wanted to when he paraded around the locker room with his prodigious manhood slapping his thighs. The Captain was dismayed. “Would it kill the guy to grab a complimentary towel once in a while?”
I was also sick and tired of the dopey banners flowering all over the club. Each round had a different banner with a different message. For instance, round 3’s read: “The way to climb the mountain is to take a step.” The instructor claimed to have tapped the wisdom of Buddha, Gandhi, and Socrates to develop these principles, though I didn’t see any resemblance. He struck me as someone who was in a permanent state of dementia, quite likely having suffered numerous brain insults from professional bouts in his youth. He peacocked through the club in black spandex leggings tighter than sausage casings and a retina-searing fluorescent-yellow shirt featuring his program’s logo. The front desk clerks grumbled whenever he came around, complaining that he never “parties,” whatever that meant.
What’s worse is that my club had become the Los Angeles headquarters for full-contact martial arts, and the grappling room behind the treadmills teemed with European and Brazilian steroidheads with strange facial hair. Rio Elvises. Every time I looked, there were two shredded oafs locked onto one another in some crotch hold, one’s head stuffed into the other’s ass as they rolled around on the mat. What happened to the days of walking in, minding your own business, and getting a decent sweat? I won’t even get into the staph outbreak that temporarily shut down that section of the club. You don’t sing along at the opera, you don’t touch the queen unbidden, and under no circumstances do you enter that den of bacterial contagion.
After getting a sweat in the steam room and donning the red armor of our Nets uniforms, The Captain and I made the quick jaunt to the NBAE League venue and readied ourselves for battle. I regarded my team. The Silver Fox’s lustrous hair and deadly midrange game—advantage: Fox. A tanned English looking like an Algerian Olympian—advantage: English. Rickets racing up and down the sideline, loosening up, stretching his shoulders in preparation for some left-handed put-backs—advantage: Rickets. Three-point-bombing Coach’s Son, looking spry, fresh from the set of a film where he had a line with a major comedy star—advantage: Coach’s Son.
I liked our chances.
The Atlanta Hawks had excellent team speed and one exceptional player who had a small role in the film Coach Carter and had parlayed that into becoming an NBAE League fixture. He had played semi-pro ball and was a rangy 6 feet 6 inches with explosive moves to the basket and a perfect shot. The Hawks would rely on pressuring our ball handlers, but English was too deft to be bothered by their aggression. As the first half came to a close, we were up almost 10 points, but then, in the space of 20 seconds, two disastrous turnovers from our bench players and a couple buckets by the Hawks narrowed the lead. Still, when you are up, it is easy to play team ball, which we did.
The second half started and we didn’t have the cushion that we felt we had earned. All our guys had shown up, but our bench isn’t strong and The Captain was feeling pressure to play everyone. I didn’t do him any favors by not contributing much. The lead closed and then, midway through the second half, their star hit a shot that put them up. We started to miss shots and then pressed, looking each time down for either English or Coach’s Son. They both continued to attack and put up shots, but the team became imbalanced. Our chemistry broke down. Ball movement stuttered and then stopped altogether, and the game devolved into one-on-one plays. Tension rose as we neared the end and we remained down.
The will to mount a comeback is sometimes met with an inability to execute. Sometimes we’re trying so hard we play tight, or, because our stars have the skills, we suddenly become overly reliant on them and they become too aggressive. I had tried not to put as much pressure on myself as in years past, but got the same result. The clock ticked off its remaining cruel seconds. We had reached the Eastern Conference semifinals and were eliminated after another year in which we were predicted to contend for the championship.
Dejected, I caught a breeze as I sat on my porch in my warm-up pants and shooting shirt and listened to the gentle applause of the jacaranda leaves. My stemless Reidel glass was filled with wine from a Napa vineyard I had visited months before. I told my potbellied pig Francis Bacon about the crushing loss and he looked up at me, his stomach nearly dragging on the ground, anxiously hoping for something to eat. He’s a janissary to whoever has food.
“Next year,” I told him and poured a heaping cupful of pellet feed into his Tupperware dish.