The Captain had just bolted from the NBA Entertainment League offices in Santa Monica and called me from his new BlackBerry, apoplectic. He had volunteered to help the commissioner load black athletic bags stuffed with NBAE uniforms and assorted schwag into vehicles for the kickoff party at the club Boulevard 3 the next night. After glancing at a roster sheet, he noticed that our two best players from last year’s squad, Coach’s Son and English, had been jettisoned from this year’s team.
I was at home tending to Francis Bacon, my Vietnamese potbellied pig, when I got the call. Bacon had seen an alarming expansion in his stomach since last season and I was trying to coax him outdoors for exercise.
The Captain ranted about the commissioner screwing us by taking away our studs as I watched Bacon lying down, sunning himself. The Captain, descended from a family of cops and priests, had been known to possess Irish storytelling proclivities—which is to say, he was given to what the English would call "fibs"—and rarely could be counted on to accurately convey information of any sort.
“Why would he do that?” I asked, dubious that our team was that radically reconfigured. Most years, the commissioner kept the teams intact, with just one or two new additions.
“Because he can!”
Frankly, it didn’t make any sense, and considering The Captain’s penchant for invention, I bet him a dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant that we would have our same core seven guys from last year. We were all friends and I couldn’t see the commissioner breaking us up.
We arrived at the kickoff party in the heart of renovated Hollywood to find out. When I set foot in L.A. a little over a decade ago, Hollywood was peopled with crack addicts, muggers, trannies, paroled felons, and bands of teenage skate punks. The bars were primarily of the dive variety. Now, lofts abounded, Pinkberry frozen-yogurt concerns anchored every strip mall, and the gold stars on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame could be seen without kicking some drunk.
Never known for his gastronomic instincts, the commissioner hired caterers who served seafood and chicken fajitas. After feeding ourselves with low-grade Mexican fare, we ventured inside to the dance floor, which at one time was a pool in the Hollywood Athletic Club, but was long ago drained and converted to serve the Reyka-swilling masses. The commissioner had instituted a new method for revealing the rosters. A projector beamed the names against the east wall, with three-minute intervals between each team announcement. Much to my dismay, our team appeared four drinks in and Coach’s Son and English were not on it. There were a few names I didn’t recognize, one of which belonged to a giant actor who had retired from the NFL; he came over and engulfed my hand in his ham fist, introducing himself. He reminded me of Michael Clarke Duncan from The Green Mile, only taller. And bigger. Maybe we would be OK after all.
When I got home I dumped pig feed into a metal bowl and Francis Bacon hurtled from his bed and made a beeline for his dinner. While he feasted, I unzipped my NBAE bag and tried on my glossy black Chicago Bulls uniform. I grew up as a Bulls fan in the Michael Jordan–Pippen–Paxson era, and so was ecstatic with the new duds. If I, as a player, was an analog of someone from that team, I suppose, sadly, and with some regret to my teammates, it would be Bill Wennington.
Our first game was that Sunday, and, having conditioned myself during two-a-days with The Captain—a morning breaststroke session at the Santa Monica Swim Center followed by a cardio-and-weight routine at Bodies in Motion—I was in tiptop shape. We played the Orlando Magic, a team that featured two college teammates, one a husky CAA TV agent, Bigs, the other the head of talent at a second-tier agency, Talent Agent. They had won multiple championships together and were tough competition.
Our team was a motley crew indeed. We had New Yawk, star of a network sitcom and a popular film actor; a below-the-line CAA agent; an entertainment-magazine-show host; a light-eyed African-American actor who played the son of Coach Carter in the film of the same name; the former NFL player turned actor (though no one knew his credits); a Malcolm in the Middle doppelgänger who appeared in kids’ television shows I’ve never heard of; Rickets, the literary manager; and Silver Fox, the TV show-running heavyweight. What we lacked in talent was matched by our lack of Q ratings. And now we were facing an elite team. Our chances of winning were very, very small.
Fortunately for us, the Magic were undermanned for the opener, with just four players suited up. So, when the final two minutes of the game counted down, we were winning, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Talent Agent received a pass, lowered his shoulder, and jumped into Entertainment Host, knocking him back while simultaneously launching an improbable 3-pointer. Swish! The whistle blew. My stomach sank—the NBAE referees were notoriously erratic in their calls, and if the basket counted and he went to the line, he would have the opportunity to beat us by a point. The ref put his right hand on the back of his head and thrust his left arm sharply forward, the signal for an offensive foul. Charge! The basket was disallowed. We took the ball out on the sideline, up by 3, and ran out the clock, notching an opening-day victory. We clearly weren’t a very good team, having lost our two horses, but a victory is a victory. The celebration was muted, however. No backslapping, no yelling, no pounds. We still had a level of pride, and beating a Magic team that only fielded four players—four!—just didn’t make us feel that good.
After the embarrassment of nearly losing to a short-handed squad, I had the sinking feeling that it was going to be a long, long season.