The morning before the game finds the Captain at a particularly lucid interval: “I’ve got to make a trade.”
“The commissioner will go for it?” I ask.
It seems that there are too many Piston mouths to feed and too little playing time. Plus, the Young Actor is constantly usurping the Captain’s role by interrupting during huddles and putting players in the game while he’s on the bench.
“I don’t have much time left,” the Captain moans, and it’s true. My radiologist brother read the Captain’s MRI—there is but the thinnest sliver of cartilage left in both his knees. Last year the Captain had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, compelling his lady to tend to him with low-fat baked goods, takeout from the California Chicken Café and jumbo-sized bottles of Metagenics supplements. The Captain is 40, and though in excellent shape—he puts in three hours a day at Bodies In Motion—he probably doesn’t have many more seasons left in his balky legs. He wants a ring and he wants it this year.
Before the game, I get a call on the cell phone from a producer friend who plays for our opponent, the 76ers. He works for an Oscar-winning actor who wed Michael Jackson’s ex after meeting her at a party hosted by Johnny Ramone. Their union didn’t last and the actor has now found happiness with a former sushi waitress. We’re working on a film together. There aren’t enough balls to go around on his team and playing time has been scarce. The 76ers are not a happy bunch. Apparently, their best player has been dyspeptic, criticizing other players, and their captain hasn’t put the muzzle on him. The best player’s favorite play is the “give and go.” Give me the ball and go fuck yourself. The spectrum of celebrity is wide in the league and the 76ers illustrate it: from a popular rapper to their captain, who is the model for the has-been/never-was Kevin Dillon character on Entourage. Still, the guy has more charm than most of his famous teammates.
My cell phone rings again and it’s my Captain, demanding that I join him at Bodies In Motion for his pregame ritual. It goes like this: ride stationary bike until glistening with sweat / 10-minute workout on Precor elliptical running machine / light weight workout emphasizing shoulders / steam / shower / don Pistons jersey, sweatpants, and shooting shirt / slide on neoprene knee brace, elbow sleeve, and Ben Wallace-style sweatbands / head to gym 90 minutes early to get ankles taped by NBAE trainer. It’s too much preparation for me, just makes me nervous. I call English and ask him about his pregame routine in college. “I just make sure to eat no later than three hours before the game. Tuna fish or a banana.” Roger that. I tell the Captain I will just meet him at the gym.
It’s the shootaround before the game and only six Pistons show. The Captain practically sings a hosanna. New York, not the demure type, even offers to sit on the bench, and so we go with our standard starting five with one position change: Coach’s Son is going to play forward and start lower in the block and I am switched to the two guard opposite English, the idea being that I am more likely to swing the ball or feed it into the post and get the ball circulating. Phil Jackson likes to get three passes per possession, and the Captain has been emphatic about better ball movement. We win the opening tip, zip the ball down the floor, make a pass, and hit a jumper. Pistons 2, 76ers 0.
Without a populated bench there is no pressure on anyone and we play fast and loose, sharing the ball and exhibiting faith in our teammates. English has an incredible motor and gets out on the break, Coach’s Son shows better shot selection, the Silver Fox hits his patented mid-range jumper and the Captain wreaks havoc on the interior. The Captain and I guard two actor brothers who, in addition to a gene pool, share an aversion to the pass. The 76ers play selfish ball and have poor team chemistry—such is the danger with so many egos. We end the first half up 25.
“Do not let up,” New York exhorts us during halftime. “They’re not that good, but you know they’re gonna be hustling in the second half.”
We keep the pressure on and take them apart with surgical precision. Everyone contributes. It’s midway through the second half and I have a diminutive rapper on me—I outweigh him by 60 pounds and am a half foot taller. I post up, back to the bucket, and English feeds me the rock when my Producer Friend, taking advantage of his three minutes of playing time, rushes over to help. The Producer Friend flops—_you mother_!—and they call me for a charge. I’m mad about the whistle, and during the next possession English and I converge on the rapper to whom 50 Cent compared his guns, saying in the song “Wanksta” they are of equal size (50’s not inaccurate), and the rapper disappears from view as we tie up the ball. We get the ball back on the jump and hit a shot and the outcome was never in doubt: Pistons 65, 76ers 50.
Winning is a great tonic. Everyone feels good about each other and some of us go to a cheap cantina for postgame drinks. A soap-opera actor from the 76ers joins us and can’t stop complaining about his team and the lack of playing time. “I’m as good as [their best player]!” he asserts while fishing out bills from a white envelope containing twenties from last night’s work at a popular Hollywood Club. Moonlighting as a door guy is apparently quite lucrative and he picks up the tab for the 10 of us. He has many satellites around his sun and they all drink up and concur that he is as good as anyone on his team.
Meanwhile, the Captain is feverishly trying to work a trade before our next game, against the defending champions, the Miami Heat. The rub: our Producer Friend from the 76ers wants to be traded to us so he can get more playing time, but the Captain wants to trade Young Actor for someone who won’t ever show up, allowing more minutes for the starting five. To complicate things, the Captain owes the Producer Friend because the Producer Friend hired him to write a script. Such are the degrees of separation in the league.