Our point guard, “English,” has two traits that make me envious. First, his tremendous athleticism. Not only did he play college basketball; he was a star pitcher for his high-school team with an ERA under 2.00 and had “minor league draft” written all over him. He also set the record for goals scored in water polo in California. He has these Fred Flintstone big toes that stud the top of his jumbo sized 14 feet—thick, fleshy paddles—and he empties the pool every time he dives in.
The second trait: the smooth expanse of skin underneath his rock jaw, stretched tighter than a snare drum. Me, I have an emerging wattle, a sagging pelican basket of a neck that sends me scrambling to the Beverly Center for turtlenecks at the mere hint of a cold snap. My novelist pal recommends I Scotch-tape the skin back underneath my ears.
The one thing that makes English envious? When I get called to play at Staples Center for an informal NBAE run. It’s a coveted invitation. During our bye week, the NBAE commissioner arranged for some select players to participate in a scrimmage, and I tip English off to the game. He calls the commissioner directly and manages to finagle a spot. We’re both excited and he picks me up and we meet the Captain at the venue. Getting to play on the Lakers’ home floor, English, having been a Laker fan for as long as he can remember, is like a kid at Christmas.
Playing in an NBA venue wreaks havoc with depth perception, especially after playing in small gyms where there is often a brick wall 10 feet behind the basket. Staples Center is cavernous, a modern-day multi-use stadium home to two NBA franchises, an NHL franchise, and various concerts and events. I noticed English fired a couple air balls in the pregame shootaround, as I did the first time I ran at Staples. The 3-point line is much farther from the hoop than the college line, which is almost universally adopted at gyms, and it feels more like you are jacking a shot to get it to the hoop, as opposed to squaring up and shooting with a natural motion. It’s a good foot and a half beyond most players’ comfort zones.
The commissioner divvied up the players and we started the run. Two axes of basketball styles quickly emerged: (1) the run-and-gun Showtime-era Lakers / University of Houston circa Phi Slamma Jamma and (2) a methodical, Larry Brown-issue Detroit Pistons / Bob Knight-coached Indiana Hoosiers approach. My team belonged to the former—fast-breaking and going one-on-one, or one-on-two, or one-on-three. The commissioner often invites a potential NBAE invitee to run at one of these informal games in order to gauge whether they might be good for the league. An actor auditioning for the league ball-hogged like crazy and shot every time he touched the rock, missing 75 percent of the time. An Oscar-winning actor on the opposition couldn’t help observing, “Damn, your own teammates don’t even like you. You’re like Kobe Owens. Terrell Bryant.”
Oscar Winner was on a team with a famous West Coast rapper whose image was one of angry urban warrior but who, away from the video cameras, was an avuncular, friendly sort. One might mistake him for a middle manager at Deloitte & Touche. There was a chill between Oscar Winner and Rapper, and if one was scheduled to do an NBA charity event, then the other would be sure not to attend. I tried to discreetly suss the source of the beef, but no one seemed to know. I was impressed that the rapper came without entourage. Another rapper, a West Coast icon and legendary shibby enthusiast, came with a full complement of homeys. Due to his gang affiliation—he definitely shed a tear for Crips founder Tookie Williams—there is presumably a legitimate reason for traveling with a posse 10-deep at all times. He is exactly as you would expect him to be. Most words ended in “-izzle.”
We’re all shooting around between games, and the Captain tells me of an episode of The Surreal Life, on VH1, that he had just seen. Apparently, Verne Troyer, better known as Mini Me, got drunk on a thimble shot and rode a scooter, naked, to a corner of the house, where he dismounted and whizzed on the floor. The Captain was explaining that it was truly surreal indeed. There is some precedent for risk when it comes to midgets and alcohol. Walt Disney once hired 11 of them to celebrate the premiere of the classic Italian tale Pinocchio. He provided them with costumes and set them atop Radio City Music Hall, in New York, with full rations of food and wine. After a few short hours, a humiliated Disney ended up with a horde of naked, plastered midgets scurrying about the marquee yelling profanities at moviegoers. The Captain went to get a Gatorade and I stood underneath the bucket rebounding shots as the two West Coast rapping icons chatted with each other. Soon, they started rhyming, one finishing the other’s lines and vice versa. For me, having grown up in a smallish town in the Midwest, finding myself in this situation was surreal. Not hostile-urinating-naked-midget surreal, but surreal nonetheless. The NBAE isn’t, after all, just about basketball.