During last year’s season I battled chronic asthma. It was a curse. I would rather inhale Prestone antifreeze. I would rather suck air through a swizzle stick. The deflated lungs of a geriatric emphysema patient could draw more breath than me. So, after trying to get in the league for years, I was deeply disappointed when my sudden debility forced me to miss some games in my inaugural season and rendered me ineffective in others. But there was something worse than ripping the plastic caps off inhalable-steroid capsules and nebulizing in an effort to reduce bronchial inflammation or lying in bed listening to the whir of my HEPA filter.
My last year’s captain.
He was worse.
Why? Just trust me on this one. His was a classic predicament of growing up in Bel Air, I think. That neighborhood teaches its residents to judge others not only by what they drive but also, more specifically, by how small the production run of the auto manufacturer is. It nurtures the kind of entitled arrogance exhibited in debates about which Four Seasons is more luxurious: Paris’s, Sharm el-Sheikh’s, or Maui’s. “Summer” is used frequently as a verb.
Let’s just say that if he were a menu item at Mexican restaurant franchise Chi-Chi’s, he might be El Grande Pricko con Mole. Naturally, this makes him not much different from entertainment folks in the main, but he gave me and my wildly overtaxed lungs very little playing time, and that means, in my deck of evil, he’s the ace of spades.
After we were bounced from the playoffs in the second round last year, he invited a group of guys to his next-door neighbor’s mansion for a run. There was a replica of the Staples Center inside. A giant indoor gym that was the stuff of a schoolboy’s fantasy. I used the game as a kind of Skunk Works, a chance to try different moves on him, take him to the hole, post him up, before the proving ground of the NBAE season. By this time my asthma had relented enough to let me play closer to my ability. After I scored four consecutive times on him, he finally begged off guarding me and switched to another player. I couldn’t wait for the new season.
Now with the Pistons, I had marked our game against his Raptors on my calendar. It was time for a little payback. A week before, however, my manager friend—the former Steelers ball boy—monkey-sneezed on me. He had been carrying for months a hacking, phlegmy, wet cough. I told him he should go to the doctor or, at minimum, impose a self-quarantine, but my demands didn’t take. I would have preferred to have open-mouth-kissed the baboon from Outbreak. I would rather have worked a poultry farm in Jiangxi province. Hanging out with him, I knew I was doomed. Sure enough, I caught the flu. Fever, chills, body aches, the whole nine. I was confined for days to my low-slung modernist Italian white leather couch. The Captain offered me free antiviral supplements and I demurred. It couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was nowhere close to game shape. I had no Michael Jordan influenza heroics in me.
The Raptors won the opening jump. The Captain wanted me to guard my nemesis and go to town. I got in a defensive crouch and, even though he is slow, he went around me like I was a pylon. The next possession, my feet appeared stapled to the floor. The third possession, his confidence surging, he drove to the hoop again and got fouled. I wanted to demonstrate that, enfeebled as I was last year, he should have been more fair with me. The only way to do that was to show it on the court.
I struggled mightily in the first half. It took me 20 minutes to even get in the flow. The Raptors relied on one sports agent who had played at UCLA and had the skills to prove it. He was basically unstoppable. Going into the game, we knew he would be difficult to stop. We discussed the best strategy to limit his productivity: do we play a soft zone and sag back, match up man-to-man and give whoever is guarding him help? A box-in-one? Ultimately, we decided to stick our best defender, English, on him. Then whoever guarded the actor who starred in the Scream franchise would double down, because we didn’t believe Scream Actor could hit from the outside. Coach’s Son mentioned that his father, when coaching an NBA finals team who faced the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, decided to give Michael his shots, play him one-on-one, and focus all their effort on disrupting everyone else.
The sports agent, even with English draped on him, got off in a major way. He dropped 31 points and had 22 rebounds. My nemesis also had a successful game. The rest of their team had the following totals: 5 points for an Ivy League-educated actor who played Superman on TV; 3 for another actor who was on a short-lived network series; 2 for the director of films, the latest starring Tim Allen; 2 for Scream Actor; and 0 for the grandson of an original studio mogul. That’s 13 points for the rest of their squad.
Meanwhile, Coach’s Son had a career day. He went to church beyond the 3-point line. His shot was gospel. And you know what? God bless him. When the dust cleared, he had nine 3-pointers and 34 points. The Captain led the team in rebounds, boarding nine times. The rest of the squad played solid basketball, and English dropped in 22 points, hitting the floor and playing with his usual reckless abandon. The Silver Fox, wily veteran that he is, had an efficient 8 points and five rebounds.
The Raptors were 5-2 going into the game. They were 5-3 when they left.
We won 82-68.
It wasn’t the most satisfying way to win, but, like bacon, all victory tastes good. Next up, the Houston Rockets, also with a winning record.