Of Golden Eagles and Maltese Falcons
I've been on this planet for sixty-three years now, and I've found that there are only a few rules that are worth following as closely as their nomenclature would dictate. I mention this because at the beginning of the events in question I was knowingly violating one of the rules I'd made for myself. It wasn't yet noon, and I was locked into a coaches-only meeting with my assistant, a Mr. Jack Daniels. Those who had worked with him extensively often found that he was a whole lot of fun to have around and could lead to some extreme short-term success, but in the end would leave you worse off than when you started with him. But he was always there when you wanted him to be, didn't run his mouth, and he at least gave you the illusion that you were always in control. In my book, that put old Dr. Jack at least one up on Larry Brown.
As I mentioned, I tried to refrain from the bottle before the Miami sun reached its throne and enticed the lifers to enter the safety homes and the Spring-break crowd to leave their clothes, but when you're staring down the barrel of a 13-win year, sometimes you have to remind yourself why you had to make the Goddamn rule in the first place. I explained this logic to my doctor. He told me that if I could convince my liver to only have trouble processing what I drank when we were over .500, then there wouldn't be a problem; but seeing as to how I wasn't even able to get Dorell Wright to provide consistent weak-side help I'd be better off just limiting my minutes, if I knew what he meant.
I thought of this as I poured out my drink. There was a knock at my door, and it swung open before I had a chance to respond. My first reaction was a sense of relief that it wasn't Dr. Greenthorpe, which in retrospect was somewhat inappropriate. She was taller than at least one of the players I had on payroll, with legs that looked like a pair of Eucalyptus trees. Shit, I know I'm getting old when a pair of legs like those reminds me of Central Park and not a co-ed named Lacey back at the UK who, I'm told, runs a Whole Foods now but wasn't too picky about what she put in her mouth back in 1964. Well, that and Joe Smith being underrated lets me know I'm getting old. And yet I digress.
"My name is Nicole. I represent the interests of the ownership group."
I thought about wondering aloud just which of the owner's interests Nicky represented, but thought better of it. Even old guys like me have to watch our mouths nowadays.
"As you well know, this upcoming draft is going to be a defining choice for this franchise in the coming years."
Oh yeah, I knew. Everyone knew that. Paul from accounting knew it, and I don't think he could tell you the difference between Kobe Bryant and Kobe Beef. Kina from ticket sales knew it, and she thinks God Shammgod was the guy Lew changed his name for. Ricky Davis knew it. We even shut down The Kid, Udonis, and Marion so as to better help ourselves go for dead last. Like I told Chris the one time I can remember looking up at her when both of us had all of our clothes on, if you're going to do something, you might as well go all the way with it.
"I've been sent here to provide you all the best knowledge on the possible prospects and make sure you have everything you need to make the decision that will best benefit this franchise. I've obtained game film, recommendations from coaches, and comprehensive statistical models so as to give you the best possible information on all the prospects. Right now management is really high on this
"Hold it, right there, Nicky, I don't have many rules but the ones I have, I stick to. And one is to not trust anyone under 20 with significant responsibility unless there are clear labels."
I punctuated that by finishing my drink. Hopefully Nicky hadn't attended any of my speaking engagements, but I'm pretty sure I'd have been able to pick her out of the crowd that usually shows up at those things.
"If I'm going to break my rules for this B-Easy, I'm going to make sure I know what the kid's deal is."
"Well that's why I'm here, Mr. Riley, I'm to give you game tape and…"
"Nicky, Lew Alcindor didn't learn the hook by watching Better Basketball, Magic didn't learn how to pass by hitting tires or learn to screw from Beyond the Green Door, and contrary to what you may have heard, I didn't learn principles of leadership from MacBeth. I didn't meet my wife on eHarmony and I'm not making a top-three pick based on tape. Get your coat, Nicky. We’re hitting the road.”
She gave me a look like I’d just suggested we trade The Kid for Jermaine O’ Neal. I don’t know if it was because she thought the idea to be out was insane or because she’d never seen any possible benefit in covering herself up, but she thought I was crazy either way.
“But…you’re the coach. Don’t you have to stay here until the season ends, to watch over practices, or set the rotations, or make the substitutions, or something?”
Just then she looked out my window onto the practice court, where Chris Quinn was taking bets on whether or not he could dunk. By the time Mark Blount and Earl Barron were engaged in a left-handed 3-point contest, my point made itself clear to her without me needing to say a damn thing. She put on her coat, although it’s worth noting that the ensemble she chose made me a good deal warmer than it could have made her.
On the plane, Nicky kept asking me about everything; my past, the Lakers, the Knicks, my marriage, everything. At one point she put her hand on my knee and her mouth told me that she wanted me to know that she had my best interests in mind, while the rest of her told me she also had my worst interests in mind. I told her she seemed like a nice kid, but that I was going to be making the decisions on this trip. I’ve got six rings, but the only one I could lose would be in serious jeopardy if Nicky got what she wanted out of me at 30,000 feet, in between the mini-bar and the film room. Not that I thought about it or anything. I used to only trust women as far as I could throw ‘em, but after my second kid I decided to stop performing that particular test. Now I don’t trust anything with an A-cup, up to and including Shaq.
We set down in
“Hey, Bob, I like this Beasley kid. Acts like the ball is the orb from Sleeper but can flat-out score the rock and pull down boards. Only thing is that I hear he’s got some skeletons in the closet. What can you tell me?”
I brought up Sleeper because I knew Bob was one of the few guys still in basketball who knew Woody as the guy who’d beat Star Wars for an academy award and wrote Side Effects and With Feathers, not as the guy who married his daughter and still got seats almost as good as the guy who made She Hate Me and those commercials for sneakers that cost almost as much as my loafers. I've always had a bit of a weakness for spending money on clothes, but when I buy my shoes, I'm trying to pick out the ones that make women go lower, not me go higher.
“Riles, cat went to six high schools. Dude’s got skeletons in his foyer. You ask me, I wouldn’t take a guy with an attitude like that on my team.”
“Yeah, I know exactly what kind of a guy you want on your team. I saw your reality show, Bob. How does it feel going from Dean Smith to a poor man’s Flava Flav?”
“Straight to sabers, eh, Riles? Y’all might want to pick up a win soon, 13’s an unlucky number to finish up with. Not because it’s cursed or anything, because it means your team’s a Goddamn insult to the sport of basketball.”
“Tell me, Bob, has studying under Digger Phelps improved your knowledge of the game?”
Bob broke out into a wide smile then, and I kindly offered him a red as a token of good will. We both walked out of the stadium to enjoy our cigarettes then, silently marveling at how much things had changed; 40 years ago, Red Auerbach lit up a victory cigar on the sidelines as his team strolled to its 9th championship. Now the best coach of the modern era, as I’ve been known to say when my modesty and sobriety have departed me, and the all-time leader in college wins had to act like 17-year old kids failing out of boarding school to have a smoke. Actually, scratch that. The coach of the worst team in professional basketball and a guy who wished he could get Erin Andrews' face time had to sneak out like kids flunking out of boarding school for a smoke.
“Seriously, tell me about this Beasley kid.”
“Nobody knows too much about him. Worst story we know is about him marking up the principal’s car back at The Factory.”
“Well, that’s the reason he left one school. That leaves us only four short.”
“That’s all I can tell you, Riles. You want to know more, you gotta find someone who knows.”
“Always fun to see you, Bob. There aren’t enough guys like us in the league anymore. What was the final straw for you?”
“Probably when Floyd pulled DeRozan by giving ‘Lil Romeo a scholarship for the pure hell of it. I’m all for pulling out the stops to get blue-chippers, but you gotta draw the line somewhere. And mind you, last year Tim had a kid who recruited himself. If I want a 7-footer with a left hook, do I have to give ‘Lil Mama my backup shooting guard’s scholarship?”
“I think it’s just Romeo now.”
“Way I see it, taking the ‘lil off your name is like Bill Walton trying to re-invent himself as an ‘avid reader’-you can act like William H. Buckley all you like, you’re still the dead-head who went on a hippie rebellion against Wooden and pushed his coach to allow him to use performance-diminishing drugs.”
“Those were the good times, Bob. On the bright side, we now have a legitimate hip-hop artist who goes by the name ‘Bow Wow.’ Shit is music’s answer to the Utah Jazz.”
“I really don’t care. Digger’s calling me over. If anyone sees these tapes 15 years from now, say the mob made me do it.”
I asked around about the kid all day, to varying degrees of nonresponse. I was getting frustrated; was the kid just not into social studies, or was he doing for his coaches what Peter Sellers did for his wives?
The kid was out after a quick roll over that Mayo kid in the first round, the one who was supposed to be the next Pistol Pete and who had pretty much made it clear the only way he was staying in college another year was if they found dogs in his basement. But after a second-round exit, it got even tougher to find any solid leads on the kid, until I saw a kid with a limp who saw my face and jumped clean over a chain-link fence to avoid me. I threw a ball into his hands, which made him stand dead still until I was able to catch up to him.
“What’s it to you, bitch?”
“That’s Mr. Riley to you. Back when I was a kid, we respected those who came before us.”
“Last I checked, your generation stuck those who came before you on reservations and gave ‘em casinos.”
“If I wanted smart mouth on this trip I’d have shared a room service order with Nicky and gotten the 25-dollar movie. What can you tell me about Beasley?”
“I don’t know the cat. He shows up, goes to practice, leaves. He shares details about his life about as often as he hits the cutter.”
I put my knee into the one of his with the type of crap going on inside of it that turned
“Whaddya say, Billy? I’m ten seconds away from putting another one into your knee, telling Chad Ford you’ve got a stubby wingspan, and telling Clay you’d be a steal in the second round.”
“Okay, okay. There’s a guy. Beasley talks to him after practice every day. Calls himself Manny C. Nobody knows his real name, but give me your number and I’ll have him call you.”
“If I don’t get that call, rest assured, you’re going to be balling with Lenny Cooke and James White next year.”
Sure enough, I got the call that very night. It was a deep voice, not one I recognized. It just said to show up at the parking garage at 2:00 in the morning, and to make sure I wasn’t followed. One of my few positive traits is to know when I shouldn’t let my own inhibitions mess up a good thing. I gave Magic the ball, I let Patrick get shots up and women down, and I wasn’t about to do anything other than what this guy told me. It probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, but when you get to be my age you’ve got assurance that any idea you have won’t be the worst one you’ve ever had either. When I showed up, a tall guy with a hood on and a trail of smoke finding its way between whatever smoke detectors were in the building like Reggie coming off screens back in the day when lighting up the Mecca meant something other than Miley Cyrus coming to town.
I walked over to the van, and felt a crack to the back of the head the likes of which I hadn’t felt since I played football for the U, back when everyone didn’t act like KU was playing keep-away with a Faberge egg just because they let one of their basketball players do something other than practice pull-up jumpers and screw when I wasn’t busy playing ball. I didn't think of that at the time, because sudden and extreme physical pain rarely induces nostalgia.
I awoke to a pair of legs that ruled Hell out of the equation fairly quickly. My head drew up to find a dark skirt attached to what could truly and honestly be called a glower. That ruled out two of the three possibilities. I was still alive. Unfortunately, the other information I was processing kept me from being able to definitely see that as a “glass half-full” type of situation.
“Well, Nicky, of all the ways this could’ve shaken out, I sure as hell didn’t think I’d end up on my back before you.”
“Shut up, Pat. You’re going to listen now. You’re going to stop digging around Beasley. As far as you know, the kid enjoys to listen to Crime Mob with the volume at 14 and that’s all there is to it. We’ve got the thing set up, all the way to Stern. We’re getting Beasley. He’s the next big thing, and he’s coming to
“Nicky, I don’t play with Jerry West anymore, but I think I can tell when I’m dead, and seeing as to how you’re neither fully clothed or Stan Van Gundy, I don’t think I’m in the afterlife right now. And I know the big man-if he wanted me dead, I’d be on the sidelines in the sky. So I gotta think there’s a variable here you’re neglecting to mention, hopefully one influenced by my tan. What I’m saying here is that if I’m to go Rockefeller this weekend, I’d at least like the full experience.”
As I said all this, I’d closed the distance between us. A few seconds after I’d finished, the only laws either of us were breaking were biblical. I’d already broken most of my rules this week, so what was one more? And if you’re going to make a mistake, you might as well make one that involves enveloping. I wouldn’t have called what happened that night a good idea by any stretch of the imagination. But as bad ideas go, I had a lot more fun with this one than I did with Earl Barron.
I’ve always considered myself a fairly fortunate guy, and Nicky being a heavy sleeper after intense physical activity fit right in with being the 12th man with West and Baylor and taking The Kid being rated somewhere in between Darko Milicic and Chris Kaman. I had a cigarette, for tradition’s sake, and also because I'm addicted to them, and left one for Nicky. Then I put on my coat, grabbed my notebook, and went to see