Cloned!

So, I’m down here in La Paz chillin. Scattered clouds, highs in the 70’s,  blue skies. Phil’s got our little intra-mural team at 10-0, rolling the competition like the ’96 Bulls. I’ve got a major tan going behind my mirrored Ray-Bans, my back hasn’t felt this loose since high school, and for the first time in a long time I feel cool instead of a big, awkward white guy trying to play a black guy’s game.

Cell phone battery’s dead, haven’t read the papers in weeks. The hell with them and their damned Millionaire vs. Billionaire Lockout.

So, Phil comes up to me with a copy a La Paz paper. He raps it down on the cafe table, spilling a little of my espresso. He sits down.

“Lockout’s over,” he says.

I look up. “Really?”

“And you tried to trade Pau and Lamar for Chris Paul.” He stares at me.

I sit up. “What? That’s crazy! Two thirds of our front court for a temperamental point guard with one bad knee already?”

Phil went on, “Stern vetoed the trade as uncompetitive despite swearing he’d never meddle in Hornet business.”

“Wait a minute. …I traded them?”

Phil goes on: “So Lamar went into a major league pout and asked to be traded anyway….”

“How could I have traded them?”

“And rather than stroking him and letting him cool off, you dealt him right away to Dallas….”

Dallas?”

“For a draft choice.”

I stand up. “This isn’t happening. I’ve been right here. You’ve seen me. We don’t have a phone. I don’t get any mail.”

Phil lays down the La Paz paper which has a picture of me looking out over the practice court. I look at the picture, then back at him.

“How could this be?”

Phil shrugs. “I’ll bet that weasel Jimmy Buss has a hand in it.”

I look at the photo. “Why would any one ever bother to find a “fake” Mitch Kupchak?”

Phil smiles. “You think they’d have come looking for you when the lockout ended. But, no, they let you sit here. After that billion dollar TV deal, the Buss’s have more money than they know what to do with. And, remember that Dr. Soon-Shiong, the new minority shareholder? They cloned you, dude.”

I’m in a sweat. My back in twisting up like used tin foil. “Cloned me?”

Phil nods. “Just like that Schwarzenegger movie.”

“Some mutant Mitch is sitting at my desk? Going home to my wife?”

“It’s the fucking Buss Family! They make the Corleone’s look like “Father Knows Best.” I got them to the finals seven times and won five rings for them, and for that they fired me, cut my salary and let me go again. They’re fucking ruthless and don’t know how stupid they are. They’ve only gotten as far as they have on the backs of excellent employees whom they’ve shat on as soon as they felt they didn’t need them, from Jerry West to Magic to Kareem to me and you.”

“So, what do we do?”

“First, you better drain your accounts before Mutant Mitch figures out where all the money is.”

“Shit….”

“And then, you gotta figure out how bad you want your old life back.” He gestures around the cafe. “I mean it’s not so bad here.”

“Is it murder if you kill your own clone?’

Phil picks up the newspaper again. He smiles. “It says here, your doppelgänger is still looking to move Pau and ‘Drew for Dwight Howard.”

“What? Howard’s a grinning idiot! His shot has all the touch of a wounded duck. He’s got no post-up game and shoots worse than Shaq or Wilt from the line. And he still hasn’t figured out how to block the ball inbounds! Drew is at least trainable!”

I’m really in a turmoil. “I built this team. No help from Jerry West. I built it! I traded that dead albatross of a contract Shaq had for L.O. and trade bait. I signed Drew. I got Kobe to stay. I traded Kwame for Pau!”

“I still can’t believe that one.”

“You’re damn right. It was the biggest swindle since the Louisiana Purchase!”

Phil’s beside himself watching me act out. He loves to push buttons and then sit back and watch.

“I’m going back in, Phil. I’ve got to.”

Phil’s wearing his black leather jacker and biker boots, dusty and unshaven and gnarly, looking like Lee Van Cleef from a spaghetti Western. He smiles. “Let’s ride,” he says.

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Posted in Basketball, Dr. Jerry Buss, Lockout, Los Angeles Lakers, NBA, Phil Jackson | 2 Comments

Jerry West

So, it’s the end of October and the weather’s beginning to break a bit here in La Paz. Our little high school league is coming along. Phil’s got them running a sort of baby triangle, and a decent zone defense. My little point guard’s got a crossover that’s breaking ankles all over town.

I call L.A. every few days to check on my messages. Nothing but a few calls from Jerry West to fill out a golf foursome. I liked him better when he was a silent, stoical tough guy. He must have started therapy or Prozac or something because lately he’s turned into some kinda weepy Appalachian sad-sack. I mean, calling his autobiography “My Charmed, Tormented Life?” Sure, he had it rough as a kid, but seems to me it’s been pretty sweet the past forty years at least. In his seventies but still looking good, comfortably well-off, Mr. Clutch, The Logo, Hall of Fame, one ring as a player, seven more as a GM, jersey in the rafters, statue outside of Staples, King of L.A.

And the part about having no relationship with Phil? C’mon. He fought Phil’s hiring all the way and so much as told him to fuck off before he even got here. Phil’s not the sort to stick his hand out once it’s been slapped.  He had the same sort of fucked-up religious childhood, twice as many frustrations as a player, a tenth of the physical ability, crippling injuries, fucked over by management time and again, but you don’t hear him crying. Injuries limited his career and his naive honesty torpedoed his coaching opportunities at first (Jeez, maybe drop acid, but don’t write books about it), but he paid his dues in the CBA and Puerto Rico, wangled his way back into the NBA and got lucky with the Bulls job. But once there, he was ready: 13 finals and 11 rings to add to his two as a player.

Jerry was handed the Lakers after he retired, first as a coach, then ascended to GM like Christ ascending into heaven. Between the end of showtime and the Kobe/Shaq era, Buss tolerated almost ten years of disappointments but backed Jerry. The dealing he did to land Shaq, and to see the value in Kobe and land him too—that was genius. Probably the best trading deal in the history of the NBA.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Jerry, and he gave me all the breaks when my back gave out and my career went into the toilet. But, he can get so wound up in his own head, that it’s hard to deal with him. When he was a player he could get it out with playing and working out. When he was a GM, he could burn the midnight oil poring over scouting reports and watching tape. Now, he’s retired, and he’s got too much time on his on his hands. So you got punked by Bill Russell a few times too many? Can you imagine the demons that fueled that man’s defensive fire? Take my advice, keep your own. So you lead a life of quiet desperation sometimes, with black thoughts? Well, we all do, Jerry, except ours are probably quieter and a lot more desperate, and no one’s giving us six figure advances to write a book about it. Watch Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech on You Tube, then write an essay, compare and contrast. Now cancel the book tour and go play a round of golf, and be grateful.

You could do spending a summer with Phil. Swimming in an ice cold lake, greeting the sunrise with your mantra sitting naked on a rock, fly fishing those little rivers and creeks the tourists can’t find in the afternoon, fresh trout over an open fire in the evening.

Though, take my advice. Get a separate bedroom. Not only does Phil snore, he farts like a horse in his sleep.

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Tropic of Cancer

Phil snores.

And not petit little nasopharyngeal rumblings either. The man SNORES. We’re talking deep, rolling, thunderous, window-rattling (if I had any windows) emanations that sound as if we were about to have a visitation from one of Lucifer’s higher lieutenants, if not from Old Scratch himself.

Since coming to La Paz, he’s crashed in my minimal abode, stringing up another hammock in what might be charitably called the bedroom, and now I get nightly serenades. Quartet with tuba and other wind instruments.

Although the warm climate is easier on his arthritis, Phil hates it here. La Paz lies pretty much along the Tropic of Cancer. The tropics start here, and it’s late summer. The heat is merciless. Phil’s used to northern climes, where even in summer, after the heat of the day, a pleasant chill descends. One has to bundle up. Nightly fires are not unreasonable. Here, the heat assaults you by six in the morning. By noon it’s a full scale siege. By three, your walls have been breached. You’re stripping off clothing and looking for any place to jump in the water and cool off. You survive in the north by battling the elements. In the tropics, you survive by conceding defeat in advance. The weather wins, the Sun is your God, and you do best by admitting it up front and doing your best to adapt and learn its habits.

He’s coming around. Cut off some of his jeans, bought some summer cotton and silk shirts.  Finally given into morning and afternoon swims.

As to our basketball league, well, suffice it to say we’re still working of fundamentals. The basics of a half-court game, the bounce pass, the chest pass, post-up play, lay-ups. Defensive basics. It’s too hot right after school gets out, so we have to wait until after dinner. By then, it’s cooler, but also getting dark fast this late in the year. We get outdoor lights installed maybe nest week, then it’ll be better.

Can’t really predict who’ll show up day to day, but the best ones usually do. Our point guard, Miguel, and our nascent center, Esteban, make it most days. Phil’s started a pre-school session at six in the morning, and Miguel, Esteban and a couple of other hard cores show up for that, too. My name don’t carry much clout down here, but Phil, with his remote, regal presence, 13 rings, and aura of MJ and Kobe, seems to be a minor draw.

Still, they’re kids, and basketball doesn’t have much caché in Mexico, trumped by baseball and soccer. But, a few other churches have met the challenge and we have a five or six team league taking shape. First games next week.

I live like a gutter rat, I’ve got a case of turista I can’t seem to shake, Phil keeps me up all night with his Wagnerian nose music, the wife thinks I’ve run off with the housekeeper, the NBA’s in lockout and may not have a season, but I feel great. And Phil—I actually saw him smile yesterday and order a beer at Pepito’s.

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If You Meet the Buddha in the Lane

It may be officially the first week of autumn, but nobody bothered to tell the weatherman in La Paz. High 100°, low 75°, the low humidity the only saving grace. Most days I get up at about six, when it’s only 75-80°, drive down to the beach and go for a swim, lie in the sun for a bit, another battle with the surf, then back to the hacienda to towel off, pull on the lightest cotton clothes I can find, then sit past noon in the shade of Pepito’s cafe, banging back espresso and reading the local papers, working on my Spanish.

From one until five-ish, its back to the hammock, reading Marquez, Malcolm Lowry or Hemingway in the shade under the ceiling fan, sipping at a gin and tonic or three. Nights are bad. Drinking all night in the local cantina is a tempting way to pass the time, but it’s proven bad for my health, so most nights I turn up back at Pepito’s again until closing time. Then, it’s back to the hammock, trying to read by candle-light, as I can’t take the bugs that the electric lights draw. Sleep comes hard. It’s sticky, the air is still, and my dreams are usually bad.

Last night, I woke up to the distant but familiar hollow booming of a basketball on concrete. I’d heard it before at night, and passed it off, but tonight there was something haunting about it. I got up, and stood at my front door. The night was still except for distant pounding of the ball, faint, high-pitched, excited voices back and forth barely audible beneath.

I pulled on a shirt, went down the stairs and followed the sound. Through back streets, down alleys, losing the trail and finding it again. Finally, in the schoolyard of an old church, I saw it. A rusty iron pole holding a crooked and dented metal backboard and netless rim. There was a full moon, and in the yellow half-light a loose gang of teenagers chased the ball up and down the cracked concrete halfcourt.

It was magical. Here in a back alley of a backwater of a backwater, Dr. Naismith’s game still lived. Limbs cut and jumped, the ball bounced and flew and (occasionally) found the rim, voices cried out in excitement, anger and joy. I stood in the dark of a nearby building, rapt, holding my breath. My eyes were damp. It was so simple and so right.

There was one little kid, couldn’t have been five feet tall, who was tearing up the court. They weren’t really playing positions, but he was the main ball handler for his team. He had a decent crossover, could shoot with either hand, and had a wicked reverse layup. His fade-away jumper was lethal from within ten feet. The other kids varied from adequate to awful, and there was one big kid who clogged the middle and fouled everyone, and could dunk on what looked like an eight or nine-foot rim. Raw but teachable. A tall, lanky kid seemed to know post-up basics and a nascent hook shot. But the little guard was poetry. The other team’s only option was to lay a body on him, but he was so quick, half the time they’d end up on the concrete watching him blow by.

I sat in the shadow of the building for maybe an hour, until they broke up, drenched in sweat and still talking trash in Spanish. The little guard picked up his stuff and was starting to leave. I stood up and took a few steps toward the court.

¿Cómo te llamas?” I called out.

He stopped in his tracks and stared at me suspiciously.

Juegas muy bien,” I added.

He nodded, and left in a hurry. “Miguel!” he shouted, as he turned the corner.

The next day, I spent many hours trying to find anyone who sold sporting goods in La Paz, finally tracking down a guy who could order a pair of new backboards and rims, and install them.

Next, a visit to the rector of the church. A big donation greased the wheels, and before I knew it, I’d also paid for resurfacing the court, new outdoor lighting. A little more smooth talking from the padre and I’d paid for the same upgrades for five other churches in La Paz, and agreed to coach in their after-school league. Hadn’t felt this excited since my first kid was  born. I went to the nearest internet cafe and emailed Phil to see if he could send me Tex’s footwork,  passing and spacing drills.

Before I knew it, my super-secret iPhone was ringing—the one who’s number, I thought, was only known to my wife, kids and parents. It was Phil calling from Montana.

“What do you want with Tex’s drills?” he asked without so much as a how-do-you-do.

I explained about the kids down here.

“These are the keys to the fucking kingdom. I find these drills in the hands of Jimmy Buss or Mike Brown, and it’s your head.”

“Phil,” I told him, “I’m a thousand miles away from there in more ways than one. And I haven’t felt this good in years.”

“Really?” Suddenly he sounded interested.

“Yeah. These are just kids playing basketball with a rubber ball and a tin backboard. Just for the joy of the game. No money, no fame, no bullshit. Just basketball.”

Phil sighed. “Okay,” he said at last, “Give me your address and I’ll FedEx them.”

Four days later, who do I see while sitting at Pepito’s, but Phil himself, rolling down the street on his Harley, covered in so much dust and road grime he looks like rode in from a spaghetti western.

“FedEx didn’t have a listing for ‘the flophouse behind the bordello off the plaza with the broken fountain,’ so I had to bring them myself,” he explains sarcastically as he pulls off his helmet and goggles, and shakes off pounds of road dirt.

The locals were just getting used to my skinny 6’9″ ass knocking around town. Now with Phil at 6’8″ sporting an “Ancient of Days” beard, we looked like a pair of exiled and down-on-their-luck Norse beserkers, itching for a fight we know we’re too old to win.

“So, where’s this little league of yours?” Phil asks, scanning the plaza.

“This evening,” I say, “about sundown, when it starts to cool off a little.”

“Excellent,” he says. “Let’s have a beer.”

I nod to Pepito, holding up two fingers. “You know, this dry hot climate’s good for old, arthritic farts like you,” I tell him.

He smirks. “And the mañana pace is tonic for Type-A middle-aged burnouts like you,” he replies.

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