Three losses in a row, each by a narrow margin. Richard Jefferson did not join the Spurs to just compete. “It's about winning," he whined as he slammed the car door and kicked the gravel driveway of his newly rented San Antonio home.
"I can help your team, RJ." A breath tender but cold lilted in Jefferson's ear. He looked up to see her standing on his sunflower welcome mat. Her auburn hair twisted about her like the branches of a winter willow. "Open the door and invite me in," she whispered.
The cold breath on his neck erupted into a dust devil that whirled around him. A slice of northeastern wind screamed through the live oaks. "Invite me in!" she commanded. She walked toward him now, quicker with every step. Every light on the street blacked out at once.
The neighborhood kids laughed when their Nerf football bounced off of RJ's head.
Jefferson roused himself from the driveway and touched his face, feeling indentations from the gravel. He looked down to see his shirt ripped open, buttons missing, but the silver crucifix, a gift from his missionary parents, still hung around his neck. Did he sleep here all night? What time was it?
"Ghost in the Graveyard?" "No ghost!" Childish voices screamed from inside bushes and behind parked cars.
Twilight. The game! He jumped to his feet, ran to his house, threw on the first clean thing he could grab. After finding his keys in the grass, he sped to the SBC Center.
* * * * *
Assistant coach Hank Egan looked at RJ incredulously." Are you wearing a Bucks uniform?" RJ turned red. Whoops. Egan just shook his head. "Change and meet the team in the film room."
RJ snuck into the empty chair in the back as inconspicuously as possible for a someone 6'7". Popovitch stood in front of a room of concentrating Spurs. The diagram on the white board behind behind Pop did not look like any basketball play RJ had ever seen. It was more like a cave painting of the sun: a circle emitting fourteen lines with a point in the center. Next to Pop at the front of room Manu sat in street clothes, eyes shut.
Popovich finally spoke, “We just have to stay the course." Pop looked directly at RJ now, “Stay focused on the learning part."
* * * * *
It was Pau Gasol's first game back from injury, but the ovations were tepid. Someone else had returned to the Staples Center.
He strode along the court side seats with 1:15 left in the 1st Quarter. His eyes glared red at the Lakers bench. Phil Jackson whistled a timeout, but he ignored his team when they jogged from the court -- Jackson huddled with the security personel instead. Following Jackson's instructions, two immense guards walked court side.
"Mr. Nicholson, this is not your seat." The gargantuan men pulled the movie star up like a naughty puppy. His eyebrows shot up over his sunglasses. He only struggled for a second before remembering he stood before 10,000 eyes and hundreds of cameras. On Jackson's nod, the men allowed Nicholson to walk into the unlit tunnel on his own accord.
The seat belonged to a tall man in vintage black Armani slacks and black Silvano Lattanzi sneakers with black stripes Those who dared to look at his face remember only vertigo and a feeling of loss. The photographers respectfully turned their cameras elsewhere. The lens that strayed caught only a black smudge, an inverted overexposure.
The dark Prince gestured with a half raised forefinger, its nail a polished claw. The game resumed.
"It's like tomb in here," Lakers broadcast announcer Joel Meyers said and shivered. "Dub in some crowd noise," he instructed the production crew. Joel starred at a teleprompter as he had for seven years since leaving San Antonio, calm and peppy, but for the persistent shaking of his left hand.