Hey there. So! I wanted a break in my travelogue, and didn't want to write about the Spurs because it was a hectic time both for the team and the site. I ended up taking a page out of PEN's book and trying to steal his thunder (impossible).
I'm not pleased with the results, but hey. After the jump, you get to see the one thing I'm proud of: my kickass banner for the series.
The baby kept sleeping peacefully even as he administered the shot, the sting of the large needle beneath his already considerable pain threshold.
He pressed the plunger firmly, and the syringe was slowly emptied of its contents. The serum was neon green, viscous, and seemed to glow with a light of its own in the darkened nursery. In less than a minute the barrel was empty, and for a moment he thought he could see the green liquid flowing through the baby's chubby arms. Gently, he pulled the needle out of the skin, and put the syringe into his pocket.
There was a nametag on the crib the baby laid in, quickly scribbled with the uneven handwriting shared by physicians and nurses across the world. He couldn't read it in the soft light coming from the windows, but ultimately it wouldn't matter: carriers of the formula always came to light, sooner or later. Usually sooner. And if he was right about this one...
He started turning around, his business done, when the baby suddenly opened his eyes and looked at him. For a second he feared the infant would start bawling, but he simply stared at him, his plump face more serious than it had any right to be. He slowly edged towards the open door, not daring to look away, and finally twisted quickly and hurried out of the room, unsettled for some reason. The door closed with a soft click.
The baby kept looking at the closed door for a while, clutching his hand into a tiny fist. Suddenly he started crying, loudly, wildly, and his cry rose in intensity until it started sounding like a miniature roar. Other babies around him starting waking, wrenched from their sleep by the loud wailing, and the door to the nursery swung open. A short, elderly nurse hustled in, keeping the lights off and finding her way around the cribs in the assured manner of someone who had walked those steps for many years.
"There there, dear, no need to cry." She deftly picked up the crying baby, holding him against her chest and rocking him gently. "Oof, you're a heavy one, aren't you?" He was a small baby, but her arms were already feeling the strain.
"You'll be leaving this ugly room tomorrow with you mother, little thing, so don't feel bad," she whispered softly in his ear, still rocking him back and forth. She kept at it until she felt the baby relax in her arms, the tears abating and giving way to even, deep breaths and warm drool on her shoulder.
The nurse slowly put him back in his crib, and caught a glimpse of the nametag. She had no problems reading it, long used to the doctors' maddening script.
"DeJuan Blair," she read aloud, sounding out around the unusual name. She was about to leave when she caught a soft glow off the corner of her eye, but when the nurse turned to look it was gone. The baby slept on, unaware of her scrutiny, and she quickly decided it had been her imagination. A trick of the light. She closed the door as she left, and the nursery was quiet once again.
Part 1: The Humble Beginnings
The hoop looked high, very high. Almost too high.
For 10-year-old DeJuan, dunking was almost an abstract idea. He knew it was humanly possible, he had even seen people dunk in person before. But they were taller, much taller than him - and stronger, too. ...Maybe. His dad kept saying DeJuan was plenty strong, and had the grip of a man twice his age.
Try as he might, though, he couldn't dunk. Or even touch the rim. He didn't feel too badly about it, though, after all none of his friends could. Yet he never stopped trying, over and over again, closer every day but still far away - he kept on going after all of his friends quit, moving onto simpler pursuits like half-court shots and circus layups. Somehow those didn't appeal to him as much as the thought of slamming down the ball two-handed, with emphasis, like the pros on TV. He kept trying, falling into an easy but futile routine: dribble up to the hoop, running at full speed, then pick up the dribble, take two short steps followed by a power step, and then jump, hands holding the ball with the tips of his fingers, arms outstretched, reaching upwards, almost, almost to his goal... and ultimately fail, fall hard against the cement, both feet touching down at the same time, arresting his momentum. Rinse, repeat.
DeJuan was so intent on his self-imposed dunking drill that he never noticed his friends leave the court, he didn't see the new crowd start to gather on the sidelines of the public court. Not until one of newcomers called out to him after a particularly bad miss. "Whatcha doing, shorty? You're gonna hurt yourself!" The comment was accompanied by scattered laughter.
DeJuan turned and looked at the guy who had said that. He was older than DeJuan, about 15, but also shorter. In fact, he was the shortest boy in his group; his friends all had the tall, wiry bodies that seemed manufactured for basketball. The loudmouth was still mocking him, pantomiming his missed dunk with exaggerated gestures. His uncle used to say that short guys were always troublemakers, the ones you always had to keep an eye on.
DeJuan chose to ignore him, ignore everyone. He wasn't scared of the older guy or his friends, but his mother had taught him that fighting was wrong, to turn the other cheek and count to 10, then 20. He went back to his drill, but couldn't help but be distracted by the jeers coming from the bleachers. Coming down from another miss, he misjudged his landing and fell forward, scraping his knee. His hand went to his knee instinctively, and when he looked at it his palm was covered in blood.
"Poor baby, got a booboo?" he heard, and then more laughter. And then the heat began.
It seemed to start everywhere at once, a soft warmth building up in his face and his legs and his arms and mostly his chest. His eyes burned, and the blood on his hand seemed to sizzle in the mild spring afternoon. The wind was cool on his skin, and he felt every breath as it coursed along his throat, scalding. He felt anger, anger disproportionate to the offense or the situation; his eyes were fixed on the red blood, and his ears kept hearing the boy's mocking voice, over and over, rising in pitch every time until it was a nonstop, taunting shrill that clouded his mind.
He didn't think, he just jumped, ball clutched tightly in his big hands. No running start, no preparation: from his kneeling position straight up, high enough to jam it back down through the hoop, hang on the rim for a moment and then come back down. And just like that, the bubble burst and he felt normal again, the heat permeating his body gone as suddenly as it came, his ears picking nothing but the random sounds from the street. He stared at the ball bouncing in front of him, dazed, trying to come to grips with what had just happened.
He had dunked. His first real dunk.
It had been everything he hoped it would be - liberating, cathartic, and most of all, it had been downright _cool_. He grabbed his basketball and left the court, walking slowly and only glancing at his witnesses in passing. They all looked as dumbfounded as he felt, even the short, mean guy. He moved past them and crossed the street in the general direction of his home. He was in no rush to get there; instead, he went through the dunk again and again, trying to savor the moment and etch it in his memory. It was a good feeling, one worth chasing.
Basketball sure was fun.
Basketball was tough, DeJuan thought as he toweled his sweaty face during the timeout his coach had just called.
Practices were tiring, drills were monotonous, games were trying. These days it seemed that he did more basketball than just about anything else - maybe even more than studying, despite his mother's best intentions. He played at home, with his father and his siblings, he played at his uncle's Center, he played at school - he even played in Summer leagues! Every week a new part of his daily life was taken up by the basketball gods, building up momentum that seemed to be propelling him... somewhere. To the pros, perhaps? That's what people liked to believe, at least, shaking his hand and claiming they would remember that moment when he made it big, real big.
There was pressure that accompanied each such gesture, a load on his shoulders that got heavier with the expectations of friends, family, the entire school, strangers on the street, seemingly the entire city. He became so good at pretending he didn't care that sometimes he actually forgot about it, usually while playing, but it always came back. He supposed it would burden him until he accomplished something - something _worthwhile_. If only he knew what it was...
A whistle was blown close by, and he noticed to his embarrassment that the timeout was over, and that he hadn't heard a word his coach had said. Or seen the play he drew on his board. He took a last, desperate glance at it before his coach stood up, and saw that the "D" down low didn't have any arrows pointing at it, so hopefully DeJuan wasn't part of the play as more than a decoy. His role was probably as a second-chance specialist, there to grab the rebound in case of a miss and score or kick out, as usual. What he did best.
Schenley High was a populous school, and the stands were packed with excited fans. They erupted in cheers as the game resumed - it had been a good one, the teams evenly matched and playing hard all game. He ran down the court, carrying the ball not being one of his responsibilities, and camped on the opposite team's painted area. The other team's center was on immediately on him; he was a tall guy, probably a couple of inches taller than him, but he was in dire need of high-calorie diet. He looked thin enough to take flight at any moment, and DeJuan had been abusing that all night, pushing him out of position and capitalizing on the easy boards. Only good help defense and outstanding guard play had kept them in the game.
The drawn play started with a screen set by the power forward; the point guard penetrated, dribbled around the baseline, and kicked out to the small forward waiting to shoot a corner three. The execution was perfect, and DeJuan knew the coach would be proud. That is, until the shot missed. Time to act. He nudged Lanky out of the way with a low push and then jumped into the air like he had done a thousand times before. The rebound was his. He wound up, about to leap and score the easy layup.
Indescribable pain, spearing him from his neck all the way down to his feet. His arms and legs burned and he thought he could hear something snap inside him, several somethings, like cords breaking under extreme tension. He crumbled to the floor, ball forgotten - he might've screamed, even though he tried not to. He thought -imagined?- he could see ripples in his skin, as if something beneath it was moving, shifting. Changing.
Slowly the pain abated until it was only a dull ache, and he was able to pay attention to his surroundings. Set in a circle around DeJuan's body, his teammates peered down at him with worried looks on their faces. DeJuan saw his coach hurry across the court, and he wondered how much time had really passed - it felt like minutes to him. He decided he was okay now, and tried to stand up. One of his teammates rushed to assist him, but when he started putting weight on his legs his knees buckled, and he felt as if knifes were repeatedly stabbing his joint. He fell back to the ground, almost bringing down the guy trying to pull him up.
The coach got to the huddle in time to see DeJuan collapsing. "Where does it hurt, DeJuan?"
"My... my legs. My knees." DeJuan clutched his knees, gripping them strongly. It helped.
The coach pointed to the two tallest scrubs he had. "Help him to the locker room - I'll call for a doctor."
DeJuan was carried out after some struggling to position him properly, feet dangling in the air. The game resumed.
"Wayne, there's something I want you to see! It's about DeJuan Blair."
Wayne Bore swiveled around in his chair, turning to look at Tim, his assistant of many years. He was a sports physician of certain renown, and people came from across the country to consult him. It said something about everyone's hopes for the Blair kid that they had come to him.
Blair had been an easy case, at any rate. He complained about pain in both knees, and a quick MRI exam had shown he had ruptured his ACLs. Surgery was the only option for a young athlete, and the operation had been scheduled for last week. Prognosis was very positive, the swelling had decreased in record time, and young Blair was already able to sit on his bed with little pain. Patients having ACL reconstructions used to be put into in a full-length cast for over a month, but it has been recently ascertained that movement in the knee joint in the early stages after the operation speeds up recovery times.
Everything indicated that Blair would be leaving the hospital in a few days, and then the long rehabilitation would start. With some effort, though, the boy might still salvage his professional basketball dreams. All in all, a job well done - but that didn't explain Tim barging into his office, or the wild look in his eyes.
"What about him?" he asked, irritated at the intrusion.
"Well, we performed a routine MRI yesterday," Tim began, words rushing out of his mouth. "Standard procedure, as you know. And Blair was doing so well that we felt it wouldn't bother him, even though we usually wait another week befo-"
"Yeah, yeah, I do know all this. Get to the point."
Tim gulped. "When we looked at the image in the computer... the grafts aren't there." He trailed off, waiting for the explosion sure to come.
Wayne didn't disappoint. "What?! What do you mean, the grafts aren't there? I saw the surgeon work on his legs myself! They can't just disappear!"
"Well, they are not there. We triple-checked. In fact, his knee looks perfectly normal - it just doesn't have any ACLs. It's almost... almost as if the grafts had been absorbed by his body."
Wayne shook his head. "That makes no sense, Tim. While it's true that it can happen, it takes years, not days. I'm sorry, but it's just not possible." He stoop up, shaking his head. "Tomorrow we're going to the hospital and I'll do the exam myself. If what you say is right..." He trailed off, looking at something behind Tim. His eyes had an odd shine to them, Tim thought, similar to what he used to see in drug addicts during his ER rotation.
"Wayne? What's wrong?" He turned around, but there was nothing behind him, only the bare wall. He searched the rest of the room - the sole source of light was the desk lamp, which wasn't bright enough to illuminate the entire office. Still, it was a small room and sparsely furnished, and nothing seemed out of place. He turned back to Wayne, and then he stopped.
His eyes were open, but unfocused, and they glittered in the soft light. He didn't blink, didn't move at all for a couple of minutes, and the room was in complete silence. Then both men started blinking at once, and they looked at each other, confusion shared in their looks.
Wayne shook his head to clear it. "Why are you still here, Tim? It's late."
Tim looked at him, then down at his empty hands and back at Wayne. "I... I'm... not sure. Sorry, I was a thousand miles away."
"Don't worry, Tim," Wayne said. "Since you're here, why don't we go over the Valdez case?"
Unseen by both men, a shadow on the wall moved, then faded away.
"If you want it, grab it."
DeJuan had read that in an ad somewhere - a deodorant ad? He wasn't sure, but the phrase had stuck with him. It made sense; no one was going to give you anything, not on the basketball court, maybe not in life, either. If you wanted the ball, you had to grab it before someone else did; reach beyond the outstretched forest of arms, rise above his peers and take a hold of what was his by right of might.
A couple of years ago Blair decided he wanted to play in the NBA. Really wanted to, as opposed to just going with the flow. Everyone's hopes and dreams slowly became his own. With that goal in mind he had worked his ass off to make the draft, to improve his game and build up his body. He wanted to be one of the first picks, because he knew that otherwise it would be much more difficult to make an impact. And yet so far it had all been for nothing.
He had faced Thabeet last season, their rookie season, back when both were relatively unknown, and gotten twice as many rebounds and points. DeJuan was the better player, and he knew it. And then Thabeet almost had a triple double, and everyone and then some anointed him as the best player in the country, the next All-Star franchise center. DeJuan, the Pittsburgh fellow, became an afterthought outside his state.
That was going to change today.
Connnecticut versus Pittsburgh was an anticipated match between two high-ranked Big East teams. The hype was on, the cameras would be rolling, and fans and players were excited. DeJuan didn't care about any of that - he only wanted to face Thabeet head on and win. Lead Pittsburgh to its first win against a top-ranked team in their history. Dominate.
The game started; defend, rebound, run the court, rebound again, focus on the basics, run again. It was a physical game, everyone pushing and hitting and struggling; it was a fast game, not much time for thought, you had to react. And then an Uconn player took a shot, missed, and the ball was floating above him. Easy, DeJuan thought, and extended his arms. The ball was in his hands - but then an arm extended over his shoulder and tried to pop it loose.
No. NO, it's my ball! DeJuan thought, feeling a strange warmth spread through his body. He locked his arms, trapping Thabeet's own, and mustering strength he didn't know he had he aggressively bent down and _pulled_ Thabeet over him. DeJuan himself was surprised for a second; it had been a perfect study in the concept of leverage and force, and yet... and yet it had also been so easy. As if Thabeet had been weightless for a moment there. He didn't let his confusion reach his face, though, and simply walked forward, high-fiving his teammates and listening to the cheers from the crowd. He never looked back at Thabeet.
The referee was close to the play and paying attention, but he still almost didn't blow the whistle. Had Blair's eyes turned green for a moment there? He dismissed the thought with a small chuckle and run up to Thabeet, who was rolling on the floor, clutching his shoulder.
No one noticed the bearded man in the stands that stood up among the cheering crowd and silently left the arena.
The Olympic Tower was a 51-story skyscraper set deep in the heart of Manhattan, a square-based steel-and-glass building whose only redeeming feature was its sheer size and height. For decades it had been chosen by the NBA to hold its national headquarters, located between the 14th and 19th floors. The NBA offices comprised everything a modern organization ought to have: receptions; meeting rooms; cubicles for the many peons and big offices for the few bosses; teleconference rooms; water coolers; photocopy rooms - an ascetic, utilitarian dream that served to manage one of the most important sports leagues in the world spread through two countries and with ties across the entire world.
Few knew however that the NBA also owned the entire 51st floor, once a luxurious condo overlooking the 5th avenue and now a vast conference room with enough space to accommodate every NBA employee from the Commissioner to the lowliest assistant - not that assistants ever made it up there.
There were no walls in the 51st level; it was an open room interrupted only by the elevator, the emergency staircase, two small bathrooms and four thin columns, symmetrically placed around the axis of the building. A thick blue carpet covered the floor from wall to wall, and but a few plants broke the monotony of the surprisingly Spartan room. There were no chairs or sofas, no desks or kitchens. The only visible piece of furniture was a long, rectangular conference table the southern corner. One of the walls in that corner still displayed the original reinforced glass windows, but the other had been covered by a wall made of state-of-the-art LCD screens; from the floor to the ceiling, dozens of LCD screens covered every bit of the available space, each one showing a different TV channel. Sports channels, news channels, movies, documentaries, comedy series - there didn't seem so be any logic to the transmissions chosen by the owner, no discernible pattern.
There were sixteen seats on each side of the table, and an extra one at the head. Thirty were occupied by the current NBA General Managers; David Stern, NBA Commissioner sat at the head; to his right was Phil Jackson, to his left an empty chair. A discussion had erupted between the GMs, but Stern didn't appear to be paying attention: he was looking at the screens of the wall, and a small remote control in his right hand kept changing channels, seemingly at random.
"It's the best for everyone involved," said RC Buford, exasperatedly pushing his small, round-rimmed glasses up his nose. He had a tone of painstaking calm, as if trying to force himself not to raise his voice.
Shaking heads met his statement across the table. "All the way to 37th? Blair? The best rebounder in years?" said Donnie Nelson, punctuating his words with a derisive sneer. "Ridiculous."
"Why should we?" Danny Ainge agreed. "Why do you think you'd have an easier time with him than us?"
Buford looked around the table, looking for support, but found only a few friendly faces: Kevin McHale, John Paxson, a few others. The ones that knew, that could see the Big Picture. Larry Bird just crossed his arms and looked at his peers with steely eyes. He knew, too.
Buford was marshalling his next argument when someone cut him off. "Because it's happened before, and we were the ones to stop him." No one had heard Popovich leave the elevator, or even approach the table. He nodded at those present in passing, and then sat on the empty chair opposite Phil Jackson. Jackson opened his eyes, which had been closed until that point, and politely smiled at him.
Stern at last turned at last towards Popovich, looking at him intently. Pop returned the look, and after a moment Stern nodded.
"We don't even know if he's one of them!" Nelson proclaimed feebly, perceiving the battle was already lost.
"we know," Popovich said.
Stern put the remote aside and set both hands on the table. "It's decided, the Spurs will draft Blair."
There were some annoyed frowns, but no one complained out loud. The meeting moved onto the next item in the agenda.
Torture. Nationally televised torture.
What else could you call this? DeJuan thought. He watched the Timberwolves choose Wayne Ellington with the 28th pick, their third of the night. Wayne Ellington. And he still was undrafted, still waiting, still trying to disguise his anger at this humiliation.
How could a bogus exam cause this reaction? He had played hundreds of games since the surgery, and never felt a pang of pain. In fact, he felt better and better with every game; he had bigger reserves of energy, dunked with more ease. He was expecting to fall to the 10th pick at most, but this was ridiculous. To add insult to injury, Thabeet had somehow been the second pick, another winner of the "You Can't Teach Height" lottery.
The picks kept coming, and each one felt to DeJuan like a blow to his gut. Toney Douglas? Christian Eyenga? The second round rolled around, and Blair's dreams of a guaranteed contract started to fade away. He began to worry that he wouldn't be picked at all, as unimaginable as that sounded. Sergio Lull, DaJuan Summers, Sam Young, his teammate in Pitt. Then it was the turn of the Spurs, the only team that hadn't belittled him yet.
10 seconds later, the choice was done. He was drafted. He heard the cheers around him, but almost didn't react to them - he was numb with anger. 37th? They were going to pay for that, each and every front office that had let him go for lesser players. He was going to prove them all wrong, so wrong. He shook hands and accepted hugs in a detached manner but with a smile on his lips, and attended the waiting press with an awkwardness that was caused by both his inexperience and the residual anger that clouded his mind. Then he was finally alone in a private hall, and two men were walking towards him. He knew them, of course: RC Buford and Gregg Popovich. Gregg Popovich, his new coach.
Buford shook his head, talked about how excited the Spurs were he would be in the team, and spouted a number of platitudes that nevertheless managed to put DeJuan at easy. Buford had a contagious smile; maybe it wasn't so bad after all that he had fallen to these Spurs. But then Buford left, and he was alone with Popovich. He found the bearded coach to be friendly, but also serious and very straightforward. Gregg Popovich had no use for small talk.
Popovich locked eyes with DeJuan. "Are you angry that you slid to the second round, DeJuan?"
It was so sudden that DeJuan couldn't hide a surprised look. Was he that transparent? He grudgingly admitted that yes, he was angry at the result of the draft.
"I don't blame you, DeJuan. It's only logical that you feel that way. You deserved far better - you might be the most special player in this draft." His voice grew deeper. "But anger has no place in the NBA, or the Spurs." Popovich never looked away, and DeJuan found himself nodding.
"Never get angry, DeJuan. Never."
He held DeJuan's eyes for another moment, and then relaxed. DeJuan blinked and exhaled, realizing he had been holding his breath.
Popovich shook DeJuan's hand, told him they would see each other again for their first practice next week, said goodbye, and then simply walked away. DeJuan stood alone in the hall, looking at Popovich's retreating back and wondering what his future would be like, playing for the Spurs with legends like Tim Duncan.
His NBA days were only starting.
I failed. I meant to write something short and humorous, and I ended up producing something long, serious and with a vague plot. I don't know where I went wrong, but wrong I went. At the end I just wanted to finish writing this so I could move back to my travelogue, which defeats the purpose of taking a break. Still, don't take it too seriously.
Emo rant aside, thanks to Q for proofreading this. She's a harsh editor, but fortunately I don't have an ego. Anymore.
Oh, and SiMA, I know you hated this. You're allowed to rip it to shreds in the comments.