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Nate McMillan and The Diet Soda: A Parable


"You got the taste, but you still have the thirst, Nate. The thirst for the real thing..."

The final buzzer echoes just the same in a regular season blowout as it does in an empty arena.

40 points? Popovich looked at the scoreboard hanging high above center court, names attached to numbers that caused the score to end as it did. He turned and cast a quick glance at the silently clearing bench behind him, Tim and Tony walking to catch up with the players who'd actually played, and heading into the tunnel amid the silent roar of footsteps making their way out of the arena. As he approached the Portland bench, he contorted himself slightly, angling to avoid the ball boy as he slid past to grab the game ball that had yet to stop spinning on the court beside them. McMillan arrived at the center court line first, seemingly unwilling to travel the extra distance, as if some unspoken protocol would be breached if their travels were not equidistant. The handshake was brisk and businesslike, yet firm. "Thanks." McMillan offered, never really sure what to say on occasions like this.

"Yeah." Pop chuckled, the laughter sounding like a saw cutting through wood. Neither man would wipe the other's sweat from their hand until their gaze had averted. Their eyes firmly locked, Pop watched as McMillan broke first, his eyes trailing off after the last of the Spurs as they headed towards the locker room.

"Young guys played hard." McMillan offered, casting the words into the air as an invitation for something more to be said. An extra second disheveled the fragile comfort. "Some of 'em look like they'll be good yet." He added.

"Let's hope so." Pop cast back, thinking a second on the weight his own words carried, before dipping his shoulder to turn and follow his players. He hung, caught by some urge to say something more. "You know?" He interjected to McMillan's own retreat, "I really can't stand Diet Soda."

"I-I'm sorry?" McMillan asked, the unsteadiness of his query more from surprise than inability.

"Diet Soda." Pop repeated dryly. "I hate it."

"Diet Soda?" McMillan toyed with the words in his head, stretching to make sense beyond the obvious, before conceding. "I'm not sure I follow."

"Well, it's simple, really." Pop offered, spinning completely around rather than returning the way he'd come. He faced McMillan again. "It's just not the same. The way that saccharine sweet teases you, reminding you the whole way down that there's something better out there."

McMillan had come thoroughly unprepared, his wits betraying him by letting a single broken word escape. "Saccharine?"

"Artificial Sweetener." Pop assisted. "Fake sugar, to the layperson. All Diet Soda has it, because it can't have real sugar, can it?"

"Um, no?" McMillan stared blankly. A lone balloon cascaded silently from the rafters.

"Of course it can't, Nate. Don't ask ridiculous questions." Pop thumbed an itch behind his ear. "If it had real sugar in it, then it wouldn't be diet at all. It'd be real soda, and we're not talking about that."

"Real Soda?!" McMillan interrupted. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Well, technically they're both real sodas, but you know what I mean." Popovich thumbed his ear once more, before knocking a piece of confetti from the shoulder of his blazer. "Diet Soda just isn't the same though. I mean, you can drink it, just the same as the regular. You can sip it. Shoot, you can even shotgun it and crush the can when you're through. It doesn't change the fact though, that when you're done, you'll know that you didn't ever get what you really wanted, does it?"

"I guess not?" McMillan replied, the uncertainty wafting in his voice like a curtain in the breeze through an open window.

"And why in the world would it?" Pop said, placing both hands in his pockets and slowly closing the distance between them. He glanced up at the scoreboard. The Spurs had still lost by 40. "You never really got what you wanted."

McMillan stared. His eyes slowly moved towards the scoreboard, scanning it quickly before returning his gaze to Pop, who stood smiling, inches from his face. "Diet Soda..." His lips moved, but no sound escaped.

"Diet." Pop uttered through his grin. The word rolled slowly enough that the individual pluck of the vocal chords could be heard.

The two stared at each other a brief second longer, a lifetime of knowledge being traded in that span. At once, Pop abruptly turned on his heel and strided towards the tunnel. The crowd had receded enough to hear the sound of his shoes on the hardwood. McMillan watched for a second more before turning to head to his own locker room. He shook his head solemnly.

"It's never as good as the real thing..." Pop's voice seemed to careen off the walls of the arena. McMillan turned to look at him, but no one was there.