The evening is warm and moist as I pull my Tahoe up to Pop’s. A waning moon hangs low in the sky, looking nothing at all like a basketball. I admit, I make that observation a lot – when certain things are especially not-basketball-like – but I find myself admiring the thought for a half-second longer than usual. That’s because tonight’s get together, like many we’ve had over the years, is to be explicitly “not about basketball”.
I’m one of the last to arrive, which is a good thing for everyone else – especially the new guys. A long line of cars snakes all the way back to the street, where I am. I don’t recognize many of them, nor can I intuit to whom they belong. We’re a new team, after all.
Through the beveled glass of the front door I see a familiar figure approach. I can make out the white top tucked into a pair of black trackpants before the door opens.
“Hello, Kawhi,” says the man standing in the doorway in a Vote for Pedro shirt.
Pop doesn’t always let you into his home, or his office – not immediately anyway. It’s a chance for him to make people sweat a little; the ones that don’t know any better are often too polite or too scared to ask to come in, so they either keep things short or simply give up. They say it’s a tactic he learned in his Air Force days.
Me, though, I just break the ice with an Election Day joke. I hold up my wine bottle and say, “Sorry, all I had was red.”
He pauses for a moment, which stretches into a few breaths. Long enough for a three-second violation, I make sure to not think to myself. And then he laughs, taking the bottle from my hand and ushering me in.
“Get in here. Gosh!”
Almost everyone is in Pop’s large, open-plan living room, although I first note the absence of Boris, whom we called Bobo. The chairs are arranged in rows so that we can all face the TV. The air is cool and not moist at all. There’s an open seat with my name on it in front of Kyle, whom we call Slow Mo. The TV’s off. We’re all just waiting quietly for what’s to come.
Pop collects all our phones and puts them in a drawer by the bar. There’s a broken clock above the television; its time reads 11:57, until he adjusts it again to read 11:58. Pop’s a funny guy.
This is all a little strange for the new guys – except Pau, of course. He was in Los Angeles in 2008 when Phil Jackson traded Chris Mihm for voting Nader. Phil’s also a funny guy, I hear.
LaMarcus and Pau are sitting to my left, and when Danny and Patty come in from the other room they sit to my right. Our names are on all the seats.
Tony’s the last to arrive. He glances for a moment at us in the first row, and then briskly takes the seat with his name on it, behind Patty and in front of Nico and Dejounte. Patty turns back to him, blinks, and then shrugs, and I imagine that if tonight was about basketball that may have meant something.
People don’t believe me when I say Pop is psychic, but they’ve never witnessed him suddenly sense Danny’s presence. He could be on the other side of the practice facility but, as soon as DG walks in, you can see it in his eyes, which glaze over with unbridled purpose.
On cue, Pop emerges through the corridor. “Hey, Danny,” he says, with some urgency.
“Get in the kitchen and grab me a kay-suh-dill-uh.”
Danny dutifully goes, of course, but there are no quesadillas. There never are.
That this much time has passed without discussing the elephant in the room doesn’t go overlooked by Manu, who’s never shy about these matters. That’s what I like about Manu – more than his skills as a basketball player, which I am not recognizing tonight – his ability to perfectly articulate his points.
“Pop, why is Timmy wearing an elephant costume?”
Tim, who is sitting in the La-Z-Boy in the corner and wearing an elephant costume, answers: “They were all out of ligers.”
Tim is not a funny guy — never has been. But this time I don’t think he’s joking. He shrugs and looks deferentially back at Pop, who seems equally disappointed with the costume.
It becomes clear that we’re not here to follow the night’s Election results. Pop has a greater message to send to the team, and that means watching the entirety of Napoleon Dynamite, twice.
There are rookies and older guys in this group, but we can all appreciate that in laughter there exists a great equalizer. We Are All Summer Wheatley and We Are All Pedro.
It’s past midnight after we finish the second showing, which we watch with commentary from actor Jon Heder, whom Pop invited over. Pop is laughing uncontrollably by this point. He’s now exclusively referring to Danny as ‘Tina.’
My mind jumps to basketball once more, this time spurred by nothing in particular: the sound of a single ball bouncing on a hardwood floor that feels more brittle than it did earlier this evening. I head towards my phone to check the news, when I feel someone grab my arm. It’s Tim.
“Tina!” I hear Pop shout from across the room. “Come get your food!” But Pop doesn’t have any food in his hands. He never does.
Tim looks over at me and pulls his trunk to the side again. “Tonight’s going to make animals out of a lot of us, Kawhi,” he says. “but we’ll control what we can and stick together.”
Tim is not a funny guy, but he’s almost always right.