In a report that is sure to turn the sports world on its ear, a prominent basketball insider was recently overheard firming up plans for a drinks meeting with an unnamed but well-placed source. When asked if drinks were on, the insider said, “Definitely.”
According to friends of the source, the drinks conversation would likely have included free agency rumors and whether Kevin Love might opt out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the offseason.
If such an event does take place, the Los Angeles Lakers would most certainly be one of the destinations considered by Love.
While this all may appear to be a serendipitous connecting of the dots, it is nothing compared to what was subsequently revealed—a plan that would give the Lakers the best possible chance to rebound from a historically bad 21-61 season and contend for a title with an All-Star roster, constructed for Kobe Bryant’s swan song season.
It is a byzantine tale of intrigue and malfeasance laced with folly. And it could ultimately lead to a sixth Larry O’Brien trophy for the Black Mamba.
At approximately the 5:22 mark of the first quarter of the fourth game of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Kelly Olynyk of the Boston Celtics put on arm-bar on Love and popped the forward’s shoulder out of place. Love promptly ran straight off the court to the locker room to get medical attention.
Except that’s not what really happened. That’s just what they want you to think. Instead, it was just one of many steps in a master stratagem that had been in the works for over two years—perhaps even longer. The purpose in part, a deliberate devaluing of at least one superstar in which an upfront salary will be augmented by a secret compensation package.
But that’s only a bit of a larger measure that includes hopes, dreams and sibling rivalry.
And at 10pm PST the following night and 3,000 miles away in a Santa Monica bar known for overpriced craft cocktails and dive-trendy ambiance, a basketball insider and an unnamed source sat down for drinks and conversation. We will call the insider “Jed” and the unnamed source “Sam.” Because that’s how we roll. Jed and Sam were about to get hammered, and the meeting was about more than leaked rumors.
Sam wasn’t buying the whole idea of humeral head bone bruising being part of a clandestine sweetheart deal—there were rules against such things. You could find yourself out of the league real quick. He finished off his Monmarte which was leaving an uncomfortably thick taste on his tongue, and looked around for the waitress.
Christy was from the Midwest and had a degree in mechanical engineering. But she had also trained in theatre at Carnegie Mellon and had served up way too many artisanal drinks over the past three years, and had slept with too many assholes. Plus she had a morning reading the on the Warners lot and wanted to close her shift and get home to a studio apartment and a cat named Eleanor on the other side of the massive urban sprawl.
“Even if I were to buy this inane idea of Love taking a fall in the playoffs, that’s just a single overrated player," argued Sam. "Is a broken-down Rondo the next piece in your cockamamie puzzle?”
“Except he’s not so broken,” said Jed. He was already regretting taking the drinks meeting but it was important to leak to the right source and Sam had left a high six-figure job as a litigator to become one of only 43 league-sanctioned moles.
Two years earlier, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak had been on what he thought would be a routine phone call with Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics. The two men have a long and complicated relationship going back to the early 1980s.
But their history will wait for now—just another building block in a rags-to-riches story about a monster from the Midwest.
Meanwhile, Rondo had spent the latter part of that winter rehabbing a torn ACL in Sarasota—if indeed the ACL was torn in the first place. But Ainge hadn’t called to talk about Rondo on this particular day.
“What d’you know about a kid named Kelly Olynyk?” Ainge asked.
“I know he’s at Gonzaga. Can he play?”
“A little bit. That’s not why we want him though.”
Christy found herself in a dimly lit corner of the bar, having a conversation she didn’t want to have with a guy who worked in the digital arm of Sony Pictures. He was one of those unassuming nice guys with a sociopathic tilt—the brief date from hell that wouldn’t go away, a year later.
“You’ve got an over-the-hill point guard and a soft power forward to go along with a guy who’s played 41 games in two years and can’t stay off the operating table," Sam said. "How’s this buy you a championship?”
“First, I’m not saying it does,” Jed replied. “But what’s the one piece you’d need to really make this a conversation?”
“A dominant center.” Sam was looking around the bar. He needed something to chase away the taste of his second drink—a slushy lime concoction with an unfortunate dusting of powdered sugar.
“Like Gasol.” Jeb was keeping his eyes on an overhead TV. At some point during the playoffs a certain member of the Memphis Grizzlies would do something very curious. But very few people knew it yet.
Sam shook his head tiredly. “There is no miracle that allows you to sign the best big man in the game along with Love and Rondo. I don’t care how banged-up any of them are. The numbers won’t work.”
Jed smiled patiently and drank his beer. It was a good, simple beer. And it was cold. “What do you know about the home Pau sold when he left L.A. and moved to Chicago?”
Sam had no clue and didn’t really care. It was getting late and he needed to give somebody 100 words or less for a story that would never reference him by name. It was all about the clicks and had little to do with reality. Exposes held little interest for him.
“I don’t know and it’s getting late. I guess it was a house somewhere in a nice neighborhood.”
“Actually, it didn’t belong to him. So the sale didn’t technically happen. And the place is sitting on top of the real story—an oil field in Long Beach.”
Sam stared at the guy numbly. He wasn’t sure this was going anywhere good.
Jed stared back. “Sam, what I am about to tell you is known by only 15 people in this world. You’ll be the 16th.”
Loud voices were starting to infiltrate this very private conversation, voices rising from the overall din of a noisy bar with too many bodies in it. One of the voices was Christy’s. But Sam’s attention stayed on the man sitting at his table.
“17,” Sam said.
You said only 16 people know now, including me. But you know too. That makes 17.”
Jed shrugged. “I’m going to tell you a story about Jeanie and Jim, and how things are going to go down next summer.”
But Jed didn’t complete his story. Because at that moment on the other side of a dive-trendy watering hole in Santa Monica, an aspiring waitress/actress had reached the end of the line with a creep with anger management problems, and she threw a punch in the direction of his face.
And then the lights went out.
End of excerpt.
Reprinted by permission, from Monster from the Midwest (Penguin Random House, release date Fall 2015).