The up and down season had coalesced in a dizzying drift of final games without the Lakers' superstar. A convincing win against the San Antonio Spurs, deep in enemy territory, followed by an equally satisfying home stand against the Dallas Mavericks – a regular season sweep against the world champions that didn’t nearly erase the stink of the previous year’s playoff ruination.
“Yada, yada, yada. What a wad of drek.” America's sideline reporter slammed his laptop shut.
A man sitting across the aisle peered owlishly. “I hope we can trust you without a chaperone on this trip, Craig. No more androids or electric sheep?”
Sager looked sideways and grinned. “It’ll be fine, Ernie. We’ve gone too far for shenanigans. It’s home stretch time.” He called up the aisle. “Can I get some more peanuts back here?” A red-haired attendant with an hourglass figure sighed and looked in her cart. Craig closed his eyes and sat back. The lines in his chin seemed etched ever deeper these days. The 747 banked down over endless squares of earth tones and stucco.
The hospitality suite at Staples Center boasted a buffet table laden with shrimp, roast beef and cute little cups filled with gourmet candy. Craig was in heaven. Resplendent in seersucker, he alternately feasted and wrapped parcels of food in napkins, and stashed them for later.
“Your pockets are invitations for serpents and reprimand.” The speaker had white hair and used a cane.
“Gah!” Craig jumped back a foot. “Oh, hey there Phil... Mr. Jackson. You scared me. What are you doing here? And where’s that guy with the robe and funny incense pots from the last post?"
“Oh, you mean Zorad? He’s around somewhere.” Phil smiled disarmingly. “Right there behind you.”
Craig’s head swiveled. “Gah!!” He jumped back in a wholly different direction. The man in the white robe had milky eyes and held up his hand in some serene devil manner. Sager screwed his own eyes shut. When he opened them, everything had become normal-like again.
Zorad smiled pleasantly. He had a kind face and was wearing an organic cotton shirt with a Nehru collar. “I’m sorry if I alarmed you. That’s an interesting suit you’re wearing. In Hindustani we call it ‘shir o shekar’, meaning milk and sugar.”
Craig smiled tightly. “That’s fine.” He grabbed a handful of butter mints and shoved them in his pocket before edging away. He was about to leave when he noticed a thin black wire with a tiny bulb shape at the end, hidden beneath a platter of salmon.
“That’s a computer jack, Craig. We provide them as a courtesy for our friends in the media.” Jeanie Buss smiled sweetly, moving over to Phil and Zorad.
Craig put the wire back where he found it. “That doesn’t look like any computer jack I’ve ever seen. I wear mics, I know about this stuff.”
“Of course you do, Craig. Are you still with TNT?” Jeanie nestled hear head against Phil’s chest. Sager scowled and left the room.
The sideline seersucker found his way down to courtside. Kobe Bryant was sitting completely alone on the bench, wearing a nice Italian suit, watching a couple players in warmups, tossing up baskets.
“Hey Kobester, mind if I sit a spell?”
Kobe shrugged, gestured benignly. Sager settled in. Kobe was at least a head higher than him. “Is that Phil’s old throne you’re on?”
“Heh. It makes you look like you’re taller than the coaches.”
“I am taller than the coaches.”
“Oh. I’m pretty tall.”
“You’re not that tall.”
They sat in companionable silence for a while. “So, big game. You’re not playing tonight?”
Kobe shrugged. “They're figuring it out upstairs. I don't think so.”
Sager reached into his pocket and pulled out a napkin-wrapped parcel. He opened it up and held it toward Bryant. “Want some?”
Kobe peered over. “What is that thing? Part of a cheeseburger?”
“Yup, it’s from the hospitality suite.”
“I might have just a little piece.” Kobe tore off a chunk and chewed. “It’s pretty nasty.”
A very tall player in a Spurs uniform came of the tunnel and looked around. He approached the seated men. “You’re not really sitting out again, are you Bryant? Seriously?”
Kobe laughed shortly. “Like you don’t take nights off, Tim. Don't worry about it.”
Duncan continued to stare. “There’s no need to get huffy. We’re just having a conversation.”
Kobe waved him off. “How are those supermarket commercials working out for you?’
Tim Duncan turned is attention to Craig’s suit for a long moment, then stalked away. Sager looked over at Bryant. “Wow. That was kind of awkward.”
Kobe shrugged. “Not for me it wasn’t.”
The control room was filled with screens, computers, dials. Two technicians in white shirts choreographed the scene. One was middle-aged, sardonic with a receding hairline. The other was a bit older, glasses, craggy face. Graphics scrolled down one screen, test patterns on another. A camera zoomed in on Sager and Kobe. The younger technician frowned. “He’s supposed to play. It’s in the script.”
The older tech spun a dial. “Oh, he’ll play. Cue the testosterone.” A slight mist appeared under Kobe’s chair.
The blogger entered and cleared his throat. “Excuse me. This is still my basketball confessional. Thanks.” He walked over to a screen and twisted a large, retro-looking dial. A new image flickered to life – an old dog with thick black fur hobbling though a field, sniffing the ground and stopping to squat awkwardly.
The younger tech looked at his partner and grimaced. “Oh geez, are you kidding me?”
Pixilate to black.
From a season that might have been lost, to uncertain first steps and new faces, this didn’t look to be a championship team. Many doubted it would be a good team. Looking around, it’s hard to see a prohibitive favorite. Miami and Chicago have each had missteps – strong but not unbeatable. The champion Mavericks have had their tribulations. OKC just got stomped by the surging Clippers and then there's the Spurs, riding a streak of nine and two.
And so they meet for the second of three games, all within an extraordinarily compressed period. The Lakers weren’t expected to win in San Antonio without Kobe but, they did – Andrew Bynum’s 30 rebound night was undeniably memorable. A team found itself and came together, and its superstar is enjoying a much needed respite. And even without him, we’re propelling through transcendent stretches once again, the celebration of basketball and visceral joy.
The page lurched and froze, and burned to white. The glare of the screen began to fill with saturated color - lush green fields undulated, and creatures of every kind jumped through painted portals. Pinwheels and beautiful cloud formations, a thousand guitars echoing in unison, as finger cymbals chimed. The soundtrack flanged like a jet engine, and flocks of shorebirds flew northward in a giant crescent shape, across the rainbow sky. And Sager, resplendent in top hat, tails and cane, went dancing down the sideboard. Kobe stood and watched, and clapped, filled with a child’s wonder that had so long eluded him.
The scene ended with a loud ugly scratch, the sound of a needle scratching across vinyl.
CUT TO control room. The older technician smiled smugly and keyed his mic, speaking in a mellifluous voice. “Mr. Bryant, it’s time to come back now. We’re clearing you to play.”
A lovely girl in a lab coat and clipboard, frowned. “Dave’s not going to like this.”
The younger tech leaned back in his swivel chair, locking his hands behind his head. “Dave goes along with whatever brings the traffic.”
The older tech nodded sagely. And the girl looked as if she was about to cry. “That’s soooo sad, I love his writing.”
The psychedelic sounds bled through the speakers and a voice drew their attention to the screen, Craig Sager was grinning his biggest toothy grin, and soft shoe shuffling for all he was worth. “I’m ready for my closeup now!”
The red phone on the wall rang. The techs turned and stared. “Oh, shit.” The younger one trudged over and picked up the line. And listened. And the girl in the lab coat smiled and watched, as the tall basketball player stepped back through the portal, and joined the man in the top hat and tails.
You're 2000 light years from home.
You're 2000 light years from home.