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Los Angeles Lasers Record: 12-4
The first thing everybody told Kwaanzii Parker was not to blow a hundred grand of his signing money on a ride. Which is precisely what he did. "Gonna get me a phat crib, but the ride's gotta come first, yo," he said. Kwaanzii's selection was a Robitussin-purple Jaguar with plates that read KINGKWAAN! Like most professional athletes, Kwaanzii tooled around in an automobile equipped with a jet engine, two elaborate hood ornaments, neon underbelly, and the vanity plates. But he just hated it when somebody recognized him.
Kwaanzii, a tender eighteen, was eight months removed from his high-school prom -- which he attended with rap star Shabeera Slade, an event that rated five minutes on BET -- and seven months removed from his high school graduation, which he passed up in favor of Shaq's All-Star Super Jamaica Jam. From the time he was an AAU star in Las Vegas at the wizened age of thirteen, King Kwaan was in the E-ZPass lane to the National Basketball Federation, never a thought that he would spend so much as one night on a college campus, unless, as one recruiter put it, "He was making a weekend booty call."
Kwaanzii had developed a close personal relationship with an older Los Angeles Laser teammate, point guard Litanium "Tribal Cat" Johnson, one based entirely on an overlapping pharmacological aesthetic and a willingness to reach excessive speeds on the highway. Litanium was currently hiding from the public in an orange Lamborghini Gallardo with plates that read YR O DA CAT. Tribal Cat called Kwaanzii a "Jag fag," though secretly he admired the teenager's ride and pondered picking up one himself, though at the moment he was, to paraphrase his accountant, "slightly cash deficient."
The players bonded when, back in early October, they happened to pull out of media day together and begin a friendly race along Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles. Kwaanzii won that one, which didn't sit well with Litanium, who the next day kicked it up to 125 mph and nipped Kwaanzii. Litanium christened their competition Drag Club and felt much pride when it spread throughout the team. Litanium had always considered himself a leader. Quoting one of his favorite movies, Litanium often counseled his teammates, "First rule of Drag Club is you do not talk about Drag Club."
Litanium and Kwaanzii were the most avid participants of Drag Club, though. They had raced a dozen times, and Litanium, nothing if not an inveterate competitor, secretly kept a log of the results. Much to his dismay, the rookie had won eight of their showdowns. Litanium considered their races a show of esprit de corps -- "closing the generational gap," as he put it -- while Lasers coach John Watson, who was almost sideswiped by Litanium as he pulled out of practice one day, called them "brain-dead assholes racing to the morgue."
Having begun as a daylight activity, Drag Club had lately moved to the nocturnal hours. And tonight, as Litanium saw it, seemed ideal for a chapter meeting. Following a 101-83 victory over Seattle, most of the team was scattered about The Vines, a trendy nightclub near Malibu owned by a close friend of Lasers owner Owen Padgett. The occasion was a commemoration of Coach Watson's fiftieth, though the evening's business -- a desultory rendering of "Happy Birthday" and the presentation of a laptop to Watson, a confirmed Luddite -- was over quickly. Litanium had played well with eighteen points and eleven assists, and Kwaanzii hadn't played at all. (Watson didn't have much faith in rookies.) Litanium figured that Kwaanzii would be angry and distracted.
Litanium wasn't eager to convene a meeting of Drag Club in front of Watson. But he knew he could do it on the sly, since the birthday boy sat alone in a far corner of The Vines, nursing a ginger ale, lost in his own dark thoughts. A former star player, Watson was a recovering addict who missed the halcyon days of cocaine and Jack Daniel's, even though a formidable coupling of the two had on several occasions landed him in the slammer, and, finally, in a thirty-day dryout at the ten-thousand-dollar-a-week Rush Limbaugh Clinic.
He emerged committed to sobriety but, as he saw it, a far less interesting personality; when pressed, friends and family had to agree. The laptop sat unopened at his side. Watson still wrote out his game plans in longhand and his inability to open his e-mails had once caused the Lasers' internal system to crash. The gift was, as Watson saw it, another indication that Padgett didn't really know him, as well as a dead giveaway that the owner was on the board of directors of the computer company and got the damn thing for free.
As for Litanium, he had to weigh the prospect of a race against the prospect of going home with one of the two fine ladies with whom he and Kwaanzii were consorting at the main bar. The women said they were "freelance actresses," though they were vague about their resumes, and Litanium thought that one of them looked suspiciously like an enthusiastic supporting player in one of his pornos. At the moment, Kwaanzii, draining his fourth underage Heineken, was running through his list of favorite shows on the WB and was only up to Tuesday.
Upstairs in the VIP room of The Vines, meanwhile, the mind of Lorenzen Mayne, the Lasers' captain and franchise player, was far from Drag Club. By unwritten edict, the VIP room was off-limits to the team, unless Owen Padgett summoned a particular player for a meeting, which had been the case this evening. The VIP room was stocked (and restocked) daily with Johnny Walker Black, Pellegrino, caviar, and a minimum of two stunning hostesses, and the owner felt quite at home there.
Padgett had bought the Lasers four years earlier, plunking down 425 million of his own dollars, a portion of the billion he had inherited from his father, Preston Padgett, who, before his fifth and final coronary, had been the nation's largest bulk garbage collector. Owen was mortified that his largesse came from the remains of last night's dinner, and, in interviews, tried never to mention his father, subtly selling the angle that he was self-made. When Owen had to mention the old man, Preston was alternately a "refuse magnate" or a "sanitation czar." At any rate, Owen ran hard from his past, carefully cultivating the image of a maverick. At age twenty- five, he had made the cover of Fortune, adorned with an ironic Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band T-shirt. Owen was on the cover again three years later after he bought the Lasers, posing with an electric guitar around his neck and a sneer on his face. "I'm in the house, and the NBF will never be the same!" read the cover line.
Even more than he considered himself an entrepreneur, Padgett saw himself as a shrewd judge of human nature. Most profiles written about him said that he would've gone for his doctorate in psychology if, as he put it, "the money thing" hadn't gotten in the way. Two things about human nature he knew. First, in a group, particularly a small group such as a basketball team, it is of crucial importance to get the ear of the leader. Second, when you talk to a guy, do it on your turf. The VIP room was his turf and Lorenzen Mayne was clearly the leader of the Lasers.
Tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, and handsome, Lo Mayne looked every part the leader. He had reached his height (six feet, six inches) by degrees, rather than in one awkward spurt, and he moved with an easy-jointed grace, perfect in every way save the pigeon-toed walk that became more pronounced in competition. Lo hadn't lost any of his hair -- in his rookie season he had even worn a throwback Afro in homage to Julius Erving -- and he couldn't for the life of him understand why anyone would shave his head. He kept his hair stylishly short. He had worn a mustache (to make him look older) in his first year in the league and tried what Coach Watson called "a starter-set goatee" in the second, but now he was clean-shaven. Lo would've looked comfortable in a white tux coat and black silk pants, singing in a fifties nightclub, like one of the Platters.
Still, in the VIP room, Mayne did feel uncomfortable. Four times he had declined one of the brunettes' invitations to "try the Beluga" and waited for Padgett to tell him why he had been summoned. "You don't like caviar, Lo?" Padgett asked. Apparently, caviar refusal was a capital offense in the VIP room, so he scooped some up with a cracker.
"Now, Lo, here's what I been thinking," said Padgett. "We're going along pretty well. Not the best team in the league but one of them. But we're not real exciting. People don't look at us like must-see hoops."
"Well, I always thought winning was the bottom line," said Lo. "Didn't matter how you did it as long as you did it."
Padgett shook his head. "That's old-school thinking, and I appreciate it," he said. "That's why you were great. That's why you're still great. But I gotta look at it from a couple different angles. Like, the angle of putting butts in the seats."
"And?" said Lo.
"And so I been thinking about the kid. Kwaanzii. I wanna tell. . . I wanna encourage John to use him more. Maybe even start him."
"What was the biggest story with this franchise last season?" said Padgett. "Making the playoffs and getting beat in the first round? You being named the damn Chic Cologne player of the month a couple times, no offense intended? No, the biggest story was us trading up so we could draft Kwaanzii after the season. The fans were all over it. Now we've gotta get them more of him."
Lo was torn. He didn't believe that a kid who thought setting a pick had something to do with a hairbrush should get much playing time. Lo was no throwback but he was old-school enough to believe that a young man could learn something in college. Lo himself had attended the University of North Carolina for two years and during that time had even shown up at roughly half of his classes, real ones, too, like Introduction to Psychology and Principles of Assistant Coaching. "That college shit rubs off," he often said. On the other hand, Lo felt that coaches were too conservative about breaking in young talent. As a rookie, Lo himself had sat on the bench for a month under the regime of the previous coach, Dean DeShue, and when DeShue finally came to his senses and played him, Lo averaged nineteen points a game and was named Ikea Rookie of the Year.
"Look, think this over," Padgett said. "I'm glad we had this time to talk. Early meeting in Studio City tomorrow, so I gotta get going. I guess you heard about the show?"
Lo spread his hands.
"My reality show," said Padgett, his voice now animated. "Second-season replacement that's gonna start in January. I'm exec-producing and starring."
Man, thought Lorenzen, they'll put anything on TV.
Copyright ©2006 by Jack McCallum and L. Jon Wertheim