Latrell Sprewell finally breaks his vow and drives to New Orleans for NBA All-Star Weekend. Ten years have passed since the abrupt end of his playing career and with it his promise to never again associate with the NBA and its basketball barons. And yet, it calls to him. All-Star Weekend, a homecoming for all the league’s stars past and present, its legions of global fans drunk and wild in the streets of NOLA. Latrell craves that spotlight once again, needs it.
He wanders down Bourbon Street in shorts and a hoodie, unintentionally inconspicuous. No one calls his name and the throngs of fans streaming past him wear jerseys of players even younger than his missing son. How did this happen? How did any of this happen? When after an hour no one has recognized him, Latrell Sprewell lowers his head and ducks into a saloon with swinging doors lifted straight out of a spaghetti western. It’s packed inside with sweating basketball enthusiasts, and in the back, bopping his head to the techno on the jukebox stands the Great Enemy, Coach PJ Carlesimo.
Latrell orders a whiskey and stares down PJ from across the bar. In the long, long ago of 1995, Latrell Sprewell was suspended an entire season for choking out Coach Carlesimo at a Golden State Warriors practice session. He was labeled a malcontent and sent packing to the Knicks on the other side of the country. Back then, Latrell believed he was innocent. Coach Carlesimo rode him harder than anyone else—more suicides, harsher criticism despite being the lead scorer on a mediocre team—and it became known throughout the gossipy Golden State locker room that PJ had lobbied the general manager to draft another player instead of Latrell. But it wasn’t until Coach brought up Latrell’s son that he finally snapped, when Coach complained after a botched play in practice that Latrell Sprewell cared more about being a good father than being a great NBA player. Latrell Sprewell still remembers the feel of PJ Carlesimo’s neck between his hands, the old man’s leathery skin. He sips his whiskey and takes a step in Carlesimo’s direction. Maybe Coach just wanted to bring out the best in him. Maybe Coach treated him differently because he was the team’s superstar. Regardless, before Sprewell even knows what’s happening, he’s walking toward his former coach. He slips a dollar into the jukebox and selects an old soul song he remembers his father playing at all hours of the night, something with a beat, something with moody twang.
Latrell Sprewell turns to Coach PJ Carlesimo and says, “I still don’t know how to feel about you.”
“I don’t know how to feel about you either.”
They stare at each other. PJ doesn’t look much older than he did in the ‘90s, his hair a little wispier, his gut a little paunchier. But the proof of Sprewell’s decline is obvious in PJ’s face, the newly wide eyes and taut lips. Latrell knows his once equine frame has grown soft, devoid of definition. He wants to tell PJ that he is not just a body, that this flesh and blood cage can never represent everything Latrell Sprewell might still become.
The crowd outside grows frenzied. Bodies press against each other. Lumbering drunks thrust their drinks in the air. Bourbon Street runs thick and delirious with the drumbeat of the NBA doomed. This is NBA All-Star Weekend. This is NBA All-Star Weekend!
“How’s your son?” PJ Carlesimo asks.
“I don’t talk about that.”
PJ downs his glass of red in three quick gulps. “I always respected you, envied you. You think coaches want to be coaches? We want to be players. I wasn’t happy with how things turned out between us.”
“I was angrier then. No perspective.” Latrell Sprewell almost tells PJ Carlesimo he’s sorry when they hear a scream outside the bar. The heartbeat in Latrell’s ears quicken and suddenly he is returned to his days as an NBA player, urgency and power. Latrell Sprewell darts out of the bar trailed closely by PJ Carlesimo. They find the source of the commotion right outside: a twenty- something drunk in a LeBron jersey jabbing the air with a serrated blade. A crowd forms around him, some yelling, some stunned, and Latrell can barely hear the man shout, “Stay back! Stay back!”
Latrell Sprewell cuts through the crowd with his hands raised in submission. He’s followed close by PJ Carlesimo.
“You don’t have to do this,” Latrell Sprewell pleads with the boy, no older than his son. “You don’t have to be like me.”
The man’s eyes are glassy and far away and before anyone knows what’s happening, he plunges the blade into Latrell Sprewell’s rib cage. Once, twice, three times. Then he is gone, absorbed into darkness. Missing.
Latrell Sprewell lies on the worn pavement of Bourbon Street in a steadily expanding pool of his own blood. He’s surprised by how warm it is, how sticky. Coach PJ Carlesimo takes a knee next to Latrell’s bleeding out body and touches one of his dusty dreads.
“I wish we could have been friends,” PJ Carlesimo whispers.
“I would have liked that,” Latrell Sprewell replies.
Latrell Sprewell closes his eyes and imagines the friendship that might have been. He sees himself and PJ on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland, their hands in the air, their lips sticky with cotton candy. And there in the distance, silhouetted against the setting red sun is Latrell Sprewell’s son, smiling and snapping polaroids. There they all are. The three of them. Together.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, and the chapbook,#KanyeWestSavedFromDrowning, both forthcoming this fall. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, PANK, Hobart, The American Book Review, The Rumpus, and many other venues. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com.