by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Look, I have been humiliated before. Like the time when I was 16 and I was trying to impress a girl on a cruise ship and I walked over and said, with all the suave charm I could muster, “Hi, how ya do–‘?” — and I waved my hand and knocked a glass of milk into her lap.

Took me years to get over that.

Still, a man has his pride, so you can understand why, when Wynton Marsalis, the finest jazz trumpeter on the planet, came to our afternoon radio show on WJR last spring and started trash-talking about his basketball skill, and I said, “You can’t be good at basketball, you’re a trumpet player, for pete’s sake,” and he challenged me to a game, challenged my manhood, a trumpet player! and he pointed with one of those famous fingers and croaked,
“You and me, right now, man” — well, you can understand why I could not back down.

And so we played. That night.

And I lost.

I didn’t lose big. I lost gigantic. The way I lost gave new meaning to the word defeat. If I had been a lottery ticket, I would have read “VOID.” Wynton made his first eight shots, then made three more and we were done. Shutout. 11-0. It was over in three minutes. If I were a rodeo cowboy, the bulls would have died laughing.

Ah, but in life, there is always another column, there is always another album, and there is always another game. So when I saw that Marsalis was coming to town for a concert, I wondered whether he’d be up for a rematch.

And then a fellow reporter at the Free Press did a phone interview with Marsalis — or, as I like to call him, “Mr. Lucky Bounce” — and conveyed the following message: “Wynton says he can’t wait to whip your butt again in basketball.”

Which is when I started practicing.

The kid shows some brass

Now, granted, when I say “started practicing,” I include the thinking-about-it part. That began a month ago. The actual physical part started the night before the game. I went to the gym, shot baskets for 30 minutes, then went home to soak my arm.

All night, I tossed and turned, dreaming about sinking buckets over Mr. Platinum Album, Mr. Eight-Time-Grammy-Winner, Mr. Lincoln Center Jazz Director. I dreamed of dunking, then saying, “If Louie Armstrong were here, he’d be wiping your forehead!”

Hey, it was a dream. What do ya want?

Anyhow, before I knew it, morning came, and there we were again, same gym, same smiling Wynton, telling a bandmate, “Don’t worry, this won’t take long.”

And he drove, pulled up, and canned a 10-footer.

And he drove, pulled up, canned an eight-footer.

And he stopped outside, and drilled a 14-footer.

And I’m thinking, OK, where are the laughing bulls?

Now you should know that Marsalis and his troupe play basketball on tour. Wherever they go, they find a gym. This may explain why Marsalis, 35, is so good. In an earlier conversation, he told me, “Musicians are competitive like athletes; you grow by competing, you grow by trying to be better than somebody.”

So I was happy to contribute to his growth.

Where’s my royalty check?

“Like I told you, this won’t take long,” Wynton said.

“Three more minutes,” he boasted.

Well. That was enough. Grammys or no Grammys. I grabbed a rebound, leapt four feet in the air (feet, inches, what’s the difference?) and drained the rock through the cup.

In other words, I scored.

I won’t say how, but I owe God a trip to a monastery.

Risk all that for a game?

But wait. I popped again from the outside. I drove and dipped and banked off the window. Soon it was 8-5, Marsalis. He was breathing hard. (OK, I was gasping, but he plays trumpet for a living! The man has lungs!) And I took him to the hole again, ready to close this puppy out, six straight points, here I come, baby, my shoulders square with his chin, and then I thought . .

Wait a minute.

Wait a minute! This is one of the great musicians of our time. And my elbow is near his mouth? My god, what if I cut his lip? Remember that movie “Mo’ Better Blues”? The guy never played again.

Look at those fingers, I thought. What if I break one? What if Lincoln Center throws him out and his record company cancels his deal and soon poor Wynton is playing in a band called Four Jacks & a Jill, and they’re doing bar mitzvahs singing “Proud Mary”? . . .

Ohmigod. I can’t be responsible for that!

Which is why I purposely missed the rest of my shots and he won, 11-5.

Hey. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Anyhow, soon it was time to go. Wynton — whom I actually like very much
— hugged me and said good-bye. Wynton thanked me for my hospitality. “You’re OK, man,” he said.

Sure, I’m OK. I saved his career. But next time, look out. There could be another rematch, just Wynton, me, and my new secret weapon:

Ever hear a trumpet with a glass of milk spilled in it?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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