“You’re gonna be humbled.”
Thum-bump, thum-bump . . .
Here were the rules to my fantasy basketball game: First one to 11 wins. I start with 10. And the ball. Some people call that a can’t-miss. Unfortunately, “can’t miss” is not the best phrase to describe my basketball skills. I’m more like “Can miss . . . from anywhere.”
Yet there I was, dribbling at top of the key, staring into the long — very long — torso of John (Spider) Salley, a key player on the Detroit Pistons NBA World Championship team, who also happens to be, among other things, 7 feet tall.
“I won’t dunk,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
“I won’t do any lay-ups.”
“Well? . . . What are you waiting for? Brent Musburger?”
What was I waiting for? I had wondered about this since I was a kid: What if an NBA player spotted you all but one basket in a one-on-one game? Would you be able to beat him? Here was my chance.
I dribbled in a crazy, zig-zag pattern, cutting toward the hoop. I threw up a prayer from under his arm and it banked in.
I won! I won!
“We startin’ yet?” Salley asked.
I grabbed the ball and returned to the top of the key. We had talked about trying this during the regular season, a one- on-one challenge, but I could just see Salley playing me before an important game, twisting an ankle, and then Chuck Daly would come and burn down my house. So we waited. The Pistons won their rings. Now, finally, in the heat of summer, on the spacious courts of Oakland Community College, it was man-to-man.
“OK, seriously now,” Salley said. “It’s 10-0, your lead. You get the ball to start, and if I make a basket, you get the ball back. No lay-ups allowed. No dunks allowed.”
“So I can’t dunk?” I said.
“AHA HA HA HA. . . . I get it,” he said, “That’s a joke, right?”
Can I say a word here about Salley? A lot of people think his commercial endorsements have gone to his head. I say just try getting Bill Laimbeer or Mark Aguirre to play you one-on- one, in the middle of summer, for no money. Besides, how can you not like a guy who once asked hockey coach Jacques Demers after a game: “Hey, Jacques, man, how come you wear those dark glasses? Are you sleepin’ out there and don’t want people to know?”
And here we go.
I began with a slow methodic dribble toward the hoop, backing in on Salley’s body. Actually, I think it was his knees. I mean, the man is big. Once, many years ago, on NBC’s Sports Fantasy, a fan attempted to play the great Julius Erving in a one-on-one game. Erving destroyed him. Blocked every shot, dunked every ball. When asked why he was so tough, Erving said, “Hey, he wanted to see what it was like to play me, right? I was just granting his fantasy.”
I hoped Salley never saw that episode.
Dribble left, right, up and . . .
Salley grabbed the ball, threw in a jumper. Swish.
Dribble right, 18 feet, up for the shot. . . .
Salley grabbed the ball, threw in a jumper. Swish.
Now, I am not completely unskilled in basketball. I started on my high school team. I could hit a jump shot. I could drive the lane. I did not drive the lane against Salley. I sort of nudged it, then sped away, like a man who realized he’d forgotten his wallet.
“A quick jumper,” I said to myself. Run to the corner, a quick jump–
Salley grabbed the ball, threw in a shot. Swish.
This went on for a while. Not really a while. Maybe three minutes, which is all the time it took Salley to score eight points. And he wasn’t dunking. And I was getting the ball back after every basket.
This was my problem: His arms were everywhere. Also, his stride was much longer than mine. How much longer? Well. Let’s say there was a thick, juicy steak in the kitchen, and I was standing a few feet away, and John was sitting in the living room, and we both dashed toward it at the same moment? By the time I got there, John would be dipping the thing in ketchup and saying, “Mmmm, delicious. Want a bite?”
And he blocked me. And threw in a jump shot.
By now, a small group of children had poked through the curtain from the other side of the gymnasium. Great. An audience. I was breathing heavily. Salley hadn’t broken a sweat. I wondered if he would subconsciously let me have the last shot. After all, this is a man with a sense of humor. This is a man who knows the value of a joke. This is a man who once said, “I was a B student in college. My grade point average was 2.5. That’s a B to me.”
I raced to the top of the key, faked left, dashed right and popped a long jumper on the run. Salley tried to block it. He really did. At least it looked like he tried. The ball rose like destiny, fell lazily towards the rim. . . .
“AHHHHHHH!” I yelled, surprising myself. “Thank you very much! 11-9!”
I had won. Salley congratulated me. It could be done. It could be done. I might never do it again. I might never repeat that shot. But I had made that one. I was elated. I was overjoyed. I . . .
. . . wanted more?
“One more game,” I found myself saying, don’t ask me why. “Same 10-point lead, but this time, no limits. You can dunk. You can lay-up. We’ll play winners-out, just like the schoolyard. You make it, you get the ball back.”
“You sure about this?” Salley said.
“Give me your best game.”
“I can dunk?”
“Are you, like, into whips and chains and stuff, too?”
We began . . . and forget it. Salley was all over me. Slam. Swipe. Slam. Swish. It was 10-2, 10-4, 10-7. Off in the corner, the children were giggling.
I realized, too late, that this was a dumb idea. I also realized I might never see the ball again. Salley — who has been working on his shot much of the summer — was burning the nets. He left me staring at the bottom his sneakers, which, much of the time, come up to my chest.
And then, I remembered something.
I remembered that Salley is crazy about Bill Murray films. He thinks Murray is the funniest man in the world, (next to Arsenio Hall; but then, Murray never invited Salley on his talk show.)
And I began to spit out lines from “Ghostbusters.”
And Salley began to laugh. He began to shake. He rose for a jumper and got hysterical in mid-shot. The ball clanked off the rim. I grabbed it, dribbled around, yelled out another punch line, and watched him collapse in the middle of the lane, grabbing his stomach in laughter.
I jumped over him, sank a lay-up. 11-9.
Easy as pie.
As far as I know, he’s still there.
So it can be done. The average man can beat the NBA star. All it takes is a 10-point lead, a decent outside shot and a thorough knowledge of the film industry. And I’m sure by October, Salley will be back to his old self.
As for me, well, my fantasy is fulfilled. But I have a new one. If he gave me a 40-yard lead, could I beat Barry Sanders to the end zone? He’s fast, sure. But I have a plan.
I hear he likes Eddie Murphy.
CUTLINE: Columnist Mitch Albom tries the old dribble-between-the-legs move on Piston John Salley. Piston John Salley stretches to block Mitch Albom’s shot.