January 17, 2013. Los Angeles. The Heat pull away to beat the Lakers in Staples Center behind LeBron James’ 39 points and eight assists.
Mike D’Antoni awoke to the rhythmic tapping of water on his forehead as he lay half under his desk, on which — amongst the clutter and ash — a bong lay on its side, bleeding its contents drip drip drip onto his face. He could tell by the angle of the sunlight slicing though the blinds that it was afternoon. With a low groan, he rolled onto his side, sat up, and saw Jim Buss doing karate kicks on the other side of the desk. Jim Buss was his boss. Well, his boss’s son, and that meant more or less the same thing. “I can’t hear him; I’m deaf,” D’Antoni thought, and reflexively brought his hands up to touch his ears. He was wearing sound-reducing earmuffs like a worker on an airport tarmac. He took them off and dropped them on the plush carpet. The world swam back into his head. The sound of Buss screaming “KI-YAI!” with each kick was like a tiny bomb going off inside D’Antoni’s cranium. He noticed that a sticker on the plastic connecting the earmuffs had ‘Jose’ written on it in sharpie.
“Tough beat. LeBron, man. KI-YAI! Pau still looked KI-YAI! concussion-y.” Buss turned toward D’Antoni. He was wearing a yellow Hulkamania T-shirt. “Dwight played OK. Bout time. Metta, too; never know with him,” he put his hands on his hips and jogged in place. “You better get yourself together. Plane leaves in an hour.”
D’Antoni grabbed the edge of his desk and hauled himself to his feet with a sigh. He staggered over to the windows where his pants were wedged into the venetian blinds. He pulled them out and several of the plastic slats tore off the cord holding the blinds. He drove his right foot through a pant leg; hopped one-legged while trying to aim his other foot into the other leg; came down on the earmuffs, breaking them; and fell forward onto his couch, crushing a pizza box. “I’m ready,” he said, his face pushed into the couch cushion. He rubbed his face into the cushion, wiping the bong water off his head and into the fine leather. He turned over, now sitting on the couch, pizza box crunching, and wrestled his other leg into the pants.
Buss had transitioned into a horse stance, throwing staccato punches with alternating hands, saying “I feel good about this team,” to no one in particular, each word emphasized by a punch.
D’Antoni turned his chair right-side up, sat at his desk and punched in the key-code on the top drawer. From this he took a flask, a bottle of OxyContin, and a package of Tums. He picked up the bong, casually taking out the stem and throwing it across the room. He poured the flask, the pills, and the tums into the bong and choked the whole thing back. “Oooooooookay,” he rasped in a whiskey-burn voice, and clapped his hands.
January 20, 2013. Toronto. The Lakers lose their fifth-straight road game, 108-103 to the Raptors.
The plane ride to Toronto had been a breeze as far as D’Antoni was concerned, mostly because he spent the bulk of the flight locked in the bathroom. He was close to a breakthrough on The System. He could feel it. He needed the privacy to work. But he didn’t go right in. He commiserated with the troops first; he knew that was expected.
Kobe was reading documents on his iPad. His German doctors sent him background files on the human donors used for the knee platelet serum he injected before every game. “I like to know about them. How they lived. It helps me feed off their strength. Afterwards I erase all the documents so no one can trace their disappearance.”
“Smart,” D’Antoni said, and walked over to Pau’s seat.
Pau was hunched over a medical journal and dictating into a small tape recorder.
“Pau, I’m thinking of going small,” D’Antoni told him.
Pau raised a finger, telling D’Antoni to hold on. “… T2-12 kyphosis, T5-12 kyphosis, curve flexibility, number of levels fused, presence of Ponte osteotomies, etc.” Pau clicked off the tape recorder. “Yes, coach, what is it?”
“I said I’m probably gonna go small here on out.”
“Meaning,” D’Antoni rocked forward off his heels onto his tip-toes and back to his heels. “I’mma bring you off the bench. Start Clark.”
“Ah. I see.” Pau opened his eyes wide and mock-smiled. The Spaniard clicked his recorder back on and resumed dictating.
D’Antoni moved on. Nash saw him coming and pretended to be asleep. D’Antoni patted Nash’s head as he walked by. He saw Dwight, alone at the back of plane, practicing with two ventriloquist’s puppets, and just couldn’t bring himself to say anything. “Fuck that,” he muttered. He went straight into the commode, locked the door, and began crushing pills with his BlackBerry on the sink top.
After the game was a blur. In a rage, he threw a folding chair at the L.A. Times’s TJ Simers. He missed badly and hit ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne on the arm.
“Ramona, listen…” he started to say when she dropped her left shoulder, pivoted, and slammed her right fist into his mustache, knocking him out. Gary Vitti carried him to the plane.
January 21, 2013. Chicago. The Bulls run over the Lakers 95-83.
D’Antoni staggered down the tunnel past the locker room and headed for the post-game press conference. Stopping at a water fountain he glanced around, popped two Percocets in his mouth, bent to the spigot and washed them down. He’d taken two Oxys during the game, but that was because he could hear Nate Robinson talking. He wished he still had those earmuff things, wherever those came from.
When he stood up, his brother Dan was at his side.
“Jesus, Dan, fucking scared me. You know I’m under a lotta stress right now and I’m carrying that knife, anyways don’t sneak up on me,” he said as he wiped the water out of his mustache with the back of his hand.
D’Antoni tried to move past his brother to get to the press conference, but Dan grabbed him roughly by the arm. “Let me do the press conference,” Dan whispered. ” You’re in no shape.”
D’Antoni studied his brother’s face and it occurred to him that Dan’s eyes couldn’t possibly run a pick and roll with Dan’s nose clogging up the face like that. Have to go small, get the nose outta there. Use a mole; stretch mole, put it on the cheek like Cindy Crawford. Nose’s messing everything up.
“Pick and nose,” D’Antoni cackled. He put his hand on Dan’s shoulder to steady himself and doubled up with laughter.
Dan saw that people were looking now and he made a waving motion with his hand down by his waist to signal everything was OK.
Mike, still laughing, continued doubling over, now in a near-fetal position but on his feet, his hand on Dan’s shoulder, slipping down to grab at Dan’s tie as he continued to sink towards the ground, Dan struggling to loosen Mike’s grip on his tie, Mike looking like a mountain climber trying to rappel down Dan’s leg, finally letting go of the tie and crumpling to the floor of the tunnel laughing and laughing.
Gary Vitti carried D’Antoni to the hotel.
He was dreaming about the system, they were running it — high pick and roll, but Pau was in the paint in surgical scrubs sawing into someone’s back with a real saw. Pau held his hand out and Mitch Kupchak handed him a scalpel but when Pau went to use it, Mike guessed he touched the side or something, because an alarm started ringing and ringing and ringing and D’Antoni woke up and realized his phone was ringing. He crawled out of the bathtub and located his Blackberry, in the wastebasket next to the toilet, in his pants pocket.
It was Mitch.
“Mike, listen, I know you have a lot on your plate, but the head grounds-keeper has been calling me non-stop. Says a couple of days ago you drove right up onto the facility lawn, crashed into a hedge, got out, snatched a pair of earplugs or headphones or whatever those guys use when they leaf-blow, you know, for the noise, right off the head of one of his guys, then climbed into your office through the window.”
D’Antoni pictured the broken earmuffs, the plastic band snapped right next to the sticker with the writing. He picked at a stray lump of tile grout.
“Coulda happened, Mitch. Not sure. There’s a bunch going on right now.”
January 23, 2013. Memphis. The Lakers lose to the Grizzlies 106-93. Dwight leaves the game after re-injuring his shoulder.
The meeting — to “clear the air” — actually seemed to D’Antoni like it went pretty well. “That went well,” he said to himself as he arranged his remaining pill horde by color and size on the hotel nightstand. It was the cleaning lady’s idea, actually; the meeting. The hotel cleaning lady. D’Antoni had come to mid-sentence — mid-word, really — suddenly becoming aware that he was carrying on a conversation with this person, although he couldn’t figure how it started or how he got into hallway. He was wearing a toga fashioned from bed sheets and towels.
“You should get everyone together and clear the air,” she was saying to him.
“Hold on, I’m sorry…how long have we been talking?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “You need some help, man. Just leave the sheets and stuff in front of your door.” She turned back to her cleaning cart.
He waited until after shoot-around, then started clapping his hands. “OK, guys, let’s go. Bring it in, bring it in,” he said as they all circled up. “Listen, I, uh, woke up in the hallway and I guess I was blackout talking, anyway, the lady, she had some great advice, she said…”
“Dwight, you hate me or what?” Kobe said suddenly with his arms out, questioning. “I know I can be hard to play with, so, is that what it is?”
That’s how the meeting started. D’Antoni thought it was mostly productive except for the way Dwight wouldn’t look at Kobe at all, would only talk to him via his ventriloquist puppet, and then started crying. Then Dwight re-injured his shoulder during the game and D’Antoni knew all the dialogue was over, the meeting for nothing. That was Dwight’s puppet arm.
D’Antoni shook his head at the memory, reached for the remote control, and started crushing pills with it.