We were in the locker room getting ready when they came in with their offer. The team owner and three suits from the TV network. The first one said:
“Triple the amount of your salary this season. Waiting for each of you in offshore accounts.”
“Tax free,” said the second guy, “tax free.”
All of us changing at our lockers turned to listen. The guys who’d been horsing around near the massage tables quit snapping each other with towels and drew closer, butt naked. The showerheads went from full blast to a slow drip. The TV suits had their audience:
“We’ve just come from the visitor’s locker room. We made the same offer to the Aces. And they accepted. If you accept too, the money will be available immediately after the game.”
“Win or lose?” someone shouted from the shower. The suits smiled.
“We’re not interested in the score. The money’s yours. If you agree.”
They left us alone to decide. We had ten minutes. The coaches and trainers left, too. It was just us players in the room, with the offer, with ourselves.
“What about the fans?” said kid Crawford. “We can’t do this to them. They’re the best fans in the league.”
The kid came from somewhere way up north, in the country. He was a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year, and though he’d been swimming in champagne all season he still made you think of a boy waiting for Santa by the chimney with some sugar cookies.
“I’m not saying don’t take the money. I like it too. Who doesn’t? Only, what about the fans?”
“Fuck the fans,” said Julius, hopping down from a table. “I got a family on the east coast, another on the west coast, and a hot little bitch in the middle who’s bleeding me dry. I got mouths to feed, baby. We gotta grab it while we can.”
“I dunno, Julius,” said Price, our team captain. “There’s more at stake here. It’s important we weigh everything.”
“Fans! What do they know? God made them so they could watch us.”
“We’ll have to put it to a vote,” said Price. “Majority rules.”
The kid hung his head. He seemed about to cry.
“We can’t do this to them, guys. They’re the best fans in the league.”
The vote kept dissolving into argument. Everyone had his own angle…
“I don’t understand the whole thing. This crazy offer. Why are they doing it? What’s the point?”
“You heard the man, baby. TV stunt. Reality shit, ya know? They just wanna see what happens. And film it.”
“What’ll happen is they’ll kill us. We can’t do this to them.”
“Shit, if them suits gonna pay us like they promised, let ‘em kill me. The Aces said yes. Why shouldn’t we?”
“The Aces don’t have as much to lose as we do. We’re at home, remember? These are our fans. We’ve got more risk.”
That was true. We Dukes certainly had more to fear than the Aces, safe across the way in the visitor’s locker room. And young stars like Price, Crawford, and our top scorer Blaine would definitely be risking more than second-stringers and journeymen veterans like me.
“So we oughta get more,” said Blaine. The plug inside his cheek shifted to the other side, then back again. “We oughta get at least twice as much as the Aces.”
Everyone with his own angle. They collided in the space between us, split us into two teams—the guys who were nervous about tarnishing their reputations vs. the guys who smelled the cash and thought: “Why the fuck not?” Especially for the lower paid guys—the ones only making ten or twelve million a year—a triple payday was a much stronger motivator than what some faceless fan might say about them twenty years after they’d retired.
“It’s only for one game,” Julius reminded us.
“Yeah, the championship game,” countered the kid.
“After tonight we can switch back. It says so right here in the agreement. We can be Dukes again. We can switch back.”
“But will they want us back? The fans, I mean? The city? Will they accept us again as Dukes?”
“They’ll want us back.”
“After what we’ve done? After we go out there dressed in Aces uniforms and play against…who? The city? Phony Dukes? Ourselves? Man, I don’t understand this whole thing.”
“It ain’t hard, baby. All we gotta do is wear a different uniform tonight. And we’ll clean up!”
“Julius is right, kid. We won’t really be the Aces, any more than the Aces will be us. It’s just a jersey. It’s just one game.”
“They’ll never accept us back. They’ll never cheer for us again.”
“Yeah? How many times we been on strike? Held out for more money? They always say they’re done with us, that we’re a bunch of greedy brats, that they’ll never watch another game, but they forget. They always forget. What else have they got to do, anyway?”
“But this is different. We’ll be traitors.”
“Shit, if it was up to me I’d switch permanently. I’ll take the apple any day over this nothing-market town. Think of the endorsements. And all that topflight New York pussy!”
“We could just throw the fucking game. The stupid fans will probably love us more than ever then. They’ll get their championship and we’ll get the money. You heard those TV guys. Win or lose, we cash in.”
We looked at “The Agreement” the suits had left for us. But it was long and very complicated. We were players, not readers.
“Rossi! How ‘bout it? What do you say, old man?”
Tell us, old man, tell us! As resident ancient, my opinion carried weight. Eighteen years’ worth. That’s how long it had been since I came up, clutching my tattered suitcase from home and looking, I am certain, a lot like kid Crawford holding his plate of sugar cookies. I’d aged inside, as well as out. Eighteen years in the pros had taught me not to wait up too late for Santa or anyone. I’d been traded seven times, four of them in mid-season, screwed over on my contract more times than I could remember. I’d been cheered, booed, heckled and mobbed by insane idiots begging for my signature on a glossy team photo they’d purchased at the concession stand for $9.99. I’d seen a five-year-old burst into tears because his favorite bench-warmer (me) had been sent to L.A. for two prospects and an undisclosed cash value. I’d had sharp, heavy objects thrown at me from the upper deck, and women offer themselves to me through the mail and over the phone. I’d been jumped in bars by jealous boyfriends who tried to buy me a drink afterwards. The year we won it all there was a riot. Two people died. The next year, when we lost, they rioted again, though no one died. I learned to stay away from radios and newspapers, having been publicly flogged by one too many “sports journalists” who’d never played the game or even suited up for junior high gym because of anemia or bad eyes or some other excuse the doctor wrote.
Excuses weren’t needed when we players showed up to play. The velvet rope stood open for us, we occupied the best tables (while others were asked to get up and move), steak and champagne were on the house and we never had to explain about the mess the morning after. We skated untouched through everything, from traffic tickets to rape. Cops, judges and juries were sports fans too. They didn’t want us to stop winning just because regulation time had run out.
But what, exactly, did I owe them, the best fans in the league? Of course we showered them with love whenever the microphones were in our faces. That was just smart business. Still, I couldn’t help laughing every time I saw some joker wearing a $300 shirt that said my name instead of his own, or when I drove past one of those Home City / Home Team advertisements on a billboard, the one picturing a bunch of working stiffs on the left side – heading to the factory or the office in the morning – and on the right side the fearless Dukes, trudging into the arena for another hard day’s work down in the trenches. Home City / Home Team. How many fans, smitten with the image of themselves as honorary Dukes, instantly went out and bought tickets or team merchandise? Home city, home team! We’re all in this together, it implied. What it didn’t mention was that after one hour “working” – whether we played in the game or not – each of us Dukes walked away with more than any working stiff could make in twenty years of punching clocks. We zipped home to some castle in the most exotic cars, and were greeted at the door by the hottest women, drink in hand. And the day after the season ended, first place or last, we’d all bump into each other at the airport again, bolting town with our treasure for whichever warm weather paradise we actually did call home. Shovel snow? The Dukes? What sick, self-important delusions led the fans to believe we were of the same breed, they and us?
Whatever it was, it kept the gravy train on track, and us in front. So God bless the stupid fans, I guess. But I was nearing the end of my ride. There were twelve operations, two trips to the All Star Game and one death threat on my résumé. I’d decided before the season it’d probably be my last. When the TV suits dropped their offer it was no longer probably. Best fans in the league? They were the ones in whatever city you’d just been traded from. They couldn’t kill you anymore with hugs or sharp objects.
“I’m with Julius,” I said.
I had no family east or west, or any hot little bitch at that moment to worry about. But I was tired. It was time to buy an island and go sit on it for a while.
“Let’s do it.”
My words seemed to hang in the air for some time, the way a boomerang appears to hang, motionless, for a second, before racing back to take your head off.
“Okay,” Blaine said, finally, spitting a brown stream into a white towel. “But we oughta get at least twice as much as the Aces. Call those TV suits back in here and tell ‘em double or nothing. That’s the deal.”
He spit again. The others agreed. Price nodded.
The kid put his face in his hands and tumbled off his stool like a doll.
We were heading down the tunnel single file, towards the dizzying light and sound of the arena – a capacity crowd, my ears knew before my eyes. “We want the Aces, give us the Aces!” they chanted, stomping their feet. Normally, all that noise would have excited us, made us go faster. But we moved very slowly, as if going towards our own headstones and not the championship. The names and numbers on the backs in front of me were familiar—Crawford, 40, Price, 17, Blaine, 88—but the colors were different and on the front it said Aces instead of Dukes. When we’d hauled all our stuff over to the visitor’s side we passed the Aces coming the other way. We avoided eye contact and didn’t say much. Julius tried to lighten the moment…
“Hey, Edwards! You leave any yellow stains in my pants I’m gonna leave you a present in yours. And you know what color that’ll be.”
But even he was silent now, like we all were, jaws set, eyes wild, anticipating, not knowing what to expect, trying to focus only on the jackpot we’d be receiving after the game, win or lose. As we neared the mouth of the tunnel the announcement blared: “Here come the New York Aces!” The crowd reacted. They were waiting for us. Those TV suits must’ve tipped them off. It suddenly hit me they’d been chanting “Aces, Aces!” and not “Dukes!” and that was all wrong, but it was too late. Julius was in front. He tried to turn around, we all did, but the escort guards kept pushing us forward, into the wide-open space and bright lights that revealed us like translucent bugs under a microscope. We came out, not wanting to, and the best fans in the league poured from the stands, a volcano erupting, a lava flow, consuming all. I was grabbed and hit from every direction, and went down under a blanket of punches, kicks and heated words:
”Greedy traitors! We’ll teach you!”
”I told you guys, I told you,” I heard the kid screaming, just before it went black. Right then I caught a glimpse of those TV bastards. They were behind the home bench, on the other side, straight across. The team owners were there, too, with big grins and fat cigars. The cameras were rolling, catching all the fun – reality shit, like Julius said, a surefire ratings booster.
When I woke up I was in a white room and could barely move inside the plaster. There were tubes up my nose and a needle in my arm. A nurse fiddled with some machinery.
“There,” she smiled. “Isn’t that better? Good, good.”
My agent was there too, smiling like they do, shaking his head. He had a letter for me. He held it up so I could see. There was a notary’s seal, very official looking, with lots of Witnesseths and Wherefores sprinkled around to trip you up. My eyes – the one part that wasn’t plastered – began to go across and down:
“Since the game could not be played as originally scheduled due to injury, the cash payout is null and void. As is stipulated in the footnote on page 197 of The Agreement…”