Ball Don't Lie: Dunkenstein, Or The Modern Basketball Prometheus

In which a great mind, driven mad by ambition, steals Wade Baldwin IV's thumb for science and basketball reasons.
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Illustration by Griffen Eckstein.

Phil Jackson wakes to the song “Tarzan Boy.” It is the ringtone on his phone. He means to answer it but, as he does most of the time, he delays because he wants to listen to the song a little longer and then misses the call. Already he longs for the chorus. He rolls over and peers at the screen. Who knew a single word could fill him with such a heady mix of joy and longing: GROIN.

Jackson practically leaps from the bed and makes his way to the bathroom, where he fiddles with the shower knobs. He wishes that someone else would call him, so he could hear the song again. He doesn’t know how to play it from his phone himself, and there’s something special about how the song visits him the way it does, as a message from the outside world. Humming the song, he pictures in his mind Da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man; he begins to label body parts, the body parts he already has. The work he’s about to embark on is dirty, and a shower seems superfluous. All the same, he stays under the water for 45 minutes.

Dressing quickly in a stained pair of coveralls, Jackson stops in the kitchen on the way to the front door to splash some days old coffee into a Lakers travel mug. Jackson looks around the dining room, every piece of furniture draped in a white sheet. Already James Dolan has come sniffing, inquiring about the place. But Jackson’s only interest in the apartment was in the access it afforded to the bowels of the old Osborne building, in the cavernous network of boiler rooms and deep tunnels that lead down into the New York City subway and then lower, into the sewers. He had feigned considering various offers for it, but only to delay the sale of the apartment and buy himself more time for his project down below.

Today, though, he would tell Dolan to come and sign the papers. When he did, Phil would have something to show him.

***

Jackson had been stealing electricity from construction sites around midtown, and it was under the garish cage lighting offered by that stolen power that his creature stirred to life. From somewhere down the labyrinth chain of tunnels, a subway screeched to a halt, its power diverted up the line, into the long-forgotten sub-basement of the historic Osborne building.

Phil Jackson watched, breathless, as the creature began to stir; he gasped when the creature sat up and he could see the sheer size of it. It groaned suddenly, and collapsed back onto the table.

“No, no!” Phil shouts, vaulting to the line of twisting tubes and wires running into the creature. He unkinks one and an electric-blue liquid flows back into the huge body.

A deep, guttural groan emits from the mouth of the monster, “Cooool bluuue.”

Phil claps his hands together, heart near to bursting. If it was already speaking there was no doubt in his mind that he could have it on the basics of the triangle in no time.

‘Tarzan Boy’ begins playing from somewhere. Jackson lets the opening chorus of melodic “Ohs” echo eerily through the tunnels around him before lifting his phone to peer at the screen. It’s Dolan.

“Perfect timing,” Phil smiles, and the creature on the table raises a gargantuan arm and lifts up a thumb that’s eerily identical to Wade Baldwin IV’s recently injured digit. “James!” he says, “How’s the band?” Phil Jackson listens idly to James Dolan’s inane chatter—something about a Spike Lee Curse—as he makes his way around the room, stopping at each table to check tubes, refill drip bags with Cool Blue Gatorade, and gently stroke the cheek of the still-inert body on the slab.  

Phil interrupts, “Say, why don’t we move the closing up to later today, 7pm? Ha ha yeah, you’re right, this old building gives me the creeps, Halloween and everything—can’t wait to get out! You’ve got dinner with Silver? Why not bring him. I’m sure it’ll be his first ever trip uptown.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is hungry. He hadn’t wanted to have dinner with James Dolan, didn’t really much care for Italian food, and had no interest in going to Phil Jackson’s sad apartment. Now he was on the hook for all three. He considers Dolan a lout who has run a perfectly reputable franchise into the ground, but he is his dinner date all the same.

The commissioner remembers the breathing exercise Steve Kerr showed him to do and does it. Dolan doesn’t notice, he goes on slapping at Phil Jackson’s door and fretting about his band’s upcoming UK tour, listing off all the things he says they don’t have in England, “Big coffees, bagels, ice cubes...”

“Come in James, Adam,” Jackson says as he walks into the library. He knows hey will follow. They all settle into identical leather wingbacks that Phil Jackson has arranged in a circle in the center of the room. “Please, sit,” he motions to Dolan and Silver as they enter, “may I get you anything?”

“Nothing for me,” Adam Silver says, “thank you.”

Jackson offers nothing to Dolan. Ignorant of the slight, he rubs his hands together, “Let’s see this lease.”

Phil Jackson snaps his fingers, “Aw shoot, I left it in the other room. Excuse me for a minute fellas.”

As Jackson rushes from the room, Adam Silver gets a funny feeling in his stomach. He’s never known Phil Jackson to rush anywhere, and he’s certainly never heard the man use exclamations like “Aw shoot.”  Something seems off. His gut tells him not only is he starving, but also that he really, really should be going. As he stands to leave a huge shadow suddenly fills the rich mahogany doorframe of the study.

“Phil I’m going to have to excu—“

A guttural groan erupts from the doorway, then laughter. A huge, lumbering shadow lurches into the room and Adam Silver feels his blood run colder than it has on league mandated annual trips to Toronto, which always seem to fall in January. He’s horrified at what he sees but it’s impossible to look away. “Gentlemen,” Jackson says, “we’re just getting started.”

From the ground up, Silver recognizes every piece. Gordon Hayward’s foot and ankle sewn crudely to Rodney McGruder’s leg and Jeremy Lin’s knee, and he’d recognize Rajon Rondo’s groin anywhere. There’s Isaiah’s hip, and Nicolas Batum’s elbow, Tony Parker’s quadriceps.  Dante Exum’s shoulder, DeAndre Bembry’s wrist, Adreian Payne’s left hand, and a bearded hunk of Nicola Mirotic’s face. The whole mess looks like a puzzle with the wrong pieces jammed together, and it’s coming right toward him. Silver is frozen to the understated rug.

“I owe you for this,” Phil Jackson smirks, stepping between the creature and the commissioner, “you’ve done me a big favor, Silver. With the pressure you’ve placed on the league to deliver an answer for Golden State, there has been a surge of player injuries. You’ve given me a veritable smorgasbord of assets to choose from. And of course with the whole league trying not to look at the Knicks, it’s not as if anybody would notice if I performed a little… switch.”

“What… what are these things?” Silver demands, before two giant hands grab him around the waist and hoist him over Markelle Fultz’s pilfered shoulder.

From this vantage point he watches as all around the room, the sheets over what he had assumed were large and oddly shaped pieces of furniture begin to move. James Dolan has donned a black, hooded cowl and gained an awkward hunch in his back, and is now stumbling around the room, rubbing his hands together, yanking sheets off towering bodies to reveal more monstrosities coming to life, howling in a painful faux-bluesman’s croak, “It’s aliiiive!”

Phil Jackson lights a cigar, the thick smoke curling around his jack-o-lantern grin, his eyes now ablaze, “You’re looking at the new lineup of the New York Knicks, Silver. Dunkensteins. All drilled to run nothing but the triangle, without complaint, until their bodies give out—which they never will.” Jackson takes another puff, “And once I bring the Knicks back from the dead—figuratively, literally—it won’t be long until the commissioner seat is all but handed to me. What do you think of the ‘National Triangle Association’?”

Adam Silver feels the world fall away from him as he is tossed down the Osborne Building’s garbage chute.

***

Something is weird about these guys, Andre Drummond thinks.

It was one thing that every guy on the Knicks, save for young Frankie Smokes—Ntilikina—had adopted a black facemask to cover everything above their mouths, but he could’ve sworn he saw Phil Jackson huddled under a bunch of game towels during warm-up, only to vanish when the lights were dimmed for tip-off. He saw it in Stan Van’s stern but compassionate face on the sideline, too. Something ain’t right.

The first hack came from the towering Knicks center. He came right up to Andre on the wing and chopped him square in the shoulder, hardly trying to hide it. The whistle was immediate, and Drummond squinted at the eyes showing through the holes in the mask. “Porzingis?” He asked. But the offender lurched away.

Andre wasn’t worried at the line, not anymore. He squared his shoulders and shut his eyes for a second, then opened and shot. He made both. He did a little air punch.

The second hack came from another big, number nine. Andre turned to face him, since he’d smacked Andre right in the back like you would to someone choking on food, “Really, Kyle?” But the player wearing Kyle O’Quinn’s number just shuffled away.

Stan Van Gundy watched from the sidelines, his perpetually furrowed brow finding a new, deeper notch at a thought he just couldn’t place. Ever since the game had started, he’d had a weird sense of déjà vu. The way these guys—huge guys, all of them in full spandex bodysuits under their uniforms—were coming at Drummond seemed so familiar. And the way they were forming on the outside, almost in some kind of shape.

“Oh shit!” He shouted, as recognition lit up his brain like a pinball machine. “Shit, shit!” Van Gundy waved his arms at the refs, but they ignored him, numbed now to his antics.

On court, there was another hack, this time to Drummond’s neck. He turned fast, ready to confront whoever did it but recoiled at the face hovering over his own and the hunks of red hair crudely affixed to the corners of the mask it wore. Andre felt a gentle tug at his jersey and turned to find a concerned Boban.

“These guys, they really want to hacker you,” Marjanović said.

“Heck, I don’t mind,” Drummond grinned. “The free throw line doesn’t scare me anymore.”

Boban smiled, “No more freak throw.”

Andre Drummond grinned, rolled his shoulders and felt the tension drain out of them.

He made the two shots, and the two after that.

Van Gundy was waving around his clipboard but no one was paying attention. On it he’d drawn a single shape in thick, dark lines. It was no good. Drummond wasn’t looking and the cameras had long stopped panning to him. A sudden idea came to him and he turned, scanning the courtside seats.

“God help us all if he’s gone to get popcorn,” he breathed.

Okay, Andre had to admit it was starting to hurt. And with all the stops the game was in its third hour. The hits weren’t even a surprise now. One of them would shuffle up to Drummond and reach a lazy hand out to swat at some part of his upper body before lumbering away. And it seemed like they were getting slower. He saw Michael Beasley pull at something under his jersey, like a loose thread or something, and his whole shoulder seemed to drop. He saw Joakim Noah do the same, but down around his ankle, and it looked like his leg came loose in his tights.

Drummond turned to Reggie Jackson, “I know it’s Halloween and all, but this shit is weird.”

Jackson shook his head, “Bro, I hate ghosts.”

At the end of the Knicks bench, a pile of towels began to shake. If anyone on the bench had possessed an independent consciousness they would have heard it, whispering furiously, “The triangle never fails.”

Across the court, Spike Lee got back from getting popcorn. He never usually paid much attention to the visiting bench but Stan Van Gundy’s mannerisms seemed pointedly more frantic than usual so he squinted at whatever the Detroit coach was waving in his hands.

“Holy shit.” He said, spilling his popcorn all over the court.

“HACK-A-SHAQ! IT’S HACK-A-SHAQ!” Van Gundy screams, hammering his clipboard.

Walt Frazier, pausing at the announcers’ table, ignores Van Gundy; thinking he was yelling, “Trick-or-treat.” The syllabic arrangement, to be honest, being pretty much the same.

Andre Drummond, patient and charitable player as he is, had just about enough. So when the next hack came he simply turned and swatted the arm away, catching it in a twirling loop until it came loose from Enes Kanter’s shoulder and flew onto the Knicks commentator table.

“Bang! It’s an arm!” Mike Breen shouted.

Then it happens all at once.

From underneath the towels, an enraged, purple-faced Phil Jackson rises up like Poseidon in an ill-fitting suit. Seeing his plan—his perfect, three-sided plan—falling apart, his players falling apart, his vision goes red, bloodlust taking over. Robert M. Pirsig would be ashamed.

Stan Van Gundy, for the first time in his coaching career, abandons his post at the sideline. He runs onto the court, making for Andre Drummond with everything he has. Still, he’s not very fast, and Phil Jackson is going to get to him first.

Andre turns, smiling at Phil Jackson as he flies toward him like a bat out of hell.

“I knew it was you under the towels,” Drummond says. “I love geometry, you don’t think I would’ve recognized a triangle when I saw one?”

Phil Jackson howls. He pulls out the hatchet he used to cut the body parts off of every injured player and rushes Drummond.

The jumbo popcorn Spike Lee spilled all over the court catches the first of the Dunkensteins crudely sutured feet and it slips, falls heavily, every stolen body part coming apart and crumbling into a pile on the hardwood. The next Dunkenstein trips on the body parts of the first and bursts apart, as do the others, until all that’s left of Phil Jackson’s attempt at a title are the piecemeal components of a league that long ago left him behind.

Andre Drummond watches the pile slowly stop twitching and allows himself a small sigh of relief. As soon as he has, Phil Jackson climbs over and leaps from the precipice, hatchet poised, screaming, “You were supposed to be a failure at the line!”

Drummond realizes he’s still holding the ball. From a place inside of him—last season’s Andre—doubt creeps in, but he squelches it with a shake of his head. He sets his shoulders and his intent, nodding to himself, “I can shoot free throws now.”

Sticking out of the body part pile is Wade Baldwin IV’s thumb and it slowly rises up in a universal gesture of affirmation.

Drummond bends his knees, closes his eyes, and lets the ball go.

From where Stan Van stands watching, he smiles, choking up, “So confident.”

The ball arcs, perfectly, and smacks the hatchet out of Phil Jackson’s hand. He lands heavily in a heaving pile of groins.

***

Later that night, Adam Silver and the real roster of the Knicks are found wandering the subway tunnels around Central Park, making their way out of Phil Jackson’s basement laboratory, scared but extremely well hydrated from all the Gatorade they found stashed away down there. James Dolan is found too, but he runs back into the tunnels before anyone can stop him, not that anyone really tried that hard.

Adam Silver, continuing to affirm the NBA as the most progressive league in sports, passes a law formally condemning the harvesting of injured players body parts. New uniforms include body suits made of hi-tech bubble wrap. Though a sense of competition and a desire to topple the Warriors is by no means stifled, players who have their stolen body parts reaffixed report a sort of reverse phantom limb syndrome and feel a greater degree of empathy as a result. But Ron Baker’s hair never fully grows back.

Andre Drummond, a hero, refuses any reward. The unrelenting confidence he’s found in his newly mastered free throws was the only thing persistent enough to unravel a team of Dunkensteins, and satisfaction enough for him.

And Phil Jackson? He’s sent to study the greatest (“Second greatest”) triangle of them all, off the coast of Bermuda. He is never heard from again.  


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