Illustration by Griffen Eckstein.
He sits down at the controls, lacing his fingers together and pushing both palms out as he settles into the threadbare chair. This is where everyone that came before him sat, going back decades to when this all started. Still, it is not very comfortable, and pretty unsightly. When he was tapped for this position he’d asked about the chair, could he get a new one? No, they told him, the chair goes with the unit, it always has. He’d checked later, got down on his hands and knees and saw where the chair did connect with the control unit, but it was only by a simple bracket and he was waiting for the right time to tell them they sold those things everywhere, they could get a new chair and connect it no problem. Then he had a better idea: he’d take the bracket off now and throw the chair away, then they’d have to get him a new one.
He is down on the floor, peering up at an epoch’s accumulation of dried gum under the chair when his name is screamed the first time. By the second time he hears it, he has poked his head around the back of the chair and is peering up at shining dome. He stands up and looks down over the edge of the console at a red-faced Jon Barry.
“Stephen you better have an explanation for me. Gundy’s on the way down here and he’s mad as hell. Mad. As. Hell.”
“Well Jon it’s just this chair—“
“SCREW THE CHAIR!” The red of Jon Barry’s face deepens, like a rich arrabiata sauce left to simmer, “This!”
Stephen Anthony Smith accepts the stack of paper thrust at him over the edge of the console. The glowing buttons and various screens illuminate the text in what is otherwise a dark and windowless room.
In crude screen captures of where the headline hasn’t been cropped to focus, Stephen sees the predictions he’s been making. Page after page, printouts of websites, sports columns, then the last page of what looks like a Twitter timeline, where red pen has circled, well, everything, obscuring most of the text. “Not sure what I’m looking at here Jon,” He says, trying to conceal his relief.
It all but evaporates when a sliding door into the room whooshes open and Jeff Van Gundy enters. He says nothing, and simply walks over to the control booth and hands over a lone piece of paper. His head, too, is gleaming. Stephen A. looks down, his stomach drops. Here a name has only been highlighted, once, in brilliant neon pink: Earvin Magic Johnson @MagicJohnson—below, the first two tweets, highlighted in resplendent neon green,
Laker Nation: The first free agent the Lakers should go after is Kevin Durant.
Laker Nation: The Lakers should call LeBron James agent. We know he’s going to stay in CLE but they should go after him just in case he leaves
He meets the eyes of the two men staring him down. “If it’s alright, I’d like to speak plainly with you for a moment,” Smith says. “I can explain this.”
“Sorry, baby, that’s a no-can-do,” Van Gundy roars, sounding delighted but clearly not. “You flagrantly lifted these takes and passed them as Trade Rumors.”
“I oughta slap you,” Jon Barry snarls, really getting into it, “with both hands!” He lifts his hands up they don’t quite reach over the top of the console.
JVG rolls his eyes, “Alright, alright, let’s not go crazy, I know how you like to get charged,” he removes his big red framed glasses and begins to polish them with his shirt, turning back to Smith and shaking his head sadly. “You know what it means to be chosen for this, you know what it means to come up with the Trade Rumors. You didn’t respect that. You have to respect that.”
It was three years ago they’d picked him, a short run in the history of the NBA Trade Rumor Bureau, but already he was out of material, washed up. Trade Rumors, in its inaugural years, fed a handful of national newspapers, the locals all syndicating off those. A couple wild suggestions whispered in the ears of the right reporters, some “facts” accidentally slipped to the more hot-headed coaches, and you’d be done for the summer. Now, anyone could get traded at any time, and the volume of blogs, vlogs, Twitter accounts, and the rest around dedicated to sniffing out the facts took the stuffing out of what had been a cushy job.
When Command had picked Stephen Anthony Smith, cornered him in Skip Bayless’s dressing room where they must have known he’d be snagging Rolaids and Skittles like usual, Jeff Van Gundy and Jon Barry said they’d admired his say-anything approach to basketball commentary. They liked that he spoke his mind, even when what was in there wasn’t about basketball, and wasn’t true, and also wasn’t particularly timely, insightful or informative. They assured him they had the most prestigious job he could ever dream of, and that it was his if he wanted it.
And that turned out to be true—at first. Coming up with Trade Rumors only meant repeating some of the more unfounded predictions Smith had made in the oxygen-deprived blackout-adjacent state in which he lived during his TV appearances. But he had to keep going, now, there was no way to stop and no time to stop, and he didn’t have Skip to fill in for him when he got bored. The job was full-time, nearly all the time, sitting isolated in a dark room, in that goddamn uncomfortable chair, surrounded on all sides by glowing screens displaying constantly refreshing Twitter feeds, message boards, trade sites and stat calculators. He was stuck there, right in the middle like a DJ in a Gravitron ride at a carnival, spinning yarns into the abyss. But those weren’t his kinds of yarns. It was no fun being the voice of Oz when no one gave you credit for it.
Jon and JVG left him with a warning: Come up with better Trade Rumors or be out on your ass. And it’s not just a “chair,” they reminded him. It’s called the Hot Seat, and it’s attached to the machine by more than a bracket.
Skip Bayless honestly had no qualms or concerns when his old friend and colleague Stephen A. Smith blindfolded him as soon as he stepped out of arrivals at the airport. It wasn’t the first time, not by a longshot, and he assumed it would end up with them going to Denny’s like always. He was less excited, but not worried, when the blindfold was removed and he found himself in a dark, windowless room with a glowing cylindrical console in the middle. Maybe this was a Denny’s with the lights turned off? The coffee Stephen A. Smith brought him tasted similar to Denny’s, so it was possible.
Skip put his coffee down on the edge of the console and went to see if he couldn’t tighten up bracket on the bottom of the wobbly, uncomfortable chair in which he sat. As he jostled against the chair his mug bobbled and then tipped, and the light-and-sweet coffee was instantly all over the console, spattering every glowing screen and every slick panel, disappearing into the tiny gaps around every button and key—hundreds of buttons and keys. The console seemed to growl and spark, pulsing a malevolent red before finally going completely dark. Skip suddenly found himself in the pitch black without a coffee. He puffed out his cheeks and exhaled, “Darn.”
The sliding door whooshed open again, admitting his friend Stephen. “Skip, firstly, I want to extend my sincere apologies regarding all the secrecy. That dispensed with I am prepared to come clean with yo—WHOA WHOA WHAT THE HELL!”
“Not sure what happened. Thing was bleepin’ and bloopin’ one second and out like a light the next.”
“No, no oh nonono,” Stephen A. threw himself at the console panel, gently touching keys then more vigorously slamming his fists into them, then finally laying himself on top of it and hiccupping with sobs. “Rumor Mill 1000,” he moaned piteously. The room smelled of sizzled circuitry and instant coffee. He looked up and growled, “Skip.”
Skip was glad for the dark—although scared of it usually, it seemed a blessing right now. “I can explain.”
“You don’t need to, what you need to do is help me kil—“
Just then the big console lurched back to life. The cooling fans choppily started up; one by one, each panel illuminated.
Stephen A. Smith shot a hand over his Skip’s mouth. “Sssh never mind that, it’s back.”
The machine started spitting out paper faster than Stephen A. had ever seen it do. The best he averaged lately was maybe five sheets a day, and that was with generous spacing and a lot of gratuitous preamble.
Skip picked up a sheet as it flew from the overflowing tray and read a line out loud, “Timberwolves to hire Tom Thibodeau.”
“What? Let me see that,” Smith yanked the paper from Skip’s hand, “You did something to it, it must be going back to memory banks from 10, 20 years ago. None of these are going to fly as Trade Rumors. Listen to this one: LeBron James to play lead in Space Jam,” he shook his head, “That’s not even right. Skip, you must have really messed with this thing.”
“How do you know it’s not just working better now?” Skip raised both eyebrows nearly all the way off his face. He still had no idea what the machine was, or did.
Stephen A. Smith opened his mouth, paused and cocked his head, a wry smile spreading across his face, “You might be onto something. The whole point of Trade Rumors Bureau is coming up with stuff that’s just crazy enough to seem real, but this,” he clapped his hands together. “People love throwbacks!”
“Yeah, I love watching reruns of our show,” Skip smiled, tiny eyes aglow. “Film study is essential, Stephen, I’m sure you’d agree.”
“Precisely and I couldn’t agree more, Skip. All we have to do is take what the machine is giving us and add some material from old shows. I get to keep my job, maybe even make lead Rumor Miller, banish JVG and that troll Jon Barry. And you?”
Skip nodded heartily in agreement, although Stephen A. legitimately meant it as a question.
And so they got to it. It was straight work without any breaks, something neither man had ever done. They figured out how to plug Skip’s first generation iPod into the big console so they could listen to the Beach Boys—the only song he had on the iPod at all was “Kokomo”—and took turns in the Hot Seat, sending Trade Rumors out into the world with steady, tropical vigor:
Kevin Garnett starts for Timberwolves
Chris Andersen rendered obsolete
Dwight Howard strongly considering return to Magic
“What about McHale?” Bayless asked.
“Just put his name down with twenty question marks,” Smith suggested.
Kobe Bryant will write poem to announce retirement
Drake wears jean jacket as Raptors break playoff curse
Barbosa drinks potion for horses
Kenny Smith—they both start cracking up at the mention of him—Kenny Smith potentially tapped to coach Rockets
Sacramento Kings to get logo redesign, nod to hidden Euro sensibilities (i.e. Peugeot, other shit cars)
Skip Bayless to receive pay raise for continuing to do the terrible thing he does
Larry Bird makes a major decision
Hitting people in the nuts becomes a thing again
The poem Kobe Bryant writes will be adapted into a short film
On and on they went, taking no pause, and unbeknownst to either of them, sculpting the narrative for the season to come. Every Trade Rumor they wrote would come true, because that was the job; some would change the game forever. It seemed an especially outlandish Trade Rumor that Jason Kidd would be trading life on earth for life in space but, by the end of summer 2016, he was launched into space in a single person pod, never to return. Similarly, who could know Gordon Gano of The Violent Femmes would take such an interest in his state’s basketball team, whose coach was at that moment headed for galaxies unknown? No one thought the Rumors were true until Gano showed up for the Bucks training camp hoisting a 10lb tub of feta for the Greek Freak. The Rumors were all true.
But how? Was it the power of wild, unfounded suggestion, or was there some tiny grain of truth in each of these desperate men’s bizarre lines? Were those in the NBA’s positions of power too prone to the power of suggestion, or was everyone just really fucking bored? Some centuries later, Stephen Anthony Smith and Skip Bayless would be credited for getting the ball rolling on the ability to channel psychic thought into a tangible equation, a power used to unlock such long-attempted ventures in human history as, to name but a few, time travel, teleportation, reality manipulation, and securing access to the mysterious 11th Dimension. Though the notion that all gods were false had long held true, idols of the two were erected all over the planet, just for fun.
But there, in that dark chamber, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless were yet oblivious to what they were doing. They simply did it, working, in total, for one full hour until they got bored. Then, and only then, did they decide that they had done enough, and that it was finally time to go to Denny’s.