I don’t often dress up for Halloween, but then I don’t often lose golf games to Charles Barkley either. In 2012, I did both.
Barkley’s a bit richer than I, so when we wager, the currency is humiliation. Before we played our annual game in September, he reminded me that we’d be sitting front row with Dr. Jack Ramsay at the Sixers’ season opener on Halloween. (My ticket was compensation for teaching a Continuing Basketball Private Investigator Education course at the annual Basketball Peripherals Convention at St. Joseph’s University.) The loser, we decided, would have to attend the game dressed as Big Shot, the former Sixers mascot.
Like Barkley, Big Shot was lovable and pear-shaped. His skin and hair were a patriotic red and blue, respectively, and he wore large sunglasses and a vintage Sixers uniform, #1. (He also did a mean Michael Jackson—check it out on YouTube.)
Barkley provided the costume. Thus, dressed as Big Shot, I walked the eerie, post-Hurricane Sandy streets of Philadelphia to the Wells Fargo Center. An old woman took one look at me, spat in the gutter, and muttered something about end days.
Neither Barkley nor I had told Ramsay about our bet. When Ramsay first saw me, just outside the building’s entrance, he smiled, likely reminded of his glory days battling the Dr. J/Doug Collins 76ers. When he realized that I was the one in the costume, his smile disappeared.
“You’re sitting next to him,” he told Barkley. “I’m here for the game, not this bullshit side show.”
The game was a big one, and not just because it was the season opener. The Sixers would be facing the Denver Nuggets, to whom they’d just dealt their star wing, Andre Iguodala, for promising young center Andrew Bynum in a three-way deal. For the first time in his NBA career, Iguodala would be playing in Philly in another team’s uniform. In a sign of things to come, Bynum would be wearing street clothes.
My costume was a hit. Fans high-fived me from the front and groped me from behind. Already a few beers in, Barkley did both.
Molly Sullivan, the Sixers’ sideline reporter, approached us for an interview. The team had been without a mascot for over a year now, with a fan vote failing to convince the new ownership of a replacement for Hip Hop the rabbit. Is Big Shot back?” she asked, putting the microphone in front of me.
“I wish,” said Barkley, grabbing the microphone. “But my friend here just lost a bet.”
“Just to clarify, who’s inside the costume?” she asked.
“Ernie Johnson,” said Chuck. I didn’t correct him.
Iguodala’s return was less warmly received than Big Shot’s. A video tribute on the big screen garnered cheers but apart from that, the fans booed him at every opportunity. Perhaps this was because he’d given an interview in which he complained about head coach Doug Collins’s heavy hand and lack of faith in his shooting. Or perhaps it was because this was Philly, the town that once booed and threw snowballs at a volunteer Santa Claus.
There are reasons mascots don’t sit in courtside seats. One is that they have a job to do elsewhere. Another is that mascots don’t fit so well in courtside seats. Barkley and I battled for my left armrest, while to my right, Willow Smith didn’t seem as amused by my get-up as were many of her fellow school-age spectators. She chicken-winged me every time I tried to grab an inch.
When the first quarter ended, I decided to get some much-needed air and beer.
“Hey, Big Shot,” Barkley crowed. “Get me a big beer!” He looked to Willow Smith for approval. The man knew how to enjoy his winnings.
When I asked Ramsay if he wanted a beer, he pretended not to know me.
The beer line was long, but at least there was a TV above the refreshment stand so we could keep up on the game and the timeout entertainment.
The Sixers had promised to unveil the world’s largest t-shirt cannon at tonight’s game. “Big Bella” could fire 100 t-shirts in 60 seconds, a volume and rate previously unheard of in apparel artillery.
As the teams huddled around their coaches for a whiteboard session, the speakers blared Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” and two young guys in Sixers polo shirts wheeled the 600-pound behemoth to midcourt.
Fans love t-shirt cannons, and the effect was magnified by Big Bella’s grandeur. Grown men and women climbed over each other as if the shirts were Cooperstown home run balls. I shook my giant mascot head in disbelief.
The music stopped. So did the kids with the cannon. They looked around for an explanation. Obviously, I thought, this is some sort of skit.
“Y’all Ready For This?” boomed a familiar voice. Anybody who’s watched even a handful of NBA games in the last twenty years surely recognized the opening line of Unlimited 2’s “Get Ready for This” and anticipated the techno riff to follow. What they couldn’t have anticipated was the raft of cheers that filled the arena as Big Shot—Big Shot—strutted to center court. If the fans in the beer line hadn’t been staring at me already, they sure were now.
Big Shot took control of the cannon, giving the kids the “you’re out of here” thumb jerk. They took a few steps away and watched, slump-shouldered, as he sent a couple of shots into the rafters. Big Shot next lowered the guns to the front rows. He couldn’t possibly intend to shoot such a powerful cannon at fans so close, could he?
Not fans, it turned out. Big Shot pivoted the cannon to the Sixers bench, where Collins was shouting himself raw over the ephemeral X’s and O’s of the whiteboard. The crowd mixed cheers and gasps, seemingly unsure what to make of Big Shot’s apparent target. After cupping his ear in “I can’t hear you” fashion, Big Shot let loose with a blinding barrage of balled t-shirts, aimed directly at the head coach.
He hit his mark. Collins wheeled, wide-eyed, to face his attacker. He tried to shield himself with the whiteboard, but neither Big Shot nor Big Bella offered a hint of mercy. Collins danced around like an arthritic MC Hammer doing a rope-ladder agility drill before finally finding cover behind Spencer Hawes, who seemed less than pleased with his new Secret Service role.
With just a few t-shirts left, Big Shot swung the guns and finished up on Joshua Harris and Adam Aron, the faces of the new ownership. When the shirts were all gone, the mascot-gunman embraced the boos, holding his arms out in shower-me-with-love fashion. He walked off triumphantly, leaving Big Bella at midcourt.
I was so immersed in the scene on the screen that I failed to notice that it was my turn to order. The cashier, a heavyset deadpanner, seemed intrigued by neither the televised attack nor my attire.
“ID,” she repeated. “I can’t tell mascot age. How do I know you’re legal?”
I fumbled to remove my glove to reach my wallet, which was in my left sock.
“Hurry it up!” someone shouted.
I produced my driver’s license, but it featured my picture, not Big Shot’s, so the cashier made me remove my headpiece. This mascot business was tricky.
“Two Yuenglings, please,” I said.
Carrying the beers back, I drew more glares, and glares more hostile, than before. I was no longer just a curio; I was now a saboteur. Maybe even a traitor.
I re-entered the arena as Bizarro Willis Reed. The boos built, reaching crescendo as my image appeared on the big screen. There I was, magnified, handing a Yuengling to Charles Barkley. It sure looked like I was the same guy who’d shot Collins, Aron, and Harris. Willow Smith, that audacious child, reached over and lifted my headpiece. Macadamia Charles, unmasked for the world to see.
Ramsay buried his face in his hands.
“That wasn’t me, Doc,” I shouted. “I was in line for beers.”
While I had an airtight alibi, I had to get to the bottom of this, both to keep my name clean and to make it clear that I couldn’t be played. A basketball P.I.’s employment prospects are only as good as his reputation. Few fans recognize my face, but the game’s insiders know me for sure. It wouldn’t be long before word was out on Twitter that I’d been wearing a Big Shot costume. For now, I took my abuse as the mascot.
“Fuck you, Big Shot!” yelled one man, spitting in my direction. “Terrorist!” shouted a woman.
So it continued for the rest of the night. Iguodala struggled and the fans let him know about it, but the heartiest jeers were reserved for yours truly. Fortunately, the Sixers won; I hate to imagine how I’d have been treated if they’d lost.
“Where did you get the costume, Chuck?” I asked as the three of us walked out of the arena.
I was pretty sure he wouldn’t frame me. But while a basketball P.I. may rely on experience and intuition to add a suspect, he’s foolish to rely on those same qualities to exclude one altogether.
“The mascot supply closet just outside the locker rooms,” he said. “They got four or five of them back there.”
“Who has access to it?”
“It’s never been locked that I know of.”
“Who else knew about our bet?”
“A lot of people knew that I’d won a bet, but I didn’t tell anyone what I’d get. I just told them to tune in tonight. Let them be surprised.”
“So you’re saying this was a coincidence.”
“Unless you got a suspect who can read my mind.”
“This is some bullshit,” said Ramsay, with a burp. “I’m going home.”
After I dropped my costume off in my hotel room, Barkley and I hit a bar in Rittenhouse Square, a divey, smoky spot with stained glass cubes for windows. I hate cigarette smoke, but apparently Barkley had a soft spot for the place, having embedded a guy in a jukebox there back in the ‘80s.
My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I recognized Doug Collins’ high, raspy voice.
“I had nothing to do with it,” I explained.
“I believe you, Mac,” he said, sounding tired. “But it looks like someone might have it in for you. And someone definitely has it in for me. So maybe we both have some motivation to figure this out.”
“Can I consider this an assignment, Doug?”
“I’ve been authorized to offer it, yes. Standard terms.”
I took the offer. What choice did I have?
Barkley hit the men’s room and a young woman—much too young to have an interest in me—grabbed his barstool.
“I’m sorry, miss,” I said, “but that’s Charles Barkley’s stool.”
“I won’t be here long,” she said. “You’re Macadamia Charles.”
“Indeed, I am.”
She offered her hand. “Madeline Larsen. I’m just starting out as a basketball P.I. I was at your lecture at St. Joe’s today.”
“Nice to meet you.” I always have time for aspiring basketball P.I.s, especially women, as there are too few in the game. “Thanks for coming to the lecture.”
“Is there any chance you’re on the mascot case?”
“How’d you know?”
“I figured you’d get the call. Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that you were there in the costume, though.”
“I was in a Big Shot costume in a beer line when someone in a Big Shot costume shot Collins.”
“I know. He tweeted that, too.”
Some people have suggested that if Adrian Wojnarowski were to become a basketball P.I., he’d put a lot of usout of work. As if good sources were all it takes,
“So far,” I explained,“it looks like a coincidence.”
“For what it’s worth, I hear that the Mascot Guild is pretty unhappy with Aron and Harris for the no-mascot thing.Especially when they doubled the size of the dunk and dance teams.”
“How’d you hear that?” I was impressed.
“I’ve got sources on the dunk team.”
“Would you care to join me for the investigation tomorrow?” I figured I could use her help, and maybe I could show her the ropes a little. Or at least give her a good reference. “I’ll pay you.”
“I’d love to,” she said. “I’d really love to. But I’m due back in Baltimore to work this rec league case. It’s my first assignment.”
That, my friends, is a true basketball P.I. We exchanged cards and I told her to contact me anytime for favors or advice. I also told the bartender that her drinks were on me.
I awoke the next morning to a bleating phone, a black sky, and a bed that seemed alarmingly co-occupied until I recognized that the figure beside me was just Big Shot’s empty shell. I thanked the front desk for the wake-up call and got to work.
One of the drawbacks of mascot work is that you can’t rent the prime office space. Investment bankers and white-shoe lawyers don’t want to share a lobby or, God forbid, an elevator with one of these demonstrative furries. So the Guild’s offices are in New York’s Chinatown, above the fish markets and DVD barkers.
I figured I’d take the train up and meet with Bill E. Hunter, the waddling, scowling Elmer Fudd look-alike who served as the guild’s head. After that, dumplings. Always dumplings.
Unfortunately, the hurricane had shut down the trains and clogged the roads. No dumplings for me, it seemed, but still no rest for Hunter. I called him as soon as their office was open.
“Would you cross a picket line, Mac?”
No, I told him. I generally would not. Solidarity.
“But you dressed as Big Shot.”
It was a fair point, and I began to acknowledge as much when he cut me off.
“First, you disrespect us with your costume—”
“It was not intended as—”
“And now that you appear to be implicated in an action in which no guild member would ever participate, you want to set up a meeting. You’re hoping to push this on us, to find a fall guy, or Bull, or Gorilla, what have you.”
“Look, Bill,” I aimed for a soothing tone, “I believe that you guys didn’t have anything to do with this. Benny the Bull and the Suns Gorilla are beyond reproach. I just want to tap your expertise here. If you can help me, we’ll all look better.”
“You didn’t even have the respect to bring on a mascot P.I.”
“I just got the assignment. You know I’ve brought in mascot P.I.s before.”
“Yeah, some of your best friends are mascot P.I.s. As far as I’m concerned, Mac, you can go fuck yourself. And tell the Sixers they can do the same.”
He hung up the phone.
Hunter had done a nice job of deflecting, but I wasn’t ready to rule out the mascots. Perhaps later I’d bring on a mascot P.I. For now, though, I had a practice to attend. It would provide my best opportunity to piece together what happened.
Nothing had been recorded, as the arena’s surveillance system was apparently already on the fritz, so we’d be relying on the memories of the staff. The Sixers had already transcribed their statements and e-mailed them to me, and ordered them to be available at the practice facility for questioning.
The garage employees said had paid little attention to who left the garage during the game. They watched the action on TV and played cards.
Similarly, at the time of the shooting, tunnel security personnel were busy attempting to locate the source of a marijuana smell in the back halls. They never found it, though one of them noted that the mascot closet “smelled a bit hotbox-y.”
The first person I encountered at practice was Andrew Bynum.
“Big Mac!” he shouted. “Like my Ramsay pants?
He wore red-and-black plaid bell-bottoms and a hairstyle that looked like James Brown’s after a rainstorm.
“Yes, Andrew,” I replied. “I do.”
“I wear them for bowling,” he explained, before dropping his voice to a whisper. “Wanna play a game of Battleship?”
“Sorry, Andrew. Don’t have time.”
“I like to think I’m like a Battleship on the court.”.
Collins appeared, directing Bynum to the training room and me to a conference room where the previous night’s staff were gathered. They were a nervous and physically unimposing bunch, like a bunch of summer caddies called in for questioning after someone crashed a golf cart.
“Relax,” I told them. “I’m not here to bust any heads. I let the team know that it’s not unusual for a clever basketball perpetrator to evade even the best security.” I paused. “If it were, I’d be outta work.”
I could feel their tension ease a little. In high-profile cases like this, team staff are like knots pulled too tight. A good basketball P.I. can loosen them up enough to find the truth.
I started with the parking attendants. Something told me the culprit didn’t stick around for the final buzzer.
I knew the attendants hadn’t seen anything, so I took a flyer on a different approach. “You hear any music that night?” I asked. I was really fishing here. “Car stereos, you know. Anything memorable.”
A lanky kid in an oversized Sixers polo laughed at the question. “Actually, it’s pretty funny,” he said. “I specifically remember someone bumping ‘I Believe I Can Fly.’”
His fellow parking attendants chuckled and murmured agreement.
“The R. Kelly song?” I asked.
“Is there any other?” he replied.
This gave me an idea. I recalled an anecdote in the footnotes of a late-season game summary. I pulled out my phone and performed a quick web search. The article was exactly as I recalled. March 2, 2012: Look who was lurking by the Sixers locker room.
It was a long drive to Rockville, but sometimes a basketball P.I.’s got to sacrifice his afternoon to play a hunch.
The landscaping showed no ill effects from the hurricane that had passed through not three days prior. A flawless lawn rolled down to a new-money mansion on the edge of a ravine. The gate to the driveway was open, and the driveway was empty, though a black Escalade was parked just outside the property. I had the driver park behind it and told him to wait.
I rang the doorbell, an 8-note affair from a Gatorade commercial. Like Mike... I shook my head.
“Who is it?” He sounded drunk.
“It’s Mac Charles.”
“I thought I ordered a stacked blonde.”
On the other side of the door, two men laughed.
“Open up, David.”
David Falk opened the door. He sported a turtleneck and a mini-frown that made him look a little like Jeffrey Tambor. Falk had been THE super agent of the ‘80s and ‘90s, representing Michael Jordan and co-producing Space Jam, the Warner Brothers basketball movie whose soundtrack contained both “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Get Ready for This.”
Falk’s roster had dwindled since his heyday, but he still had a few horses in his stable. One was Evan Turner, whose shooting frustrated Collins nearly as much as Iguodala’s. The newspaper article I’d checked had Falk lurking by the Sixers’ locker room, seemingly displeased at Collins’ treatment of his client.
Who was the second laugher, though? I doubted Falk had acted alone.
“Where were you last night, David?”
“I don’t know why you ask, Mac. I was watching the game at home.”
“Who else is here? Whose car is out front?”
I heard more giggling from behind the door. “I believe that car belongs to the Wasserman Media Group,” shouted the voice from the other side.
I sighed. “How did you get your hands on that?”
“I don’t know that my hands are on it,” said Falk. “I see it parked legally on a public right of way. Perhaps you should call Arn Tellem.”
“Soulja Boy Tellem!” shouted the voice.
So it was another one of these: a drunk-agents-make-mischief case. Steal their rival’s car, pick on a coach. Such cases are never satisfying for a basketball P.I. Just another roll of the eyes. Just another client who resents you for delivering the news, who wants the whole thing to go away. No front-row tickets as a thank-you for solving this one. No sir. Just a brief statement to the press—the matter was handled internally—and no further comment.
“May I come in, David?”
“Of course,” he said. He ushered me to the adjacent living room, where I found an overgrown Derek Zoolander-look-alike sprawled across a white leather couch.
Rob Pelinka played at Michigan with the Fab Five, and despite his relatively modest accomplishments as a player, the Michigan section of his Wikipedia page is longer than those of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard.He represents Kobe Bryant and, among others, Andre Iguodala.
“Good afternoon, Rob.”
Pelinka giggled. “Macaroni and cheese!”
“Let’s talk about what happened last night.”
“You a cop now, Mac?” asked Falk. “A snitch?”
“I’m a basketball P.I.”
“You mean a mascot P.I.?” asked Falk.
“Mascot dick!” said Pelinka.
I ignored him. “This is your guys’ little joke about shooting, isn’t it? Collins says your clients can’t shoot, so you shoot him up with a t-shirt cannon?”
“If Collins knows so much about shooting, ask him why he got schooled by Bingo Smith on national TV,” said Pelinka. He was right; Bingo Smith had taken it to Collins in a game of HORSE on a CBS halftime show.
“We didn’t shoot anybody up,” said Falk.
“Who did, then?”
“How do you think he got his name?” said Pelinka.
“Mind if I use your restroom, David?”
“Sure thing, Mac,” he said. “It’s down the hall, third door on the right.”
I listened to them giggle as I hurried down the hallway. The first door was a closet full of overcoats. The second door was a guest bedroom. Nothing appeared to be out of place. The third door was the bathroom. I turned on the fan and closed the door, to make it sound like I was in there. Fourth door: A linen closet. Stuffed sloppily on the bottom shelf: Big Shot. I took a couple of snapshots with my phone and then grabbed an overcoat on my way back, wrapping it around the costume.
“So who do you guys think hijacked the t-shirt cannon last night?”
“A mascot,” said Pelinka, momentarily pulling his lips from a bong. “Big Shot.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” I began, “that it was a member of the Mascots Guild?”
Pelinka giggled some more. “Big Shot’s not a member of the Guild, Mac.”
“The Guild formed in ’99, after the lockout,” explained Falk.
“Mascot dick!” repeated Pelinka.
“I know the history of the guild, boys.” With that, I opened the coat and let the costume fall to the floor. “Look what Mac dragged out of your closet.”
Pelinka coughed his bong hit.
“How do we know it’s not yours?” scoffed Falk.
“I already checked mine back in with the team,” I explained. “And they provided the driver, who knows I arrived here empty-handed. By the way, Bill E. Hunter says hello.”
“Which Hunter?” asked Falk, though it was clear he didn’t care. He mixed himself a Gatorade and bourbon. “Lifetime supply,” he added, holding up a bottle of the former.
I threw the coat on the floor with the costume and let myself out.
I found Collins and Ramsay in the empty arena, shooting baskets. Ramsay looked old and bent, but he could still wear some plaid pants. Collins’s long twos kept rimming out.
“I can’t catch a break,” he said. “It feels like Munich all over again.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” said Ramsay. “It’s more like Portland in ‘77.”
Collins smirked. “What you got without Walton, old man?”
“HORSE,” said Ramsay. “Let’s do it.”
“You in, Mac?” Collins asked.
“Sure,” I said. “But I’m not dressed for the occasion. Would you happen to have a t-shirt I could borrow?”
Ramsay bellowed an old-man laugh and slapped his plaid knee. “Since you’re the guest, you go first, Mac,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied, feeling a ball for the first time in months. Always nice to rub my palms on it. Like a pregnant woman’s belly. Hard to resist. “You better get some water, though.”
“Why’s that?” asked Ramsay.
“Because,” I said, taking a couple quick dribbles, “all these threes’ll be dehydrated after I drain ‘em.”
Like I said, this was the first I’d touched a ball in months. I was as likely to airball the shot as to make it. But I stepped forward and launched it, making sure to hold the follow-through.
Nothing but net.
“Macadamia Charles,” I said. “Still got it.”