Illustration by Griffen Eckstein
The Dragićs would do it. They would have to do it if they damn well wanted to keep playing and not get sent back to that dank compound Predjama they called a castle. They'd been in hiding a thousand years when he'd found them playing in some Euroleague hovel, their ancient eyes concealed behind the scratch resistant red lenses of the wraparound sunglasses they wore on and off the bench. They’d do it if they didn’t want to go back to that.
“Bastard warlocks owe me that much,” Pat Riley mutters, merging from the MacArthur Causeway onto the I-95, recklessly thumbing the volume up button on his steering wheel until Springsteen’s gravelly timbre made the dashboard throb.
But who could they send to make the trip back? He knew it had to be someone the kid had at least heard of, someone he’d want to meet but who was still a little bit intimidating to a cocky 19-year-old.
The Boss was at the part where he finally got to street race when the music cut out and a tone signalled a call coming through the speakers. The little screen in the dash started to flash JACKSON, PHIL.
“Uh uh, no way,” Riley slid his thumb back to the worn volume up button, then glanced up in time to see the piece of somebody else’s blown out tire pass under his front wheel. His thumb was jostled sidelong and hit whatever it was that answered calls. Fantastic.
“PAT, PAT,” a man’s voice sputtered on the other end like he was coming up from a dunk tank, “ITS PHIL HERE. PHIL JACKSON.”
“Phil I’m in the car I can’t really—“
“I’M IN THE CAR TOO, CAN YA HEAR ME ALRIGHT?”
“Phil I can hear you fine but now’s not—“
“I TELL YOU PAT, AND I HATE TO BREAK A PERFECTLY GOOD RIVALRY SILENCE, BUT THIS FUCKIN KID, AND LORD HELP MY LANGUAGE, BUT THIS GODDAMN CURRY, HE’S GONNA PUT US ALL OUT ON OUR ASSES!”
Pat Riley had to steady both hands on the wheel for fear of driving himself clear off the Interstate and into the glowing turquoise Atlantic yawning out beside him. The sudden presence of Phil Jackson in his life was one thing, but Jackson calling at this moment, with this gripe...though he was by no means a religious man, Riley knew better than to question signs.
“YOU EVER HEARD OF TROLLS ON THE INTERNET PAT?”
“Phil can I just—“
“NONE OF EM LIVE UNDER A BRIDGE BUT I’LL TELL YA, PLEASE LORD FORGIVE MY LANGUAGE, THEY GODDAMN WELL SHOULD.”
“PHIL. Phil,” Riley felt his composure coming back to him, his eyelids lowering to slits, “You in New York? I’m on my way to the Keys but I’m sending a jet, I’ll see you down here in a few hours.”
He ended the call just as ‘Thunder Road’ started up. Yes. That was it. Lightning might not ever strike twice but Thunder could sure as shit made a statement.
He hummed, Sit tight, take hold, “Call Billy Donovan,” he said. Thunder Road.
They shook hands. Phil Jackson hadn’t taken off his leather jacket since stepping off the plane in Key West and was red in the face; from the pocket, he produced three cigars. Billy Donovan took his lightly, comfortable in the Florida heat. Pat took his before it slid to the sand with the tributaries of sweat now running from Jackson’s hands. “You sure I can’t get you something lighter Phil?” Riley asked. “You heard about these golf shirts made of bamboo?”
Phil waved it off, his sweat sizzling on the zippo he held under Billy Donovan’s cigar.
“I don’t like it but it’s the right thing to do,” Billy was trying to say around the Cuban, he took in a first puff and exhaled, too fast, “And heck if I’m not grateful for the leadership experience it’s going to give my guys.” Riley stifled the urge to roll his eyes so far into the back of his head they’d never come out. If getting Phil Jackson down to the Keys had been easy, then convincing Billy Donovan to be a part of it had been a slice of key lime pie. Which, as it happened, there was some of in the the beach house he could sneak later after these jokers—
No, Riley thinks, and takes a long draw, letting the smoke coil into the back of his throat, your cholesterol.
“Well I’m just happy if it shuts these Twitter tweeters—“
“Gentlemen,” Riley raised both his hands, and the other two coaches turned to look at him, “I think what we’ve agreed to today is for the betterment of the league, of basketball. And I think Silver will owe us a debt of gratitude.”
“We’re telling him?” Phil Jackson hissed.
Pat smirked, “I’m sure you understand as well as Billy and I do the value of a good bargaining chip, Phil.”
Phil nodded frantically at his oversight, a spray of sweat sailing downwind onto Donovan. “Excellent. Now, Billy,” Riley clapped him on the back, “you just get those boys down to Miami, and I’ll handle the rest.”
Riley walked up the beach, an alligator grin planted firmly on his face. A slice of Key lime with that new aerosol coconut whipped cream Chris had picked up, “No retreat, baby,” he said under his breath, “no surrender.”
The Skype connection could have been better, but Goran assured him that so long as he could hear his brother and have their eyes lock at the crucial moment, the spell would work. Frankly it saved him a fair chunk of change, not to mention avoiding questions from those meddling Euroleague coaches about why he’d have to pull Zoran and fly him to Miami. Whatever Skype was, Riley thought, he was investing a million dollars in it when they pulled this off.
Two cloaked figures came out of the tunnel from the players’ entrance, taking slow, measured steps. “What the hell is up with these old-ass robes,” Kevin Durant threw his hood back, “they itch!”
“I like them, hashtag why not!” Russell Westbrook’s megawatt smile was visible even from under the hood’s shadow, “Hey, what’s up, Dragulas!” he waved at Goran, then ducked closer to the wall monitor, which was usually reserved for play reviews and now displayed a bashfully smiling Zoran Dragić.
“Fellas,” Pat clapped his hands together, “thanks for coming at such short notice, it means a great deal to me and Billy, as well as the organization.”
“What’s this all about Riley, coach wouldn’t say and I’ll be real with you I’m not such a fan of the Florida humidity,” Durant said, itching both his forearms at once.
“Hey, I’d consider the Heat,” Westbrook grinned. “I was also thinking of starting up a Bad Boys tour, taking people around the city, you know, scene by scene?”
“Kev, Russ, slow down,” Riley said. “You know, we can talk big moves later but that’s not why Billy and I brought you here.” They were confused, and silent. “We brought you down here because,” Riley said, “and I’m gonna be straight with you, we need you to go back in time and stop Steph Curry from ever going pro.”
Durant looked mildly concerned and seemed to be scanning the entire room as inconspicuously as possible. “I am not trying to be Punk’d,” he finally said.
“I’m out!” Westbrook flashed a peace sign as he made his way back to the tunnel.
From the screen, Zoran Dragić spoke an eons-old word and a glowing red energy field surrounded the room, blocking the exit corridor. The Dragićs began a low incantation in unison that lifted Russell and Kevin off the floor so they were floating in front of Pat Riley and a now-standing Goran Dragić, his wraparound shades removed and his eyes blazing an eerie limpid green.
“Gentleman, as I said, you’ve been chosen to alter the course of history as we know it. Now, the Dragićs will send you directly courtside to a Davidson game. I don’t care what you do or how. But you will dissuade Steph Curry from pursuing his basketball career, and you’ll have exactly one hour to do it. After that, you’ll be brought back to the ‘now’ as we know it, minus Steph Curry The Basketball Player. Under no circumstance reveal yourselves to him as from the future, and change nothing but Curry’s own trajectory.”
And then Goran clapped his hands together and the room went quiet. Westbrook and Durant were gone, the monitor on which Zoran’s face had appeared had melted, and the saxophone solo in “Born To Run” could be heard echoing around the bowels of the American Airlines arena. It was being sung, those high notes, not hummed. By Pat Riley, a man.
Westbrook was adamant. “I’m telling you he is crazy about that shit, the harmonicas, saxophones, everything. He won’t even think twice. It’s going to work,” he said. “And what are we doing here? I don’t want to do this, we’re not time cops.”
“But those wizards,” Durant shook his head.
“Warlocks, bruh,” Russell said. “But who cares. I get the feeling they’d breathe a little easier being rid of Riley too.”
It was a spectacular coincidence, to be sure, and one that Pat Riley never could have accounted for. Steve Van Zandt, right there at a Wildcats game, sitting next to where the Davidson marching band came out.
“Just do it,” Westbrook urged, gently placing the saxophone he’d nabbed moments earlier, when a band member had put it down to catch a t-shirt, in Durant’s hands, “then we go back.”
Durant nodded and stepped up to the musician who was immediately cast in Kevin’s shadow. Steve Van Zandt looked up and smiled, “Durant?”
“Hello, Mr. Van Zandt.”
“Please, call me Little Stevie. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I know it’s crazy me showing up like this with a saxophone in my hands but I have a big fan back there,” he waved sort of vaguely over his shoulder, “who loves you and wanted me to get this instrument signed.”
“No prob!” Steve Van Zandt pulled a sharpie from his Wildcats-printed pirate bandana, “Hey, you got a fav song of the band’s, Kev?”
“No,” Durant looked back to Westbrook who was motioning his hands like he was keeping several feathers afloat, Durant knew this was his hand signal for finesse, he turned back to the musician, “They are all great.”
“Why thanks Kevin, here ya go. Go SuperSonics!”
“Sir it’s the Thun—”
“Go Sonics!” Westbrook nabbed him by the elbow, taking the saxophone and studying it for a second before he scribbled a matching forged signature on a note and attached it to the instrument with an elastic band.
A short time after that, in 2007, Pat Riley would get an awkwardly shaped package—an alto saxophone signed by the one and only Steve Van Zandt with a note attached that read:
PAT: Come and play for the band, Bruce says it’s cool #whynot
In that 2007, with the global economy in shambles and the whole world questioning its first principles, Riley decided to make the leap. He dropped everything and moved to New Jersey, quitting the Heat after their championship year. Once there, in an apartment in Clifton that smelled intensely of onions, he began a practice regime so strict that he spoke to no one, convinced he must not contact The Boss until he learns every Clarence Clemons solo in every song in the E Street Band’s library. In this isolation, Riley will never get the picture that Phil Jackson emails him a lengthy, mostly illegible screencap of a note written on an iPad. Riley does not receive it because he no longer has an email address or a phone, so monastic is his approach to learning “Jungle Land.” In fact, no one believes Phil Jackson. Not that he can use his phone handsfree in his car and not that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant went back in time to try and stop Steph Curry and failed. This is because everyone loves Steph Curry.
That day, after that photo was taken, Westbrook and Durant took the kid out for pizza and told him that they’d come from the future to stop him, but had changed their minds. Curry, who still thinks both of these ostensible time travelers are mostly “not all there,” enjoyed the pizza but vowed to work harder so athletes would be protected no matter what unfortunate circumstances might befall them. It would prove to be his life’s pursuit.
As the first ever full-time professional player-commissioner in history, Curry oversaw many changes. His was a new era of player’s union security, notably with extended malpractice protection for warlocks—welcome news to the 14 warlocks already playing in the NBA—but was mostly defined by his ongoing on-court record breaking.
But what has defined the Curry reign, by most estimations, has been its parity and peace. Because the players are so happy, basketball is the best it’s been in years, maybe ever—each year, every team besides the Sixers and Nets have been in the mix for a playoff spot. Salary cap surpluses, which nearly every team runs since no one wants to be traded for anything excessive, are re-invested into social programs; the success of that endeavor has fueled rumors that Tim Duncan might be the next President of the United States.
And then that success fuels the real thing—Duncan is elected president by a historic margin over reactionary candidate Frankie Muniz, and delivers on his foremost campaign promises by cutting the workweek down to four days and making it illegal to judge someone based upon how oversized their shirt is. The economy flourishes, and once President Duncan mandates one hour a day for hugging your enemies, world peace follows in short order.
Somewhere, in a cabin inland from Asbury Park, a man watches it all unfold from behind a saxophone, taking a moment to pause from practicing his scales, smile and say to himself—to everyone—“Glory Days.”