Steal of the Draft

A Macadamia Charles, Basketball P.I., Mystery
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The afternoon symphony of car horns below my hotel window didn’t make for much of a lullaby, but then, this hadn’t been much of an assignment. I’d come to Brooklyn as a favor, to help a rookie basketball P.I. investigate a CYO point-shaving operation, which turned out to be just one kid with an anxiety problem and another who thought it was un-Christian to blow a team out. That’s the life of a basketball P.I., though: No lead is safe. The phone rang.

I figured it was the rookie.

I was wrong.

Steal of the Draft

{Original art by J.O. Applegate}

“Is this Macadamia Charles?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“The basketball P.I.?”

“You wanna see my license or something? Who’s this?”

“This is Bill Russell.”

Now, my business had been growing. I’d done a job for the Globetrotters and a couple for Lou Carnesecca. But I hadn’t cracked the NBA, and I wasn’t buying this self-ID.

“Yeah?I’m Wilt Chamberlain.”

“Lou Carnesecca said you’d have some smartass remark. He also said you’re the best.”

“When’d you talk to Lou?”

“After the draft, last night. That’s what I’m calling you about. Can you meet me at the Felt Forum in an hour?”

The Felt Forum was where they’d held the draft. It was the theater attached to Madison Square Garden.

“I’ve got a flight to catch in three hours.”

“I’ll make it worth your time.”

So much for my flight.So much for my afternoon nap.

***

The Felt Forum was the type of joint that wasn’t necessarily open on a Wednesday afternoon. I walked the perimeter, looking for a way in,getting more convinced that I’dbeen duped, until a guy in a shirt that said SECURITY shouted out, “You Charles?”

We entered through an unmarked side door, the key for which he had no trouble identifying among the several-dozen on his ring. I marked him down as a man with a good memory, a man who could maybe open more doors for me.

He led me down a long, white-walled hallway, lit starkly at regular intervals by naked bulbs. Not much of the flash of the Garden here, I thought. We arrived in a room with a couch and a coffee table. On the table were a Sports Illustrated, a glass of ice water,and a bowl of macadamia nuts. Not my favorite snack—I prefer almonds—but a nice gesture.

The footsteps were audible before he was visible, but they were light for a man so large.

Bill Russell dipped his head to duck the doorframe. His arms hung sad and long, there being nothing in these low-ceilinged back halls to swat. I wondered if he perked up at the sound of a fly.

“Mr. Russell,” I said. “It’s an honor.”

“Call me Bill.”

His hand engulfed mine.

I’d have thought retirement would refresh him, but he looked tired and worried, with bags under his bloodshot eyes.

“What can I do for you, Bill?”

“You’re familiar with our new commissioner?”

“Stern, is it?”

“Yes, David Stern. He replaced Larry O’Brien.”

I nodded.

“Big shoes to fill,” said Russell.

“I know, Bill.”

“Larry O’Brien was once Postmaster General.”

“I know, Bill.”

“I told Stern that.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he’d call O’Brien if he ever needed stamps.”

Yet for all his bravado, it seemed Stern had been burned his first big day on the job. He’d worked the draft, announcing each team’s selection for a national audience on the USA cable network, and everything had gone smoothly, except that Bobby Knight had a bunch of the draftees in Bloomington, practicing for the Olympics.

That and someone stole Stern’s gold pinky ring.

“I want you to find out who,” Russell said. “And get it back if you can.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“I wish I had some leads for you, but yesterday was a circus – all these kids running around in their first suits, ready to go wild because they just got a golden ticket.”

“I assume you didn’t file a police report. I don’t work cop cases.”

Russell gave me a disbelieving look. “I shouldn’t need to tell you that a case like this demands the utmost discretion.”

“Does Stern know you’re hiring me?”

“Yes. He was reluctant to agree to it. He’s too proud. But I told him, ‘You’re not a basketball P.I. You’re not going to find that ring yourself. And you can’t afford to show weakness. Ignoring it won’t make it better. I used to vomit before every game. Every single game.’ I told him, ‘I didn’t see you vomiting before the draft.’ This stuff isn’t easy, Mac.”

“All good points,” I said.

“Time was,” said Russell, “a man earned his rings.”

***

Stern showed up in dress slacks and a turtleneck the color of red wine. He was a decent-looking fella, though his mustache had a slapped-on appearance and his glasses were sized as though his cheekbones could see. He shook my hand firmly and looked me in the eyes. His demeanor, while friendly, was arrogant. I liked it, but also feared it. Not for my sake, but for the game’s.

“I’ll be honest with you, Mac. I hear you’re good. But this one might be unsolvable.”

He’d shaken hundreds of hands that night, he told me, hands of men who had since flown back to their hometowns or their new cities to count their blessings and ducats and to prepare for the season.

“It was on your right hand, I take it?”

“Yes.”

“Who were the two-hand shakers?”

“Two-hand shakers?”

I demonstrated for Stern, wrapping my left hand around his side of our handshake. “If it was stolen during a handshake—and that’s a good guess, but only a guess—this is probably how it was done.”

“You know, Mac,” he answered, “I have no idea.”

“Do you have a picture of the ring?”

Stern disappeared into the hall for a minute and returned with his arms spread wide, holding a gilt-framed oil painting of himself in a three-piece suit, gold pinky ring with a prominent diamond ‘S’ rendered in great detail.

“You can hang onto that,” Stern said of the painting. “I have more.”

I told him it wouldn’t be necessary.

We settled on my terms and he explained that he had already arranged a room for me at the Intercontinental, where both he and Russell were staying. I would find that my bags had already been transported. “You will also find a VHS machine in your room with a tape of the draft. I would have liked to have provided Betamax as well, but the notice was too short.”

***

Everything at the Intercontinental was as Stern had promised. A solicitous bellhop brought my bags to my room, where I found the VHS player and tape, a note wishing me well and listing Stern’s and Russell’s room numbers, an envelope containing five Benjamins for initial expenses, and a bowl of macadamia nuts. I really had to tell them about the almonds.

I was disappointed that the only recording they’d provided me was the network broadcast. Wasn’t there any security footage at the Forum? Couldn’t they get some raw footage from USA?

I started the tape with the remote control in one hand and my magnifying glass in the other. Al Albert and Lou Carnesecca hosted. Everything was smiles and anticipation, or, as Al McGuire would say, seashells and balloons.Had I not been on assignment, I’d have poured myself a drink and shared in the sentiment. Instead, I fast-forwarded to the handshakes, which I watched with my magnifying glass up to the screen. These being the days before digital, the close-up was headache-inducing, pointillist nonsense, except you could see that Stern’s ring remained on throughout.

When I was done with the handshakes, I started at the beginning and paid attention only to Stern, following his eyes and gauging his demeanor. Were there moments of unease, surprise, or fear? No, he seemed satisfied throughout, as though he were admiring his besuited self in a mirror across which a swimsuit model had written in lipstick a glowing review of his bedroom performance.

I watched it a third time and followed the players and their entourages. Charles Barkley had a twinkle about him; I sensed an instinct for mischief. Sam Bowie walked with a grace that belied his size. His strut didn’t match his humble interview. But neither player did anything to raise suspicion. The one player known for steals—Alvin Robertson—was in Bloomington with Knight.

Finally, I watched the broadcasters. Albert and Carnesecca remained behind their table the whole time. Of course, I trusted Carnesecca, but in a basketball investigation, no one gets the benefit of the doubt.

***

As I was eating my breakfast in the hotel restaurant the next morning, I thought I spied a large figure lingering behind a fern, but when I looked more closely, the figure was gone. I chalked the apparition up to lack of sleep, until the same thing happened later, when the figure appeared to vanish behind a pillar. It wouldn’t have surprised me if someone had been watching me, but this surveillance seemed rather amateurish. I decided to put it out of mind for the time being.

I left the hotel in a CYO t-shirt and a pair of shorts of the style now typically associated with Thomas Magnum. The day was clear and the warm, and the humid air suspended the smells of midtown for all to enjoy.

I didn’t have a destination in mind, but apparently someone had one for me. I’d barely made it two blocks before a man in a baseball hat pulled down low grabbed me by the shoulder.

“A word with you, Mac?”

“Sure. Who wants it?”

“Lemme buy you a cup of coffee.”

I took a better look at him. White guy, 6-1 or so, slim. Maybe in his fifties.He wore thick glasses and an even thicker mustache whose authenticity I doubted. This reeked of a disguise.

We ducked into a Greek diner and took a booth in the back.

“I hear you’re working the Stern case.”

“Not sure what you’re talking about. I’m in town for a CYO job.”

“Yeah, nice t-shirt, but don’t try to bullshit me. I’m prepared to make you an offer.”

“You feel like letting me know who you are first?”

“Just hear me out.”

“Shoot.”

“Ten grand to forget about Stern’s ring.”

“No can do, boss.”

He smiled. “I see. Worried about your rep as a basketball P.I.? I should’ve thought of that. That’s fair. So, say I get you the ring? You can say you found it, maybe in Stern’s couch cushions.”

“Sorry, boss.” I offered my hand. “By the way, I’m Mac Charles. Don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

He regarded my hand with a frown and rose from the booth. “Keep your eyes open. And watch your back.” He hurried out of the restaurant.

He hadn't paid for the coffee he was buying me.

I dropped a few notes on the table and attempted to follow him out, but before I even reached the diner’s door, he had slid into a cab that then merged into a field of yellow. He was quick for an old man.

As I stood there looking foolish, I wondered if this mystery man’s familiarity might be a result of his appearance—maybe sans mustache, glasses, and hat—on that draft video I’d been watching into the early hours of morning.

***

My hotel room was as I’d left it, except for a small object hanging from a ribbon hanging from a floor lamp. As I drew closer, I saw that the ribbon had been tied into a noose that held one small thing: a macadamia nut.

A piece of notebook paper sat on the nearby desk. Someone had cut out and glued letters from a newspaper to make the note, which read:

DO YOU LOVE THIS ASSIGNMENT MORE THAN YOUR HIDE?

This was a serious breach of security, not to mention an escalation from my meeting with Mr. Mystery at the diner. I generally don’t like to trouble my clients, but I figured I ought to have a little chat with Russell.

He didn’t take long to answer my knock. His bloodshot eyes sat atop sad bags of champion skin.

“We got a problem, Bill.”

“You can say that again,” he said.

“I had a visitor to my room.”

He turned to let me in and gestured to his desk. There was no noose, but there was a note, constructed in the same manner as the one in my room.

YOUR RINGS ARE NEXT, it read.

***

Russell couldn’t give me anything on the dude at the diner, and I didn’t have a photograph. I decided to go for a walk to think it over. As I made my way through the lobby, past the hotel restaurant at which I had eaten that morning, someone whispered my name.

I turned to find myself facing the man known as the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles Barkley, wearing an Adidas tracksuit and half hidden by a ficus tree.

“My name is Charles, too,” he said.

“I know.” I offered my hand. “Congratulations on getting drafted. Philly’s a good town and a good team.” It occurred to me that some guests might think I was talking to a tree.

“Thanks, Mac.”

“What are you still doing here? And why are you hiding behind the plants?”

He leaned in, conspiratorially. “I heard good things about the buffet, but I’m supposed to be on this diet. If my agent finds out I’m doing this, he’ll be furious. He’s staying here.”

I laughed.

“I’m wondering,” he continued, “could you hook me up with some of those macadamia nuts?”

“Sorry, boss.”

“But that’s your name.”

“I prefer almonds.” I slapped him on the shoulder. “Hang in there, kid. You’ve got a bright future.”

As I headed for the exit, he whisper-shouted after me. “Maybe me and you could work together. Charles and Charles. Your name first. Give it some thought!”

***

I considered hitting the Diamond District (to see if someone pawned the ring) or Times Square (to see if anyone was making a show of it for the go-go girls), but instead I just walked around, thinking through what had happened so far. Believe it or not, the case started to make sense. After thirty minutes of putting it together, I found myself at a stoplight, smiling so wide I drew stares. Mac was back. I even stopped for a knish.

Kaufman’s Army and Navy remained as I remembered it, except the old guy was gone, replaced by his grandson. Not to worry: The new manager found exactly what I was looking for. I lugged the big bag the few blocks back to the hotel, where, for giggles, I checked the restaurant for Barkley. If he was there, he’d hidden himself well.

Russell answered my knock immediately. He looked surprised to see me. I wondered, does this guy ever get out?

“Mind if I have another look at that note, Bill.”

“Oh,” he said. “Sure thing.”

I walked over to the desk and pulled out my magnifying glass.

“I suppose it’s okay to touch it,” he said, “since without the cops, we won’t be dusting it for prints.”

“I don’t think we’ll need to worry about prints, Bill.”

“What’s in the bag?”

“A metal detector, actually. Mind if I try it out, make sure it’s working?”

Russell furrowed his brow. “Sounds like a desperate strategy, but be my guest.”

“Leave no stone unturned, Bill.”

I opened the package and loaded the batteries in the magic wand.

“You didn’t need one of these to get your rings, huh, Bill?”

He chuckled. “Earned, not given.”

The thing powered up with a sustained beep. “Looks like we’re in business. Lemme run it over one of your rings.”

“Pick one,” he said, as he spread his hands. They looked like a couple of five-legged spiders that had just escaped from the chain gang.

The detector beeped heartily as it passed each digit. This would do just fine. I made like a priest and, mumbling about the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, swung the wand to either side of him like it was a thurible. On his right side, it went off.

“Whatcha got in that pocket, Bill?”

He broke into a smile and dipped his hand in his pocket. It emerged holding Stern’s ring.

“Nicely played, Mac. Very nicely played. How did you know?”

“You’ve been watching some Willy Wonka, haven’t you?”

Russell bellowed a laugh. “You’re right. How did you figure it out?”

It really was quite obvious. “The ‘golden tickets’. Your comments about earning rings. But it was the Slugworth that gave it away.” Wonka had tested the integrity of Charlie, his prospective heir, by sending a man to pose as Arthur Slugworth, Wonka’s rival. Slugworth attempted to bribe Charlie for industrial secrets. “Who was that the guy who made the proposal at the diner?”

“The Cooz,” he said. “Bob Cousy.”

“No wonder he moved so quick.”

“Willy Wonka taught me something with that Slugworth tactic,” said Russell. “I needed someone to look out for the league, but first I had to make sure you were loyal.”

“I’m loyal to my clients, Bill. But ultimately a basketball P.I.’s only loyalty is to the game. And the only way to be loyal to the game is to be loyal to the truth.”

***

One year later, I found myself on the same couch in the same back room of the Felt Forum, a VIP guest of the NBA. For some reason, they hadn’t hired me to look into the lottery-fix allegations.

Twenty minutes until showtime, and Stern was nowhere to be found. Then I heard it: a vigorous retching from the adjacent bathroom. It appeared Stern had been humbled and had taken Russell’s advice to heart.

As I smiled to myself at the thought, Russell ducked his head in, cupped his giant hand over his ear to indicate that he was listening, and gave me a thumbs-up. He then disappeared for the rest of the night.

Minutes later, Stern emerged, looking far more put together than one would expect of a man who’d just spent the last ten minutes emptying his stomach. He’d shaved his mustache, leaving naked his trademark smirk.

Stern’s unruffled appearance made more sense when I saw the lanky, long-necked kid trailing him and looking peaked. The kid still had a spot of vomit on his chin, but Stern showed him no sympathy.

“I told you: If you ever want to run this circus, you’re gonna earn it.” He turned to me. “Macadamia Charles, meet Adam Silver.”

{Read more Macadamia Charles stories}


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