Top-Shelf Talent

A Macadamia Charles, Basketball P.I., Mystery
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There are calls every basketball P.I. hopes never to get. This was one of them.

It wasn’t that the call was from Lamar Odom; I like Lamar. It wasn’t that the call was late at night; a good basketball P.I. works 24/7, even on vacation.

No, it was the type of case I’d be working, the type I’d managed to avoid my first twenty-five years in the league.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE TANK, WHY NOT ASK  DUKAKIS?

Art by J.O. Applegate

I’d come to Los Angeles for a little October sunshine before the season started and my free time disappeared. Channing Frye had tried to get me to Portland to work a kickball case. No can do, I told him. I’m not a kickball detective. I’m a basketball P.I.

I booked a room near the beach and didn’t tell anyone I was in town. So Lamar had no idea I was only twenty minutes away when he called me at 2:00 A.M. from his new restaurant in Hollywood.

“I’m only twenty minutes away,” I told him, reluctantly. “What’s the case?”

“I think you’d better just come over,” he said.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled my Buick rental into the mostly empty parking lot of a restaurant called East. Lamar stood with his back against his Escalade, arms folded. I had to hand it to him: the man could wear a suit.

I congratulated Lamar on his recent marriage to reality TV participant Khloe Kardashian, a made-for-tv event that reportedly included a number of the Lakers and Lamar’s new father-in-law, gold medalist decathlete Bruce Jenner. Lamar thanked me and smiled weakly as he shook my hand. In ordinary circumstances, you could count on Lamar for a big greeting. I figured something had gone very wrong.

He led me through a back door and into the kitchen.

“Smells good,” I said. “Asian fusion?”

Lamar said nothing. He continued down the hall and into the dining area. It felt like a spa, with its dim lighting and tile walls and East Asian-inspired design elements. Lamar pushed against a wall, which opened like a door, like a clever rich man’s bookshelves in a movie. We were now in the men’s room. It had square sinks and a row of floor-to-ceiling stalls.

Lamar opened the door to the stall furthest from the door. It was spacious inside. I watched Lamar walk in and lift the lid to the toilet’s tank.

Gilbert Arenas is said to have done it to Andray Blatche. Kobe is said to have done it to Shaq. And rumor has it David Stern does it in every new owner’s luxury box at the home opener—his own variation on the mythical feudal practice of prima nocta.

It is the upperdecking, the practice of defecating in a toilet tank to pollute the device’s water supply. Someone had done it at Lamar’s restaurant. Lamar wanted me to find the culprit.

I had hoped never to work an upperdecking case. And I wasn’t sure I was ready to work this one.

“I’m sorry, Lamar,” I said. “I really am. But what makes you think this is a basketball case?”

“Tonight was my night,” he said, pressing one hand down on the now-closed tank, as if it might pop open like a Jack-in-the-box. “Rob already did his opening with his people.” Rob was Rob Dyrdek, the former professional skateboarder and current reality TV participant who was Lamar’s chief co-investor. “I had the whole team and their families here.”

I nodded slowly. This sounded like a basketball case, alright. I got out my phone and switched it to camera mode. “I think you’d better re-open that tank.”

***

The team was in training camp, so I needed to get to work immediately. You never know when a suspect might get cut and hours later catch a flight to play for a team overseas.

Lamar and I agreed to meet the next morning for an early breakfast at a diner not far from the practice facility in El Segundo. Lamar shuffled out of the heavy morning fog, five minutes late and hanging his head like Charlie Brown. I hadn’t seen him like this since his second pot bust with the Clippers. It made me sad.

“Cheer up,” I told him. “You can’t take this so personally.”

“I got upperdecked, Mac. At my restaurant’s opening.”

“I’ve heard that in some cultures it’s a sign of respect.” I had heard that—from Gilbert Arenas—though I didn’t necessarily believe it. “You didn’t tell anyone about this, did you?”

“The custodian found it and told the manager. I told them both to keep quiet. I trust them.”

I didn’t, but now wasn’t the time to mention that.

“Okay, then,” I said. “What are we looking at?”

Lamar hesitated. It was as if a hologram of Kobe Bryant hovered before us and we were too scared to acknowledge it.

I raised an eyebrow. Lamar chuckled. At least this run-around was improving his mood.

“So,” I said. “How are things with Kobe?”

Lamar laughed some more. “Kobe and I are good. We’re coming off a title, you know?”

Kobe professed a single-minded focus on championships, and Lamar had just helped him win his first without Shaq.

“I get that he’s the obvious suspect because of the Shaq thing,” Lamar continued. “But I really don’t think Kobe did this.”

I ran down the roster, including the preseason guys like Adam Morrison, but it was clear Lamar had no idea who’d upperdecked him. I’d have to earn my money and figure it out myself.

***

I couldn’t exactly take stool samples, so watching practice was as good a place to start as any.

“Mac!” Kobe greeted me with a smile. “Come to pay a visit to the champs?”

“Something like that,” I said. “Congratulations on your many successes.”

Phil Jackson labored over to join us. With his white beard, barrel chest, and stiff legs, he looked and moved like an old lumberjack.

“Macadamia,” he said. “What brings us the pleasure?”

“I was in town,” I replied, shaking his hand. “And I figured I should pay a visit to the champs.”

Kobe smirked his approval.

As long as you appealed to their egos, Phil and Kobe were the guys to talk to. They wanted to make sure you understood just how much they knew.

“You guys look tired,” I said. “Late night watching film?”

Kobe laughed. “Party at Lamar’s new restaurant. Film tonight.”

“I can appreciate that,” I said. “I like to play hard, but I’m also always looking to improve my game.”

“You came to the right place,” said Phil.

“I got more rings than a three-ring circus,” said Kobe. He and Phil high-fived. “Talk to the old man now. I’ll hit you up with some Mamba truth after practice.”

I followed Phil into the hall, exchanging greetings on my way out with various players, including Lamar, who acted as if he hadn’t seen me in months.

Phil’s office overlooked the court, or would have if he’d kept his blinds open. The walls featured framed photographs of him hoisting championship hardware with his teams’ stars. There was a skinny, bearded Phil with Clyde, Pearl, and Reed. There was mustachioed Phil with Michael, Scottie, and Horace. There was soul-patched Phil with Shaq, Kobe, and Bob Horry. And there was clean-shaven, old Phil with Kobe, Pau, and Lamar. I pointed to that one.

“You and Kobe have a good understanding these days,” I said.

“Kobe’s much more reasonable now,” said Phil. “I suppose I’ve learned, too.”

“I recall you had your challenges with him.” I was fishing for old beef in the tranquil waters of the Zen garden pond.

“When he first came up, I tried to expand his thinking. I wanted to push him away from the machismo that I felt was hindering his development. But he was resistant to my spiritual examples. The Lakota, Zen Buddhism. What Kobe recognizes is conventional competitive success.

“So I said, ‘you saw the 1996 Olympics, when the American women’s gymnastics team won gold? Kerri Strug was the hero. She played hurt, just like you. But even she needed help, just like you. She had to be carried around. She did only two events. Even in a sport as individualistic as gymnastics, one needs a team. You can trust your teammates and still be a star.’”

“What did Kobe say?”

“He called me a motherfucker,” said Phil. “And told me he was Nadia Comaneci.”

I laughed. May it never be said that Black Mamba lacked for ways to describe his greatness.

“He said if he had an event,” Phil continued, “it would be the rings.”

“That’s your event, Phil.”

“I know it is!” he said with a laugh. “Anyway, Kobe’s much better now. He just got Lamar a bunch of tickets for his charity.”

I must have made a face, because Phil said, “You’re not here on a case, are you, Mac?”

“No, no,” I replied. “Just taking advantage of my position. I was a basketball fan before I was a basketball P.I., and what basketball fan wouldn’t love to pick your brain?”

Phil folded his hands behind his head and leaned back, smiling and nodding.

***

Kobe suggested we meet at a beach near his house. He drove his ‘63 Impala, a purple beauty, top down. I followed behind in my Buick rental, windows down.

The fog had burned off, but the beach was still fairly empty, with only a few exercise-walking senior citizens to show for the sunshine.

“Sometimes I like to come here after practice,” Kobe said as he took off his shoes and socks. “Clear my mind. Cool my jets.”

“By your jets, do you mean your feet?”

“Yes.”

He led us along the shore, just outside the tide’s reach.

“How was the event at Lamar’s?” I asked.

“It was a good time,” said Kobe. “I got to talk to Bruce Jenner.”

“The decathlete?”

“Gold medalist to Gold medalist.”

“Were the cameras there?”

“This was real, Mac, not reality TV. There were no cameras.”

“Anyone else there from the TV show?”

“Khloe, Kourtney, Kim, Kris, Rob, Scott.”

“Who’s Scott?

“Kourtney’s dude.”

“Phil told me you got Lamar some tickets for his charity.”

“Yeah, opening night. I got something like 500 seats in the upper bowl.”

I let that one float for a second. “That’s good of you,” I said. “Upper bowl, huh?”

“Lower bowl was sold out.” We stopped and squared up to face the ocean, a vast spread of blue with specks of gold from the reflected sun. “I really appreciate playing with Lamar. He does everything. He’s my Pippen. A top-shelf talent.”

It seemed like Kobe was all but claiming credit for the prank, but I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a case of linguistic coincidence. Many are the investigators whose ships sail adrift on winds of careless words.

Before I could follow up with Kobe, though, I felt some figures closing in on us. These were big, dark-clad men, not oldies in sweats.

“Any idea who those guys are, Kobe?”

“Oh, that’s my security,” he said. “It must be time to go grocery shopping.”

“You do your own grocery shopping?” I asked. “And that’s when you call security?”

Kobe smiled. “The Mamba can strike with 99 percent accuracy at maximum speed in rapid succession, but that doesn’t mean he always wants to.”

***

At my request, Lamar provided me with DVDs of Keeping Up with The Kardashians, Rob & Big, and Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory. If I wanted to proceed with the investigation at a reasonable pace, I’d have to forego sleep and knock them out that night. It was the responsible thing to do; I couldn’t ignore potential suspects just because they weren’t basketball people.

Just over twenty-five years earlier, I’d pulled an all-nighter watching the 1984 NBA draft with a magnifying glass against the TV. How far I’d come …

The shows were so scripted, I don’t know what background I expected to get from them. My notes were an angry mess. I was an angry mess. At about 4:00 A.M., after Kourtney and Khloe bought Kris a chimpanzee and I wanted to throw my leftover room service at the screen, I decided to take a break and see what stars I could through the smog and light pollution.

I walked down to the beach, where the tide swished rhythmically, oblivious to the inanity of those twits and their shows. I breathed deeply and leaned my head back.

Nothing.

I rubbed my tired eyes and refocused. The Big Dipper: seven chalk dots on a broad, dark slate. I traced the lines between them and saw not a ladle, but a toilet tank with an outsize handle.

This is the business I’ve chosen.

***

Rob Dyrdek sat in a chair that looked like it was stolen from an airport waiting area. I sat in an identical chair, about fifteen feet away. The distance made an already awkward interaction more so. The walls were dotted with skateboards like a teenage face with acne.

“What can I do for you?” he asked. “This is a fantasy factory.”

“I’m sure Lamar told you that I’m a basketball P.I.”

“I’ve never heard of that.”

“I solve basketball mysteries.”

“What mystery are you trying to solve?”

“The mystery of who shit in the toilet tank at your restaurant.”

“That sounds to me like a toilet mystery. Or a restaurant mystery.”

“I have reason to believe it’s a basketball mystery.”

“You’re the expert.”

“You know anything about it?”

“I don’t.” He leaned forward in his chair and pressed his fingertips together, spreading his fingers wide. “But I liked this little chat. Good dialogue. Wanna redo it for my show? This is a fantasy factory. We can make something for you. . Maybe a giant magnifying glass?”

***

Lamar said to come over right away. I wasn’t happy to find a camera crew in the foyer when he opened the door. With the reality shows and the media circus of the Lakers, we had the worst of both worlds: No cameras for the crime, constant cameras for the investigation.
“Keeping up with the Kardashians” wasn’t yet filming but would be soon. Some pasty, middle-aged guy, a producer, I guess—demanded to know who I was. I ignored him.

“That’s my dude Almond Chuck,” said Lamar. “From Jamaica.”

“He doesn’t sound Jamaican,” said the producer.

Lamar led me into a spare bedroom in which there were no cameras. Kardashian cast member Scott Disick sat on the couch, half-watching a muted television and half-playing a game on his phone. I wanted to slap him. I wanted to grab him by his designer V-neck and shake his slicked hair loose and tell him that I didn’t get any sleep last night because I had to watch him whine and preen through all those manufactured storylines.

“Mac, Scott. Scott, Mac.”

Scott grunted. I grunted back.

Lamar grabbed an envelope from an end table and handed it to me. There was no writing on the exterior, and it had never been sealed. Inside was a folded 8.5” x 11” sheet of white paper, on which someone had typed:

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE TANK, WHY NOT ASK DUKAKIS?

So we had us a history buff.

“Where did you find this?” I asked.

“It was in my locker after practice. No idea how it got there.”

“I have to get going,” I said, placing the envelope in my inside jacket pocket.

Lamar warned me that the cameras were now rolling in the other room. And Kim would be arriving any minute, which meant even more cameras—maybe even the kind you can’t control, the paparazzi.

“Hitch a ride with Scott,” said Lamar. “He’s sneaking out the alley. Limousine. Nice tint on the windows.”

Scott rose from the couch and walked out of the room. Lamar gestured for me to follow, so I did.

Lamar wasn’t kidding about the windows. They were nearly indistinguishable from the shiny black of the body. The car looked like it had been sculpted from obsidian. Inside, the seats were beige leather. A decanter of amber fluid that must have been whiskey sat on a small bar.

The driver rolled down the divider between the front cabin and the back.

“Where to, sir?” he asked.

“The hills,” said Scott.

“Sir, they’re not shooting today.”

“Mojave, Frank,” said Scott. He sounded exasperated, like a man who’s easily exasperated. “High desert.”

The driver pulled out into traffic. Unless I was mistaken, this would be at least an hour’s drive.

“Sorry, Scott,” I said. “But would you mind if Frank dropped me off at my hotel first? It’s only about twenty minutes from here.”

“You’re coming with me,” he said, as though it were entirely his decision. It appeared that his persona on the show was genuine. “There’s something I want to show you.”

“Do you even know who I am?” I asked.

“You’re Mac,” he said. “The investigator.”

In general, you don’t want someone you don’t know driving you out to the desert without explanation. They might have you dig a hole with a shovel and fill it with yourself. But even at nearly fifty years old, I figured I could take Scott Disick, at least as long as he was unarmed.

As the daylight dimmed and the passing landscape shifted to desert, I wondered how deep this thing could go. What did Scott want to show me? Did somebody before me take a one-way trip to the Mojave? And what would that have to do with feces in a toilet tank in a restaurant in Hollywood? Whatever this was, it had better be good, because I’d be missing tonight’s game. This was valuable investigation time.

A couple hours later, Frank paid a baffled park ranger our entrance fee. We were now in Joshua Tree National Park, on federal land, in a limousine, at sunset.

“Stop here!” ordered Scott.

We were nowhere near a parking lot, so Frank pulled onto what shoulder there was. The horizon was all rocks and Joshua trees.

“Isn’t this a little conspicuous?” I asked Scott.

“We won’t be long,” he said.

He kept his eyes to the ground as he walked away from the road. I followed at a safe distance.

“Should be around here somewhere,” he said.

“What should?” I asked. But he didn’t answer.

We kept walking, switching directions, sometimes even circling back. Scott kept his eyes to the ground and maintained a steady stream of incomprehensible muttering. Could there actually be a grave out here?

“There!” Scott shouted.

He pointed at a low shrub with small, wilted, pinkish-white buds. As I walked closer to examine it, he pulled what appeared to be an antique pistol from his waistband. On instinct, I slapped it out of his hand and planted my foot on top of it so he couldn’t grab it. I crouched into a posture that would allow me either to fight him or to quickly retrieve the gun.

“What the hell?” he whined. “That’s an antique!”

“You planning to rob a saloon?”

“I was planning to use it to shoot off that flower.”

This was the dumbest thing I’d heard in the last twenty-four hours, and I’d spent a number of them watching reality television.

“What on earth are you talking about?” I asked him.

“I’m trying to get good with Kourtney again. She said the Desert five-spot is her favorite flower. They bloom after rain and it rained earlier this week. I thought it would be romantic if I came out here and shot one off for her.”

Could this kid hear himself?

“Why not just clip the stem?” I asked.

“I dunno,” he said. “I guess the gun just felt more heroic.”

“That thing,” I said, pointing to the flaccid bud on the shrub, “is not a Desert five-spot. It’s not even close. A Desert five-spot is a flower of great beauty. That’s not even a flower. It looks like a piece of food that got stuck to some dental floss. You’re about five months late to get a Desert five-spot.”

“I heard it rained two days ago,” he protested. His voice had climbed half an octave.

“The Desert five-spot blooms from March to May,” I said.

“What am I going to get Kourtney then?”

I shrugged.

His hair had been knocked loose during our struggle and now hung in front of his face. He swept it away with a practiced motion, exposing his eyes, red and wet. “I’m human, Mac.”

“I know you are, Scott.”

Together we surveyed the vast expanses of desert that surrounded us like the abysses at either end of our existences. “I need to be loved,” he continued. “Just like everybody else does.”

***

Across from me, Scott snored. The slow, whiskeyed loll of his head into sleeping posture had left a half-arc of pomade on the window. I leaned my head against the opposite window and watched distant Los Angeles twinkle, a sprawling collection of lights, ambition, and toilet tanks. Playing a hunch, I got out my phone and sent a text message to Kobe Bryant.

“What are you reading these days?”

He responded instantly: “Master of the Senate. What It Takes. Studying leaders, winners.”

Master of the Senate was the third book in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. What It Takes was Richard Ben Cramer’s account of the 1988 presidential election. Among the six candidates he profiled was the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, the man notoriously pictured looking silly in a military tank.

“Richard Ben Cramer What It Takes?” I texted back, just to be sure.

Kobe replied with a thumbs-up emoticon.

That night, I returned to East, where I dined alone. After eating, I slipped off to the men’s room with a measuring tape. By my calculations, the culprit would have needed at least a 36-inch inseam to defecate in the tank without having to stand on the rim or seat, neither of which bore footprints on the night of the incident. It was entirely possible that the culprit had meticulously cleaned such footprints, or had worn clean shoes, or had jump-shat, or perhaps had even defecated into some sort of container and then transferred the matter to the tank. But something told me it had been a direct shot.

***

My first stop at the practice facility was the training room, where I found Gary Vitti, the team’s long-time head trainer and a guy who’s been in my corner ever since I solved the mystery of the too-hot Icy Hot in 1988.

“Gary,” I said. “I need a favor.”

I explained that I wanted to surprise Kobe with a pair of custom-made pants from a friend who’s a tailor. Did he have some measurements I could rely on?

He did. Kobe’s inseam was enough to get him over the tank.

I found Kobe shooting free throws at the far end of the gym. The routine was the same every time. Dribble, dribble, dribble, stare, shoot. The result was the same every time. Swish. Like Kobe was a demonstration robot in a giant Pop-A-Shot.

I waved off his rebounder, some overgrown ball boy, and assumed the duty myself.

“That was an amusing note, Kobe.”

“What note?” he asked. His eyes stayed focused on the rim. He took another shot: all net.

“The note about Dukakis.”

“I haven’t even gotten to the Dukakis chapter yet. Phil just gave me the book.”

“Come on, Kobe,” I said. I held onto the ball, trying to throw him off his rhythm. “You’ve been dropping hints left and right. Top-shelf talent. Upper bowl—”

I would have continued, but I was distracted by something in the background. Phil Jackson was walking Ron Artest and Lamar through a defensive simulation and had adopted the defensive stance himself. With his ailing hip, though, his position was lopsided, his torso listing on the staggered stilts of his legs. Such long legs. Definitely more than a 36”.

I visualized a toilet tank beneath him. I got my phone out of my pocket and checked the photos. The splatter marks inside the tank matched the angle perfectly.

“Coach!” I shouted. “A word, when you have the time.”

Many coaches would be annoyed by such an interruption, but not Phil. He smiled as he hobbled over to Kobe and me.

“Why’d you do it, Phil? Why’d you upperdeck Lamar?”

Lamar must have heard my question, because he rushed to join us.

Phil took a deep breath, not like he was nervous, but like he was about to teach us something, like a dad proud of the wisdom he was about to impart.

“First of all,” he said. “I’m impressed. How did you know?”

“Your stance,” I said. “The angle. It matches the skids and splatters.”

“Forensics.” Phil said. “I dig it.”

“Why, Phil?” I repeated.

“Yeah,” said Lamar. “Why?”

“You’ll notice, Macadamia, Lamar, Kobe, that we gather in a circle both before and after every practice, yes?”

“You do,” I confirmed.

“The Lakota emphasize circularity, connectedness, eternal returns. It’s something one finds in Western spirituality as well. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As Black Elk said, ‘The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood.’”

“This is childish,” said Lamar.

“In defecating in that tank, I was emphasizing that circularity. Feces to feces. What is clean water but a passing moment? Our dualisms are false.”

I didn’t care to engage Phil on this bit of pablum, so I moved on to the next question. “Why did you frame Kobe?”

Phil stiffened up and scowled. “What are you talking about, Mac?”

What It Takes. You gave it to Kobe, and then you dropped the Dukakis reference in the note.”

“I thought I gave What It Takes to Lamar!” said Phil.

“What book did you get, Lamar?” I asked.

The Red and the Black,” said Lamar. “The note inside said, ‘These were the Bulls’ colors when I won six championships with them.’”

“Oh, boy,” said Phil. “Looks like old Zenmaster’s getting a little forgetful. I’m sorry, Lamar. I meant well, I really did. How about I do some free ads for the restaurant, make it up to you?”

With that, Phil wandered off.

“You okay?” I asked Lamar.

Lamar shook his head, took the ball from under my arm, and headed off to another basket to shoot alone.

“You know,” said Kobe. “I heard that back in the day, Phil used to sabotage his team’s chemistry just so he could be the hero and fix it at the last minute.”

“What did you think of all that circle talk?” I asked.

“Lakota, Zen, call it what you want,” he said. “Phil just wanted to shit in that tank.”


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