Waiting For James Harden, Or Scenes From The Houston Rockets' Players-Only Meeting

A team in crisis discusses the big issues—defense, rebounding, the role of basketball in an uncaring universe, the dignity of labor, and Melissa McCarthy's "Spy"
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They sat in the humming half darkness waiting for their captain. Though it had not been he who called for this Players-Only Meeting, it did not seem right to begin without James Harden. “Asleep” by the Smiths whisper-rumbled throughout the room, indeed, it had been playing on repeat for going on ten minutes now. Patrick Beverley’s taut expression shouted that he wasn’t about to let anyone change the song. This was the song they deserved, the song dark horse contenders that didn’t come to fight had rightfully earned. They’d listen to it until they deserved to listen to something else.

Dwight Howard fiddled with a Rubik’s Cube and tried to trace back how it had all come to this. Were they waiting for him to speak? Should he speak? What good are words, Dwight wondered. He stared at the door, trying to will James Harden through it. But James Harden refused to appear.

Trevor Ariza quietly prepared a large plate of artisanal bologna sandwiches, his mind a maelstrom. Donatas Motiejunas hovered close behind, as he had not yet eaten today, having instead watched Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham, several times. Corey Brewer checked his watch, and then his other watch. Jason Terry was thinking that he should call Dirk. Maybe they could grab some burgers. That would be nice. Nice things were fleeting, but then everything is fleeting. Clint Capela and Sam Dekker were staging a weirdly heated push-up contest in the corner. Marcus Thornton was sulking, as he so often was. He cracked his knuckles one at a time, then spat a glob of tobacco into his spittoon. “Swish,” he whispered to himself.

And then the new man stood up forcefully from his chair. His headband was ajar and though he was small of stature, he drew the eye.

“Well, are we going to get to it, or just sit here staring at each other?” Ty Lawson knew he was the new guy, and perhaps a likely scapegoat for the team’s horrendous start, but he was no coward, and was prepared to meet that accusation head on, “Let’s do this. Let’s air some motherfucking grievances.”

“James isn’t here yet,” Corey Brewer said, still looking at one of his watches.

“And suppose James never comes,” Ty Lawson snapped, “I guess we’ll have an excuse for not saying a single word to each other. I guess we’ll have an excuse for silence.”

Donatas saw that Trevor Ariza was nearly finished plating the sandwiches. He felt hungry and he felt alive.

“Words are nuclear weapons in the wrong hands, my friend,” Dwight Howard said. He had thrown his Rubik’s Cube aside, having solved it. “Speak freely, but speak gently, elsewise my companions may remember upon whom they might blame these myriad calamities of early season defeat.”

“Something’s not right here,” Ty Lawson said, “Something is rotten.”

“Chaos is life,” Dwight said, slipping on a ring-pop and pensively licking it twice. “A rotten destiny slumbers in the heart of each man, aye, and each woman as well. What indeed is our principal hardwood sin? We give up too many fastbreak points. And what remedy do you suggest, perchance? Swear a holy oath in this room, to look our brothers in the eye and swear that no longer shall our transition defense be so sorely laggard and ineffectual?”

“It’s not just transition defense,” Ty Lawson said, “We aren’t hitting the defensive glass.”

“Speak for yourself,” Clint Capela said, still doing push-ups.

“I’m obviously not speaking for you,” Ty Lawson mumbled. Marcus Thornton spit another thick streak of tobacco but missed the spittoon. The sandwiches were ready. Donatas grabbed a handful and quietly scarfed them down.

“What are you saying, Ty?” Trevor Ariza fixed his with that signature Trevor Ariza stare. “You don’t trust us?”

“Of course I do,” Ty Lawson said, angered by the question, “Do you guys trust me?”

Everyone except Clint and Sam Dekker confirmed they did indeed trust Ty Lawson, at least so far as they could throw him. Clint and Sam’s push-up contest had become an intense game of thumb-war.

“Where could James be?” Corey Brewer wondered aloud, glancing at his other watch. James Harden, the true MVP, was definitely late.

Patrick Beverley said, “It would be just like him to show up at the very end of the meeting. He’s clutch like that.”

Nobody laughed. Nobody even pretended to laugh.

“The Warriors are running away with the West,” Jason Terry said. “They ran away with it last year, and they’ll run away with it this year if we don’t look in the mirror and decide who the fuck we are before it’s too late. Are we commodities, movable cells in Daryl Morey’s spreadsheet? Or are we goddamn men?”

“The Warriors ain’t even that good,” KJ McDaniels—who was also there, by the way, I just forgot to mention it—said. “They’ve just been lucky. We can get lucky too. I know some luck spells.”

Dwight guffawed, bass thunder coated in molasses, “The ruin behind your gaze gives lie to the bluster that leaps so readily from the tip of your tongue.”

Corey Brewer pulled out his phone and called James Harden. Straight to voicemail. He thought about leaving a message, but did not. Donatas offered his last sandwich to Patrick Beverley, who snatched it out of his hand and swallowed it in one feral bite.

“It seems sort of crass to talk about any of this,” Trevor Ariza said very softly, slumped in a rocking chair, chewing absently at one of his own sandwiches, “The world is a fucked up place, man. The world is gross, man. The world is weird and frightening. Paris, Beirut, the war in Syria, genocide in the Congo, Islamophobia, deforestation, Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, people who literally value their gun collection over the lives of actual human beings. Makes you wonder what all this shit is about, what it amounts to.”

Dwight knelt beside Trevor Ariza and clutched his hand, squeezing it, “Trevor, my friend. If something as garish as a slam dunk could bring back a life or restore even a modicum of justice to a world gone mad then we should be Lob City in perpetuity. But it is not so. We have a job to do. A mission, even. Too many have fallen and more still shall fall. But we are alive. And we must live. Live to the very point of insanity and absurdity and tears and grief, but we must live. It’s insufficient, but it is the only thing that even approaches an answer.”

“We need to keep people out of the restricted area,” Ty Lawson said after a long silence, “We aren’t protecting the rim at all. Like, at all.”

“I was going to be the next Eric Gordon,” Marcus Thornton said with real pain in his voice, “Now look at me.” There were chewing tobacco stains all over his shirt and for the first time people noticed he was pantsless. Jason Terry surreptitiously texted Dirk a smiley face.

Patrick Beverley stood next to Donatas Motiejunas and stretched to his full height. “You know, someday I’ll be just as tall as you.”

Donatas smiled and said something in a scary-sounding language. He’d thought Spy was pretty good, but he wasn’t sure it needed to be quite so violent. It was a delight to see Statham kidding his persona, though, and so gamely.

“I don’t need to win another championship,” Trevor Ariza said, as a chorus of consternation bellowed from half a dozen mouths, “I’ve already done that. It’s fine. I don’t think that’s what the world wants from me. To be some tall guy playing a kid’s game when the world is just...it’s fucking burning, man.”

Dwight shook his head, “No. I cannot and will not accept your words, my friend. I shan’t accept that you’ve resigned yourself to a capitulation so craven and pointless. I dare not allow you to cloak it in principle or even world weariness. We need you, Trevor. Yes, I know you take barbarous and wild punishment when you are slotted to play as an undersized stretch-four. This I know all too well. What is the point of all this? This kid’s game as you call it? This kid’s game helps keep civilization from devouring itself, Trevor.”

“I mean, can we just say we lost faith in Kevin McHale and it’ll get better with a new coach?” Ty Lawson suggested after another long silence.

“Aw come on, McHale’s cool,” K.J. McDaniels said, “He lets us watch R-rated movies on the plane! Just because he doesn’t rap his scouting reports like your buddy Brian Shaw doesn’t mean he’s not cool.”

“But he does rap his scouting reports,” Ty Lawson said.

“Only sometimes,” K.J. McDaniels replied, “And badly.”

Dekker looked up from his game of “Battleship” against Capela and added, “oh, very badly.”

“WHERE THE FUCK IS TERRENCE JONES?” Marcus Thornton leapt from his chair before throwing it against a wall, where it broke into several pieces, “He owes me ten bucks!”

Corey Brewer called James Harden again. This time he reluctantly decided to leave a voicemail. “Uh, hey James. It’s uh, it’s Corey. Corey Brewer from, you know, the team. We’re just having the meeting, so uh, you know, just call me back or even just show up if you want. It’s...yeah, it’s most of us are here. So, uh, give me a call back. You have my number, because obviously I just called you. Okay, I’m rambling now. I’m sorry James. I’ll just hang up now so I can get back to the meeting, our player’s only meeting that is currently in progress. Okay, so, I guess I’ll see you on the flip side. Byeeeeee.”

Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas stared in horror as Corey Brewer dashed away and did not return.

Clint Capela and Sam Dekker were now discussing which Jackie Chan films they hated the least.

Trevor Ariza looked to Dwight Howard with appeal in his tired sad eyes, “Do you honestly think we can do this? You and me and Corey Brewer and the rest of this junk? Do you really think we can sustain a win streak? Get home court advantage? Beat the Spurs, the Thunder, the Clippers, the Warriors? Beat LeBron? Because it sounds like a dream to me, Dwight. Another one of those goddamn dreams the people in power use to control everyone else to get them to keep showing up to work on time. To keep them in line. To keep them starving, to keep them mean and weak and afraid. You see what I see, don’t you Dwight? Our destiny is a half-finished adventure, a second-round exit in five games. What is it that we do that matters?”

Ty Lawson contemplated mentioning once more that they could just blame Kevin McHale and move on. The guy had a weird face! Donatas very much wanted to be home, listening to house music until he drifted off to dream in a foreign language. Marcus Thornton silently committed to being kind to a stranger every day for the rest of his time on this weird lonely earth.

Dwight Howard took a few long strides and knelt before a wooden chest that looked suspiciously like a treasure chest. He opened it. Celestial light flooded into the room. He reached inside and pulled out a cape. It was the Superman cape from all those years ago, the one from the dunk contest. From when the future looked alive and there were roads leading in every which direction. He fastened the cape around his neck and stood like a tall human child wearing a Superman cape for the whole world to see. There was no shame on his face.

“It is beyond even my powers to make this world prettier just for you, Trevor,” Dwight said to Ariza, but addressing the entire team, “I can’t promise you no more blow-out losses. I can’t promise you the true MVP will ever shoot north of 30 percent from distance. I can’t tell you when Donatas will actually get on the floor for us or when we’ll look like we remotely give a damn. I can’t tell you that we’ll win. We can’t win, not in the long run. But we can damn sure lose. I say today is the day we fall in love with our fate. Who is with me?”

Silence. Dwight looked from face to face. Their eyes were downcast. No one looked at him. His Superman cape hung limp and lusterless. He sighed.

“Okay, how about we just get McHale fired?”

Everyone seemed to be fine with that, and soon they all went home.

James Harden never showed up.

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