When Smush Parker Saved The World

Smush Parker had his moments in the NBA, good and bad. But the most important moment in his career came in a seemingly meaningless game in Greece.
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We know, not that we should care, what Kobe Bryant thinks of Smush Parker. Kobe, of course, is Kobe; Smush was the point guard for the Lakers for a couple of post-Shaq rebuilding seasons in the middle of the last decade. This was a period of early playoff exits for the team and bitter anguish for extravagantly spoiled Laker fans, who saw a second-round exit as something very much like the demise of Western Civilization as they knew it. This was, to underscore, some years and two championships ago, which made it stranger when Kobe, in a recent interview, went out of his way to compare Smush to a college walk-on and called him "the worst," criticizing his lackadaisical attitude and selfish play. Smush, in response, shot back by saying his time playing with Kobe had been an “overrated experience,” and referred to the Lakers as the Los Angeles Bryants. This is all public knowledge.

What is not public knowledge, however, is that Smush Parker actually changed the course of human history and inadvertently prevented the collapse of Western Civilization. This was long after he left the Lakers. This happened, appropriately enough, in Greece, the very cradle of Western Civilzation itself. I know, because I was there.

***

I arrived in Greece in February of 2011, at the same time as Smush Parker. The Greek league, long regarded as one of the best in Europe, was experiencing a downturn that paralleled the nation's struggles during the worldwide economic crisis. Most teams, like most everything else in Greece, were struggling to stay afloat. The country was angry, messed-up, and mostly broke, but when I got the call from the coach of AEK Athens promising a starting spot and a suite in the club's beachfront luxury hotel, it didn't take me long to say yes. I was happy to leave my current team in the backwoods of Slovakia, where we not only had to plow through three feet of snow to get to practice, but had recently fallen victim to a unique hustle on the part of management. The owners had begun to fine us for losing games; then, in what is in retrospect kind of a brilliant ponzi scheme, they would then turn around and pay our next month’s salary with last month’s fined money. It was nice to leave.

AEK Athens (pronounced ‘ike’ by the locals) is one of the most storied clubs in all of Europe. Founded in 1924 by Athenian ex-pats from Constantinople who had repatriated back to Greece, they’ve twice reached the Euroleague final four, and well-known players such as Kurt Rambis, Rolando Blackman, and Ricky Pierce all wore the double-headed eagle crest. Domestically, AEK has also won eight Greek league championships and has never been demoted to the second division in its near-90-year history. For me, the Greek League was a big step up.

For Smush, it was the opposite: another rest stop on his long, slow flight from the glamour of Staples Center. Before arriving in Greece he’d been released from Spartak St. Petersburg. Iraklis, a team in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, had offered him a large chunk of money to help save them from relegation to the second division.

My first few days in Athens felt like I’d escaped to the beaches of Bora Bora after a three-month stay in a Siberian gulag. I wandered the concrete expanse with a near permanent smile on my face and treated every practice like it was a high-school try-out. After a while, though, I began to see the cracks in the façade.

On the surface, it looked like the country was still flourishing. Nightclubs and restaurants in Athens were near capacity, the women were just as attractive, the food just as good—the system seemed to be working, despite all those headlines announcing its collapse. But it was as if the government had put a slab of concrete over an active volcano and the solid foundation was eroding underneath us. The country was unraveling, with debts revealed to be as high as $410 billion in a country with a population size nearly 1/30th of America’s. Corruption was endemic, and politicians—who were, bafflingly, given immunity from prosecution—were vastly overspending, then borrowing outrageous amounts of money they couldn’t afford to pay back just to maintain the status quo. (They were also, it was later revealed, paying Goldman Sachs billions of dollars in a complex currency swap scheme dedicated to hiding from the EU the fact that the debt percentage of GDP was five times higher than EU guidelines allowed.)

Interest rates spiked. Tax evasion, one of the preferred and favored pastimes of wealthy Greeks, was crippling the country and further draining public funds. The government was forced to borrow even more money to make up the shortfall; what followed was the so-called ‘death by interest.' In some parts of town unemployment was at historic highs. Nearly half of the youth in Athens were unemployed. That figure was rising.

No industry was or could have been immune to that slow-burning chaos. Sports teams, in particular, are inextricably linked to politics and power in Greece, and suffered alongside everything else. And AEK, it seemed, was worse off than most.

***

Shortly after I arrived, unpaid rent forced the team to move from the 8000-seat Olympic arena to a much smaller—and asbestos-filled—suburban gym. The so-called beachfront hotel deteriorated into a dingy two-star roach-afflicted horror show. And, other than the 200 Euros in a brown paper bag that had been handed to us by a pimply-faced 19-year-old intern, we hadn’t been paid.

We continued to play on, losing more than we won. Part of it was pride, as we were locked in a heated three-way battle with Smush’s Iraklis and crosstown rival Illysiakos at the bottom of the standings, and didn’t want to be the first team in AEK history to be relegated to the second division. Most of what motivated us, however, was money. We were mercenaries, if not very well paid ones, and each week we held on to promises of a paycheck if we continued to play. Near the end of the season, however, our management simply disappeared. The general manager stopped answering the phone. The entire staff cleared out their offices. This was the week before our pivotal season-deciding game against Smush and Iraklis.

I walked into the locker room before practice and found our captain, post-shower naked, standing dripping wet in front of the team. He began to explain the full extent of our situation:

Our club, apparently, was being shadow-funded by a former AEK president whose day job was running FAGE, the multinational Greek yogurt corporation. A huge basketball fan, he’d been appalled at the state of his beloved AEK and decided to cover the team’s basic operating costs until the end of the season. To come up with the extra cash he began temporarily laying off his own employees. He assumed he’d be able to recoup the money at the end of the season when we secured our future safely in the first division, at which point he would rehire his former employees without too much of a paper trail. FAGE, however, was in dire straits itself, and was secretly being propped up by Greek governmental money in order to avoid collapse.

"What happens if we lose?"

The captain shrugged his shoulders. "It could be bad, the government needs FAGE to stay viable, or the whole country collapses." He paused. "Disaster," he finally said, looking down.

We were not only playing for the possibility of a paycheck, but to prevent the collapse of a nation's economy—and possibly that of much of Europe—by rescuing a government-backed, shadow-funded, international Greek yogurt company.

"So maybe you better work on your jump shot a little bit this week," our Croatian small forward chimed in from the other side of the room.

***

By tip-off, I was a mere spectator. Whether because of the stress of world salvation or just bad luck, and I'd pulled a muscle in practice the day before and would watch from the end of the bench. I stretched my legs on a parquet floor studded with black burn marks—scars from where our fans had lobbed fireworks at opposing teams and referees.

An hour before the game, our supporters draped in the customary yellow and black scarfs of AEK, crammed themselves into every opening and crevice in the arena. The banging of drums was deafening, which was a relief insofar as it made less distinct the vitriol directed at the Iraklis players and two brave souls from Thessaloniki who had come to watch their team. A peninsula of local cops surrounded the Iraklis bench. A few over-eager fans threw a pair of emergency flares onto the court and warm-ups had to be called off as fire extinguishers were located.

Fandom, in Greece, and much of Europe—if not the world over—is different. Fans don’t "support" a team, or "follow" a team; the mere act of "being a fan" doesn’t exist. Ask a Greek person which team they root for and they won’t say "I’m an AEK fan," but rather "I am AEK." You’re born into the classless, pluralistic culture of para-social interactions where the actual names of the players on the court or the field are less important than the sense of community derived from wearing the club emblem on your sleeve. Your choice of friends, your lifestyle, even your sense of being becomes entirely intertwined with the club you associate with and, more to the point, with the success of the club. With the Greek economy and way of life collapsing into ruin—the stands were, that day, full of all kinds of individuated wreckage—the fans cheered, as if forcing their will on the game through a sheer high-decibel roar might make some change elsewhere in the nation, or in their lives. The stakes were high, and the noise level in the gym reflected it.

***

Not that we needed it, at least early on. Smush, who had his own problems, had threatened to leave Greece for good the day before if he wasn’t paid. Iraklis, realizing their only hope of survival—and of preserving the jobs of those associated with the team—was to keep their star happy, scrambled to come up with some of the few thousand euros they owed him, then promised him the rest of the money if he stayed one more game.

Smush had gained about 20 pounds since his Lakers days, and moved more like a king-sized waterbed than the svelte, athletic guard I remembered. In the first half, he played as if he was wearing a newly pressed wedding suit which he wanted to keep absolutely free of sweat. He walked the ball up the court, clanked thoughtless 30 footers off the side of the rim, played defense with the energy of an elderly housecat, evaded all contact and rarely mustered so much as a jog from one end of the floor to the other. At one point I caught him covering his mouth to avoid yawning during a break in the action. A part of me wanted to feel disrespected by his nonchalance. After all, we were practicing and playing as if our lives depended on it—as if the entire EU economy depended on it—in front of desperate and possibly violent fans that simply could not accept a loss. Smush was fucking around in the backyard with some friends.

There was, however, a small part of me that wanted to walk up and pat him on the back for shining a light on his management’s mendacity. His supreme passive-aggressiveness might have been a juvenile form of revenge, but Smush did at least seem to relish it. And anyway, I could relate: I also knew the sense of anger and powerlessness that came with signing a contract thousands of miles from home that later turned out to be meaningless; Smush, through his slow-motion on-court semi-boycott, was reclaiming something, however petulantly.

I knew, however, that I could never afford to do what Smush was doing. I needed the job, for one thing, but I needed to believe there was a carrot at the end of the stick. And in this case there was- my team needed this game, our fans needed us to win. This was also true of Smush’s coach, his teammates, the staff employed by both teams. The owner of FAGE and his employees—the entire country of Greece and maybe even all of the European Union—hinged on the outcome of this game. Everyone needed to win, for one reason or another, except for Smush Parker.

And Iraklis needed Smush Parker, a lot. Weight gain or no, he was by far the best player on his team, and any chance to beat us rested on his shoulders. There was a sort of bitter satire to the moment: the man who cared the least and had the least to lose seemed to have the most control over the outcome, while those screaming their lungs out in the stands or protesting in Syntagma Square for a slightly better life, were largely ignored by the elite. At halftime we were comfortably in charge.

But when the teams came out of the locker room for the second half, something had changed for Smush. Maybe his coach threatened him, or maybe he was visited by the sneering ghost of Kobe Encounters Past, but he began to play with the subtle, authoritative gracefulness I remember. Slashing through the lane, finding open guys for easy shots and drawing fouls. I crossed my arms, helpless on the end of the bench as he led his team back into the lead late in the third quarter.

Then, suddenly, the entire gym went nearly black. The lights went out, the scoreboard turned off completely and the game was halted while staffers tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Our coach tried to huddle the team up and talk strategy, eventually relenting when the lights didn’t come back on. Each player grabbed a towel and sat on the team bench in near silence, waiting.

During a game, whether they're playing or not, players are in an altered state—fully in themselves but slightly out of their bodies, engulfed in a beautiful hurricane of focus and kinetic energy. Slow it down, or stop it entirely and plunge it into darkness, and things change. There's time to think, time to consider the surroundings and the stakes. The existential considerations that had been pushed deep into the back of your head reveal themselves. Fears, usually repelled by adrenaline, make their presence felt in its absence.

Smush stood by himself, away from his team’s huddle, while our fans tried to illuminate the gym with lighters and phones. His head was down, perhaps in thought, perhaps wondering how he had ended up here of all places, in Greece and in the dark, in an exceptionally meaningful and objectively meaningless game. Maybe he was thinking about management, or about Kobe, or about everyone else who had wronged him along the way. His basketball life is a long story; there are a lot of disappointments in it. Whatever his emotions or bitternesses, they had regained control of him when the lights came back on. The sulking, passive Smush of the first half was back. It didn’t take long for us to regain the lead. It was like playing five-on-four.

***

When the final buzzer sounded, the crowd erupted in delight. We had, at the very least, restored some of their pride and dignity; we had preserved AEK's record and perhaps kept the team afloat. The president of FAGE sprinted down from his seats—not so much a skybox as a standing area above the basket—and shook each of our hands individually, a huge smile visible under his gray mustache. His company and its employees would survive.

Smush waited for the commotion to die down, picked up his shooting shirt and walked slowly to his team’s locker room. As he passed me, we caught eyes for a moment and what I can only describe as an expression of profound relief stretched across his face. He took the first flight back to New York the next day. He had, in a way that only Smush could, saved the entire Western World. If he knew it, he didn't let on.

Illustration by Houston Trueblood.


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