There is no confusion late Tuesday night on the Northbound Broad Street Line. Heading up from the stadiums and South Philadelphia, the train ride plays out the way it’s supposed to: linearly, up a single road, stop by stop, one by one; a predictable perpetual motion machine.
When it clears City Hall and sheds the last of the lateral movers toward Rittenhouse, University City, the Liberty Bell -- places they put on Philadelphia postcards -- travelers are left with only one direction and only people who actually need to be on a Northbound SEPTA train remain.
I leaned back with headphones on, listening to silence, but smiling, because we were approaching midnight and approaching North Philly and I wanted to appear non threatening. The drunk guy across from me eyed me up, noticed the smile and did some subway math.
“You listening to the game?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “But Facebook seems to think the Spurs are about to choke.”
“The Spurs are about to win,” he said. “They were winning by more before, but they’re about to win.”
The guy was big, drunk and loud, a Subway Guru, so I trusted his predictive instincts. Facebook can be a highly reactive place. The ebb and flow of the Newsfeed provides a breeding ground for hyperbole, with everyone scrambling for the timestamped opportunity to be the first to predict any Superteam’s demise.
No longer content to rely on a series of unreliable narrators, I Googled “NBA scores” and, too impatient for Gamecast, watched the little score box update on ESPN.com. The Guru was correct. San Antonio led by five. Twenty-eight seconds remaining.
“I told you this would happen,” he announced to everyone on the train. And, though none of us knew him 15 minutes earlier, we knew he had. “I said whoever wins Game 3 is going to win the series.
The scoreboard updated to show the Heat had cut the lead to two with 20 seconds remaining. We all knew what would happen next. The Heat would foul. The Spurs would make their free throws. The Heat would score. The Heat would foul. The Spurs would make their free throws. The Heat would score. The Heat would foul. The Spurs would make their free throws. As predictable as the train.
“Here come the longest 20 seconds of your life,” the Guru said.
“Basketball,” I said.
The clock on the score page shifted slightly -- action was clearly occurring, but the game remained frozen at 19 seconds. For two stops, all I knew was Tim Duncan was coming in and Boris Diaw was going out.
“You know Lebron James is gonna find something to cry about,” the Guru said.
“Pssh,” I said, because I wanted the guru to know I was on this side. He was in charge. He was running the train. He had dictated that the Heat’s season was over and so it was.
To my right, three older gentlemen agreed. They moved on to the offseason and discussed what a Chris Paul/Dwight Howard Superteam might look like.
“He couldn’t even win in LA,” one man said. The others nodded. It didn’t matter which player he was talking about.
The woman across from me, seated behind the guru, until that moment blending into her plastic subway seat, not a part of the basketball conversation so not really on the train, just along for the ride, leaned my way.
“San Antonio is winning?” she asked.
“By two, with 20 seconds remaining.”
She smiled and sat back. All was right in the world. The Heat were going to fail for the second time in three years and the train was going to deliver us all home on time. The last time the Heat lost an NBA Championship, I was in South Philly and my neighbor celebrated by challenging all Miami Heat fans to meet him in the street. No one answered his call, because there were no Miami Heat fans; there are no Miami Heat fans or if there were, they didn’t speak up that night, and they didn’t speak up Tuesday night on the Northbound Broad Street train.
We eased past Cecil B. Moore.
The phone updated all at once. Diaw came in. Duncan headed out. The Heat trailed by three and had the ball. Somehow San Antonio’s victory train was off schedule.
“Spurs missed a free throw,” I said to the Guru. “The Heat can win.”
He said nothing. The phone said nothing.
At North Philadelphia, with one stop and two possessions remaining, I gathered my bag. The Guru shook his leg and watched me anxiously. Would I actually leave before he found out the result? I couldn’t let him down, but I couldn’t miss my stop. A train follows certain rules.
I looked down just as Miami’s score became 95. Ray Allen makes a 25-foot three-pointer, the page said.
“Tie game,” I said. “Ray Allen for three.”
“Wow,” he said.
The others turned their attention away from the offseason and back to the suddenly still existent NBA finals.
“Ray Allen hit an ‘and one’ three-pointer?” one asked.
This was the only logical conclusion on this one way train. It was far more likely that Ray Allen completed an impossible, last-second, four-point play, than the Spurs -- the righteous team of goodness, of winning the right way, of Big Fundamentals -- would miss a late free throw. They’re free. No way they’d give away a game to the most evil team in America. Surely Miami tied it on a phantom foul call on a three-pointer released after the buzzer even sounded. Nothing made sense.
“No,” I said. “Regular three pointer. The Spurs missed one of the free throws.”
He shook his head.
“Ray Allen,” he said.
“Ray Allen,"I repeated.
I’m sure those were the last words I’ll ever say to any of them again. I disembarked at Allegheny. It was after midnight in North Philadelphia. I was the only one getting off. The train moved North, toward Erie. I went West, toward home. The series kept East, toward its only logical conclusion.