Ben Simmons swore he’d never come back here. The snakes don’t bother him, he was from a land filled with deadly creatures, and the animals in Australia were pretty bad too. It was the dampness that did it, how it encroached the senses and his last pair of dry socks, the ones he had swapped out for the previously sodden pair, not even fifteen minutes earlier. He could feel the muck and slime squelch around his Hyperdunk Xs. He’d worn the bright yellow ones he’d written EGG BOY on for bravery, now turned a gross puke green.
“Crikey,” Simmons whimpered, “I hate swamps.”
He heard a loud crash that sounded like something dropping into the water behind him and clamped a hand over his mouth, silently cursing himself for falling into Australian adages, especially out loud. He did this when he was nervous, he knew.
Gradually the sounds of the swamp returned. The guttural croaks of bullfrogs, the chattering kingfishers and gargling herons. He allowed himself a sigh of relief. It was probably just a gator, rolling off one of the muddy banks.
But then, there was a sound like nothing he’d heard in these swamps before. A low baying accompanied by short, hooting bursts. The sound, Ben Simmons swore, of a dingo. “Here?” he whispered to himself, “But how?”
Another impossible sound begins around the dingo call. A shrieking, soulful blast, the siren song of an instrument too pure for this world as far as Simmons is concerned—a tenor saxophone blaring the unmistakable, intoxicating first notes of Men at Work’s ‘Who Can It Be Now?’
“Oh no,” Ben Simmons heart catches as if caught in a kangaroo snare, “they knew I was coming.”
Out of the murk comes a revving fan boat going full speed. For a second Simmons thinks maybe they haven’t spotted him but no, the boat only turns so it could start doing donuts in the brackish water, the continuing wail of the song’s tenor sax shaking all manner of wildlife loose. Birds shoot into the sky, gators submerge themselves, a Florida panther goes darting by Simmons, an apex predator rightfully scared of what was coming.
The boat slows in its spirals and flips port-side to the muddy riverbank Simmons is frozen on. One robed figure cuts the engine and hops down onto the lower deck, to join a second, more hulking robed figure at the railing of the boat. The song, absolutely cranked, slows into its mournful conclusion.
“Well if it isn’t The Prince Who Was Processed, sneaking around in our swamp,” the smaller of the figures sneers.
“Not such a Fresh Prince in those gross muddy shoes now, are you?” Says the larger figure.
“Look,” Simmons blurts, “I can explain.”
Both of the figures snort, revealing matching noses covered in warts. Simmons swears he sees a lizard skitter into the hood of one of them too.
“Save it, Simmons, we’re taking you back to the shack.”
Ben tries to move, but all that shaking his knees were doing vibrated his feet deeper into the muck. The big figure throws out a bolas that cinches at Simmons’ ankles.
“Ankles, snatched!” The little one screams as he climbers up into the driver’s seat and cranks the fan boat’s engine.
With a sickening squelch the only thing left of Ben Simmons on the swamp’s bank are a pair of muddied Hyperdunks.
It’s the spring of 2016 and Ben Simmons is nervous. He’s finishing up at Louisiana State, and the NBA Draft is looming. He knows he is good enough to go in the first round but he also knows with guys like Brandon Ingram, Buddy Hield, Jaylen Brown and his own countryman, Thon Maker in the draft, he could end up way down in the dregs. He is a Senior and he is prideful. He does little LSU Tiger swipes to his reflection after practice one night and he realizes that’s not him making the growls, but his stomach.
He heads out in search of some late night food. Once he hits the Baton Rouge limits he thinks why not go into New Orleans, get some beignets and one of those tall, novelty hurricane cups but only to bring back and fill with a gigantic flat white so he can stay up all night and practice his handles. Somewhere along Highway 10 he takes a wrong exit and gets turned around. The road gets bumpier, narrower, until he has to stop and get out. He tries to find himself on Google Maps but all he can see when he zooms out is a blue dot stuck somewhere in the Maurepas Swamp reserve.
It is pitch dark and stinking. There are no lights on the horizon and no stars can be seen through the dense foliage and vine-wreathed canopy. Sure he is imagining it, he hears the faint sound of a positively wailing tenor saxophone. He follows it, telling himself whoever it is, cranking on a sax in the deep swamp, probably knows a shortcut out of here to New Orleans. He can still have warm beignets.
Fantasizing about the consistency of the foam that will be on his flat white, on which gigantic hat he will have placed atop his head on draft night, Ben Simmons stumbles into a clearing. The saxophone is louder than ever but oh, he sees it is a set of old desktop computer speakers plugged into a discman playing the song, ‘Who Can It Be Now?’
“Hello?” He calls.
There is stirring from inside a derelict looking swamp shack, on the other side of the small clearing. Pots and pans clatter and fall, someone curses, Simmons hears a distinct Aussie accent.
Out from the door comes a towering figure, then a shorter one, with dark cowls atop their heads and clothed in dark robes.
“Benjamin David Simmons, welcome.” The big one says.
“We were expecting you.” The small one adds.
He wasn’t imagining it. They have accents, more pronounced than his own.
“Who…who are you?”
They tsk’ed in chilling unison. “The better question, Ben, is who do you want to be?”
Simmons gulps. He can’t say why but he knows what he’s stumbled upon here isn’t wholly natural, is a glimpse into the plane of a more ancient world. He feels a sudden impulse to tell these two shadowy figures the truth, more than that, what he’s afraid of.
“Yesss,” the small one hisses, “we feast on fea—”
The big one jabs the small one with an elbow. Makes a motion with dark shrouded hands for Simmons to please, continue.
“I want to be the first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft!” Simmons shouts. The caterwauling sounds of the swamp are silenced.
The big one claps its hands together. “That’s it?!” It asks, “That’s all?”
“I-I want to go to a team with just one star. I want it to be a team that trusts itself, you know, that has a plan and trusts its internal processes.”
The little one cackles, “This is too easy. What else?”
Encouraged, Simmons continues, “I’ve always admired Sam Hinke?”
The two cloaked figures are cackling by now. They step closer to Simmons, one of them holds out something on a thin length of leather. A shark tooth. The hand gets closer and Ben sees how gnarled, with big, hairy warts sprouting at the knuckles.
“Take it,” it hisses. Ben does.
“Now,” the smaller one says, “think of what you would give up to get all that, to get everything you’ve dreamed of.”
“Give up?” Simmons asks, staring down at the shark tooth in his palm.
One snaps, and suddenly Simmons finds he is frozen in place.
“Ben,” the big one asks, “don’t you recognize us?”
“Yeah, don’t you know our voices?”
“I-I don’t,” Simmons stammers, “I’m sorry! But I’m sure this has been a misunderstanding. If you would just let me be on my way.”
They sigh deeply, sadly, together, and simultaneously lower their cowls. They are unmistakable. Covered in warts, yes, with longer, more crooked noses, hair sprouting from the wrong places on their faces, with leeches stuck to their necks, small toadstools springing out from their ears, one nostril, but still, there before him stand Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes.
“Don’t you see, Ben? Once you are drawn to this place, you can never leave. And it never leaves you.” Dellavedova says, motioning to the newt coiled around one of his fingers.
“We came here just like you, scared and drawn to something that could help us be more than just Australians in the NBA.” Baynes says.
“More,” Dellavedova says, speaking almost entirely through his nose, “than just dirty players.” They look at each other and laugh, “Well, there are some things even magic can’t change.”
“Who did this to you?” Ben asks, “Who was the first?”
“The first? Who knows! Swamp magic is the most ancient of all, it’s impossible to trace the line back that far. But it was Bogut that drew us here and turned us, as he himself had been turned.”
“But Andrew Bogut is an Australian legend,” Ben murmurs in disbelief.
“Well he’s also a witch, mate! A fair dinkum corker of one at that.” Baynes says, popping a mushroom from his ear into his mouth.
“Listen, jackaroo, what say you tell us that one, tiny thing worth giving up for all that and we’ll say hooroo, mind our own bizzo, and be on our way?” Dellavedova leans in, grinning, teeth yellow and brown, a couple covered in moss.
Simmons squeezes his eyes shut. This must be some dream. He must have nodded off in the car once he pulled over. He yelps and his eyes fly open, Aron Baynes has affixed an opossum to one of his ankles.
“This little joey will break your ankles worse than any crossover ever could. Now come on, out with it, we may have several centuries but we haven’t got all day.”
As the opossum’s teeth tighten around the knobby bone at Ben’s ankle he squirms and winces, determined not to give in. It comes to him in a white hot flash along with the needling pain, the thing he’d liked the least since he started playing, if only because it meant the game would be that much closer to ending. The opossum’s mouth clamps down harder and Ben feels the word slip between his clenched teeth, “Shooting!”
He swears he sees Baynes and Dellavedova look at each other, two pairs of hideous, slug covered eyebrows skyrocketing. Swears one of them mouths, Shooting? While the other makes a kind of “Huh” sound in genuine surprise. In his hand, the shark tooth glows, piercing his skin for a drop of blood before Baynes takes it back and wears it around his neck. But then the scene goes dizzy, blurs, and when he wakes up the next day at a Red Roof Inn by the New Orleans airport he’s sure, even as he scratches at his neck and discovers a small salamander clinging to it, that the whole thing was a dream.
Simmons comes to with his arms bound behind him around a gnarled mangrove tree. He blinks to clear duckweed and other swamp detritus from his eyes, and sees the familiar shack he wandered to all those years ago, when he started this whole mess.
Because it wasn’t a dream. It was a curse that got realer by the year, realer and grosser. First it was just slugs in his shoe bag and he thought, okay, a prank. But then he noticed Spanish moss sprouting from his chest, a couple scales between his toes, and he knew the curse had started.
Baynes and Dellavedova said nothing to him, hardly acknowledged him on court but watched him closely. They had finally shown up at his door that summer, demanding to know what he was doing working on his shot. Reminding him what he had asked for and gotten, and what he’d given up for it. They left him with a warning—and quite a few south Floridian swamp creatures they’d shook loose from their bodies on his doorstep—swamp magic didn’t take kindly to being reversed, just look at Joe Ingles. (“What about Joe Ingles?” “Exactly”).
“Oh good, our little joey is awake!” Aron Baynes cries with delight, leaving the rusty knife he’d been sharpening on the ground, shuffling closer, “Look Ben,” he says, stopping to stand in front of Simmons, “we like you, sure, but it seems pretty clear you’re not going to play by the rules so me and Delly we’ve decided to… accelerate the process.”
Ben struggles against his bonds, “That’s not how the process works!”
“Too right,” Dellavedova says, sidling up beside Baynes, “But we’ve grown tired of trusting this so called ‘process’,” Delly lifts his fingers to do air quotes and several crayfish dislodge from them, “and we wouldn’t mind collecting all your life’s essence now, rather than on the swamp magic layaway plan we’ve got you on.”
Ben Simmons furrows a still slug-free brow, “After that, I’ll be free?”
The two Australian witches begin to cackle. “Sure sure, I’ve heard it referred to as the ultimate free agency.” Delly sneers.
They begin busying themselves at various bubbling cauldrons. Simmons realizes the sun must be coming up, because light is creeping around the edge of the clearing. Simmons lets his gaze wander, looking for a way out, a distraction, and instead gasps as his eyes fix on a giant, broad-headed skink. The creature is looking at Ben in what he swears is a pleading way, coiled into the folds of a golden Utah Jazz jersey.
“Joe?” Simmons whispers.
Just then Aron Baynes lifts the transmuted body of Joe Ingles and plops him into his cauldron. “There!” He smiles, satisfied, “We’re ready now.”
Both the witches turn toward him and Simmons can see the shark tooth starting to glow at Bayne’s neck. Dellavedova approaches Simmons with a vial of the potion he took from the cauldron, all the while gnawing on something on a stick. Simmons recoils when he sees it’s a charred iguana. Is that somebody else I know? Ben thinks, starting to panic in earnest.
“Now drink this all down,” Dellavedova scrambles halfway up the larger Baynes who hoists him toward Ben’s lips, where he dribbles the vial into Simmons mouth. Ben spits it out, all over the two.
They both recoil, screeching, as if this were the grossest thing to happen to their sulphurous, slowly decomposing bodies.
Dellavedova suddenly brightens, “Go get Longley.”
Baynes smiles, showing all his crocodile teeth. He goes into the swamp shack and comes out holding the same rabid-looking opossum from the night he was cursed, big as a wallaby but spitting and hissing like a frilled dragon. He lifts its twitching, pink nose up to Simmons. “Ben, meet Luc, Luc, you remember Ben?”
“Luc… Longley?” Ben asks in disbelief. The opossum growls.
“The very one!” Dellavedova hoots, “We were going to use him in a potion years ago, but grew too attached to the ornery little fella. Isn’t that right, Luc?” He scratches Longley behind a missing ear. “Now hold still while we put him on your leg.”
Baynes holds Simmons while Dellavedova draws Luc Longley closer to his ankles, the snapping marsupial looking for purchase. But Simmons, who at least has footwork left in his talents, breaks free from Baynes grip long enough to punt the opossum across the clearing.
“Crikey!” Both witches shout, before turning and chasing after Longley.
Simmons knows he has minutes before they drag NBA Champion Luc Longley back and attach him by the teeth to his ankle. Ben struggles anew against his bonds, twisting and contorting as best he can before he realizes it’s no use. His improved shot will never be seen and he only has himself to blame, a college kid who was too proud to admit he was scared and traded it all away instead of trusting the process.
There’s a rustling in the mangroves behind him and Simmons braces himself, but then hears a familiar, “G’day, mate,” as Patty Mills slips from the undergrowth.
“Patty!” Ben exclaims, lowering his voice and looking furtively in the direction Baynes and Dellavedova took off, “You’ve got to get out of here. You’re a powerful Australian and they’ll curse you with swamp magic!”
Patty Mills snorts, “What a load of bollocks! Those two? They tried to turn me years ago, but I’m immune to that magic, mate.”
“Why?” Simmons asks in disbelief.
Patty shrugs, “‘Cause I don’t want for anything, mate. I’m happy with my lot and that’s all there is to it. I’m too chill for magic.” He begins working at Ben’s bonds, “Now let’s get you out of here, I reckon you’ve still got a shot to show the world.”
Ben holds still as Patty Mills cuts him loose, but his stomach sinks as he remembers the shark tooth necklace, and hears the witches coming crashing back through the swamp.
“Patty, they’ve got my shot in that shark tooth, so long as they have the I’ll never be free from their swamp magic.”
“We’ll see about that, bonzer.” Mills crouches and takes something out of a HEB shopping bag that Simmons can’t quite see.
The witches burst from the swamp into the clearing, holding a wriggling Luc Longley by his thick, pink and scaly tail. The shark tooth around Baynes neck glows anew with their rage and dastardly intent.
“We were going to make it easy on you Ben, but that’s over and done with.” Baynes says, brandishing the hissing opossum.
Dellavedova wields the rusty knife, “Hold still or don’t, doesn’t matter, because soon we’ll have your shot, and everything else, to add to our own game.”
With a laugh, Patty Mills steps out from behind the trunk of the mangrove. “As much as I’d like to see you both add a smidge of style to your games, I’m afraid we’ll never see the day.”
“Mills!” Baynes growls.
“But he’s immune to out magic!” Dellavedova whines.
“Just grab him and we’ll feed him to the gators, nobody’s immune to that.” Baynes snarls.
The two witches advance on Mills, who makes Simmons get behind him. Luc Longley, sitting on Aron Baynes’ lichen covered shoulder, snaps and hisses. Patty Mills takes aim and launches whatever he pulled from the HEB bag in a volley at Baynes, who ducks, leaving Dellavedova wide open. Instinctively, Dellavedova catches the thing and immediately starts screaming.
Confused, Baynes stops his charge, giving Patty Mills enough time to reload and strike him square in the face, chest and groin with sponges.
“Sponges!” Dellavedova wails, his body beginning to shrivel.
Baynes falls to his knees, his swamp water essence draining fast. Luc Longley goes skittering into the swamp. Ben Simmons reaches into the bag for a sponge so he can help, but Patty Mills swats his hand away. “No Ben!” Mills shakes his head, “You’re still too cursed, these’ll dry you right up. Plus you’ve got a lousy shot.”
Mills takes the last two, oversized sponges, the size you’d wash a car with, and brings them over to the writhing bodies of Aron Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova. He yanks the shark tooth necklace from Bayne’s neck and places the sponge on his back, does the same for Delly.
“Rest easy, mates.” He whispers.
In Patty Mills’s Jeep, the morning air rushing thick and hot through the open windows with the sun rising over Lake Pontchartrain, Ben Simmons’ curiosity gets the better of him.
“How’d you know where to find me?” He asks Mills.
Patty shrugs, “Mate, you were looking froggy as hell. You had webbing starting between your fingers, and you dropped a tree frog on me the last time we met in the paint. I caught one whiff of you, and I knew they’d cursed you.”
“But, am I safe now, is anyone else at risk? Kyrie?”
Mills laughs, “Kyrie is immune, he’s more Yank than Aussie. And now that those two are shrunk down to frogs or newts, your curse is broken. The only real threat is Bogut, and is he, really?”
They both laugh.
“You just concentrate on your shooting,” Mills points to the necklace Simmons wears, “and you’ll need to grind that up, consume it. Maybe fire up the barbie and sprinkle it across a flat white?”
He slaps the wheel, “I think Starby’s does a decent job of them, let’s go get us one before getting you on a plane back to the city of brotherly.”
Simmons leans back in the passenger seat. Lulled by the open air, the sound of seabirds drifting up from the Gulf, and Patty Mills’ excellent driving, he drifts off. In his dream, the Sixers are down two in the NBA Finals and the ball has just been flung out, way out, to Simmons, by Joel Embiid. Simmons takes a breath, a step back, and lets it loose, going for the winning three. As the ball sinks into the net he lifts his hands in triumph, but as he does he sees the stadium lights catch on something there, something viscose, translucent. Webbing, between all of his fingers, iridescent spots spreading out on his hands like a leopard frog. He tries to scream and all that comes out is a desperate, forlorn ribbit.