On the John
I’m going going, back back, to Cali Cali
Originally completed September 6, 2010
When I pulled off the 134 onto Verdugo Road in the Glassell Park area of Los Angeles, the strong and unmistakable good-to-be-back feeling that surged through me was a welcome surprise. My visit to my brother and our friends in April was a wonderful one – though I’d planned to return before the summer was out, I did not expect to feel such nostalgia for the intersection of Eagle Rock and Avenue 40.
Like last time, temporary L.A. life consists of sweeter fruit, stronger herb, a brighter sun, and a general friendliness. This welcome atmosphere was the biggest surprise of the first trip, and it continues to impress me now. On Thursday night, we attended an after-hours fundraising party at a tattoo parlor that managed to combine the raunchiest booty dancing that ever was danced with proper hospitality and oodles of good cheer. The host was a musician named Spoon, a man my brother met a few weeks ago. He wore a wife-beater and jeans, was blanketed in tattoos, and, as we entered his party, greeted us with a smile and hearty hand shake reminiscent of my cousin Wendy, a classic host herself.
Every fellow partier was as kind as Spoon, especially when they learned we were guests in their city. There are family reunions less inclusive, and the asses… Oh, the asses! Such marvelous female bottoms cupped snug in leopard patterns and other silky arrangements, yet because of the party’s everybody-in-the-circle attitude, the booty dancing in question was actually quite cordial. Never have I engaged in such salacious activity that was also so tame and inviting…
Even the DJ’s choices were unusually inspired: he followed “Big Pimpin’” with “Satisfaction,” went to “Girls” by the Beastie Boys, and then to “You’re The One That I Want” from the Grease soundtrack, muting the volume on the “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Honey – ” refrain, which the crowd enthusiastically filled in.
Like many of the males in attendance, the DJ wore a Dodgers cap, his of the classic blue. While I am cool with jet lag, car lag, train lag, or distance lag, I am always struck by a bit of sports lag when I travel this country – my brain forgets that my body has left Chicago, and wonders emphatically at the sight of “foreign” sports gear, “Why all the Dodgers fans? Strange…”
Because while Lakers flags and memorabilia are EVERYWHERE, it is the iconic “L.A.” cap that rests on the heads of so many Los Angeles residents. “It’s not just about the Dodgers,” Spoon explained beneath his black Dodgers cap. “It’s about the city. About the L.A.”
Earlier that day, our friend Luke Peterson and I jogged over to the Glassell Park Recreation Center for some outdoor basketball. Schwartz (knee) and my brother (back) are on the mend while Train was working on music, leaving Luke and I for some high-spirited one-on-one.
A two-year starting point guard on his high school varsity team, Luke is six foot flat with long limbs, coordination, some nifty finishing moves around the rim and a solid jumper with three-point range. We banged out three intense games – up to 21, make-it-take-it, ones and twos – with Luke winning handily in all three.
The next day, Friday, as Luke and I reviewed footage from a documentary he is filming, Train invited us out for more hoops. We told him we would meet him there shortly…
…but when we arrived ten minutes later, he was unseen.
“I’ll check inside,” I said, and wandered into the rec center. “Nope,” I said upon my return. “There’s two guys shooting around though, if we want to go twos.”
“Let’s go you and me one game. He’s not here by then, we’ll go in.”
I took advantage of Luke’s early-game lethargy by knocking in several mid-range jumpers. That was good enough to trail only seven to five as the game began, but Luke locked in and closed out strong for the 21 to 9 win.
When we got inside, the two guys were playing two other guys half court. On the bench along the far wall were four other players, drinking water and talking. “We’ll take next if no one’s got it,” Luke said.
“Just get in now,” said one of the on-court players. “Those guys are leaving.”
Luke went to one team and I went to the other. On my team was Javier, an Oliver Miller type (rookie edition), and Anthony, a scrappy combo guard. On Luke’s team was Richard, sort of a jump-shooting savant who probably shot 70% from three even with his staccato shooting rhythm, and Eduardo, who had a bit more bulk than Anthony but a similar game. Richard knocked in the “shoot for ball,” and Eduardo took it up top.
“Are we playing to 11 or 21?” I asked.
“13,” Eduardo said.
We played three games, and in each, the premier matchup was Javier-Luke, a riveting doozy of an inside-outside battle. Javier banged Luke underneath for three straight games, boxing out and posting up while enjoying innumerable second-chance points and a slight edge on the glass. Luke, meanwhile, dragged Javier out to the three-point line, where the slender point guard used Durant-like versatility to regain the offensive advantage.
Along with his 20-10 play, Javier’s big contribution was as an encouraging, spirited teammate. “Almost!” he’d say when your shot clanked off the rim or a pass evaded your reach. “Just stay focused.”
Be it the confidence boosters from kind strangers or the unearned respect from defenders who mistakenly took me for fast, I enjoyed a fine shooting day and a generally competent floor game. My productivity and basketball value increase with teammates; I am at my best offensively when I have the option to pass, and am helped by the immediacy of the make-it-take-it, as I was in one stretch in Game 2 where I knocked down elbow jumpers Paul Pierce-style on four consecutive possessions.
Anthony contributed with steady guard play on both sides of the ball. We did a re-shoot for teams after the first two games that swapped Anthony for Richard, and, for the third straight game, Anthony’s team won behind his game-winning assist, the first two to me, the last to a very determined Luke, who picked his hustle way up in Game 3 and ultimately wore down the bulkier Javier under the boards.
We were enjoying a stretch and a water break, having just finished what would end up being our final game. Anthony was wearing a LOS ANGELES LAKERS 2009 NBA CHAMPIONS t-shirt, and so I asked him: “You guys all Lakers fans?” They nodded. I said, “Lemme ask you: Is there a geographical split to Lakers-Clippers, like how we have North Side-South Side in Chicago for the Cubs and Sox?”
“Naw man,” Anthony said. “Just whoever you like.”
“Whoever’s winning,” Javier said. “And the Lake Show’s been doing that forever. Easy.”
“How many championships have you seen?”
“Since the first Three-Peat,” Javier said. “I was born in ’84, so Magic and all them… I was still young.”
I looked at Anthony, and said, “Another three-peat for Kobe and Phil?”
He slapped hands with Javier, and said, “Best team in the league, baby!”
“We were talking about that earlier,” Luke said. “Think you guys can beat the Heat?”
“Oh hell yeah!” Anthony said. “They just have those three guys. We’ve got a whole team.”
Luke raised a teasing eyebrow. “LeBron and Waaaaaade…” he said.
“Kobe.” Anthony said.
Javier hopped in: “Kobe is charged up from all the Heat talk. That’s gonna drive him more than anything.”
“True, true,” I said.
Javier aimed a suspicious look my way. “So?”
“So who’s better?”
“Between those two?” I asked rhetorically. “They’re different players.”
“I know they’re different. But who’s better?”
I thought for a moment, and then said: “Let’s put it this way: If I had to draft one player to lead my 2011 NBA team, I’d take Kobe.”
High-fives and hand slaps all around between our four new friends. “That’s what I’m talking about!” Anthony exclaimed.
“But they’re different players,” I re-asserted. “And we have no idea what LeBron will look like this year. Dude might go for the craziest line ever.”
“Could be 22 a night with 10 and 12,” Luke said. “We don’t know. Plus he’s got more blocks than Kobe. Probably more steals.”
“He may have more steals,” Javier said, “but Kobe’s better. Defensively. His technique is perfect.”
“All-Defense,” said Anthony.
Javier nodded. “All-Defense.”
I said, “You guys get a little touchy on the Bron and Kobe talk, eh?”
Javier shrugged. “He’s our guy, you know? Like how y’all get when people compare Kobe to Jordan.”
“How old are you?” Anthony asked me.
His face lit up. “So you grew up with him…” he said, considering the possibilities of such a childhood.
“Then you know what I’m talking about,” Javier said. “You probably can’t stand people comparing Kobe to Jordan.”
“It used to really bother me, and then I went through a phase where I wasn’t doing it yet, but I was wondering if it was reasonable to do it. So I did a full statistical breakdown of the two, and learned for certain that it is unreasonable.” I paused. “But Kobe’s sick.” I paused again. “He’s just not Mike.”
“No one’s Mike,” Javier said. “But right now, no one’s Kobe.”
It was getting on to five o’clock. Outside, the sun was still shining bright, and my mind turned to the naked sunbathing I’d enjoyed earlier in the day, and whether there was time for another half hour. “You guys hitting it?” Javier asked when Luke checked his watch.
“Bout that time,” Luke said.
“We’ll probably see you,” Javier said. He looked at Luke: “You said you live around here…?”
Luke pointed toward the house, and said, “Right over there.”
“How long you in town?” they asked me.
“Wednesday,” I said.
“First visit?” Javier asked.
“Naw, I was here in April to see these guys, and I was here in ’05, and in ’98…” I paused. “But this year was my first time really hanging out.”
“What do you think?” Javier asked.
“Ya know, I’ve been surprised by how nice everyone is. That’s what’s really hit me. Y’all real laid back.”
Anthony said, “It’s not like you see on TV.”
“Right, right,” Javier said. “You were expecting big city life, huh?” I nodded. He smiled knowingly. “We’re basically just a bunch of small communities. We have downtown, and that’s it.”
“Even neighborhood life in Chicago is still pretty cityish,” I said.
“Not here,” said the bruising, smiling power forward. “Small town folk. That’s L.A.”
Copyright 2010, jm silverstein
Stories referenced above:
April 25, 2010: Sports and the good life in sunny California
June 17, 2010: When Kobe met Michael… and other stories…