I LEARNED THE secret of basketball while lounging at a topless pool in Las Vegas. As I learned the secret, someone’s bare breasts were staring at me from just eight feet away. The person explaining the secret was a Hall of Famer who once vowed to beat me up and changed his mind only because Gus Johnson vouched for me.
(Do I tell this story? Yes. I tell this story.)
Come back with me to July 2007. My buddy Hopper was pushing me to accompany him for an impromptu Vegas trip, knowing that I wouldn’t turn him down because of my Donaghy-level gambling problem. I needed permission from my pregnant wife, who was perpetually ornery from (a) carrying our second child during the hot weather months in California and (b) being knocked up because I pulled the goalie on her back in February.1 But here’s why I’m an evil genius: with the NBA Summer League happening at the same time, I somehow convinced her that ESPN The Magazine wanted a column about Friday’s quadruple-header featuring my favorite team (the Celtics), my favorite rookie (Kevin Durant), and the two Los Angeles teams (Clippers and Lakers). “I’ll be in and out in thirty-six hours,” I told her.
She signed off and directed her anger at the magazine for making me work on a weekend. (I told you, I’m shrewd.) I quickly called my editor and had the following exchange.
me: I don’t have a column idea this week. I’m panicking.
neil (my editor): Crap. I don’t know what to tell you, it’s a dead month.
(A few seconds of silence ensues.)
me: Hey, wait...isn’t the NBA Summer League in Vegas right now?
neil: Yeah, I think it is. What would you write about, though?
me: Lemme see what the schedule is for Friday. [I spend the next 20 seconds pretending to log onto NBA.com and look this up.] Oh my God—
Clippers at 3, Celtics at 5, Lakers at 6, Durant and the Sonics at 7! You have to let me go! I can get 1,250 words out of that! [Neil doesn’t respond.] Come on—Vegas? The Celtics and Durant? This column will write itself!
neil (after a long sigh): “Okay, fine, fine.”
Did I care that he sounded like I had just convinced him to donate me a kidney? Of course not! I flew down on Friday, devoured those four games and joined Hopper for drunken blackjack until the wee hours.2 The following morning, we woke up in time for a Vegas Breakfast (16-ounce coffee, bagel, large water), then headed down to the Wynn’s lavish outdoor blackjack setup, which includes:
1.Eight blackjack tables surrounding one of those square outdoor bars like the one where Brian Flanagan worked after he fled to Jamaica in Cocktail. Once you’ve gambled outdoors, your life is never quite the same. It’s like riding in a convertible for the first time.
2.Overhead mist machines blowing cool spray so nobody overheats, a crucial wrinkle during the scorching Vegas summer, when it’s frequently over 110 degrees outside and 170 degrees in every guy’s crotch.
3.A beautiful European pool tucked right behind the tables. Just so you know, “European” is a fancy way of saying, “It’s okay to go topless there.”3
If there’s a better male bonding experience, I can’t think of one. For our yearly guys’ trip one month earlier, we arrived right before the outdoor area opened (11:00 a.m.) and played through dinner. For the first three hours, none of the sunbathers was willing to pull a Jackie Robinson and break the topless barrier, so we decided the Wynn should hire six strippers to go topless every day at noon (just to break the ice) and have their DJ play techno songs with titles like “Take Your Tops Off,” “Come On, Nobody’s Looking,” “We’re All Friends Here,” “Unleash the Hounds,” and “What Do You Have to Lose? You’re Already Divorced.” By midafternoon, as soon as everyone had a few drinks in them, the ladies started flinging their tops off like Frisbees. Okay, not really. But two dozen women made the plunge over the next few hours, including one heavyset woman who nearly caused a riot by wading into the pool with her 75DDDDDDDDDDs. It was like being there when the Baby Ruth bar landed in the Bushwood pool; people were scurrying for their lives in every direction.4
So between seedy guys making runs at topless girls in the pool, horny blackjack dealers getting constantly distracted, aforementioned moments like the Baby Ruth/multi-D episode, the tropical feel of outdoors and the Mardi Gras/beads element of a Euro pool, ten weeks of entertainment and comedy were jam-packed into eight hours. Things peaked around 6:00 p.m. when an attractive blonde wearing a bikini joined our table, complained to the dealer, “I haven’t had a blackjack in three days,” then told us confidently, “If I get a blackjack, I’m going topless.” The pit boss declared that she couldn’t go topless, so they negotiated for a little bit, ultimately deciding that she could flash everyone instead. Yes, this conversation actually happened. Suddenly we were embroiled in the most exciting blackjack shoe of all time. Every time she got an ace or a 10 as her first card, the tension was more unbearable than the last five minutes of the final Sopranos episode. When she finally nailed her blackjack, our side of the blackjack section erupted like Fenway after the Roberts steal.5 She followed through with her vow, departed a few minutes later, and left us spending the rest of the night wondering how I could write about that entire sequence for ESPN The Magazine without coming off like a pig. Well, you know what? These are the things that happen in Vegas. I’m not condoning them, defending them, or judging them. Just understand that we don’t keep going because some bimbo might flash everyone at her blackjack table, we keep going for the twenty minutes afterward, when we’re rehashing the story and making every possible joke.6
Needless to say, wild horses couldn’t have dragged Hopper and me from the outdoor blackjack section during summer league. We treaded water for a few hours when I ran into an old acquaintance who handled PR from the Knicks, as well as Gus Johnson, the much-adored March Madness and Knicks announcer who loves me mainly because I love him. Gus and I successfully executed a bear hug and a five-step handshake, and just as I was ready to make Gus announce a few of my blackjack hands (“Here’s the double-down card...Ohhhhhhhh! it’s a ten!”), he implored me to come over and meet his buddy Isiah Thomas.
Of any sports figure that I could have possibly met at any time in my life, getting introduced to Isiah that summer would have been my number one draft pick for the Holy Shit, Is This Gonna Be Awkward draft. Isiah doubled as the beleaguered GM of the Knicks and a frequent column target, someone who once threatened “trouble” if we ever crossed paths.7 This particular moment seemed to qualify. After the PR guy and I explained to Gus why a Simmons-Isiah introduction would be a stupifyingly horrific idea, Gus confidently countered, “Hold on, I got this, I got this, I’ll fix this.” And he wandered off as our terrified PR buddy said, “I’m getting out of here—good luck!”8
I played a few hands of rattled blackjack while wondering how to defend myself if Isiah came charging at me with a piña colada. After all, I killed this guy in my column over the years. I killed him for some of the cheap shots he took as a player, for freezing out MJ in the ’85 All-Star Game, for leading the classless walkout at the tail end of the Bulls-Pistons sweep in ’91. I killed him for pushing Bird under the bus by backing up Rodman’s foolish “he’d be just another good player if he were white” comments after the ’87 playoffs, then pretending like he was kidding afterward. (He wasn’t.) I killed him for bombing as a TV announcer, for sucking as Toronto’s GM, for running the CBA into the ground, and most of all, for his incomprehensibly ineffective performance running the Knicks. As I kept lobbing (totally justified) grenades at him, Isiah went on Stephen A. Smith’s radio show and threatened “trouble” if we ever met on the street. Like this was all my fault. Somewhere along the line, Isiah probably decided that I had a personal grudge against him, which simply wasn’t true—I had written many times that he was the best pure point guard I’d ever seen, as well as the most underappreciated star of his era. I even defended his draft record and praised him for standing up for his players right before the ugly Nuggets-Knicks brawl that featured Carmelo Anthony’s infamous bitch-slap/backpedal. It’s not like I was obsessed with ripping the guy. He just happened to be an easy target, a floundering NBA GM who didn’t understand the luxury tax, cap space, or how to plan ahead. For what I did for a living, Isiah jokes were easier than making fun of Flavor Flav at a celebrity roast. The degree of difficulty was a 0.0.
With that said, I would have rather been playing blackjack and drinking vodka lemonades then figuring out how to cajole a pissed-off NBA legend. When a somber Gus finally waved me over, I was relieved to get it over with. (By the way, there should be no scenario that includes the words “Gus Johnson” and “somber.” I feel like I failed America regardless of how this turned out.) Gus threw an arm around me and said something like, “Look, I straightened everything out, he’s willing to talk to you, just understand, he’s a sensitive guy, he takes this shit personally.”9 Understood. I followed him to a section of chairs near the topless pool, where Isiah was sipping a water and wearing a white Panama hat to shield himself from the blazing sun. As we approached, Gus slapped me on the back and gestured to a female friend who quickly fled the premises, like we were Mafia heads sitting down in the back of an Italian restaurant and Gus was shedding every waiter and busboy. Get out of here. You don’t want to be here for this. Meanwhile, Isiah rose from the chair with a big smile on his face—he’d make a helluva politician—saying simply, “Hi, I’m Isiah.”10
We shook hands and sat down. I explained the purpose of my column, how I write from the fan’s perspective and play up certain gimmicks—
I like the Boston teams and dislike anyone who battles them, I pretend to be smarter than every GM, I think Christmas should be changed to Larry Bird’s birthday—which made Isiah a natural foil for me. He understood that. He thought we were both entertainers, for lack of a better word. We were both there to make basketball more fun to follow. He didn’t appreciate two things I had written: that he destroyed the CBA (which he claimed wasn’t true) and how I lumped him with other inept GMs in a widely read parody column called “The Atrocious GM Summit.”11 That led to us discussing each move and why he made them. He admitted two mistakes—the Jalen Rose trade (his fault) and the Steve Francis trade (not his fault because Larry Brown insisted on it, or so he claimed) and defended everything else. Strangely, inconceivably, each explanation made sense. For instance, he explained the recent Randolph trade by telling me (I’m paraphrasing), “Everyone’s trying to get smaller and faster. I want to go the other way. I want to get bigger. I want to pound people down low.” I found myself nodding like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé in SNL’s “Sinatra Group” sketch. Great idea, Chairman! I love it! You’re a genius! Only later, after we parted ways and I thought about it more, did it dawn on me how doomed his strategy was—not the “getting bigger” part as much as the “getting bigger with two head-case fat asses who can’t defend anyone or protect the rim and are prohibitively expensive” part. You get bigger with McHale and Parish or Sampson and Olajuwon. You don’t get bigger with Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph.12
But that’s not why I’m telling you this story. After settling on an uneasy truce about his job performance, we started remembering those unforgettable Celtics-Pistons clashes from the eighties: how their mutual hatred was palpable, how that competitiveness has slowly eroded from the league because of rule changes, money, AAU camps and everything else. Today’s rivals hug each other after games and pull the “I love you, boy!” routine. They act like former summer camp chums who became successful CEOs, then ran into each other at Nobu for the first time in years. Great to see you! I’ll talk to you soon—let’s have lunch! When Isiah’s Pistons played Bird’s Celtics, the words “great to see you” were not on the agenda. They wanted to destroy each other. They did. There was an edge to those battles that the current ones don’t have. I missed that edge and so did Isiah. We both felt passionate about it, passionate enough that—gasp—we were legitimately enjoying the conversation.13
I was getting comfortable with him. Comfortable enough that I had to ask about The Secret.
And here’s where I won Isiah over—not just that I asked about The Secret, but that I remembered it in the first place. Detroit won the 1989 title after collapsing in consecutive springs against the ’87 Celtics and ’88 Lakers, two of the toughest exits in playoff history because of the nature of those defeats: a pair of “why did that have to happen?” moments in the Boston series (Bird’s famous steal in Game 5, then Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley banging heads in Game 7), followed by another in the ’88 Finals (Isiah’s ankle sprain in Game 6). The ’89 Pistons regrouped for 62 wins and swept the Lakers for their first championship, vindicating a controversial in-season trade that shipped Dantley and a draft pick to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. That season lives on in Cameron Stauth’s superb book The Franchise, which details how GM Jack McCloskey built those particular Pistons teams. The crucial section happens during the ’89 Finals, with Isiah holding court with reporters and improbably offering up “the secret” of winning basketball. Here’s an edited-for-space version of what he tells them on pages 310 and 311. The part that matters most is in boldface.
It’s not about physical skills. Goes far beyond that. When I first came here, McCloskey took a lot of heat for drafting a small guy. But he knew that the only way our team would rise to the top would be by mental skills, not size or talent. He knew the only way we could acquire those skills was by watching the Celtics and Lakers, because those were the teams winning year in and year out. I also looked at Seattle, who won one year, and Houston, who got to the Finals one year. They both self-destructed the next year. So how come? I read Pat Riley’s book Show Time and he talks about “the disease of more.”14 A team wins it one year and the next year every player wants more minutes, more money, more shots. And it kills them. Our team has been up at the Championship level four years now. We could have easily self-destructed.