Full Court Pressby Mike Lupica, Stephanie Knox
This is what happens when the desperate golden-boy owner of the worst pro-basketball team in the world and his equally desperate golden-boy coach do the unthinkable: sign the first woman ever to play in the NBA. Her name is Dee Gerard, the daughter of a New York playground legend and the product of God having an exceptionally good day. A star in Europe, but weary of bad arenas, she retires - until the day a scout for the hapless New York Knights calls his boss: "I found you a point guard who is perfect, except for one thing." What, no heart? "It's not the heart, exactly. But you're close."
The league doesn't want a circus. The other players don't want her. The owner wants fannies in the seats. The sportswriters just want their column inches. What she wants . . . is to play in the best game there is. How she gets there, the hilarious and sobering things that happen to her, the personal and professional entanglements that spring up everywhere, the pitfalls of remaining old-school when all about her are tattooed, self-indulgent, young millionaires - this is a smart, funny, outrageous, wonderful story of Full Court Press.
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Read an Excerpt
All Eddie Holtz really knew about Monaco was that Grace Kelly got old and fat there after she married the guy Eddie's mother had always called Prince Reindeer.
It was different with his mother, who could talk about Monte Carlo and Monaco as if she were talking about Long Island City. But then she'd been fixed on the princess for as long as Eddie could remember. "I've always felt a bond," she'd say, "maybe because we're both the daughters of bricklayers." Then she'd sigh and say, "One of us grew up to marry a Grimaldi and one of us married your father, may the sonofabitch rest in peace." Eddie never knew whether that was true or not, the bricklayer part, he always had trouble separating fact from fiction with his mother, who didn't stop keeping scrapbooks on Princess Grace until she died in that car crash on the same road Eddie'd driven down from Cannes-the Grand Corniche-which was scarier than the Cyclone ride at Coney Island. When he finally pulled up in front of his hotel, the Loew's-Monte Carlo, actually finding 12 Avenue Spelugues on his own, he wondered how come more people didn't end up dead on the side of that Corniche. You thought you were going fast enough on the twisty roller-coaster turns, but even when you pushed it up to seventy or eighty there'd be some lunatic right behind you flashing his lights and blowing his horn, waving at you to get the hell out of the way.
Eddie couldn't remember whether it was the crash or a stroke that had killed Princess Grace, but after making the drive himself he saw where it could just have been the road that finally blew all her circuits.
It made the Grand Central Parkway look slower than a funeral procession, Eddie decided. He'd promised his mother he'd go to Monaco Cathedral to visit Princess Grace's tomb-"For someone who had all the advantages, she really had a very difficult life," Catherine Holtz had told him sadly-but now he was just going to say a couple of fast Hail Marys that he and the Renault had made it here in one piece.
The whole eastern part of the Riviera that Eddie'd seen was pretty much what he'd expected from the movies, especially his mother's all-time favorite, the one he'd seen on Turner Classic Movies right before he came over, with the young Grace Kelly giving it up to Cary Grant during the fireworks. Except that even in Monte Carlo, with the drop-dead view of the Mediterranean from his balcony, he noticed they were doing the same dumb-ass thing he'd seen everywhere he'd been the last two weeks, Barcelona, Lisbon, France, even Rome: trying to make it more American than judge shows on TV.
It hadn't taken long for Eddie to figure out that Europeans loved pretty much everything American except Americans.
The whole continent was mean people with accents.
The night before he'd passed up the Italian restaurant at the hotel-Le Pistou, Eddie loved the idea of one of these restaurants finally admitting it was pissed off-and ended up eating the worst Tex-Mex food of his life at a place called Le Texan, which served him right. And tonight, on the way to Stade Louis II for the game, he'd stopped at a bar Larry Bird had told him about from when Bird was with that Olympic Dream Team back in 1992. The Summer Olympics had been in Barcelona that year, but Bird and Jordan and Magic and the rest of them had played a couple of tune-up games in Monte Carlo.
Bird said you had to go into the place on the name alone: Le Freaky Pub.
Eddie thought it looked like about nine thousand joints on Second Avenue, just without cable or beer that was cold enough. Jesus, you only had to get thirsty one time over here to find out this was the anti-ice capital of the world.
He nursed a couple of almost-cold ones anyway, killing an hour or so, eyeballing the tall girl barmaid. The rest of the time he tried to translate some of the conversations at the bar without having to run to the men's room every few minutes and check out Langenscheidt's Universal Phrasebook. He didn't usually drink before he scouted a game, but tonight was a little different; there was as much chance of his being interested in somebody besides Earthwind Morton as there was of old Prince Reindeer, who was supposed to be in the crowd, running out and dunking the ball during the pregame warm-ups.
Out loud in Le Freaky Pub, Eddie Holtz said, "What the hell am I doing here?"
The girl bartender smiled and said, "Pardonez-moi?"
Eddie made a motion with his hands, like he was waving off a shot. "No problemo," he said.
This close to the end of his scouting trip, Eddie figured it was all right to start going with his own universal phrases, screw Langenscheidt's.
It was weird, though, having to come halfway across the goddamn world to see Earthwind. When they'd both still been in the NBA ten years ago, before Eddie blew out his knee, all he'd had to do to watch Earthwind play was put on SportsCenter on ESPN. If the Knicks had a game that night, the highlights were always about him, the way they were always about Jordan when he was still playing, at least before Earthwind tried to put the gross national product of Bogotá up his nose. Now Eddie had to come to Monte Carlo to see if Lavernius (Earthwind) Morton, playing for Olympique Antibes in France's First Division Men's League, had enough left for the New York Knights to bring him back for one more shot.
"You still any good?" Eddie had asked over the phone when he'd called from Paris.
"Only thing sweeter than myself over here is le poo-say," Earthwind said. "Myself has done exactly what all those jive counselors told me: replace one jones with another."
"So you replaced dope with what?" Eddie said.
Earthwind whooped and said, "Some of dem mada-mo-selles, baby."
The basketball arena was part of the big soccer stadium that Eddie thought could have been called Meadowlands on the Med. The night before, he could actually hear the cheers from the soccer game as he sat on his balcony with the big boy martini he'd fixed himself from his minibar. He knew there used to be a First Division team in Monte Carlo but didn't remember if it was still there. Eddie did know that Earthwind had missed the last couple of games for Antibes, which bothered the shit out of him, considering the guy's rap sheet with the coke and crack and even heroin, which Eddie'd always thought of as the main event. So this was Eddie's last chance to get a look at him in person before he flew back to New York to give his report to Michael De la Cruz, the Knights' owner.
And if Earthwind was washed up, Eddie was going to have to tell the boss the truth: After having been to Spain and Italy and up and down France, he wasn't even coming home with a decent roll of film.
Oh, there'd been a couple of guys in Spain who might be able to give the Knights ten minutes a game. And there was a Russian kid playing for Bologna named Arvy Daskylmilosevic, who in addition to having the world's longest last name could occasionally shoot threes as if they were layups. But as little as De la Cruz knew about basketball-even though he'd managed to convince himself it was he and Dr. Naismith back at the beginning, cutting the hole in the peach basket-Eddie knew he couldn't bullshit him with those guys.
Eddie couldn't even do that with himself, not when it came to basketball.
"I'd like you to come back with somebody who can win us some games," he'd told Eddie. "But not as much as someone who could sell us some goddamn tickets."
So Earthwind Morton, who was supposed to be clean finally, was pretty much the whole ballgame. He was the one De la Cruz wanted. People love comeback stories, he'd told Eddie. The sportswriters can write the same stories they've already done about the other junkies, and the fans will eat it up.
He'd gone through the same rap on the phone the other night, getting all revved up like he could, like he was still pitching tech stocks. Eddie'd finally said, "I'm not as worried about what the fans are going to eat as I am with my man Earth."
Michael De la Cruz wanted to know what that meant, and Eddie said, "I saw a picture of him in L'Equipe the other day? The French sports paper? The guy looks like he swallowed Notre Dame."
Eddie pronounced it right, "Not-rah Dahm," so his boss, still pretty new to sports, wouldn't confuse the cathedral with the Fighting Irish football team.
The p.r. guy from Olympique Antibes, Jean-Claude something, another guy with an attitude when Eddie'd talked to him on the phone, had forgotten to leave him a ticket. Eddie'd found that out when he'd called over to Stade Louis II in the afternoon, but the concierge at Loew's, Lebortvaillet, had said he'd take care of it, and did.
Eddie overtipped Lebortvaillet when he came downstairs. The guy just took the fistful of those Monegasque coins that were the same as francs, and shrugged. France, Monte Carlo, it didn't matter where you were, it's like they all took some kind of course in not giving a shit. Most of these bastards, even the well-meaning ones, were like the old joke about New York City.
"Could you tell me how to find the Hotel du Paris, or should I just go fuck myself, s'il vous plait?"
The cab to the arena took him through the kind of tunnel where Princess Di had got it, and dropped him on the arena side of the Stade Louis sports complex. The sign outside said it was Antibes vs. Lyon Villeuranne, eight o'clock. Lebortvaillet had said the game was an exhibition to benefit one of Princess Stephanie's charities. Or maybe it was Princess Caroline, he wasn't sure. Eddie remembered that one of them had had her hair fall out one time and the other was in the car when Princess Grace bought it, he just couldn't keep them straight anymore. Lebortvaillet said that out of respect for the royal family, each team had sent at least five of its best players, and that the rest of the rosters would be filled out with some of the better college kids from Monte Carlo and as far up as Cannes and Nice.
Eddie had watched some tape on Earthwind back in New York, but now he needed to see if the guy, even in a charity game, could still do things on a basketball court only one other point guard his size-Magic-had ever been able to do.
Inside, Stade Louis II looked as if it might belong to some small Division I college team back home. Iona, someplace like that, or the gym where Rutgers played its home games. It was about the size of Alumni Hall at St. John's, Eddie's alma mater, with the same kind of theater balcony, except this was a lot newer and not nearly as much of a dump. There were maybe twenty rows of seats on either side of the court, nothing behind the baskets and then maybe twenty more rows in the balcony. The blue seats down by the court looked as if they'd just gotten a new paint job and were supposed to be the color of the sea. Eddie's seat in the balcony was bright red. He sat up there sipping the local version of Perrier, waiting for the game to start.
He'd walked around trying to find a Coke, but the snippy girl at the concession stand acted offended that he'd even asked for one.
It was the variation of the look you got when you asked for directions in Paris or someplace, as if you'd broken a law not knowing if you were on the right rue or not.
"We 'ave no Coke for you," the girl said. "We 'ave water, wiz or wizzout gas."
Eddie knew that one; it meant carbonated or not.
"Wiz," Eddie said.
Earthwind, he saw when both teams came out for warm-ups, had definitely put on a few since the NBA had kicked him out after he'd failed his fourth failed drug test in two years. They'd called it a life sentence at the time, but you could apply for reinstatement after three years if you could show you'd been a good boy. Earth, which is what the playground boys used to call him back in the city, had also added a few tats, one on his neck that resembled a knife scar. Or maybe it was a knife scar; Eddie remembered reading something in the gossip page in Sports Illustrated about how a bunch of guys from Antibes, Earth included, had gotten into it outside some club on the Left Bank after the Division I All-Star Game a couple of months earlier and ended up in jail for the night.
It took only the first few minutes of the game for Eddie to see that the crazy sonofabitch still had some ball in him, underneath all the tat graffiti and rolls of jiggle and the tits he seemed to have grown while he'd been over here.
Eddie knew that most of the playground shuck and jive was for his benefit. When Eddie had still thought he could come all the way back from the reconstructive surgery on his knee and Earthwind Morton had been an All-Star with the Knicks, they'd go down to the playground on West Fourth Street in the summer, just wait on the side until it was their turn to get into a game. Once they did, they'd play all night. Earthwind wasn't doing anything harder than grass; it'd be a couple more years before he'd upgrade into the heavier stuff. So he was still the fastest big guy anybody'd ever seen in those days, every bit as big and strong as Magic at six-nine, but faster, even better with the ball, especially on the run, built like a football tight end, not an ounce of fat on him in those days. Shit, he really could run like a good wind in those days. Sometimes in the summer, they'd get bored with West Fourth, or the jive-ass summer league games uptown, and go over to Penn Station, jump on the Metroliner, go down to the Baker League in Philadelphia, and kick some ass down there, on a whim, just for the fun of it.
Now just about everybody was faster, even the white guys in Stade Louis II, and it didn't matter, because Earthwind was better than all of them, even sweating gravy, making his shots from the outside, doing it up like a Globetrotter for the royals when he'd play with his back to the basket, even giving a high five to Princess Stephanie-the lady next to Eddie pointed her out-as he went past her one time.
Another time in the first half, after he made a three from so far outside Eddie thought it was a thirty-footer, Earthwind ran by the small press table, grabbed the p.a. guy's microphone, and said, "Yo, all you madames et monsieurs: Where's the damn love here?"
A few minutes into the second half, Olympique Antibes was ahead twenty points and Eddie was starting to think about heading back to Le Freaky Bar, or this other place he'd heard about, called DC, when the Antibes coach put in what looked like one of the local kids, a guy about five-ten or five-eleven so skinny Eddie thought he might be a high school kid, wearing an old green Celtics cap pulled down tight over his eyes, his jersey looking to be about three sizes too big. Eddie looked at the single-sheet program the wiz-or-wizzout girl had handed him when she sold him his Perrier, looking to see who No. 14 was, the one who thought he was so cool he didn't have to take off his fucking hat.
D. Gerard, it said. Eddie saw that they let him go in for Black Messiah Lewis, an old Syracuse teammate of Earthwind's, at the point. Earthwind stayed in the game but went to center now, where he wouldn't have to run too much more the rest of the night, which Eddie thought was good, he didn't want to have to call Michael De la Cruz when the game was over and tell him the good news was that Earthwind could still play and the bad news was that he'd had a fucking coronary.
D. Gerard came up the court the first time, before the Villeuranne defense was set, and threw a behind-the-back pass to Earthwind from half-court. It caught the Villeuranne players so flat-footed that even Earthwind, dragging ass the way he was by now, was two steps behind everybody. He had time to mug for the crowd with this wild-eyed, amazed look before he dunked the ball.
It was the same as it had always been with him: Hey, look at me.
Except the play wasn't about him.
It was about the pass.
While Earth was still playing to the crowd, D. Gerard was already back on defense himself, ignoring the way his pass had brought the house down, the Monte Carlo people, who'd been getting bored themselves, back into the game now.
By Eddie's count, Gerard had five assists the first six times he touched the ball. He hadn't taken a shot yet or come close to driving the ball to the basket. He just stayed on the outside and ran the fast break and seemed to find the right guy on Antibes every single time with his passes. Suddenly the charity game in Monte Carlo was about this skinny kid, whoever he was.
Eddie couldn't even tell whether he was white or black.
It was interesting, though, watching the way the kid somehow managed to keep everybody on his team involved-interesting to Eddie, anyway. He had played the point his whole life, all the way back to Christ the King High, and knew how hard that was, passing out the sugar, making sure everybody was happy, trying to let the hot guy stay hot and not pissing off everybody else. It wasn't just who you passed it to, it was where you made the pass, and when. Mostly passing was about creating angles. Eddie knew, because Eddie had always known angles, Eddie'd always figured he saw things nobody on the court could see. It was that way even now. It didn't matter whether it was college or the pros, how good the game was, Eddie always imagined he was still playing the point, that he still had the ball. A pilot friend of his said it didn't matter whether he was a passenger or not, he always felt as if he were at the controls. That's the way Eddie felt watching basketball, as if he were still out there creating the angles.
It was the way he felt now, watching this kid.
Who was he?
The coach, Barone, knew enough to keep him in there the last few minutes. The kid kept making plays. There was another half-court job, behind his back, not just hitting Earthwind right in stride but zipping the ball. The only guy Eddie'd ever seen who could throw that pass that way was Ernie DiGregorio, back at Providence College when Eddie was growing up.
There was a no-look to Black Messiah Lewis, back in the game, Eddie nearly missing the pass because Gerard sold him so well that he was going left with the ball instead of right.
The crowd went nuts again and the kid just got back on defense, ducking his head, just giving a little low-five to Black Messiah as he ran by.
Eddie noticed Gerard didn't even have any tats on skin that was the color of a light coffee.
The big finish came with about fifteen seconds left, everybody in Stade Louis II on their feet by now. Even the Prince, who'd just been sitting there all night like he was asleep. Antibes was ahead by a lot. Barone had taken out Earthwind with about two minutes left, but now he put him back in, as a way of getting a curtain call now that the kid had stolen all his thunder. It was like this night at the Jersey shore when Eddie was a sophomore in college, driving down there with some buddies from Queens, pounding beer at this little jazz club, and all of a sudden there's Springsteen up on the little stage, jamming with Clarence Clemons.
The Villeuranne coach had emptied his bench, but even the scrubs had lost interest by then, so only two of them were at the Antibes end of the court when D. Gerard came upcourt with the ball. Earthwind was with him-Eddie thought his name should have been Suck Wind by then-somehow managing to bust it down the right, sure that Gerard would give him one more piece of cake.
Gerard came up the middle at full speed, looking up as he did to get one little check of the clock. When he got to the key, he saw the two Villeuranne guys on defense coming to him, like, the hell with it, they weren't going to get embarrassed one more time at the buzzer.
Gerard stopped then, the ball going behind his back. From where Eddie was sitting, high up in the corner, the play coming toward him, the ball actually seemed to disappear for a second, except that Gerard had both hands showing, and neither one had the ball in it.
For the first time, Eddie thought he detected a smile underneath the Celtics cap as the kid quickly looked left, then right, like, Oops, where did the ball go?
He was in a little crouch now, like he was bending over to tie his sneaks.
Somehow D. Gerard had balanced the ball on his skinny ass, because suddenly he was ducking down a little more, reaching behind him in the same motion, flipping the ball over his head to Earthwind Morton, who dropped in a layup as the buzzer sounded and then just sat down under the basket as if he couldn't believe what he'd just seen.
Eddie looked around to see how D. Gerard had reacted, but all he could see was the back of No. 14, disappearing through one of the doors leading to the locker rooms.
Eddie had told Earthwind he'd check him out after the game so they could kick back and talk about old times a little bit, see where his head was at. But Earth was still down at midcourt, chatting up the royals, posing for the photographers, as if the night were still about him.
Only now it wasn't.
Eddie hurried downstairs and kept showing his locker room pass at a series of solemn-looking frogs, and finally came to the Antibes locker room. He was on his way in there when he saw a flash of green down the hall and realized it was D. Gerard in his Celtics cap, a big black gym bag slung over his shoulder, a hooded gray sweatshirt over his uniform, heading toward the exit.
"Yo!" Eddie called out to him. "Hold on, s'il vous plaît."
D. Gerard gave him a quick look over his shoulder, pointing to himself. Me?
"Yeah," Eddie said.
The kid was still in that slouch, like he was going to throw that pass again, looking down.
Eddie said, "Parlez-vous English?"
The kid said, "Sure. What about you? English your first or second language?"
"When you're from New York, it's hard to tell sometimes," Eddie said. "I'm Eddie Holtz. I work for the New York Knights."
He paused, then added, "From the NBA? In the United States."
They shook hands. Kind of smallish, Eddie thought, delicate almost, but with long fingers, like a piano player's hands.
"What does the D. stand for?" Eddie said. "In D. Gerard?"
"Dee," the kid said.
Then the kid lifted his head a little and smiled, a great big one, giving him the high beams.
"Oh, for God's sake, let's stop screwing around here."
He took off the Celtics cap and untied all the hair underneath, long black hair, and let it fall down to the shoulders, giving the head a little toss at the same time.
"Short for Delilah," Dee Gerard said to Eddie Holtz. "Except I always hated Delilah. My mom liked Delilah."
Eddie Holtz just stared at her.
"You're a girl," he finally managed.
Dee Gerard smiled.
"My whole life, practically," she said.
From Full Court Press by Mike Lupica, Copyright (c) October 2001, Putnam Pub Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.
Meet the Author
Mike Lupica is the author of five novels and several works of nonfiction, including Summer of '98 and Mad as Hell. His columns for the New York Daily News are syndicated nationwide, and he is a regular on ESPN's The Sports Reporters.
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Another winner by syndicated columnist Mike Lupica.
In New York winning is everything. Professional sports die without championships or at least a temporary draw until the victories return. The New York Knights have neither so the attendance is down. Owner Michael De la Cruz informs scout Eddie Holtz that he better come up with a superstar or find work overseas. In Europe, Eddie checks out former NBA great Earthwind, but feels raptures watching the point guard, a D. Gerard pull a series of magic acts. After the game ends, Eddie meets Gerard whose first initial stands for Dee, a female. Eddie calls his boss, who sees an opportunity to fill a few seats with a wiggle and jiggle. However, the other owners and many of the players make it clear that the NBA stands for no babes allowed. Talented enough to compete, will Dee obtain the opportunity to break the gender line? FULL COURT PRESS is a fast breaking sports novel that genre fans will either love or hate depending on the reaction to the basic premise that a woman is capable of playing in the NBA. The story line is fun as Dee seems genuine (wonder if she is modeled after a WNBA guard like Stacey or Stiles?) and the reactions to her seem humorous and ludicrous at the same time. Mike Lupica provides a slam dunk tale that will entertain readers even as many wonder how they would look one on one with Leslie or Dydek (beside feeling short). Harriet Klausner