Old Sport

“Bringing the ball up,” said Kobe Bryant, “and having me kind of initiate the offense and score and stuff like that, it’s making me work a little more than I will when Gatsby gets back.” … Gatsby would be [Steve] Nash, sidelined until at least Monday because of a small fracture in his left leg. –Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles, Gatsby quickly learned, was a valley of rashes. There were the rashes caused by the filthy air. And those caused by elective surgeries. And still those caused by the straining lenses of the paparazzi. Nonetheless, Gatsby was taken by the city’s strange charms. He wandered the streets late at night with his dear Spalding basketball—same as he had the parched arroyos of Arizona and the strip malls of Texas—considering the passing sports cars, the misplaced model/actresses and the scientology literature he’d just been handed by a man who very well might have been a movie star. He was not in Phoenix anymore.

Tired and a tad lonely, he turned back towards his 12,500 square-foot home in the Hollywood Hills with its tower and its lagoon and its acres of unshorn grass.

The smog had blown off, leaving a loud bright night. Street people coughed, surprised by the lightness of their lungs. The silhouette of a six-foot-six basketball player moved across the star-stricken street; it, too, carried a ball. Turning his head to watch, Gatsby saw that the silhouette belonged to Kobe Bryant, captain of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Entertaining a delegation of Canadian mounted police, Gatsby had recently said, without sarcasm (for he was incapable of that), “It would be hard to put on a Lakers jersey.” Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this was his: he hated the Lakers. But now the Lakers had purchased the rights to his manifold skills, and Bryant, that old skillful snake, was his teammate.

He noticed now, not for the first time, Bryant’s butterfly crown tattoo.

“Hello, Mamba,” Gatsby said, using Bryant’s self-styled sobriquet. The taller man stared back with hard eyes and a flickering tongue before answering: “Hello, old sport.” Bryant had thickened a bit in the middle since they’d last met, but his had always been a cruel body.

They walked together for a time, the point guard and the shooting guard, in silence. “I like your haircut,” Bryant finally said, in his husky tenor. “It makes you looks like an urbane character in an early twentieth century American novel.”

“Thank you,” replied Gatsby in his nasal countertenor. “Metta World Peace recommended a barber in East L.A.”

Eventually, the two men saw a party, which happened to be spilling out of Gatsby’s own palatial estate. In they walked, passing Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and curling gold medalist Adam Enbright, who were having a tête à tête à tête in front of a fountain where non-native fish swam. “I didn’t know he lived in L.A.” Gatsby said to Bryant, motioning towards Jeremy Lin, who was splashing a drink upon the keys of a ghostly grand piano as James Dolan looked on with an inscrutable expression.

Walking into his own great room, Gatsby ran into Portland Trail Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard, a slight fellow with sad eyes who was leaving the party with two finger bowls of champagne. “Your face is familiar,” Lillard said, bemused. “Were you the MVP at one time, rather long ago?” Gatsby smiled, clutching a highball that had magically appeared in his hand, which he deftly passed to Bryant, who was heading for a backdoor. “Why, yes,” Gatsby said, “In the year 2005. I suited up for the Phoenix Suns then.”

Gatsby and Lillard spoke warmly for a few more minutes before bidding one another goodbye. It was then that Gatsby stumbled on one of Lillard’s wing-tipped shoes and found himself in the cold hard grip of his own marble floors, clutching his left leg. There was a collective gasp in the room. Jordan sighed. Bird shrieked. Bryant, squeamish and fearful of initiating the Lakers offense all on his own, fainted in a hulking heap of flesh and ink.

A butler hurried forth with a telegram from Mike D’Antoni, the new coach of the Lakers. D’Antoni had coached Gatsby back in the southwest, when they were younger, less daunted. “Get back as soon as you can, old sport,” the note said. “Or my time here will be even shorter than my stay in New York.”