NBA True Horror Stories: Man Or Monster
An age-old battle for supremacy comes to a close at the NBA Dunk Contest.
I went back and checked, and was surprised to learn that, in the scene from the original Pet Sematary in which Fred Gwynne famously says "dead is better" in a "Murder, She Wrote"-grade Maine accent, he says it twice. It's that kind of movie, which is to say that it is both "not very good" and also "not as good as you might remember," but damn if the line doesn't have something to it. Yes, Stephen King was working through some stuff when he wrote it, and there's more to it, but the thing itself is not very complex—there's no real way to get back what you think you want back, in the way in which you'd actually want it back. It's a good line. But.
But recently, when we at Defector were talking about long-term goals, we'd talked about buying the archives of the websites that we cared about from a previous age of the internet and making sure they were always there, more as a public service than anything else. The Classical, where I used to write and edit and where Katie first started this series, was one of those sites. I should say that it was a younger coworker who floated this idea, although obviously I'd give anything to have my original post from The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (it somehow references both Jared Jeffries and Bill Walker) back where people can see it. But also that was a long time ago; we were different, the internet was different, and while I feel bad that the site sunk under the weight of back-end issues years ago, there's a part of me that wonders...well, whether it's not bettah.
But that's abstracted, obviously; memory works that way. The experience of doing that site and working with writers like Katie on posts like this was to me as meaningful and precious but also I think hardy enough to stand up to the possibility that not all of it was perfect. There were a lot of Halloweens in there; I don't remember every post on the site, and so it may be that there was one of these—Harrison Barnes turns into the wolfman or whatever—that doesn't hold up. But I do not remember that post, and that is not how I remember the experience of reading these, as I read this year's installment, on the cusp of Halloween. That part is pure sunshine, for all the various ghouls and suchlike involved. This is the sort of post that we made that site to run; it is the sort of thing only Katie could or would write, and it's one of many reasons why I'm glad that she and her newsletter exist. Sometimes, I assume, dead really is better. But in this case, for these tales of the seasonally supernatural that have now covered a generation of NBA people—in fur, in curses, probably at some point in mummy-wrapping—it is much better that it lives. No, as a Hall of Famer once sang, I don't regret a thing.
Victor Wembanyama stops again in the tunnel of the Frost Bank Center to turn and look behind him. Like the first and second time, he could just make out the shape of what he swore to be a shoulder, before it slipped into the shadows.
He knew there was all sorts of junk piled up down here. Pallets of years old giveaways, early models of the Coyote’s t-shirt cannons, old busted signs and boxes of those little parachutes game ops sent down from the rafters the fans went crazy for. Coyotes’ cave, people around the arena jokingly called it. But Wembanyama knew the shape of the Coyote, more intimately than he would have liked.
There was that time he found the strange creature standing in the middle of the shower room, its fur gone damp with steam, just staring off into the fog. There was that other time he stayed late to practice his layups — which was more like him taking two slow steps to the basket and gingerly placing the ball in it, but he found the drill comforting — and he looked up into the stands to see the Coyote sleeping across three seats, body twitching and jerking amidst its fevered dreams.
He’d come to an uneasy peace with the animal, feeling its oft-touted maniacal energy to be more frazzled than malicious, like a creature that didn’t quite fit into its found surroundings. He knew the feeling well.
There! That strange sound from behind again. A groan full of malaise.
“Bonjour?” Wembanyama called, “Is anyone there?”
The arena tunnels returned only silence. Shaken, Wembanyama opts for the stairs down to parking instead of waiting for the elevator, taking them five at a time. Only in his car does he let out a shaky sigh, locking the doors and turning up his Édith Piaf CD.
As the muffled words to ‘La foule’ echoed through the parking garage with Wembanyama’s exit, a large bat hanging upside-down from the ceiling stretches its wings and takes off. Immersed once again in the trembling alto wail of Piaf, Wembanyama doesn’t notice the shadow of furiously beating wings following him home.
“We’ve been following him for months now and it feels like we know less than when we started!” James Harden growls.
Anthony Davis gives one solemn blink in agreement.
Robin Lopez scratches his head, sending a clump of tangled hair floating down onto D’Angelo Russell’s immaculately pressed silk cape. He lets loose a series of sneezes.
“Could you please,” Russell motions for the big man to take a few steps back, “you know I’m allergic.”
Lopez rolls his eyes but complies, “You’ve never done any tests to prove it.”
“It’s not like ’Yeti’ is one of the regular allergins they offer. Right up there with shellfish and peanuts,” Russell retorts, slipping narrow black sunglasses down his nose to eye Lopez pointedly.
“Maybe you should do shellfish, see if you’re also allergic to him,” Lopez jerks his head to indicate the pool just behind, where Aaron Gordon has been submerged for 45 minutes.
“He’s not a mollu—” Russell starts.
“Mollusk, yeah, yeah, he’s a fishman, I know.” Lopez waves a hand and slumps down into a daybed, still scratching.
A glass sliding door opens and a cheerful voice calls, “Okay! I’ve got a cappuccino for DLo, an algae smoothie for Aaron. James, you sure you just want tap water in a bowl like this? I’m happy to put it in a glass. And Robin — Oh, did you set a towel down? I just got those chaises reupholstered and your hair really has a mind of its own — here’s your Mountain Dew.” Kevon Looney takes one jerky step out onto the patio and the entire tray of drinks topples, contents crashing on the flagstones. As Frankenstein’s Monsters went, he wasn’t the most graceful.
“Oh, shoot,” Looney’s shoulders fall, “I’m sorry guys.” Before he crouches to start cleaning up, he digs a bottle of eye drops from his pocket and tosses them to Davis. “Hopefully that helps with the eye, buddy.” The cyclops Davis catches the bottle with relief, and pours the entire contents into his one giant eyeball.
Suddenly, a dark shape swoops out of the sky and lands, huffing, at the end of the patio.
“Paul!” Looney exclaims, glancing up, “Can I get you a drink?”
Paul Pierce furrows his brow. “Get up, Kevon, leave that for your staff.”
“It’s really alright, I’ve almost got it.” Looney says, pricking a giant hand on the shard of a porcelain mug. “Ouch!”
“Up! And the rest of you, too.” Pierce snaps, hovering just above the ground and slipping past Looney to get inside, out of the sun. “And get Gordon out of the pool!” He calls.
Ten minutes later they gather around a long dining table with Pierce at the head, his fingers steepled together. Gordon had finally gotten out of the water and was towelling off at the table much to Looney’s dismay, who placed a semi-circle of coasters all around Gordon to keep drops from the wood surface.
“First, our thanks to you, Kevon, for hosting this board meeting of the National Basketball Monsters Association meeting in your lovely home,” Pierce says, nodding at Looney. “I share regrets from Durant, who had to get his mummy bandages steam cleaned. It’s been hell keeping those things fresh in the desert. Presti also sends his regrets, he still hasn’t figured out a way to get out of the reptile enclosure at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Oh and Jeff,”
“I’m here! I’m here!” Comes a screech from the kitchen. Jeff Van Gundy steps out holding a bubbling cauldron with oven mitts, “Anyone hungry?”
Noses scrunch all around table save for Lopez, who leans forward appreciatively. “Don’t mind if I do,” he says, waving at Van Gundy and patting the space in front of him. Looney, with rare speed, slides a cork trivet down the table before Van Gundy plonks the cast iron cauldron down on it.
Pierce collapses his steepled fingers into a fist and looks up with a strained smile. “Wonderful, Jeff, thank you for bringing that. Do I smell newt’s foot? Lovely. Could you take a seat? We really need to get started.”
When the room has finally quieted, save for Lopez’s long slurps, Pierce begins.
“Gentleman, we’ve done months-long reconnaissance, with worldwide sleuthing that’s taken us from Paris, France, to the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and more trips to San Antonio than any of us care to count.” Pierce pauses and lays both his palms flat on the table. “And I’m afraid we have nothing.”
“I told you!” Harden shoots to his feet, clawed fingers digging into Looney’s beautiful walnut table. Looney winces.
Davis’s eye is watering.
“How is that possible!” Gordon exclaims, “I thought we were unstoppable!”
“Now’s not the time to try out new verses, Aaron, but I share your concern,” Pierce nods. “If Wembanyama is in fact not any kind of monster, then we find ourselves made redundant.”
“First Zion, then Chet, now this!” Jeff Van Gundy screeches. “I remember when our ranks were bursting! Hakeem, Bird, Rodman, Dirk, we had the best of the best!”
Down the table, Gordon whispers to Russell, “Nowitzki? What was he, one of the Lilliputians?”
Overhearing them from across the table, Lopez’s head pops out of the cauldron for a second, “The Lilliputians were the small people, not giants.”
“Please, my friends,” Pierce raises his hands and everything on the table lifts and hovers with them, “It’s not great. Our membership has been thinning these last dozen seasons and our dominance with it. Which is why I suggest that an example be made of this ‘Wemby’ fellow.”
There’s a long pause, everyone around the table glancing at each other until Harden speaks up.
“How do you mean, Paul? Like, hurt the dude?”
Pierce scoffs. “Of course not! We don’t do rookie sacrifices anymore, just…” he flutters a hand, “maybe an accident, maybe something that gets him home to France. He can be the Euroleague’s problem, and we’ll be free to carry on as we always have — in the shadows.”
There are murmurs of assent. The rest of the agenda is run through: fundraising, switching insurance providers for more tooth-forward coverage, where the next Monsters in the Sun retreat will be held and whether the locations being considered have enough places out of the sun for the vampires within the membership. It’s agreed that the Dragics, famed but retired warlocks and the only conjurors in the NBMA’s alumni, will be contacted to get quotes on a time rift or a portal that would send Wembanyama back to France. Failing that, NBMA Treasurer, Looney, thinks they have enough funds to cover an economy-plus ticket to Paris, so Wembanyama can at least get the legroom of the emergency aisle.
Out on the patio, after the meeting has adjourned and day dwindles to night, Pierce and Russell prepare to take off in their bat forms. Russell lowers his voice, “Vamp to vamp, Paul, we’re not really going to take Wemby out, right?”
Pierce studies the young vampire’s face. Sees the concern hidden under the cool mask. Concern, he thinks, for the wrong thing. This generation is all mixed up.
“Sometimes, D’Angelo, you have to do what’s best for the team. I learned that a long time ago with KG, but I wonder if you’ve ever learned it at all?”
Pierce takes off into the night, leaving Russell alone, listening to the lonely rustling of the trees and Looney’s melodic voice, punctuated by regular crashing and bashing from inside, singing a weirdly spot-on Piaf.
Harden is in the bushes outside Wembanyama’s house, waiting. He’s still, so still that small lizards rush over his feet, drawn to his warmth, unaware of him until he digs a claw into them and pops them in his mouth. His stomach grumbles.
“Weredawg to Eagle Eye, over,” Harden whispers into his walkie talkie.
“Read you, Weredawg, but you’re not supposed to be talking, over.” Davis’s somber voice replies over static.
“AD, I’m starving,” Harden hisses.
“Roger but, you should’ve taken some of Jeff’s stew. It was a new recipe! Over.”
Jeff Van Gundy, in town with the Celtics, had picked Harden up from the airport and deposited him in the bushes before he had to be at the Spurs arena for warmups. He had offered Harden a thermos of stew, but Harden swore he’d seen toad eyes floating around in it.
“You’re fine eating lizards, but you can’t handle frog eyes? Over.” Davis follows up, eerily on target.
“It’s the texture, over.” Harden replies.
“Do you want to go over the plan again? Over.” Davis asks.
“No, I’m good, I ju—” There’s a rustling from beside him and Harden has one flash of a second to register a pair of bloodshot eyes before he’s blindfolded, gagged and dumped into the trunk of a car.
It’s been a week and there’s no sign of Harden. It’s not unusual, but the stretches where Harden’s gone AWOL from the league usually coincide with the full moon, and they’d made sure to plan his stakeout during waxing crescent.
What’s worrying is that Jeff Van Gundy’s gone too. They received a hastily scrawled Margaritaville postcard in the mail addressed to ‘Lord Pierce’, signed by Jeff. On it the words: He went to Paris. No one could figure out if it meant that Jeff had, if he was referencing the Jimmy Buffett song, or it was some coded message about their plan — a plan which had gone rapidly downhill.
Harden had been in the bushes because the Dragics said vortexes were out of the question, they were out of the conjuring biz. Then, when Gordon’s subscription to Swimming World magazine bounced, they realized Looney miscalculated their funds. The NBMA was broke. They’d have to solve the Wemby problem themselves and the best anyone could think of was to kidnap the giant Frenchman and scare him back to Europe. A reverse American Werewolf in Paris! Harden had howled, so excited.
Still, Davis holds out hope — Harden hadn’t said over on his last walkie talkie call, after all. He might still be doing deep cover, figuring out a way for them to scare Wembanyama off before All-Star — an event many of the younger NBMA members considered outdated spectacle, but which Paul Pierce considered the pinnacle event for monsters like them to showcase their dominance.
Pierce was growing more desperate by the day, and Davis worried he might do something extreme.
Lost in thought, Davis blinks up to find D’Angelo Russell staring at him from across the practice court. Davis adjusts his prosthetic eyes, which shifted over to partially block his real one, and suddenly Russell is right beside him. Davis jumps.
“Sorry, sorry AD, I know I shouldn’t sneak up on you because you’ve got no depth perception, but I have to talk to you,” Russell whispers. He seems, nervous?
Davis glances around. Ever since he made LeBron James get mixed up with magic in the Bubble, James has been stern about Davis keeping his “monster stuff off the floor”. I’ve been in this league a long time, James told him, I know there’s monsters and nefarious magic afoot, I just don’t want it messing up my legacy.
“Can we talk after practice?” Davis pleads.
“Sure man, sure,” Russell punches Davis lightly on the arm and goes back to his drills, occasionally glancing over at Davis like he’s sizing up whether or not he can be trusted.
All-Star Saturday night, this was it.
It was the last dunk of a Dunk Contest that had gone a record of 10 rounds, pitting Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine against each other one last time and included an homage to Gerald Green with Gordon blowing out the candles on an entire birthday cake, then cutting a slice of cake and eating it; LaVine convincing Nikola Jokic to drive his horse in so he could leap from the back of the racing cart and dunk (it was being touted the Ben-Hur); Gordon catching a ball mid-air dropped by a falcon released by a falconer in the stands; a dunk where a Kia was crushed into a cube and then LaVine dunked the cube simultaneously with the ball (the reverse Blake Griffin); a dunk where the entire ‘Jet Song’ from Westside Story was performed before the dunk even happened — LaVine lit a cigarette with one hand and dunked with the other (Robin Lopez, disguised in a trench coat in the stands, loved it); a dunk where Gordon performed The Allegory of the Cave; a dunk where LaVine reenacted the motorcycle parachute jump scene from Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One; plus, a really sick reverse 360. And those were just the last four rounds.
Up in the rafters, Pierce watches. Hanging there, he’s just one more bat among all the others in the Spurs arena. The next dunk, he already knows, will involve Gordon pulling Wembanyama up from the courtside seat where he’s been watching. First, Gordon will feign that he wants to simply jump over the towering athlete like he did with Tacko Fall. Pierce liked this because it felt like a poetic homage to Gordon’s own hubris, at least that’s what he told Gordon. But this is the Dunk Contest, so of course it won’t be enough. Gordon will then proceed to strap Wembanyama to a spinning wheel replete with sparklers under the basket, where the rookie will hold a basketball in his hands that Gordon can only retrieve by asking Anthony Davis to hit it with a throwing knife. Enough to really scare him, Pierce had told Gordon. But Pierce knows that with Davis’s prosthetic eyes, he’s likely to miss.
Down on the floor, Gordon has Wembanyama strapped to the wheel and starts it spinning, Wembanyama’s face aglow as the sparklers flare. He walks back to Davis, who is doing little jumping jacks at centre court.
“You ready for this?” Gordon says in Davis’s ear. Davis glances to D’Angelo Russell courtside in a luxuriant cape-pant combo, who nods back.
“I’m ready,” Davis says firmly.
As Davis moves to toss his first throwing knife and the crowd hushes, the lights suddenly drop and the opening lines to ‘Space Jam’ by Quad City DJs rip through the arena.
“What the heck?” Gordon shouts, turning to Davis. “This isn’t part of the plan!”
“It’s the only way he’d agree to help!” Davis yells, motioning to LeBron James, who’s taken over the All-Star DJ booth and grins down at them both, waving two big thumbs-ups. “They might make another sequel!” Davis explains.
A furious, otherworldly cry comes from the rafters, where the roosting bats take off in a whirling black cloud. Peeling from the cloud, Pierce dives toward them on the court.
“Oh shit!” Gordon exclaims.
“Run!” Davis shouts.
The two sprint toward Wembanyama who, still turning on the wheel, looks trepidatious, a bit dizzy, but is still smiling gamely. “Ça va?” He questions, as the two other players reach him and begin to untie his bonds.
There’s a crash behind them. “TRAITORS!” Pierce roars, as Gordon, Davis, and the pinwheel with Wemby on it all begin to lift off the floor. Quad City DJs have reached their apex.
“Enough!” Another voice calls, clarion clear. Russell. The record scratches, but since James isn’t using vinyl, it means he must have played the sound effect of a record scratching.
Pierce turns on Russell, “You! You’ve ruined everything! I knew you would never be able to do what’s best for your team!”
Russell cocks an extra Dracula arched eyebrow, “How does self-preservation out of fear really get us ahead?” He shakes his head, circling Pierce, drawing him away from the wheel where Gordon and Davis are still furiously working to untie Wembanyama. “You want to to keep the NBMA in the shadows, a group of out-of-touch ghouls hanging onto power however they can. The game is changing, Paul! Victor’s a perfect example of that. It’s so clear that we have to change with it.”
There’s a thump as Wembanyama is freed. Pierce spins to face the rookie, now clambering to his feet, still not quite sure if this is all part of Gordon’s dunk, which is really taking a long time.
“Paul, listen,” Gordon says, stepping in front of Wembanyama, “when I got to Denver, you remember, I was a mess. My gills were flaky, the altitude was wreaking havoc on my swim bladder — I really was a fish out of water!”
“Corny even for me, Aaron!” James calls from the DJ dias.
“The point is: I adapted. I had the best season of my career, I won a chip, I’m gelling with my team better than I ever did in Orlando, even when I lived right next to the swamp.” Gordon’s voice softens, “Change can be scary, but you can’t stay the same way forever. Especially when forever, for you, is a long-ass time.”
There’s a moment where it looks like Pierce is considering what Gordon’s said, and he chuckles as if at his own foolishness. The chuckle rises into a dark, malevolent laugh, and Pierce’s features monstrously warp.
The bellow fills the arena and people, being lifted from their seats by dark magic, begin to scream. The arena bats swoop and claw at the crowd, the stadium lighting goes haywire with strobes flashing incessantly. James begins to play Halloween sound effects like rattling chains and bubbling cauldrons.
“Paul!” A sudden shout from the arena tunnel, “That’s enough!”
Two things happen: As Kevin Garnett, a skeleton, comes striding out onto the court, Kevon Looney moves to help his friends get Wembanyama out of there. Looney accidentally trips Garnett, who stumbles, then falls, and breaks apart from the hip bones down.
“God damnit,” Garnett mutters. “Looney, come help me get my legs back on.” He uses his arms to turn his torso to face Pierce, “Paul, I’d roll my eyes if I had any, but you’re being selfish. Of course we wish things were like we had them in the glory days, but it’s a young monsters world now. We have to move on with our lives.”
Instantly, Pierce deflates, and 18,418 people thud back into to their seats. Two howls cut though the chaos and James Harden and the Spurs Coyote come bounding down the aisles from the concourse.
“I’m ready to play! I mean to help!” Harden says to Russell, Gordon, and Davis, now helping to gather Garnett’s bones, the sight of which make Harden start to salivate. Davis puts a hand on Harden, “Why don’t we go talk to Paul?”
“10-4 good buddy,” Harden nods, “Over.”
Tentatively, they approach Pierce, who’s staring up into the rafters. Pierce sighs. “He’s really not a monster?” He asks.
“He’s really not. He’s just a guy.” Davis says.
“A crazy tall guy,” Harden adds.
“We’ve exposed ourselves, made all our dark secrets known,” Pierce shakes his head.
“But don’t you see, Paul? Now we don’t have to hide.” Davis says. “Now monsters can play alongside humans. No more travelling in cargo, no more janky dental plans. It’s like a whole new league, and you know the commish is going to want a representative for all of us, in the NBPA.”
Pierce looks across the court at Russell, who has put his cape gingerly around Wembanyama’s shoulders. “There’s a better monst—person for that job now. I think it’s my time to hang it up and go hang upside-down in some shade by a beach somewhere.”
Though his last Dunk was never completed, the Dunk Contest judges score Gordon a perfect 50 and award him the win. He gives the trophy to LaVine, who is grateful, but understandably a little freaked out.
That night, walking to his car exhausted and confused, Wembanyama once again gets the feeling he’s being watched. He turns, and this time finds it’s the Coyote standing behind him. Slowly, the Coyote lifts the head from its body. Wembanyama gasps.
Tim Duncan begins to sing.
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal
Tout ça m'est bien égal
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
C'est payé, balayé, oublié
Je me fous du passé
No, I do not regret anything
Nor the good that was done to me
All that I care
No, I do not regret anything
It is paid, swept away, forgotten
I do not care about the past)
It is the most beautiful rendition of the song he’s ever heard. Then, without slipping the head back on, Duncan turns and walks away.
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