by Ştefan Bolea
Translation from Romanian by Caroline Carver & Mircea Filimon [MTTLC student]
pentru versiunea română click aici
On one of the sixteen basketball courts of a Manhattan high school, Cosmin Lăzărescu, the seventeen year old son of some Romanian immigrants, was starting his 23rd 1 on 1 game. He was playing so well that many had interrupted their games and sat down to watch him. About 50 occasional spectators had gathered. He had 22 consecutive victories, but this time the odds seemed against him. His opponent, a black guy who measured 1.98 m in height (about 5 cm taller than Cosmin) was leading 8 to 1. Cosmin tried to imagine that Jim Morrison was saying at the back of his mind ‘The public has gathered here to see me lose!’. He was tired so he asked for a time-out to drink some Gatorade and consult the Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli and Baudelaire collection on his Kindle. His two close friends who weren’t surprised that a guy with an IQ of almost 180, who dropped out of high-school because he didn’t feel valued amongst the waves of mediocrity of his classmates could play basketball so well, supported him discreetly. Samuel said to him ‘You’ve still got a shot. But you need to improve your defence game…’. Charlie quoted Al Pacino saying in The Devil’s Advocate (also purposely; it was a famous reference in their circle): ‘Maybe it’s your time to lose’. Cosmin approved tacitly, caught his breath (he had been playing for 6 hours, with very few breaks) and returned to the court. A few spectators cheered him, others watched silently with concentration. Eddie, the black thug had the ball – he needed 3 more attacks to break Cosmin’s never-before-beaten series. He made a cross-over, a dribble dodge to the left, closed himself in the angle and threw over Cosmin’s somewhat indolent block: 9-1. Charlie thought: ‘The point of no return’. Eddie thought: ‘Another one and it’ll be set-1’. Cosmin wasn’t thinking anything and his face seemed resigned, but those who knew him could see that that was a deceiving look.
Eddie gained courage; he had never beaten Cosmin and many considered him a legend of that basketball court, with moments of genius when he rivalled the best players in the NCAA. Too bad he was a high school drop-out; he could be drafted. Eddie dribbled forward and slam-dunked. He was underestimating his opponent and wanted to end it spectacularly and in force. A couple of chicks from the audience sighed when Eddie, just like an unleashed Othello, with his impressive leap of almost 1.4 m, jumped to slam-dunk. Surprisingly, like a Titus Andronicus who with one hand invites you to the table and with the other feeds you the carrion of his family, blocked him at the panel and took back the ball. Eddie was stunned – block + take, when he had two more attacks and he was already hearing the proverbial music of victory… Cosmin didn’t try too hard; he stepped out of the lane and made a perfect stop-shoot directly into the chains of the high school basket. 2-9. On the following moves, Cosmin lowered his efforts and didn’t even attack: he scored 6 hoops from stop-shoot, tiring his opponent with dribbling that seemed to distance him from the basket and throwing from dead angles. The spectators were more and more excited watching this switch of forces (but also the comeback of the Manhattan Imperator). An insignificant percentage of them were actually bored with Cosmin’s passive play, who wasn’t attacking anymore, but throwing perfectly, even further from the basket. 8-9. Stop-shoot for tie. This time, Eddie, with his superior physique, didn’t fall for it again. He caught on to Cosmin’s lazy and cunning strategy and blocked him somewhere on the left side of the basket, close to the three point line. Being more agile, Cosmin got back the ball, passed it between his opponent’s legs and with a final effort, scored a tie with a simple lay-up.
From 9-1 to 9-9, Eddie was rather frustrated and wanted to at least make some nasty blocks, at the limit of fault, anticipating that his opponent would save himself with lousy stop-shoots. Cosmin thought about that and seeing Eddie’s hateful wolf-like look automatically change his tactic. He wanted to finish nicely anyway, for the public. 9-9. Cosmin started his series of annoying and deceiving dribbling, ever further from the basket: he was heading to the centre of the court, to its limit, but Eddie was tailing him like a border policeman or a bus controller. Just like in tango, but the other way around, Cosmin started taking two steps forward, one back: now they were at the three point line. Cosmin dribbled backward and Eddie was hovering all around him, with the most aggressive defence he was capable of. Cosmin made a dribbling dodge; Eddie went for the dodge and his opponent threw the ball to the panel, turning around him at 360 degrees and throwing himself in a wild slam-dunk. The spectators were rooting for him, 90% of them were already filming, some of them had taken out their laptops and were uploading live on youtube. Anyway, it was an impossible move, you needed a replay to understand what had happened. Dodge, self-alley-oop à la Tracy McGrady and avoiding the opponent with a pirouette. Taking advantage of the opponent’s confusion who thought he was playing an alien, on the last move, Cosmin made a simple stop-shoot over Eddie’s symbolic block and finished the 23rd consecutive game 11-9.
The next day, Cosmin was already a star on youtube. He had received loads of emails and texts from fans. He had lain in bed and was reading Heidegger when his phone rang: ‘Hello, my name is James O’Brian and I’m drafting for the NBA. I’ve seen the 23 videos on youtube. You’re a true genius!’
‘I’m not in high school, I’ve dropped out!’
‘I’m sure this can be worked out somehow. At 17 years old you’re above the average of players in the NBA. We would like to put together a promotional game between you and one of the best players in the NBA!’
‘Fine, only if you bring them to my old high school. I only play there!’
‘I think we can work this out as well. Who would you like to play against? What do you say about Kobe Bryant?’
‘He’s too old; I’d beat him too hard.’
The agent laughed noisily and said: ‘Well, not quite! Who do you want then?’
‘LeBron James. I think I’d finally do justice to the Cleveland guys if I humiliate him…’
The agent goes on: ‘Excellent choice! Lăzărescu vs. James, present vs. past. I think this game will sell well!’
‘It’s a deal then!’
On the day of the game, LeBron was looking at his polished nails out of boredom: ‘I’m playing again on a high school court, with some sort of a loser for charity. Good thing I get about 8 million to move my ass all the way here.’ He smiled to himself: ‘I wonder if my opponent gets enough for a burger and a shake.’
There were about 16 TV stations who had arranged their cameras for live broadcast (including PRO TV Romania, which was presenting the game like the battle between St. George and the Dragon). The high school court was packed full with Hollywood superstars and NBA scouters. Before reaching the court and starting the warm-up, LeBron was stopped by his agent: ‘Careful, don’t beat him too hard… Let him score 5 hoops or so. Play up to, say 60%. It’s just some kid!’
LeBron laughed with an air of superiority: ‘Of course, we need to create a little suspense for TV. A little drama!’
When he entered the court, LeBron was received like a Roman gladiator, with cheers and heartfelt cursing as well. Cosmin had already warmed up. LeBron shook hands with the kid who was about 10 years younger than him and 10 cm shorter. LeBron thought about not traumatising him too much. He had seen some videos of Cosmin on youtube, but he wasn’t all that impressed. ‘After all, if there’d been youtube at the time I was 13, I would have been sanctified by now.’ LeBron considered himself a Titan, a god among men and was under the impression that his moves influenced the new media technologies: the PS 3 was modulated after his exceptional gift. And come to think about it, he wasn’t too wrong. In his latest NBA game, he had scored 7 3 points hoops in overtime, 2 of them almost from the middle of the court. He was used to being adulated, controversial, worshipped. He was also used to underestimating all of his opponents. That’s because he didn’t think too much about them: they didn’t stand a chance to stop LeBron.
First attack: LeBron let Cosmin start out of generosity. He was the one with the disadvantage. He was playing the world’s greatest basketball player. Cosmin started dribbling. LeBron stood at a distance, not even bothering to defend himself too carefully: 1-0, 2-0, 3-0. All out of stop-shoot. On the fourth hoop, LeBron actually jumped to cover the basket with all his strength and energy, but Cosmin threw when he was landing and somewhat from the right side, from an impossible angle. And it was 4-0. The crowd was divided: some were cheering with joy, others were wondering if by any chance the game had been faked. The suspicion of the latter vanished when they saw LeBron’s suffering face. ‘How did he score? It was impossible! I need to focus! No more playing around!’ On the following move, Cosmin smoothly dribbled LeBron but on the lay-up he was slammed to the ground really nastily by his opponent who weighed 30 kg more than him. The crowd was already on the victim’s side. The CNN commentator: ‘A dirty wrestling move from King James.’ Cosmin attacked again after he wiped himself of blood and dust. He dribbled LeBron from the behind – the interception was in the air when Cosmin threw from behind to the panel, defying any block possibility: 5-0. LeBron’s agent was already worrying: ‘WTF? Is this for real?’ LeBron asked for a time-out. His psychological counsellor came to him, but the star totally ignored him. He didn’t even hear what he was buzzing about. He thought: ‘The kid is deceiving. He’s not good, but he’s very tricky. I let him up to 3-0 (he’d let him only up to 1-0). But it’s 5-0 already and I need to get the ball from him. Fuck it, I only need to make an interception and you’ll see how I score 11 consecutive dunks. I’ll only shoot straight to the panel or between his legs. I’ll take the fool’s ball…’
Cosmin didn’t hear his thoughts but guessed them perfectly: ‘If I lose the ball, I lose the game. You can’t defend against LeBron. I have to make it so that he can’t defend himself against me.’ Stop-shoot 6-0. 7-0. On the following attack, LeBron made his second nasty fault, outraging all of America. He threw himself with his elbow in the back of Cosmin’s head. He fell badly, but not before scoring by lay-up: 8-0. LeBron looked like a boxer who kept pulling back in a corner or a bull who was being attacked by a thousand toreadors at the same time. The second time-out for the superstar: ‘I’ll kill the fool! I’ll kill him.’ Cosmin: ‘Three more attacks…’ Stop-shoot: the incredible 10-0. Winning ball. LeBron was in a terrible mental excitement. He hadn’t felt like that since his first NBA year, when he felt he had something to prove. He was humiliated and helpless. Cosmin made an attack dodge, LeBron went for the dodge for a fraction of a second, then came back while Cosmin was throwing to the basket from about 9 m away. After he’d thrown the ball (as it was seen on the replay and commented with indignation on all the TV sports channels in the world) Cosmin felt how the neighbourhood was crumbling on his head: LeBron had ‘slipped’ purposely on him. 11-0. LeBron lost his first 1 on 1 in his professional career, but at least he banged the kid really well. ‘I hope he has good medical insurance.’ Before he passed out, hundreds of reporters rushed to Cosmin’s side to tape the champion’s statement: ‘How did you manage to beat the world’s best player?’ No one understood it at that moment: ‘Zenon, I did it all for you!’
In the hospital, Cosmin was recovering slowly but surely from the light cerebral contusion LeBron gave him. His Zenon statement was on all the channels; Harvard professors of Hellenism were explaining the paradoxes of classical logic. LeBron’s statement was all over as well. He was yelling angrily: ‘I let him! It was a shift for entertainment. Or voodoo, whatever you want.’ And when the reporters were laughing mockingly: ‘Anyway, I want a rematch!’. Cosmin wrote quietly in the diary, that would one day sell better than Sun-Tzu: ‘I learned the lesson when I came back at 1-9 to win with 11-9. First of all, my opponent had relaxed, his every move was going right and he was smelling the victory, no matter how good I was. But I changed at 1-9. He remained in his former story. I said: “I won’t lose another ball”. And that’s how it was. If I don’t lose the ball, I don’t lose the attack; I can win not 11-9, but 100-9, ∞ – 9. If I’d lost one single attack, I would have demoralized myself even more, the opponent would have tasted blood and I would have lost everything. The most important thing is that the score allowed my comeback: it was 9-1 not 10-1. There are a thousand lanes between 9-1 and 10-1. The most important thing is to snap out of it when you’re on the edge of the abyss, not when you already have a leg inside it. In other words, do you remember that movie with the parallel universes when Jet Li ends up in the inferno? Jet Li wouldn’t suffer in the inferno, he’d beat up everyone. Just like when I was sitting in the subway, and it was full as always and I had three free seats near me. No one could sit next to me because I was giving them ugly threatening looks. Not to all at the same time, one by one, so that they didn’t even dare want to sit next to me. What’s the connection? You can defeat all your opponents in the world if you are a good fighter and take them one by one. You can beat 1000, 100000, a billion. One by one. You will not get tired, but your strength will increase with every new victim. Why did I beat LeBron, who is 10 times a better player than me, better than anyone, if it’s up to that? It’s not because he underestimated me, the surprise disappeared at 4-0, but because I didn’t give him a single chance! If I’d lost a ball, I would have lost the entire game.’
Cosmin’s phone rings again: ‘I’m Shaquille O’Neal’s agent. Hold on a moment, I’ll put you through to Mr. O’Neal.’
‘Do you want to play me 1 on 1 in Boston?’
‘Now that’s a challenge…’ thought Cosmin and smiled with delight.