Thursday, November 22, 2007

Do Nice Guys Finish Last? 4th Edition

(My weekly column from The Love Of Sports. Follow along as my team, The Centerfolds, attempts to navigate the dangerous world of fantasy basketball, utilizing only their raw talent, wits, and my flawless leadership abilities to fantasy-manage them. No guns, knives or drugs allowed.)

Week 3 of the fantasy basketball season was witness to a strange reversal of fortune. I’m not talking about the Jets shocking the Steelers in the Meadowlands. After all, we’re talking basketball here, not football.

I guess I’ll just jump right into it. We got our butts handed to us this past week - on a platter. With a side of wasabi. And a bit of the wasabi just got in my eye. Yeah, that’s why I’m crying all over the keyboard right now.

The Centerfolds lost 7-2, ending our early season ride along the tip-top of the standings. We’re now in the middle of the pack – elbow to elbow with the likes of Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant. Not good company for my team, or any team for that matter. As I’ll explain, it took me a while to figure out what went wrong. On the surface, we simply didn’t get it done this past week, and the problem couldn’t be isolated to just one or two players. Poor performance spanned the entire lineup.

It all came to a head late in the week. You should have seen the look on Yao’s face after a 12 point, 6 rebound performance on Saturday night. He shot a miserable (and very un-Yao-like) 23.5% from the floor. This guy can dunk while standing flat-footed in a six inch hole, so he usually makes the majority of his shots.

But that look on his face…..I could see it in his doleful brown eyes; in his slightly labored movement up and down the court; in the way he sipped his Gatorade during timeouts. It was almost as if there was a slow leak inside - an internal hemorrhaging of confidence, if you will, which evaporated into the heavy Houston air along with the sweat and tears pouring off his body.

“Yao, buddy. What‘s wrong?” I asked him after the game, in Mandarin.

“I do not know for what exactly is this problem, Chief Badass leader of dogs and men,” said Yao, loosely translated in my mind back into English, “I think it is my heart which is broken hard into bowls of rock by that which makes me smell angry.”

With that, he hung his head as low as it would go, and traipsed back to the fantasy locker room.

Of course, I’m still learning Chinese, and it’s a very difficult language. Still, upon further reflection, Yao’s seemingly senseless comments were not the result of temporary insanity. I may never know exactly what he meant, but the gist of it was this: I am sad.

Yao’s a leader of this team, and his example is invariably followed by the other players, young and old alike. His feelings of sadness had spread through the fantasy clubhouse like tuberculosis - and by that, I don’t mean it rode through the air on tiny globules of mucous or saliva. Rather, Yao’s grief was airborne, in the sense that it traveled in and around every fantasy player, fantasy coach, fantasy towel boy, fantasy trainer, and fantasy manager (Me) with no discrimination whatsoever. We were all feeling blue.

The sadness had persisted for most of the week. But the melancholy vibes reached a peak on Saturday night, during the ride back to our fantasy ranch in Crawford, Texas. Kevin Durant was in his seat, huddled with his knees to his chest, sobbing quietly. Ray Allen was humming a funeral dirge, tears streaming down his face. Shane Battier was locked in the lavatory, burning incense and reciting Druid prayers. It was all too much to bear. I needed to get to the bottom of this.

I slowly approached Yao’s seat, near the back of the tour bus, and sat down next to him. He stared out the smudged window as the rain fell in heavy sheets against the glass. He breathed slowly, fogging up the window along its entire length. It struck me that his eyes were bone dry and bloodshot. This giant of a man had run out of tears.

I reached up and put my hand on his shoulder. I asked him what was wrong, in English, and implored him to confide in me, in English. The Centerfolds don’t keep secrets from one another. This fantasy team shares the triumph and the tragedy. And so he answered freely, and I learned the source of his pain.

Earlier in the week, and after a lengthy illness, Yao’s hamster had passed on to the great activity wheel in the sky. I think it made him feel a little better when I told him that there was plenty of shredded newspaper in heaven. Also, his furry friend would have all the oat pellets he could eat, and would never want for fresh seeds and grains. Yao smiled at this thought – his fat, happy hamster waddling around in heaven without a care.

And with that smile, a bright warmth spread through the fantasy tour bus. The players dried their eyes. The time for grieving had ended. The board games came out, and we all enjoyed a raucous round-robin of fantasy Hungry-Hungry Hippos, into the wee hours of the night.


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