Last time we encountered Portland’s Damian Lillard climbing from a grave. This time we find him imprisoned in French Guiana:
Damian Lillard, sometimes called Dame, had seen plenty of prison movies, so he knew just what to do as soon as the door on his solitary cell slammed shut. Walk it off. Toe to heel, he edged from one wall to the opposite, counting the steps in his head, as if on a tightrope. He walked from the front wall to the back wall and then the left wall to the right wall. In total, the measuring of his cell took about two minutes of his eternity in solitary confinement. He did it again. And again. Adidas step. After Adidas step. He measured his cell approximately 82 times that winter. What time he didn’t spend counting steps, he spent bouncing a tennis ball off the walls, except he didn’t have a tennis ball, at least not a real one. Instead, he imagined tossing a tennis ball off the walls, bouncing it with his right, retrieving it with his left. He had seen plenty of prison movies. He knew just what to do. He would be fine.
In late spring, a bell rang down the corridor. A metal grate slid open in the upper half of the door. He poked his head through it, into the hallway. He looked to his right and to his left; the heads of other prisoners protruded from their cells as well.
“Hey,” whispered an older looking man. Dame whispered a greeting back to the bearded gentleman. “I’m Greg. How do I look?”
Lillard wanted to say old, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “You look fine.” The old-looking man nodded, “Thanks. I’ll be twenty-nine next January. What month is it now?”
“I—I don’t know,” said Dame. He turned away from the gentleman.
“Don’t mind him. He’s not long for this world. How do I look?”
“Cool, my name’s Brandon, and I was worried I might be looking like Greg already.”
Lillard looked at the prisoners on either side of him, and then, looking at Brandon, said, “You look much healthier.”
“That’s a relief,” said the other prisoner, and then the guards were upon him, inspecting his teeth and gums. When they arrived at Dame’s cell, he opened his mouth and said, “Ahhhhhhhhh.”
Right around the time he first started losing his mind, a guard slid a food tray through the slot at the bottom of the door. Usually the inmates received nothing but a paper cup and a couple swallows of Gatorade, but on a Dame’s tray sat half a coconut. While drinking its milk and scraping out its pulpy insides, he discovered a small scroll. He unrolled it. In vein-blue writing he read one of his other nicknames—D.O.L.L.A.—and the message: Soon. Following the one-word message was the sketch of a butterfly, as if the wings, thorax, and abdomen were the note-writer’s signature. Starved, D.O.L.L.A. finished the coconut and ate the paper note too.
Days and weeks went by and no more coconuts. He lived off sips of Gatorade. He swallowed a roach or two. Bored of making tally marks to track the time, he started carving rap lyrics into the stone walls of his cell. When he first had the idea of bars on bars, he giggled out loud. A guard monitoring the cellblock from the gangplank above yelled down for silence. Dame obliged, but slayed his watcher with words on the wall.
His next meal arrived with a chess piece, as did the one after that, and the one after that. Soon Lillard possessed a whole set—sixteen to a side. On the bottom of each pawn, rook, bishop, knight, and so forth was the etching of a butterfly. He set the pieces up. He played chess against himself. When he grew tired of that, he made up names for the figurines and pretended they were basketball players. He would whisper over them as they fake dribbled and passed on the concrete slab. “Mason Plumlee with the block!” He mimicked the crowd’s excitement. Ahhhhh! Whooooooo! “McCollum retrieves the ball!” Ohhhhhhh! “He passes to Aminu. Aminu thinks about shooting. He kicks it back to McCollum. McColllum drives. He dishes. Ed Davis slams it home!” He roared with the might of an entire city.
“Down there! Silence.” The voice came from above, from the gangplank or the heavens. Dame should have shut his mouth in fear, but instead he giggled. Not long after he heard footsteps in the corridor. They opened the door to his cell. They inspected the chess pieces. They commented on the butterfly insignia. “Who’s been giving you these?”
Dame laughed, “Andy Dufresne, I guess.” He received a backhand across his jaw. He felt blood bubbling on his busted lip.
“I’ll ask one more time,” said the head guard. “Who’s been giving you the chess pieces?”
Damian looked him in the eye. “I really don’t know, sir.”
“And the coconut?”
“I don’t know about that either.”
The lead guard turned to the men under his command. “Cut his rations. Let him feast on these pawns.” The man snatched up one of the kings and chucked it against the wall. The piece broke at the neck. The guards left Damian’s cell.
Alone in the darkness, he whispered, “Chris Kaman’s body was bound to break down over the course of a season.” In his hands he held the king’s head and torso.
Lillard woke in the night, gasping for air. Paper, the texture of wrapping paper, filled his mouth. He coughed, spit, and bit through the tarp-sized sheet covering his face. In his dream, he may or may not have been buried alive. Above him, sifting down through the grates in the gangplank and the ceiling’s bars was the pale moonlight. He did not sleep the rest of the night.
In the faint light of morning, he studied the large paper rectangle. On the front side was a basketball player shooting a jump shot and wearing the number twelve. The man was headless from where Dame bit through the poster. Spelled out across the player’s chest were the letters: RIP CITY. Dame glanced at the gangplank above him; no guards were in sight. He flipped the poster over as quickly and quietly as he could. On the backside were directions: Hang on back wall . . . wait. His benefactor had once again signed his handiwork with the faint outline of a butterfly.
D.O.L.L.A. again checked the gangplank for the encroaching eyes of the prison guards and, seeing none, he hung the poster on the back wall as best he could. Then he went about his day, pretending to play chess and pacing off the cell’s dimensions.
Sometime in the afternoon the bell rang down the corridor and the slot in his door slid open. He poked his head out and waited for his neighbors, but neither Greg nor Brandon appeared. In fact, he was the only prisoner left in solitary confinement. Well, him and the guy on the poster.
The guards walked stiffly down the corridor, footsteps echoing in the chamber’s stone solemnness. They checked Damian’s teeth and gums. They cursed him a time or two and started to leave. But Damian coughed.
“Yes, Mr. Lillard.” The head guard grinned.
Damian coughed. “I’d like to speak with the warden.” He swallowed. “I have something to report.”
He waited for the warden with head in the grate. He wondered if men on the guillotine ever waited so long. He waited for what felt longer than the 82 days in winter where he counted steps in his cell. He felt like he waited forever.
“Yes, Mr. Lillard.” All the guards sounded exactly the same. “I hear you have something to report.”
“The butterfly,” he said. “It’s—it’s—it’s from a movie.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Lillard. You say someone from a movie’s been helping you.”
“I—I—I—have something to report . . . .” The energy and conviction drained from his face, even his eyes went pale. “I—I—I—was buried alive.”
“You were buried alive.”
“I—I—I—I don’t remember.”
The blow landed quickly on the crown of his head, and Damian fell backwards into his cell, his body folding into a pile of rag and bone on the concrete slab. The warden and his guards marched off before he even landed.
When Damian Lillard awoke, he was furious. He stared incredulously at the poster. Then, with a fury not known to this world, he charged the paper rectangle head first, but when his crown rammed against the number twelve, the paper gave way—he did not strike stone, but burst into a dark tunnel. The shock of not finding a wall threw his body off balance and he landed chest first in the mud.
“He asked you to wait.”
Damian lifted his face from the puddle of raw sewage that had broken his fall. Just out of his reach were pale, freckled feet in a pair of green flip flops. He raised his head farther from the mud and shit. He looked past the man’s knobbed knees and cut-off corduroy shorts. He looked past the dancing bears on the man’s tie-dyed t-shirt. He looked up to the man’s scraggly gray and red beard and Abraham Lincoln-shaped skull.
“What? Were you expecting a beady-eyed Dustin Hoffman?”
“No, I—I don’t think so. Who’s Dustin Hoffman?”
“Throw it down, big man! We’ve got work to do.” The man pulled Damian up by his blue prison collar.
“Are you the butterfly?”
The man laughed. “You have so much to learn, lil’ fellow. Follow me.” The man hobbled, but he did so quickly. The opening to Damian’s former cell receded behind them until only darkness lay in that direction. In front of him limped the old man’s shadow. Damian followed as closely as he could, catching words here and there that floated in the tunnel on the man’s breath:
Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.
The words were clearly from a song, but Dame didn’t recognize a word of it. The tunnel grew smaller.
“Alright, this is it, lil’ man—the greatest moment in all of Western Civilization, at least since the invention of basketball.” The man gestured towards a crack of distant light. “Your path awaits you.”
“You’re not coming?”
“Oh kid, I man the tunnels. The rest is, well, as Jerry would say, What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Dame thanked the tall hippie and moved on. After a while, he had to stoop. Then he crawled on all fours, and, eventually, he slithered on his belly like a worm. When his head broke into the open air, he felt the warm light and smelled the sea salt. He pulled his right arm out of the ground and then his left. He pushed himself out of the snug-fitting rabbit hole.
“Welcome, homey.” A man in a matching prison suit sat in a lawn chair facing the ocean out beyond the cliffs. Waves breaking against the rocks roared beneath them. “You’re right on time; this is the future.”
“Who were you expecting? Morgan Freeman? Some man’s life savings and a fence line? This shit’s about something else than money.”
“To be honest, I didn’t expect anything.”
“Sometimes that’s best. Other times it’s not. Your boat to freedom is over there.”
Damian didn’t see a boat. Damian saw a net full of coconuts. “What do I do with those?”
Kendrick stepped over to the cliff’s edge. “You toss them over. They’ll float out. Then you jump in and swim after them. As you swim, I’ll freestyle something inspirational. Maybe a jazz flute plays. I’ve been planning this for a long time.”
Damian stared down at the sharp rocks and the violent waters. “What if you jump and I rap something inspirational?”
“Nah, homey. This is about concepts. It has to be you.”
“It has to be me?”
“Has to be.”
“You sent the chess pieces?”
“And the poster?”
“There’s a plan?”
“Definitely.” Kendrick crossed his arms and stared out at the horizon and all of Western Civilization.
“How long have you known Bill Walton?”
“Okay,” said Dame, with confidence. “I’ll do it.”
“Do you want me to go over the plan again?” asked Kendrick. “I mean, Brandon and Greg both tried and didn’t make it. They landed on those rocks over there. Poor homies.”
“I don’t need to talk about it. Just need to do it.”
Damian hoisted the net full of coconuts off the ground. He swung it over the cliff’s ledge and let go. The parcel shrank as it neared the ocean. He watched the speck bob on the waves and float out to sea. He dove in after it. The ocean spray cut his body as it flew upward and he descended. The water clamped coldly around him. Like ice. He lashed out with his arms and legs. He churned his arms and kicked his legs. He fought the tide. He swam with all his might from the rocks and the roaring surf. He spotted the brown speck on the horizon. He made for that. When he reached it, he pulled his tired limbs and torso on top of it. He positioned himself in a Buddha’s perch. The water splashed at him as his vessel bobbed up and down. He couldn’t hear the jazz flute Kendrick had mentioned. He couldn’t hear Kendrick’s words either, so he spoke his own: “Hey, you bastards, I’m still here.”
Bryan Harvey tweets about basketball and other things @LawnChairBoys.