I don’t bet much. I have friends that do. Five game parlays and lines and unders and overs and prop bets and whatever other terms you hear, they rattle them off. Bap. Bap. Bap. Bullets out their mouths. I nod a lot and say, “Totally.”
I’ve been to casinos no more than a handful of times and almost every one of those trips happened when I was in college. Twice I went and swam in the vat of incandescent light that is the Firelake Grand Casino on I-40 just west of Shawnee, Oklahoma. A mammoth beast of a structure that rises up out of the crimson clay and flashes its many lights like sirens singing pretty songs to tell you that you should come over to the rocks and watch Travis Tritt or Rodney Carrington or some other 90’s sort-of-kind-of-mainstay this Saturday night. Exit. Right now. Do it.
A couple or three other times I took a trip to The Sac and Fox Casino, this 18 and up pit of free fountain drinks and despair at the edge of town where the only light is purple neon and darkness and exhaled smoke swallow you and your Sooner Football sweatshirt whole.
The first time I went to Sac and Fox I was a sophomore at Oklahoma Baptist University. They had a little college night promotion going where if you came in and showed your college I.D. they gave you $5 for free to gamble with. I show up with some buddies and once inside we all go our separate ways like we’re too cool for friendship and after around thirty minutes of me doing my best impression of your best friends’ grandmother at the penny slots, I’m up $20. I am a king. I spit on you.
I head for the window and cash out and put down about fourteen Mountain Dews while I watch my friends enjoy themselves at the blackjack tables. I risk nothing so I don’t lose anything. This is not an indictment of people who do. I respect you very much. I have no spine.
Before my grandmother died we would spend holidays at her house. My grandfather and her lived out in the Oklahoma boonies in a tiny town of somewhere around fifty people. Pastures for days on end out there with this big, gaping mouth of a sky reaching a sunset pink unseen anywhere else when the clouds stayed away. Cattle and hay and kids that won’t be able to legally drive for another ten years zipping around on four wheelers like little, country Pastranas.
My grandparents were the first people I knew with satellite television. One Thanksgiving mid morning, after the parade but before the Cowboys game, I’m in my grandparents’ den with my dad, my uncle, and my grandfather. My grandfather’s taking the yellow rectangle down through the blue puzzle of a grid and there on NBA TV is Game 4 of the 1987 Finals. Lakers-Celtics. Magic-Bird. Smile-Stache.
The elders in the room perk up and it’s lesson time. I’m 11 at the moment and I know a bit about ball, but they see this as an opportunity for me to further my education.
I grew up around basketball. My grandfather coached multiple state championship teams and my dad and my uncle were both celebrated players in their days. I’ve heard about the legendary Lakers-Celtics bouts of yesteryear, but I don’t know about them. To get unnecessarily vague and slightly romantic about it, I didn’t feel them. Red and West and Russell and Baylor and Wilt and Havlicek are names I know, yes, but I also have no context for them. They’re black and white grainy images that fuzz and blur and always end with a whole bunch of people in street clothes and Nike Cortezes jumping around on the court together.
I’m saying, to that point I’d never seen Havlicek actually shoot a basketball. He’d only ever tipped a pass and run down the court while Johnny Most — a name I thought had to be fake — was going nuts. Legends didn’t appear on televisions as regularly as they do now, 30 for 30’s and ESPN Classic and a fascination with all things retro having taken over the way they have. I mean, you can buy socks with Bill Walton’s face on them now. This was a chance for the men of my family to teach the boy of the family and they went to work.
I’d heard of Bird, because when you’re a white kid trying to play Y-League you’re going to hear about Bird, and had seen whatever highlights of his happened to make their way onto ESPN, but I was four when he retired. I’d yet to really watch him play. The old guys in the room start talking about him and I’d imagine hearing old white men talk about Larry Bird is kind of what it was like to talk to the disciples about Jesus. As a kid who hadn’t seen Bird in his prime, you grow to believe he’s perfect. When he misses a shot during the game it’s like finding out Santa isn’t real.
And so the love begins to be rained down. They talk about how well Bird used his body. How he knew angles better than anyone. They talk about Magic and how he got everyone involved. They talk about Kareem and Worthy and McHale and DJ and all the rest. They all remember the game like it happened an hour ago.
The game nears the end and my dad asks me if I know what happens. I’d watched enough Rich Eisen-Kenny Mayne early morning SportsCenters to see a good number of Top 10 lists come and go. Magic gets the ball on the left wing. Drives the lane. Baby hook. Bucket. Ball game. I tell them this.
Yea. Magic takes the last shot.
No he doesn’t, says my Dad.
You really think that?
Stop playing with me, I say.
I’m not playing. I’ll bet you your seat that he doesn’t hit a shot at the buzzer.
Stakes raised. I’m in the recliner at this point. This recliner is squarely in front of the television and widely considered the best seat in the house. Seat thievery was a major pastime among Parker men. Still is. The pastime goes a guy who was on a couch would walk into the kitchen, hang there for a bit, then walk back out into the den and tell whoever was in the recliner that their significant other needed them in the other room. When they got up, they’d swoop in and nab the seat. When they found out the scam the other guy would come back in and protest but all was lost. You got had and you dealt with your poor viewing angle, frowned, and ate your turkey from the couch with the weird hunting dog print like the gullible loser that you were. The recliner was the throne. We all wanted it.
So, I say no to the bet. He says that I know I’m wrong. I think I’m right but I’m not positive. He taunts me. I say no again. My uncle and my grandfather get in on the fun. I take the bet. This is the art of peer pressure. This is what Kendrick was talking about.
Around this time it’s Celtic ball. DJ gets it to Parish who kicks it back out to DJ who gets doubled. DJ kicks it to Ainge and Ainge sees The Great White Stache hanging out in the corner all by himself. He kicks it to Bird. Bird shoots with a guy running at him. Splash. Weird Bill Walton double high fives. Twelve seconds left. Celtics up two. What it must have been like to see a guy this automatic play in real time. He’s perfection. He does not miss. He can’t. It would be like the sun not coming up or Dunk-a-roos going out of business.
Lakers ball. They foul Kareem. Kareem nets the first and misses the second. Ball comes off and is tipped out of bounds. Laker ball. Not So Plain Pat calls a timeout. They inbound the ball to Magic and he does what I thought he did. Bucket. I look around with smug face in tow and my dad goes ‘told you’ and I’m genuinely confused.
What are you talking about?
There’s still time left.
He didn’t take the last shot.
I thought that was a buzzer beater.
The rest of the game unfolds in slow motion and I watch it like I’m watching someone perform surgery on me.
The Celtics call a timeout. They’re down one with two seconds left. DJ’s taking the ball out and Michael Thompson’s hopping up and down in front of him, waving his arms like he’s on a trampoline trying to get someone to take a picture. The God King of Indiana walks his man up the court like he’s going to get the paper and then he quickly breaks to the corner. DJ lofts a very attractive one through the air that hits Bird as he’s turning. As soon as it hits his hands he lets it go and it flies true like I’ve been led to believe all his do and I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about the history of this game because that shot is going in. It’s Larry Bird and Larry Bird does not miss. Not when it matters. Then, clank off the back iron. It hits the parquet and if a ball could walk off with its head down, that ball did.
I sit there in the quiet of the den that smells like turkey and Pine Sol and I’ve got my dad and my uncle and my grandfather and a couple handfuls of mounted deer staring at me, all of them smiling. Young buck got owned, they’re probably thinking. I think I see my innocence float over and fall into the flames of the wood-burning fireplace and my grandmother calls into the room that lunch is ready and I get up and my Dad takes my seat.