Coast to CoastLexi Kent-Monning
Larry Bird’s feet are the largest pieces of a body I’ve ever seen, more so because they were bandaged and elevated, post-Achilles surgery. His bodyguard strong-armed me, then a tiny 4 year old, away from the elevator as they wheeled his gurney down the hospital hallways. My Dad’s eyes sparkled as he realized who we saw, and we darted back to my Mom’s room to tell her. She was about to start physical therapy after back surgery, on her L4/L5 disc, and the morphine was giving her nightmares and making her vomit, which made her back pain even more excruciating. “You and the Hick from French Lick are in good hands,” my Dad told her, and his reassurance worked — her tense shoulders dropped and she eye-sparkled back at him. After she was discharged from the hospital we all piled around her bedside to tend to her, rotating her ice packs, bringing her little snacks of peanuts and chocolate milk, and watching NBA games together. Because I was four years old, I’d never heard of an Achilles heel before. My parents found their Greek mythology book to read the myth to me. I kept forgetting that the tendon was called an “Achilles” and referred to it as “the Larry Bird muscle.”
We were allowed to watch one hour of TV per week, but the exception was during the NBA Playoffs each year. My parents even moved the TV next to the dinner table so we wouldn’t miss a single play over our veggie burgers. Our new home in California was 3,000 miles away from Boston Garden, but it was only 2 blocks away from the neighborhood basketball court. My sister and I shot hoops for hours, my Dad providing buzzer-beating commentary, and my Mom joining us for rounds of HORSE since her back was better. That was when my parents started calling me “Muggsy,” and maybe that’s why I never grew past 5’2”, because I still wanted to look up to him at 5’3”. The laws of physics I was learning in school made no sense when I watched Muggsy or Spud Webb play.
Chris Mullin’s stint in rehab was included in my 2nd grade report about “One of my Favorite People,” which he had become now that I was in Warriors territory. My bewildered teacher marked the page with a “?” next to the section about alcoholism, and my parents talked to me about it at dinner that night. A blue and yellow leather Warriors jacket was under the Christmas tree for me that year, and I wore it every day while trying to find more words that rhymed with “Latrell Sprewell,” because his name made me want to write poems. When the sun went down and my sister and I had to head home from the neighborhood court, we took turns playing One on One on the family Macintosh. I always wanted to be Dr. J, because I knew about Larry Bird’s weak ankles.
And then Dennis Rodman started wearing Hard Candy nail polish and dyeing his hair, so I did, too. The jealousy that coursed through my body confused me when he put on a wedding dress and married himself at his book launch, because I wanted to be the one to marry him. I didn’t care which one of us wore the dress, I just didn’t want him to be off the market. But I respected his union, so I turned my attention to my first boyfriend, the best basketball player in our middle school, and gave him Chicago Bulls boxers and Michael Jordan’s cologne for Valentine’s Day. I can still smell that cologne, and could probably still draw the silhouette of MJ’s head that adorned the packaging. I traced it over and over before I had to cover it with shiny red heart wrapping paper. When the middle school boyfriend broke up with me, I wanted to ask if I could have the packaging back — not the cologne, just the packaging, but I couldn’t find the courage. How many hours did I then go on to spend watching teenage boys play NBA 2K?
Our family friend Dorothy had season tickets to the Warriors and occasionally gave us her tickets, and my parents hauled us 100 miles up to Oakland to watch the games — once even on a school night, because my mom’s undying crush on David Robinson was one of our favorite things to tease her about, and she had to see The Admiral play in person before he retired. During another game, when the Warriors played the Pacers, the security guards let kids stand on court level during shoot-around. I was 18 by then, but my Muggsy stature lent a younger look, and I found myself staring up at Reggie Miller, his wink to all of us a goddamn shooting star.
When I moved to New York at 18 and didn’t have a TV in my tiny apartment, but was too young to get into a sports bar to watch a game, it was like a solo lockout. As the season progressed, so did my desperation, until I learned about the broken fire exit at the Horseshoe Bar. It could be opened from the outside without activating the alarm, allowing me to bypass the bouncers checking IDs at the front door. I sat at the bar to holler for the Knicks with everyone else, drinking a single PBR for the entirety of a game if I was paying, and much more than that if someone else was. What was the first thing you searched on YouTube when it launched in 2005, and was it also “Iverson crossover on Jordan”?
Following a man I loved to San Francisco meant I was back in the Western Conference, and we regularly snapped up Warriors tickets for cheap on craigslist, always an hour before tipoff, when the seller was desperate and we had nothing to lose. Our friends’ band played a show at the KeyArena in Seattle, and I flew up just to visit the Sonics graveyard backstage, which included a partially rolled up 3-story poster of Shawn Kemp, and a broken hoop that I could dunk on, so I did. We became a Clippers household when we moved to Los Angeles, when their tickets were more attainable than the Lakers. Individual loyalty has always been more my style than team allegiance, but CP3, DJ, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and Jamal Crawford belonged together in that space and time. Sometimes when I’m trying to sleep I can hear the tenor of Jamal’s voice on JJ’s podcast the day after they were eliminated from the playoffs. Thank you to my friend Mark Lanegan for giving us your Clippers season tickets sometimes when you were on tour.
Around the time I was reading fertility books and thinking about getting pregnant, Lance Stephenson’s dog, Sasha, gave birth and he congratulated her on Instagram. I took a screenshot, because it was so unintentionally funny, but mostly because now I can admit I thought it was a sign. I sat in a booth next to Tyson Chandler at Umami Burger in Studio City, and when he squeezed the cheeks of my friend’s baby and goo-goo-gah-gahhed at her, I implored him to play for the Clippers. I just wanted something big to happen. But I didn’t get pregnant, and Tyson Chandler didn’t get traded to the Clippers. I ended up being the Greg Oden of marriage; lots of potential, but ultimately, it only lasted a couple of seasons.
Now I look forward to Muggsy’s Instagram birthday post to his dog, Dunbar, every year. I watch games through Reddit streams, my laptop warming my belly, the streams always buffering and being taken down. “Who wants to sex Mutombo?” I mumble to myself as I swipe through the dating apps, quoting Dekembe’s infamous pickup line. Maybe I can be both a Muggsy and a Mutombo. I use a noticeable chunk of my income on drunk eBay purchases, constantly surprising myself with packages, like a puzzle of the 1992 Dream Team and a permanently off-center Sonics hat. One of my NBA eBay gifts to self is a Rodman Bulls jersey, which is listed under “vintage,” and I wear it as a dress all summer. When I use it as my profile picture on a dating app, I get messages from dozens of men all asking the same thing: “Did an ex boyfriend get you into basketball?” “No,” I reply, “My Mom did.” I still think Jamal Crawford should be on an active roster. I still kind of want something big to happen.