There is one all-time greatest moment in the history of sports, and it didn’t happen in the 1932 World Series. So, this story will not include Babe Ruth, but it could include Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or even Michael Jordan. But this story isn’t about any of them either. This story is about how a much-maligned kid named Jimmy Butler III became a legend, and he did it in the worst summer of all our lives.
He taught me a lot that summer, and he got me the biggest latte I’d ever had.
[Country music from the ‘90s plays in the background as kids play basketball on a blacktop where white nylon stretches from bright orange rims and a kid named Jimmy Butler III schools a group of kids in shining Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Philadelphia 76ers jerseys. He does not wear a jersey — he wears a white t-shirt. When he scores the last basket, they all place their hands on their knees or hips — they are exhausted. He is not. The music continues.]
I moved to the neighborhood before school let out. It was the same summer that everyone would tell their kids not to play outside and all restaurants would start doing something called curbside pickup, which was really just a fancy way of saying takeout. These were historic times, and because we were all being forced to think about what we had in common as human beings, I should have been making lots of friends. But I was from another state and didn’t have a single friend anywhere.
So, to be honest, I guess life was shaping up to be pretty terrible. No one tells you that about historic times, but it’s true. And that’s about where it all started.
I would always see Jimmy Butler dribbling a basketball up and down the sidewalk.
[Life-affirming music twinkles in the background as Tyler Herro, the narrator, mixes a glass of chocolate milk as other stuff happens to establish his homelife in opposition to what will become his basketball life. None of that is needed here. More music plays.]
I followed Jimmy Butler to the blacktop. I did so at a distance because I didn’t want to appear too desperate or lonely, but I was tired of being cooped up inside and watching the news. The news is always depressing, but it’s especially depressing in historic times. Plus, who wants to watch the president take a physical? Anyway, I arrived at the blacktop and they were all there. One of the backboards didn’t have a rim, and a chain net hung from the other one that was rusted orange. I’d never seen any place like this. Did I mention this was in Florida and that I was from Kentucky? This was a basketball kingdom or something — a real bubble away from all that was going on elsewhere. An escape.
And they were good. Real good. I could tell that right away. This wasn’t going to be a game of Horse or Pig or a slam dunk contest. This was going to be the real thing. They were also all drinking coffee, which made them seem very adultlike and also childish at the same time.
And something I found out was that they definitely kept score because Jimmy Butler never played to lose and so he kept track of everything, and what seemed weird was how everyone else seemed to mind him keeping track of everything so I didn’t mind him keeping track of everything. And that’s when a pass caught me square in the nose.
They all laughed, but Jimmy Butler yelled, “If you’re open, be ready.” And from then on I dreamed of being ready, to the point that I became ready.
We played until the sun set that day, and that’s when I heard it. A deep snarl from a dog on a chain in the junkyard lot next to the blacktop.
“What’s that?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“That’s King,” Andre said. “He’s the biggest, meanest, fiercest, most rabidist dog to ever walk this earth.”
“Oh,” I said and tried to snarl back like I wasn’t afraid of any such thing.
That night I went back to my house and played with my robotics set and thought about how connected everyone on the team was, from Jimmy to Andre to Goran to Duncan to Bam to Kendrick and even Jae who had also moved around quite a bit. This was a dream scenario for all of us. We all hated being on the inside looking out so much that the blacktop was the only place for us.
And so, every day that summer we balled out, as they taught me to say, until we were all afloat in the biggest latte any of us had ever seen.
We were all playing ball like we did every day, and Jimmy Butler was keeping score like he did every day. And he wasn’t liking our rebounding effort and how we were coming off screens like he did every day. And he was mostly being hard on himself like he did every day, when the ball clanged off the rim and bounced out of everyone’s grasp and shot past Udonis sitting nearby and rolled into and through the lot next to the blacktop. And that’s when King’s chain snapped, and the big dog shot after our orange globe of a dream. And that’s when Jimmy took off before any of us could stop him. And Andre said something about that being an act of suicide and that he’d seen it before. But we didn’t always listen to Andre and so we ran too. And we were all chasing after Jimmy who was chasing after King who was chasing after that big orange dream that was rolling over and over on itself like a reel of peach celluloid.
And we ran down alleys packed with trash and through movie screens in empty theaters and through socially distant picnics where everyone but us was wearing a mask. And we watched a cake flip over in the air. And we sprinted by the swimming pools where no one was in the water. And we kept running and kept running. And then like some scene on a Grecian urn or some other thing a history teacher might show in history class we ended up back where it all began and the ball rolled up against the porch steps of the house where King had been chained and that’s where the ball stopped. And that’s where King curled round the ball. And that’s when the screen door opened ever so slowly and an old man with his hair slicked back and a mask covering the bottom half of his face stepped out and stood there at dusk, looking ever so much like Hannibal Lecter. And he pulled his mask off. And he was about to speak.
And we weren’t sure if he was going to invite us in or kill us or what. And maybe he didn’t know what we were going to do either. But he was there. And we were there. And between us and him and his porch steps was the biggest and fastest dog any of us had ever seen. And that dog whose name was King was curled round that worn orange globe of ours. And Jimmy was approaching the dog and the ball. And Jimmy’s shirt was stained and ripped and drenched in blood and sweat. And we were all almost too tired to watch, but we couldn’t look away. And the dog growled. And Jimmy said, “You know that’s our ball, right?” And the dog growled some more. And the old man on the porch was wheezing through an oxygen mask now. And Jimmy stepped close. And the dog positioned itself to lunge at a moment’s notice. And —