When I got home from the Y, I saw the same lights in the night sky that I had seen when I was there. They looked like three big spotlights going around and around. I noticed them as we were leaving the Y and I pointed them out to Spitter, who didn’t care. He didn’t even look and told me to give him back his ball, which I was still dribbling. I tossed it back. Then I got in my car.
The lights looked the same from my driveway. The ghost of Larry Bird, who had appeared in the passenger seat while I was driving home, told me to follow them.
“Follow the lights,” said Larry Bird. “Get back in the car and let’s follow them. Trust me.”
“Okay, Larry.” It wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
The lights were farther away than I expected. We had to get on the highway, which was surprisingly empty. I kept thinking we were about to reach the lights, but the road just kept going and going. As we drove, Larry Bird critiqued my playing from that night’s game.
“Your jump shot was awful,” he said.
“I thought it was okay.”
“Your field goal percentage was probably under 10% because you took too many contested jumpers from the top of the key. Have you ever heard of passing? It’s a nice thing to do when you’ve got three guys on you.”
He was right. I’d been a little selfish. But there was one play I think he was forgetting, or maybe hadn’t been in a position to observe. I had just checked the ball to Grackle, and when she checked it back, she said “take it.” I was right beyond the three-point line. “Take it,” she said, which I considered trash talk. She was implying that she’d give me the shot because I had no chance of making it. So I shot. And I made it. I made it off the backboard and Muck said something about the banks having unusual hours in this town. But I still made it.
“What about that three-pointer I made?” I challenged Larry. “Plus, I made some nice passes to Spitter in the paint.”
“Oh yeah?” said Larry. “You think that’s good? In the 1983-84 season, I averaged 24.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. I was the MVP that year.”
That shut me up.
We drove in silence for a while as we passed many diners and all-night all-you-can-eat barbecue style buffets. I wanted to stop for food, but I didn’t know if ghosts could eat, and I would have felt bad stopping if Larry couldn’t eat anything.
“I know that three you’re talking about,” Larry said. “You were being guarded by a woman. It doesn’t count as a three, in my book, if the person guarding you was a woman.”
“Whoa,” I said. “That’s a little sexist, Larry Bird.”
“Cram it,” he replied. “It’s not sexist. It’s a medical fact. Men, on average, tend to be bigger and stronger than women. Ask any physician.”
“That doesn’t mean anything about this particular woman, Larry. It isn’t respectful to assume someone’s athletic abilities based on her gender.”
“Oh yeah?” said Larry Bird. “In a 1985 game against the Atlanta Hawks, I scored sixty points, a franchise record for the Celtics. That season, I averaged 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game.”
That shut me up again.
“Unfortunately, in that year’s finals, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated us four games to two. And the finals MVP award went to the most sinister man in the history of American professional athletics: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
The lights weren’t getting any closer.
I wasn’t listening to Larry Bird very carefully. There was another moment from tonight’s game that I was remembering. It was a nice shot by Grouch. He was almost five feet beyond the three-point line, and I had a wide open layup, but he demanded I pass it to him.
“Right here! Right here! To me!” he cried.
“Hang on, Grouch. I’ve got a wide-open layup. I can’t imagine why I’d pass to you.”
“Shut up, idiot! Shut up and give the ball to me!”
“Whatever you say, Grouch,” and I whipped it to him a little extra hard in hopes that it would hurt his hands. I don’t think it did.
I was getting hungrier and hungrier. I wanted to ask Larry Bird about stopping for food. But I was concerned that it would be rude to even ask.
“Hey, Larry. Did you see when Grouch demanded the ball even though I had a wide-open layup?”
“Yes, I did,” said Larry Bird. “You did the right thing by passing it to him.”
“But I was going to make that layup.”
“That may be. But that shot would have only earned your team two points, whereas Grouch’s shot was good for three.”
I did not feel satisfied with this explanation.
“Besides,” he continued. “You probably would have missed that layup.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you aren’t a very good player. The better a player is, the more likely he is to make shots and score points. That’s something I learned in the NBA.”
We passed another diner. Larry Bird was testing my patience. I was getting really close to just stopping, whether or not he could eat. Actually, I was getting really close to just turning the car around and eating something at home.
“When I played in the NBA, I made a lot of shots and scored a lot of points,” Larry continued. “But they still didn’t give me the 1985 finals MVP award. Is that any way to treat the greatest basketball player of all time?”
It took me a few seconds to decide if I wanted to say anything in response to that.
“No offense, Larry, but I don’t think any self-respecting basketball fan would consider you the greatest player of all-time.” I could have just left it at that.
“You’re not even the greatest Celtic of all time. Bill Russell was better.”
We did not say anything else for a while. The three lights in the sky going in circles around each other reminded me of the way three dogs might go in circles around each other, or the way in which a very skilled point guard might dribble three basketballs at once to amuse his teammates.
“There’s our exit,” said Larry, giving me about half a second to switch lanes.
“Jesus,” I said, almost crashing. “Thanks for the heads up.”
Larry kept giving me directions. Turn left, turn right, keep going. Several times, he directed me such that the car was facing away from the lights. But he seemed to know where to go, and we eventually arrived.
Larry had directed me to the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers play. The lights were coming from the arena, as were the distant screams of thousands of fans. It must have been an important game for the Sixers.
“What are we doing at the Wells Fargo Center?” I asked as I parked.
“I’m going to tell you something I’m not proud of,” said Larry, stepping out of the car. “Game 4 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers was the worst game I ever played. I only scored fourteen points and I shot 4 for 15 from the floor. The sixers defeated us 115 points to 104.”
We temporarily leaned against my car in silence.
“That’s okay, Larry. If it makes you feel any better, I only made one shot in my game last week. And Muck and Grackle made like ten shots each.”
Then the ghost of Larry Bird told me to open the trunk of my car. When I did, I found numerous boxes of matches and a tank of what I assumed was gasoline. I had never seen these particular items before.
“What’s going on, Larry Bird?”
“I’d like you to do me a favor,” he said. “I’d like you to burn down the Wells Fargo Center, so that all memory of my embarrassing game can be erased from this earth.”
Even coming from one of the all-time greats of the NBA, this was a tall order. I wasn’t going to do it, but I pretended to mull it over. Far away, crowd roared, likely indicating that a Sixer had made a basket. Then something occurred to me.
“Wait a minute, Larry. That game didn’t happen at the Wells Fargo Center. The Center wasn’t constructed until 1996. Your terrible game was played at the Spectrum.”
I could see the shame in Larry’s eyes. I kept going.
“Why not burn the Spectrum down instead? It’s empty. We can destroy your memories without killing thousands of innocent people.”
Larry thought about it. He wandered away from me, in the direction of the Wells Fargo Center.
“Forget it,” he said. “Go home, kid.”
I asked if he wanted a ride anywhere.
“That’s okay,” he said, drifting away from me, closer and closer to the illuminated arena. “I’m going to stay and watch the game.”
. . .
The next day at the Y, I told the guys what happened.
“Larry Bird is still alive,” said Grouch, missing an easy shot from the free-throw line. “How in the world could you have seen his ghost?”
This was a good point that I had neglected to consider. I decided that, as soon as the game ended, I would try to get in touch with Mr. Bird via email and ask him about it.
“Yeah,” said Grackle. “How do you know it was his ghost? How do you know it wasn’t just Larry Bird?”
“He was translucent.” I dribbled off my foot and Muck caught the ball.
“You’re clearly bullshitting us,” said Muck, shooting. “Probably to distract us from your lack of basketball skills.”
Grouch caught Muck’s rebound and took an awkward shot from the baseline. He was my teammate. It was me, him, and Spitter vs. Muck, Grackle, and Termites. It felt good to see him miss.
“Someday,” I said. “You’ll regret that you ever doubted me.”
Termites grabbed the ball right out of my hands. “No, we won’t,” he said, sinking a three.
I decided to get out of there. They could play two-on-three for all I cared.
When I got home, I sat on the couch in the dark and put on the Sixers game on ESPN. They were playing the Indiana Pacers, who were good. When I turned on the TV, a Pacer was dunking but I couldn’t see the name on his jersey. I think it was someone off the bench.
At some point, the ghost of Larry Bird showed up on the couch next to me.
“I don’t watch the NBA much these days,” he said, looking proud of himself. “Know why? There aren’t any good players.”
“What about Jimmy Butler?” I countered.
“I suppose he’s pretty good.”
“What about Draymond Green?”
“He’s quite good as well.”
“What about Kevin Durant?”
“Yes, he’s good too.”
“What about Giannis ‘The Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo?”
“Oh, he’s very good. A very skilled player, he is.”
“What about Paul George?”
“Paul George is an excellent player.”
I felt great. This was the first argument I had won in a long time.
We watched the game. Joel Embiid blocked somebody’s shot and it went all the way into the backcourt. I clapped. Larry Bird didn’t. I wondered if maybe he was rooting for the Pacers. That would have made sense, given his history with Philadelphia.
Victor Oladipo recovered the ball and brought it back upcourt. Just behind him, as he was dribbling, someone was sitting courtside whom I recognized. It was Larry Bird. The real Larry Bird, with solid flesh and a gray tracksuit. The camera didn’t stay on him for too long. But I knew what I saw.
Suddenly, the picture cut out. My television screen filled up with static. “Jeez,” I said to the ghost and got no response. I turned, and he was gone.
The static cleared and the broadcast resumed. But I didn’t see the game. I didn’t see the court or the players or the ball. The screen was filled with a close-up of Larry Bird’s face. The announcers, who didn’t seem to realize, kept talking about the game. I heard their voices, as they narrated a failed three-pointer attempt, but I didn’t see the shot. All I saw was the face: the still and unblinking face of the real and living Larry Bird. He nodded a slow nod of acknowledgement, like he knew I was watching.