Billion Dollar Man

I don’t have a television. My laptop provides most of the programming necessary for entertainment, although the online screen resembles that of an economy-class movie presentation, if you’re lucky enough to have a personal entertainment system. Air China does not provide such a service for their flights. The only gap on my computer is sporting events and I filled that absence by heading down to Frank’s Bar on Fulton.

Several years ago I watched the Celtics to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Few of the clientele were watching the game. Another horrible year from the Knicks had destroyed their love for the game. The only conversation about basketball from New Yorkers these days is whether Lebron James will accept MSG’s offer to play basketball at the Garden.

“No way,” I answered adamantly against the move. “The Knicks management sucks. If Lebron comes here he’ll never go anywhere.”

“They can get two more free agents and Lebron will be able to tell them who he wants.” Pacho is an old-time Knicks fan. living on the faded memory of Willis Reed hobbling onto the court against the Lakers in game 7. That glorious entrance happened 40 years ago today.

“They might say that, but no way they’ll let a 24 year-old run a basketball team.” The last time the owner showed his face in the Garden he wore an expression of utter contempt. His mood isn’t that of a winner. “They’re dysfunctional.”

“I’ll tell you why Lebron will come here. To be basketball’s first billion-dollar man.” Vincent added his opinion. “Salary of $25 million a year, plus endorsements.”

“Ain’t no one giving his big money for endorsements. Not with all those tattoos. They want someone nice like Tiger Woods. He’ll never get a billion. Maybe a half, but no way a billion. He’s too big and scary for the little white boys. Not like Michael Jordan.” Pacho was a realist and added, “LeBron don’t deserve the big money. He don’t nothing. Hell, he didn’t even win the scoring title this year.”

“He won’t get past Boston.” Vincent was drunk on beer. His uncle owns the bar. The bartender charges him for every drink. “How much you think Bill Russell get if he was playing now?”

“You asking me?” I was off my drink. The previous night too much Veuve-Cliquot champagne. My spirit was as weak as a long-buried zombie.

“No one else wears Celtic gear in this bar.”

“Bill Russell was the best basketball player ever.”

“Better than Michael Jordan?” Vincent was in his 40s. Jordan was the greatest player of his era.

“11 championships in 13 years. 5 times MVP. 50 rebounds in a game.” Russell was no point machine. He played a grueling defense. “No one can say that or ever will be able to say that. LeBron won’t win a single ring at MSG. Better he stick it out in Cleveland. They’ll win a championship there. Cleveland can’t lose forever.”

“He’s coming to the Knicks.” Everyone in the bar shouted at me.

“He ain’t going to the Knicks neither. Unless it’s for the money and a lot of it. Because he’ll need it to pay everyone to tell him he’s great while they lose year after year.” I hated the MSG management. They were so bad that kids don’t play street ball in New York. “Even if he get the billion, he’ll still only be a first-rate player on a shitty team. And he’s no Bill Russell. He was the first black superstar of basketball and had to put up with shit every day of his life.”

That comment quieted the bar.

Bill Russell was renown for his criticism of Boston’s racism, but he had experienced the scorn of White America early in his career.

“At that time it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen…My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man.”

Bill Russell was better than those crackers and # 6 will always be my favorite player.

And LeBron will get his billion.

But he’s no #6.

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