My basketball career is like Bill Clinton's political career: I'm probably retired ... then again, you never know. I haven't touched a ball in 13 months, not since throwing my back out for the umpteenth time in a pickup game. It's not like I couldn't have played over that time. Once my back recovered last summer, I didn't want to wear my hightops, hoist a few jumpers or try anything else that could give me the bug again. Every time someone asked me to play, I turned them down. I couldn't risk another setback.
And then Nestle offered me the chance to play Shaq in H-O-R-S-E.
This was my Moonlight Graham moment. Remember in "Field of Dreams," when Young Moonlight Graham wants to save Costner's choking daughter, only he's afraid to step over the baseline because he's afraid of becoming Old Moonlight Graham again? That was me. If I touched a basketball again, there was no going back -- there was a 100 percent chance I would start playing again, along with a 95 percent chance my back would collapse faster than the '64 Phillies. Still, could anyone turn down the chance to topple Shaq in H-O-R-S-E during All-Star Weekend? Obviously not. And that's why I said yes.
Of course, I needed to get to Denver first. Here's a running diary of what transpired:
Friday, 8 a.m. PST, Los Angeles: The Sports Gal drives me to LAX and starts the token "Fight on the way to the airport," as required in Rule 43B in the "Code Of Females" guidebook.
8:45 a.m. -- Thanks to a comedy of errors, I didn't make my plane reservation until three days ago, which is relevant for three reasons. First, if my airline for the weekend was an NBA player, it would be Michael Olowokandi -- bad reputation, perennial underachiever, but a strangely palatable option since it's impossible to find a serviceable big man at a reasonable price. Everyone who flies this airline ends up feeling like Kevin McHale, the last NBA GM to sign Olowokandi, and someone who would DEFINITELY never do it again. For the purposes of this column, we'll be referring to this weekend's airline as Olowokandi Air.
Second, I'm flying to Vegas and catching a connection to Denver, with a scant 86-minute difference between flights, so I can't afford any delays ... and it's pouring rain right now. And third, thanks to the passenger-friendly setup at the Olowokandi Air terminal, I'm currently standing outside -- in the freezing rain, along with dozens of other passengers, with a guy blowing cigarette smoke in my face -- waiting to pass through the metal detectors inside. I feel like I'm in an episode of "Fear Factor."
9:35 a.m. -- Because of the weather conditions, my flight is delayed until 11:15, which means they have to change my connecting flight ... only the next one from Vegas to Denver doesn't leave until almost 6 p.m. Say goodbye to the Celebrity Game and the Rookie-Sophomore Game, as well as my chance to hang out with Tony Allen and Al Jefferson.
(On the bright side, I just bought about 20 magazines and newspapers. Which reminds me, why do they sell porn mags in airports? Am I supposed to read Penthouse at the gate? Take it into the men's room? Save it for the plane so I can read it next to some horrified lady? I never understood this.)
10:35 a.m. -- Just spent the last hour plowing through USA Today and the annual S.I. Swimsuit Issue, which has been diluted significantly by Maxim, FHM and everyone else. It used to be the seminal event of February for every guy between the ages of 13 and 35 ... now it's something that keeps your attention for about 12 minutes in an airport. How the mighty have fallen. Pretty soon, they'll be giving us a Venus Williams photo spread.
10:36 a.m.-- Wait a second ...
10:40 a.m. -- After wondering why my flight hasn't pre-boarded yet, I notice other passengers screaming at the overwhelmed OA guy behind the counter. As it turns out, my plane took off at 10:30 -- that's right, took off -- because there was a brief window with the weather conditions. Normally this would be great, except for the fact that A) I'm not on the plane; B) they told everyone we were leaving at 11:15; C) they left behind 15-20 passengers who paid for tickets and checked in; and D) I was sitting 15 feet away and never knew the plane was leaving. According to the weasel behind the desk, it was our fault for not hearing the announcement over a sound system that was so muffled, it sounded like Moses Malone was making the announcements. Has an airline ever used the "You were asking for it" defense before?
10:50 a.m. -- It's just starting to dawn on me that MY EFFING PLANE LEFT WITHOUT ME. I'm screaming louder than anyone right now; it's like I turned into Stephen A. Simmons. If this was an episode of "Lost," Jack and Locke would be handcuffing me to the wreckage of the plane until I calmed down.
11:15 a.m. -- They're putting us all on "standby" for the noon flight to Vegas ... on a flight that's already oversold. Can I get a complimentary full-body cavity search with that?
11:55 a.m. -- Now the noon flight is "delayed for an hour at least." Worried about missing my connecting flight -- putting the Shaq game in jeopardy -- as well as turning into Tom Hanks in that "Terminal" movie, I head over with a few others to Southwest Airlines, which has a noon flight to Vegas with room. Total cost? $108.57. Within five minutes, I'm sitting on the plane. That was easy. Really, is it that hard to run an airline?
12:25 p.m. -- You won't find a happier group of people than the ones on a Southwest Airlines flight from L.A. to Vegas -- no first class, no egos, sit where you want, everyone itching to gamble, even applause after the landing. My favorite thing about Southwest? How they always have those sarcastic stewardesses in their 50s with Southern accents, the ones that remain strangely sexy because they all look like they joined the Mile High Club with Burt Reynolds back in 1975. Good times all around.
1:15 p.m. -- Well, until the landing. We just skidded for about four miles. I think we're in Reno.
1:30 p.m. -- As everyone heads off to clean the puke off their shirts, I head over to Olowokandi Air and learn that my 6 p.m. flight to Denver has been canceled. They stick me on the next available flight, which leaves at midnight and lands in Denver just before 3 a.m -- keeping my Shaq/Horse hopes alive, which were dwindling. Normally I would be furious about this, but ...
I mean ...
Have I mentioned that I'm in Vegas right now?
2 p.m. -- Everyone has one friend who happily yelps out loud when you tell him, "You're not gonna believe this, I'm stuck in Vegas for 10 hours." Mine is my buddy Geoff. We spend the next few minutes analyzing my options and debating my gambling karma. Can you rally back on the blackjack tables after the travel day from hell? Is it possible?
"I'm not gonna lie to you, it doesn't look good," Geoff says matter-of-factly. "But what else are you gonna do?"
We narrow it down to five choices:
1. Blackjack at the Hard Rock, where I'm riding an unbeaten streak of 5-0 in my last five trips. That's the overwhelming favorite. The one drawback is that I have $40 on me, and I can take out only another $500 on my ATM until midnight ... which means I'll be playing Scared Blackjack for most of the day, worrying about depleted funds after any run of bad luck. There's nothing worse than Scared Blackjack. It's the main reason nobody between the ages of 20 and 26 has ever won big in a casino.
2. Poker at the Venetian. That's the smart move -- I could play seven-card stud for a few hours and jump to do-or-die Hold'em after dinner. Not even Daniel Baldwin could lose $500 playing low-risk poker over the course of a few hours. Then again, the people who play poker in Vegas, for the most part, are wildly depressing to be around. And I'm already depressed. I'm also starting to hate poker from all the TV shows that glorify losers like Phil Hellmuth and that Jesus guy. Something's holding me back here.
3. Triple feature at the movie theater in the Palms, followed by one hour of do-or-die blackjack at a $25 table. Intriguing. I can't think of three movies I would see though. Although the Keanu movie looks spectacular.
4. Light blackjack at the Palms, followed by a massage at the spa and major time in the steam room. Total cost: $150, plus I'd feel fantastic for the rest of the weekend. On the flip side, this would make for a terrible column unless I was writing it for Blueboy Magazine.
5. Seedy strip joint after seedy strip joint, just to spite the Sports Gal after her F-minus performance this morning.
"Screw it, I'm going to the Hard Rock," I tell Geoff.
"Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" he screams happily. By the way, he's at work in a room with like 12 other people.
2:30 p.m. -- On the way to the Hard Rock, I tell my airline story to my cab driver, who responds, "Well, if you're gonna be stuck somewhere for a few hours, this is the place."
(See, isn't that a MUCH better slogan for the city than the divorce-provoking "Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"?)
4 p.m. -- After starting out with $200, my chips are dwindling despite the efforts of a friendly dealer named Margaret, who can't talk the kid sitting next to me -- yup, the same one who proudly announced "I'm from Oklahoma!" during a shuffle -- to stop staying on "16" against every face card. When I'm president, nobody hailing from a state with a Big-12 school will be allowed to play blackjack in a casino. I'm putting that right before the House and the Senate.
4:15 p.m. -- The all-too-familiar scenario: Down to my last $27, I put everything on the next hand ... and get an '11' against Margaret's '6.' I reach into my pocket for another $40. She deals me a '6.' Seventeen. Then she turns over her second card ... '4.' And just as I'm preparing to storm off to another table, she deals herself a '3' and a '9' ... 22!
(In the words of George Costanza, "I'm back baby!")
4:30 p.m. -- Cue up the Rocky music: Now I'm up $50 for the day and the pit boss just ambled over to see what was happening. Does it get any better than Vegas? Seriously, does it?
5:30 p.m. -- Let's just say that things have turned. Top-five signs you're getting crushed at a blackjack table ...
1. The dealer keeps saying, "I'm sorry, guys, I'm sorry," like she just rear-ended you in her car.
2. You're getting more 13s and 14s than R. Kelly.
(I know, I know -- I've used that joke 20 times. But nobody has replaced R. Kelly as the "Formidable celebrity who allegedly has sex with underaged girls du jour." Until it happens, we're stuck with R. Sorry.)
3. Not only are you NOT tipping the dealer anymore, you're mad that you were tipping her in the first place, and only because she is clearly the devil.
4. Not only do you have the sarcastic guy at the table who's hissing stuff like, "Oh, great, it's another five!" and "Cool, I can't wait to split these aces and get reamed again!", you're actually the one saying these things.
5. When the pit boss wanders over, you have an inexplicable urge to stand up in his face and scream "(BLEEP) YOU!!!!!!!" just to see what would happen.
6:15 p.m. -- After an epic run of 14s and 15s, I just stormed out of the blackjack area like the '91 Pistons. Now I'm down $300. Factoring in cabs and food, I have only about $175 left to play with, and I can't take out any more money without using my credit card. Also, the Hard Rock has no massages available; the nearest movie theater is a $10 cab ride away; Olowokandi Air has no flights until midnight, not even on standby; and I just found out from an Olowokandi Air employee that my suitcase "definitely left Los Angeles this morning, but we have no idea where it is." Is it any wonder why I have the Donovan McNabb "I hope the NFL Films cameras aren't picking up the dry-heaving?" Face going?
6:50 p.m. -- Desperation time: I return to Margaret's table and start with another $200, which she cashes for chips with the same bemused look that Drago had when Apollo came out for Round 2 at Caesar's. This is probably going to end badly. Why won't I get up? Move. Get up. Get up. For the love of God, GET UP!
7:10 p.m. -- Just dropped another $150 in 20 minutes. I've been shellacked before, but never quite to this degree -- even the Steve Moore-Todd Bertuzzi fight was more balanced. Now I'm standing in front of the ATM, debating another withdrawal with my credit card, which means that I'd have to pay a $32 fee. This is as low as you can go in Vegas without pawning off a watch or performing a sexual act for cash.
7:11 p.m. -- Can't do it. I just can't. It's not my night. Must go home. Must go home.
7:25 p.m. -- The proverbial angry ride to the airport. My cab driver can't even make eye contact with me -- I probably look like DJ Jazzy Jeff after "Hitch" made $43 million in its first weekend. Can you write off gambling losses to the IRS? Has anyone ever tried this?
7:50 p.m. -- I decide to kill the next three hours in Olowokandi Air's private airline club -- internet access, TV, free drinks -- even though it costs $20 to join for the day. I just want to keep giving them more and more money. That's my ultimate goal.
10:15 p.m. -- Three memorable moments from my time in the club:
-- Me (making believe I was checking the height of the ceiling): "Is there enough room for me to hang myself?"
-- Lady No. 1 (playing along): "You have about seven feet."
-- Lady No. 2: "Don't laugh, we had a passenger hang himself in the men's restroom outside a few weeks ago."
-- Lady No. 1: "That's right, I forgot about that."
-- Me: "So, um, I'm playing H-O-R-S-E with Shaq tomorrow morning. ..."
11:45 p.m. -- I'm on a plane headed to Denver. Finally. And I'm sleepy ...
12:45 a.m. -- Only I can't sleep on airplanes ...
1:25 a.m. -- So I'm in that weird half-asleep state where you start to imagine that the stewardesses are speaking in tongues and stuff ...
1:50 a.m. -- And I just can't fall asleep ...
3:15 a.m. (Mountain time) -- Thanks to some crazy turbulence, we're just landing now -- my second harrowing landing in 14 hours. You know it's a bad landing when the stewardesses look terrified.
3:30 a.m. -- Denver's airport is completely barren -- I feel like I'm in the Times Square scene from "Vanilla Sky." Ever had such a screwed-up day, you're not even exactly positive that you're alive anymore? Exactly.
4:30 a.m. -- Finally check into my hotel room at the Downtown Marriott, putting an end to an epic 20-hour travel day. In just three hours, I have to wake up to play Shaquille O'Neal in H-O-R-S-E. For the first time, I'm debating about canceling. I'm wiped out.
(Falling asleep ...)
7:45 a.m.-- I'm up. Coffee. Must find coffee. Need coffee. Mmmmm ... coffee ...
8 a.m. -- Yup, there's a Starbucks right in my hotel lobby. Can you feel my luck changing?
8:30 a.m. -- At the Convention Center, the Nestle people brief me on my duties for the morning -- I'm judging some Hot Shot contest or something. Ten kids were randomly selected to play one-on-one with Shaq for a minute each, then they show off their skills for another minute. When it's over, I get to play Shaq. There's about 200 people here. Also, Dwyane Wade is sitting next to me. I'm 40 percent sure I'm awake right now.
8:35 a.m. -- Here comes Shaq. If the Pistons-Pacers melee was the worst story of the season, Shaq's emergence as a goofy, larger-than-life character in the post-Kobe Era has been the best. For over a decade, we always heard that Shaq was a different guy behind the scenes, that the mumbling, monosyllabic behemoth with the media was just his way of keeping his privacy. Now there isn't a more likable athlete in sports. Who doesn't love Shaq? I feel terrible that I'm going to have to embarrass him in front of all these people, sleep or no sleep.
9 a.m. -- Random note: I'm totally sold on this Shaq-Wade friendship -- total big brother/little brother thing. There's absolutely no reason for Wade to be here right now. It's nine in the morning! You think these guys aren't legit? You think these guys aren't best friends? I want you to watch Dwyane Wade laugh at another dumb Shaq joke ... watch this ... watch this right here ... BAM! You see that?
9:30 a.m. -- Once the contest ends, they hustle me onto the court as Shaq shakes my hand, then refuses to play me until I eat a 10-pound candy bar. I tell him that I'm allergic to chocolate (not true), which confuses him enough that he drops the request. Due to time constraints, we're now playing P-I-G instead of H-O-R-S-E, which could actually be an advantage for me, like how teams always have more of a chance in a best-of-five playoff series.
Shaq starts the contest off by missing a three, then claims it doesn't count and sets up for another three. Since he's a foot taller than me, I let him try again. That leads to this exchange:
-- ME (totally dismissive): You're not gonna make that.
-- SHAQ (suddenly interested): You wanna put some money on it?
Um, no. I'm good.
(And yes, he makes it.)
(And I back-rim mine for a "P.")
Now Shaq heads to the foul line ... and drains a free throw. That was my big game plan, to kick his butt on the free throw line. Guess that's out the window. Of course, I miss my free throw. Suddenly I'm on the ropes. Shaq heads under the basket and makes a "looking the other direction/hand on the hip" layup, then keeps interrupting my matching effort by claiming that I wasn't leaning the right way. By the time he's done twisting me around, I feel like I'm taking my college yearbook picture all over again. But I still make my layup to stay alive. Frustrated, he misses a three.
Now it's my turn. I take him right back to the free throw line -- I make mine, he misses his for his first letter. Then I miss a three. He makes a three from the right corner. I match his make. He misses a shot from five feet beyond the corner. I end up airballing a halfcourt shot, to my ultimate shame. He misses another three. I make another three from the corner, which he matches. Then I take him to the free throw line again ... I make, he makes. I'm not going away. I can see him getting antsy.
Then I pull out an old classic -- the 12-foot bank shot from my knees -- and nail it for the "Pele's bicycle kick in Victory" moment of the contest. That's one of my favorite H-O-R-S-E shots, right up there with the Indian leg-style sitting free throw. I used to kill my buddy Bish with these back in the day. Anyway, Shaq grimaces, starts to kneel down, then basically botches the shot entirely. WE'RE ALL TIED UP!!!!!! THE ALLIES HAVE TIED IT AT 4!
Riding the momentum, I head to my favorite three-point spot (top of the key, about three feet to the left) and launch a three for the win ...
It's up ...
Looks good ...
Shaq hauls down the rebound and smiles to himself. I'd like to think he was relieved, although there was a 90 percent chance he didn't give a crap. We'll never know for sure. All I know is that I came within about one inch of forcing him to make a three to stay alive. And since Shaq is a smart dude, and he has no interest in losing at anything to some dorky white guy ... well, his next shot is a dunk. Ballgame.
(Note: You may not believe this, but I can't dunk.)
Did he cheat? I'll leave that up to you to decide. I pretended to try a dunk, threw it off the backboard and that was that. We shook hands (his thumb was practically touching my right elbow) and Shaq headed for a series of sit-down interviews with the assembled media, as I accepted congratulations from some of the surrounding people (OK, one guy shook my hand). Between my bad back, the lack of sleep and my year away from the game, I'd like to think my effort brought back memories of Willis Reed in the 1970 Finals, only on a much, much, much, much (repeat "much" 700 more times) smaller level. But at least I didn't embarrass myself.
About 20 minutes later, I catch up with Shaq again for a couple of follow-up questions. No, he wasn't nervous when I had him with the winning shot. Yes, he misses Los Angeles and everyone who lives there. Yes, he loves the fact that he's considered "the good guy" and Kobe's considered "the bad guy" these days, when it was the other way for so many years. Yes, him and D-Wade are really THAT close.
"Hey, you gonna try tomorrow?" I ask, referring to the upcoming All-Star Game.
"Haven't decided yet."
"Did you know that the East is a 2-to-1 underdog in Vegas?"
Shaq's eyes widen. He's genuinely stunned.
"Hmmmm. Maybe I'll try then."
The funny thing? Shaq didn't try that hard. In fact, he coasted through most of the game. But that little conversation prompted me to wager my Hard Rock losses ($450 in all) on the money line for the East, a last-ditch attempt to salvage the weekend. Final score? East 125, West 115. What goes around comes around. So thank you, Shaq. Thanks for saving my weekend financially. Thanks for inspiring me to launch another basketball comeback. And most of all, thanks for cheating to beat me in P-I-G, because it's going to make a fantastic story in 20 years when I'm done embellishing it. Mahalo.
COMING WEDNESDAY: WINNERS AND LOSERS FROM THE WEEKEND
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.