For my 13th birthday, my father gets us a pair of great seats for the Clippers. It’s a big night for me and I dress accordingly: zebra skin shoes, white lab technician’s coat and the authentic rock-watch that my father has brought back from Switzerland. The watch means that I am en route to adulthood. I wear it like I wear my Cyclops hairdo: with pride.
The 1987-88 Clippers are a ship of fools. They are too uncoordinated to play their way out of a paper bag, much less to the top of the Western Conference of the National Basketball Association. But it’s OK — their ineptitude makes them approachable in ways that other professional teams in Los Angeles are not. For one, we can afford to see them play. But more important, they remind me of me. Like me, they are young and out of shape. Like me, they will grow into their bodies. We are the day after tomorrow — the future’s future.
The 1987 draft has been especially fruitful. Three first-round picks — all of them masters of the college game, and its national tournament. We picked up the athletic Reggie Williams, the “court-sagacious” (read: white) Joe Wolfe and the yeomanlike Ken Norman. Mixing these guys with the Big Man, Benoit Benjamin, and All Star-ish Larry Nance will undoubtedly lead to electrifying results. In the meantime, while the youngsters develop, management generates a little buzz by offering toiletry kits to paying customers.
Entering this, my first NBA game, I am not untouched by the gesture. However, what impresses me is the black people. Blacks sit behind, next to and in front of us. To the facile allegorizing of a prepubescent liberal, this is a harbinger of the greatest good, the antidote to racial tension that seems to linger unmentioned, a silent fart in a crowded elevator.
As soon as the game begins, the Clippers fall behind. My attention wanes. I turn to the toiletry kit, which looks suspiciously like a purse. The party line for me is that purses are repulsive, but secretly I find them fascinating. Sometimes my mother makes me hold hers when she goes into the bathroom and I protest perhaps a bit too vociferously.
While the Clippers dribble basketballs off their sneakers, I empty out the contents of the toiletry kit and lay each item across my knees. Then, with my hand, I investigate the inner walls of the canvas bag. The investigation bears fruit, as folded into the seam lies a secret compartment with its own private zipper. With one hand still in the bag, for reasons that go far beyond reason, I know I must put something precious in the secret compartment. And what better seed to sew than that token of impending manhood, the watch? Money’s been tighter than usual, but my father gave it to me nonetheless, and with my free hand I unfasten the band. I slip it into the bag and seal it inside. I repack the purse and wait for my beloved Clipper ship to sail in.
It doesn’t. Over the next few years, Joe Wolfe, Reggie Williams and Ken Norman will fade into anonymity, and others will replace them on the Clippers’ leaky decks: the high draft pick who will defect to the Italian league; the local product who will insist on shooting the first free throw of each game with the wrong hand; the African center who will refuse to wear deodorant. But mostly there will be losing. Enough to reform the devout optimism of youth.
But for now I am young and blissfully without a clue. I still believe that ethnic strife, my awkward physique and the collection of 10 left feet that the Clippers bring to the floor will somehow resolve themselves, if for no other reason than fairness.
“Don’t you want to take your bag?” my father asks before we make the halftime exodus to the bathroom and concession stands.
I don’t. Strangers already ask me if I am a boy or a girl, and the last thing I want to do is walk around with something purselike.
When we return with our nachos and our hotdogs, the black man in the seat behind us hands me my toiletry kit. “It fell off your chair,” he says. The gesture reinforces the notion of the de facto racial harmony that the Clippers and their affordable seats inspire. The second half starts and the Clippers begin to exhibit their latent promise. As they put together a rally, the fans stop making derisive comments about Benoit Benjamin’s body type, and instead sprinkle the players with tepid cheers.
The Clippers manage to get within a couple of possessions of the lead, and something clicks within me. I remember the watch, and go limp with doom. My stomach aches. I reach my hand inside the purse to discover what I already know — that the jewel has been taken.
More painful than losing the watch is the prospect of telling my father. After some deliberation, I decide that I cannot shield him from the truth. Between the third and fourth quarters, I stage a reenactment. I unzip first the purse’s big hole and then the private one within. “Oh my God, Dad. The watch is gone. I put it into the pouch and now it’s gone.”
True to form, my father is furious. “For Chrissakes!” he says. But then he does something that to me seems incomprehensible. He confronts the black guy behind us.
Not long before, a distant associate — a neighbor’s neighbor — had her car taken at gunpoint while waiting at a stoplight. It is a new social phenomenon. Carjacking, they call it. Now, watching my father, I know that we are no longer all fans in the same Clipper boat. Instead the world has reduced itself to its basest contrasts.
There will be a fight and this black guy will have a gun. He will shoot my dad and it will be my fault because I planted the watch in the belly of a purse. This is white fright. In the coming years, I will experience it a handful of times in various circumstances.
“You took my son’s watch,” he says.
But there is no fight. Instead the man plays dumb. When my father continues to press him about the watch, he says that some other guy picked up the bag and he remembers that the other guy said something about a watch, but he isn’t exactly sure what.
Dad lets it go. He’s disgusted. With the guy behind him, and with that guy’s alleged guy, but mostly with me. “A watch is something you’re supposed to wear on special occasions,” he hisses.
The Clippers keep things interesting, but in the end, of course, they lose. We don’t say anything until we are back in the car, stuck in a bottleneck at the Sports Arena parking lot. At last my father buries the hatchet. “Well, at least the Clippers made it close.”
“Yeah,” I say, talking through the invisible chokehold, “we almost did it.”