John Starks

SunsetBasketballThere’s a glitch in NBA Jam only John Starks knows about. He sits in the dark in his duplex, the gummy carpet littered with empty forties and dead blunts. He selects his old squad, the New York Knicks, and chooses himself as the playable character. He looks at his face onscreen—grinning fifty years earlier—and taps in the code. In the twilight of his life, John Starks has discovered how to summon Michael Jordan in NBA Jam.

Jordan refused to lend his likeness to the NBA Jam developers because he signed his own, more lucrative deal to star exclusively in Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, an unplayable 16-bit debacle almost on par with Shaquille O’Neal’s video game holocaust Shaq-Fu. But John Starks doesn’t know any of this. All John Starks knows is the code came to him in the middle of the night during one of his sleep terrors. He saw it neon red, pulsating on his ceiling. Up seventeen times. Then the B button. Unlock Michael Jordan in NBA Jam. That was three weeks ago. John Starks hasn’t left home since.

The game boots up, and Horace Grant wins the tip. He kicks the ball to Michael Jordan, who leaps from the three-point line and dunks the ball. John Starks grinds his teeth as the announcer shouts, “Razzle dazzle!” The game is glitched. John Starks has to believe the game is glitched. In NBA Jam, Michael Jordan is faster than everyone, stronger than everyone. He can shoot without missing from anywhere on the floor. Three weeks of playing and John Starks has yet to even score a basket against Michael Jordan and his cackling sidekick Horace Grant. Starks’s partner, Patrick Ewing, crouches under the basket and weeps. When he finally inbounds the ball, Jordan steals it from digital John Starks and dunks it so hard the hoop explodes. Glass rains down on digital John Starks as the announcer screams, “Hoop’s on fire! Hoop’s on fire!”

John Starks closes his eyes and tries to ignore the announcer’s cries, the fire and brimstone on his dinky television set. As a boy he felt certain he would end up in hell, but he would have never imagined it coming for him through the decayed visage of his son’s Super Nintendo. The greatest professional moment of John Starks’s life occurred during a 1993 playoff game against the Bulls. With less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, his small frame elevated skyward and he tomahawk-jammed in the faces of the much taller Horace Grant and Michael Jordan. But the Knicks lost the series. They lost out to the Bulls four times in the playoffs during Starks’s tenure. For the last fifty years, he’s had to endure old fans telling him that if it weren’t for Jordan, the ’90s Knicks would have been the greatest dynasty in the history of sports. John Starks opens his eyes and watches Michael Jordan urinate all over digital John Starks’s face. Patrick Ewing is bleeding out in the background, his intestines balled in his hands. Michael Jordan rips out digital John Starks’s heart and raises it above his head like a sacrament.

John Starks stands up for the first time in three weeks. He is eighty years old and doesn’t know how he’s still alive. He puts on his raincoat and braves the short distance outside to his Buick. He listens to the engine rev and imagines tying Jordan to a chair and dunking over his body until the end of time. All debts have to be settled.

***

John Starks arrives at Michael Jordan’s mansion three hours later. He’s shocked to discover it in disrepair. The iron gate at the property’s edge is toppled, eaten inside out by rust. The road that leads to the mansion is pockmarked with potholes, the grass alongside it running leafy and wild in all directions. He parks in front of the entrance, the wooden doors lifeless on the ground, and tilts his head skyward. John Starks is here.

It’s dark inside, so John Starks retrieves a lighter from his coat pocket and strikes a flame. He makes out a foyer, the furniture sealed in plastic, a thick coat of dust over everything. He hears windows clanging against the mansion and the faint whistle of wind.

He comes to a marble staircase and follows it up to a hallway at the end of which John Starks spots a red oak door nearly as big as his Buick. He hesitates before opening it, terrified that the pixelated Michael Jordan of NBA Jam might leap out at any moment to tear out his heart. He slips inside and sees a bed and velvet comforter, the rising and falling body of a man sleeping beneath it. John Starks creeps forward quietly, oh so quietly, and reaches the head of the bed. He recognizes the old man’s face under a powder blue nightcap. Michael Jordan.

He stands there unsure of what to do. He never really had a plan, just vague ideas of malice and retribution. But now that he’s here, now that Michael Jordan’s face is really before him, John Starks is indecisive. Does he really want to kill Michael Jordan? Was it really Michael Jordan’s fault that John Starks injured his knee the year MJ hammed it up in AA baseball? Was it Michael Jordan’s fault that John Starks was traded from the Knicks in 1999, that his career never recovered? Was it Michael Jordan’s fault that John Starks even had to play four humiliating games as a Bull in 2000, long after MJ retired with his six championship rings? Was it Michael Jordan’s fault that John Starks lost touch with his son during that decade squandered to the trenches of the NBA? Was it Michael Jordan’s fault that everyone had to die someday? John Starks stands there, stands there some more. Finally he tugs back the comforter and gets into bed with Michael Jordan. He hugs the old bastard, and MJ blinks his eyes open. He whispers, “John Starks? Is that you?” and John Starks tells him it is.

“John Starks.” Michael Jordan stretches the words out into four syllables, an incantation. “Do you wish you were a better person?”

“Yes.”

“Me too. I was a terrible person.”

They hold each other under the velvet comforter. After a few minutes, Jordan falls back to sleep, and John Starks listens to his old foe snore. There’s something comforting about it, how very hueman it sounds. It puts Starks at ease, reminds him of whistling, of his grandfather in Tulsa, cupping his neck in his palm and steering John inside the family barbershop. The bell above the barbershop door chimes as John’s uncle waves with a pair of scissors. He gives a little boy a baldy sour, and the kid smiles at John, his front two teeth missing. His grandfather squeezes John’s neck, his fingers warm and sure, radiating love. It could go on forever like this. It could go on forever.

 

SALVATORE PANE’s novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is forthcoming this November. His chapbook #KanyeWestSavedFromDrowning will be published in October. His work has appeared in Hobart, PANK, Annalemma, the Rumpus, and BOMB. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com.

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