Emerald City

Brian Birnbaum
Written by


2 November 5th, 2012

The Myriadal College basketball program gathered for practice twenty minutes south of Seattle proper. There in Tacoma they’d installed the Myriadal College Sports Complex, which everyone called the Balloon. Nothing but a triple-stitched tarp that, laid flat, covered six flush football fields, with convex extensions to spare. Powerfully engineered air units – the pumps, people called them – blew the tarp up taut as a moon bounce. Within this loud and bulbous cyst of a stadium, hardcourts were spread according to sport – several tennis and two basketball – scattered with pullout bleachers and a canteen for water and Gatorade and first aid items.
No one liked the Balloon. The light was caseous yellow. The pumps roared cold air. The mood was grim despite the blinding white. It didn’t respect their talent. It was a relic of Myriadal’s formative years, beneath their current station. But mostly, no one liked the Balloon because everyone talked about how they didn’t like the Balloon, sustaining an open channel for human commiseration.
But today, Gary Williams had moved practice. Coach wanted to let the players – particularly the freshmen – familiarize themselves with their home court. And, with recent practices lacking luster, he thought to source a homeopathic remedy: holding practice on their home floor.

“Blue!” Coach boomed from the hashmark, where subs checked in during games. “Yes, that means the defense is in Two. Can I get an inference here? Del. TWO. Look, Del.” Coach pointed to the dotted lines denoting the restricted area. “There’s a drawing for you. See? All you gotta do is sit under the goddamn basket and look scary. Not hard with that deformed mug of yours.” Coach backed to the sideline. “Okay, Blue, let’s go.”
He drew his whistle to mouth and – screech – initiated play. He arced north of the scrimmage to keep his vantage without interfering. Mike Jones – referred to endearingly as Jonesy – stepped from the top of the key to set the high screen for Gabe Griffin.
“God damn it, Jonesy. This time set a screen, don’t just sidle up to Gabe like you wanna tell him about daffodils. Blue.”
This time Jonesy set the screen with camp, exaggerating your solid screen’s rigid posture and crotch protection. It was effective nonetheless, and Benison Behrenreich – referred to tauntingly as Benchin’im – got tangled up top. His exaggerated grunts contained not camp, but an unsavory advertisement of his struggle to fight through Jonesy’s screen. He failed. Eddy Dominguez delivered a perfectly vectored bounce-pass to Jonesy, who’d rolled off the screen for a wide-open dunk replete with primal ululation.
The squad held fast to their knees, wheezed beyond the repair of oxygen. KeyArena’s custodial crew buffed sweat spots as Coach approached.

“Behrenreich. We’re in Two. Dominguez is no shooter” – Dominguez tsking – “You have help to your middle” – referring to Gabe Griffin, his partner up top of the 2-3 zone – “Who goes over the screen here?”
Benison brooded, arms akimbo.
“No one, is the answer,” Coach said, tone devoid of all camp and comedy. “No one goes over the screen.”
“Uh, Coach?” Austin Jackson – AJ for short – raised a hand. “Benchin’im just went over the screen though.”
Coach spread his glare generously. “Would you guys prefer running suicides over Blue?” “Nah.” “I’m good.” “Blue my favorite color.”
“I see,” Coach said. “Run it again. Blue.”
Jonesy set the screen with pure utility. Benison again fought – this time to get under the screen – and Eddy Dominguez wore a shit-eating grin as he lobbed the ball to Jonesy, who hammered it home with still more authority, sans the primal call.
“What the fuck,” whined Gabe Griffin. “You hear me call switch you deaf-ass mothafucka?”
Benison came alive. Starting in his eyes, rippling down his body as if transformed, he started for Gabe Griffin.
“EY-EY-EY.” Coach intercepted the altercation before it could start. Gabe Griffin flung a hand and flounced off. “Behrenreich,” Coach said, already walking to the sideline. Perched upon the coach’s box, he yelled, “Defense in One! Run full.”

The team set to scrimmage the length of the court in man-to-man defense. Benison used some jersey to wipe his face. Coach watched the action as he spoke, like a blind man looking off at an angle.
“I heard you moved out of Comp 86.”
Benison’s anger had already been infected by fear.
“Heard you convinced Jonesy to take a roommate off campus. Hey!” he shouted into the
“Boo be hackin man,” AJ whined.
“Bouman! Too old to slide your feet? I know you’re hooking over there.”
“Why’m I guarding AJ then?” complained fifth-year senior, Andrew Bouman. “He half
my dang size.”
“You’re asking the right questions, Bouman.”
Benison breathed shallow. Impressive considering how much energy he’d wasted to win
each round of suicides – to win something. Coach’s stern practice mien turned soft, maybe even aggrieved, like he’d been duped into recruiting this sorry kid.
“You can play this game. I’ve seen you play this game.”
But Benison was all the more abject, for the comparison between now and before – in a world that praised only the before and after. Disgust crinkled Coach’s eyes. He strode back out onto the floor, leaving Benison to decide whether to rejoin the fray.

Following the post-practice presser, the team returned courtside, gathering in the first few rows of stands. Assistant coach Brock Wyles bottlenecked the media at the tunnel to the visitors’ locker room. Under the stadium lights, famous yellows dim and hot, Coach faced the gleaming court, back to the bantering squad, his Rapiers-blue sport jacket hiked up by hands upon hips.
“Eyo it’s the towel boy, y’heard?”
Fault lines cackled out from the joke’s epicenter: one Delmar “va Peninsula” James, a behemoth of a freshman out of Alabama. Benison feigned indifference and sat in front row, next to Jonesy, his back to Delmar.
“Chill, Del,” Bouman said from the fringes. He had enough years to trawl for deep laughter. “Ah I’m just messing with him, Boo. He lookin swole though.”
Benison let him reach down and squeeze his biceps, though didn’t dignify him a look.
Instead he watched the media disappear into the tunnel’s abyss, ushered back by Coach Wyles. “Fellas,” Coach began, turning to face them. His jaw was tight. His face shone in a way not dissimilar to the court. His standard ’50s haircut showed gray at its fewing roots. “Hope you enjoyed your first press conference. If you thought that was bad, wait’ll we play the Bruins. Which is also why you better beat their asses, ’cause if not, y’all are gonna get to answer a lot of stupid questions…I’ll make this brief, since you gotta be back here in just about” – checking a watchless wrist – “eighteen hours from now.” Contradicting his claim to brevity, Coach paced for a piece, hands clasped behind his back. “You guys’ve worked hard. You look good, long’s you box out for Christ’s sake. But it’s simple, really. If you for one second think you’re entitled to beat Dayton because of some preseason rank that means about as much as my personal happiness, I’ll guarantee
you right here’n now you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of the scoreboard.” Coach stopped pacing and slipped a folded paper from his back pocket.

“Okay, down to business.”
He unfolded it. Benison tightened.
“Del, five. Bouman, four. AJ, three. Jonesy, two. Griffin, one.” For a few seconds he gazed at his team. Everyone was still. “Dismissed.”
Head down, features pinched, Benison crawled along the fluorescent halls of KeyArena’s underbelly. In his ear, JAY-Z flowed over a silky synth arrangement. When alone, he’d sync up to the lyrics, but the locker room’s voices still followed him down the hall.
He passed lighted glass displays set with SuperSonics relics – trophies, jerseys, pennants. Between the show windows were large stills of Seattle’s hardwood legends. Gary Payton, reaching clean to thief a too-high dribble. Shawn Kemp, rattling the rim, hanging on it and grinning something angry.
Benison expected greatness of himself, and he was blessed with its code. Higher powers had whip-cracked his first step, geared sniper scope to shooting eye, bequeathed him length and energy like light itself. He was built to play this game. Impossible to pinpoint what made him this way. His father’s height was elastic and unused. His mother’s contribution? Elusive, outside her complexion. But there he was, a maudlin boy in a Greek god’s body. Surely there was more than element to excellence.
Benison was from the ’burbs, which bred man-children. The type that never wanted, yet were always wanting. The type that sat all sulky in the back of rented cars when forced into a

family vacation, headphones strapped tight, slipping into schizoid fantasies of fretting a Fender like John Frusciante, or spitting like Eminem, fifty grand a night to kill it for fifty grand in the stands. The type that removed his shirt when running his hilly neighborhood, showing off Adonis’s abdomen, gleaming and glabrous. Then the shame when the neighbors did look. Just like in high school, when they’d played their rival, Mount Hebron. Each and every time he’d slashed off the dribble, Benison beat the best defender they could put on him, and by the end of the game he couldn’t look at the kid’s face. He’d felt too sorry for him.
Now that things weren’t going his way again – the telegraphed passes, the fighting-over- the-screens – he felt that familiar sorry for himself. Ordain enough in-and-outs and he questioned why why why me. To the bench with you. Then up goes the Gatorade jug, a perfect double-misty off the foldout table, neon-yellow globules spouting out its blowhole. Benison Benchin’im Behrenreich. When things didn’t go his way, it didn’t matter what the score was, only that he received no standing ovations and therefore couldn’t attain the things he really wanted from life: surface crust of success and glory; deeper mantle of capability and humility; and a molten core of mineral love.
But this failure problem plagued him – it kept him from drilling past that crust.
When he fucked up, he thought about fucking up, and so fucked up again, precisely because he was fucking up. This feedback loop tortured him. It drew his conscious back into itself. It made him obsess like a man committed, who etches along the borders of his scrap paper an ominous symbol – as this specter of failure followed Benison now along KeyArena’s mosaic, lost in his loop, when a hand grabbed his shoulder.
Benison regretted his surprised yelp only more for its sole witness. “Yo chill,” Delmar grimaced. “You left something back at 86.”

It took a moment for Benison’s arterial systems to resume functions, much less remember where he was: leaving KeyArena, or trying to. Then he saw Del was hiding something behind his back.
“Oh word – ” he started, trying to reach behind Del’s back.
“Ah-ah-ah.” Delmar wagged his finger. “First I wanna know why you moved out.” Benison’s mouth parted maybe a micron. A sound – a sliver of a stutter.
“Yo. I’m fuckin witchu.”
As was Delmar’s wont.
AJ, Delmar, Gabe Griffin – they became Myriadal’s Big Three after college basketball’s
crazy uncle, Dick Vitale, used five minutes on SportsCenter to proclaim them the best set of diaper dandies since Michigan’s Fab Five. Suddenly, basketball heads from Seatown to Spanish Harlem were made aware of Myriadal’s Tres Grandes.
Benison couldn’t watch ESPN for ten minutes without a reference to at least one of the Big Three. Just this past week on E:60, ESPN’s hourlong hand in social consciousness, Jeremy Schaap shadowed AJ as they revisited his house on Hollins Street. They started in a nearby lot, which lay wasting under weeds and works. AJ talked about playing in the lot as a kid, turning up treasures beyond his years – until he grew to better understand them, and therefore his older kin: dope fiends and corner boys; collectors and counters; point women and ladies of the night.
“AJ says his neighbors – medical residents at Johns Hopkins – used to scold his parents for letting their kids loiter around the block late at night,” said E:60’s Schaap, dubbed over B-roll of Baltimore, steaming manholes and sped-up shots of grim-looking locals, before cutting to AJ and Schaap on his house’s stoop.

“All them degrees,” AJ responded, “and they think we got a problem with supervision? They had it all messed up.”
Delmar James – Myriadal’s freshman centerpiece – he was built on Alabama summers. Each Saturday he attended a playground with a clear view of Birmingham’s Vulcan statue, whose ass lay veritably bare. There, he threw himself into the court’s notoriously rugged games of three- on-three that culminated each year in a tournament sponsored by AND1. Through these half-court rumbles Delmar learned to pound in the post – and ignore the older guys who loitered on the sidelines. Dressed dapper and always affable, these rakish cats had made it their economic policy to trap and rinse the block. But Del, he stonewalled the drug game’s headhunters and raked the playground for all its worth, until he was known amongst the known as Delmar ‘va Peninsula’, fleet-footed juggernaut with the size and strength of said topography.
“I’ll tell you man, back when I was just a kid, in certain circles of street-ball?” he said to Schaap in front of his mother’s clapboard house outside Birmingham. “You take it to the rack, you might get hacked the [censored] up.”
Of their physical ilk, Benison should’ve been able to play alongside the Big Three, come off the bench, make a play here and there to help them carry the load. Hell, he could’ve done better than that. He could’ve contributed serious minutes. But he didn’t want it like they did – didn’t need victory to survive like an indelible amino pattern.
Originally assigned to live with the Big Three on campus, he’d spent his first week bumping hip hop classics with his door ajar, hoping his teammates would sidle up to talk tunes. But they weren’t big on ’90s rap, so rather than take to his tack, they waited for him to poke out of his room. Bets were made on when this might happen. By the time he wised to this, he was compromised, too conscious of his body separated from theirs by the wall he hid behind. And

when he did come out, they sensed the fake shit he laid down, how he mimicked their meme rather than doing him – and he knew it.
Like that one night during the four days off before focus finals, near the end of each trimester, when Myriadal had a sort of Mardi week. On day two, the residents of compartment 86 assembled in the common area for a spot of doomsday drinking. Fluorescent tubes buzzed above beats banging from speakers perched on the windowsill, the TV tuned to an NBA game, Benison secretly annoyed at the competing volumes.
“Now he catchin wreck though,” Gabe Griffin said, punctuating some point and pulling at his busy Mark Ecko shirt. The rest, including Benison, rocked Rapiers gear, sweats, shirts, zip-up windbreakers. “You gonna pass that?” he said.
A clipped chuckle from AJ, whose hand appreciated his high-top fade. Looking up with blooded eyes, he drawled, “Nahhh.”
But Delmar snatched it up and took a rip. “Ey man you gonna hit this?” he sang, circling the slim cone before Benison’s face, the spliff’s spirit lifting toward the smoke detector rather than the cracked window. “Ah?”
The mechanism responsible for calibrating Benison’s scope of thought was stuck on a 160x lens setting, listening to microbes talk politics. “Ahdunno man. What if we get tested?”
He felt his words grate against the heavy beat from the windowsill. His speech was robbed of colloquial flow, snapping iambics. The second or two before Delmar’s response was long. He saw Del thinking. He heard the voices boiling up from street level, frothing over the music and into their compartment. On the pale wood table, his red Solo filled with Gatorade and vodka was disappearing at inch-per-hour increments. Perhaps he needed to increase the rate.
“Please! It’s October,” Del scowled, ripping another hit.

Gabe Griffin pealed a high laugh, reached to repossess the joint. “Shit’s about to be legal in a minute, cuz.”
“Also never smoked before,” Benison shrugged. His elbows pistoned, his knees joggled. This time, three seconds before any response – then an uproar.
“Hold up,” Delmar sprung to his feet. A broad smile formed wormlike. “This gringo needs to get high.”
“Nah man,” Benison laughed and licked his lips. “I’m good.”
“Might help your game out,” AJ said.
Benison was saved by the buzzer: Russell Westbrook tossed an intercontinental alley-oop
to Kevin Durant, drawing oohs and ahs as the first quarter came to a close. Delmar proclaimed he could get up like that. Gabe Griffin concurred but with the caveat that Del couldn’t shoot like K- D. So the big man from Bama picked up a balled paper towel and stood, unsteadily, with the intent to prove otherwise.
“Wet,” Delmar called as he followed through on his fadeaway, which banked high off the wall and missed the trash can, used paper towel stopping near the can’s base.
“Siiiiike,” Benison said.
“Sike?” Delmar scowled, looking at the others. “What’s that some white boy shit?”
Right there: that had been Benison’s chance. A huge one was forming. The punch-line
hung by the threads of his tongue. All he needed to do was get up and turn around – “I’ll show you some white boy shit” – and let it rip: pppprrrfffff. Juvenile? Immature? He was a nineteen-year- old kid in serious need of new ways to light his fun-nodes. Alas, his sulfur had slipped silently and, his stretched smile slitting his chapped lip, he said, “Nah…”
“Yo. I’m playin with you,” Delmar said, nudging his shoulder.

That was when Benison, direct from class or practice, had started routing to his room, the door closed behind him. He came out to the common area like a mouse, only when he thought the coast was clear. Better to be a hermit than inveigled into admitting his most embarrassing sexual experience. Or into dropping the n-bomb, whereupon they’d feign outrage before revealing him for the credulous fuck that he was being. They called him Stinky-TO because he always Turned the ball Over, and toes smell bad. Gabe Griffin talked shit while on him at practice – “He don’t want it” – or while watching him cook ramen. Benison grew afraid of Delmar’s volume, in all senses of the word. He resented how the Rapiers’ five-man would guard his eyes against Benison’s blinding white aura. By then, Benison lost the ability to decipher when and whether the big man from Bama was messing with him.
His compmates turned him into someone he hated whenever he was around them. He played different, anxious and tentative. He walked different, as if on stilts. He talked different, no music or cadence. He lost himself in fantasies of decking Delmar then hovering over him to urge, “What up now, bitch?” But that wouldn’t win back the alpha throne he’d so meticulously carved out of milieus past. The truth was, he was the only one with a problem – and the problem begot the problem:
It starts with playing like shit. Then he plays like shit because he’s been playing like shit – a self-generating shit-mechanism, being shat on by his opponents, stinking up and down the floor and throwing the shit he’s covered in, petulantly flinging it everywhere, on everyone. And now the negative capability required of him as an athlete – of forgetting himself – is exposed to assumptions that he will fail. Now he considers his moves on the hardcourt in the way that thinking about thinking can paralyze genius. Then he hesitates. It turns his fluid jump shot into a stilted aim at the basket. His basketball IQ is double-thoughted and therefore dumbed. Failure to play

extrapolates unto a more insidious failure to perform in general, worsening his failure to play, a closed loop of provenance of a piece with the cosmos and all things fated. And up goes the Gatorade jug, or the video game console…
“Ey man, you there?”
Benison’s scope throttled back to things tangible and present: Delmar’s outstretched arm offering a static composition book labeled “Barz.”
“Didn’t read it,” Del said. “Swear to God, man.” He crossed himself then went woozy- eyed.
Benison could think of few scenarios more awkward than standing in quiet spaces with Delmar. He took the notebook, which was filled with metered verses and rhyming doodles, and thanked Del, loathing his autonomic deference.
“Game day tomorrow!” Delmar hooted and heaved off toward the locker room, fist held high overhead.
Benison stood frozen before the fear that Del had in fact perused the fruits of his hip hop hobby. He wanted desperately to know the truth, but should anyone have caught him shoegazing out here in the hall, he’d get heckled, so he kept on.
Blue duffel slung over shoulder, he pulled his hood up and butted the boiler room’s door, spun off the latch – and stopped. As if waiting in ambush, a flurry of media types and their gadgets preyed upon his personal space, microphones flittering, fuzzy booms lording, and questions flying at him like a murder of crows, too quick and many to figure:
“What are your thoughts on your father’s arrest earlier today?” “What do you know about the charges placed against him?” “Are you upset?”

Not that it stood out in his mind, but Benison wouldn’t have been able to match one of these faces, thrust now into his personal space, to any of those present at today’s post-practice presser. No, the rabble surrounding him now represented a different animal of reporter. The decals on their cameras and mics and booms betrayed big-name media brands – CNN’s parallel red font, NBC’s varicolored peacock, Fox News’s brutalist block lettering. They vied for position like ambulance-chasers navigating a hospital’s waiting area.
Benison had vaguely comprehended what was happening when the door behind him pounded open, bumping him nearer the slavering mob – but Coach took hold of his arm and pulled him through the scrum.
“We have no comments right now,” he grumbled.
Coach plowed ahead, Benison in tow, looking over his shoulder as if being escorted from those he loved. Some-odd strides away from the scrum, Coach asked where his car was. On a dime they turned into a quadrangle of parked vehicles, across a lane, a yaw left, until Benison pointed to a white Audi sedan. Benison fumbled for the right key before the driver-side door. Finally he finagled the car key and, once seated, Coach bent into the descended power-window. He put his elbows on the sill, pausing as if to let the moment settle into the greater solution. Benison looked out his windshield, where a horizon of cars gave way to gray sky. “Fuck,” he breathed.
“Best thing is to get home and don’t talk to the press,” Coach advised. “I’ll tell Jonesy to hunker down with you. Make something to eat. Put in a movie. Do some homework. Just try not to watch the news. Benison,” Coach said.
He looked at Coach, who’d turned to confront the swell of media cretins meandering nearer.
“You better go.” Coach slapped the car’s hardtop.

Benison made a parabola around the parking lot, watching reporters’ faces go blank as if shut down by their central intelligence. New mist dusted the streets. The city’s famously spired UFO hovered in shroud over the Seattle Center. At a red light, Benison opened Barz in his lap, plugged the aux cable into his phone, and, in picking a beat, jammed his mother’s panicked texts in with the backlog of his conscious. Flipping through his notebook, he spat some syncopated scales – a do re mi fa so dope sort of solfege – and finally, hitting play, he slipped into the pocket of the beat.
The light changed. He fell silent. High synths droned on without him. Cars honked as he idled, his gaze caught in reverse. It’d occurred to him how absurd this was, the act of rapping, regardless of the circumstances.
Benison knew exactly what was going on. He just hadn’t thought it would go down like this, with him finding out in real time, like every other asshole watching the 24-hour news cycle. Since adolescence, he’d been a stranger in his own home, the last to know – or never knowing – until it happened to him.

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