The summer of my rookie season, I came to Harlem for the pro league tournament at Rucker Park, the most famous basketball court in the world. If you want street cred, you earn it here. It’s your pilgrimage to Mecca.
On the surface, it’s unassuming. There’s no glamour to the outdoor court with two hoops and five rows of bleachers, but legends were made here. Dr. J got his namehere before anyone really even knew who he was. The summer he played, people crowded the rooftop of the school across the street, climbed, and watched from trees, and pressed their noses to the fence for a glimpse of this kid who flew through the air with unparalleled grace, and rocked the rim with more force than they’d ever seen. It was the crowds at the Rucker who first chanted “Dr. J.” They christened him, and it stuck. He played for Philadelphia, my hometown, and he changed the game. So every time I come to the Rucker, it’s special, but today I feel the excitement even more.
And it has nothing to do with the dunking contest I’m here to judge for charity.
With the contest over, the other celebrity judges and I have taken photos with the winners, and now the autographs have begun. The whole time I’m signing hats, slips of paper, shoes, and whatever else people have, I’m scanning the crowd for one woman. Lotus never texted me back, so I don’t even know if she’s coming. Chances are she’s not, but that doesn’t stop me from checking compulsively every few minutes.
“How you liking New York, Glad?” Ben Mason, a point guard who came into the NBA the same year I did, asks. We’re signing autographs back-to-back, encircled by a crowd of kids.
“It’s okay.” I smile at a little girl who hands me a T-shirt to sign. “My kid lives here now, so I’m glad to have some of the off-season with her.”
“I did hear Bridge was moving to New York,” Ben says. “She’s on that new basketball wives’ reality show, right?”
Ben, like everyone else in the sports world, knows my business almost before I do.
“Yeah, she’s here,” I mutter.
“Did your divorce finally come through?”
“Yeah, it’s quits. Thank God.”
“Man, she did you dirty.”
Really, Ben? Sure, why not chat about my most painful, humiliating experiences while signing autographs for a hundred screaming kids? Perfect timing.
“It’s behind us now,” I say aloud instead. “We’re just trying to figure out how to co-parent my daughter well.”
“You a better man than me,” Ben continues. “If that had been me—”
“But it wasn’t.” I turn around to face him, not even trying to hide my irritation anymore.
“Sorry, Glad,” Ben rushes to say. “Man, I’m tripping. I know that was a tough time. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”
“And yet you’re stilltalking.” I turn back around and resume signing items and taking photos with fans.
My frustration isn’t actually about him, though. I’m disappointed Lotus didn’t show. I hadn’t admitted to myself how much I hoped she would. I did act like an asshole in the stairwell. I thought I fixed it, but maybe not.
“Over here, Glad!” a kid yells, holding up his phone to take a picture. When I look in his direction, a flash of color catches my eye. A small gap in the crowd reveals silk the color of butter spread on sun-toasted skin. A woman wears a backless yellow jumper that clings to her ass. What looks like an intricate zipper with tiny flowers instead of teeth is tattooed up her naked spine. A huge cloud of golden–brown hair with curls and waves on the loose fans out and around her neck and the curve of her shoulders.
It comes out as a question, but I know it’s her. I’m not the only one noticing every detail of her appearance. The crowd parts like the Red Sea and heads turn as she walks through. She seems oblivious to the lust she’s inspiring as she makes her way out of the dense crowd.
Away from me.
There are too many people separating us and I’d have to rudely push through a lot of teenage bodies fast to catch her at this point, but there’s no way she’s getting out of here without seeing me.
“Hey, PYT!” I yell through cupped hands in the direction I saw her take. She’s so short, I can’t even find the top of her head anymore.
For a second I think I’ve lost her, but that ray of sunshine she’s wearing flaunts her presence again several yards away. She’s turned to face me now, one hand on her hip and amusement on her face. I grin, fully prepared to be railed for calling her out.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I ask loudly enough for her and anyone between us to hear.
“I’m for sure not standing around all day waiting for you,” she yells back, her lips fighting the smile in her eyes.
“Well, you heard her guys.” I sign another hat and sigh. “I gotta shut it down. She’s leaving me.”
“I’d shut shit down, too, for that,” a guy standing halfway between Lotus and me says, eyes crawling over every inch of her exposed skin. I want to get her out of here.
“Excuse me,” I say, pushing through the crowd after I sign one last autograph. She could meet me halfway, but does she? No, just stands still in the crowd like a daffodil planted in the middle of a traffic jam, waiting for me to reach her. Once I do, I step as close as I possibly can without touching her so she has to tip her head all the way back to meet my eyes. Our gazes lock and don’t let go. The steam rising between us has nothing to do with the ninety-five-degree weather. I draw a shallow, Lotus-scented breath.