Started From The Bottom Now We Here

fred

Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now my whole team fucking here
Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now the whole team here, nigga

- Drake, “Started From The Bottom”

Freddie “The Prophet” Phelps is standing at a the top of the three-point line, dribbling the ball. LeBron James, 4-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, is to his right, waiting.

Bron moves towards the ball and sets a pick, stifling both his and Freddie’s defender with sheer mass. A moment passes and I have to imagine everyone in the arena knows what comes next: LeBron James rolls towards the basket, a freight train comin’ down.

My fingers, confident in the validity of their muscles’ memory, know what to do. Right shoulder for icon pass. Bron is playing power forward at the moment; ‘Y’ will pass him the ball.

The pass sails over the defenders and softly into The King’s hands. The center, a poor, poor rookie, rotates to block the shot a second too late, his hands flying scattershot, and LeBron’s soft floater banks off the backboard. Two points and the foul, the most defiling of basketball plays.

The King and The Prophet. Fuck pestilence, war, famine and death: our apocalypse is a championship and our divine instrument is the pick and roll.

 

***

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By all rights, I should hate LeBron James. He stabbed my entire state in the back. He wholesale slaughtered my favorite sports franchise. And now he’s dancing on its corpse, redefining the idea of positional basketball, with statistics of biblical proportions and a Miami Heat team all but certainly riding his brilliance to a second consecutive championship.

I am Adam Harshberger. I created Freddie Phelps, my current NBA2k13 My Player fetish. I have played many, many games with him, across various states of inebriation, across a painful break up, across countless late nights and groggy mornings. He is my Captain Ahab puppet, chasing relentlessly the white whale of not only an NBA championship but untarnished basketball perfection.

But Lebron’s the only one that can hang with Freddie Phelps. He’s the only one that can catch those thread-the-needle-passes, the only one who can make a bucket almost no matter where I get him the ball. LeBron James, the code and wireframe and texture version of him, is my basketball spirit animal, my basketball Moses, leading me to the promised land where we will drink forever the blood of our enemies, straight from the Larry O’Brien trophy.

***

I remember the night Freddie and I entered free agency. There was no national TV special, just the cold, awkward menus of NBA 2k13. We had a several offers from middling, fringe-contender teams. Is that what we want, Freddy? Do we want to see if we can take them over the edge? Could we become the saviors of the Milwaukee Bucks? Or the Atlanta Hawks?

But then there was that offer from the Heat, a decent salary on a two year deal. Playing next to LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Championship expectations, not aspirations. Do we take it, Freddy? Do we forsake our morals, our hometown, our integrity – for a chance at history? Do we become LeBron James?

That night, me and Fred took our talents to South Beach.

That night, me and Fred took our talents to South Beach.

***

The first time I controlled Freddie Phelps in a game was the 2013 NBA Rookie Showcase. He started at point guard and I decided right away that we were going to get ours. He weaved the ball through the opposing team defense, dropping dimes to would-be-number-one-pick Anthony Davis and the unconscious Bradley Beal. But our shot just wouldn’t drop. Freddie botched layups that I knew full well he had no business taking. I made him take midrange jumpers like he was Kobe Bryant. We barely shot 30% from the field.

But those passes – the announcers couldn’t stop glowing about them. We nearly shot our team out of the game, but the nigh unmissable shots we set the rest of the team up for were enough to squeak out a win.

On draft night, we went 14th to the Portland Trailblazers. The Prophet had arrived, but came off the bench, spending two seasons watching LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson – another player forever connected to LeBron James – drop passes and miss easy shots.

Started from the bottom.

***

It was only two seasons in Portland; they didn’t extend our rookie contract, and we weren’t mad about it. That’s when we got the offer from Miami.

wews_LeBron-Jersey_02It felt surreal, at first, playing for the team that was my anathema. Freddie and I both went to Ohio State. I grew up in Ohio but I don’t know where Freddie was born. I had betrayed myself, my inner Clevelander, like LeBron had. Freddie had betrayed his alma mater. And we both had betrayed the Cavaliers, their fans, somehow, by joining the Heat.

But goddamn, playing with LeBron was fun. Goddamn, playing with Wade was fun. The first time he threw an alley-oop to The King, The Prophet pumped his fist beneath the basket and I, regardless of my 2:30 a.m. stonedness, nearly leapt off the couch. I had found the joy of basketball, the joy of winning, the joy of LeBron James. I watched Freddie break Kyrie Irving’s ankles with his newfound offensive prowess and then lay the ball in with a flourish. The Prophet and The King gave each other dap underneath the basket. I felt like I had just plunged a sword through the heart of my city’s newest, most promising savior.

Then I realized we were heading for the playoffs and licked the blood, a broad smile across my face, straight off the motherfucking blade.

I realized I understood LeBron James, now. I realized why you’d compromise your integrity for a chance to rain unholy terror upon the league. I fully grasped why you would forsake your own shot at saviordom to play alongside the best players in the game. I absolved the man of his sins. Or, at the very least, I agreed to wallow in them with him.

I absolved the man of his sins. Or, at the very least, I agreed to wallow in them with him.

***

That season we were bounced from the playoffs in the first round. They… stopped us. They stopped me, Freddie, and Bron. The series went 7 games, and I spent the whole series making Freddie force the issue. We took bad shots. Our lethal pick-and-roll play was nullified by stout defense at the basket. The Prophet looked to the future and saw nothing, no play to be made – just another brick, another turn over.

***

The present. LeBron and his starting point guard, Freddie “The Prophet” Phelps, decimating the league in a fresh new season. Number one in the Eastern Conference. Me, the puppetmaster, gleefully doing things on the digital basketball court that I never thought I could. The Prophet and The King’s pick and roll, still deadly. And Freddie’s offensive skills, better than ever, and ready to punish anyone who gives him space with a dead-eyed midrange jumper.

It’s far in the future, though. 2017. LeBron is older and he can’t play as well as he used to. The Prophet, 8 years LeBron’s junior, is at his prime and an all-star. I am now faced with the reality that Freddie and I are going to try and win a championship for LeBron James.

Somewhere deep inside a part of me is saying, “Leave. Demand a trade. Don’t do that with him.”

Somewhere deep inside a part of me is saying, “Leave. Demand a trade. Don’t do that with him.”

The rest of me is screaming, “So be it.” I want what LeBron did when he left. I have tasted what made him stab his birthplace in the back: the allure of history, the musk of immortality. Freddie and me, we’re chasing the championship. Getting ours. And it’s within our reach.

Freddie’s contract, though, is up next season. We’ll be free agents. And just like LeBron, there are rumblings. Our eyes are cast north, to a triumphant return home. I don’t need LeBron anymore – Freddie is one of the best players in the league. He relies on the assist, on stronger teammates, no longer. But we couldn’t have gotten there without The King, because he showed us the joy of basketball. He showed what it was like to play alongside your equals – a discovery he made himself two seasons ago.

In other words: now we here. The top. By my authority, LeBron James is absolved of his sins through the means of understanding. Or complicity. But what about mine? What about Freddie’s? Can I forgive us? Will going back to Cleveland change anything? I don’t think it will matter. The apocalypse is coming, after all.