by Paul Perilli
I had played two exhibition games in Madrid. I had been to Mallorca for other reasons. I liked Spain. It’s a beautiful country. Yet, when my agent called to tell me about an offer from a team there, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it. He reminded me it was the best deal I had on the table. While others were sure to come in, Sevilla was a first-rate squad in one of Europe’s top leagues.
“Two years, a million two five zero Euros per. You get an apartment and a car. An opt out to go back to the NBA. You can thrive over there.”
So here I am in the city founded by Hercules, walled in by the Romans, sacked by the Arabs and Vikings, and conquered by Ferdinand III. These days it’s known for its festivals and flamenco dancing. Its tapas joints and heat too.
My name is David Garri. I play guard for the Ocho Nodos. I’m six-foot tall, on the small side for a professional basketball player, but I can shoot the lights out. Halfway through the season we’re in third place in the Spanish League and first in our EuroCup group. I average fifteen points and five assists. Those might not sound like much, I topped them in three of my NBA seasons, but Europeans play a different style of ball. Over here it’s team and system oriented. Defense is emphasized. The games are shorter. The scores lower. Besides Spain, my teammates are from Slovakia, Turkey, Italy, France, and Lithuania. Tony Daniels is the only other import from the States. Newcomer I might be, so far they’ve treated me well. So has the press. The fans act like fans everywhere. After the games they approach me outside the arena wanting my autograph. The kids get a kick out of my Boston accented Spanish. Which I know is rough, but passable. My tutor’s surprised how fast I’m picking it up.
“Rápido como eres en la cancha,” she told me.
“Como un rayo,” was my reply.
All this love for me won’t last forever. I say that from experience. Eight seasons in the NBA, I went from a second-round draft pick out of Providence College to a starter with a four year thirty-million dollar contract to a player cut by two teams in one season. From good to nothing special to a twenty-eight year old reserve getting in ten minutes a game.
My home here is the six-room apartment the team’s front office set up for me. It’s a fine enough place in a modern building even if I prefer the architectural styles of the older ones. It has new furniture, a giant t.v. screen, a balcony that looks out over the Plaza de Toros. There’s a parking spot for my Peugeot in a private lot across the street. I don’t take it out much. Sevilla’s a walking city. A city you want to walk in. With time on my hands, I did a lot of that my first weeks here. I checked out the Cathedral, the Plaza de España, The Mushrooms. I went to a soccer game. I packed away plates of delicious food in Triana tapas bars. I made two trips to the Royal Alcazar where I knew scenes for the Principality of Dorne in Game of Thrones were filmed. Outrageous as it sounds, one of those trips had a lot to do with my getting together with a journalist for Diario de Sevilla. An outgoing woman with dark hair, Valentina and I met at a casual eating and drinking spot near my apartment. I remember it well. It was a Thursday evening. Back from the Royal Alcazar, I was at a table by the windows drinking a beer and waiting for my serraitos, a Sevilla specialty. At the next table with a couple of coworkers, Valentina recognized me from the photo her paper had published two days earlier alongside an article about the team.
She caught my eyes, and said, “You’re the new guy.”
“I am him,” I said.
“Welcome to Sevilla.”
“Nice to be here. Who are you?”
That started things off. But instead of news or basketball we got to talking about Game of Thrones. She was as big a fan of the series as I was. She had written about its filming in Spain. We became so involved in the discussion we must have bored her friends. They finished up, said so long and left us alone. One drink later we were back at my place. The new mattress was firm, but it didn’t hinder our enjoyment. After that, we took glasses of wine into the living room and streamed the final episode of Season 1, where Daenerys emerges from the pyre as the Mother of Dragons. When it was over Valentina went into the bedroom, put on the rest of her clothes, came out and said, “I am sorry but I must leave. I have to be up early to go to Gibraltar for a story.”
What could I say? Maybe we’d see each other again?
“I will let you know,” she said.
Whatever. Except in a few cases, those were the days I could go around Sevilla without being recognized. I could eat in a restaurant or go to a museum without being approached for an autograph or selfie. Since the season got underway that’s no longer the case. In the third game on our home court we beat Barcelona, one of the league’s best teams. It was tight until the end when I drained a couple of threes in the final minutes to seal the win. When the final buzzer sounded the fans went wild, cheering “olé olé olé” in celebration. The next day the media was all over it. It brought me the kind of attention I hadn’t had in a while.
However it was for me, it was the start of a nine game winning streak for the team. As the season progressed and we kept winning, my teammates and I became a tight knit unit as winning teams tend to be. We hung out after games and practices. Sometimes, instead of going to a bar or club, we played poker at my place. We had fun. Most of us were away from our home countries and I think it was something we were looking for, that feeling of family. Though I’ll say in my case a lot of that had to do with Tony Daniels.
Tony and I had crossed paths in the NBA. By then he was a journeyman and except as competitors on the court, we didn’t interact much. What I remember most from those days was the profile Sports Illustrated did about him. Tony Daniels, you may not know, is a fine trumpet player. He would tell me one night in the bar of our hotel in Ljubljana he saw being cut loose from the NBA as a sign he should retire to be a professional musician.
“The trumpet was calling me,” he said. “It was powerful.”
What I didn’t know until then was he had gotten a degree from Julliard and in the off season traveled with a quintet called “The Five Spots.” Yet, he wasn’t quite ready to give up hoop. So here he was playing for the Ocho Nodos.
That aside, we had hit it off from day one when he picked me up at the airport after my flight from the States. On the drive into the city I knew he was glad to have someone from back home to hang out and chat it up with.
“Man, I’m happy you showed up,” he said. “It ain’t the NBA, but it’s a great place to be.”
“I know it’s gonna be good,” I said.
During those early weeks he showed me the ropes. He took me to his favorite haunts. Dražen, a hot shot guard from Croatia, was with us most of the time. Marco, a gym rat from Milan, and Rudy, a board crasher from Bratislava, joined us on a regular basis. As the season went on we stayed out later and later. It didn’t take long for word about us to get around, yet it didn’t seem to matter what we did off the court. We beat Baskonia by twenty-three points on the road for our seventeenth win in the Spanish League. It might have been our best game of the season. Everything clicked. Dražen led the way with twenty-six. I went for seventeen. The victory put us one game behind Barcelona for second place in the standings. We had a joyous time in the locker room. We were on a roll and saw big things ahead. Coach Lolo praised our pressure defense. It was his system and game plan, and the chant went up, “Coach, Coach, Coach.” We were about to get on our way to the airport when the team manager got a text saying a thunderstorm was about to sweep in and our charter flight to Belgrade was cancelled. The good news was, the hotel we had stayed in had enough rooms for us. It was eleven o’clock by the time we checked in. Except instead of staying put to rest for our game against Partizan the next night, Tony, Dražen, and I went to a club off Vitoria-Gasteiz’s main plaza.
Dražen had been to it the year before when he played for Žalgiris. It was a bustling place with a restless Friday night crowd. Lights were blinking. Electronic music blasting. On the dance floor people bounced and gyrated. At the bar Tony bought a round of marianitos. It went down pretty easy and in no time we had fresh glasses in our hands. We stood there watching the goings on until a few people recognized us and asked if we’d take selfies with them. Then more folks came over. After a few more pictures my drink was on the bar and I was dancing, though I’m not sure if I asked her or she asked me? I recall her name was Lia. She was on the slender side with short hair. A bit tipsy I could tell, but it didn’t interfere with her moves. She had some fine ones, though I’ll add I’m no slouch out there. I matched her step for step, spin for spin. It wasn’t long before Tony and Dražen were bopping to the beat with their own partners.
We must have been out there an hour. When one-thirty came around we were out the door on the way to our hotel to party some more. I’m not sure how much sleep I got. Three hours at most. In the morning I was late getting to the lobby. Tony and Dražen were there looking tired as I was. It was obvious Coach Lolo was on pins and needles. He didn’t say anything to us, but I had a hunch the good feelings he’d had in the locker room after our win were past tense.
I suppose it wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you we lost to Partizan? We were never in the game. Tony came through with some decent play, but Dražen and I never got going. Our energy was low. Our production was too. I had six points when Coach Lolo pulled me for the last five minutes hoping my replacement would hit a few buckets to give us a chance. That didn’t happen. After it, Dražen admitted the hour he slept on the plane was the only shuteye he got.
“Can’t dance all night and expect to play well the next day,” he said.
“I hear that,” I said.
We had a couple of days off before our next game to get back in sync. Instead of that, we hit a snag. We lost our next three games, two at home, the other away against Joventut. We were in a bad way. Our shots weren’t dropping. Our on court communication was out of whack. Me, I sucked. My scoring and assists were down. My confidence took a hit. I didn’t think Coach Lolo would bench me, but I knew I had to pick up my play. As it was, I was on the court fewer minutes. In our last loss I hit two shots, that was it, and Coach Lolo sat me the entire fourth quarter. Walking to the bench, a few of our fans started getting on me. Booing and tossing out their hands. Just a few, but it was enough to get my attention. I mean, I’d been booed before. It was no big deal. Part of being a pro athlete. The fans pay to watch you and they have that right. And since I was from the US, the pressure was on. I was the team’s main acquisition that year and there I was shooting bricks.
The next day a few sports writers ripped me good. One said I was a big reason we had dropped from third to fifth place in the league. Another questioned if I was worth it? Along with that, we continued to go south in our EuroCup group. We had lost focus. Coach Lolo had lost patience. At the next practice he read us the riot act. He put us through a string of grueling drills. He used his whistle a lot to point out what we were doing wrong. We heard rumors he planned to shake up the lineup if our bad play continued.
On my way home that evening my phone buzzed. I’d been expecting the call. My agent wondered what was up? Was I injured and not telling anyone?
“I’m good,” I said.
But I think he knew all along what the deal was. What came next was no surprise. I had to cut out the late nights, get my shit together, or I could kiss off any chance of getting back to the NBA.
“They’re not looking for partiers to take up a spot on the bench,” he said. “It’s time to get serious.”
“Too many other things that don’t have to do with hoop,” was how Valentina described it when we were out at dinner. She had dated two professional soccer players. She knew what went down on road trips. She heard the whispering about our adventures to Sevilla’s clubs.
Of course, I said that wasn’t what we were about.
“It’s not like that,” I said.
“Uh huh,” she said. “I was not born yesterday.”
The restaurant we were in served some of the finest seafood in Sevilla. We took our time eating and splitting a bottle of French wine. When we finished, we went back to my place to watch Game of Thrones. Some weeks before that we had decided to replay the entire series. We looked forward to doing that together, though as I mentioned, the nights she stayed with me were sporadic. Anyway, we were up to Season 3, episode 4, the one Daenerys trades Kraznys a dragon for his Unsullied army. You may recall after the transaction Daenerys orders the Unsullied to kill their slavers and her dragon to burn Kraznys to death.
“Ocho Nodos needs to be that dragon, to be slayers instead of the slayed,” Valentina said.
I was laughing. She was laughing. Then I got an idea. Crazy as it was, and it was crazy, I aired it out.
“I should have the team over to watch this. As a way to get everyone on the same page. It might help. We need something. Anything. Even this.”
“That is crazy. But I like it. You should do it right away so you’re all on the same page, as you say.”
“You’re right. It can’t wait. Tomorrow. I’ll mention it after practice.”
I called Tony the next morning to find out what he thought? If he didn’t want to do it, that would be the end of my bizarro idea.
“No Coach?” he said.
“No Coach. Just us.”
“We tell him though. Otherwise, if he finds out he might think we’re planning a mutiny.”
“So you’re into it?”
“Did I say no? Yeah, I’m all for it, man.”
In our street clothes after the next practice, Tony and I asked our teammates to wait in locker room while we went to see Coach Lolo. They couldn’t figure out what we were up to. We didn’t want to tell them in case Coach didn’t like the idea.
In his office, he stared at us as if for the first time. Game of Thrones? He laughed. But to our surprise, it turned out he was all in. If we thought it would help, why not?
“Can’t hurt,” I said.
“We need something,” Tony said.
“Not too late,” Coach Lolo said.
We played Unicaja the next night. The stands were sure to be packed. We had to be ready.
“In by five out by nine,” Tony said.
With a bit more back and forth, Coach decided he liked the idea so much he told us the team would pay for the food and drink. “If we win Sunday night,” he said. “Only if we win.”
It was a bet we were willing to take. “Since it looks like you’re buying, we’re ordering from the best restaurant,” I said.
I have to admit I was skeptical. I wasn’t sure what affect watching Game of Thrones would have on us. I had a hunch Tony thought the same.
Back in the locker room, Tony explained the situation, “Coach gave us the go ahead. Don’t bring anything but yourselves. No spouses or companions. No snacks or wine.”
I said, “Coach is buying dinner if we win.”
“When we win,” Dražen said.
I took six folding chairs from the practice facility’s storage room and brought them to my place. I set them around the screen with my couch and chairs. I wanted it to be casual, eating, talking, while watching Game of Thrones. The next day at four o’clock two men from Triana’s best tapas restaurant arrived with a banquet table they set a white cloth, tableware, and tin platters of food on: charcuterie and cheese plates, potato croquettes, chorizo, roasted asparagus wrapped in ibérico ham, skewers of pork and shrimp, tarts and cakes for dessert. Bottles of beer, wine, and sparkling water were set on the kitchen counter.
At five my doorbell sounded out. Tony, Dražen, and our other teammates began showing up one or two at a time. When all were present I handed out drinks, then I told them to make themselves a plate and get comfortable.
“I’ll fire up the screen,” I said.
“What’s on?” Marco said.
“Game film of a sort,” Tony said.
With a few clicks I had Season 3, Episode 4 ready to go. That got a laugh.
When six-thirty came around, I said, “Let the Game of Thrones begin.”
So there we were, gathered around the screen. I could feel the excitement in my teammates as the scenes shifted from Kings Landing to the north, then beyond the wall before it moved to Astapor where Daenerys, Kraznys, the dragon, and the Unsullied army were gathered. As it unfolded even those who hadn’t seen it knew something big was about to happen. Daenerys was giving in. With a dragon Kraznys would be dangerous. Then it happened. Daenerys took charge. There’s no reason to rehash the ending, except to say in the closing scene Daenerys leads the Unsullied out of Astapor as the dragon soars overhead.
At that point I stood up and said, “We want to be like Daenerys and the dragon. We want to be the slayers.”
“Hear hear,” Tony raised a hand.
Other joined in.
“Don’t mess with us.”
The next thing I did was tell everyone to eat and drink some more, then we had to call it a night. We had to be fresh the next day.
“For the shootaround. Then we…” I left that hanging.
“Win!” was the undisputed reply.
A moment later we were on our feet smiling and slapping high fives. I got everyone to huddle close together. Then I set my camera on the table of food and jumped into the frame in time for the photo. An hour after that everyone was out the door on their way home in high spirits. Tony was last to leave.
“It worked,” he said. “I can feel it.”
After he left I looked around, nodding my head in the belief we had come together. My whacko idea had been a success.
There were leftovers in the tins. Wine, beer, and water on the kitchen counter. I covered the food and put it and the beer in the refrigerator. I made a phone call. Not long after that the two men from the restaurant came back to take everything else away.
It was just ten o’clock when they left, but I was tired. Much as I wanted to call Valentina to tell her how it went, I decided against it. She had the ticket I gave her for the game. I expected her to be there. I figured she would be curious what came of it. Game of Thrones as a device to unify the team. It sounded ridiculous. Maybe it was.
Any doubts I had were erased the next day. We put on a clinic, beating Unicaja by twenty points. After our string of losses, a victory felt good. Tony was our high scorer. The first time that season he led the team. To go with those, he chipped in his usual rebounds and blocks. I hadn’t seen him play with that much energy in weeks. The next day the press said it was a solid team performance. A win we needed. Some wondered if we could keep it up?
Of course, they didn’t know our secret weapon. We weren’t going to tell them, though we assumed it would get to them in time. As it turned out, after our next game it was the basis of a Diario de Sevilla article: ¿Game of Thrones Inspiró a los Ocho Nodos? When the reporter inquired about it in an email, I avoided the question and instead told her whatever the reason, it was about time we turned on the afterburners.
The question for us was, do we keep it going? We had two days off before our next game. When I talked to Tony on the phone, I asked if he thought it was a good idea? Did he think the other guys would be in on it?
To my surprise, he said, “We do it again. At your place, but not right away.”
Four days later we traveled to Italy for a EuroCup game against Germani Brescia. It was one of those games I was deep in the zone. My teammates got the ball to me. I was one step ahead of the defense. By the time Coach Lolo took me out I had scored thirty-five in a blowout win. Walking off the court, a few Germani Brescia fans applauded me. Of course, many more booed. One threw a cookie my way. It happens.
Two Sundays after that we met up again at my place for eats, drinks, and another episode of Game of Thrones. With Valentina’s input I showed “Battle of the Bastards.” The episode where the epic clash for Winterfell ends with Ramsay Bolton being eaten by his own dogs. After it, we went on a six game winning streak. We won our fans back. They were cheering me again. The rest of the team too. By season’s end we climbed back to third place in the league standings. In the playoffs, we lost in the second round to the eventual champ Real Madrid three games to two.
Our season wasn’t done. We finished second in our EuroCup group to make the playoffs. A final Game of Thrones get together at my place started us on our way to the championship game. Played on TürkTelekom’s home court, it was close all the way until Dražen knocked down three straight shots that included a dagger with thirty seconds left to lead us to the win.
Back in Sevilla the next day, the Mayor held a parade in our honor. Standing on decorated flatbed trucks, we rode through the center of town. Along the way our fans clapped and cheered. Many wore hats and jerseys bearing the team’s logo. The procession ended at the Plaza de Espagna. A stage had been set up and we gave speeches to the jubilant crowd. When it was my turn, I mentioned how at first I was hesitant to join the Ocho Nodos but now I didn’t want to leave it or Sevilla. At the end I thanked them, raised a hand and led a fist pumping chant: “olé, olé…”
It was an exclamation point to a glorious season. I hadn’t known what to expect when my plane landed nine months earlier and Tony greeted me in Arrivals. A lot had happened. It turned out better than I ever imagined.
Without a firm offer from an NBA team, I decided to stay with the Ocho Nodos. Instead of Boston, I spent most of the summer in Sevilla. Valentina and I were together much of that time. I was happy with her and I believe she was with me. In August we traveled to London and Iceland, then spent a week at the beach on the Portuguese coast. That was where I got the message Dražen signed with the Miami Heat and two other teammates were off to European teams in Italy and Israel. Their replacements were from Spain, Russia, and Senegal.
The Senegalese player was a nineteen year old six foot nine high flyer Coach Lolo had met at a basketball camp in that country four years earlier. His name was Moussa Sene and he was OKC’s second round pick in the recent NBA draft. He was lanky, unpolished, but his shot was good and skill set developing fast. He was in Spain to get a year of professional experience under his belt. It was rumored his family didn’t want him to go right to the States. That seemed sensible since he’d only played three years of organized ball and there was no way to know how he would react to NBA life in one giant leap. That said, he arrived at our practice facility a week after the rest of us. His parents, who came with him, wanted to be sure the setup was right.
The practices Coach Lolo put us through were hard as ever. He had no intention to let us rest on our laurels. Far as he was concerned, the EuroCup championship and advancement to the Spanish League semifinals were in the history books. Winning the EuroCup had qualified us for the EuroLeague, the top tier league in Europe. We would have to play at the highest level to compete with the best teams. There would be no coming back from a letdown like we had last year.
That first week we were back I met Tony and Marco at Diez Puntos, a blues and jazz joint on a side street in the Macarena district. It was a favorite of Tony’s, which meant it was a favorite of ours too. How could it not be? The music was excellent. The vibe cool.
Since it was a Wednesday night we got a table easy enough. We drank beer and listened to a jazz quartet improvise some fine tunes. Between sets we talked about Moussa, the other new guys on the team, and the EuroLeague. Tony was sure something good was about to happen. He was always sure big things were ahead. Feeling the magic, he banged his chest. Despite losing Dražen he thought our team was stronger than a year ago.
“Remember,” I reminded him, “All the best teams got stronger, not just us. And the EuroLeague…” I stopped. I didn’t want to sound negative.”
“Very soon we’ll find out what we’re about,” Marco said.
Before we hit the sidewalk, we signed autographs. We did that every time we were there. I know some players get touchy about it. They don’t want their personal space intruded on. I get that. But to me it’s no bother. It would be that way if they stopped asking us to sign, was how Tony looked at it.
Outside, Tony and Marco grabbed taxis. I lived closer and decided to walk. There were still a lot of people on the streets. For the first time since my early weeks in Sevilla I saw it as it was, a city easy on the eyes. Full of energy and enjoyment. Then out of the blue it struck me. My mind hadn’t been going in that direction, but the question popped up. Should I repeat our winning device of last season? With the new players we might be better, but the team had a different character. It might not sync as well. I figured Tony, Marco, and Rudy were sure to be in. Four or five of the others. What about the Russian guy Vilensky? We didn’t know him well. He was a serious dude who kept to himself. A Game of Thrones gathering might not be to his liking. And Moussa? Would his parents let him get in on it? We would have to find that out. It seemed doubtful. I decided to wait and see if someone else brought it up.
It turned out Tony did. After a practice he wondered if we should try it before our first game? He figured Coach Lolo would buy in on it. Why wouldn’t he after last season?
“Read my mind,” I said.
“I knew you would want to do it,” he said.
“Has to be at my place,” I said. “Keep everything the same. The food. Everything. Why push our good luck?”
The night before our first game the team got together. Everyone was present. Moussa and Vilensky included. I ordered tapas and drinks from the same Triana restaurant. “The Winds of Winter” was the episode I decided to show. Not only was it a turning point in the series, but much of it was filmed in Girona and Almeria. As usual we broke ranks at nine. Before we did, we got in a circle with our arms around each other listening to Tony give a rousing speech that fired us up. The next night we kicked off the season with a win over Bilbao. With Dražen gone I had more scoring opportunities. I led the team with twenty-four. Yet, most everyone’s eyes were on Moussa. In his first game he had nine points and four rebounds. He looked comfortable on the court against players with five and ten years more experience. In no time he was a fan favorite. They stood and cheered when he capped off his debut with an alley-oop dunk I fed to him. On the court at the time, I remembered Tony looking over at me as if to say, now we know he’s for real.
My second year with the Ocho Nodos turned out to be almost as successful as the first. We didn’t win a championship, we did make it to the finals of the Spanish League playoffs, where we were again knocked off by Real Madrid three games to two. In the EuroLeague we finished sixth. A loss in the semifinal round to Anadolu Efes sent us back to next year’s EuroCup.
To my surprise, when the end of year awards were announced I was named a Second Team Spanish League all star, one of the league’s top ten players. I was happy with it even if it was Moussa who got most of the attention as the season progressed. He showed off his explosive moves around the basket. He got better every game. And that was it for him and the Ocho Nodos. The day after we lost to Anadolu Efes he took off back to Dakar with his parents. Before he left a few of us met him outside the arena to wish him well. He thanked us for everything we did for him.
“Since you have the talent, it had nothing to do with us,” Tony said.
“We’ll be calling you for free tickets, the best seats too,” I said.
Moussa laughed and shook his head. “You guys,” he said.
High fives went around. Then he and his parents got into the van the team manager drove them to the airport in.
It so happened Valentina and I were still an item. Only by then we were more so. We had stopped looking for other partners. Once in a while we eyed each other in surprise, as if to say, you’re still here? One night at my place we decided to live together. In fact, she brought it up. A month later we found an apartment in the Santa Cruz district. A month after that we moved in. It was a settling down for both of us. I admit I was losing interest in the late hours, clubbing and drinking.
Since there was no way I could leave Sevilla and be with her, my agent and I rejected offers from other European teams to sign a second two-year contract with the Ocho Nodos. That would take me to age thirty-two. I didn’t know how many more years I would play. I didn’t have a retirement plan. While I had been an okay student, I was drafted after my junior year and never got a degree. Basketball had consumed my life since I was ten. Meanwhile, Valentina’s career was going great guns. Her column in the Diario de Sevilla appeared three days a week. She was called upon to contribute to radio and television. She was doing what she set out to do.
In the off season she came with me to Boston on a family visit. I was happy to see that my parents and siblings liked her. In fact, they got along better than they had with any of my other partners. At night we hung out with friends I grew up with. She heard the stories about me. Not the athletic successes but the wild stuff we did as teens. One night we went to a Red Sox game with two other couples. I scored tickets for us behind the third base dugout and we cheered the team on in what turned out to be a lackluster two to one game.
“It is not as interesting as soccer, but I like your fans, they’re noisy like the Spanish,” Valentina said.
I agreed. What else could I say? I was one of those noisy fans. Always had been.
From Boston we traveled for ten days. Valentina had been to New York and Washington so we started off in New Orleans. We stayed in a hotel on Bourbon Street, went to the clubs Tony emailed to me; Preservation Hall, Maple Leaf Bar, Tipitina’s. We took up a two of his restaurant suggestions; Cochon and Dooky Chase’s. From there we flew to Los Angeles for three days, then we rented a car and drove up the coast to San Francisco. After that, we spent two nights in a lodge at Yellowstone National Park. It turned out to be a special trip for us. There wasn’t a dull moment.
Back in Spain I came to the realization the country would be my home for as long as I was with Valentina. When marriage came up, we agreed to wait.
“I intend to marry once, have children, and live as normal a life as possible,” was how she put it.
I did too, I said, and I meant it.
The next season was a rebuilding year for the Ocho Nodos. With four new players we came in sixth in the Spanish League. This time we lost in the first round of the playoffs. We missed making them in the EuroCup. And that turned out to be Tony’s last year with the team. Not offered a new contract, he decided to take up the call of the trumpet. His loss hit me the hardest of any teammate I had played with. He had been my guide in Sevilla my first year. We became tight on and off the court. I understood where he was at. His group in New York was waiting for him. It was time to make the move to music full time.
As a team it appeared we were heading into another down year. Marco and others left for new teams. We had more new players. But instead of struggling, we came in first in the Spanish League with a twenty-six and eight record. We beat Real Madrid in the playoff semifinals and from there went on to win the league title. Then in what might have been the highlight of my basketball career, three weeks later we won the EuroCup championship for the second time in four years. What more can I say? Winning two championships in the same year was a huge achievement. One still talked about in Sevilla.
“Man, wish I was there with you,” Tony wrote in a text the next day.
“No way you did that without me, no way,” was Dražen’s comment. That was him for sure.
The following week we were paraded through the city center to the Plaza de Espagna. It was a sunny day. A perfect day for everyone to have a good time and for us to be celebrated. The crowd that showed up was bigger than the one three years earlier. Once again, a stage was set up. Coach Lolo and my teammates took turns to say something. When my turn came up I led the fans in another olé, olé chant.
I would play one more year with the Ocho Nodos. That made five, the longest I had spent with one team. The team I look back on as being the best time of my career.
I’m not saying I was done. I wasn’t. I spent a season with AEK in the Greek League and another for Treviso in the Italian League. I had other high scoring games. There were more wins against good teams. Yet, it wasn’t the same as my glory days with the Ocho Nodos. When Treviso’s season was over I hung it up. It was the right time. I was thirty-six. I had played professional basketball fifteen years. I was still in good shape. I could put points on the board, but I’d lost some of my quickness and ability to get an open shot. Which was a lot of my game. The game that had attracted me to coaches and scouts since junior high school. And I admit, I didn’t want to end up like a lot of others, having my minutes cut to the point I was getting a few here and there before being let go a final time.
Did I mention Valentina and I got married? I don’t think I did. Well, it worked out. The woman I met my first week in Sevilla became my great love and wife. By the time I left basketball we had a two year old daughter named Gabriella. We nicknamed her The Olé Kid, and I spent much of my first year away from the game taking care of her. I had much needed help. A woman named Marta was around during the week. Valentina’s parents moved from Zaragoza to be close to their grandchild and took her when the need arose. Gabriella was our bright light and I admit I enjoyed being a daddy. It was something I never imagined was possible.
My basketball career might have been over but Valentina’s continued to thrive. She was promoted to one of the top editor slots at Diario de Sevilla. She continued to write two columns a week, along with doing radio and television. She was one of the newspaper’s public faces. Then, after a successful screen test, I caught on as a basketball analyst for a television station in Barcelona. It was in English for a European wide audience. Most of the time I worked out of the studio of a local affiliate, though I did have to travel fifty or so days during the season. It was another thing I never imagined, me with a job requiring I talk into a camera.
Then that spring I got an email from Tony saying his group was heading to Europe. They were booked to play in Madrid for a week.
“Check us out if you can make it, would be great if you could be there,” was how he ended.
I hadn’t seen him since he left the Ocho Nodos. I looked forward to getting together.
“I’ll be there, count on it,” was my reply.
I checked out his group’s website. He was doing well. “The Five Spots” were doing well. Tony looked happy in the splash page photo, holding his trumpet and smiling wide as he could. On another page I looked over the list of their recordings. On another I read the press and reviews written about them. “Their arrangements are a pleasure to hear” and “there is undeniable chemistry between these five master musicians.” I clicked the links and listened to their sounds on YouTube. Some pieces were white hot. Others toned down. Different as they might have been, I detected an urgent message coming through in each. Something troubling that needed expression. I dug their music a lot.
The next month Valentina was pregnant with our second child when we left Gabriella with her grandparents and rode the bullet train up to Madrid. It was a Friday afternoon, the first weekend we had to ourselves since Gabriella was born. For the entire ride we couldn’t stop smiling.
“We have made this new life,” Valentina said. She patted her stomach. It wasn’t yet evident she was pregnant.
“It happened this fast,” I said with a snap of my fingers. “But here we are with a weekend off to do what we want.”
“It might be many years before we get another one,” she said.
Our hotel was adjacent to the Puerta de Alcala. At nine-thirty we took a taxi to the club Tony was playing in. It was one of the best in Madrid. In all of Spain, I should add. In the door, we were told Tony had reserved a table for us. We ordered dinner, and before his set Tony came out from the back to say hello. He looked sharp. Dressed in all black. His hair longer. First thing he did was congratulate us.
“I’m still running around as a single man,” he said.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I said.
“Yes, David wishes he were one of those again,” Valentina said. There was a smile on her lips.
Tony sat a while with us. The whole time I could feel a pregame tension vibrating off him. I imagined it was a lot like that, and I admit I missed it. The heightened anticipation waiting for the game to get underway.
I don’t know which of us started it. It might have been Tony, it might have been me, but we were telling stories about things that happened to us on the Ocho Nodos. Funny stuff about Coach Lolo’s brutal practices. About Dražen, Marco, and Moussa. The tight games, big victories, and bad losses. About how Game of Thrones was the catalyst that turned around one season. I had forgotten about that. Valentina hadn’t. Had she recommended it to me and then I to the team? Neither of us was sure. As we laughed about it, I looked at Tony thinking he was the reason I had stayed in Spain instead of moving on. In fact, he might have been the reason I was there at all. The reason the Ocho Nodos decided to sign me. I recalled him saying he told the front office and Coach Lolo to get me while I was available. And I was still there with a wife, child, another child on the way, and a new career as a basketball analyst.
Before Tony went on stage, he introduced us to the group. Then they took their positions, checked their instruments, and got to it full speed ahead. It was a pleasure to see him on stage. He was a forceful presence with the trumpet in his hands. At one point he took the lead, stepped forward and came out attacking. His fingers pumped the keys. The sound leapt out at us. He didn’t leave anything on the field, as the saying goes. He put his whole self into it.
By the time the second set was over it was two o’clock. Valentina and I had just enough left in us to chat with Tony a while. The waiter brought over a night cap on the house. Valentina shook off hers, so he brought her a sparkling water. The three of us toasted to the future though after that we talked about the past. In the middle of the conversation the waiter came back to see if we needed anything else? I waved him off. Then he asked if he could take a selfie with Tony and I? He recognized us from the Ocho Nodos. Of course, we asked him if he was a Real Madrid fan? He smiled. Tony smiled. I smiled. It was okay, I said, we wouldn’t hold it against him. Anyway, it was something that hadn’t happened in a while. Fans wanting to take a picture with us. It was like a trip back to our days of championship fame. People wanting our photos and autographs. To be honest with you, I had just gotten used to not missing it.
Paul Perilli ives in Brooklyn, NY. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in dozens of magazines in the US and internationally. His recent fiction appears in Fairlight Books, The Write Launch, The Fictional Café, and others. His recent essays appear in Rabble Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L). Another essay is forthcoming in Otoliths final issue. His website is: https://paulperilli.com/