Passing Off is about Michael Keever’s year as a professional basketball player in Greece, where he is a hero for foiling a terrorist plot against a national treasure. Noted American novelist Claire Molt said, “Passing Off has the best writing about basketball I’ve ever read. This novel is the hoop equivalent of Don DeLillo’s End Zone and Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association.” Below is the first chapter where Michael starts his career as a traveler and, to use a basketball term, the assist man who founded Terminal Tours.
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Chapter 1: Prologue
Every coach has a keyhole view of the game. I'm supposed to fit, turn the lock, open up the room, and bring in the crowd. Break them down and coaches sound like the ancient philosophers I heard about when I went to Greece to play: everything moves, nothing moves, water, earth, fire the rock, and no air balls.
My first coach was my father. When he realized I was slightly wall-eyed, he told me "Hit the open man." I trained my peripheral vision by bouncing the ball off the wall in the low-roofed room over our tractor shed. Before I hit organized ball, I carried my permanent scouting report: "He'd rather pass than shoot."
My high school coach, Lee Kellogg, believed in speed. With the stop-watch he'd brought up to Vermont from Albany, Kellogg timed us touching the backboard twenty times, sprinting baseline to baseline, passing the ball back and forth twenty reps. "Run, shitkickers, run," he'd scream at us in the locker room, and we'd run our layup line full speed. When we put our hands together before the tip, we didn't shout "Go Black River" or "Presidents Rule" like other teams. We growled Kellogg's motto: "Speed kills." Coach tolerated my tricky passes because they reminded him of the city game, speed in a crowd.
Ray Matera recruited me at Boston College, where he looked in the keyhole and saw spacing. The first day of practice he gave us tapes and we measured the floor, the lane, the hoop, the ball, and each other's bodies. "If there is exactly the right amount of open space between players in our offense, their defense will fail." We practiced the same plays over and over, working the movements down to inches, precision screens, exact cuts, and pinpoint passes. "Function is fun," Matera told me, but I quit his slow down game after a year.
At Memphis State Danny Cater put a video cam up to the keyhole. When we scrimmaged, he had an assistant in the press box turn on the camera. After the suicides, we'd go in the locker, watch ourselves, and hear Cater's tale of the tape. It was a story with few words: "Look," "See," "No," and "Good." For Cater, words were just a pointer. "Tape doesn't lie." The facts were up on the monitor. Stop the tape, see the truth. Most of the Lightning players didn't believe Cater, not even when they watched game films. They'd stare at the two seconds coach was running backward and forward, but they believed in themselves, in their bodies. They'd learned the fundamentals and pounded the Nautilus. They could soar. They'd listen to an assistant coach shout the usual wisdom--"Don't turn your head." "Don't dribble against a zone press."--but Cater's faith in video didn't reach them. "From image to act. No layer of language to throw off the imitation." After they left the room, coach took me through the tape again. The point who ran his TV show, I got extra tutoring in the Catescan, the way to find openings in crowded space.
Coach on the floor, I learned to coach myself. At 6-3 and l80 I'm too tall to be a darter, too small to post up most guards, and too thin to overpower anyone. I have foul-line to foul-line speed with the ball, I get a quick and long first step, and I can stretch out to the hoop though I don't get many jams. Speed kills, vertical kills. So can skill, what you can practice alone on a Florida driveway or in a high-roofed hay barn, shooting again and again, the same release, the same arch. Also what you can practice in your head in any room with electricity. After I learned my teammates and opposing teams from Cater's tapes, I had the State trainer take iso footage of me and the man playing me. I'd read about baseball hitters finding imperfections in their filmed swings, swimmers comparing tape against the computer simulation of what their arms and legs should be doing. I studied the zoom for what I was giving away with a head turn or high dribble, what the man guarding me thought he was getting when I crossed over to my left or went behind my back, what I could take from him if he thought wrong, what I could do to him if he was made to think wrong. Sweat and pressure and sometimes adrenalin interfered with memory of these cues and clues. I didn't call them body language. The movements weren't something I read or heard. I perceived them all at once, like recognizing a figure or a letter. Tape made the recognitions usable. Tape didn't lie and somebody with my body couldn't afford to lie to himself. If I didn't see myself and my opponent neutrally, objectively, like a scientist watching blips run across his scope or screen, I couldn't use what I did see to "lie" to defenders the next time we met.
Over and over I ran the tape, looped and looped again through the recording, blocking out the words most coaches would use for analysis, watching both bodies at once, editing away the extra limbs and irrelevant motions, searching the almost simultaneous lock of stimulus and response, rerecognizing the twitch that signalled advantage and the move that caused the twitch that sent the signal, rerecording in my brains the defender's mistaken dosage of fight or flight, translating the tape's information from my eyes and brains to my muscles, storing the knowledge as close to my ligaments and tendons and bones as repetition could insert it. Injected into cartilege and marrow, tape was the white player's substitute for soul. Fans used to tell me I had imagination, but what I really had was tape-enhanced memory, internal speed, perceptions ready for immediate recall, connection, and use, all a few milli-seconds ahead of brothers without video aid.
Most of the players I faced were quicker or bigger or sometimes both. I used their physical advantages and confidence against them. The tape taught how they could be faked, misdirected, avoided, and embarrassed. The water bugs would dis me to my freckled face, I'd lay the ball out in front of them, invite them to make an easy swipe, and when they lunged I'd cross over and go the other way. The big guards I'd let body up to my skinny frame, feel the force they wanted to exert, let myself move in their direction, and then use my reverse dribble to leave them leaning into air. Deception sets up the high-li. At B.C. Matera used to tell me the high-li was extra. "You must facilitate," he'd say. Sometimes the no-look or between-the-legs pass is intentional showing off: a little pastry for the beer drinkers. Other times I watch the tape and don't understand a crazy pass I've made. It looks both impossible and necessary, the only way to get the ball there yet dictated by a situation I'd never seen before, mysterious. At Memphis, T.V. Danny Cater incorporated the high-li into his offense. My senior year I had one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the nation and we went to the Final Four.
After graduation, I caught on with the Rockford Lightning in the C.B.A. Murray Jacobs was already inside the room, looking out at the fans. Murray believed in motive, desire, and will, in hate and fear, in using the crowd. He was perfect for the C.B.A., an organization of the failed or crazed, guys on the way down from the N.B.A., guys never going up. Murray gave a target to their manias. Before we even put on our sneakers, Murray sat us in the stands and explained what we were doing there.
"You all know how to play. Some of you are better equipped than others. You know this too. What you don't know is you're not playing for anybody. In the C.B.A., you will be playing to and against the crowd. Small crowds. Residents of the greater Rockford area. The high school hopefuls in their untied high-tops. The former jocks if they're not working the night shift at the foundry. The divorcees with nothing left to do on winter nights. A family or two who won free tickets at Burger King. These people you can play up to. Keep them coming. You're their home team, the only thing that makes their home in Rockford different from a home in Grand Rapids.
They will clap and whistle and call your names. But that won't be enough to give you will. No, you have to look for the guys in coats and ties, direct from the office. You'll hear them laugh and boo. You are minor league. They sit at their terminals and make numbers run faster and better than your brains can work. But no matter how much squash or tennis they play, no matter how much pussy they get in highrise condos or airport motels, they know their bodies are left over, waste meat. Because you remind them, you are their enemy. They are your opponents. Their hate will fire your will. Play against them, and you will be complete. You may still be too short or slow for the N.B.A., but you'll be a player all the way through. All player, nothing left over. You can go to sleep at night whispering `Fuck you, ties.'"
I remember Murray's speech because I heard it three times. Some of the Lightning players were sceptical. They claimed the pride he promised was compensation for a high-school locker room and the thousand a month we were all paid. I liked Murray. He played up-tempo, the C.B.A. scatter, lots of handles and responsibility for the point. And his audience orientation called for the high-li. I didn't want to hurt anybody in the stands. Hand out the assists, get a few baskets, and give the fans some fun, what they came for, something different to see and then see again on the 11:25 sports when they got home. Murray's view of the crowd got us into the playoffs my first season. The next year I led the league in assists, made the C.B.A. All-Star team, and had ten days with the Celtics. My third year we won the championship, and we each got a ring worth $149.
My wife wanted to be back home in Memphis, so I took a job recruiting for Cater. Shooting tape of high school kids wasn't like looking at the monitor. In fact, ever since Cater put me onto tape I've been kind of disappointed with life off the court. The game is quick and demanding, living on fast-forward. You can bring it back, though, slow it down, run and re-run, figure some tenths and inches. Leave the gym and you feel like you're doing knee rehab, running in waist-high water to recover lost speed. Slow as it is, the world won't reverse. Only the satellite cameras are keeping a record. They can scan the whole globe and read number plates, but you don't get to see your car. Reason to pay attention, you'd think, keep up the intensity, remember. With me, the opposite seemed true. I let it pass by. Run and erase, run and erase. "Low Key" my Lightning teammates called me on and off the floor. "Passive," my wife says. With the tape I'd slotted behind my eyes, I didn't have room for all those moving personal reminiscences some people can pull out of their hats, sleeves, and pockets. I wasn't interested in all those "critical decision points" TV editorialists talked about after the late sports. Language was to woof with in a game and play with on the long rides between games. Cater's tape confirmed what I learned as a kid in the shed: there wasn't much to tell anybody.
That was before I spent a year recruiting and before I went to Greece. When Ann and I first met and she discovered I was from Plymouth, birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, she called me "Cal" for a while: simple, silent Cal, the man who chose not to run, the last president you could trust. I hated whispering inducements into the ears of high school seniors, surly hillbillies in Kentucky small towns, wise-ass black kids in Jackson and Birmingham. Elroy Hurd, Cater's top recruiter, called them "bones," short for boneheads who needed meat. Our only pleasure came at the end of the signing period when we could squeeze the bones: "We've got one scholarship left. You don't want to end up playing on that tile floor at the community college do you, Dwayne?" After six months of recruiting, I asked my agent, Marv Drinkman, to send tape overseas. Drink had to circulate tapes because he handled more marginals than any agent around: guards two inches short or a half step slow, the "tweener" forwards, centers who lacked heft, bodies that didn't quite fit the N.B.A. Most of Drink's misfits were still in the C.B.A., playing in Rapid City or LaCrosse or Sioux Falls, living in Day's Inn and eating at Wendy's, waiting for a shot at The League, what the brothers called "Elevation," that region way above the rim, high-domed stadiums with 25,000 fans, hotels with elevators climbing atrium walls, first-class leg room at 30,000 feet. We were known as "Drinkman's Ten-Day All Stars" because we got to the N.B.A. only on the fill-in, try-out contract reported in the Transactions section of the sports pages: "The Boston Celtics have placed Derek Durst on injured reserve. Michael Keever, a guard with the Rockford Lightning, has been signed to a ten-day contract." The Boston papers said I looked like Danny Ainge with a John Stockton handle, but on the eleventh day Durst came back and I returned to Rockford. That last season I couldn't avoid the C.B.A. code: put in more than three years for peanuts and you're both failed and crazed.
The third of August Drinkman woke me up in the middle of the night. "I think I can jump you," he said. Drink moves players in the United States. He jumps them overseas.
"That's great, Drink. Where to?"
"No shit, but why are you calling me at three in the morning?"
"I just got off the phone with the GM at Panathinaikos. Greece is seven hours ahead."
"What did he say?"
"His playmaker just blew out a knee in a motorcycle accident. He's seen your tape and says you should help them. Key, you're not going to believe this. He goes for the high-li. You'll be the Greek Key. Zig zag. Come see me tomorrow. They're going to love you."
In his office, Drink explained the Greek league's rule on players from outside the country: each team could have one foreigner and one player from abroad who could demonstrate his Greek family background. Then he told me the Panathiaikos GM said Keever sounded like a Greek name to him.
"Gaelic," I told Drink. "Shortened from McKeever. My grandfather changed it when he got here."
"All right, Key." Drink was excited like he gets at NCAA tournament time. His right index finger was punching the chair arm like a remote. "It doesn't matter what you were. If your name has been changed once, we don't have any trouble changing it again. We get the photostat, do a little sleight-of-hand, and you have a Greek grandfather."
"Slow down, Drink. I don't get this deal."
"You remember Rome? Played for Auburn. His name had been changed from Romazalowski, something with a bunch of Eastern European consonants. We made it Romero, and now he's starting for Real Madrid. Double-figure rebounder."
"You're shitting me, Drink."
He rolled his chair forward and put his forearms on the desk. Drink was serious.
"Panathinaikos already has its American, James Henderson from Michigan. They're desperate for a point. They think you're Greek-American. If you're not, they can't use you. If you are, you could walk away with a $60,000 bonus."
Drink explained the bonus clause. American players get homesick and quit if their city doesn't have a McDonald's, so some owners overseas backload the money. I'd get air fare for myself and family up front, a monthly living allowance paid in drachmas, and the big pop in dollars at the end. But I had to finish the season.
"Henderson will do the lifting on the boards and you'll get the money."
"What's up with that? The big guys get the bucks here."
"You and Henderson would get the same monthly, say three thousand. But with the performance escalators I'll write in, you'll get the bigger dollar pop at the end. The Greeks want to bring back their native sons. Prove yourself and it will be more after the first year."
"And what if the Greeks find out I'm not Greek?"
Drink leaned further forward and picked up a pen. I could see he was preparing to sign me over the ocean.
"This will never happen, Key. They don't want to find out. The soccer teams have been doing this for years. South American mestizoes are pretending to be white. Overseas everybody is somebody else. Fans see the N.B.A. on television and want the League's `fantastic.' Local teams have to compete, please the crowd. With you as a repatriating Greek, Panathinaikos gets two Americans. You'll be Greek as long as you can play."
Drink knew I wanted to play. I knew Ann wouldn't like this deal. She didn't change her name from Logan when we got married.
"Ann will never go for it."
"You got to think about yourself, Key. You're going to love it over there. And if that's not enough, think about the Greeks. They don't see shit like yours live."
I quickly calculated Drink's 10% and suspected his concern for me and Greek fans.
"Ann's not going to like the paperwork."
"She'll never need to know. If she asks when you're there, just tell her Greeks add letters to American names to give them male or female endings."
"I'll have to think about this, Drink."
Drinkman leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. Now I'd get the closer.
"It's late in Greece. The GM is in a hurry. Call me tonight. And don't forget: he thinks the high-li will put fans in the stands."
On the way home, I picked up a travel video of Greece. Ann and I had talked about Greece that morning before she went to work. Drink was always sending tape or saying he was sending tape, so there had been no reason to think about Greece before his call. When Drink sent tape to Peru, Ann found out about the cholera epidemic and the Shining Path before we heard the team thought I was a forward. Ann would go to the library on her lunch hour. When she got home, she'd have some information on Greece: companies doing business there, kindergartens for Sara, ATT connections. "Anticipate," my high school coach told me, "one fucking second, Keever. That's all you have to see ahead. Imagine just one second into the future and you'll be a player." I worked the seconds. Ann figured the months and years. She'd have information. For Ann, decisions involve thorough research, deliberate balancing, and careful projection. I'm the one with intuition. She'll list the pros and cons. As a professional con man with the ball, I resist the terms, the columns of "whys" and "why nots." Athletes make quick decisions. She'd want to exhaust risks and benefits. For me, it was simple. Playing was my benefit, my long-term goal. Shooters knock down thousands of goals and retire satisfied. It's harder for the playmaker to quit because his job is always all process, running the team, handling the ball, passing off. For the point guard, it's risk every second: avoiding surprise, preventing a turnover, holding the players together, controlling the crowd. Since leaving Rockford, I'd scrimmaged with the State kids and played some pick-up tournaments, but I missed the crowds, bringing fans into the game at home, keeping opponents' fans in their seats away, entertaining Rockford shut-ins on the cable, and performing nationwide on E.S.P.N. during the playoffs. For me, Greece was a last-minute break, a jump back into the action.
That night we sat on the couch and I rolled the travel tape. Greece was blue, white, and blue like its flag, blue sky, white buildings, blue sea, white beaches. These scenes, I knew, would remind Ann of her family's long summer vacations on the Gulf. As the muted tape skipped from island to island, I told Ann about the money. I stressed the bonus, how it would get us into the home market, a big down payment on the house she wanted to buy. She reported that Greece was a civilized place, that Athens had schools for foreign kids, that her friends agreed that the islands were "stunning." We talked about her job with the city. She could get a leave. We talked about my job. I'd be happy to leave it forever. Fly a commuter into some Appalachian shithole, jack my legs into a rental compact, and try to tape the recruit in a gym with sixty-watt bulbs. Talk to the kid's buzz-cut coach, who always overestimated his boy, hoping to ride him out of Shithole. Talk to the kid's parents, encourage them to teach their son how to read and write. Show the family the promo tape, the new Pyramid Arena with sky boxes, gowned graduates holding diplomas (I got mine in five years). Then, if everybody liked me, I'd get a few minutes alone with the "bone" to tell him what he wanted to hear--"We got some big-city women in Memphis. We need mountain boys to smarten up the bloods."--and to imply what I couldn't say: secret cash from the boosters, rapid rise to the N.B.A.
Ann and I talked about Sara, Ann's family, what kind of house we could buy, one with a two-car garage and level driveway for a hoop. With two service-sector salaries and credit tight, I told her, we had to leave the country if we ever wanted to buy a home here. I hated to do it, but I avoided mentioning the name change to Ann. I knew she'd refuse. I reminded her that Drink was expecting my call. Ann was uncomfortable with the pressure on. She dropped her chin and tilted her head toward me. I anticipated and beat her to the question she was always asking me:
"What do you want to do?"
She laughed. "I want to think about it some more. At least overnight. It could be good for all of us to live in another country. It might be fun."
"We don't have overnight."
"If I have to answer right now, I guess I'll have to say yes, I'd like to go."
She didn't ask me what I wanted. She knew. She knew the three years I was in the C.B.A. and my shitty year as an assistant coach. Ann didn't need words then. Later she told me what "prologue" meant in Greek. Looking back at our talk that August night, I think she probably knew then I'd play for the Shining Path if they had a team.
To continue Michael's story, read Passing Off.