The Jefferson Play, Part I: Negotiation Breakdown

Posted on Tue 02 April 2013 in Altogether Disturbing Fiction by Alex Dewey

richard jefferson last laugh

The following story is entirely fictional. Any resemblance to persons or situations real or fake is entirely coincidental, and entirely awesome.

Fumbling an ice tray to the ground in the Warriors' break room, the thought struck me: Richard Jefferson must have been frustrated. As Richard is most interesting when frustrated, and as I have an uncanny gift for frustrating him, I smelled opportunity. I unexpectedly tapped Richard on the shoulder with my ice-cold hands and asked (in a deliberately annoying, lilting inflection) "How are you today, R-Jay?"

Though startled, Richard's response immediately convinced me that the end of days was at hand. The first thing I noticed was that Richard's eyes had a cartoonish glint to them, and even his teeth and nails seemed whiter. His skin was childish and immaculate as always, punctuated only by the occasional bump on the noggin received in the course of things. But today there were not even bumps, there were not even doubts: Richard exuded an uncharacteristic confidence as he turned to face me, wiped the proverbial dirt off his shoulder, and drowned out all the haters of the world. To my shock, there was even enthusiasm in his voice as he began one of his stream-of-entirely-reasonable-consciousness rants. "I'm actually doing just fine, John. How are you doing? How are your studies. You are an adolescent, and you know, that means that you must study in school much of the day. I hope you are learning things of import. I was a youngster, too, back in the Reagan Administration..." Jefferson trailed off amicably and smiled with the glee of precisely-aimed self-deprecation that nevertheless left him potent and confident.

I felt like the Grinch when Whoville didn't get all pissed off after someone stole their bikes.

"Why are you okay, RJ? You messed up with the ice tray and then I startled you with my hand. That's not right, RJ."

Richard kept at it. "Haha, whoa, John. You sound mad! Just a little bit, but I can taste it. 'U mad, bro?' I think that, you know, that's what the kids are saying these days, heh."

"Frig." I said clumsily, before receding my eyes at the seemingly reversed roles. I was mad, I thought. I am a basketball journalist that oozes confidence (my holy mantra being "smooth, suave, and sophisticated"), and I have watched Richard with fastidious amusement for four years of his absurdly reasonable demeanor while he unfortunately attempts to play a sport. And now, for once, he is unequivocally happy, and all I can do is stumble over my words in bafflement. So I tried to get an explanation. "I mean, what happened, Richard, did you get an extension? Did Mark Jackson say you were starting? Or maybe not playing at all? I'm never sure what you actually want, heh. Did, like, you find out you're a prodigy at a sport that you're *not* declining at? Did you get three 50-50 balls in a row for the first time in your life? Are you in love?" I asked everything I could think of, each one strangely insulting in its own way.

Richard laughed at all of these suggestions. "No, no, no, and no. None of that happened. You know, I'm still a pretty bad basketball player, all considering," Richard shrugged, still with confidence, "and I'm too reasonable to try other sports that might find me injured, and hence nullify my contract. I mean, definitely I'm still on the downswing. I didn't win any 50-50 balls ("Not even one, Richard?" I thought better than to interject), and I'm not in love. I'm not starting but I will be playing, but not much. Just like before. But," and Richard smiled once again, "I did have quite the recent experience."

"What in God's name happened, Richard? What in God's green Earth happened to provoke this? You know as well as I do that you should not be so happy." and Richard averred this with a shrug.

"Do you really want to know?" Richard asked with an amused look of genuine curiosity. "I mean, I'm not even a front-page player anymore. I won't really get any hits for your blog."

"RJ, I know nothing about what this story is but I will publish it, live, in real time. Just tell me. Please," I begged pathetically, somewhat to my own surprise. Like a dog, I recalled from Kafka.

"Are you sure?" and now Richard Jefferson was mocking me and I wasn't sure how to respond, except to note from the tenor of his voice the only possible explanation.

"Richard Jefferson, did you win at something, finally?"

At this Richard smiled silently.

"You might say that, John," and he began to tell the story.

~ Six Weeks Earlier ~

"People in L.A. take the weather for granted, John. I grew up in Arizona, you know. And being from San Antonio is a little better but you might get periods where you need to have several gallons of water every day just to not die when you're in Arizona. Then I played in New Jersey all those years, and it's just as bad in its own way. When there aren't any hurricanes kicking down your door, that's only because it's winter, where every day is its little own adventure in bleak, premature darkness. And the smell, dear God. Milwaukee, San Antonio, Oakland... we don't take anything for granted in this life, except that life is awful half the time. At least per the weather, heh. But, you know, I bought a place in San Diego a few years ago, and they just don't get it. Those places are paradises when it comes to the weather, pretty much year-round. They get rain a few days in June and they call it "June Gloom" like God is, you know, frowning on them by giving them an ounce of precipitation. They're totally entitled. But I guess I would be the same way too if I'd lived there my whole life."

"I get it, Richard. Weather is pretty nice there." I said, trying to shoehorn Richard's interminable rambling into something with a little more pop.

"Okay, John," Richard paused his fugue to note my insistence. "But let me just say this: So it's February and I'm in L.A. on business. And it's one of those days where every place in the world, tropical islands and all, is just a sea of snow and darkness but for a satellite splotch over Southern California. It's one of those, you know, bright, perfect-weather days where "Today was a good day" is lilting out of every convertible, slowed somehow. And people seemed to really appreciate it. The cars, you know, seemed to move slower even, and there weren't any traffic jams. So I was walking along, just soaking up the sun on the red-orange Earth and pavement with the most wonderfully baked sidewalks, and I get to my meeting in the most handsome suit, briefcase and shades. No one took this day for granted who felt the sun. I'm six foot six and once I was seven. Sun gods were invented in antiquity to explain how perfect the day is."

"... Okay, Richard. Is that all you got to say about the weather?"

"Yeah, that's about all I got about the weather, man. I'm setting the stage. See, I got into the building I was going to and entered the boardroom. And, lengthwise across a cheap, tiny, you know, old, varnish-smelling boardroom table? There sat Clippers owner Donald Sterling, slightly sheathed by the shadow of a lampshade. The room was hot and small and he looked surly, talking to someone else on a phone from 1993."

"Wait, you were meeting with Sterling? Why?"

"Well, you'll probably figure it out when I tell you the other guy in the room. But whatever the case, Sterling's first words were 'Turn up the heat a few degrees, Richard, or I'll turn it up myself.'

"It was sweltering, John. That room was hot as a sauna and smelled like a greenhouse made of wood and just painted over and never ventilated. It was a boardroom and it was stifling. So I say that to Sterling, and he says, 'I don't like people to be happy during negotiation.' I was honestly really confused by this, and just took my seat. And so Sterling smiles, and says, 'Forget about it, Richard.' And then he picks up this remote, and turns the heat up himself."

"Oh, wow." I said, not really sure how to respond to that.

"Yeah, I know, right? But whatever the case, I sit down, and as soon as I do, Sterling hangs up the phone (not a word to the other person) and starts asking me all these questions. Personal, impersonal, insulting, it doesn't matter, just hundreds of questions. It's like you when you need a piece that afternoon, John, but without that basic respect and privacy you naturally give your fellow human beings."

I coughed nervously.

"Most importantly, though, Sterling was asking these questions for absolutely no reason. You interview people because you need a story. Sterling... the reason he was asking so many questions, I'm convinced, was to wear me down mentally and establish his power. It was an interrogation where the interrogator had no discernible utility for any of my information ."

"That's a bit of a stretch, Richard. It's Donald Sterling, not Darth Vader."

"Well, get this... after twenty minutes of nothing but him asking me questions, I asked him a question. I was nervous, so all I could think to ask him the capital of New York. Wanted to see if he knew it was Albany, you know? It doesn't matter what I asked because he flipped out and said, 'Richard, who do you think you are? How dare you ask questions of me.' After that he asked me no more questions, and we got on with the matter at hand, and he never referred back to any of the questions. Like it never even happened."


"Yeah. I cussed a little in my head and opened my undersized briefcase, sweating in my suit."

"Richard Jefferson, always cussin'. When will he ever learn?" I taunted gently.

Richard suddenly grew animated. "John, you need to stop that. You need to stop disrespecting me. I mean it. I'm so sick of this." Richard actually dropped the ice tray again, not with clumsiness but with malice_._

"I was just joking..." What had come over him?

Nothing, it turned out. Richard's smile returned "Haha, sorry. You know, just thinking about that encounter makes me a bit upset. I still remember some of the viler questions he asked. He would press for answers like the Terminator. His evil spirit had exceptional tenacity."

"Man, maybe he is Darth Vader! Damn!"

"Anyway. I'm in this room, and we're ready to get down to business, you know, completely demoralized, when in front of me, at my place at the table drops a large packet of paper with a red stamp across it marked "VOID". Drops and slides in every direction, it hadn't been stapled. Every page is marked "VOID". A voice from behind says in a crisp, deep, indulgent voice, 'Your move, Donald.'"

"... What?"

"The other party to the meeting had arrived, John. He was decked out in pin stripes, seven feet tall. Completely ignored me, moving with power and elegance, like he didn't need to breathe. Indescribable. He kept walking around the room and dropping papers all across the room, each page, I could see, individually marked "VOID"."

"Who... who could that possibly be?"

"The other person in the room? Kevin Garnett."

"WHAT? How could this--? But--? There's, uh... No way, RJ!" I took a tumble in utter bafflement. I might have hurt myself but for grabbing and gaining purchase on the mop that I never keep more than arm's length away.

Richard chuckled, but acknowledged that it was pretty shocking. "I know, right? So you can imagine my confusion, even after everything I've seen in the league. KG was the other participant in the meeting. They didn't tell me about him. I was at least ready, somehow, for Sterling."


"I mean, the placement of people in the room is straightforward and logical. I mean, there's Donald Sterling, who owns a decent contender looking for a step up, and Kevin Garnett, a superstar on a non-contender looking for another title. KG wants that ring, John, no matter how much he talks about loyalty, and Donald wants that ring, to vindicate his pesky, miserly existence."

"Right," I said, for what Richard spoke was the straightforward, reasonable truth.

"So let me just set the scene again for your consideration, Donald Sterling has turned the heat up unbearably and has just finished interrogating me. He has utter contempt for me, and probably everything that lives and thrives on this entire planet, except what is his. And then there's Kevin Garnett, with equal measure the scorn, and double the loyalty, and he's delivering "VOID"ed contracts like he is a newsboy from the Great Depression."

"I almost can't picture that."

"It was like a sensory overload, no kidding. They barely spoke, and because of that it was almost like being trapped in a circus, eyes glued open by curiosity and fear. At some point I reasoned to myself that I wasn't totally safe in this meeting, and that I had to count myself lucky if I escaped unscathed."


"It was like watching a dinosaur-who-is-a-person fight a bird-who-is-a-person, but with icy glares and gestures alone." Even though KG was the only one up, they appeared to be circling one another. And, on the table, after awhile of this, KG swept all the papers off the table, smiled, and dropped a no-trade clause between them."

"The trump card. All the voided contracts were trades that KG had rejected and personally stamped 'VOID'. Right, Richard?"

"Absolutely right. Look, the Celtics and Clippers had been having talks since December and had pretty much run the gamut of possible trades. They both wanted to make a trade, but KG wasn't an idiot. He wasn't going to screw himself over just to make the trade balance work. Sacrifice, yes. But not debasement, not taking a trade on the chin like a punch. Not debasement which is more than sacrifice, and having been traded three times before, I totally get that. And Sterling was in, though, obviously, on the other side of, that same boat." Richard laughed at his own strange sentence, "It was a perfectly reasonable situation, is what I'm saying."

"I get that." I said, but then suddenly came to the forefront of my mind something I could not in a million years understand, "But why in God's name were you there, too, Richard?"

"That's an entirely reasonable question. In fact, the answer is riddled with bureaucracy at every level, so I'll spare you. Long story short, there's a player arbitration system for situations like this, and I was the only guy in the program's history that had ever opted in to volunteer," Richard said with annoyance, "So I basically have this extra no-pay job, where I go around arbitrating all these sorts of disputes, but I also don't have any power whatsoever and I only get three hours' notice."

"Wow, really?"

"Yeah, and, I mean, it's usually pretty easy to figure out. A guy is holding out for money, I tell him to restructure. A team is trying to avoid signing its second-round pick, you know, I make a quick Excel worksheet Stern and Silver gave me, and show the team the cost-benefit chart. That usually solves it. But sometimes you just have one of those ridiculously intractable situations. Not often, but it happens. You have to orchestrate some kind of compromise. And that's where the story really picks up, John."