I didn’t get “jobbed” by poor officiating. There was no weeping. No fainting. International professional basketball player Jai Lewis, as far as I know, didn’t contemplate a trip back into the NFL. (However, there was a time that I contemplated a new career path – more on that later.) No two-on-two with any other suckers looking on. No wheelchairs or off-the-wall antics. It was a night of straight-up fun.
There was a little nail-biting on my part. Jai didn’t get to the ESPN Zone for our big dance till late. It was about 8:45 p.m. So once 8:15 p.m. rolled around, I started clamming up and I wondered, what if he doesn’t show? Nah! By 8:30 p.m. I had called home to have Neil check my email. I texted Brian: “Jai’s not here.” By 8:31 p.m., I was contemplating my chosen career. What was I thinking? I can go back to waiting tables, I can run a snowball stand. Why’d I challenge him? Maybe my taunting went too far – after all he doesn’t really know me?
My 14-year old niece Paula, a future photojournalist star, was there to try and console me after she burned a few zillion credits in the game room (payment for her fine skills with the camera). “He’s going to show, there’s got to be a reason, he’s just running late. We stay till 9…” she said.
Out of nowhere it seemed, he appeared. A few inches taller than I remembered. He was with Lee Cooper, a 2000 graduate of Aberdeen and Claudia Carter (Lee’s girlfriend) who is from Philadelphia; both are soon to be Morgan State graduates. They came straight from the airport. Say no more – phew! All was right in my world.
It was on. Our first choice, the half-court basketball game was closed, and in spite of me begging and pleading with management and an employee, it wasn’t happening. That game was out. That left me and Jai with only two choices. One was the College Hoops Challenge (think 3-point range); the other was the Super Shot (think about a ten-year old game set up in your basement).
The College Hoops Challenge? Ah hello, he’s a college hoops legend! I’m not setting myself up for failure right off the bat. We agreed on the other (otherwise I was out, I told him), so off we went.
Game one: Molly wins 45-32 (Jai allegedly claims that he has not picked up a basketball for a couple of weeks.) The crowd was murmuring (read Paula) that he was warming up. A picture shows him sort of lollygagging. He’s too much of a gentleman to admit he took it easy on me so you know what? In any and all sports the only thing that matters: scoreboard. I win! I was bank and in my zone. Claudia and Lee were my witnesses, even though they were playing air hockey. Finally, I could relax a little. I did what I set out to do. (Not embarrass myself any further)
Game two: Jai got his groove on alright. For every basket he made, I was scrambling for balls. He’d drop it and I’d watch it. His score kept rising, mine was going nowhere and fast. Being the fierce trash-talker I am and after not being able to connect, I winced “you have more balls than me!” So what does he do? He reaches over and throws a ball in my basket. Had I donned a Connecticut Husky jersey, I’d have been chewed up and spit out. Final score: Jai was warmed up and just getting started. He wins uncontested. Good times.
Game three and beyond: My arm got tired so I took a break. (Listen, I had to get a couple practice rounds in prior to his arrival. I hadn’t eaten, barely slept and I was working my prattled nerves. I’m playing against this beast of a baller. I’ve been prodding him with my words, unrelenting with my training updates and basically calling him out like Cinderella in a Disney movie. That took a lot out of me!) I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. I wanted to sit back and enjoy the show. So I did. I marveled at his fluidity. The ease of his shot, his stance. Jai was home.
Eventually our crew moved on to other games. Jai and Lee cut loose. They raced on Harley’s though neither of them rides. They did the quarterback challenge – both being former football players. These two were putting a hurting on those poor cardboard receivers that glided back and forth with open arms. (They threw the ball through the hole repeatedly).
They raced in the Furlong Finish. Those poor horses. These horses are made, I think, to withstand junior saddling up at 150 lbs, 175 lbs at most. They are both former football players remember? Those poor little ceramic horses didn’t stand a chance. Still they ride. They giddied up alright. Me and Claudia were laughing, they were getting jiggy. Other patrons looked on in amusement as well. Before long Jai got off that horse and the game hadn’t even ended. Lee, the uncontested winner, said something like “Jai, you’ve always been a quitter,” as he continued to gallop his way into history. (Who else has beat Jai in the Furlong Finish?) Only a life-long friend and “brother from another mother” would get away with that.
At 6’7″, with tattoos all over the place, Jai ordered a “Shirley Temple with extra Shirley.” Swear to God! He proceeded to tear through like three or four of them. I got to see first-hand why Jai earned the title Gentle Giant. His cool and laid-back demeanor was evident. He has “no struggles.” He’s happy and it seemed to show. His playful attitude clearly extends beyond the court. He went out of his way to be cordial and at times funny – the extra Shirley – to all those he interacted with.
It was a night that I know I’ll remember and one for my record books, with or without the win I played with the Gentle Giant. Thanks, Jai (and also Lee and Claudia). Finally you got to entertain this crazy writer for a change.
On the way home, Paula asked me if are all pro athletes were like Jai? I responded, “Hard to say. One thing is certain though, there’s only one Jai.” Later I was ruminating on that thought, maybe there’s something in the water in Aberdeen?