Lessons in power from a star player

A guy from the team was supposed to meet me at the airport in Munich. It was the first week of August, 1996. Grown-up life was about to begin: my first real job. I had no address to go to and no phone numbers to call. The club had promised to give me an apartment to live in but, as I wandered through the terminal, looking for my ride, I really had no idea where I’d be sleeping that night.

Luckily, Grescho was easy to spot. We were about the same height, 6ft 6in. “Basketball?” he said. I nodded and followed him out to the parking lot. The car was the coach’s; Grescho was doing him a favour. The rest of the team was having lunch at some restaurant in town. As he drove the stick-shift jerkily through the Bavarian countryside, Grescho spoke a little TV-show English with a thick accent.

At some point, I switched into German, maybe to show off (my mother is German). After that, the conversation flowed easier, but it was my first mistake. American basketball players in Europe belonged to a kind of aristocracy, the elite. Clubs had quotas on the numbers of foreigners they could hire. My German passport had been my ticket to a job, but fluency also meant I was just one of the guys. That’s the thing with athletes: they take advantage. Everything is a competition, even conversation, and you don’t win by listening well and asking people questions.

But for the next four months, that’s what I ended up doing. The star of our team was Jonny Roberson, a Texan like me, who had spent most of his twenties bouncing around various European provincial towns before ending up here, a last-ditch effort to make it up the ladder. If he led us to promotion, he could earn top-tier money or maybe jump to one of the better-paid leagues in Italy or France. As the season wore on, he let me tag along beside him. I became his sidekick.

Maybe he liked talking to me because I was another American. Jonny had a wife and five kids back in San Antonio, but here he lived a kind of extended adolescence during the season, renting an apartment and hanging around the Sportzentrum all day playing basketball. His response to all the loneliness was to get religion. Not any formal kind, though. If you asked him, he said he believed in “the truth”.

But it was also because Jonny spoke no German, and I used to translate for him. Most of the team and coaching staff were German. “What are they saying Ben? What are they saying?” Like any other economic migrant, Jonny spent his working life dealing with people who didn’t understand him. He needed not just a translator but an admirer, somebody who could appreciate just how good he was.

As for my role on the team, that was already defined, and it wasn’t a glamorous one. The German word for interpreter is Dolmetscher, the sound of which sums up how I felt: dogged and modest. A grunt. A born number two.

© Avalon Nuovo

I already knew a bit about being a sidekick. I was a middle child, after all. But I’d also spent my teenage years watching the Chicago Bulls finally break through on the back of Michael Jordan’s greatness and the talents of what he liked to call his “supporting cast” (even though teammate Scottie Pippen was eventually named one of the 50 best players in league history).

Literature, too, is full of sidekicks and their heroes: Watson and Holmes, Boswell and Johnson, Kerouac and Cassady. “Yes, and it wasn’t only because I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Dean more,” Kerouac wrote, “but because, somehow in spite of our difference in character, he reminded me of some long-lost brother.”

Only six months before, I’d studied Schiller and Goethe at university, translating Schiller’s letters and writing essays about their complicated friendship. “To be around Goethe more would make me miserable,” he wrote. “Even with his closest friends he has no moments of release . . . He has the talent to attract people but always keeps himself free.”

In another, Schiller admitted, “I don’t measure myself against Goethe, if he wants to use his full force. He has more genius, knowledge, a surer sensibility, a more refined sense of art . . . I’d be completely invisible next to him if I had not had the subtlety to create my own kind of art.”

Schiller tried to preserve his sense of self by writing about his more famous friend. This is the traditional way for sidekicks to survive lopsided relationships, and maybe explains why I started writing about Jonny in letters home that I had already thought about turning into something else.

There was plenty to say. Jonny was smart but intense isolation produces strange ideas, and we used to argue about them on the long journeys and the hours after practice. I remember asking him about Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which Jonny believed in — always telling the truth was one of his rules.

You can hear in that question my voice, the recent college kid, trying to turn the conversation into something he could win at. “So what would you do if a guy showed up at your door with an axe, and asked you where your son was? Would you tell him he was upstairs?”

“Yes,” Jonny answered. “Where I come from, that motherfucker would kill him no matter what I said.”

In my own way, I guess I was making a power play too, by turning myself into Jonny’s right-hand man. Sitting next to him on the team bus, or opposite him at dinner, while other role players had to put up with the company of one another. Jonny was the star, after all. I once saw him dunk from just inside the free throw line after practice, like Jordan. It was almost impossible to score against him. Even on a fast break, if he was within 5ft, forget about it. You might as well just give him the ball.

But where you sit at dinner or on the bus won’t persuade the coach to put you in the game. I never figured out what Jonny thought of me as a basketball player, which probably means, not much. The truth is that while we tend to think of the sidekick as the second-in-command — Scottie Pippen to Jordan — often they’re much lower in the pecking order, using their connection as a way to hold on.

Steve Kerr was only picked up by the Bulls because he had perfected the one skill Jordan needed from his “supporting cast”: making open jump shots. But Jordan used to bully him relentlessly in practice, talking trash, physically abusing him, using his size advantage. Jordan was three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.

Finally, Kerr fought back, after taking a forearm to the chest during a game. Jordan punched him in the face, but it was only then that he accepted Kerr, who learnt from their relationship how to manage the egos of great athletes. Kerr is now the coach of the Golden State Warriors. Just this summer they won their fourth championship in the past eight years.

I never fought back against Jonny. Once, in a pre-season tournament, under full-court pressure, when I lost the ball out of bounds, he ran up and pushed me hard in the chest. “If you do that again,” he said, “I’ll knock you down. I’ll take you out.” When he pushed me, I backed off. When he challenged me, I retreated or took notes.

But Jonny, of course, wasn’t Jordan. His jump shot came and went. Even in our league, he had to go up against bigger and stronger guys, who could push him around. One of the depressing things about being an athlete is that you eventually find your level. Then you have to hang on, somewhere on the long slope, and it’s much easier to go down than up.

Even while this was going on, no one on our team could stand up to Jonny. Nobody even tried. Though he lived according to his own strict codes of decency and understanding, they didn’t apply on court. It was a separate realm. I once heard him say to an official during a game, when he didn’t like the call, that the guy better watch his step on the way to the parking lot afterwards . . . Jonny had to be physically restrained.

Later, when I asked him about it, he said he knew what he was doing. Refs can be intimidated, threatening them like that was a policy decision, not a loss of control. But I wasn’t sure. Because things were going on that season that were clearly out of his control, and one of the things that makes you an athlete is that there is almost no limit to how hard you will try to get it back.

Maybe, in my own way, I had made a policy decision too. Stand aside and watch these guys do their thing and when called on, interpret for them. I couldn’t compete with Jonny on the basketball court but also, for me, the stakes were lower. I was 22 years old, and I’d decided already that this wasn’t my life.

One day that October, I walked into practice and found an empty locker room. The gym was quiet too. I ran into Grescho, wandering the halls in street clothes. The club had decided to let Jonny’s contract run out. They weren’t going to re-sign him. “If he goes, we’re screwed,” Grescho said. Eventually, we all gathered in the conference room — including Jonny — to air our grievances while one of the junior front-office guys tried to calm us.

Jonny was fighting not just for his job, but for his sense of identity, and I had put myself in the middle of this argument, interpreting. “I’m the best damn player on this team,” he said. “I’m probably the best damn player in this shitty league. Tell him, that. Ben, tell him that.”

It didn’t matter. Jonny could boss all of us around on the court, but if he’d come to the club in a position of power, he would never have signed that contract in the first place. And they let him go.

I never saw Jonny again. But that didn’t stop me from writing about him or what I learnt from him, even after I quit, too, and went home. My most recent novel describes the complicated friendship between an NBA star and his childhood friend, who grows up to be a sports writer. The gap between them is not just a gap in talent but in the kind of lives they might want to lead: an ordinary good life or something more exceptional. The beauty of writing of course, as Schiller realised, is that it’s a game where you get to make the rules. And where failure itself turns into just another interesting experience.

“The Sidekick” by Benjamin Markovits is published by Faber

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