Robert Williams stepped out of the Auerbach Center and into his car. He didn’t know why, but he got on I-90 and started driving west. He couldn’t put his finger on what was pulling him that direction, away from civilization, towards the abyss. He shuddered slightly thinking about the emptiness he was about to encounter in western Massachusetts, but he couldn’t stop. Through the woods of Charlton and Palmer, all he could think was, "at least I’m not on Route 2."
As he passed Chicopee, he realized he’d arrived at his stop. He got off the Mass Pike and on Interstate 91 South in Springfield. Rob Williams had entered the road of eternal construction. As he passed the Mass Mutual building and dodged randomly placed traffic cones, he realized where he was headed: the James Naismith Hall of Fame. As he exited the highway and approached the Hall, he suddenly noticed a creeping fog billowing off the Connecticut River. The parking lot was empty, and a steady breeze was the only source of noise. It was if Rob found himself in an alternate dimension.
He left his car and carefully ambled to the Hall, the fog parted creating a makeshift hallway, as if directing him to enter. As he approached its portal, something translucent met him at the entrance, but it didn’t open the door, it came through it. A semi-transparent white apparition glided toward Rob floating just above the ground. It seemingly had glasses resting on its square face and what looked like hair, yet it was all still somehow a part of its being. It wore what looked like an ethereal business suit and tie, but instead of legs, its torso melded into a wispy trail, almost like smoke from a cigarette. The top half was see-through attorney, but the bottom half was all ghost.
“Who... what... who are you?” Rob’s voice stumbled, a cocktail of fear, confusion, and fascination.
“Who am I and what am I are two very different questions,” the ghost replied in a slight New York accent. “What I am is the Ghost of Commishmases Past. Who I am, well, they call me The Stern One, or simply Stern for short.”
“What is happening?" Rob responded, his confusion mounting.
“You wish to enter the Hall, Lord of Time. But as of yet, you are not ready. I do, however, have a way.”
Suddenly, all the terror and confusion rushed out of Robert Williams. All he could think about was the one goal he’s had his entire life: get into the Hall of Fame. “How!? I’ll do anything!” he blurted out.
“You must be trained. You do not yet possess the skills of those who reside in these hallowed walls. I have arranged three mentors that you may learn from. Each possesses a skill that, if imbued with, you may have a chance at enshrinement. Would you like to meet them?”
“Yes, absolutely," Rob giddily answered.
“There is, of course, one catch,” the ghost slyly remarked.
“What is it?”
“You may only choose one, Lord of Time.”
“What do you mean, why? Those are the rules. You know, Jayson didn’t ask any questions when he was here,” Stern replied.
“JT came here?” Rob asked with a tinge of curiosity.
“Yes, of course. How do you think he started randomly making pull-up 3’s at a historic rate three years ago? Do you agree to the terms? I will present you with three mentors, each capable of providing you mastery of a skill, but you may only choose one."
“Deal,” Rob eagerly replied.
The First Mentor - The Heat Master
A large ball of flame appeared before Stern and slowly transformed into the shape of a human.
“The Heat Master has arrived, BAM!”
The flaming humanoid aggressively growled as he finished molding into a molten person. “I’m here to teach you the best weapon in basketball, Timelord: the handle. You’ve heard of hot sauce. now get to know the Heat Master. BAM!”
“Does he say Bam after every sentence?” Rob asked Stern.
“No, sometimes I end sentences with other stuff like ‘ADEBAYOOOOO!’” the Heat Master interrupted.
“Alright, man. Whatever. I’m just here to learn, apparently.”
“And you got a lot to learn Timelord. A lot. Let’s look at this play when you were playing some team that employs the best-looking center in the league, the Miami Heat.” Suddenly, a screen appears, floating in the air as if mounted to the fog.
Rob needs to find a way to punish all the space teams are giving him. pic.twitter.com/npVtVOTehe— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) February 3, 2023
The Heat Master spoke up first after the play finished. “Look at this man! You get the ball, defense is scrambling, you have an open corner shooter, and you don’t even look at the hoop! You just toss it out to your security blanket, Jayson Tatum, and he gets up a bad three. I’m sure he enjoyed it, but you ruined a great action by not even pretending to be a threat. Let me show you how I’d do it.”
“Oh, baby! That was slick. Sometimes all it takes is one dribble to get the defense to commit. Had you taken one hard dribble to the middle of the floor, I bet that drags in the weakside help and BAM, easy pass to the corner shooter. You just aren’t comfortable putting your handle to the test and dribbling towards pressure, and that’s an easy way to stress the defense differently than handoffs and standstill passing. You’re good at those things, Rob, but learning the handle will create a new dimension and new angles. It also probably makes those other types of plays more deadly because they’ve got to respect that you can attack off the bounce.”
Rob opened his mouth to speak, but The Heat Master jumped in again. “And look, man, you start getting the basics down, you can build on it — might even be able to do stuff like this.”
“Rob, you got the vision, and you got the passing skills. You add the handle and you might just be on your way to the All-Star Game. ADEBAYOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
Stern turned to The Heat Master, “thank you for that... animated ... presentation Heat Master. Now, if you don’t mind, the Lord of Time has two more mentors to meet.”
“I’m out, BAM!”
The Second Mentor - The Young OG
As the Heat Master disappeared into the ether, a human started to emerge from the wall of mist surrounding Rob and The Stern One. Rob first saw the tip of his perfect nose, next came the most gorgeous set of eye lashes he’d ever seen, and behind them, a 6’10” man.
“Al?! The OG?!!?” Rob asked excitedly.
“The OG? Why are you calling me that, Robert?”
“Al, it’s me Rob. We are on the same team,” Rob responded as the confusion washed over him.
“HA!” The Young OG responded glibly. “I’m on the Atlanta Hawks. You play with 36-year-old Al Horford. I’m 27-year-old Al Horford. I’m sure you’re familiar with my work.”
“I’ll be honest, man. I was like 13 when you were 27,” Rob replied.
“Come on, man. Don’t make me feel old,” Stern and Al said in unison and then shared a startled look.
After a beat, Al continued, “Robert, I have bad news, nobody is guarding you unless you’re, like, three feet from the rim. You have immense gifts, better than mine except for my beautiful eyes. Yet, at times, defenses can completely ignore you. That’s not right and we need to fix it.”
“Are you gonna teach me to shoot threes!?” Rob excitedly blurted.
“Heavens no. That would be totally unrealistic,” Rob guffawed as he considered the absurdity of calling something unrealistic given the situation he was in, but he allowed Al to continue.
“You need to start more basic. I’m here to teach you the foundation of basketball: the midrange jumper. You start making midrange shots, defenses can’t help off you, and that improves your game and your teammates. Right now, defenses pay you no mind if you aren’t rolling to the rim or in the dunker spot.”
“Awww, man. I remember this play. I passed it off JT’s damn leg.”
“Look at how much space Bam is affording you. He’s ten feet away clogging up everything your teammates are trying to do! You should have done what I would have in that position. Pop the middy.”
“Here I am, in a similar position on the floor to you. My guy, Marcin Ghost Hat, had to help at the rim and it’s an easy kick from Teague to me. I’m just as open as you are, and instead of wasting that space, or stalling the offense by resetting, I shot the ball.”
Rob nodded absentmindedly and responded. “You’re right, you’re right, but a midrange shot from me isn’t exactly the best shot the offense can generate. I don’t want to miss and waste the possession.”
“You also don’t know if you’ll get a better look than that in a possession, and hey, if you hit a few, then Bam has to start creeping out of the paint and covering you. That opens up space for cutters that you can hit with your passing and vision. And Rob, I’m going to say this slowly. IT. DOESN’T. MATTER. IF. YOU. MISS. If you want to learn this weapon, you will have to fail, and there’s no reason you can’t. You shot 72% from the line last year and are at 70% this year. I shot 183 midrange jumpers in 2013-14, you’ve taken 3 this year. You can shoot, and I can get you to start actually trying it. Eventually, you might even start to spread your proverbial wings and begin making them a little further out.”
“I hope you choose me, Lord of Time. I hear my future self quite enjoys your company,” Al said as he disappeared back into the mist.
The Third Mentor - The Lithuanian King
As young Al Horford faded away, a purple floating palanquin with four purple beams shooting straight up into the sky slowly came into Rob’s view from the mist. As the palanquin settled and lowered itself, a large, burly man with a crown and scepter climbed off it and started to stand. Rob could see his blonde hair barely poking out of the back of the crown that rested comfortably on his head. His brownish, reddish, blondish beard dominated his features. Once fully on his feet, he spoke. “Domo says arigato, Mr. Rob-ato.”
“Huh? Doesn’t arigato mean ‘thank you?’” Rob replied.
“I wasn’t aware of that. Nevertheless, I’m sure you know who I am, but in case you don’t, allow myself to introduce myself. Austin Power reference, did you get it?”
“I’ve never seen it.”
“Oh dude, seriously? You’ve got to. Anyway, where was I?” the King rediscovered his formality and carried on. “Aww right, as you’ve probably noticed, I’m Lithuania, obviously, but you’re probably unaware that I’m also a King.”
“You’re the King of Lithuania?” Rob asked.
“Not quite, I’m Lithuania and a King, but I currently reign in Sacramento,” the King said with an air of condescension.
“Got it, so what are you going to teach me?”
“I possess a set of skills that’s been passed down in my family for generations.”
“A set of skills, like in Taken?” Rob interrupted.
“I’ve never seen it,” the King sheepishly replied.
“Oh dude, seriously? You’ve got to.”
“As I was saying, I possess a set of skills that’s been passed down for generations. I can teach you the post-up game. I will admit that you’ve shown a twinkle of ability in this facet of the game, but you’re not nearly as developed as you should be given how absurdly athletic you are. You don’t even need to have tons of moves like I do, but you do need to be able to punish smaller defenders. You don’t even qualify on the NBA’s play type tracking for post ups! Look at this simple move I use here, you can definitely learn things like this and create relatively efficient offense all by yourself.”
“Like I said, you’ve punished small defenders in the post in the past, but it’s few and far between, and I wouldn’t call it artful.”
Give me more Rob posting up little guys please. Just give me more Rob in general actually. pic.twitter.com/35IB55wa9E— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) January 8, 2023
“Imagine what you can do if every time you get a guard switched on to you. You could consistently punish it. And if they bring help, you can start picking out shooters and cutters with your passing and vision. It would completely transform your game and help buoy the offense when you aren’t playing with Tatum. Not to mention you can leverage your ability in the handoff game to get to advantageous positions on the court, like I do on this play.”
“This is what I can offer you Robert.”
After The King had finished talking, it was Stern who spoke first. “So, Lord of Time, which mentor shall you choose?”
Writer’s note: give me Bam’s handle.