Following the uprisings known as "The 1999 Lockout" or "The Dark Times", President Stern made the full force of the league known. After destroying the Vancouver District as an example, Stern created an annual tournament of games designed to remind players that they are at his whim, and can be destroyed at any time. To remind players of the previously destroyed Latrell Sprewell (who complained he had a family to feed), the games have come to be called...The Hunger Games.
My name is Jimmer. I live in the Kings district, which despite its name is not actually in charge of anything, and is widely regarded as one of the sadder districts. We have very little money, and we're run by a family of nincompoops. Pardon my language. This is my first year of being eligible for the Hunger Games, having just completed my rookie season.
As I stand in the crowd with my teammates, I look around. Obviously Boogie would stand the best chance of survival. He's strong and angry and has put on extra weight in the offseason to sustain him should he be selected to enter the arena. I worry about Isaiah. He's so tiny, but he's pretty fierce. Cisco stands back and observes. He's been through this process before, and even got selected one year. He survived with minor injuries, explained to the media as a medicine ball accident.
I close my eyes as Adam Silver draws a name from the bucket. I black out momentarily, my mind refusing to accept what it just heard. James Taft Fredette.
I've been selected for the Hunger Games
What I am going to do? Am I doomed to have my career destroyed like so many before? Luckily, I won't have to go through this alone. Each tribute is assigned a mentor, someone who has survived a previous Hunger Game. Survived may be too kind. Nobody really survives the games without injury. Some players can come back full strength, others come back as a shell of their former selves. Others never return. Will I be the next Brandon Roy? The next Greg Oden?
It's a relief as I walk into the training room to meet my mentor and see Chris Webber's reassuring smile. He went through hell and back in these games. His knees were never the same, and he was left as a shell of his former self. He's since risen as a key symbol of the uprising. He overcame the games, and found his new calling as a commentator. I'm excited to have him in my corner.
"First thing you'll do is going into training, " Webber says. "There will be stations, and you and all of the other tributes will practice different skills. But don't show them what you're good at. Save that for the private sessions later."
I enter the training center and stare in awe of the stunning facility. There are stations for shooting, dribbling, being tall; all the skills that could entice the game makers. I'm a pretty good shot, so following Webber's advice, I wander over to the footwork station. Hakeem Olajuwon sees me walking up and his eyes brighten.
"Not too many guys want to learn footwork," he says. I see what he means. Most of the players are at the three point shooting station. Bynum stands there, giddily launching threes as Chris Mullin shakes his head. Hakeem shows me a few basic steps that can help me out in the arena.
Before long, it's time for the private workouts. This is our opportunity to show the game makers what we're capable of, to try to impress them. Their rating will determine what kind of sponsors we get. The game makers control everything. We're powerless against them. They sit there, Stern, Silver, Joey Crawford, Billy Hunter, laughing and drinking from goblets. I'm one of the last to go, and they aren't paying much attention. I start launching a few threes, showing what I can do. Swish. Swish. Their heads don't turn. I move to half court. Swish. Swish. Nothing. Finally I get so frustrated that I launch a ball directly at them, knocking the whistle off Crawford's neck. The ball bounces off the ball behind them and back towards the court.
I must have impressed the game makers. Before the games begin, I'm given a rating of 11 out of a possible 12. It's good, but it doesn't guarantee anything. There are career players who are much more attractive to the sponsors. The guys who are expected to excel. Guys like KG, who come from districts where excellence is the norm.
We stand in a tunnel, waiting to be unleashed into the arena. We don't know what the arena will look like, what dangers might be encountered, all we know is that only one of us will walk away healthy.
The curtain is pulled back. There's a push behind us as we're forced into the arena.
There are hoops surrounding the arena, and a grouping of four hoops sprouting in the middle of the arena, facing away from one another.. This is known as The Flower. Surrounding the Flower are racks and racks of balls. Webber told me before the games began that I should move away from the Flower immediately. That I wasn't ready for that bloodbath that would ensure around it. But I can't move away. There's a rack of balls twenty feet in front of me. I know I can get to one. I sprint. I'm faster than I look. I don't think Webber ever saw me run full speed.
I get to the rack of balls just in time to see Bynum playfully toss up a 30-footer. Why is he shooting so early? There's plenty of time left on the game clock. His shot clanks off the side of the rim. It never had a chance. Neither did Bynum. Bynum's knee crumples, the rest of him following quickly. There's a loud ref's whistle, and a hovercraft appears to take away Bynum.
It hits me. You miss, you get injured. It's that simple.
For the first time, I feel like I can win this game. But as I'm realizing this, I can see the realization spreading across the faces of those around me. Well, except for Diop. He's been laughing like a maniac since training, and he throws up a hook shot without a care in the world. As it misses every part of the hoop, you can see his weight begin to balloon up, and his body simply gives up. The whistle blows.
KG, the career, leaps into action, attacking the Laker tribue Dwight Howard. KG is screaming, shoving, bodying up. "Put on your makeup, clown! Shoot it *****!" Dwight can't handle the abuse. He attempts a move I recognize. It's the same move Hakeem showed me. But it doesn't help Dwight. KG won't let him past the free throw line, and Dwight never stands a chance. He clutches his back as the whistle blows.
As the hours pass, other rules of the game become clear. Each of us has to shoot at least once every 24 minutes, or we're out. The pace is excruciatingly slow. It feels like a Trailblazers game. But one by one, the players fall. I hide on the bench, only coming off from time to time. I manage to stick to my game, taking deep shots. I'm shooting so deep that people don't even realize they need to be guarding me.
After I while I finally get a sponsor. A small box with a silver parachute falls from the sky. It's a pair of Spaldings!
After a day, it's down to three of us. KG, Westbrook (from the Thunder district, a smaller district like mine), and me. KG is focused on Westbrook, but Westbrook is so fast the he just keep running away from KG and finding open hoops for layups. KG is so distracted, in fact, that he doesn't notice that the clock is winding down. I think he's about to notice, so I dart out to get his attention. He turns away from the clock and starts running towards me. I'm at the three point line, but he's so fast. We both know he'll close out and block me. I turn, and launch the ball to the opposite court. KG's eyes go wide as the shot goes up. He sees the clock over the backboard as time expires. I can't bear to watch as arthritis consumes him. The whistle blows, and it's down to Westbrook and me.
I know I can't match his speed, but I also know he can't match my shooting. I can't wait him out, though. He'll use his speed to steal the ball from me. I can't let him get a hand on it. So I confront him directly.
"Well, you see, it's HORSE, but we can only miss once before, well, gosh, you know. So it's just called H."
Westbrook accepts, and darts towards the Flower. He leaps, and goes up and under the hoop. It's incredibly acrobatic, and he finishes the reverse without a problem. But I was watching his feet. I flash back to what Hakeem told me, "Sometimes a shot looks difficult, but it's just how you move your body." His plant foot was nearly under the basket when he took off. It was just how he used his body that made the up and under look so amazing.
I replicate the shot, imagining that I'm looking far less impressive than he did, but I make the shot. Westbrook looks up at the game makers. If I didn't replicate his shot well enough, it's on them to treat it as though I missed. I hold my breath for what seems like one heck of a long time.
It's my turn to shoot. Westbrook looks terrified. I steady myself, and fire a 45 footer.
Westbrook dribbles, walks over to where I shot from. He steadies himself. Nothing. He waits. The pressure is immense. He'll have to shoot soon, the clock is ticking. Finally, he shoots.
The whistle blows.
Nothing seems to happen at first. But then I notice a slight limp as Westbrook moves away. "Tweaked my toe", he says meekly. I grimace as I reply, "Ouch, that sure smarts. And that can linger."
Life After the Games
After the games there isn't much fanfare. The games can't be televised. The public would never accept their favorite players being tortured and injured at the whim of the NBA. One reporter nearly uncovered the whole thing once, and Tim Donaghy (Head Game Maker at the time) took the fall, becoming a pariah in a bogus gambling scandal. Another year the games were almost uncovered due to a player slip up, and as punishment the players had to play with a slippery new ball for half a season.
Amongst the players, though, it's different. I'm shooting with more confidence. Suddenly it doesn't feel like it will matter much if I miss during a game. I shoot with ease, and my teammates notice. Isaiah says some nice comments in an interview, commenting on how relaxed I seem and how well I'm shooting now. It's as close as I'll ever come to getting public recognition for the win.
Another Hunger Games is behind us. Once again Stern has reminded us districts that he's the one in charge. We'll go out again in a few years and have another labor negotiation, but it's all a show that Stern allows us to have. Each time games are missed due to a lockout, it's really just a cover for the CBA quell, where the games are even more diabolical and involved.
Poor Brandon Roy.