All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

19 June 2016

CLUTCH



As a fellow reporter once told me, when you go fox hunting, the trick is not to shoot the fox. Because if you shoot the fox, the hunting is over.

I was there when Jack Anthony missed the clutch shot. I was in the building. I can remember the deep gasp of the crowd that felt like all water got sucked out of the ocean in a matter of three seconds. I do not even need to look at the footage. I can still see it all in one long, murderous snapshot.

Twenty-seven years ago now. Twenty-seven years, and I can't stop replaying the moment in my head. At the writing desk, on a plane or perhaps in my sleep, the ball barely moves. The ball is so slow that at some point it almost stops in mid-air, and flirts with my imagination. It's a dirty trick no doubt, for occasionally I can alter the course of history and make the ball violate every law of physics and change its direction by an inch or two. It smokes the net, and the whole team, including the bench, rushes triumphantly to their savior, like they always did, and the arena erupts. The shot clock is dead. The season is over.

But that doesn't happen too often. Usually, the ball hits the rim and bounces off the court. Like it did that night. The shot has become that shot. The moment has become that moment. The point in history forever ingrained in our collective memory. What many people tend to forget is that the clutch situation was nonsense. They were safe at the start of the fourth quarter with an unsurmountable sixteen point lead. You could even entertain the idea of Anthony coming back in the garbage time for a couple of Hollywood dunks. They were playing at home, too, three-two up in the final series with one game standing between them and the Championship. And it all went wrong. With two seconds left in the quarter, they were down by two. Last time-out came and went, and it was all about Jack Anthony. He was supposed to bail them out from behind the arc heavily guarded by the opposition. From way down town, as they used to say in those days. Classic catch and shoot. And it all began so well: following some genius in-bounds play, Anthony was left wide open. It was an uncontested three-pointer, a shot Jack Anthony should have buried with his eyes closed. And yet, tragically, his eyes remained open, to later be filled with the tears of bitterness, incredulity, failure.

I had been covering NBA for a full decade then, and yet nothing in my experience in sports journalism could tell me it was the end. The miss would cost them the Championship and the seventh game would be such a one-sided formality. Sitting in my office, writing that heartbreaking report late at night, the cigarette end cutting through my lips and the coffee constantly getting cold, I could hardly imagine that next year they would not even make it to the playoffs. The team would fall apart, the coach would be fired. And, most importantly, Jack Anthony would mysteriously disappear halfway through the season.

Since then, I've written extensively on the subject. I even published a book called A Ring That Went Missing which got favorable reviews but never made any lasting impression on general public. General public is an intimidating proposition. An impossible thing. A promiscuous girlfriend you want to land but she wouldn't settle. A European pop band wishing to break America and then facing the brick walls of Michigan and Ohio. Best thing you could say about American general public is that it doesn't exist. In reality, it's a gullible prostitute who veers between virginity and immortality. And back then, in 1988, general public had better things to think about: exciting draft picks, Summer Olympics in Seoul. Suddenly, Jack Anthony was barely in the conversation. He wasn't the guy who became the league MVP for two seasons in a row. He was the guy who missed that shot. He got found out. Fame is fickle. Sports fame is a curse. 

Jack Anthony disappeared in late February, 1989, after a game against Cleveland Cavaliers which resulted in a blowout (I should not even bring it up; most of their games from that period ended in embarrassing twenty-plus annihilations). Having dropped a disappointing 6 points (he went two-for-seventeen), Anthony refused to talk to the reporters and went straight to the hotel. Nobody checked on him during the night, and early in the morning, when the team was about to head to the airport, Jack Anthony wasn't there. The room was empty, his bed untouched. The suitcase was gone, as was the alcohol from the minibar. It all looked like a draft for a classic crime mystery: the receptionist hadn't seen him, his bank account was empty and his girlfriend was in California.

One popular theory (entertained by the police, no less) was that Jack Anthony ran away with a cheerleader. You can check my article from the 7th of March that year where I painstakingly refute it. The story got national coverage. Jack Anthony may have been a loser and a has-been, a spent force in the overexcited world of American sport, but people still cared. Hundreds of articles were published and dozens of theories appeared every day. There was one where he got converted to Scientology. There was one where he got mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel. Got sucked in by a black hole. Sold his soul to the devil. Became an alcohol addict (I thought the minibar detail was invented by an overzealous journalist). There was even talk of a suicide. I put forward a couple of theories myself, equally improbable. The man just disappeared. The man was gone with no one having a remote idea. Spring 1989. Crazy times.

Soon the police dropped the case. Jack Anthony became a kind of bodiless John Doe. Public interest waned, and the two-time league MVP was reduced to one missed shot. In fact, it would be true to say that save for half a dozen reporters, no one cared for Jack Anthony by the end of the season. But then we knew something that nobody else did: one article could ignite America. Make it care, make it go insane. And so it became our mission: to go to extreme lengths to find him. Or, to be more exact, to do all we could to ensure that this would never happen.

It was a game of nerves. Spotted in Hawaii, killed in Cambodia. We were travelling all over the world in those days looking for the former sports star. American newspapers, too eager for a sensational story, were paying us thousands of dollars to make us follow on yet another hopeless lead. Because most of those calls and letters (some anonymous, some not) gave us nothing and we returned home with a fake story or no story at all. The editors got furious, but another year of bland non-events, and it happened again. You would not believe it, but once I travelled to Madagascar where Jack Anthony was presumably dying of a deadly virus. I guess we were just playing the game. And if you tried to look us in the eye, if you tried to confront us – well, we could always argue that we were just doing our job.

With years, it became progressively more difficult to push through with these Jack Anthony stories. Some of my peers got tired of this never-ending hoax and dropped the whole thing altogether. Perhaps the game just did not stretch that far. Some calls were blatant scams. The day I almost gave up (I only say ‘almost’ because of what happened three months ago) came in late 2004 when I got an e-mail from a 17-year old girl telling me she had seen Jack Anthony ice-fishing outside Ketchikan earlier that day. I figured: ice-fishing. Somehow, it made sense. That big, silent bulk of a man hunched over a small hole in the ice. It's an image I may have borrowed from a recent Philip Roth novel, I do not know, but that very evening I caught a plane to Alaska. Of course, the 17-year old girl did not exist. And neither did Jack Anthony.

Not this time. This time, I wrote a slapdash report that did not amount to anything. In fact, in the ensuing years very few of us bothered. Occasionally, you could still find another 'Remember Jack Anthony? Former NBA Star Living In Hong Kong" type article in a Charleston Morning Star or a Fargo Sunday Report, another hapless journalist playing the game that had long become meaningless. Jack Anthony was finally becoming history.

Less and more so in 2006 when his name started to come up in basketball documentaries that put a different spin on his legacy. To younger fans who knew nothing about the clutch shot he looked like a powerful, versatile player whose dunks were as spectacular as catch and shoot trebles from behind the arc. Those who actually saw the clutch shot, started to see it for what it was: just a bad miss. Time put things into perspective. The great man, you could say, was slowly being rehabilitated. For people like myself, for those who saw the tragedy unfold, this was an exciting time. But along with justice came the obvious questions. Where was he now? Where was he hiding? Was he still alive? Because everyone wants to know what happens with yesterday's heroes. Inevitably, they started to knock on my doors. I got asked lots of questions about his possible whereabouts, but all I had was a batch of newspaper articles with senseless reports from all over the world. I could of course revert to the old business of fake stories about ice-fishing and deadly viruses, but suddenly Jack Anthony was too big a deal for a fake story to pay off. Suddenly, he was mentioned in the same breath with the all-time best, and a certain NBA expert repeatedly called him a 'superstar'. This was America in the twenty-first century.

Four years later I retired from journalism. I felt detached from the modern game: the black coaches, the circus shots. I had nothing to offer other than a long-term promise to find Jack Anthony (America was waiting, remember). The man remained a nagging thought, and the walls of my house were still covered with faded posters from three decades ago. In fact, every time I chose to rewatch those grainy videos from the 80s (I miss the physicality of the old game), I would ask myself: ‘Is he still alive?’ And all I could ever say to myself was that yes, of course. Of course he was.

The letter came three months ago. In many ways, it was like any other letter about Jack Anthony: unexpected, brief, compounded by poor English. Except this one was the first in over a decade and it was meant for a journalist who had been retired for six years. Argentina was interesting, because in my mind the place was largely associated with runaway Nazi officers like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele who fled Germany after the Second World War. That Jack Anthony, a former NBA star, would end up in Argentina, seemed grotesque and hugely unlikely. Jorge Soldano, the letter said, a man formerly known as Jack Anthony, was currently based in one of the poorer districts of Buenos Aires. Knowing that this letter could have been sent to any number of American reporters, I had to act quickly. Which meant that early next morning I was flying from JFK to Ezeiza International Airport. 


Buenos Aires was hot, and while my shirt was all damp and sweaty – I had no desire to travel to my hotel to change clothes and have a shower. I felt the excitement that a hunter felt when the blood was not so much palpable as it was inevitable. Maybe it was the heat that came with the territory, but there was a feeling that this was not a hoax. Maybe a defense mechanism that smacked of something bittersweet and not yet entirely familiar. For this was now or never. Deep down I knew that this was my last trip in search of a basketball player who had disappeared twenty-seven years ago. And also, there was something else I realised as the taxi driver gave in to my crooked brand of Spanish: in all these long years of searching for Jack Anthony, this was my first time in South America. And as I looked through the car window at the monotonous fascination of an unknown city, I thought that Argentina was not the worst place to escape from crimes against humanity or simply to retire from the world of sport that had turned its back on you.

The street looked dusty and desolate, and while it was not the kind of Venezuelan poverty you saw on TV, it was good to remind yourself that no one could pull a US citizenship out of your pocket. I wandered through those streets with the sort of aimless desperation that may have betrayed a retired journalist. The street was throwing up heat, and the heat was throwing up dust. The glamorous life of American basketball seemed a parallel universe, as did Jack Anthony and my life back home. I approached a group of kids, girls and boys, playing with an old skateboard as if it were a ball and not something you were supposed to ride on. I had no specific address, only the name of the woman. Isobel. They sized me up indifferently and pointed at the house behind my back.

Isobel was a woman of about fifty, soft-spoken and quiet in that slightly misleading Southern manner. She invited me in and offered coffee. She made me an espresso and asked about the trip, which seemed surreal in a world where all these people ever wanted was your money. Isobel asked me if I'd seen the kids playing outside and it turned out that they were all hers. All six of them.

"So, Jack Anthony", it took me half an hour to remember why I was here. "Is he really in Buenos Aires?"

Isobel's eyes glistened, and I knew.


I often imagined how it would happen. How I would enter some God-forsaken bar in, say, Buenos Aires, and I would vaguely recognize his face and he would vaguely recognize mine (I interviewed him a couple of times back in the 80s). He would initially be intimidated if not actually embarrassed by the fact that he was seen by somebody who knew his real name. He would threaten to leave. Then a glass of spicy Argentinian beer or perhaps a shot of tequila would make him relaxed and he would start talking. Clocks ticking towards the closing time, eyes moisty with alcohol, he would tell me the whole thing and in a week or two I would shatter the world of sports with the greatest story never told.


What strikes you about buildings in most Southern countries is that they don't produce any towering presence. They grow out of the ground and, naturally, the same goes for the people who frequent them. Like all those customers in the Arena Blanca bar Isobel had told me about. This was the bar where Jorge Soldano spent most of his evenings. The heat had long sucked all thoughts out of my head, and I barely even felt anything as I approached him from behind. Of course, it was him; in a place so small and so fundamentally local, he was a giant. He turned around and smiled, and there was just one question quietly easing its way out of his mouth:

"Do you have The New York Times with you? I haven't read a decent American paper in years".

There was so much to take in during the first few seconds, but all I saw was his face that hadn't really changed all that much. ‘The tan and the wrinkles of Jorge Soldano could not hide the features of Jack Anthony’ was the sentence I had to start my report with.

I opened my suitcase and took out the latest issue of The New York Times (I got it at the airport) which always felt like it was a few million pages long. 

"Thanks. I fear that one day I might forget the language".

"Sounds fine to me".

"Well, I have a couple of American friends who sometimes come here. Got here before I did, some of them".

He ordered for me what he was having, which was spicy Argentinian beer, and I looked at his white flannel trousers and his plain T-shirt of light blue and suddenly I realised I had no idea how to begin to ask my questions. Did he remember the clutch shot? Has he read my book? How did he disappear? Was he following the modern game? Here, in this part of the world, those questions seemed both pointless and inappropriate. (Also, if ever you choose to pursue a career in journalism, you will soon find out that in order to have a good interview, a successful interview, you will need your subject to feel slightly nervous. Not much, just a little. And Jack Anthony was more relaxed than the white sand of Argentina.)

"Do you have kids?" he asked me. That same voice, too, only deeper and with the kind of weight that was almost as physical as his handshake. 

"No", I said. "I'm not married".

"Why?"

This was odd, because I wasn't interviewing Jack Anthony. If anything, I was being interviewed by Jorge Soldano.

"I don't know. I just never… got around to it".

"But you have seen mine?"

"You mean…".

"Didn't she tell you?"

That glistening spark in Isobel's eyes, the coffee and her refusal to take the money. Now it made sense.

I asked him if he recognized me and he said yes, vaguely. He did not remember actually talking to me, but that was about thirty years ago and "you have to understand", he said as he sipped his beer, staring through my face, in a kind of abstract way that defines oncoming drunkenness, "I don't need to remember anything. Man, when I saw that newspaper, I could barely believe it. The shot I missed? Jesus".

"What newspaper?"

"It was left here on the counter by some American tourist. A report about me ice-fishing in Alaska. Well, I laughed. I think it was the first time in years when I saw that name – Jack Anthony. I showed the article to Isobel, and she suggested writing a letter. I think there was your address under the report. She wrote this letter, twelve years ago, but we decided against posting it. The paintings were not selling, and we did not want any fuss. Now it's different".

"You mentioned paintings?"   

"She didn't tell you about that either? Well, this is why I love these Southern women. They are quiet, and you can't get anything out of them. And once you do…".

…you stay here forever. This was how he was supposed to finish the sentence, or at the very least – that was how I heard it. In other words, Jack became Jorge, and Jorge got the second name of his wife, Isobel Soldano. I had indeed seen the walls of his house covered by paintings. Apparently they still brought little money, but what I saw before my eyes in the Arena Blanca bar of Buenos Aires was a man who was happy. Not excessively so, but just enough to afford oblivion. A man who had no regrets about what might have happened to him in the past by the sheer virtue of the fact that he did not even need to remember the variables. A missed clutch shot and a ring that went missing. 

"So why did you go away in February, 1989?"

"1989? Really? So long ago?" He chuckled to himself and ordered his fourth beer. The heat was running streaks down my back, and I was still stuck with my second glass. "I asked myself this question so many times now that I got tired of not being able to answer it. But if you need it for your report – well, I guess I just didn't care anymore".

My report. I wondered how I was going to swing it. Paul Gauguin of American sports who found his Tahiti in the capital of Argentina? I wondered how this would go down, if at all. And in the meantime, we talked. We talked about art, of which I knew very little (his favourite painter was Juan Carlos Castagnino), and about sports, of which he remembered even less (oddly, he thought his final lass was against Boston Celtics). The conversation felt disturbingly casual and was in its fifth hour when we ran out of things to say.

"And you're okay with me publishing this piece?"

He nodded abstractly, as if more to the bartender than to the person he was actually talking to.

"Isobel told me back in 2004 that some scores have to be settled".

This was, I believed, a good way to finish my report.

I left him there in the bar as it was pushing midnight. I was trying to find a taxi that would take me to my hotel and I knew that what I was feeling was a new kind of emptiness offset only by the tight handshake he had given me. In a way, by the end of the evening that was the only thing about Jorge Soldano that reminded me about Jack Anthony (other than his height – which had also shrunk by the years, the climate and the lack of training). But that is the thing about sportsmen: the gripping clutch of their handshake.



This is the report I submitted last month. One which you now see as a short story – slightly altered, slightly expanded. Titled "Clutch". One which was turned down by each and every American newspaper I had sent it to. The rejection was painful, and it made me ask myself, again and again. Was it because I'd been retired for six years? Was it because they thought it was fake? Was it because parts of this piece had too much to do with the person who wrote it? Or was it because there's always a chance that none of the words in this report are, in fact, true?