Fic: The Rules of the Game, part 1, RPS: Nash/Nowitzki
Everyone who usually reads House/Wilson here, I’m taking a break for my favorite TV hoyay and indulging in my NBA OTP. Humor me, I’m still mourning the Suns’ loss.
Fic: The Rules of the Game
Author: Nakanna Lee
Pairing: RPS: Steve Nash / Dirk Nowitzki
Rating: hard R
Disclaimer: No harm intended, none of this is true. I know nothing about these people, other than probably too much about their personal lives and that they are amazing basketball players.
Summary: After losing to the Spurs in the second round, Nash faces the off-season.
Two minutes to go, and that’s when Steve Nash knew it was over.
A small part of himself insisted that he push the ball upcourt harder; San Antonio thought this was a sure win now. They were lax on defense, if he could just find a clear lane, get to the rack, someone had to be open when bodies collapsed into the paint. He whipped the ball out beyond the three-point line towards a flash of orange. A hard slap shook across his chest and again, no foul, and as he watched his errant pass end up in a breakaway in the other direction, he spun towards the ref and let loose an uncharacteristic stream of profanities. T me up, he silently demanded, fuming. Call something.
He hit a three to pull the Suns within six with forty-six seconds remaining. A flurry of fouling began in one last desperate heave to win the game, stopping the clock and forcing the Spurs to take their silent two on the stripe. They were too good to waste gimme buckets. Steve stood near center court, bent over and hands grasping his knees as he watched Ginobili sink pair after pair each time they sent him to the line. Shit. He breathed low and evenly, the frantic fury of elimination sinking into his system until he felt invaded, unable to accept it. It had happened again. How the hell did sixty-plus wins in the regular season warrant a second round loss?
Ginobili added another dagger point, soon to be followed by several pairs from Finley after he was fouled after fruitless offensive possessions for the Suns. Steve accepted the ensuing inbounds pass and dribbled dazedly upcourt, vaguely aware that the black-and-silver clothed fans in the AT&T Center were buzzing over their team’s inevitable victory. The scene rushed to unclear shapes in the outskirts of his vision.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening. Distantly, he wished he and the Suns had won Game 1 and hadn’t squandered home court advantage. It was still no excuse for losing an absurd number of games in the Spurs' building--10 of 12, something like that. The cumbersome numbers ricocheted around in his head. Sucking like that on the road was inexcusable—but there were a lot of other factors, too. Series getting chippy, suspensions, distractions. Mostly the latter. Steve wasn’t one to get caught up in the hoopla of debating who was a dirty player and who wasn’t. That forearm shiver into the scorer’s table he’d taken in Game 4 had already been chalked up to late-game frustration; he wasn’t going to dwell on it publicly, but he let it incense him privately, made it motivate him more.
Even without STAT and Boris last game, he knew they should have won it. Up double-digits, holding the Spurs to season-lows in a variety of stats—just to collapse in the final five minutes. Steve had gone back to the hotel after a debilitating and depressing press conference tour, closed the door, and fought back nausea. He knew guys who would be so nervous before games that they’d vomit. He’d always gotten himself in a focused yet casual place previous to stepping on the court that that had never been an issue. Afterwards, though, that was different. He felt lightheaded despite the usual post-game IV’s restoration of lost nutrients, and his stomach hadn’t twisted this badly over a loss in a while. He tried to center himself, uncapping a water bottle and stoically taking small sips. He hadn’t felt that sick since they’d lost to Dallas in last year’s playoffs, and he’d had to watch Dirk continue on to the Finals without him.
Now, as Game 6 came to a close, the stubble of rubber in his hands felt delayed and slow. Steve wasn’t fighting anymore. He’d have to collect himself for good sportsmanlike hugs of respect in just a few seconds, and then endure the media barrage, and then brace for what would most likely be a silent and depressed flight back to Phoenix to clear out the lockers.
The ignored shot clock dwindled until the final buzzer cut it off. Steve let the ball drop.
* * *
His hair was still wet and straggly from the quick shower he’d gotten in the locker room, his collar dampening. Teammates exchanged brief handshakes and hugs, consoling pats on the back, before returning to their visitor lockers to grab their duffle bags and get ready to meet the plane. Grabbing an icepack for various muscles that cramped and complained of overexertion, Steve focused on the distant ache of his back and heaviness in his legs and cantankerous hip, willing it all to dissipate. It felt like his limbs were made of cinder blocks.
He rummaged through his own bag and unearthed his cell to find he’d missed several calls. A couple were from tactless writers—of the SI and ESPN the Mag variety—who wanted to chat about what yet another failed season meant to him. He frowned, regretting how he once carelessly let Ric Bucher have his number, which apparently cost him the leak of more privacy. He considered changing his number again, and then found a voicemail from Dirk among the fray. Alejandra had left one too, as had his longtime buddy, Duck.
He hesitated. Alejandra would be soothing, telling him she and their daughters loved him and were proud. He’d take time talking to each of his twin baby girls on the phone and listening to their cooing and babbling, smile, and tell Alejandra to put them to bed and not wait up for him; it would be absurdly late by the time the Suns’ charter plane hit the runway in Phoenix.
Steve thought of calling Duck back, who would be sprawled out on his couch drinking Canadian beer and offering only the wittiest, wry commentary about the loss to make him loosen up and laugh.
But his fingers scrolled almost instinctively to Dirk’s and redialed. He slung the duffle bag over his shoulder and started the procession out of the locker room and to the bus, its shaded windows not providing any comfort to the basketball players inside who would be forced to bear witness to the celebratory San Antonians gathering in the street to cheer on their victorious Spurs. It was only a couple minutes to the airport, but it would be a long ride.
* * *
Dirk picked up after the first two rings. “Hello?”
Steve was in the middle of offering Leandro, who’d had disappointing series, encouragement and a hug before they boarded the bus. He patted the kid’s shoulder once more. So much talent; the nerves just ate away at it.
“Hey, Dirk,” he said, taking the bus steps two at a time. “What’s going on?”
“I just finished watching the game, heard the press conference. I’m sorry man. That sucks.”
“Yeah, well,” Steve sighed, a verbal shrug. He’d console himself by understating. But he felt thoroughly ill. “We had our chances, there just were some mental lapses that—”
“No, not the loss, I meant your post-game wardrobe choice. Shit, I’d be depressed too.”
Steve laughed despite himself. Dirk was hardly one to preen over looks before games like other players; to an extent, American fashion sense was still lost on him. But somehow he always found something of Steve’s physique—hair, clothes, shoes—to draw attention to, even if Steve hadn’t given it a second thought himself. Steve enjoyed the familiar ribbing. He’d heard it far too infrequently ever since he’d left the Mavericks.
He glanced down at his pinstriped white shirt and jeans, none of which looked bad enough to warrant mocking. Still, he carried along Dirk’s tease, unable to completely quit self-critiquing.
“Thanks. I wanted to wear something especially ugly so I’d distract everyone from all the fucking times I turned the ball over.”
“Should’ve shaved your head, too. Give them something else to talk about.” Dirk paused. “Seriously, Steve, it was a tough series. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Spurs did that already, Steve thought to himself as he eased into a window seat, dropped his duffle to the empty space beside him, and moved the icepack to his hip.
“It’s just draining,” he admitted, knowing he was preaching to the choir. He held the phone closer to his mouth, talking quietly as his teammates likewise chatted on cells, slipped on iPods, or spaced out the window. “I really felt this was the year, Dirk. We can sit around and watch the tapes all we want, but the fact is we had this, and somehow we just failed to execute what we wanted to do.”
“Want to grab a beer?”
Steve ran fingers through his uneven bangs. “Can’t. Flying back to Arizona tonight.”
“Can you wait? Get off the bus?”
“And what? Hop a cab from here to Dallas? You do know that’s like four hours, right?”
“You’re thinking about it, I can see.”
Steve knit his brows, leaning forward in amusement. “You a mind reader now?”
“No. But you do owe me a couple beers since you didn’t offer when we were eliminated.”
“Hey, take it up with the guy who designs our schedules. You were a time zone away. Besides man, you guys lost to the Warriors. I don’t care if they hit their stride: No amount of alcohol is going to salve getting your ass kicked by Golden State.” Steve grinned, pleased that they were able to joke about it; Dirk had been all but unreachable during those first couple weeks since the first round dismissal, when Dallas had pinned Dirk as a scapegoat for the stunning loss. Laughing about it now felt cathartic, and hearing Dirk on the other end of the phone eased Steve’s mood now.
“Well screw it, I say we go for drinks,” Dirk replied. Steve was about to protest about the logistical problems that that posed when a rapping on the side of the bus interrupted him. He glanced out the window and saw a tall, blond figure in a baggy t-shirt and sweatpants waiting below, cell phone pressed to his ear.
* * *
“D’Antoni could technically fine me for this, you know.” Steve had jumped shotgun in Dirk’s car--which he had driven all four hours down to San Antonio to see the game without Steve knowing for reasons Steve didn't ask about--and they’d pulled out of the arena and onto the highway. “Skipping out on the plane flight home? That’s a no-no worth a couple thousand.”
“Since when did you start listening to the rules?” Dirk returned easily.
Steve watched him carefully before allowing himself to smile, rolling down the window to let the muggy Texas air hit his face. As a basketball player Steve was the archetype model citizen—American or Canadian; as a team captain he was hardly ever late, he rarely missed practices, and he never griped about injuries or paychecks. Team squabbles weren’t his thing either. What promises and commitments he made, he kept. “The Rules” Dirk referred to were something slightly different, applicable to only each other. And they’d been broken several times without much remorse.
“Amaré will cover for me,” Steve replied.
“And say what?”
Steve shrugged. “That my stitches might spontaneously burst because of the plane’s elevation? They know I can’t risk losing any more blood through my lacerated nose. Come on, I lost a couple liters Game 1.”
“Sounds convincing,” Dirk agreed with faux-seriousness. He caught Steve’s eye and they both grinned quietly but didn’t laugh.
Steve would get away with skipping the flight home. If nothing else, D’Antoni would appreciate the huge dedication and leadership Steve had given to this season, and so let his absence from the team in the final hours slide. He was incredibly social with the other guys on a regular basis; anyone would just assume that the loss had hit him hard and he needed some time to gather his thoughts. D’Antoni was open-minded and experienced enough to accept that.
The explanation was partly true, and Steve was sure Amaré could explain it well enough to sound authentic. STAT saw Steve leaving with Dirk, which was fine too and wouldn’t be viewed as a slight. Even Steve’s closest Suns teammates knew that no bond they would ever form would come close to matching the friendship and loyalty he had fused in Dallas with Dirk.
Though Steve had long ago realized he and Dirk were lying to too many people they loved, he leaned back into the leather seat and let himself feel content and easy. The hotel wasn’t far off and Steve had reservations until tomorrow. He reached across the seat and rubbed Dirk’s thigh for a moment, the motion reminiscent of the early 2000s when they roomed regularly as teammates and this became accepted and habitual.
Over a year without it hadn’t been planned, but since changing teams schedules had been hard-pressed to overlap, and other commitments to team and community kept them away. The occasional phone call or text or email was almost thrilling, and Steve kept score of who had called when, how long they’d talked for, about what, if things were changing.
They didn’t sleep together for an entire season, but Steve felt they could have if they wanted to make the effort. Dirk spoke to him exactly the same. His early hurt at Steve leaving had subsided for anger towards management and Mark Cuban. Eventually that wore away too, much due to Steve’s encouragement that nothing could be done and it was worthless getting worked up over it. From then on phone conversations were easy and lengthy, mostly in the evening after practices and games receded, leaving them exhausted by workouts and routines in hotel rooms across the country. Neither said so, but Steve could hear the quiet want in Dirk’s tone as they talked. It could be about anything—the ridiculousness of All-Star weekend, the annoying new waistbands of the shorts, what they’d been reading, good dining places in Atlanta—and still it would be there, understated, but always bordering on admitting need.
Once they did try it over the phone, which resulted in slightly awkward choices of phrase, Dirk too embarrassed to be overtly explicit, and ended with Dirk somehow dropping his cell in the toilet. Steve, sprawled in bed, had laughed so hard he was barely able to finish himself off without a smile on his face.
The Rules, in place since Steve married, had been tenuous since the beginning. Originally Steve had convinced himself he hadn’t broken any promises since nothing really sexual had happened. Thinking about Dirk on the side or hanging out for a rare dinner or stealing his lips quickly during Maverick-Sun pre-games in the deserted locker room were not technically unforgivable.
Going back to the hotel room now was, but Steve hadn’t felt happier in weeks. He was prepared to let this one slide.