Re-Examining the 1997 NBA Draft – If I Had Been Selected…
(Originally published @Nerdist Sports 2017)
At the end of my senior year in college – despite having not played organized basketball since high school and maintaining a 1.8 blood alcohol level for four years straight, my friends dared me to declare for the NBA draft. I wrote an official letter the NBA commissioner David Stern and presented my accolades: Six-foot-two. 3.8 G.P.A. Fraternity scoring leader and dunk contest winner on the 8-foot hoop in the parking lot.
I wasn’t selected.
Looking back now, I have to argue that I might have been a better pick than 75% of the players in the 1997 NBA draft. Sure, the draft produced perennial all-stars Tim Duncan (#1), Chauncey Billups (#3) and Tracy McGrady (#9), but for every one of those guys, there are three Ed Elisma’s (#40), Bubba Wells’ (#34) and Ben Pepper’s (#55). Who’s to say that if I was chosen in the late second round I wouldn’t have made a better impact than a guy like 44th pick Cedric Henderson?
I was too short to be a forward, my high school position. My handle wasn’t strong enough to compete for a point guard slot, so basically, my only shot was to be drafted as a shooting guard – and my guess is I would have been picked somewhere around 46 – where Orlando took Alabama marksman Eric Washington. (Whose best year came with the Idaho Stampede in the NBA D-League in 2010).
Due to some late garbage time minutes, I estimate I would have averaged roughly 1.2 points a game… Which is more than draft picks C.J. Bruton (#52), Roberto Duenas (#57) and Nate Erdmann (#55) ever averaged in their careers.
The 11th pick of the draft was a guy named Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Nobody past the top 10 picks truly ever made a big statement in the NBA. Sure, Stephen Jackson (#42) was a key piece to the 2003 Spurs, Bobby Jackson (#23) was a sixth man sparkplug and Mark Blount (#54) was a dependable center for a few teams – but overall, 1997 was pretty mediocre… Even though I once bought into the ESPN theory that Jacque Vaughn (#27) would be the next Allen Iverson.
My own personal draft journey began after a two-game playoff run in the annual 1997 fraternity basketball challenge.
It was in a game against Pi Kappa Alpha. Their starting point guard tried to take me off the dribble to the left. I stuck my arm just above his bounce and poked the ball free into the open court. I ran after it, scooped it up and laid it in for the victory. My fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi had won our first play-off game in 10 years. In our next contest, we gave the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon a good run, and I poured in 21 points. Ultimately, we lost on a late technical foul call when I got kicked out for calling the referee a “dickbag.”
It was after that game, while consuming a lot of Natural Light beer, that I decided to declare for the draft.
On draft day 1997, I sat on my mother’s couch with baited anticipation as the others had their moments. I ordered some pizza for my family. My mother thought I had lost my mind.
As the evening progressed, I had seen enough of the long, tailored mustard and pinstriped suits making their way to the podium to shake David Stern’s hand. I watched as guys like Tony Battie (#5), Danny Fortson (#10) and Antonio Daniels (#4) put on those crisp new NBA caps. I accepted the inevitable as the first round telecast came to an end.
The second round was only on the radio, so I sat in my Civic, listening in.
“And with the 48th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the Washington Bullets select Predrag Drobnjak from KK Partizan, Serbia.”
Really? A guy named Predrag was taken? Nobody could even pronounce his name. So what if he was a six-foot-eleven three time Euro League National Champion? I played on the frat tournament second runner-up team!
Most of the players from the ’97 draft ended up overseas, injured or, in Ron Mercer’s (#6) case, involved in a strip club assault or two. I was no different – except for the fact that I never played one minute in the NBA.
Then again, neither did Serge Zwikker (#29), Mark Sanford (#30) or Gordon Malone (#44).
I still think I would have had a shot.
Ed. Note: Zach Selwyn currently averages 15.2 points per game in his over 40-YMCA league.
The following is an email chain I exchanged with my Hollywood agent, who I have paid 10 percent of my income to these past ten years. In that past decade, he’s brokered a deal or two for me and has also bought me lunch three times. His agency is a big one, but I am a lowly peon in the cable TV hosting game, dwindling way beneath the Seacrests and Trebeks of the world. However, I am undoubtedly the biggest sports fan on the roster. Which is why, as a die hard NBA fan, I began asking him for tickets to the agency “luxury suite” four months ago to watch the Los Angeles Clippers play the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Staples Center on January 16, 2015…
Oct. 12, 2014.
From ME: Yo – Looking for Clippers – Cavs tickets on Jan 16 2015. I think the Cavs are gonna be great this year – and their new coach is a mastermind. Clips look strong too. Both teams will be in top playoff mode around January. If possible, might I be able to get into the agency box seats that night? Asking early to make sure… Thx – Z
From AGENT: Z! Of course buddy. Emailing tickets guy. You need two, right?
From Me: Yes Thank you so much.
Nov. 8, 2014.
From ME: Checking in on Clippers – Cavs tix for January. Has anyone asked about them? Thx – Z.
From AGENT: You’re #1 on the list. I got you covered big Z.
From Me: U Rule. Thx.
Dec. 9, 2014.
From ME: Hey brother – any news on those tickets? It’s getting close and I want to make sure I get in here before the office shuts down for holiday season.
From AGENT: Thank you for your email. Our offices have closed until January 7, 2015.
Jan 7. 2015.
From ME: My dude. Zach here – Hope your holidays were awesome… I was in Seattle with the fam. Checking in on Clippers – Cavs game for January 16. Wanted to see if you could email the tickets to me? Or maybe messenger them? Very excited – thank you sooo much.
From AGENT: Hey Z. Checking in with tickets guy again today.
Jan 8. 2015.
From ME: Any news?
From AGENT: Hang tight.
Jan. 12, 2015.
From ME: Hey man, sorry to bother you – but game is in 4 days – trying to figure out babysitter and all that stuff… Looking forward to seeing LeBron.
From AGENT: (No reply).
Jan 16, 2015.
From AGENT: Hey Z, so sorry bud but we had an overflow of ticket requests for this game… Apparently both teams are playing really well. Matthew Perry snapped up a pair this morning and Giuliana Rancic is top of the list for the other pair. Sorry bud. We’ll get you into a game. I know we have seats for the Lakers – Nuggets on February 10… Chace Crawford just turned them down.
In the world of celebrity, free stuff is king. Matthew Perry and his 500 million dollars does not need free basketball tickets… Plus, he’s sober, so all the free booze in the luxury box was going to be ignored anyway. Giuliana Rancic? Or DiPandi or whatever her name is? Are you kidding me? She makes fun of celebrity dresses for a living. She probably heard the word “Cavs” and thought it was a leg workout. And Lakers – Nuggets tickets? The Lakers are led by a guy who is famous for being Iggy Azaleia’s boyfriend. Kobe is out for the year. They’re not exactly a hot ticket. The point was, I was not considered successful enough to snag the Clippers tickets. I was looking at some washed up pretty boy from Gossip Girl named Chace Crawford’s rejects… Perry and Rancic were gonna be on their iphones in the suite the entire time and most of the so-called Hollywood celebrities who were going to the game probably think “Chris Paul” is a type of champagne.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, the Lakers were all that mattered. They had Del Harris, a young Kobe, Van Exel was being name-checked in Jay-Z songs, Eddie Jones and huge NBA stoner Sam Perkins. (Who looked blazed in 99% of his games). My friends and I would drop $25.00 to sit in the nosebleed section of the Forum just to catch a fading glimpse of what the legendary teams of the 80’s left behind. They were likeable underdogs who fought hard and always battled. Then came Shaq. And Phil Jackson and Kobe became Kobe. Those were the last years I liked the Lakers. Kobe lost his appeal when he shaved his mini afro and faced his legal troubles. Still, going to games was fun because, hey – going to the games are always fun. Still, these last ten years I stopped rooting for them and began just appreciating all professional basketball in general.
Now, Los Angeles is all about the Clippers. A recent text from a buddy read: Lakers are for Fakers…I’m going to the Clips game. The abundance of Lakers flags that people used to display from outside of their car’s windows are long gone. The sea of purple and gold has been replaced by red, white and blue. And let me tell you, I have never seen anyone play pick-up basketball while wearing a Carlos Boozer jersey.
Still, the luxury box is indeed, luxurious. I emailed my agent back a few days later and accepted the Lakers – Nuggets tickets. At least I could see Arizona Wildcat-alum Jordan Hill and possibly watch a few Jeremy Lin up–and-unders. Plus, my brother is a huge hoops fan as well and neither of us are Matthew Perry – sober. Watching two out-of-the-playoff race teams loaf up and down the court over free hot dogs and Stella Artois isn’t a bad way to spend a Tuesday night.
I emailed my agent a week before the game to make sure he could send the tickets over.
Feb. 3, 2015
From ME: Hey man – excited for Lakers – Nugs game on Tuesday… Can you messenger the tickets or email them? Thx brother – Z
From AGENT: Yo, Z – Hey man… looking into this. Looks like Chace Crawford might want the tickets after all… but it depends on if we can get him seats on the floor or not.
From ME: You’re fired.
When it was all said and done, Chace Crawford ended up not going, so I snagged the tickets. The game was poorly attended and didn’t even get exciting until the 4th quarter. Jack Nicholson wasn’t there. Neither was Leo. Or any other familiar celebrity face that we have all come to associate with the Lakers. Instead, it was my brother and myself, sitting amongst a bunch of 22-year-old agent assistants in the luxury suite, sipping Stella Artois and filling up the stat sheet with junk food.
I looked long and hard down at the floor as the game wound down. I was having the time of my life. I guess watching LeBron James would have been a lot more entertaining, but this was still a pretty awesome way to see a basketball game. As a sports lover, sometimes it doesn’t even matter who is playing. And after Swaggy P made a three-pointer and did the eye goggles gesture with his hands, I suddenly became a Lakers fan again for the first time in ten years.
And as I squinted hard at the row of folks seated on the floor, I believe I recognized a celebrity typing away into his iphone three seats down from the Lakers bench.
It was Chase Crawford.
Buy Zach’s newest album “Skywriting” on itunes NOW!
Back in 1994, just three weeks into a relationship that I swore would last forever, my hippie Phish-loving girlfriend “Rainbeaux” announced that she was, “giving up toilet paper” as a way to preserve the environment.
“I’m sorry, what?” I responded.
“Look at the facts,” Rainbeaux said. “Every time we use a pre-fab product like toilet paper, we are destroying not only the rainforest, but the redwoods and like, all the natural resources of our planet… It’s a no-brainer for me.”
“Well, it’s a boner-killer for me,” I thought to myself.
If Rainbeaux wasn’t so fascinating and beautiful, I would have run away immediately… Instead, I did my best to question her plan.
“So… like, what are you gonna use when you…uhh – you know, go to the bathroom?” I asked her, calmly.
“It’s called Hmong Hill Hemp Cloth from Thailand,” she explained. “A guy who I met on last Phish Tour introduced me to it. It’s made from undernourished plant cloth and hemp fibers and It originated with the Hmong Hill Tribe…and for like 2000 years – their community is like… the healthiest in the world.”
I nodded my head in solitude, looked into her green eyes – and smiled vacantly.
“Sure, whatever you want,” I said.
She smiled and went back to drawing octagonal prisms in her sketch book.
Rainbeaux’s genius “save the planet” idea was to purchase 100 cloth swatches as her permanent toilet paper – and to just simply wash them at a laundromat whenever everything got dirty… I was secretly disgusted by this entire hippie dream of hers, but I went along with it for the time being because, well… she was cute and we were 19-years-old… and that’s just the kind of shit you do at that age… Especially when your “Are you a REAL hippie?” status is in question by a beautiful woman wearing patchouli and a tie-dyed sundress.
So, after I announced that I would support her toilet paper protest, she made me promise her I would give up toilet paper myself.
I promised her I would.
A minute later, she told me that I was “a real mystic” and then for the next 30 minutes, we made love listening to her $750 dollar Natural Sound Machine from The Sharper Image.
Of course, around 3:30 a.m. I woke up and rushed to her dorm’s community bathroom because I had to take a massive crap… And when I was done, I had torn through about a half a roll of Charmin Double Ply…
“Rainbeaux,” of course, wasn’t her real name. She was born “Hannah Gurlin” and she had grown up rather wealthy in Highland Park, Illinois, beneath the tutelage of a father who encouraged horseback riding as a a hobby and an older brother with a weed connection and a penchant for the Grateful Dead. After turning down offers from multiple respectable schools in the midwest, she had decided to attend UCSB (UC Santa Barbara) as a way to major in creative writing while enjoying the Southern California party lifestyle. We first met at a Big Head Todd and the Monsters concert during our freshman year, in one of those moments when the cute girl next to you singing along to the song Bittersweet made you feel like anything on the planet was possible…
Our eyes met as we sang together: “We work our way arouuuuund each other… as we tremble and we bleed…”
These were the deep connections that could make any lovelorn college kid in the 90’s soul fall head over heels.
After the show, Rainbeaux and I exchanged phone numbers – and we eventually met up again at a Dave Matthews Band show that spring…
A month later we went to a Phish concert… and that night we ended up sleeping together while listening to Mazzy Star Fade Into You. As we laid in bed, we discussed my theory that “The 90’s were just the 60’s Upside Down…” It seemed real, it seemed perfect and we both thought we had a once in a lifetime connection.
Of course, no long-lasting relationship that begins at a Big Head Todd concert can ever be expected to last.
Our relationship peaked when we embarked on an epic five-city West Coast Phish Tour – where we exchanged words of “LOVE” following a post-show Shoreline house party that as I recall, was crawling with ecstasy and Parliament Lights.
And then, a week later… was when Rainbeaux gave up using toilet paper.
Rainbeaux was the type of woman that you fell in love with in your 20’s. She had a zest for life, could party with anybody and it didn’t hurt that her dad was always sending her money. (Back then rich trust-fund hippies like this were referred to as “Trustafarians.”) But eventually, the hippie dream, much like it did to our parent’s generation, turned on us.
My main concern was not flunking out of school. (I wanted to make sure my dad’s tuition checks were going towards something besides my social life).
Rainbeaux’s main concern was how she would be able to make the type of money her parents made to support her lifestyle… She claimed she was a “writer…” yet she barely wrote anything. I was the one always writing. She could never seem to get anything down on paper… and it became awkward when she becoming jealous when my short stories, as dumb as they were, began appearing in the pages of my local college humor magazine.
As the used Hmong Hill Hemp Cloth began piling up in a wastebasket near her closet in the dorm room, I stopped wanting to come over. It was … sadly… disgusting. After she noticed that I had not been taking any cloth with me when I went to the bathroom, I came clean and was forced to admit that I was actually guilty of using “pre-fab” toilet paper. She was unhappy. I told her that after spending a few days on the Hmong Hill… I needed to hike back DOWN to reality.
She cringed, asked me to consider “her feelings” and I told her I didn’t think I could continue following her experiment. A few days later we broke up.
That was it. College went on. I drifted into my dreams and she did the same. We lost track of each other.
It had been nearly 20 years since I had been in touch with Rainbeaux, even after doing some embarrassing social media stalking…
I could never find her… Not online, not on Facebook… I even checked obituaries. There was no sign of Rainbeaux’s or Hannah Gurlin’s existence anywhere.
Until last week – when DEAD AND COMPANY came to the Hollywood Bowl right by my house here in Los Angeles.
My brother and another friend, Mark (Who was once arrested for dealing nitrous balloons at a Grateful Dead concert in 1989), had all gone to the Dead and Company show hoping to relive any slice of our youth that had faded as quickly as adulthood had arrived. John Mayer was playing Jerry Garcia’s parts and the band I fell in love with as a kid was playing better than ever.
Amazingly, Mark revealed to me that he had a fake business license for about five years in the late 80’s that let him pass as a FROZEN YOGURT SHOP OWNER – Basically, he would take his fake yogurt license into a legitimate NITROUS DEALER and procure as big of a nitrous tank as he could, claiming that his “Chocolate/Vanilla Swirl” was super popular and that he needed to buy the max amount of nitrous to get back to Sacramento.
It worked for a while, but eventually, his drug dealing days caught up with him and Mark was arrested at an early 90’s Grateful Dead show in Irvine. For his crime, he paid a thousand dollars and did 100 hours of community service.
To this day, he fucking hates frozen yogurt
Anyway, the three of us jumped out of our Lyft around Highland and Hollywood and embraced the free flowing beauty of the “Shakedown Street” parking lot scene where I quickly spent way too much money on a collectible “Arizona Dead Pin” and some $5.00 bootleg t-shirts…
After vaping and laughing and walking around for a minute, Mark pointed out about 100 plus “balloon dealers” openly distributing the gas on the premises – as if we were at a dental convention and we all needed emergency root canals…
All of this was shocking, not only because of the notorious Grateful Dead parking lot trouble that has existed in the past – but because when Mark was arrested 20-years-earlier, he had merely sold one balloon and was caught, cuffed and carried out…
Back then, the cops didn’t believe his story that he owned a Frozen Yogurt shop. Maybe it was because when they asked for the name of it, he replied “IKO IKO FROYO.” (Apparently the cops giggled at this before arresting him).
At the Hollywood Bowl, the cops didn’t seem to give a SHIT about anything going on. I counted 15 nitrous dealers, countless weed dealers, girls offering K, shrooms, molly… there were even makeshift pop-up bars operating on picnic tables where you could buy any mixed drink you wanted. It was insane. About the only thing I didn’t see for sale in that parking lot was a black market kidney.
And then, through the crowd, I saw RAINBEAUX.
I wasn’t sure if it was her at first, but I certainly remembered her eyes. Green, maybe a bit grey now, but still gorgeous. I watched her flit about some friends for a second in a yellow sundress before realizing that YES, it was her… the only obvious difference I noticed, was that she now had two little children wrapped around her legs.
No matter what, when you see an ex-girlfriend with their children, it makes you think about a lot of shit…
I decided to say hello, and walked up to where she was standing.
“Are you RAINBEAUX by any chance?” I said to her as she was least expecting a conversation.
She lit up. She turned around. She stared at me…
“Oh my God… Zach Selwyn?” She said.
I felt like Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way when his ex recognizes him after getting out of prison.
Charlie? Hello Gail…
“Hi,” I mustered… “I knew that was you.”
We hugged for a while – one of those “what could have been” hugs… and she quickly introduced me to her kids – Saffron and, her youngest – a kid named… ZACHARY. She said he was not named after me.
Secretly, I didn’t believe her.
We hugged again. Deeply. She told me that she hadn’t been “Rainbeaux” for a long time. She was back to being known as… “Hannah.”
She asked me about everything – especially how my writing was going.
“Yeah, it’s fine, I guess,” I meekly admitted. “I just post stuff online and write songs and, whatever, it’s a long story.”
I asked her about her writing career. She said she never had the guts to pursue it. She had been teaching Neo-natal yoga in Poway and was married to a dermatologist.
“Wow, didn’t expect that,” I said.
We rambled on for a moment, talking about what songs we were hoping to hear that night. I was hoping for Estimated Prophet.
“You know, Estimated was my official battle cry/anthem when I moved to LA – telling all my friends and family not to worry about me,” I said before singing out the lyrics, “California! Preaching on the burning shore…”
She smiled. “I remember… Do you remember how much I loved that song Bittersweet by Big Head Todd and the Monsters?”
I stared into her eyes as her daughter ran back up and hugged her.
“Of course I do,” I said. She smiled.
After I introduced her to my friends, she said good-bye, scooped up her daughter and began to walk away. As she was 10 feet or so up the sidewalk, I had to ask her one final question that had been bugging me for years…
“Hey, Hannah…” I said. “Are you still on that ‘Toilet Paper Protest’?”
She stopped, turned towards me and flashed kind smile before responding…
“Haha – NO,” she laughed. “I’m going through about, like – a box a half of baby wipes a week.”
I raised my beer in her direction and nodded my head.
As I watched the concert that night, I thought often of the days I spent with Rainbeaux, and I began to think that I should have brought my own children to the show with me…
Until some guy behind me passed me a Nitrous balloon and said it would make me feel like “God was licking my ass.”
Zach is excited to announce he has published his first crime mystery novel, “Austin Translation.”
Set in Austin, Texas during the summer of 2020, true crime podcaster Rob Stoner finds himself set up for the murder of a young girl. Now, using his amateur sleuthing skills, he has to clear his name, find the killer and save his marriage all during a global pandemic.
Please download on Amazon.com – Physical signed copies will be available for purchase upon request for $10.00 in the near future.
After Reading Sean Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ Piece, I Decided to See What my Old Pot Dealer From High School was Up to…
Recently, Sean Penn made headlines when he bravely traveled deep into the heart of Sinaloa to meet and converse with the notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Right after the story went to press, El Chapo was captured – and his latest elusive time on the lam abruptly came to a close. Penn’s piece was published in Rolling Stone this week and I found it to be an engrossing piece of long lost Gonzo journalism at its finest. Penn, an actor, long known for his political involvement, put himself in the direct line of peril and danger all while partnering with a famous Mexican film actress to infiltrate the most impenetrable depths of Narco activity. He shook hands, broke bread and slammed tequila with a man that the DEA and Mexican authorities have been unable to locate for close to six months. In my opinion, Penn’s story was a hell of a lot more ballsy than anything else any pampered Hollywood actor has attempted in the past twenty years. (Sorry, Julia Roberts. Playing an AIDS-sensitive doctor in The Normal Heart may have been considered “daring” but it pales in comparison to a 55-year-old Oscar winner risking his life to traipse deep into a jungle of death for an interview for a rock-n-roll magazine).
So, inspired by Sean Penn’s courage, I decided that the recent stories and essays I have written have felt a little too “soft.” I realized that had to step it up. Knowing that I was traveling back to my hometown of Tucson to visit my mother on Martin Luther King, jr. weekend, I made up my mind that I was going to turn the trip into my own personal “El Chapo rendezvous.” I had a great idea…
My goal was to track down Ernesto Gregory, the most successful marijuana dealer in my high school. The last I had heard of Ernesto was through a photograph taken around 2011 by our mutual high school friend, Erik. He posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook drinking in the desert. Erik had captioned the photo with He’s finally out! Welcome home boss!”
Assuming that this caption insinuated that he had just been released from some high security prison, I was under the impression that Ernesto had built up an El Chapo-like narcotics network of hundreds of foot soldiers and truckloads of contraband over the past 18 years. Why else would he have been in jail? Why would Erik call him “boss?” Plus, he was wearing the typical outfit. A Large Polo Horse logo situated on a blue collared shirt on top of True Religion designer jeans. DEA agents call this look “Narco Polo.” Now I have seen Sicario. I’ve watched Breaking Bad. I had no doubt that Ernesto had risen from low-grade weed dealer at Rincon/University High School into a southwestern drug legend – living in ranches and mansions sprawled across the Tucson and Mexico landscape.
And I was going to interview him.
I was set to fly into Tucson International Airport on January 17th. My plan was to eat a bunch of food at my mother’s house, drink wine and play three games of Scrabble all while hearing her talk about how amazing The Revenant was. The following day, I would travel deep into the center of Tucson to meet up with and interview the most intimidating and bad-ass pot dealer my high school had known.
Back in 1993, Ernesto Gregory had owned the school’s finest lowered mini truck. He had a 200-dollar Motorola pager. His “system” – or car stereo – was as custom as they came, complete with an Alpine tape deck, a Sony Discman attachment, two 12-inch Kicker woofers, some Kenwood tweeters and a constant bass thump of MC Breed, DJ Magic Mike and Wrecks ‘N Effect blasting from his trunk. He had his own apartment on Speedway, decked out with a two-foot bong, a television with cable and an unlimited financial account on a sort of early 90’s YouTube video-on-demand predecessor known as “The Box.” He always wore a black Colorado Rockies cap and Marithe and Francois Girbaud jeans beneath over-sized t-shirts of ridiculous animated Looney Tunes characters wearing 90’s hip-hop clothing. His pager code for weed was “907.” His girlfriend was the hottest girl in the senior class – a dark-haired Mexican sex goddess named Racquel Hernandez. And he was tough. As far as we knew, he had never lost a fight. In fact, I recalled him once putting my friend from Hebrew School – Adam Richford – into a headlock and smashing his nose repeatedly until he apologized for “mad-dogging” him in the parking lot. He claimed he had connections through “uncles in Nogales,” where his product came from. And everybody knew, anyone with “uncles in Nogales” was always in the drug game… In short, Ernesto Gregory was the most accomplished 18-year-old kid I had laid eyes on in my young life.
After I landed, I told my mom about my plan.
“Why the hell are you meeting with this criminal?” My mother asked on the car ride from the airport.
“He was the king, mom!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you read the Sean Penn article?”
“Sean Penn’s an idiot, going to interview that drug dealer!”
“I thought that story was genius,” I said. “Besides, what else am I going to write? Another story about my kids not being allowed to bring refined sugar to school?”
Following a few glasses of wine at the house, my mom was trying to convince me to go to Wal-Mart to buy a knife for the meeting. I assured her that Ernesto and I were in good standing and that no concealed weapons would be necessary. She broke into a desperate sweat. We played two games of Scrabble before deciding to put the third one on pause because we were so tired that word like “uh” and “is” had begun appearing on the board.
My final memory of the evening was listening to my mom curse my name before she went to bed in the other room.
The following morning I fueled up on eggs and coffee, not knowing when I would be back to the house. The afternoon’s plans had been Facebook “messaged” to me by Erik, who I quickly learned from his profile hadn’t left Tucson since graduation. Erik wrote me that Ernesto wasn’t on social media, but he mentioned that he did watch a lot of TV and he had even seen my History Channel show and had once commented, “I know that fucker!” He also told me that Ernesto had demanded that Erik take down the aforementioned photo he had posted in 2011. Sure enough, when I searched for it, it was no longer online… All this solidified my drug-lord theory even more.
Ernesto had agreed to meet at 12:30. I took off in my mother’s Acura and sped over to an address located in the shadow of the bar-heavy downtown area. A place much hipper and enticing than it had been back in the 90’s when druggies and skinheads and homeless wandered Congress Boulevard scaring off any young people looking for a good time. Must have been all the drug money given to the city by Ernesto, I theorized.
I parked in a dirt lot and immediately recognized Erik, who looked like he had been a meth fiend since about 1994. He wore a saggy shirt, filthy pants and sported a patchy beard and shaved head. He had a kid’s BMX bicycle in his pick up truck bed, which I took as also a sure sign of a man on crystal meth. For some reason, heavy meth addicts seemed to always travel on way-too-small dirt bikes. Erik wasn’t unlike them.
I looked up just as a helicopter darted above us in the sky. DEA drone, I thought. Of course. We were most likely being followed. Hell, who knew what corner or alleyway was outfitted with a hidden camera tracking Erik’s every move. Shit, maybe the FBI had caught on to my story as well? I mean, who’s to say they weren’t tracking Erik’s Facebook page when I sent him my original message? I was starting to hit an all-time level of paranoia. Even a pigeon that flapped above us and landed on a telephone wire looked like it had a hidden camera in its eye… I tried to keep my cool.
Knowing some of the narco protocol, I began preparing for my meeting with Ernesto.
“So, should I give you my iphone for safety precautions?” I asked Erik.
“What for?” He replied.
“Oh, I just assumed I wasn’t allowed to bring any electronics to the meeting,” I said.
“We aint goin on no airplane or nothin,” he replied.
At this point, my entire drug kingpin theory went out the window. After all, in the El Chapo story, Sean Penn was told to turn his phone off in Los Angeles, nearly 14 hours before he even made contact with the cartel in Mexico. He had been forced to travel to in two separate SUV’s, two single engine planes and armored vehicles just to meet with El Chapo’s henchmen before gaining approval. He was most likely given a full body cavity search, frisked and water-boarded. Ernesto’s lone henchman was a meth fiend named Erik who was allowing me to bring my iphone into a meeting as if I was about to pitch him a new Angry Birds app to finance… Ernesto’s notorious drug cartel was crumbling before my eyes.
“Follow my truck, we’re going to shoot pool at Pockets,” Erik said.
“Pockets? We’re not going to his house or something?” I asked.
“What house?” He said. “Ernesto likes to play pool. You play pool?”
“Sure, man – I love pool,” I said.
I hate pool.
Pockets was a stale billiard hall way too brightly lit for a Wednesday afternoon. A few biker types with chain wallets and denim jackets drank Miller High Life at the bar. A Mexican guy who looked to be on his 5th or 6th Corona sat watching a soccer game on TV. One lone female, a waitress who would have slept with Bad Blake in the movie Crazy Heart after he played a set at a bowling alley, served beer. In the far west corner stood a chubby man in an Arizona Wildcats baseball cap chalking up his cue. I recognized him immediately as Ernesto Gregory.
His face had filled in and he had put on close to 35 pounds. By his footwear and saggy jeans I could tell that he hadn’t done much to change his fashion choices during the past 22 years. He wore Jordan sneakers, which were probably eight years old and had accumulated a slew of new arm tattoos, including one portrait of a woman who looked a lot like a fatter version of Racquel Hernandez. He drank what I would soon learn was Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke and was constantly adjusting his pants from the crotch area. My first thought was that the most accomplished 18-year-old I had ever known had become the sloppiest 40-year-old I had seen in some time.
“Zach Selwyn!” He announced as I nervously approached the pool table. “What up Hollywood!”
Oh boy. He was going to call me Hollywood the rest of the day, I knew it.
“I seen you on that TV show about the words and shit!”
“Yeah, America’s Secret Slang, thanks man.”
“Yeah, American Slang! That’s it, what up big homie?”
“Nada man, just trying to catch up with some old friends, ya know?”
“Well shit, let’s shoot some stick.”
Ernesto racked up some balls and began rattling off shots. He was a damn good pool player and I knew that even at my best – which was pretty terrible – I was about to be embarrassed. But, he told me to pick a cue and even though it was 1:30 in the afternoon, I ordered a pitcher of Bud Light. The waitress brought it over and charged me for it. It cost $3.75.
As Ernesto sank shot after shot, we never once discussed drug dealing. In fact, we spent most of our time talking about girls from high school that he had always wanted to screw. Turns out, he thought I was some Olympic-level cocksman in my teens and he assumed that I had slept with every cute girl in our high school. As he dug up names from the past, I could only laugh and try to remember who some of these girls even were. Most of them I had never been intimate with, but to placate Ernesto, I played along.
“Paula Schrapner? Yeah, I nailed her,” I said. Not true.
“Jen Robbins? Blow job,” I lied.
“Did you ever get together with Laura House?” Ernesto asked. “She was DOPE!”
“Uh, we just kissed,” I said, which was actually true. One New Years Eve 1992, we had briefly kissed.
“Man, I wonder what she’s up to now?” He said, staring off at a neon sign.
As the beers flowed, I was finding that I was having a hard time getting anything out of Ernesto. He was stuck in 1993, still pining for girls who were long married, divorced and even had kids in high school of their own. He remembered football games that I hadn’t even thought about in 20 years and quoted our Economics teacher Mr. Franklin from a class I didn’t even recall taking. When I took a second to ask him about Racquel Hernandez and what happened to their relationship, he grew silent, took out a vape pen and pulled long and hard.
“You know we have three kids, right?”
“I did not know that,” I said. “Congrats. I have two. How old?”
“19, 17 and 15,” he said. “But the 15-year-old has blue eyes and blonde hair – aint no way that kid’s mine. We broke up 12 years ago. My second wife bailed on me last year. Bitch.”
Wow. Here I was, stressing out about my 9 and 5-year-old kids in Los Angeles and this guy had been divorced twice and had three kids in high school – one who he was convinced wasn’t even his. I suddenly felt like every pampered Hollywood asshole I have come to despise.
“Hey Hollywood, you never slept with Racquel, did you?” He asked.
“What? Hell no!”
There was a sudden silence. Erik looked ready to tear out my jugular. Ernesto stared me down. This was what Adam Richford would call “mad-dogging.” My mom was right… I should have bought that knife.
“Man, I’m just playing!” He said. “You should see your face, you looked like a little bitch just now!”
Everybody laughed. I pounded my beer. It was then that I decided that I had to get the whole story right here or else I was going to end up on the wrong end of a bong in the south side of Tucson come six o’clock, getting high and watching some show like Ridiculousness on a Futon. I found my courage and lowered my voice to a whisper.
“So, Ernesto – you still in the weed game?” I asked.
Ernesto looked at me and laughed. He looked at Erik and then back to the pool table.
“Man, I aint dealt weed since high school,” he said.
“I thought you went to jail or something?” I inquired.
“Shit man… I shot some endangered pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season. Thank God it didn’t die… Luckily I only did two nights in county jail, man. Sucked ass.”
He had shot a pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season? He did two nights in county jail? El Chapo had done something like seven years in maximum security before his first escape… As far as I know, he never complained either. Here was my one-time narcotics hero admitting to me that he was scared after doing two measly nights for shooting a fucking lizard. My story was falling apart.
“So, what about the last 15 years? I mean, what have you done for work?” I asked.
Ernesto sunk a 9 ball and looked up at me.
“I repair windshields, man. Over at Glassworx on Speedway.”
I watched him return to the table. My heart sank as he finished off the game by dropping the eight ball perfectly in the side pocket. My story was over. The most notorious drug dealer I had known had become a windshield repair guy. There was no mansion in the hills, no ranch house in Nogales… and no harem of sexy Mexican women. Ernesto had gone straight and my story was dead.
“Why do you ask, homie?” Ernesto inquired. “You need weed?”
Being that my story was a bust, I figured that the very least I could do was to go on one more pot buying deal in my old hometown. Maybe the dealer would be the drug kingpin I was looking for and I could write something about him instead.
“Yeah, sure man. Just a little bit to get me through the next two days.”
“Well, my dude sells dime bags over at hole 14 at the Golf N’ Stuff on Tanque Verde if you want to pick one up,” Ernesto said.
Dime bag? Golf N’ Stuff? I wasn’t interested. The last thing I needed was to buy Mexican weed from a kid at the same place where I had celebrated my 11-year-old birthday party. It just didn’t seem right.
“No that’s cool, man,” I replied. “I gotta get home anyway – maybe we can hook up tomorrow or something.”
“Are you sure?” He said. “This kid gets good shit… he has a couple of uncles in Nogales.”
Of course he did. I threw a five-dollar tip on the wooden table and finished off my beer. I high-fived Erik and Ernesto, promised to be in touch and promptly drove back to my mother’s house where I found her nervously pacing the living room like I was 15 again and out with a senior at my first high school party.
We opened a bottle of wine and finished our game of Scrabble…