The bartender walked over and reached for the bourbon bottle, but Ray declined with a wave of his hand.
“I’ll take a top-up,” said Larry. The bartender poured. “I didn’t come here for advice on the Russians,” he said to Ray. “I came here because we found another option.” Ray looked at him. Larry gave a tiny grin. “We’re bringing back Dunk Force.”
Ray laughed. As he watched Larry take a drink, his smile dissolved.
“I’m serious, Ray,” said Larry.
Ray stared at him in confusion, then his hands clenched into enormous fists, and his eyes darted about. “Whose damned fool idea was this?”
“Mine,” said Larry.
Ray looked ready to explode, but stopped and calmed himself. “You know what happened last time. You were there.”
“Listen,” said Larry. “A while ago the president was looking for a cheap boost in the polls, so his advisors brainstormed and suggested he revive Dunk Force. The program was a huge success in its day, and it would be harmless now, a nice little gimmick. So the president jumped at the idea. I guess he figured it would make him as revered as Reagan. Anyway, they selected a squad, but it ended up on the backburner, saved for a rainy day. But now we have this situation in Iran, and we have an opportunity. Putin loves basketball, and the Russians are still smarting from the best-of-five series in ’96. They want revenge. They want to embarrass America on the international stage. And Khamenei wants a piece of the action.”
Ray sat speechless for a minute, then said, “It’s not worth it. You know it’s not. If you want to rescue that jackass and spare the president some embarrassment, fine. But Dunk Force is not the way to do it. We buried it for a reason. If you have an ounce of decency, you’ll forget this whole thing.”
“It’s already happening,” said Larry. “The squad is in training camp right now.”
“Damn it!” said Ray, thumping a fist on the bar. A few eyes around the room looked at him. “Larry,” he pleaded, “you have to pull the plug. Tell them it failed, say the team didn’t gel. Hell, drug the squad’s lunch and put them in hospital for a few days—anything. Don’t ruin anymore lives.”
“Ray, relax,” said Larry. “It’s different this time. We’re doing it clean.”
Ray peered at Larry; Larry nodded. Ray exhaled a long, trembling breath. A tear welled in his eye. “Thank God for that,” he whispered. “Well, you should still shut it down. If the team is clean, then we’re no chance against the Russians.”
“We don’t need to beat them,” said Larry. “We just need to put on a show.”
Ray stared at him. “I don’t get it. You’re going to throw the game?”
“No. We’ll be providing a distraction.”
Ray’s mouth fell slightly open. “You want to bust the prisoners out.”
Larry nodded. “We’re trying to get the game—and the prisoners—moved to a neutral venue. It’s risky, but it’s all we’ve got.”
“If you fail, or anyone gets caught…”
“Then we’re in a world of trouble.”
Ray stroked his chin and thought for a minute. “I’ve been out of the game a long time. If you came here for—”
“I just need a favour,” said Larry. “If the Russians are going to go for this, then we have to be convincing. The team needs credibility… We want to bring in Zdunowski.”
Ray shook his head. “Not a chance.”
“Ray, hear me out—”
“No. I made a promise. His playing days are over.”
“Ray, we need him in the squad, just to make an appearance. He’ll have five minutes game time at most.”
“I can’t, Larry.”
“The team will fly in three days before the game, then as soon as it’s over they’re back on the plane and out of there. They’ll have full security.”
“He won’t do it,” said Ray.
“He will if you ask him.”
Ray sat hunched at the bar. “Sorry Larry. I can’t do it.”
Larry finished his drink and set the glass down, took a fifty from his wallet and placed it on the bar. “I understand,” he said, getting up from his seat. He reached into his jacket and took out a polaroid photograph. “Here—when I was going through the old files, I found this.” He placed the photograph on the bar beside Ray. “Thought you might like it.” He straightened his jacket and checked his watch. “With or without Zdunowski, the mission is going ahead. You know, the team is in the original training centre. You should come down and take a look at the squad—just take a look. Maybe you could offer a few pointers. Think about it.” He put a hand on Ray’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”
Larry left the bar, and Ray sat silently. He picked up the photograph and looked—a line of ten bright, strong young men in basketball uniforms. The socks were long, the shorts short, and the haircuts flamboyant, but otherwise it was a good-looking team. Ray was third from left, with a basketball tucked under his arm. A lifetime ago. He turned the photograph over. Scrawled on the back were the words Dunk Force training squad. May 3rd, 1983. He turned the picture around again and looked at the young faces. They were all smiling. Well, all except Zdunowski. He put the photograph down and looked up at the television. His hand trembled as he fidgeted with the silver ring on his finger.
© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED