A guy from the team was supposed to pick me up at the airport in Munich. It was the first week of August 1996. Adult life was imminent: my first real job. I had no address to go to and no phone numbers to call. The club had promised to give me an apartment to live in, but as I strolled through the terminal looking for my ride, I really had no idea where I was going to sleep that night.
Luckily, Grescho was easy to spot. We were about the same height, 6ft 6in. “Basketball?” he said. I nodded and followed him to the parking lot. The car belonged to the carriage; Grescho did him a favor. The rest of the team had lunch at a restaurant in town. As he jerked the gear stick through the Bavarian countryside, Grescho spoke a little TV show English with a heavy accent.
Eventually I switched to German, maybe to show off (my mother is German). After that, the conversation flowed more easily, but it was my first mistake. American basketball players belonged to a kind of aristocracy in Europe, the elite. Clubs had quotas on the number of foreigners they could hire. My German passport was my ticket to a job, but fluency in the language also meant I was just one of the guys. That’s the thing about athletes: they take advantage of them. Everything is a competition, even conversation, and you don’t win by listening carefully and asking people questions.
But for the next four months, that’s what I did. The star of our team was Jonny Roberson, a Texan like me who spent most of his 20’s hopping around various European country towns before ending up here in a last ditch attempt to make it to the top. If he guided us to promotion he could make top money or maybe jump into one of the better paying leagues in Italy or France. As the season progressed, he let me pull alongside him. I became his buddy.
Maybe he liked talking to me because I was a different American. Jonny had a wife and five children in San Antonio, but here he lived out a kind of extended youth during the season, renting an apartment and hanging out sport Center play basketball all day. His answer to all the loneliness was to get religion. However, not in any formal way. When asked, he said he believed in “the truth.”
But it was also because Jonny didn’t speak German and I used to translate for him. The majority of the team and the coaching staff were German. “What are you saying, Ben? What do you say?” Like any other economic migrant, Jonny spent his working life dealing with people who didn’t understand him. He needed not just a translator but an admirer, someone who would appreciate how good he was.
As for my role on the team, that was already defined and it wasn’t a glamorous one. The German word for interpreter is Interpreter, whose sound sums up how I felt: stubborn and humble. A grunt. A born number two.
I already knew a bit about being a buddy. After all, I was a middle child. But I’d also spent my teenage years watching the Chicago Bulls finally break through thanks to Michael Jordan’s size and the talents of what he liked to call “supporting actors” (though teammate Scottie Pippen was eventually named one of the 50 best players in league history).
Literature, too, is full of cronies and their heroes: Watson and Holmes, Boswell and Johnson, Kerouac and Cassady. “Yes, and not just because I was a writer and needed new experiences I wanted to get to know Dean better,” Kerouac wrote, “but because, despite our different characters, he kind of reminded me of some long-lost brother.”
Just six months earlier I had studied Schiller and Goethe at the University, translated Schiller’s letters and written essays about their complicated friendship. “To be with Goethe more would make me unhappy,” he wrote. “Even with his closest friends, he has no moments of redemption. . . He has a talent for attracting people but always keeps himself free.”
In another, Schiller admitted: “I don’t compete with Goethe when he wants to use his full power. He has more genius, knowledge, a surer sensibility, a finer sense of art. . . I would be completely invisible next to him if I hadn’t had the subtlety to create my own brand of art.”
Schiller tried to maintain his self-esteem by writing about his more famous friend. It’s the traditional way for sidekicks to survive one-sided relationships, and perhaps explains why I started writing about Jonny in letters home, which I had already considered turning into something else.
There was a lot to say. Jonny was smart, but intense isolation breeds strange ideas, and we often argued about it on the long journeys and the hours after training. I remember asking him about Kant’s categorical imperative, which Jonny believed in—always telling the truth was one of his rules.
You can hear my voice on this question, the young college boy trying to turn the conversation into something he can win at. “So what would you do if a guy with an ax showed up at your door and asked you where your son is? Would you tell him he was up there?’
“Yes,” Jonny replied. “Where I’m from, that motherfucker would kill him no matter what I say.”
In my own way, I guess I was playing a power game by morphing into Jonny’s right-hand man. Sitting next to him on the team bus, sitting across from him at dinner while other role players have to endure each other’s company. After all, Jonny was the star. I once saw him dive right inside the free throw line after practice, like Jordan. It was almost impossible to score against him. Even on a quick pause, if he was within 5 feet, forget it. You might as well give him the ball.
But where you sit at dinner or on the bus won’t convince the coach to put you in the game. I never found out what Jonny thought of me as a basketball player, which probably doesn’t mean much. The truth is that while we tend to think of the pal as the stand-in — Scottie Pippen to Jordan — they’re often much lower in the pecking order and use their connection as a means to persevere.
Steve Kerr was picked off by the Bulls only because he had perfected the one skill Jordan needed from his “support cast”: making open jump shots. But Jordan has relentlessly bullied him in training, talked trash, physically abused him and used his advantage of scale. Jordan was three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.
Eventually, Kerr fought back after taking a forearm to his chest during a game. Jordan punched him in the face, but only then did he accept Kerr, who learned from their relationship how to manage the egos of great athletes. Kerr is now the coach of the Golden State Warriors. Just this summer they won their fourth championship in the past eight years.
I never fought Jonny. Once at a pre-season tournament, under full pressure, when I lost the ball out wide, he ran up to me and punched me hard in the chest. “If you do that again,” he said, “I’m going to hit you. I’ll get you out.” When he pushed me, I backed away. If he challenged me, I would withdraw or take notes.
But of course Jonny wasn’t Jordan. His jump shot came and went. Even in our league he had to compete against bigger and stronger guys who could push him around. One of the depressing things about being an athlete is that you eventually find your level. Then you have to hold on somewhere along the long slope, and it’s much easier going down than up.
Even while this was happening, nobody on our team could hold their own against Jonny. Nobody even tried. Although he lived by his own strict rules of propriety and understanding, these did not apply in court. It was a separate kingdom. I once heard him say to an official during a game, when he didn’t like the call, that the guy should be more careful on the way to the parking lot afterwards. . . Jonny had to be physically restrained.
When I asked him about it later, he said he knew what he was doing. Referees can be intimidated into threatening them as if that was a political decision, not a loss of control. But I wasn’t sure. Because things were going on that season that were clearly out of his control, and one of the things that makes you an athlete is there’s almost no limit to how hard you’ll try to get it back.
Perhaps, in my own way, I had also made a political decision. Stand aside and watch these guys do their thing and if asked, interpret for them. I couldn’t keep up with Jonny on the basketball court, but the stakes were less for me. I was 22 years old and had already decided that this wasn’t my life.
One day in October I went for a walk went to the practice and found an empty dressing room. The gym was quiet too. I met Grescho wandering the halls in street clothes. The club had decided to let Jonny’s contract expire. They would not sign him again. “If he leaves, we’re screwed,” said Grescho. Eventually we all gathered in the conference room – including Jonny – to voice our grievances while one of the junior front office staff tried to calm us down.
Jonny was fighting not just for his job but for his sense of identity, and I had put myself in the middle of that battle as an interpreter. “I’m the damn best player on this team,” he said. “I’m probably the best damn player in this crappy league. Tell him that. Ben, tell him that.”
It does not matter. Jonny could boss us all around the pitch but if he had come to the club in a position of power he would never have signed that contract. And they let him go.
I never saw Jonny again. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing about him or what I’ve learned from him, even after I quit and went home. My latest novel chronicles the complicated friendship between an NBA star and his childhood friend-turned-sportswriter. The gap between them isn’t just a gap in talent, but in the kind of life they might want to lead: an ordinary good life or something more extraordinary. Of course, the beauty of writing, as Schiller recognized, is that it’s a game of making the rules. And where failure itself becomes another interesting experience.
“The Sidekick” by Benjamin Markovits has been published by Faber
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