Game One: Sunday, June 2, 1991. The Los Angeles Lakers steal home-court advantage, beating the Bulls in Chicago. Unlikely hero Sam Perkins gives the Lakers the deciding lead with a 3-point make at fourteen seconds on the clock. Bulls star Michael Jordan takes the game’s final shot, which rattles in-and-out of the rim as time expires. Final Score: Lakers 93–Bulls 91.
When our father moves back to Taiwan, he leaves John in charge. He gives him a list of rules for how to take care of me. The list covers school, money, girls, sports, and religion, and also stuff like hygiene and cooking. John says that it’s too long. Our father says that John could do with following these rules himself. Then they argue, John’s main point being that our father should stay if he’s this concerned, and then our father’s main point being that we should be grateful he didn’t just disappear in the middle of the night like Cho Yuan’s father. They go on like this for what seems like a long time. When they finish, they both have the same neutral expression on their faces, so it’s hard to tell who won the fight. But the new list, it has only three rules: 1) do your homework; 2) go to church every Sunday; 3) watch all Lakers games. Our father says that he is confident that if we follow these three instructions, I’ll turn out okay. Then he and John shake hands.
Over the next three years, John holds steady. Every day, “You done your homework?” All through spring, “Hey, Lakers tonight.” And every Sunday, “Get up, Chris, we’re late.” The church we go to is our father’s old church, a Taiwanese church in Chatsworth. We go to the English service, which starts after the Taiwanese service, but still, we’re never on time. On the day of Game One, John circles the parking lot, looking for a space. We can hear the church band from outside. They’re like a rock band, like the kind that’s popular in those days, nostalgic, even when it’s new.
We end up parking on the curb, and come in through the back. The band’s in the middle of an upbeat song. The drummer’s this white guy called Woods. He plays too fast. The rest of the band struggles to keep up. The words to the song are up on a projector screen. The people in the front sing along and sway, their hands up in the air. I sometimes want to do that too, but I’m too embarrassed. I just clap, or more usually stand with my hands in my pockets.
Off the stage and to the side is the new pastor, our cousin, Cho Yuan. Cho nods at John. John does not acknowledge him, but I wave. Cho points at me and yells out, “AC Green in the house,” loud enough for everyone to hear.
John and I sit in the back. Most of the rest of the audience is up close to the front. We also used to sit in the front, but these days John says he likes it in the back. He says, “That’s where Jesus would sit,” which sounds like a joke, but I know he’s being serious.
With the music still going, Cho steps onto the stage. Bible in one hand, ragged and bent, with paper scraps sticking out of it. He slaps it against his hip like a tambourine. The band slows down and goes into a kind of instrumental bridge. Cho speaks into the microphone, “Lord bless the words of this humble servant.” Then, he puts the Bible down on the podium and goes into a long discussion of the NBA Finals.
Cho says, “Who here’s watching Game One today?”
Most of the kids raise their hands. A couple of the boys shout out, “Go Lakers!” Then John joins in, his voice deep and booming, “Bulls suck!”
Cho laughs and puts his hands up, “Now, now. Let’s remember to be kind to any Chicagoans in the house.” By which Cho means himself. He was born in Chicago and calls himself a Chicagoan, even though he’s lived in Reseda since he was ten. For sports, he still roots for the Bears and the Blackhawks, but had been a Lakers fan until recently when the Bulls got good.
Cho makes a performance of checking his watch. The boys are still horsing around. Cho says, “Ok, let’s get this show started. We wouldn’t want to miss the tip.” A boy snickers and says, like as a question, “the tip,” like it’s some kind of penis joke. Then some other boys laugh and repeat, “the tip.” Then John repeats the whole phrase, enunciating each word, “Wouldn’t want to miss the tip.”
Cho looks at John. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes and then goes on with his sermon.
It wasn’t that long ago that John and Cho were friends. Cho and Cho’s father had moved to Reseda, into the same apartment building as us. John was still in high school, and Cho wasn’t the pastor yet, just another kid. The two of them were always together, along with Cho’s girlfriend, Margaret. Back then the three of them were like the Valley’s biggest Lakers fans, especially Cho. His favorite guys were Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Cho liked to call John “Magic.” Himself, he called “Worthy.” He tried calling Margaret “Jeannie,” after Jeannie Buss, daughter of the Lakers’ owner, but that didn’t stick.
The three of them used to study videotapes of games, stopping and rewinding plays, memorizing the steps and movements, even the facial expressions, of the players. Once they broke it down, they’d go outside, John and Cho in jerseys, Margaret with the Camcorder, and they’d record themselves doing the plays. The three of them would then take those tapes into the AV room and edit them into their own personal highlight reels. The tapes got popular at church. Cho got more kids involved. They made copies of the tapes and passed them around. Margaret called it The Poseur’s Comp. Eventually, I wanted to be in it too. Cho pointed at me and said, “Who do you want to be?”
I said that I didn’t know, and then Margaret said, “How about Rambis?” She then flexed her biceps and winked at me.
“No,” said John. “Not Rambis. Come on.”
He punched me in the arm. I winced, and that seemed proof enough that I wasn’t tough enough to be Kurt Rambis. John said, “What about AC?”
“Yeah! Yeah, Chris will be AC,” said Cho. “You know AC Green, right, Chris? A man of God, that guy.” Margaret said, “Guys, come on.” She said that as if it wasn’t cool for them to call me AC. I was only nine. I didn’t know any better at the time. I was just happy to be a part of it. But before I knew it, every kid at church was calling me Virgo, because AC Green was more famous for being a virgin than for playing basketball. John and Cho confirmed that AC was a proud celibate, saving himself for marriage. I asked them if I could be some other player. Margaret said, “Maybe it’s been going on for long enough.”
Cho said, “Naw, it’s a good nickname, and anyway, people don’t get to choose their own nicknames.” Margaret said, “Really? And who named you Worthy?”
Cho laughed and put his arm around my neck and pulled me close. They’d been playing ball. Cho was sweaty and stank so bad. He put his mouth right up to my ear and said, “Kiddo, it’s no put down. You’re AC because you’re the good one, the best one. The pure of heart. When the Lord comes, He’ll look at you and say, behold my servant Christopher, blameless and upright. And that’s when you’re gonna put in a good word for the rest of us, right?”
Game Two: Wednesday, June 5, 1991. Jordan and the Bulls make a statement. With Game One hero Sam Perkins in the lane, Jordan drives hard, switching his ball-hand in midair to avoid the block. He banks in the layup. Chicago Stadium erupts. Jordan pumps his fist in celebration. The Bulls go on to win by 21. Final Score: Bulls 107–Lakers 86.
On Wednesdays, John does this volunteer job where he drives around town and drops off food for sick people. I’m usually in school when he goes, but that day I ditch, and he brings me along. His route changes some each week. I don’t know why for sure, but I think it might be because some of the people die. Or maybe some of them get better, but that doesn’t seem like how it works. A few of the stops are regulars. John’s gotten to know them. Even I know a few of them. There’s an old Black guy named Thompson. He’s got so many books; he’s always trying to give some to us. There’s another guy named Ralph who’s got cats, and never wants to talk; we just ring the bell and leave the food. There’s a couple guys like that. Then there’s Serge.
Serge is John’s friend from the old days. They met in a PE class at CSUN, John’s first year. They used to go out to K-Town together. Serge was a fifth-year and was a kind of a mentor to John. He taught him a lot about how to party. Not just how to party, but how to meet people, how to be confident. Now, John’s a fifth-year, and Serge lives all the way out in the Canyon. John sets up his route so that Serge’ll be our last stop. That way we can hang out a little bit.
Serge says, “Dude, my chicken is ice cold.”
John smiles and apologizes, putting the container in the microwave. He then gets beers from the fridge and together us three go out onto Serge’s porch.
Serge has AIDS. He’s had it for a while now. He was the first person we’d ever known to get it, and he’s one of the main reasons John does the route.
Serge makes a promise, “Next time, I’ll cook for you guys. Fucking kimchi jjigae, how about that?” John agrees. He tells Serge he’ll bring the beer. Serge tells John that he’ll bring the girls. Serge laughs because he’s not really bringing any girls over. I used to think Serge was gay, even before he got sick. One time, John told Serge, “Christopher thinks you’re gay.” I thought Serge would be mad, but he wasn’t. He smiled and said that he didn’t discriminate on race, creed, or gender. He was equal opportunity.
Serge puts two cigarettes between his lips and lights them both at the same time. He gives one to John. I feel like telling John not to take it, but I don’t. Then the two of them smoke and tell stories about the old days. Once in a while, John’ll let me take a sip from his beer, and Serge will try to include me in the conversation. He says things like, “Someday, little man, you’ll have better stories than ours. I mean it. And I don’t mean just party stories. You’re gonna be somebody.”
Then Serge starts crying. John grabs hold of him and pulls him into a tight hug, each of them resting their chin on each other’s shoulder. It’s sweet and also funny because they both keep smoking the whole time.
John asks me if I want food. I had eaten Serge’s chicken dinner, so I’m not hungry, but I tell John yes anyway, so that we can hang out longer. And he says that we’ll get burritos then.
We drive back through traffic, back to Reseda and to this Mexican place called Melina’s. I eat chips and salsa as John orders. He doesn’t get burritos. He gets the steak plate, two of them, and also fries, taquitos, and sodas. That’s a lot of food for the two of us. Then John says that we’re bringing it to Margaret’s. I haven’t seen Margaret since her last day at church. I say, “Margaret’s on your route now?”
John does a sort of half-laugh, “No, she’s not on the route. We’re just going as friends.”
I say, “Oh.”
Margaret is Cho’s ex-girlfriend Margaret. She used to work with Cho at church, in the music ministry. She resigned a year ago, but had been sick for the whole year before that. The church said she had to focus on her health. They’d made it seem like it was Margaret’s own idea.
After Serge, Margaret was the second person we knew to get HIV. It was supposed to be private, but her healthcare was through the church so they found out and pretty quickly everybody knew. Then some of the boys started making up stories about her, things I mostly didn’t understand. Their nickname for her was AIDS Face. I know it was wrong, but I started calling her that too. I said it once in front of John and regretted it as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I expected John to kick my ass, but he didn’t.
John says, “What, you don’t believe in helping our friends?”
“No,” I say. “I mean, of course I do. Just didn’t know that you and Margaret were still friends.” John says, “Of course we are.”
It’s almost six when we get to Margaret’s apartment. I hold the food in two big bags and the drinks in a cardboard box. John buzzes the intercom. It takes a long time for Margaret to answer, but John doesn’t ring again. We wait. It’s Cho’s old apartment, where we all used to hang out, watching cable or playing cards, sometimes all night, then waking up in the morning to Cho and Margaret clanging pots and pans, making breakfast for all of us, and talking about an adventure for the day, something wholesome like hiking or rollerblades.
When we see her, it takes me a second to understand who it is. Margaret had been athletic and outdoorsy before, but now she’s pale and skinny. Kinda boney and puffy at the same time. There are little circles on her arm of small, purple pools. I had not realized that someone could get that sick that fast. I try not to stare, but I do look whenever I think she isn’t looking.
We sit, and John puts the food out, family style, on top of the flattened bags. He gets a steak knife from the kitchen and cuts the steaks into strips. He puts it all out in a kind of a mini-buffet, but Margaret barely eats, picking up a few fries and dipping them in house dressing.
The game is on the television. I take a soda and sit on the papasan. John and Margaret are on the couch. During commercial breaks, instead of talking about basketball, they talk about CSUN, John’s classes: Lit Survey, Research Methods, Identity. His grades are good. Margaret seems proud. Then they talk about Cho and how the church is doing. They talk about music ministry. They talk about the other young people, the kids who used to spend their weekends here in this apartment, some of whom might want to send Margaret their best wishes, but none have actually come to see her.
John says, “They’re fucking hypocrites.”
Margaret says, “It’s not their fault. I know they care.”
Margaret takes John’s hand and they lace their fingers together. Their two hands look mismatched.
John says, “I don’t get it.”
Margaret says, “It’s okay. Hey, it really is. God is good. He really is.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
Margaret leans close to John, nudging him to smile, but he doesn’t smile. She says to him, “This is how it is. If you believe in God, you believe in all of Him, the good and the terrible. When He gives us love, it’s easy and we want to snatch it up greedy, like dogs. But when He gives us pain, we also need to embrace it, hold it, appreciate it.”
John shakes his head, “How can God be good?”
“That’s not the right question. The question is how can we say we believe in God if we don’t trust Him?” She runs her fingers through his longish hair, tucking it behind his ears, “My sweet boy. Make sure you’re all right. You can’t wait like I did.”
I look away, turning back to the television just in time to see Jordan drive the lane on Perkins. He goes up with his stupid tongue out like he’s gonna dunk. But Perkins is there to meet him. Then Jordan in midair switches hands and lays it in with his left. The crowd goes nuts. Jordan is pumping his fist. His teammates are all crowding into him to give him high fives. The score is 97 to 71. There’s still seven minutes to go. I keep watching, doing the math in my head of how many possessions the Lakers need to come back.
Game Three: Friday, June 7, 1991. The third contest of the series is tied at the end of regulation, but in overtime, Jordan and the Bulls overwhelm the overmatched Lakers, pulling away easily. Final Score: Bulls 104–Lakers 96 (OT).
It’s the last day of school, a half day. John’s waiting for me when I get out. I ask if we can give my friends a ride, but John says that he has a doctor’s appointment. We drive up to CSUN and park on the street and walk a block onto campus.
Student Health is a big boxy, brick building. We take the stairs down to Laboratory & X-ray, and John says for me to wait for him. He points at a row of blue vinyl chairs. I don’t sit down. I ask him what we’re doing there. He shrugs and pats me on the head, ruffling my hair. This isn’t something he usually does. It feels awkward. I play along, batting at his hand until he stops, and then he walks to the front desk. I follow him. Once there he talks to the receptionist. He doesn’t say specifically HIV or AIDS, but I’m not dumb. The receptionist hands him a clipboard of papers. He stands there and works on it until he’s finished. When he gives it back, he asks how long it’ll take for the results. The receptionist tells him that he’ll have to talk to his doctor. Then we both go and sit and wait.
John’s brought his Bible with him. He turns to a page in the middle. A verse is circled. It’s God speaking to one of his followers. John reads it out loud to me, “Who then stands against me? Who has a claim that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.”
I say, “What does that mean?”
“It means that, no matter what you do, how hard you try, how good a person you are, God may or may not give a shit in the end.”
He closes the Bible and puts it onto the empty chair beside him. We sit and wait. I ask John if he remembers that Jordan play. I ask if he’s ever seen anybody do that before. John starts telling me how Jordan is probably the best player in the NBA right now, but someday he’ll be on the other side of a play like that. Then the receptionist calls his name.
Fridays are Friday Night Fellowship. John and I don’t usually go when a game’s on, but Cho says he’s gonna put the game up on the projector, so we head over. Cho’s got everyone in the cafeteria because he got the aunties to make food, and there’s no food allowed in the sanctuary. The aunties are still there, standing by the chow mein and fried chicken with tongs. They hand me a plate. I thank them. They ask about our father. I say that he’s doing great, even though I have no idea how he is. They look at me like they know the truth. I thank them again and find a seat in the front. John comes and sits next to me. He doesn’t get any food, just a Coke from the machine.
At halftime, John says that we should head out. We’ll watch the rest at home. I protest and then Cho gets up on the stage and says that they’ve put together a special halftime show. Music comes on. It’s the song from Rocky, not “Eye of the Tiger,” but the instrumental theme song. On the screen, there’s a fade in and we see a bunch of guys in Laker and Bulls jerseys playing basketball. It’s Cho and some other guys from church. I look for John, but John’s not in it. Then there’s a cool graphic that says: Poseur’s Comp Returns!
The video is them reenacting highlights from Game Two. It’s mostly terrible. The kids aren’t even really trying to do the plays right. They’re just goofing around. But the production looks really good. And there’s music and also a play-by-play announcer who sounds just like Marv Albert. Then, as the final highlight, they have that Jordan hand-switching layup. It’s Cho as Jordan and this tall kid named Benson Liu as Sam Perkins. Benson puts his hands up. He’s supposed to try and block Cho, but he doesn’t. He just stands there. Cho takes the pass and comes into the lane to dunk. He can’t dunk in real life, but in the video they have the rim lowered. It doesn’t matter because he switches hands just like Jordan did and lays it in on the other side. Then he does the fist pumping thing and that part looks exactly right.
When the video’s over, I turn to John, but he’s gone. He’s over by the Coke machine again. He gets two drinks this time, one for me. When he gets back, I ask him if he saw Cho. He says that he saw it. I ask him if he liked it. He says, “Yeah, it was good.”
Then the game starts up again. The Lakers go on a big run, and then the Bulls go on a big run. Then toward the very end, it goes back and forth. Bulls score, Lakers score, Lakers score again to make it a two-point Lakers lead. And then Jordan ties it all up, and the game goes to overtime.
This should be an exciting moment. I feel like the Lakers have a chance now. And if they win this game, then I’m pretty sure they’ll win the series. I look over, and John seems like he’s not paying attention. I say to him to pay attention to the game. He sort of snaps out of whatever he’s thinking about, and says, “Oh shit, overtime.” But almost as soon as we’re both paying attention again, the Lakers start to struggle and then pretty soon after that, the game’s over and they lose.
Game Four: Sunday, June 9. The Lakers come out strong, but their hopes are dashed when James Worthy is forced to leave the game due to injury. The Bulls dominate in the second half, closing out the contest on a 19–8 run. Final Score: Bulls 97– Lakers 82.
Cho’s sermon is about this guy Job, God’s number one most obedient guy in the Bible. Number one guy, that is, until one day, God and Satan make a bet to see how obedient Job will be if they kill all Job’s kids, take away all his money, and make him sick. Cho is really into it. He puts a diagram up on the overhead. The diagram is impossible to make sense of. But the way Cho boils it down is that we all have just two choices to pick from: Jesus or Despair. And that no matter how bad things get, it’s still those same two choices.
Cho says, “Job’s wife tells him to choose despair. She says to him, Go on! Curse God and die! But Job knows he hadn’t done anything wrong. He doesn’t deserve all this evil. He has every right to curse God. But does he? Does he?”
I look at John. He has one arm draped over the back of the pew. I elbow him and whisper, “Cho’s getting worked up.”
John doesn’t say anything, but then he elbows me back and motions his head for the door. We both get up and head out. John doesn’t look back, but I do. I see Cho. He sees me too. He doesn’t wave, but he smiles a little and nods his head at me like he and I are still cool even though I’m leaving in the middle of his sermon.
One the way home, I ask John about the sermon, “Why would God agree to torture his best guy on a bet?”
Cho had said that God’s reason for doing the bet isn’t important. Cho had said God can do whatever he wants. Because we humans can’t ever really understand God’s reasons. And if we dare to ask? More often than not, God will just dunk on us. That’s exactly how Cho said it, “God will dunk on your ass! Put you on a poster. ‘Cause God is Jordan. And us? We’re just Sam Perkins. Look it up! It’s in the Bible.”
I ask John if that’s really in the Bible.
John says, “Jordan didn’t dunk on Perkins. It was a layup.”
Game Five: Wednesday, June 12. Without James Worthy, the Lakers lean heavily on Magic Johnson, who leads them to a slim fourth-quarter lead. But Chicago once again goes on a late run, squashing the Lakers’ meager hopes and securing the championship. Michael Jordan will hoist his first of six NBA trophies. Meanwhile, Magic Johnson will abruptly retire before the start of the next season. Final Score: Bulls 108–Lakers 101.
When John gets off the phone, he’s pretty quiet. He says for me to go read a book, he’s going back down to CSUN. I tell him that I want to go with him. He tells me that he doesn’t want me to go. He says, “There’s no reason for you to come, Chris.”
I say, “Is it bad?”
He takes a breath and nods a little bit. He says, “Yeah, it’s bad.”
We don’t know it yet, but that night’s game will be the final game of the series. John and I watch together, and then Cho comes over with a pizza and a case of beer. The two of them drink and smoke cigarettes. Cho tells me to not ever say anything about the cigarettes at church. Then the two of them argue about the game. John keeps saying that it’d be different if Worthy wasn’t injured. Cho keeps saying that no team has ever come back from down three to one. John keeps telling Cho to shut the fuck up with that negative energy.
Cho says, “I don’t make the rules son. I just play by them.” Then Cho keeps calling John son. John tells him to quit that shit, and that Cho’s a bandwagoning traitor because he’s now suddenly a Bulls fan. Cho just responds to everything John says by calling him, son. “Whatever, son. Whatever, son.” John says, “You’re the son, bitch. You’re the son.” I join in too, saying, “What’s up, son. What’s up.” And John and I team up against Cho, and we all three play wrestle, knocking over the beers, but laughing, and it all seems like old times.
Meanwhile, the game keeps slipping further away from us. My guy, AC Green, is being dominated by Jordan, who’ll end up with 30 points. In the end, it’s close on the scoreboard, but we never seem like we have a real chance. It all feels inevitable, like everyone knows it doesn’t matter if we take the lead again, or if even we win this game, or even if we win the next one. We aren’t the best team anymore. It’s these other guys now, the new heroes, doing things like as if touched by the hand of God, directed by the hand of fate. It isn’t anything we’re doing wrong. It’s just that, that which we are, we are.
At the end, the final score is Bulls 108–Lakers 101, and the series to the Bulls, 4 to 1. Chicago will go on to win six of the next eight NBA championships. Meanwhile, Los Angeles will struggle on and off the court in ways we cannot yet imagine.
But that night, in that game, there’s this one break away with AC and Magic. One of our guys dislodges the basketball from Jordan’s hands. AC takes the ball out of the air and drives down the sideline. Magic follows on the other wing. They pass it back and forth between them like it’s rehearsed. Seamless, almost metered, like a ballet or a poem. For that play, everything is like it always was. AC ends up with the ball at the basket and casually dunks it with one hand. He stands for a second after scoring and looks into the crowd, into the TV camera too. The Forum crowd cheers and cheers. John and Cho cheer, high-fiving each other hard over and over. I cheer too. I cheer and do a little dance in front of the TV and pick up Cho’s beer and take as big a swig as I can. Cho just laughs and says for me to go on and enjoy myself.
And so, I do. So, we all do, and on the TV, AC just nods and half-smiles and walks back, getting ready for the next play.