Written by Mitch and Blades
Monday, November 30, 2020.
Crosby Sutters sat on the bench of the changing room at the Baltimore Spirits practice facility. His hearing processors were turned on, but he couldn’t hear anything outside of his own thoughts - and those thoughts raged like wildfire inside his head. The game the night before had been a good game. A properly good game, with amazing performances from both sides. For some, it was a battle to show which team was somehow morally superior, but to Crosby, it was one game of eighty.
Certainly the media tried to play up some sort of chip on his shoulder against the Wildcards - and he would be lying if he said none existed - but chips don’t win games, and they distract from the team. If the Spirits were going to win, it would be as a team. Instead they lost as one, by a single bucket in overtime.
For all intents and purposes, you couldn’t ask for a better showing. There was no blowout, instead there was a near-even match, which should demonstrate strength on both teams. But where the unity Crosby had helped to forge on the Wildcards saw the Las Vegas team through, on the Spirits the cracks were already more than apparent. His attempts to pull the team together seemed more like slapping tape on a crumbling pillar, yet somehow it was a pillar he and Erik Toivonen were keeping upright.
Or at least they were until that night, where it all came crashing down. Lisa DuPont led the race to the bottom as she gloated, then argued on Twitter, while teams, players, journalists, and seemingly everyone devolved into a mess of a gutter fight with words. And for once, Crosby let his real feelings be heard.
Lisa was a brat. Plain and simple. He had tried to help her in Las Vegas, tried so very hard to connect with her, to help her through rough times, and to make sense of her relationships. In the end, he honestly thought he’d gotten through, and made a difference. He thought her leaving Las Vegas for Baltimore could help her mature and grow, but now he saw it for what it really was - running away from responsibility. And worse, she’d dragged him with her. Sure, she was a talented player, but with a personality so selfish and arrogant that the rest of the team had little interest in connecting with her. A diva with an unearned tiara. But a diva who could still turn around, if only she could see the bigger picture, and find a softer side to herself which would let people in. A side which could grow and mature.
Not that Crosby had been terribly mature with some of the snipes he’d made on Twitter to his team’s account, so he couldn’t hold himself blameless. Still, could anyone blame him?
Stuck on a team with an inexplicable coach who had been out of the game for longer than Crosby had even been alive, had never been involved with the FBA before, and while able to speak English, refused to do so because the language was “repulsive,” instead insisting on communicating through a little lackey of an interpreter. What was repulsive was the lack of respect to the team.
Never before had Crosby heard of such blind arrogance, nor had he experienced such an utter lack of leadership or direction. Never before had he felt a team so scattered to the winds, with no care or concern from their coach or management. He could see Erik struggling to hold the team together from the start, and so naturally Crosby had stepped up, acting as lieutenant to his team captain, and engaged Team Dad mode at the same time. Pulling double duty as leader and player made practice exhausting, and with everything crumbling around him after that last game, Crosby just wanted to drop.
And to think, two days ago his biggest worry was finding his first gray hair. Closing his eyes, he only imagined how many more would appear by morning. When he opened his eyes, he looked over to see Erik Toivonen leaning against his locker frame, the reindeer’s antlers half-hooked on it as well. As much pressure as Crosby felt, he knew Erik had it even worse, as their captain. He had publicly - and rightly - feuded with team staff on Twitter, while Crosby had backed him behind the scenes for the most part. It had been a two-prong strategy the pair had worked out, leaving Crosby in the clear, able to take charge, should things come down on Erik. That strategy was out the window now, with some of Crosby’s tweets that day.
Standing up, the genet sighed, then approached Erik. Wrapping an arm around his shoulders as a show of support, he then found Erik turning to him, winding up in a hug. Crosby accepted it, rubbing and patting the center’s back. In the brief glimpse of his face Crosby had caught, there was the glimmer of tear tracks on Erik’s cheeks.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Crosby whispered to him. “Sometimes things need to break so we can build them up stronger. This. Isn’t. Your. Fault.”
Erik said nothing back, simply hugging him. Crosby gave him the support he needed, and continued, “C’mon. You’ve had a rough day. We all have. Go home, get some rest. We’ll come back when we’re ready, okay?”
The reindeer didn’t have to say anything, just nodding against Crosby’s shoulder before slowly letting him go. Crosby gave him a slight smile, and nodded back, before returning to his locker. The players-only meeting was postponed, rightfully so. No one was in a clear head at the moment, so nothing would be gained by it.
Speaking of a clear head, he had a cylinder head waiting to be honed, back in his garage, and the rest of an engine to rebuild. It would be distraction enough for the evening, yet he knew there was more he needed to do than just still his own nerves. As much as he wished he was on another team - any other team - he felt a commitment to his teammates, and their wellbeing. Perhaps he could do a little automotive therapy, and help his teammates at the same time. Pulling out his phone, he texted Naima King.
“Hey, if your check engine light is still on, swing by my place after practice. I’ll park outside so you can pull right into the empty bay of the shop.”
Once he received a reply, he finished getting dressed, then headed out, ignoring a few words spoken to him in French along the way, said something in Klingon himself, then ignored the paparazzi waiting outside the car park. Inside his Rolls-Royce Cullinan, he couldn’t hear them anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, he pulled through the electric gates of his property, a converted old auto shop. Its office and waiting room, along with two of its four bays, had been converted to a nice living space, while the remaining two bays were updated with modern equipment and a lift, along with rows of toolboxes and equipment. A beaten-up old Volvo 240 wagon hung upon the lift, half-empty, while an engine block never meant for it was mounted to a stand by the main workbench, with parts and pieces covering the rest of the stainless steel surface. It was a quality garage, though a few things seemed out of place. Light stands and camera mounts were scattered around, and even the overhead lighting had large softboxes in some areas, while being overkill in others, and the insides of the glass on the garage doors were frosted.
Checking his phone, he realized he hadn’t given Naima his address, so he fired that off before changing into a pair of coveralls, and whipping up a fresh green drink in his blender - one of the few items of kitchen equipment he had actually learned how to use. From there, he plopped down at his workbench, streaming music to his hearing processors directly, and glancing up at CCTV camera footage of the outside of his property on a tablet, waiting for Namia to arrive so he could open the gate, then the garage door. It was late November in Baltimore, so heating bills were murder if he simply left the door open.
Fifteen minutes later at the gate, a familiar red Jeep Wrangler pulled up. Sure as the sky being blue, Naima poked her head out the window. “Hey… Hey Cros… guess who?” She seemed a bit out of it but still feigning a smile nonetheless.
Both the gate, and the empty shop bay began to open at the same time, and as Naima pulled in, Crosby was there, in a pair of dark gray, short-sleeved coveralls, to guide her into the bay, navigating her to a stop on in the center of the bay. Behind her, the gate slid shut, and the door rolled down, before a blast of warm air rushed through the shop as the turbo heater kicked in.
“Heya, welcome to the shop,” The tall genet grinned. Over the left breast pocket on his coveralls was an embroidered patch which read “Bing,” his nickname, and he looked very much at home. “Sorry about the delay. Forgot you didn’t have the address.”
He pointedly avoided talk about the team, or anything of that nature for the moment, instead nodding toward a second glass on the bench. “Green drink?”
“Y’know what… why not? Sure could use something to wake me up.” Stepping out of her car, she brushed some of her dreads out of her face. “Thanks again for the help...i’m a lot better at patchin’ clothes than I’m patchin’ cars,” the trogon chuckled a bit, brushing the legs of her jeans which sported several rips patched with flannel. “At the most I can put in washer fluid.” She knew what was right there in the back of both her and her genet teammate’s minds...perhaps now wasn’t the time though.
“Well, that’s better than some can manage,” Crosby chuckled. Fetching the second drink, he passed it to Naima before undoing the latches on the hood and popped it open. “Ah, V8. I prefer the straight six in these, but that’s more so they can rock-crawl better with less weight. V8 is good for the road, though,” he just started talking.
“Well, when I was playin’ in Alaska I just needed somethin’ that’d handle a beatin’ from mother nature. I mean sure between the dreads and the rasta beads you’d think i’m some hippy but… a Prius won’t get ya through heavy snowfall, that’s for sure.”
“Ugh, those things will hardly get you down a street!” Crosby was quick to gripe about the Prius. “And, don’t worry, I used to live outside of LA, then outside of Vegas; I’ve seen full-on hippie, and you’re nowhere near it, heh!”
A cursory examination of the engine bay didn’t help much, so he brought in a light for a better look. “Not seeing anything out of the ordinary. Let’s see what the computer has to say…”
A tool cart was rolled over, and a drawer slid open to reveal an oPad in a rugged case, and some sort of plug-in device. “OBDII scanner,” Crosby explained, as if that actually explained anything to someone who didn’t already know what it was. Plugging the device into a port under the dash, Crosby then turned the key into second position, and brought the Wrangler’s systems online.
While he waited for a connection to establish, he looked back to Naima. “Good play out there, yesterday. Was a rough game.”
Naima listened intently as Crosby explained a bit about the gear he was using, not her forte at all sure but hey, she liked and respected Crosby. If nothing else it was interesting she supposed. She seemed to perk a bit at the mention of the game “Oh, oh yeah!” Seeming slightly nervous about the subject, she did at least seem happy getting praise for how she played.
“Thanks. I do make a point of leavin’ little, if anythin’, when the game’s said and done. Guess going undrafted just made me work for it all the more.. .and it is showin’ in the statsheet.”
“Heh, I know all about the undrafted life,” Crosby chuckled. His eyes went down to his oPad, and he flicked through a few screens before tapping a button, starting the system scan. “It’s rough. Hard to know if you’re actually valued, or if you’re just there to fill some slot. Having to work extra hard, while making way less than your teammates, for the same goal.”
He watched a few things load up on screen, then lowered the pad as it kept going. “And then you have to fight your way up the roster, having to prove each and every season that you belong there, that you have what it takes. That you can be a starter. But in the back of your mind, you remember most, if not all of your teammates were drafted. They were sought out by teams in competition, so you ask yourself if you’re as good as they are. Doubts start to set in, and you look at every little thing you did wrong and imagine that some other player wouldn’t have made that mistake, while completely overlooking the mistakes that player is making in other things.
“Even when you make it up to the starting lineup, you know some hot-shot rookie could still be gunning for your position, or egoes could be getting in the way of a unified team. You get wrapped up in trying to balance your own play vs. the team, and you have to compete with the present as well as the past at the same time. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you do well and your franchise appreciates it. And if you don’t do well, you just hope that your teammates appreciated it all the same.”
“Yeah… all those feelings… I took myself very seriously on that ‘Put up or shut up’ contract. Early every mornin’ to practice, stayin’ late to put shots up, extra time in the weight room. I took nothin’ for granted. And, in a way I kinda count my entry into the league as a blessin’ in disguise. Being there on those terms… it taught me gratitude.” Naima pulling her coat off. “Much as they say Evengy looks like some sorta bond villain, he taught me that virtue known as gratitude.”
“To think… I go from bein’ uncalled at draft night to bein’ a major part of a big trade…”
Crosby nodded. His oPad had remained still for a while, the scan complete, but there were more important things at the moment. “I learned a fair bit from my first coach. Jackson Price. He was… an asshole,” the genet actually swore in front of his teammate. “And he knew it. It was part of his style, part of himself. But he pushed me hard because he saw it was there in me to rise to his level of expectations. He pushed all of us hard. At the end of that first season, I got two offers, and the one from the Mayors was worth more, but I stayed in Santa Ana because of my coach, and because of my teammates.
“We were something. We were something together. Sure, maybe we weren’t good our first season, or our next. And losing Price was rough. But in the core of us, he was still there in spirit, and that saw us through. It’s… it’s a beautiful thing, knowing your coach, your GM, everything about your team wants you there,” he said, then looked back to Naima, pain in his brown eyes. “And I am so very sorry that Baltimore doesn’t seem to understand that, for your sake.”
Naima’s gaze fell for a second, then looked back to the genet. “Yeah… things be gettin’ real… screwed up here. Sure the Arctics last season weren’t good win-wise but… we were a team, we loved each other, had one another’s back, laughed and cried together…” choking up a little as she reflected. “But… now it feels like… the team against itself…”
Recomposing herself, she continued, “The Okayus, Mark, Otis, Lady...We became this kind of family. Why else ya think I made the point of huggin’ each of ‘em when we played? Here… I ain’t feelin’ that energy… save for…” Pausing for only a second. “...around you. I go no idea what’s happenin’ but long as you’re about, I think I might just get through this…”
That brought a smile to Crosby’s face, and he stepped forward to reach an arm around Naima’s shoulders, giving her a friendly side-hug. “And I’m gonna be here for you,” he said. “I know it’s no secret that I didn’t exactly want to be here, but, as long as I am here, I’m going to do the best I can. That means both on the court, and with the rest of you as a team. Because that’s what we are: a team. And a team’s gotta work together.”
Another light snug, and he let go. With a footpaw, he snagged a rolling seat and pulled it over, offering it to his teammate and guest, while he parked himself on a low rolling parts bin. “Yeah, we’ve got our issues. Erik is learning how to be captain, and that’s a really hard thing. Lisa is… being a diva, but she’s still putting up big plays, so maybe she’s earned a bit of that? Saphira is upset she’s not getting much play time, but the season is still early. And… to be frank, we need to nail down our starting shooting guard and small forward.”
He held a paw up to forestall any objection there, his long, ringed tail flicking as he spoke. “It’s no offense to anyone, but we need to know, as a team, who our starters are. Whether it’s you, or someone else, we need to know so that we all know how to best support you, and how you can support others. It helps us work as a team more effectively, knowing strengths, and covering weaknesses. If our coach can’t see that, she needs a seeing eye dog to go along with her interpreter.”
Naima gladly sat herself down, a slight smile across her face having gotten reassured by Crosby. “Well… none taken at all. I know things are chaotic, and I'm tryin’ to put up the best I can in the spot I'm given. Starting, off the bench, whatever… I care that we play well. However… doin’ that with some of the personalities we got floatin’ around is no easy thing. Much as I object to the coach’s methods, my biggest issue is actually Lisa.” Naima put her hands up “I know, I know you were teammates with her back in Vegas and all but i’m gonna keep it straight up with ya… her attitude sucks. The way she spits on her old team to her outbursts… It just rubs me sooooo wrong.
“Plus whatever baggage she got from back there… whatever it be, ya just don’t do that. I didn’t tell the Arctics to suck it. Hell, I agreed to the damn sign and trade because it was what was best for the Arctics. I wanted them to get somethin’ outta me as a thank you… a thank you for believin’ in me when no one else would.” Clearly this was getting her a little worked up, the topic having struck a very hard chord in her.
“I know that feeling, too,” Crosby replied. “Short story is that the Spectrums, well, Jackson Price, really, believed in me when no one else did. Not even myself. And whenever I feel down, I remember that feeling. Knowing someone wanted me, and wanted me to succeed, and that helps me pull through. I want you to succeed, Naima. I want all of us to succeed. I just wish our management felt the same way. I dunno what Gramma Tetreault has on the franchise to get that position, because… I don’t care how many titles you won back in the day, that day is long ago, and that league was very different, and that doesn’t have much bearing on the game we’re playing today, or how we play it.”
Leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, the genet continued to vent. “But I could overlook that if I even remotely got the impression she cared about us at all, which she clearly doesn’t. I think the only thing she cares about is pissing off her daughter, who is a colossal bitch and a half. I know some of the Typhoons, and that Tetreault is about as popular with them as ours is with us. And then there’s the French bullshit.
“Maybe if she didn’t know English, I could get it. But she does. She clearly does. She understands when we say things to her perfectly well, but she chooses to not speak to us directly, instead going through her translator, as if she’s some empress who is above speaking directly to her servants. And that is a level of disrespect I just can’t abide. But more than that? She revels in it. We don’t matter to her. Her position matters to her. So that’s why Erik and I have been working so hard to bring some structure, some respect to the team. Yeah, Lisa’s attitude sucks. I know way more about it than I’m ever gonna say, because reasons, and I’m gonna leave it at that. But honestly, ignoring her antics, and just focusing on the game might be the best way forward for us, for now.”
Naima took a few deep breaths as Crosby finished his vent. It helped seeing she wasn’t the only one. “I know… I know Cros… just like, normally I keep it cool but… gah. Thought I’d gotten the ventin’ all done before I came here, talkin’ Vance’s ear off back home.” She shook her head. “I thought I had it all together but now… all this just makin’ me wanna lean back to my vices…”
“I’m… I’m honestly sorry Crosby. You never asked for any a’ this and neither did I. Much as we wanna do well for our team, Coach Bitch notwithstanding, we also gotta look out for ourselves. Especially if we want any shot outta here come offseason. Temptin’ to ask for a trade admittedly but… like I want ‘em gettin’ things a’ value outta me? Not when ya pull stunts like this. As for her ‘Daughter Dearest’ I heard stories about her. Absolutely disgusting she ain’t been blacklisted yet. Where’s the league find these nutjobs?”
With that, Crosby sat up again, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his arms wide. “Your guess is as good as mine. And… believe me, I did think about asking for a trade, but, that would mean abandoning you, and the rest of the team to… her. And that would make me worse than her, really. So, you’re stuck with me for the season, and I’m gonna keep trying to help us do right, even if the deck is stacked against us. I know Erik is trying hard, too, he just… he has a hard time showing it sometimes. Also, as captain, that side of worry is one he’s gotta keep hidden most of the time, for our sake.”
Standing up, the genet glanced back to his oPad, then smirked. “And as far as leaning on your vices, don’t do it. That’ll leave you as starved for clean air as your Jeep is. Bad O2 sensor.”
“I know… not to mention said vices would get me in some trouble with the guys in suits at the top of the league. I earned my spot here, not gonna toss it away over need for a smoke - temptin’ as it be,” Naima sighed. “And please Cros… you stayin’ in this circus of a team’s a blessin’. You got the caring and patience of a saint. And, for our sakes, there’s no one I'd rather walk through hell with right now than you.” Placing a hand on his shoulder, she genuinely genuinely smiled for the first time in a while.
“Anyways… back onto my Jeep. Does that mean the O2 sensor’s just faulty or is it gonna need some work?”
Crosby smiled, glad she thought of him that way, even if it was going to be a considerable burden of responsibility to maintain through the season. “Typically it’s just a bad sensor, but it could mean the catalytic converter on that side is going bad. Shouldn’t happen this soon, but… Chrysler/Jeep isn’t exactly known for the best quality cats out there.”
Tapping away at his oPad, he pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, ears tilting this way and that as he was reading. “Hmm, it’s a Denso sensor, but it’s a Chrysler specific plug. I’ve got a couple sensors on hand for that thing,” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the absolute wreck of a beater Volvo on the lift. “But wrong connectors.” Another moment passed, and his perky smile returned. “Shouldn’t be too hard to cut and rewire, though! C’mon, this can even make it into an episode of the show!”
Ticking his head, toward the work bench, Crosby headed on over, and turned on several lights - more than seemed necessary, before pulling a camera and a lavalier mic out of a drawer.
Naima perked up a bit, noticing the camera and mic. “Show? You got some kinda web series goin’ on or somethin’?”
The genet grinned devilishly. “Oh, that I do,” he replied. The camera was rigged into position over the workbench, and a second one was pulled out and mounted on a rolling tripod. With both cameras on, he checked their live views on his oPad, then took a moment to “fix” his headfur, which just made it a different kind of messy.
“Rebound and Rebuild,” he announced. “Wasn’t sure if this was going to be my last season, so, figured I’d cash in on a bit of star power. Usually I’ve got a camera and sound crew, and a co-host, but I’ve done some solo segments. We’ve got material enough for about eight or nine episodes now, and four are edited, it’s gonna be announced in a few weeks. I only really get to film when I’ve got time for a good chunk of paws-on, so… we bash out a lot of work in a day’s filming, then they go off and edit and stuff, and I shoot little solo things like this and get them the footage and audio so they can work it in. In the end, it’s gonna look like I’m in the shop a lot more than I am, and the uniform means less continuity issues.”
He’d thought it out, and thought it out well. “Was going to see about getting other players in for guest spots. Tory knows about it, but he’s reluctant to be on camera. If you want, you can be our first pro ball guest.”
“I mean I know very little on cars but… sure, why not? I’ll take part in this.” Standing up from her chair, she straightened her shirt and smiled. “Anythin’ for a friend. Need me to tie my hair back or anythin’?”
Crosby took a look over her, trying to make up his mind, then nodded. “Yeah, that’ll probably help with lighting. Also, we want our viewers to get a good look at that lovely face of yours,” he said with a grin. “You won’t have to do much, I’ll do most of the work, though I am going to have you try soldering at least one connection. I’ll do two before it, so you can see how it’s done. Sound fair?”
“Well, if they wanna see me...guess I can’t object ta’ that reasoning.” Pulling a few hair ties from her coat, pulling back her dreads and braids into a strange sort of high ponytail, wrapping them around tightly “Usually takes least two to hold it all up for games. This good? Nothin’ obstructin’ my pretty face?”
“Nope, you’re good,” Crosby said, then held up another mic and battery pac. “But, we’re gonna have to get you mic’ed up, and run through some establishing shots. I’m not the best at this, but… I’m also not terrible. Either way, let’s just have fun with it!”
Grinning like a schoolboy, Crosby played host, actor, and director all in one, setting up shots introducing Naima, her Jeep, the problem, and how to fix it. What took perhaps only half an hour to shoot contained at least a dozen key shots, and plenty of B-roll that his editors could make good use of. Banter felt natural and upbeat, and Crosby was clearly in his element. When it came time for fixes, he got Naima under her own Jeep to remove the fault O2 sensor while he filmed, then helped her cut the wires on it, and the replacement, so that the new sensor could be adapted to the old connector. A bit more B-roll, a few repeat shots from different angles, and at last he was finishing soldering up his two wires, before handing things over to Naima, who did an excellent job on the third. Then it was back to Crosby to reinstall, clear the error code, and fire the Jeep up, showing the dreaded Check Engine light was no more!
“So, there you go, everybody!” Crosby mugged for the camera. “Just because you don’t have the exact part, doesn’t mean you don’t always have the right one. Just gotta… rebuild. Big thanks to Naima King for swinging by the shop! Now, let’s get back to that Volvo… aaaaand, cut! That’s a wrap!”
Naima sighed in relief “Awesome! I’m… surprised I did that well as I did. That… felt pretty nice. Helped distract from… y’know… things.”
“Yeah, it… it does that, too,” Crosby chuckled. “It does help that you’re already used to being on camera. Media training comes in handy when you least expect it! And, yeah. I wish I could fix things with the team like we fixed that sensor, but sometimes there are no new parts. No overhaul that can be done, and we just have to find a way to keep chugging along, trying to not strain what’s broken, so we make it as far into the playoffs as we can go. Who knows, maybe Coach will come to her senses. But if she doesn’t, we’re still a team, and we’ve still gotta act like one, whether we get support or not.”
“One thing I know regardless...I can count on you. Not just on the court either. Cause hey, we’re people at the end of the day too. People who...need other people. And sometimes, one good furson’s all ya need to make it through.” Now giving Crosby a hug. “Can barely say how much I appreciate all this…”
Crosby accepted the hug gladly, and embraced her in return, though he was careful to keep his dirty fingertips off of her back, as he didn’t exactly want to stain her shirt with road grime and oil residue. When at last the hug broke, he smiled. “Hey, it’s what I do,” he said. “Team Dad, and all that.”
With a chuckle, he eased back. “But, speaking of the end of the day, we’re pretty near it. And while we are people, we’re both people who need to be at practice in the morning, so I’d better help get you out of here.”
“Very true...not to mention i’m sure Vance is wantin’ his birdy back home before he tucks in for bed. Who am I to keep him waitin’?” Naima chuckled “Thanks again Crosby…”
“Any time,” Crosby answered. As Naima got back into her Jeep, he opened the garage door, then zipped the neck of his coveralls all the way up to brace against the cold. Outside it was starting to snow, and a few flurries were blown into the shop where they quickly melted on the warm, polished concrete floor.
“Be careful on the roads!” he called out. “And text me when you get in, so I know you made it safe!”
“Got’cha Crosby! I’ll make sure to! You have a good night!” As she began to drive away, going a bit slower than she usually would to reassure him she was taking care.
Crosby watched her go, closing the outer gate behind her. Then it was a mad dash out into the cold to climb into his Cullinan, and bring it inside for the night.
After changing back out of his coveralls, and washing his paws, the genet settled down on his couch with a cup of eggnog, already getting into the season. Sure, things in Baltimore might not be all merry and bright, but there was still hope. And hope would always raise even the lowest of spirits.
Well, hope, and maybe a couple old episodes of Deep Space Nine.