Story:The House Always Wins
The House Always Wins
Written by Mitch
The House Always Wins
Monday, September 14, 2020
All was silent in Crosby Sutters’ world as he smirked, tapping away at his oPhone. All was silent as the roar of race cars screamed around the track outside his home at the Sloanspeed complex, fifteen minutes outside of Las Vegas.
“Better put some pants on,” the genet thought to himself, before sniffing the air. Coffee was ready, and it was enjoyed before a suitable pair of jeans could be found. Jeans were better than cargo pants, for saying goodbye to a friend, after all. His hearing receivers would be needed as well.
It was a bittersweet farewell, given over a now-familiar order of pie in a diner well off the strip. Lisa DuPont was leaving the Las Vegas Wildcards for the Baltimore Spirits, having accepted a contract offer there. Seeing her go was painful, but Crosby could understand why. He understood why more than most could, or more than the media ever would. He didn’t want the pie to end, yet bite after bite, it ran out, just like their time together as teammates. Lisa would go on, and Crosby would remain, the welcome wagon for the new team members, and the bond which held the rest of the team together. Too soon, it was gone, and Crosby was left on his own.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he fished it out, guessing it was a reply to the tweet he’d just sent saying farewell to Lisa. It wasn’t that. It was from the FBA’s official Tweeter account.
“TRADE: The Baltimore Spirits send Lindsey Morrison to the Las Vegas Wildcards in return for Crosby Sutters.”
Brown eyes went wide as he stared at the message in shock. It couldn’t be real, could it? Surely the team would have told him first. Talked to him. Something!
“Wait what?!” he replied via tweet, then shoved his phone back in his pocket, before charging out to his car.
The Porsche Carrera GT had been chosen for the day, for Lisa’s last blast, and its engine howled as he raced to the Dynn training complex. Typical light step and joviality were replaced by panicked determination as he pushed through doors and dashed through halls once inside, until reaching the GM’s office.
“Go in, she’s expecting you,” Mikela Soros’s secretary said.
Crosby simply nodded and headed inside.
Wrenching his phone from his pocket, Crosby pulled up the tweet and held it out for Mikela to see. “What the heck is this?!” he snapped.
Mikela winced, the caracal’s expressive ears flicking back at first, before righting themselves. “Mr. Sutters, please,” she said. There was no smile on her face, and she nodded to one of the leather chairs before her desk. “Have a seat.”
Behind him, his long, ringed tail lashed, and Crosby could feel the hot blood pounding in his temples. He wanted to scream. He wanted to throw something. But instead he sat, eyes fixed on his general manager. Or former general manager, he supposed.
“I’m sorry, this isn’t how I wanted to break it to you,” Mikela said.
“What, would you have preferred it happened in the middle of the night, so I showed up here the next day locked out, with my stuff on the curb?” The words came out of Crosby’s mouth fast, with more venom than he had intended, and even at the end he winced at what he’d just said.
“No, it’s not like that,” Mikela shook her head.
The room started to spin, and Crosby held fast to the arms of his chair to center himself. “Then what is it like? What... what did I do wrong?”
The rage in his voice had gone completely, replaced by hurt, and pain. Mikela’s ears wilted at the sound of it, and the sight of the broken man before her. “Oh, Crosby, you didn’t do anything wrong,” she attempted to reassure him.
Crosby shook his head, eyes now staring at the front side of the desk, or rather through it into space beyond as they unfocused. “Then what was it? Did I not play hard enough? Did I not score enough points, or get enough rebounds? Was it the team? Did I not get the rookies in line and up to speed fast enough? I did everything you asked! I was always healthy, I played every single game, I wasn’t involved in any scandals, I did community outreach, all sorts of charity, always good with the press, everything! So… why? I don’t understand. I love this team.” His eyes raised to meet hers once more, the worry and pain written all over his face.
Mikela’s lips pursed, and she came around her desk to take the seat next to him. Laying a paw on one of his was considered, but not done.
“We have been put in a very difficult situation, Crosby, with Lisa choosing to leave,” she said with a sigh. “It has left us totally unbalanced in a way we just hadn’t planned for. We went from needing one dedicated PG with occasional backup, to needing two or three decent options instead. We also were intending to draft a PG on Draft night but that didn’t work out because we felt we couldn’t take Tariq..”
“There were other good guards,” Crosby countered. “Why not draft a guard when you knew you were already overloaded with forwards?”
The caracal didn’t have an answer right away, instead hesitating before replying, “We knew you and Lisa were friends, so we thought sending you to be with her was the better option. Her leaving was a massive cannon fire to this franchise. It was meant to be her and O’Toole joining. Suddenly it became Umaechi, and everything had a knock-on effect.”
“Then I wasn’t wrong to be worried about Tameeka, then,” Crosby said. “You knew ahead of the draft you wanted me gone. You could have at least… talked to me.”
Mikela drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair, and sighed. “Your name was never going to be considered for the trade block. Then Zaire exceeded expectations, and we’re planning to have Tameeka start ahead of you in pre-season. You would have had your chance to play into the lineup, but there’s a lot of good players here, now.”
“That doesn’t explain why you drafted a forward instead of a guard, unless you had already planned to let me go,” Crosby pressed. “I thought I’d shown my dedication to this team. I was ready to be here through the end of my career. I wanted to retire a Wildcard. I had a fine season last year, and I pulled your squad together in ways that Misha couldn’t! So why me and not Conley? Why stack the reserves with Freddy, then draft yet another PF?”
“You were the only player we could get benefit in a trade from,” the answer came directly. “It was you, or our season.”
“You could have made an offer for Hirvonen.”
“Luukas Hirvonen. He was let go, but he’s still good,” Crosby replied. “I’m not just saying that because we used to be engaged. In fact, yeah, it’d be weird to be on a team with him again, but odds are high you could have brought him in, and imagine the play chemistry we’d have.”
Mikela shook her head. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Hivonen just wasn’t an option for us. If you really want, we can look into cancelling the trade, but… your position is going to be hard-fought, and we’re going to have a gaping hole at point.”
Crosby just sat there, his emotions boiling inside like a raging sea. He had been right to be worried when the wildcards drafted Jetson, though at the time he thought it was just paranoia. Paws shaking, the genet then leaned forward to place his face into the trembled, trying to hold back tears.
Mikela closed her eyes, head dipping. It was not at all how she had wanted things to go.
“You… you didn’t even talk to me,” Crosby finally said, his voice strained. “I gave you so much! I worked so hard to be here, to come back! You have no idea how hard I worked, how agonizing it was, to claw back to this level! And then I held five damn rookies together, on a dysfunctional squad, while working to find focus with the senior members, and turn things around for you.”
He sat back up, shaking his head. “I put everything I had into this team! Everything! And you didn’t even fucking talk to me!” he roared. “I had to find out I was traded from TWEETER!”
Very few people could state truthfully that they had ever heard Crosby Sutters swear, and Mikela Soros found herself in the even more exclusive club of having heard him swear twice. Ears folding, she heaved a sigh. “Again, I’m sorry, Crosby. We… we couldn’t afford any of this getting to the press.”
“Like I’d tell anyone!” Crosby snapped. Heaving himself up out of his chair, he had to step away, tail lashing. “Do you know how much shit on this team I kept from getting to the press? How many times I saved your players’ asses, or prevented incidents from getting worse? Of course you don’t, because I know what shouldn’t make the press, and I make sure my team doesn’t get that kind of coverage if at all possible!”
“That’s not what I meant, Crosby,” Mikela huffeed. “Of course I trust you. But this is bigger than you and I. There are things a GM can’t talk to a player about.”
“When it concerns that player's future, I think there should be exceptions to that rule. At least Walnuts had the guts to tell me to my face that the team was moving away from me.”
“Again, we can see about cancelling the trade, if you feel this strongly about it,” Mikela stated.
Crosby raised a finger, pointing it at her, his mouth open and ready to fire off a retort, but it never came, and instead that finger fell, arm falling back to his side as his broad shoulders slumped. With a sigh, he looked around the room.
“It seems my only real decision is to go, or retire,” he said. “Staying would hurt the team, now, and just drag them down for my own selfishness.” Brown eyes, glistening with sadness, lifted to meet hers. “You put me in this position, knowing I can’t hurt this squad. Knowing I care too much about them to endanger this season. It doesn’t matter how I feel. I’m going to Baltimore. For their sake, not yours.”
“Again, Mr. Sutters, I’m so sorry. This isn’t how I wanted this to go.”
Crosby stepped toward the door, before looking back. “Then I suggest talking to your players, in the future. Just like I’m going to go talk to them to say goodbye.”
“Of course,” Mikela nodded.
“And I had better not see security shadowing me, or escorting me out,” Crosby added. “If anything, I feel I’ve earned that much.”
“Take the time you need. And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Crosby’s paw lingered on the doorknob, and he sighed. “So am I.”
It was a slow, lonesome walk to the practice courts. Each step filled him with dread, but he knew it had to be done. He owed them this much, at the very least. Finding most of the team together, though Umaechi wasn’t in sight, Crosby stepped out onto the court, and the noise around him fell to a hush. They had seen the news as well, it seemed.
Paws in his pockets, the genet came to a stop near the center of the court as his former team gathered around.
“I’m, um, I’m pretty sure you heard,” he said, “I just got traded. I don’t want to go. I love it here. I love all of you. But that’s how this game is.”
His eyes moved from one player to another, no one quite sure how to handle things, so he carried on. “Everyone, I’m going to miss you all so much. I wanted to take you to a championship, I truly did. Now you’re going to have to carry on without me. But there’s a few things I want to say before I go.
“Take care of each other, okay? You former rookies, be nice to Tameeka; no hazing, act like she’s always been here. Misha, you’re a great captain, and you’ve got a great squad. Quintessa, it’s been an honor to play alongside you. Zaire, you’re incredible, and thank you for all your support - you’re gonna be a superstar, I know it. Xavier, I want to see you moving up from 6th fur, dude; you can do it. Freddy, I might not have known you for long, but you’ve got a great squad looking after you. Ivie, thanks for all the laughs, and all the fun. Tyler, you’re going places, man. Keep your chin up, and you’ve got this. Lisa, Lauren, I know I sometimes got you mixed up, but you’re both one of a kind. Kelsey, it’s been a blast. And Mariam, look after them all for me, okay?”
A voice spoke from closer to the door. It was Mikela Soros. “Thank you, Crosby, for being here and helping us back to the playoffs when it seemed impossible. I know this is hard right now, but you're welcome in the Dynn anytime to visit. And who knows, maybe you will be back yet.”
Crosby couldn’t resist a smirk and a shrug. “Well, my contract’s up at the end of the season, so who knows. But the rest of you better bring it, this season. I’m expecting an LVG/BAL Finals, got it?”
Tyler Conley stepped forward. “Best of luck to you, Crosby. It’s been great, and you’re an incredible teammate and friend. I couldn’t ask for a better one. Go kill it out there in Baltimore, aight? And I’ll be expecting a Vegas vs. Baltimore Finals, as well.”
Crosby smiled. “C’mere, dude.” The genet gave Tyler a big hug, which the husky gladly reciprocated. “Don’t be afraid to be more assertive out there, got it?”
Tyler sniffed over his shoulder, holding Crosby tightly. “Heh, got onion in my eye,” he said, trying to hold in tears. “And I will be. Love you, dude. Good luck.”
As they let go, Lindsey Morrison entered, her duffle bag in paw. She had been in Vegas for the draft festivities, but immediately felt the more somber tone in the gym, likely due to Crosby’s departure. Crosby’s own eyes were rimmed with moisture as well, but he put on a brave face and a smile, extending a paw to her for a shake. “Hey there, Lindsey. Take, um, take good care of them, okay? They’ll take good care of you.”
The collie shook his paw, her smile a bit concerned, but still honest. “I’ll do my best, Crosby. I promise.”
“I can’t ask any more than that,” the genet replied.
A few more goodbyes were said, then it was time to clear out his locker, and turn in playbooks and other sensitive team materials. He gave a long, last look over the locker room, having thought it would be the last home one he’d ever know. So many plans gone, so much uncertainty ahead. And now, nothing left to do but go face it. Duffel slung over his shoulder, Crosby sighed as he stepped out the doors into the parking lot.
“Crosby!” he heard a voice call from behind. It was Tyler Conley, who had to stop and catch his breath, apparently having dashed through the halls to catch up with him.
“Hey, look,” Tyler said. “I just want to say you’ve been incredible, and I appreciate all you’ve done for us. And for me, really.” He placed a paw on the genet’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “And I seriously meant what I said back there as well. I couldn’t ask for a better friend than you. I know things got a bit weird… after I ditched, that night,” he mumbled the last bit, still feeling guilty. “But I’m glad that you’re happy now. You’ve got a lot ahead of you, and… I just want to say - to say…”
The husky’s eyes began to swell, and he threw himself onto the genet once more in a hug, holding him tightly and squeezing. “Thank you, Crosby. I’ll miss you.”
Crosby returned the hug, there in the doorway, holding Tyler as long as he needed. His own eyes threatening tears, he still managed to smile. “I’ll miss you too, Tyler.”
Easing back out of the hug, Crosby felt a tear roll down one of his cheeks, but he didn’t move to wipe it away. “I wouldn’t say I’m happy; but that’s how this life goes. If I were in it for happiness, I would have fought the trade. But I’m in it because I love the game. And, who knows, maybe this is for the best. I tried to bring this squad together, and I hope I’ve done that. Maybe Baltimore needs me to do the same.”
Reaching up, he cupped one of Tyler’s cheeks in his palm, rubbing it softly with his thumb. “It’s your time to shine. I want you to out-do the lights on the strip, got it?”
Tyler smiled and nodded in reply, determination in his eyes. “I’ll try my best,” he replied. “Good luck to you, once more. I do believe Baltimore needs someone like you.” His own paw reached up as well, to ruffle the genet’s already messy headfur. With that, he pat Crosby on the shoulder.
Crosby laughed at the ruffling, making no move to fix his headfur, and instead gave Tyler one last hug. “Keep in touch, okay?”
It was left at that. Crosby turned in his security badge at the gate before driving out. Traffic was light, being early afternoon on a weekday, and he couldn’t resist a liberal application of throttle once he cleared the city and got out on the highway toward Sloan. How many more times would he drive that road, he wondered.
Everything had changed in an instant. All he had built in Las Vegas, his friends, his company, and even a family of sorts with how he had been practically adopted by the Fooks, it was all going to have to be left behind. He was starting from ground zero yet again, and would have to work his way up yet another team. Prove himself all over again. It seemed to be the story of his career. Get to a good place, then bam, back to the bottom to start all over.
But Crosby wouldn’t be starting at the bottom. No, not this time, he told himself. He was a champion, a skilled forward, and a leader. There was a claim to be made in Baltimore’s starting lineup, and he would fight tooth and claw for it. The engine of the Carrera GT screamed as he pushed the gas, an allegory for the drive building in his heart.
That drive calmed as he pulled into the employee entrance of Sloanspeed, and he gazed upon what he would be leaving behind. What had started as a risky longshot of a gamble had grown and paid off in the end, with Sloanspeed finally profitable. A proper racing and race driving instruction destination, it was what few other facilities could boast, and it was also his home. So much heart, passion, and determination had gone into its planning and construction, it was as much of Crosby as basketball itself, yet this part he could not take with him.
Pulling into his hangar garage, the realization that he couldn’t take his vast collection of dozens of vehicles also crossed his mind. But it wasn’t until he exited the elevator into his loft home that he realized what all the trade had cost him.
This was his home. His life, everything about his personality. A life which had been clawed back from the deepest pits of doubt, despair, depression, and fear. Sloanspeed wasn’t an extension of Crosby’s desire for motorsport, it WAS Crosby. A passion to keep pushing forward, to improve, to bring people together, and to win. Gazing out the window over it all, over all he would miss, the genet let his tears flow at last.
And he sobbed.
Tomorrow, Baltimore would have his full attention. But now it was time for grief.