The Spirit Girl Ch. 02byDrSqueaky©
There was a great deal of optimism for the Jammers heading into the new season. We were rebuilding the team around the tandem of point guard Marshall Jacobs and forward Stanley Jefferson. We had two first-round picks in the June draft thanks to our trade with Chicago, plus we caught a bit of luck in the lottery, drawing the #3 overall pick when 8 teams had worse records than we did. In my new role as Assistant Director of Player Personnel, I was in New York for the draft. My girlfriend Samantha Sullivan came along; since she was acting PR person while Sandy Clark was on leave, she could run the press conferences once we made our selections. Dad (the Jammers GM) joked that he may as well, he could bring her with us and not have to pay for a hotel room.
Going into draft day we had a pretty good idea who were going to get at #3: shooting guard Johnny Mill. Virtually every pre-draft board had him rated 3rd overall. But there was a lot of internal dissent on who to take with Chicago's pick at #24. We were still weak at the 4 and 5, and when our turn came the staff was split between two players. My boss, long-time personnel director "Red" Callahan, wanted us to take Luke Harvey, a pure center from the west coast that most mock drafts predicted would go somewhere in the 15-20 range. He was value in the sense that he had fallen and met a need, but I had concerns about his offensive skills. Harvey had put up decent numbers in college overall, but had been shut down on the few occasions he'd faced good defensive centers; his team had made early exits in the tournament the last two years, and I suspected he was a big part of the reason why. My statistical models predicted he would be a third-line center at best in the Association, but there was far too much variability to really have much confidence in that prediction. I wanted us to take Ephriam McAllister. He was a 5 in college, but undersized so he was projected as a 4 in the pros. Mock drafts had him going in the late first or early second, so he was arguably a bit of a reach at #24, and Red was rightly concerned about taking a guy that high and transitioning him to a new position. But my statistical models suggested he had great individual skills that would allow him to adapt.
Dad listened to both sides, but in the end went with Harvey. I couldn't argue; I wasn't that convinced of the prediction models myself, and it was Red's job to advise who we should pick. But as the draft continued later and later, McAllister continued to sit there, undrafted. Red considered that vindication, and made no bones about it; he wasn't too keen on having the owner's grandson in his department, offering opinions that contracted what he saw with his 30 years of experience based on "computer mumbo-jumbo." When McAllister was still there midway through the second round, dad came and asked me again why I thought we should get him. I told him again, and predicted that LA would take him if he was still on the board when they picked. He nodded and got on the phone. Boston was a veteran team gearing up for one more playoff push; they didn't have a lot of use for a rookie this year, especially a project. Dad was able to trade them Jason Newkirk, whose spot on the roster Harvey had probably just taken anyway, for their pick in the late second and took McAllister. That gave us three promising new rookies heading into the season. Red was not happy, however, that a major personnel move was made against his advice.
No sooner did we get back from the draft than I was moving Sam into my apartment. It was a bittersweet milestone, though; it happened in part because her roommate Jenna got engaged and moved down to Texas to be with her fiancée. We were happy for them of course, but it was sad for Sam to be separated from her BFF. I felt it as a personal loss too, not just because she had become my friend as well, but because I really believe that Sam and I only ended up together thanks to Jenna's involvement. Jenna's fiancée was originally only supposed to have been in Texas for a year, but now they were telling him maybe he could transfer back after three. I wondered if she'd ever make it back here again. But being in Texas also opened up some opportunities for her; Jenna might not have had abs like Sam, but she was taller and a bit more, uh, top-heavy. We were both proud to be able to watch her on TV when football season rolled around, dressed in blue and white and kicking up her boots on the sidelines for America's team.
Everyone in the organization seemed to like Samantha--especially grandpa. She had him positively wrapped around her little finger. She was truly passionate about basketball; now that she watched the games with me in the owner's box, she listened with genuine fascination as grandpa told his stories of players from years gone by. They're great stories, but by now all of us grandkids have heard them multiple times. She was a fresh ear; grandpa was eager to tell her all his stories, and Sam positively ate them up. Dad started kidding me that I had better watch out, because grandpa was makin' moves and trying to steal my girlfriend.
Sandy came back from leave as expected in October, but I knew between dad and grandpa they would find another place for Sam in the organization. That place turned out to be promotions manager. Sam was now in charge of giveaways and team appearances and things like that, as well as being the team liaison to the Jammer Spirit dance team. Samantha suddenly became a lot more involved with a lot more people in the organization. At about the same time, Red Callahan started sending me on scouting trips to watch college players all across the country. It didn't seem to matter that I could have watched any of those games on tape AND we already had scouts working those games. I don't think that he was specifically extracting revenge on me for talking dad into drafting McAllister; I think he just realized that he could lessen my influence with the team if I was out of town all the time. As soon as I got back from on trip he was sending me on another; I wonder if he ever even looked at any of my scouting reports.
With Sam suddenly very involved and me gone all the time, things started to go wrong between us. The first thing I noticed was that Sam seemed rather cool to me when I returned from a trip. I usually stopped off at the arena on the way home from the airport to drop off my report. Since Sam was usually there working, I wanted a welcome home hug and kiss from Sam, or at least some acknowledgment that she was happy to see me. But whenever I went looking for her, she seemed to always be busy. She was always talking to someone else, and if she saw me she would just kind of wave and say "hi, how was your trip?" I felt like she didn't care about the trip, and just wanted to get rid of me. It was almost like she would rather talk to almost anyone besides me. I felt very brushed off.
Stung, I started paying closer attention to what Sam was up to, and saw more things that caused me alarm. For one thing, she spent a lot of time watching practices—I didn't understand why the promotions manager would need to do that. I'm ashamed to admit this now, but I started spying on her. I would walk around the halls, peeking in on practices going on. Sometimes I'd even sit in the owner's box, knowing that with the lights out the glass reflected the arena light and I could not be seen. It seemed that every time I looked, Sam was talking to and being inordinately interested in Johnny Mill. It felt like every minute that he wasn't on the floor, he was at the sideline, chatting with Sam. And for her part, she seemed to always be laughing and having a good old time when talking to him. In contrast, when I saw her in the hall, she'd barely acknowledge me, like someone she knew worked there just because she saw me on the elevator once in a while. It looked like I had become a low on her priority list, whereas Johnny seemed pretty high. As you can imagine, memories of playing second fiddle to Marshall Jacobs were painfully reawakened. She'd even walk with him to the door of the dressing room after practice sometimes. Since my office was still in that vicinity, I ran into them once. It certainly seemed like their prior conversation was suddenly replaced by hushed silence when I came into view.
As you can tell, I became jealous and suspicious. And yet at the same time, I was getting mixed signals, because she was different when we were at home. We talked, we made love, we rearranged furniture over and over again—I was confused and struggled to understand. I started to feel like maybe I was good enough when no one else was around, but if there were other people she chose them over me. What we didn't do was talk about my concerns, because I didn't know how to bring it up. With all that tension in the air, sudden Sam and I started to have fights, which we'd never done before, usually over stupid stuff. I started to withdraw as an act of self-preservation, sensing that Sam was slipping away. I had no idea why, but it felt like there was nothing I could do about it. And she sensed that immediately, and did the same.
The tip of the iceberg was when Sam became a regular on the local morning zoo radio program. She was invited on early in the season to talk about a new Jammer promotion. Being her usual charming self, they loved her and invited her back the next week. In no time she had a set 20-minute slot on the radio every Wednesday. She did promote the team whenever they gave her the chance, but the bulk of their on-air conversation consisted of innuendo and bald-faced flirtations. When the guys came right out and asked her if she was in a relationship, she responded by vaguely saying she preferred not to talk about her private life. She COULD have simply said yes and put an end to any speculation, but by not really answering the question she gave the appearance as if she was available. Every week I listened to her on the air with my stomach churning as those yahoos flirted with Sam on-air, try to trip her into saying sexy things, asking her opinion on whatever sex-related topic they had been discussing just before she came on (and it was ALWAYS a sex-related topic), and of course tripping over themselves telling the listeners how hot she was. Listeners wondered what she looked like, so the station put up some pictures of her, mostly old Jammer Spirit ones, and they quickly received some of the heaviest traffic on the site. This prompted them to asked her to pose for some sexy new promo shots, which I was not comfortable with AT ALL. Fortunately, when she asked for permission my dad suggested that might not be appropriate for her new role with the organization, and that was the end of that.
And on top of everything else, the Jammers got off to a TERRIBLE start. Marshall Jacobs started the season in a sophomore slump, BOTH Luke Harvey at the 5 and Ephriam McAllister at the 4 were looking like total busts, Johnny Mill was doing OK offensively but looking lost on defense, and Stanley Jefferson got frustrated with defenses always collapsing on him and started settling for more long-range jumpers, which wasn't his game. In a nutshell my team sucked, the guy I talked my dad into acquiring sucked, I was being sent on wild goose chases so my boss could get me out of the office, and my girlfriend seemed to be interested in everyone else but me. October had looked so promising; November had turned out to be hell.
I was sitting in the airport during the first week of December, headed to New York to see a tournament at the Garden. I knew I had to do something, because I couldn't continue like this. I had gotten so paranoid I was afraid to leave town; I would spend the whole time away worrying if Samantha was out running around, maybe with Johnny Mill. It didn't seem like something she would do, but then I wouldn't have thought she'd seem so disinterested in me, either. And to make things worse, my flight that day was delayed because of fog out east. That may have turned out to be most fortuitous fog ever.
With time on my hands, I decided to get a second opinion: I called Jenna. She was surprise to hear from me of course. I pleaded with her "Jenna, you're still close to Sam. Please tell me what am I doing wrong? Why is she slipping through my fingers?"
"Don't you guys ever talk?" she accused. She refused to go into details, but the gist of her message was that she'd had almost exactly this same conversation with Sam three days ago. She didn't know what was going on, but it sounded to her like we were looking at the same thing but seeing something entirely different. She was adamant that we needed to sit down, air out our feelings, and figure it out. That seemed like good advice—except that I was feeling very anxious then and there, and I was heading out of town for three more agonizing days. I didn't know if I could stand the stress of worrying and wondering for that long.
The flight board updated; it would be three hours at the earliest before we would even consider taking off. Shit. Had I know this ahead of time, I could stayed home, gotten some work done, maybe even had a chance to talk with Samantha. But there was no point in leaving the airport, I'd just get home it would be time to turn around. I looked at my watch; Sam was probably still at work anyway. I decided I'd give her a call just to tell her my flight was delayed.
When Sam answered the phone, she immediately said, "Oh hi" in a sterile voice. "Listen, I'm with someone right now, can I call you back in five minutes?"
"OK," I said glumly. That figures. Of course she's talking to someone else; heaven knows she wouldn't ever want to talk to ME. So when is she really gonna call back? 5:30, when she's home from work? Or will she even call back at all? What I wasn't expecting was that, in fact, she called me back exactly five minutes later.
"Hi, honey, sorry about that. I'm somewhere where I can talk now. Are you at the airport?"
"Yeah... and my flight is delayed at least three hours because of fog," I grumbled.
"Aww, that sucks," she replied sympathetically. "You didn't even seem like you wanted to go on this trip."
"I'm sick of travelling, but mostly I'm sick of being away from you all the time." That was absolutely true, only perhaps not entirely for the reasons she may have imagined.
"I know. I miss you being gone all the time, too."
Then why do you never seem happy to see me when I'm back? I thought. What I said was "I think that Red just wants to get me out of the office. He doesn't like my statistical models, and it threatens his authority when I don't agree with his opinions. There's no reason I couldn't be watching all these games on tape."
"Why don't you talk to your dad about it? It's not like it's cheap to fly you all over the country."
"Yeah, I suppose I should. But it will have to wait until I get back, now."
"I wish I could see you tonight," she said sadly. She did? Somewhere, deep in my heart, a spark of hope flickered. She didn't need to say that—probably wouldn't have, if she was secretly glad I was going away. It sounded like she meant it. Most of all, it sounded like something Sam would have said back when things were going well. I wanted to believe her, wanted to have her back in my arms—there was just so much of her recent behavior I didn't understand.
"Do you?" I asked tentatively.
"Of course I do, honey. I love you."
"I love you too," came my automatic, reflexive reply. Fucking New York. Great city--unless you're by yourself. Based on what Jenna had said, I really, really wanted to have that talk with Sam, and I was getting exiled to New York. Well, at least Johnny Mill wasn't around, because the team was on a long west-coast swing. It would have been a great time to take some vacation, if I wasn't being sent on another business trip. Maybe if Sam and I could get away for a few days somewhere, reconnect a little... that's when the idea struck me. "Say, Sam--there's no home games this weekend, and you haven't taken a vacation day since you started. Would you want to take tomorrow off and come to New York with me this weekend?"
"Come to New York?" she sounded interested but hesitant. "I... do you think that's even possible? Is there room on the flight?"
"I'll go ask," I replied, "I've been seeing people leaving, maybe some of them are cancelling." I walked up to the check-in desk and was informed there were plenty of seats on the flight. "The hotel is already booked, all you'd need to do is run home, throw a few things in an overnight bag and catch a cab to the airport. We're not leaving for at least three hours; you'd have plenty of time."
She sounded like she was actually excited about the idea. "I'm sure YOU could do that, but I can't pack for a trip in 30 minutes..."
"Just throw in whatever you think of. Anything that you forget I'll buy you new in New York. Promise."
She paused for a just a moment, and then she said "Yes! I'd love to go to New York with you this weekend. I'm leaving the office right now--don't let them take off without me!"
A few hours later, Sam and I were flying to New York; I had bought another seat and upgraded both to first class. We had the armrest up, and I was cuddling her while we sipped champagne. "This was such a nice surprise," she purred. This felt like Sam the way I remembered her, when I felt like she really loved me. I was confused but encouraged.
"I'm so glad you're coming with me. We don't seem to get out much anymore."
"Oh I know," she agreed. "I miss going out after games--maybe not as often as we used to, but now it seems we NEVER do. But I'm not with a Spirit girl anymore, Jenna's in Texas, and the average age of my staff is 19. There just isn't a gang to going out to hang around with anymore."
"And the average age of my department is probably 50... but why do we need anyone else? We could go out, just you and me."
"Yeah," she agreed excitedly. "And we wouldn't have to go to the 5th Quarter. Maybe we could go dancing."
I nodded. "Yes... we could..."
She noticed the look on my face. "You don't look convinced."
I shook my head. "I... I guess I'm just confused, that's all. Lately it seems like you don't want to do anything with me, and now all of a sudden you're all excited about it."
She studied me. "What makes you think I don't want to do things with you?"
"You don't ever seem happy around me. When I see you at work, you're always laughing, smiling, outgoing with everyone. When you come home... you seem quiet and reserved. It makes me think you'd rather not be there."
"Honey," she said gently, "it's my JOB to be outgoing at work. I'm supposed to put people in a favorable frame of mind with regard to the Jammers. It's like I'm always on stage at work. When I come home, I want to decompress and be myself."
I thought for a moment. "I can understand that, but... sometimes it feels like you like talking to everyone in the office EXCEPT me! Todd from the box office is a good example. He comes in and finds you to ask you something, you're all friendly and smiley to him. But I show up and wave at you, and you barely acknowledge me. It's like I wish you weren't there."
Sam regarded me with great seriousness. "Honey... when your dad hired me, he asked me to keep my relationship with you quiet. Keep it hidden as much as possible. He said that if everyone on staff saw us running around kissing, they'd all assume the only reason I had my job was because I was dating you. He said to be successful I'd have to be taken seriously, and to do that I'd have to prove my effectiveness on my own. I'm sorry... since it came from your dad, I assumed you knew."
I hadn't considered that possibility, but it did sound like something my dad would say. "I'm sure you talk to my dad a lot more than I do these days. So you're saying... you try to ignore me... because you don't want people to know I'm your boyfriend?"