The pleasant sounds of an oboe concerto, played at a reasonable volume, wafted through the high-end sound system of the small, yet luxurious, apartment. The residence’s sole occupant, seated in a leather armchair by the window, occasionally looked up from his Kindle when a particularly inventive harmony graced his ears, before returning to his book on the history of 15th-century German mercantilism.
There was a light squawk from the area of the man’s feet. He looked over the top of his tablet to see one of his pet penguins standing there with its wings raised in expectation.
“Okay, Mr. Tuxedo, you can come up,” said JaVale McGee with a chuckle. “Be careful of my drink, though.” Since the penguin’s short legs prevented it from jumping the height required to get in his lap, JaVale picked him up around the belly and lifted him, which caused the penguin to squeak with happiness.
Once Mr. Tuxedo was settled in, JaVale resumed his reading, giving his beloved bird friend strokes on the back of the head with one hand. The oboe concerto ended, but JaVale’s custom playlist had another fine work of the Italian baroque period lined up for him. The only reason that he would ever need to get up from his comfortable chair was if he depleted his bottle of sherry.
Or, JaVale noted with annoyance, if the doorbell were to ring, as it currently was. He gently lifted Mr. Tuxedo off his lap, an act which the bird resisted but ultimately consented to, and walked to the front door, wondering if he had invited visitors at some point and had forgotten of the invitation.
When the door was opened, JaVale was greeted by a rather tall, but very disheveled-looking black man. “I’m sorry, I have no need of whatever services you are offering,” he said politely, remembering the recent warning from the police on fraudulent “cleaning services” that went door-to-door in affluent neighborhoods. Mr. Tuxedo, who had followed JaVale to the front door, peered around his owner’s legs with suspicion.
“You don’t remember me?” the man said, a hurt expression crossing his face.
JaVale took a closer look at the unknown man, who was clearly homeless or close to it. Abruptly, recognition came to him. It was his former teammate and roommate, Nick Young. “Nick! How lovely of you to drop by!” he exclaimed, ushering Nick inside. “Please accept my sincerest apologies for my unintended rudeness! The wildness of your beard deceived me! Come with me to the sitting room and I’ll fix you something to drink.”
“This place is nothing like the bachelor pad we used to have,” Nick said in a not-positive tone of voice. “And what’s up with the penguins?”
Mr. Tuxedo had been joined by Beaks and Squabbles, who had waddled into the room with curiosity. JaVale regarded them fondly, then looked back at Nick. “I stole them from the zoo after they fired me. It was a regrettable decision, to be sure; I have matured greatly since then. But I do not regret the joy my semi-aquatic avian friends have brought to my life.”
“You’re losing me with these big words,” Nick said, sitting down and accepting, but not drinking, the glass of sherry that was handed to him. “What happened to the old JaVale that did the cinnamon challenge with me?”
“That JaVale doesn’t exist anymore,” JaVale replied. “I learned a lot of things playing with LeBron, and one of the things I learned is that professionalism on the court starts with professionalism off the court.”
Squabbles was flapping her wings at Nick, wanting attention, but Nick uneasily nudged her away with his foot. “That explains this crappy music, then.”
“The compositions of Francesco Manfredini can be described in many ways, but ‘crappy’ is not one of them,” JaVale said. He was slightly annoyed by Nick’s words, but always treated his friends with the graciousness that he expected to receive in return. “Now, tell me. There must be a reason why you came to visit me.”
Nick sighed, seeming to realize that his negative attitude had not been warranted. “I’m broke, man. The NBA checks dried up. I got nowhere to go.”
JaVale read between the lines of Nick’s comments. “I sympathize, Nick. I truly do. A year ago, I easily could have found myself in the same position. But my new home has none of the comforts you expect – no video games, no television, no potato chips, not even a pull-out sofa. And the spare bedroom is for my lovelies.” These were all true statements, but there was another reason for JaVale’s hesitance: he was afraid that Nick’s presence would cause him to slip into his former, regressive behaviors.
“I get it,” Nick said, angrily standing up. “You grew up and I didn’t. I guess it’s back to the streets for me.” He walked briskly towards the door.
“Wait, Nick!” JaVale said, but he was too slow; Nick had already exited the apartment.
For a long time after that, JaVale sat in his sitting room, ignoring the peeps of his penguins, wondering if he had done the right thing.