“Where did you say we were again?” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander asked.
“Romania,” Chris Paul answered. He didn’t blame his young teammate for being unable to distinguish the landscape of one Eastern European country from that of another. Even the impressive castle that loomed in front of them was not distinctly “Romanian” in any way. It looked more like a Disney castle (albeit a decrepit one) than anything else, with its numerous pointed spires and elaborately-stacked towers.
“You said we were going on a fun teammate bonding trip,” Dennis Schroder whined. “I was picturing beaches, cabanas, and sun. Not forests, castles, and clouds.”
Chris started walking across the drawbridge toward the main castle doors. His teammates followed. “I don’t think I ever used the word ‘fun’,” he said over his shoulder. “You merely heard what you wanted to hear.” They reached the solid wooden doors, braced with ornate iron banding, and Chris surprised both of his fellow Thunder players by grabbing the handle and pulling.
“Wait, you can just walk into a castle?” Shai asked. “Don’t they have trespassing laws in Romania?”
“We’re allowed to be here,” Chris reassured them. It was a true statement; the castle was his for the exploring. Nobody would disrupt them inside its ancient stone walls.
Now they stood in the entry hall. It was lit by torches which flickered an orange light from brackets on the walls. A grand staircase offered the most obvious path further into the structure. The tattered red carpet that went up it had undoubtedly, once, been a boasting illustration of the kingdom’s vast wealth. Now it seemed to sigh with the departed souls of those who had trod upon it.
Shai was looking around with a mixture of awe and confusion. “It’s weird. This place is way up on a hill, and it’s gotta be hundreds of feet tall, but I don’t remember seeing on the car ride up here. You’d think I would notice something like that.”
“So, what’s the plan? We going to bond as teammates by role-playing Harry Potter?” Dennis quipped with a falsely cheery laugh. The creepy medieval vibe of the place had clearly made him nervous.
“Think of it as a journey to basketball enlightenment,” Chris said. He thought if he described his plan in any more detail than that, Shai and Dennis would abandon him, even when they were right on the cusp of a forbidden knowledge that was unknown, and unknowable, to most NBA players. “Follow me.” He started up the stairs; Shai followed right away, and Dennis, though clearly apprehensive about going further into the castle, was even more afraid of being left all alone: after a few seconds’ pause, he, too, scampered after the group.
The trio walked down a dark hallway, absent of torches, that was lit only by weak sunlight coming in through the slit-windows. Their footsteps echoed in strange ways, making it seem like the entire castle was alive with activity, as it must have been hundreds of years before. “You seem like you know your way around,” Shai commented as Chris took a confident turn down another hallway and up some stairs.
“I do,” Chris replied. “It’s my castle, after all.”
“What does that mean?” Dennis asked. He didn’t get an answer. Instead, they kept walking, sometimes descending stairs, but more often ascending them. By many doors they passed, the rooms or passageways beyond remaining forever a secret. When Shai stopped to crack open a door and peek inside, he was swiftly scolded by Chris. He did not try to look behind any more doors.
“Should’ve got some bottled waters at the gift shop,” Dennis joked, still sounding nervous. “It’s so stuffy and dusty in here. Could use a drink.”
Chris proceeded ahead, heedless of his teammate’s complaints. “Shortly, you will quench a different type of thirst: your mind’s thirst for basketball insight. After sipping from the knowledge-waters, all the desires of your flesh will be forgotten.”
“That’s cool, but I’m thirsty right now, and I have no idea how much longer we have to walk.”
Being as he was gifted with perfect knowledge of the castle’s layout, Chris could have answered Dennis’ question. But his teammates needed to learn the value of perserverence. They were still so young. They had experienced so little.
Dennis was miffed with Chris’ silence. “I wish I had never come to Romania,” he muttered.
Chris stopped walking so suddenly that Shai bumped into him. He turned to face the other two, his face made sinister by the dancing shadows of the torch-light. “Do you want to see what happens to those who ignore the path I have carefully laid out for them, the path towards ultimate basketball wisdom?” he snapped, grabbing a nearby door handle and pulling to reveal the room beyond.
When Shai and Dennis saw what was in that stone chamber, they began to scream.