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Winning is everything (because without it there's nothing)

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***

ESPN: It's 2-2 coming into Game 5 of the 2033 NBA Finals, here in Dallas. One difference from last year is the Bobcats are missing Hall of Famer Juozas Uzugiris—how much does this affect your chances for another ring?

Watkins: Not at all.

ESPN: Dallas point guard Meng Ling is certainly hungry for a championship, and on Tuesday he turned in one of the finest performances in postseason history: 52 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Your thoughts?

Watkins: Meng's a solid player. But this is the first time the Mavs have made the Finals in decades. I'm not worried.

ESPN: You single-handedly made up a deficit of more than 20 points during the third quarter of Game 4, though it wasn't quite enough. What was going through your mind out there?

Watkins: I was just f---ing pissed. We weren't protecting the paint, we were missing too many easy shots. So in the second half, every time I saw an opportunity I just went out there and took it.

ESPN: How do you feel heading into Game 5, now that the Mavericks have tied the series and they've still got home-court advantage?

Watkins: I'm confident. We're gonna go out there and win this. No doubts.

ESPN: None?

Watkins: None.

***

Sometimes the press asks him, afterwards, what it's like right before a win. They think the zone must be quiet, concentration blocking everything out, but it's actually the opposite: the harder Watkins focuses, the more he absorbs. The rise and fall of the crowd like an unstoppable force of nature, his breath coming hard and fast, players yelling, the resonant bounce of the ball and the smack as it hits his palms. He leaps and tosses in two points, hears the crowd roar. On a good day like this it all comes together, mind and body and game, until he knows it like a promise: he can't lose.

The first half is chippy. Even though Meng's only got a dozen points to Watkins' twenty-five, the Mavericks are tenaciously holding level. Watkins is forcing fouls, trying to consolidate a lead. Some ballers hate going to the line, but he loves being at the center of everything, the pause at the eye. Two points he has perfect control over. He sinks the first shot and the crowd erupts. Behind him he hears Meng shout, "One point won't help you win."

Watkins hits the second. "What about two points?" he mocks, taking a step into Meng's personal space as he reaches out to dap the other Bobcats. Meng gives him a dirty look and brushes past.

As Watkins extends the lead with a three-pointer, he feels himself hitting his stride. Everything is coming off exactly the way he wants it, intention flowing so perfectly into execution that he feels like he's nothing but pure thought. The crowd is going wild. In the third quarter he makes a spectacular play, an epic two-handed dunk right in Meng's face. Meng's infuriated expression is glorious. Watkins can already imagine how awesome his face is going to be when he loses. Watkins is pulling the Bobcats ahead, basket by basket, until early in the fourth he comes down and feels—hears—something snap.

For a moment there's nothing, then his foot explodes with pain. Somehow he's managed to make a pass, and further down the court his team is continuing the play, but all he can do is stand there sucking through clenched teeth.

After that, it's a massacre. The Bobcats' lead narrows, slims further, then vanishes under Meng's assault. Watkins sits on the bench, fists clenched so hard he thinks his rage must be force enough to change things, but without him they're an embarrassment, they're barely a fucking team—and then Meng's heaving one last shot on the buzzer and it goes in, and it's over.

***

He skips the team bus on the way back to the hotel. The GM's going to fine his ass, and he doesn't give a shit. Even the short walk down the hallway makes his foot burst with pain. Outside, jubilant Mavs fans are milling in the street, just one game away from the championship. He stares down at them, forcing himself to watch until he's sick with anger. His mind is still stuck in the game, grinding through each losing play: shots missed, unforced turnovers, Meng's steal, Meng's unstoppable string of fourth-quarter buckets, Meng's fucking look of triumph—

"Fuck!" he yells. He takes an abortive, unsatisfying swing at the wall. "Motherfucking—"

He stops, panting. His fists are clenched so tightly he thinks he might break a finger anyway. Taking a shuddering breath, he stabs at his phone. Before Serge can say anything, he says curtly, "Meet me at the gym."

"Ben—" Serge starts. From his voice, Watkins knows he saw the game on TV.

"Just do it. Five minutes."

By the time he's limped to the gym, his breathing is back to normal. Serge takes one look at him and says, "The fuck you doing walking around on that shit."

"I'll deal with it tomorrow," Watkins says flatly. He limps over to the bench press, loads up the bar and lies back. "Spot me."

He works out until his muscles are trembling and his lungs feel blowtorched. Serge is watching him with an expression like an old neighborhood pastor whose flock has taken up with Scientology. Watkins ignores him. His foot might be hurting, but at least now he can't feel it over the shriek from the rest of his body. This is a pain he welcomes with open arms. It feels clean, deserved.

Afterwards he drags himself to bed and lies there watching the Dallas city lights. The ache of his abused muscles brings relief: no disappointment, no endlessly replayed mistakes—nothing but pure, uncomplicated pain, until he finally falls asleep.

***

Game 6 is the last one Dallas needs for the Championship. The Charlotte crowd, perfectly aware of how it's going to go down without Watkins, gives a defeated boo as the Mavericks jog on court. Watkins picks Meng immediately: fair-skinned, broad-shouldered, inches shorter than the centers and forwards surrounding him. He's put on mass during the season and looks strong, confident. He catches Watkins' eye as he passes the Bobcats bench. The edge of sympathy in his smirk stings like a split lip. Meng lopes off and Watkins sees his own face on the jumbotron, scowling.

If there was any remaining doubt about the outcome, it's shattered in the first five minutes. Meng dominates the court, crushing the Bobcats defense like they're a bunch of bench warmers from the D-League. So that's how it ends: with a whimper and Meng's fucking smug face and a tidal wave of screaming Mavs fans.

He's still sitting there when the reporters pounce. "Ben! Ben! What went wrong? How do you feel?"

"How do I fucking feel?" Watkins looks up in disbelief.

One of the chick reporters looks shocked. "This is live," she whispers.

"I don't give a fuck about your fucking live TV," he snaps, and flees the reporters, his team, Meng, the whole fucking arena.

And then it's summer.

***

He goes home to LA, avoids everyone he knows, and draws up a training schedule. The pain in his foot feels like compressed rage. When Serge comes over and sees the schedule, his face turns into a disbelieving pretzel. The next day the schedule is gone and there's an AlterG cross-training pod squatting there, like Watkins is some kind of fucking geriatric whose bones are crumbling under his own weight. He looks at it with fury. "Shouldn't have broken your foot, then," Serge says blandly. Watkins grits his teeth and runs. He lifts weights and practices his free throw and rides to Malibu and back on the stationary bike, and each day when he's done he sets up camp in his home theatre and watches game tape. He watches all Meng's games in order, carefully tagging and filing each possession. He calculates the efficiency each shot; writes accompanying notes on the location, technique, outcomes. He rewatches the Finals series until he can't remember the real thing anymore, just the camera angles.

"How many times have you watched this?" It's the puff-piece sportswriter who's been following him around for the past three days. "Some," Watkins says and stares uninvitingly at the sportswriter until he goes away. He finds the footage of himself breaking his foot, tags it.

A couple of weeks later the magazine comes out. The cover depicts him as a blank-faced robot, Meng cheerfully winding an oversized key sticking out of his back. Unlike Watkins, whose puff-piece is short and full of the clichés of desperate journalism, Meng has apparently been happy to speak to the media at length.

SI: How did you feel when you heard that Watkins was out of the Finals?

Meng: Nobody wishes an injury upon anyone else, but at the same time we know injuries are a part of the game. To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard. Winning should be a challenge. I was happy to get my first ring, but I didn't want to win it the easy way.

SI: What is it about Watkins in particular that inspires your rivalry?

Meng: You know, I never considered him my rival until the media started using that word. I thought we were just two good players from many. But now everyone compares us. For Watkins, you know, he's a great competitor. He never gives up, so he brings out the best in his opponents because they know they can't relax for even a second if they want to beat him.

SI: I don't think it's a stretch to say that the two of you are the strongest players in the league right now. You have incredible court vision and the best post moves we've seen since Hakeem Olajuwon; what are Watkins' strengths?

Meng: Watkins, you know, I believe he is unbeatable on the technical aspects of the game, his shooting and passing. He is also dangerous because he plays better the angrier he gets, sometimes he comes off the bench in the third quarter and turns the whole game around.

SI: (laughs) And you can always tell when Watkins is pissed, he makes this particular face—

Meng: (laughs) Yeah, even angrier than normal.

SI: (laughs) The Death Stare.

Meng: You know, there are good players who shoot under sixty percent from the line, worse if you yell at them when they're trying to concentrate. Watkins makes ninety, ninety-five percent, even when you yell.

SI: I know you've tried.

Meng: Yeah. Maybe he can't understand my accent.

SI: It's interesting you hold Watkins' technical strengths in such high regard, since Chinese players are known as great technicians themselves.

Meng: He has incredible athleticism and he works hard, I believe he trains harder than any CBA player I've known. Nobody has to force him to practice. I'm always conscious I need to improve constantly to remain competitive against him.

SI: Watkins is famous inside and outside the league for his incredible work ethic. What do you think drives him?

Meng: He just wants to win. But so do I.

Watkins reads it three times, jabs delete, then has second thoughts and tags and files it. He calls Penny, his PA, and asks her to send him clippings of everything Meng's been doing over summer. His inbox starts filling with articles. GQ's "The New Champion". The New York Times Magazine's "All Hail the King of Clutch". Meng playing charity golf; Meng in an Audi commercial; Meng at a film premiere with Mandy Hsieh, Hollywood's new darling, on his arm. The more Watkins reads, the more furious he gets. Meng with his phony smile, taking everyone's adoration like he's earned it. Meng, who only won because Watkins broke his fucking foot.

***

Labor Day rolls around. His foot is pretty much healed, and Penny has started forcing him out of the gym to all the usual offseason events: fundraisers, exhibitions, interviews. He goes along to the opening of Huishan Zhang's new boutique, which turns out to be a leaning, illuminated slab in the middle of a swimming pool. Inside, the who's-who are mingling on the seafloor. Watkins unties a champagne flute from a bunch floating above a side table and surveys the room. Actors, musicians, fashion types. Above the field of short heads he sees a familiar profile that makes his jaw clench. As if feeling Watkins' eyes on him, Meng looks over and gives him a cocky smile. The expensively faded t-shirt he has on is clingier than the dress Mandy Hsieh is wearing, next to him. As Watkins glares, they turn and pose for photos: the perfect celebrity couple.

A flash suddenly blinds him, and he blinks and scowls. "For real, do you only have one expression?" A photographer shoves his camera further into Watkins' face.

"Get lost, man," Watkins says, shouldering away. His attention keeps drifting to Meng, who's smiling and letting minor celebrities take photos with him. Even here, everyone fucking adores Meng. The fabric of the crowd is bunched around him like a bed sheet the morning after.

"Hi," someone says, and he's startled to see it's Mandy. The top of her head comes approximately to his left nipple. He's always surprised how tiny actresses are in real life. Her collarbones look like a turkey wishbone. "You're the guy Ling is always talking about."

She takes a sip of her drink and makes a face. Watkins isn't sure she's even twenty-one. "Don't you think we look good together?" she says, indicating her white dress and the white suit Penny picked out for him. She playfully touches the diamond at his ear. "Nice bling."

"Shouldn't you be hanging out with Meng?" he asks. Meng is in an obnoxious back-slapping orgy of mutual admiration with a familiar-looking Latino guy.

She laughs. "Oh, Ling. Our PR people got together, god. They figured everyone wants to see the Asians pairing up, but, like, he's Chinese from actual China. Half the time I have no idea what he's saying." She puts his arm through his, tugs him through the crowd. "It's too hot in here. Let's go outside."

They stand with their drinks on the wooden decking and watch the boutique's reflection dancing on the surface of the swimming pool. "So what does Meng say about me?" Watkins asks.

"Eh. I don't know. That you're good, I guess. I don't really listen to him when he, like, talks about basketball. Sorry!" She giggles. "We mainly talk about fashion. He says in China everyone thinks Huishan Zhang is, like, for old people. Old people!" She looks outraged. "He says they have way cooler designers in China now and the US is totally behind on fashion. I don't think that's true. Do you think it's true? Though I did hear that Shanghai is totally, like, the place to be right now. He said he could take me, if I wanted. He's going there soon to, like, sell shoes or something."

He grunts. Everyone has to sell shoes at some point.

Mandy looks at him sideways. "He said you're good but boring. You do the same moves all the time."

Watkins frowns. "I take high-percentage shots I know I can convert."

"Eh, I don't care." She throws up her hands in emphasis and lets go of her champagne flute, which floats off skywards. "Oops." She leans out to track its flight. He grabs her arm in case she goes for a swim, but instead she turns and gives him a startlingly shrewd look. "You should kiss me."

He doesn't usually play these tabloid games, but a sudden twist of vindictiveness prompts him to lean down and give her a brief kiss. Immediately there's the pop of a camera from behind them.

Mandy laughs. "I didn't say you couldn't, like, have fun with it. I wouldn't have minded." She slips back into the party and disappears.

The photos will be all over the feeds by breakfast. Even if the Meng and Mandy thing is all PR, Watkins figures any guy would be annoyed to open his morning press packet and see his rival laying lips on his date. He raises a mocking toast to the swimming pool, and goes back inside.

***

On Monday his agent calls and says peremptorily, "You know, they aren't really dating."

Watkins shrugs. "Figured."

"So there wasn't much point to your little stunt." When Watkins doesn't say anything, his agent coughs and says, "But it's generated a lot of buzz about you and Meng. About your rivalry. A lot of buzz. Especially amongst your mutual sponsors."

"The fuck is it, man," Watkins says impatiently.

"Meng is doing a five-city promotional tour of Asia before the preseason. You're going with him."

Watkins makes an involuntary sound. "You fucking shitting me?"

His agent laughs. It's not a nice laugh.

"The fuck," Watkins says. The more it sinks in, the angrier he gets. "They think I'm gonna spend the rest of the offseason in—in China, with the cocksucker who stole my ring? What the fuck," he repeats, newly furious. "No fucking way!"

"Funny how you don't actually get to say no to this," his agent says.

The week after that, he's in Singapore.

***

Singapore is an island so immensely vertical that from the air it resembles a jar of pencils. On the ground, it has a clockwork quality: the immigration hall operates in hushed efficiency; the airport traffic runs on smooth, empty roads. Watkins is forming a mostly favorable impression of a stolid, sensible sort of society when he catches sight of his hotel. Floating on a wash of dazzling blue light, a monolithic ocean liner steams through the darkness above the city. A quarter mile of portholes twinkle atop three leglike skyscrapers. Watkins revises his impression: less a tropical Switzerland, more of a civic-minded Vegas. Inside the hotel his plush suite occupies the bow of the ship. The wavelike play of light outside his porthole is soothing: a purely urban ocean, eighty stories above the surface of the city.

The next morning he's up by five. The 'deck' of the ocean liner is a vast park complete with a glowing swimming pool that seems to cascade off into the void. He slips in and starts swimming laps. He swims for more than an hour, though the sky stays stubbornly dark. He's deep in the zone, arms and lungs at a meditative burn, when he takes a breath and sees a silhouetted figure heading towards the pool.

Watkins sets his teeth and keeps swimming. He can feel Meng watching him. He loses track as he goes into a turn, and when he comes up there's a body pushing off in the lane next to him and surging ahead. Watkins reacts before he has time to think. The gap narrows as he powers forward, but he's already swum a couple of miles and Meng's fresh. By halfway Meng has pulled ahead, and Watkins gets a kick of spray in the face as they lunge towards the wall. He touches a body length behind, manages a tight turn and pushes off hard enough to make up distance—but by his first kick he's already aware there's nobody in the pool in front of him.

When he finishes the lap and looks back, he sees Meng lazily lifting himself from the water. Meng's skin is bare of ink, pale in the poolside lights as he stands and gives a relaxed shoulder roll. He turns and gives Watkins a taunting salute, then pads off past a gawking crowd of early-morning exercisers.

Watkins hoists himself to the edge of the pool, fuming. It's blatant disrespect, but all he can do is spit mental curses and make his way to breakfast.

***

They're shuttled to their first event, a training camp for enthusiastic teenagers of varying degrees of talent. Watkins relaxes as he takes in the familiar environment: the squeak of shoes on hardwood; the smell of an indoor court that's the same no matter where in the world it is. It's almost good enough to ease the irritation of Meng's presence.

At the end of the morning he and Meng get paired off for one-on-ones against the camp's two standouts. Watkins gets matched with a tall, well-built Indian kid. He suppresses a laugh at the kid's ferocious expression as they square off. He easily defeats the kid's first attempt, and is already thinking about lunch when he's surprised by the kid slashing towards the basket, fast. The kid is actually good: agile and strong for a teenager. As Watkins steals the ball and sinks a jumper, he asks, "Been scouted by the NBA?"

The kid's eyes are narrowed as he dribbles in slowly from half-court. "I'm nominating for the CBA draft."

Watkins is taken aback. "The CBA?"

"Who watches the NBA anymore?" the kid says dismissively. He drives a shoulder into Watkins, pivots quickly and leaps for a dunk that Watkins barely manages to block. Watkins bares his teeth: no fucking teenager is dunking on him. He'd been playing it easy, but the close call kicks in his game-adrenaline. He hits a string of fast layups, leaving the kid scoreless and increasingly annoyed. When Watkins slams home a freight train of a dunk, the kid says angrily, "I didn't come here to play you." With a start, Watkins notices he's wearing a Qingdao Eagles jersey with Meng's number: 32.

"Whatever," Watkins says, stung.

Meng's game is against a Chinese kid who's nowhere near as good as the kid Watkins played. Meng is being sloppy, Watkins notes scornfully. His steals are slow, and he's letting the kid get some pace up until finally, on the last point, the kid manages to fake Meng out and dash past him for a successful layup. The kid explodes with excitement, and Watkins watches in incredulous disgust as Meng high-fives him and pulls him close for a photo. It's painful to watch, Meng's phoniness and the kid's cringeworthy joy, like a starving puppy that's been thrown a half-eaten hamburger.

"Couldn't get ten points on a teenager?" Watkins jibes as Meng rejoins him on the sidelines.

"Why?" Meng changes shirts, causing an eruption of hysterical giggles from the seats. "I'd already won."

"Nobody wants pity points," Watkins says furiously.

"Maybe not you," Meng says, and leaves him standing there.

***

The next day they actually get a game—if two fifteen-minute halves with a bunch of actors and musicians is a game and not just a general embarrassment. Watkins gets up a quick eight points, each one a little kick of satisfaction, and is setting up for nine and ten when Meng suddenly quits trying to block the ball and just blinds Watkins by shoving a hand in his eyes. It's effective and as annoying as fuck. Watkins misses the shot, then half his next ones, and watches with increasing fury as Meng's team scoops the rebounds and goes on a scoring streak: six, eight, ten.

"Get back in transition!" Watkins screams at his team, who look at him like a flock of startled sheep. "D! D!" They're entirely useless; the only thing that's missing is some fucking bleating.

There's a minute left in the half, and Watkins shoulders Meng, hard, as they battle for a rebounding position after a free throw. "Get your hands out of my fucking face."

Meng gives him a taunting grin. "Not so much a fan of that, are you?" His elbow catches Watkins in the ribs.

"I'm hitting more with your fucking hands in my face than you get in on a game night," Watkins hisses.

"And I still win," Meng shoots back. "How many assists did you get, your last game? Two?"

Watkins snarls and shoves Meng out of the way to grab the ball. The clock is counting down the last seconds when he launches a two-pointer that brings them back into competition—until the buzzer sounds and he inexplicably sees Meng's score bump by twenty. A cheer goes up from the seats.

"The fuck?" he yells, enraged.

"People were voting for their favorite team," says the second-most-useless celebrity on his team, typing busily on his tablet while some chick hovers behind him with a hairdryer. "An extra twenty points for most popular, lah."

Meng waves at him from his group huddle further down the court. Watkins returns a flat stare. "This is bullshit," he announces.

"Why you care so much, ah?" the celebrity says, still typing away. "It's for charity only."

"The next half, just get the ball to me," Watkins snaps.

Nobody else on Watkins' team has a hope of making a basket from further than ten feet, and even then only if Meng isn't in their face. Watkins plants himself at the perimeter and starts hitting jumpers one after another, relishing the pissed expression on Meng's face as he's boxed in by his own flailing team. It feels awesome. His body is strong and responsive, as perfect as a laser-cutter as he sinks shot after shot.

Meng finally untangles himself and starts guarding him at the perimeter, but it's too late. They're in the last ten seconds, Watkins a point down as he snags a pass well north of the three-point line. Meng is practically on top of him, his expression mocking. No matter what he tries, Meng sticks with him. The last seconds are pounding in his ears, Meng just won't get out of his face and he hears his own yell as he launches a huge, wild fadeaway, the buzzer sounds, and the ball is arcing perfectly over Meng's outstretched hands, three points of nothing but net.

The crowd roars as the announcer screams, "It's good!" Watkins only has eyes for Meng, who shows a split-second of annoyance before he shakes it away and turns to a teammate. Meng's easy grin, as insincere as a magazine cover, is suddenly infuriating, and when he starts to leave Watkins steps into his path.

"Get out of the way," Meng says, trying to get around him. Watkins is gratified to see him flush with irritation.

"Fuck assists," Watkins says. "I'll tell you how I win: I just fucking get out there and be me."

Meng lifts his chin. "Sure. And if you weren't you, perhaps you could have gotten a free twenty-point lead and made your life easier."

"I didn't need twenty bullshit points," Watkins bites out.

Meng shoulders past him towards the bench. "I don't think the charity cares."

Watkins is still glaring at Meng's back when someone walks into his field of vision and sticks a microphone in his face.

"Great win!" the girl chirps. "We have a question now from—" she reads from her tablet, "—Samantha from Taman Jurong, who wants to know where you got your competitive spirit from?"

Watkins drags his eyes away from Meng. He feels irritable and raw, like he's just come off a loss.

"Thanks for your question, Samantha," he says. He tries to relax his face. "I don't really know. I've always been like this. My whole family stopped shooting hoops with me pretty early on, 'cause they were sick of getting their butts handed to them by a ten year old." The kids laugh. "My dad, he played college ball. Probably could've made the NBA if he'd wanted, but he didn't. When I was kid, he used to say after my games that he didn't care if I came home with zero points or sixty points. But even then I knew I was never gonna be the guy who came home with zero. And yeah, you gotta sacrifice and keep sacrificing if you want to be that sixty point guy. My dad didn't want that, and that's fine; if he hadn't, I probably wouldn't be here. But I'm a five-time All Star, I already got one championship and a gold medal, and for me: everything I give up is worth it."

He's suddenly aware of Meng standing nearby, watching him.

"Thanks! Now a question for Meng Ling—" the girl says, and shifts into Chinese.

Meng answers, smiling, giving every appearance of enjoying himself. Watkins tunes out until the sound of his name makes him look up. His eye briefly catches Meng's. Meng looks away and answers the question in an even tone, but Watkins can tell he's pissed.

"What did he say?" Watkins whispers to a stray PR person.

"So the question was: how did it feel to get dunked on by Ben Watkins during Game 5 of the Finals? And Meng Ling, he said: Please don't ask me about an incident in which I have no face."

Watkins grins sardonically at Meng, who just crosses his arms and meets Watkins' eyes. Half the time thinks he doesn't get under Meng's skin as much as Meng gets under his; it feels good to know it's not true.

***

Unlike Singapore, Manila is chaotic and loud. The air is a sticky whiteout in the morning and a torrential downpour in the afternoon, the buildings running black with water stains. Also unlike Singapore, the Philippines is genuinely basketball-mad. From the window of the official bus Watkins sees kids in NBA jerseys darting through the colorful traffic: Magic and Bird, Jordan and Kobe, LeBron and Durant, his own blue and silver number 16. The buses are decorated with franchise stickers and NBA bobbleheads. There's even a traffic circle with a statue of Erik Spoelstra, who took the Heat to six straight championships. And everywhere there's Meng: Meng selling shoes and shampoo on city billboards; Meng winking from vending machines; Meng's number 32 in its infinite taunting variations, like an ever-present curse.

Their events are all inside giant shopping malls. All the malls in Manila are exactly the same, starkly alien compared to the streets outside: sleek white surfaces and clean glass, pounding music, Nike and Apple and Häagen-Dasz and the latest Hollywood blockbusters. In every mall there's a crush of well-dressed kids who hang along the railings of the upper levels watching the event, then disappear within seconds afterwards.

"Where do they all go?" Watkins asks, at one event.

"Oh," the MC chuckles. "They live here."

"In the mall?"

"Sure, sure." He gestures at the wing of the mall that Watkins had taken to be an attached office tower. "Those are all apartments. There's a school up there, a basketball court."

"They never go outside?" The idea of mall culture taken to its logical extreme is oddly confronting.

"Why would they want to?" The MC seems genuinely surprised.

"I lived in an apartment my whole childhood," Meng says. "Twenty-four square meters for the three of us, the same size as my kitchen in Dallas. My school was inside, basketball practice was inside. Not everyone in the world grows up with a grass yard and their own basketball hoop."

"I know that," Watkins snaps. Half the NBA were street ballers; of course he fucking knows.

The MC lifts the microphone to the vicinity of Meng's chin. "Meng Ling, you grew up here in Asia. Can you share your secrets of success with us?"

Meng says, "In China we have a population of one point four billion, so from a young age we know how important it is to have a good work ethic to get ahead. But hard work isn't enough. I believe you have to love what you do, otherwise even playing basketball will become a job, it will become harder and harder to be creative, to put up with the pain, to go to practice every day. You quit before you reach your true potential. That was the flaw in our old Chinese system, where they took kids and trained them for years, even if they had never heard of the sport before.

"For me, I had a choice. My parents are modern Chinese; when the sports school contacted them they didn't want me to play, they wanted me to focus on my studies so I could have a successful life. But I already loved basketball. My teachers were always complaining that I disrupted the classroom by throwing pieces of paper around." He laughs with the crowd. "But when I started at the sports school, I was one hundred percent focused. They made us work hard, one day six hours of ball-handling drills, the next day six hours of layups. Every day for the whole year. But I did it because I loved the game and I wanted to be the best."

Meng throws a needling glance at Watkins. "And because more than anything, I love winning."

Usually these kinds of events attract mainly kids, but in the Philippines everyone's into basketball. When the event ends, Watkins is swarmed for photos and autographs. He makes the mistake of looking over at Meng, who catches his eye and jerks his head at the crowd around him: it's at least three times bigger than Watkins' crowd. Watkins gives him his meanest mug. He's fine with being the guy the fans love to hate. Meng might be happy wasting his energy by dating starlets and posting jokey photos of himself on the internet, but Watkins is who he is: fans can either appreciate him for his game, or they can go fuck themselves.

Afterwards, the MC drags them up to the mall's food court for a tour of Filipino delicacies. Instead of food outlets there's a vast array of vending machines that produce things like empañadas with odd fillings, squidgy and icy desserts, and deep-fried things on sticks. Watkins dislikes fried food, preferring to feed his body things it actually needs, and he resents being forced to perform enthusiasm. Meng doesn't appear to resent anything; he seems to genuinely love everything he tries, asking what it's all called and taking seconds.

Eventually they stop at a vending machine with a picture of eggs and birds on the front. Meng looks delighted. "I know what this is. We also have them in China." He waves Watkins forward.

Watkins scowls, suspicious, and inspects the buttons. There are pictures of various kinds and colors of eggs: white, blueish, small and speckled. At least eggs are nutritious. He presses the blue egg button.

"Duck egg!" the MC explains.

The machine dispenses a plastic-wrapped egg with a picture of a beaming yellow duckling on it. It's mildly warm. The crowd is oddly intent, which readies him, but it still takes everything he has not to flinch as he lifts away the shell and sees an eye staring up at him. Watkins examines it stonily. The eye belongs to a tiny feathered duck, beak tucked against its feet, lying on a pillow of veiny yolk. A wave of laughter washes over him: the MC, the crowd, the TV crew, Meng, all laughing at him as he frowns down at the egg, and the egg frowns back at him.

Meng's laughter makes it easy. Watkins salutes the camera with the egg and takes a bite. He looks pointedly at Meng as he chews. The texture is unsettlingly like liver, crunchy in a fleshy way, but it's surprisingly delicious: a little tart and a little sweet. "That was great," he tells the crowd, mostly meaning it, though it probably would've been better in the dark, and with beer.

He's washing down the experience with a Coke when Meng leans in and says, low, "Normally you Americans are so squeamish. Or will you do anything to win a challenge?"

Watkins gives him a hard stare. "I didn't see you eat one."

Meng laughs. "Give me something I haven't tried before," he says, and walks off.

***

Summer in Tokyo is hot and sweltering, just like Charlotte—which is exactly why Watkins spends in the offseason in LA, not Charlotte. The three steps between their hotel and the automated taxi feel like being blasted in the face by the exhaust from ten million airconditioners. For a huge city, the place is strangely empty. In addition to the fucking weird driverless taxis, the Japanese have perfected the virtual shop assistant, the vending machine restaurant, and sightseeing tours led by robot dogs. It should be paradise compared to LA's wholehearted embrace of smog, shouting and shitty infrastructure, but it's just unsettling.

It turns out that the Japanese are more into baseball than basketball, but apparently cool shoes are cool shoes regardless of which sport they're actually intended for. Instead of training clinics and demonstration games, their sponsor shuttles them from boutique to boutique, from one fashion event to another, and to a photoshoot where the photographer suppresses his exasperation at Watkins' one expression and says defeatedly, "Good! Good! Thank you!"

They film a commercial in a giant sound stage that's been fitted out with a glossy black basketball court half-covered with drifts of black sand. A tiny black table tennis table occupies the middle of the court, like the last relic of an ancient civilisation more interested in racket sports than impending environmental collapse. Assistants rush across the dunes to hand them bats and a ball.

Meng's dressed identically to Watkins in a sleek black uni and their sponsor's neon shoe. He smirks at Watkins from across the net. "You know, us Chinese love table tennis. Have you ever played?"

Watkins glares at him. "Uh, yeah." His last encounter with a table tennis table was a game of beer pong in college, but at least he'd won.

Meng serves with a weird upside-down grip. Watkins scoffs; the shot's laughably slow. The ball floats over the net, touches down, then abruptly zooms off at a ninety-degree angle. Watkins startles and lunges; the ball ricochets off the edge of his bat and plops into the sand. When he looks up with a scowl, Meng is laughing.

With effort, Watkins manages to return the next serve. It's not so much a rally as Meng just toying with him, flicking the ball from corner to corner. Watkins grits his teeth and runs. The director yells encouragingly, "Great, keep going!" When he finally misses, a flurry of assistants descend and attack his face with wipes and makeup brushes. Meng isn't even sweating. Watkins takes a grim breath and refocuses. By the fourth rally he's getting the hang of it, getting in some decent returns, but it's clear there's no way he's going to win. Meng isn't even bothering to hit winners; he's just indulgently lollipopping the ball, like he's playing a fucking five year old.

On their next rally Watkins sprints for a return, nearly faceplants as he skids on the sand, and misses. "Fuck!" he yells, irate. The film crew are laughing with their hands over their mouths. "Clean that shit up!" He stands there glowering until they huddle, conferring, and someone comes to plonk a roomba under the table.

While the machine is sweeping, Watkins hisses at Meng, "I don't need you to fucking hold back."

"It's a commercial, not a competition," Meng says. "The only person who cares how you play is you." He laughs. "Our job is just to look good. Can you do that, or are you too busy hating me?"

A table tennis ball weighs a fraction of an ounce, and smashing it across the table is about as satisfying as hurling a dry tissue towards the trash. Watkins hits it as hard as he can, imagining following through with the bat into Meng's face. It's a stupid, unproductive shot, and Meng stretches across and flicks it back with all the attention of an afterthought. Watkins whacks the returns with everything he's got, but Meng just sends them all back, placing each ball in front of Watkins like an insult, until the director yells, "Cut!"

Meng spins the bat on his finger, grinning. "Not so bad, for a beginner. Maybe if you do some practice we can play again."

"Get fucked," Watkins spits. He dumps his bat unceremoniously in the sand, and stalks off.

***

The PR people have put them both on the same floor of the hotel. Watkins passes Meng's suite on his way back from the gym. The door is open, and Meng is leaning in the doorway with a pair of pretty female fans, laughing at something they're saying. He's wearing a pair of outrageously red chinos that stretch tight across his crotch and thighs. He doesn't even look up as Watkins walks past.

Watkins' suite is an expensively minimalist relaxation spa, all pale wood and smooth surfaces. He sits in the wooden tub thing and glares out the window at Tokyo's rotating skyscrapers. He doesn't feel relaxed. His mind churns with frustrations: Meng humiliating him at table tennis, Meng ignoring him in the corridor. The more he thinks about Meng's laughing face deliberately turned away from him, the more it pisses him off. He wants to walk past again and drive his shoulder into Meng to make him look. He wants to smack him into the wall hard enough to wipe the smug, superior expression off his face. He wants Meng to fight back, so he can punch him right in the fucking mouth.

He flings himself out of the tub and does pushups until his arms scream, but no matter how many he does, his mind keeps twanging like a wire ready to snap.

***

Their next stop is Wuhan, the biggest city Watkins has never heard of. He'd thought Meng had been popular elsewhere in Asia, but China is fucking insane. The airport is full of screaming fans, and their bus gets caught in a snarl of braking cars, their occupants leaning out and frantically gesturing to Meng for photos, autographs. Nobody even gives Watkins a second look.

Wuhan has one of the weirdest skylines Watkins has ever seen: an endless sprawl of buildings all crowned with wind turbines, their gigantic blades slowly churning the hot smog. Ancient pavilions lurk under expressways and in the shadows of solar-sided office towers. The stadium for their game is a burnished metal lozenge packed with enough fans for a Super Bowl. The crowd applauds when Watkins and his CBA team emerge from the tunnel, but goes absolutely supernova when Meng jogs in with the Qingdao Eagles. Despite his face adorning almost every building in a city the size of New York, Meng has suddenly adopted a newly humble demeanor. He waves and smiles and inclines his head modestly during all the pre-game interviews. It's a grade-A performance of pure bullshit, somehow even more infuriating than smirking, cocky Meng.

With the roof open, the Wuhan stadium is a cross between a blast furnace and the third circle of Hell. Heat waves are shimmering off the court's surface, and the smog burns Watkins' lungs and eyes. He feels like a side of bacon in someone's smokehouse. His only consolation is that Meng is sweating too, his red Eagles jersey already plastered against the small of his back.

The irritations of Japan have made Watkins even more determined to win. But Meng's on his home turf, and he comes out full throttle. From the first seconds it's fast, ugly, physical. They're colliding, jostling and shoving, yanking each other's jerseys on the down-low where the ref can't see. Meng knocks Watkins sprawling; Watkins retaliates with an elbow to Meng's chest. Watkins' arm burns from the imprint of Meng's fingers. He feels overheated, sticky, rageful. Shots that refuse to go in are a personal affront; Meng's fucking face is a personal affront. Their teams stand back and let them at each other. They tangle in the low post, and Watkins feels a hot surge of something like violence as their bodies slam together, solid and sweaty.

Meng pulls back, breathing hard. He calls for the ball, then hits a long-range jumper, then another and another. He's suddenly everywhere, sinking shot after shot; Watkins is left wrongfooted, furious, always a beat late. Watkins knows Meng, but now he's playing a new offense Watkins has never seen before; had no idea he was even capable of. In front of his Chinese home crowd, Meng is a fucking force of nature. He smashes his way through Watkins and everyone else standing in his way, the crowd is thundering for him, and when the announcer screams, "Qingdao!" he looks straight at Watkins, flushed and triumphant, as he raises his arms in victory.

***

The second they're let off the official bus, Watkins storms to the gym. He doesn't bother with preliminaries, just loads up the bar and lifts. Each burst of pain dovetails with an imagined revenge: blocking Meng, dunking on him, dominating him in front of a huge Chinese crowd. He imagines Meng's face after the crushing loss: humiliated, shamed, gloriously satisfying. Afterwards, in the locker room, Meng would be brittle beneath his façade, easy to goad. They'd grapple and push, Watkins sending Meng sprawling with one hard shove. The image is viciously gratifying: Meng picking himself up, glaring from the floor as Watkins stands over him. It's so good that Watkins revisits it with each rep, grunting as the burn mounts. Meng going down; Meng looking up at him. And then with the next rep his thoughts take an abrupt left turn: he's pushing Meng to his knees, but this time Meng is going willingly with that infuriating smirk, smug and self-satisfied until the moment Watkins digs his fingers into Meng's hair, hard, and fucks his mouth.

Watkins startles out of the fantasy, nearly dropping the bar on his face. He's breathing hard. With anger he realizes it's not just his mind betraying him: he's turned on, tight inside his skin with a ballooning, aching pressure. Inside his head, Meng is laughing.

He's furious with Meng; he's furious with himself. The fury drives him to the treadmill, where he runs until he's doubled over, exhausted, temporarily wiped clean.

***

Their sponsor's Wuhan branch holds a dinner for them in a glass-domed function room at the base of the hotel. Colored light pours in from the surrounding buildings, swirling on the white linens. Sitting next to an empty seat at the long table, Meng is making polite conversation with one of their sponsor's representatives. He's wearing a sharply-cut suit that fits his proportions perfectly. Watkins gets a sudden, unwanted mental flash: Meng on his knees, tie off and shirt open, mouth wet. His mood instantly sours. He takes the empty seat, scowling.

Their sponsor's head bigwig is an elegant woman in her mid-forties. She gestures to the waiters, who bring a silver bottle of European vodka and pour them all shots. "A toast to greet our valued partners from the NBA," she says, raising her glass. "Welcome home, Meng Ling; and Mr Watkins, please enjoy your stay here in China." Hard liquor for a toast seems kind of extreme, but all the Chinese look completely at ease. Watkins shrugs and takes the shot.

Course after course of food comes out, already portioned into small round bowls. Meng glances at Watkins and calls over a waiter, who goes away and comes back to ceremoniously present Watkins with a fork and spoon. Meng grins. Without returning his look, Watkins pointedly picks up his chopsticks and takes a bite. All the food is completely unfamiliar, resembling Chinese takeout about as much as Tex-Mex, but it's delicious.

After each course there are more toasts. The tone of the table gets more and more jovial, and the Chinese get redder and redder. An enormous whole fish, its teeth set in a rictus, is served up tableside. Meng elbows Watkins and says to general laughter, "Look, it has your expression."

Watkins hasn't drunk this much for years, and he starts to wonder how long it can possibly go on for. The food keeps coming, and people keep making toasts. The vodka is making him irritable and uncertain. He's uncomfortably aware of Meng sitting too close, flushed and joking and laughing. The more he wants to clock Meng in the face, the more he's tormented by flashbacks: his hand on the back of Meng's head; Meng's tongue sliding against his dick. It's fucking torture, and all he can do is sit there, simmering, praying for the meal to end.

It finally does, in a culminating frenzy of toasting that leaves Watkins' head spinning. He escapes to the lobby, where he stands staring grimly at his own reflection in the elevator doors. His insides sink when he sees a familiar figure appear behind him, and he resists the desperate urge to jab at the call button.

"You know what," he says. "I need to clear my head, I'm just gonna take the stairs."

Meng laughs. "It's thirty stories."

"Don't know about your franchise, but we actually have conditioning standards in Charlotte," Watkins snaps. "You think I can't climb thirty stories?"

He's already walking away when Meng says, airily nonchalant, "You know, perhaps I'll take the stairs also."

Watkins shoots him a poisonous look. Meng just grins.

He climbs resentfully, hyper-conscious of Meng behind him. For some annoying reason the floor numbering keeps skipping: from three to five, from twelve to fifteen. It fucks with his rhythm. His lungs are burning; he feels like he's going to puke. It's like summitting the world's shittiest mountain, one painful, unrewarding step after another.

At the twenty-second floor, Meng flops back against the wall. He's disheveled, flushed, head tilted back in a way that makes Watkins' blood boil. He reaches out and grabs Watkins' wrist. "You know, you don't have to keep going."

Watkins hisses, "You can give up if you want. I don't give up."

Meng laughs slightly. "I know." He hasn't let go, his thumb still resting inside the soft groove of Watkins' wrist. His hand burns, the epicentre of a hot flush that explodes through Watkins like a bomb blast. For a moment Watkins finds himself paralyzed by sheer hatred. Recovering, he jerks his wrist away and resumes climbing.

By the time he reaches his floor, queasy and exhausted, he's alone.

***

Their last stop is Shanghai, a city that canyons down from impossibly tall skyscrapers into a river walled by massive dikes. It's cleaner than Wuhan, and quieter. The cars and buses are electric, so even the expressways whisper. They play an exhibition in a stadium shaped like a giant magnolia flower. Play is choppy, and Watkins gets angrier and angrier as the game wears on. The calls are all going against his team; he can't take a single fucking step without getting hit with a foul. He's furious at each collision, irritated beyond reason by the closeness of Meng's body as they jostle under the basket. By the time his team loses he's bursting with frustration.

He stands there fuming as Meng and the MC banter in Chinese. The MC says something and Meng laughs, shakes his head, and then they both turn to Watkins. Meng is idly spinning a ball on his finger; Watkins wants to knock it into his face. Meng says, "They want to us do a shooting competition." He grins and throws the ball to Watkins. "I said you are the guest, you can go first."

Watkins sneers. "Don't they want the competition to go for more than one round?"

Meng just laughs. "So, shoot."

Watkins bounces the ball a couple of times, letting the familiar sound transform his anger into focus. He holds the shape of the shot in his mind, then jumps. His wrist snaps into a perfect gooseneck follow-through, and he knows it's good even as the ball rises into a sweet, forty-foot arc, rotates into the apex, and plummets through the rim with a bare tremble of net. It's calculated and flawlessly technical: everything Meng's game isn't. Watkins tosses him the ball, hard. "Your turn."

The corner of Meng's mouth tilts wryly, but he bounces the ball and lofts it towards the distant hoop. For a moment it looks askew, then it straightens, nicks iron, and plunges home. Watkins grits his teeth as Meng whoops and gives him a shit-eating grin. "Ready?"

"Get the fuck on with it."

Meng tosses the ball lightly, then catches it with both hands and hurls it directly at the court. It sproings overhead in the general direction of the backboard, banks off the glass on the way down, and tips into the basket.

Watkins stares in disbelief. "The fuck was that."

Meng smirks and throws Watkins the ball from behind his back. "You going to do it, or are you going to lose?"

Watkins scowls and steps up. He still thinks he has a chance as the bounce heads in the right direction, kills its momentum on the glass—and then drops onto the rim, teetering. The moment seems to expand. He's willing the ball in so hard that there's an icepick pain in his left eyeball. His pulse thumps. The ball gives one last wobble, and falls out.

Watkins stares blankly at the ball as it bounces away, then wheels on Meng. "Another round," he demands.

Meng waves to the crowd. "No," he says. He doesn't give an inch under Watkins' blistering glare, holding his eyes coolly. "You lost." He turns and heads for the tunnel.

Watkins follows him into the locker room, slamming the door shut behind them. "That was a bullshit trick shot. We're playing another round. Skill, not fucking luck."

Meng says mockingly, "It was skill."

"Like fuck that was skill." Watkins shoves Meng, hard.

Meng shoves Watkins back and suddenly muscles in close. Leaning in, he says with deliberation, "You know, I figured you out."

Watkins lifts his chin. His heart is pounding; he shoves Meng off. "Oh yeah?"

Meng says, "You don't want to win."

"The fuck you talking about." Watkins looks at him with disgust. "I want to win."

"No," Meng says. "You don't want to lose." He takes a step towards Watkins. "Not just basketball. For you, everything is a competition, and you're afraid to lose."

"I'm not going to lose to you," Watkins sneers. He holds his ground.

"Depends what's winning and what's losing," Meng says. He takes another step forward.

"Fuck you," Watkins spits. He tries to get past Meng, but Meng steps the same way and blocks him. They push at each other, grappling. Watkins' elbow connects with Meng's upper arm; Meng's fingers dig viciously into Watkins' shoulder. But Meng has the advantage: he's taller, heavier, and he throws his full weight into a forearm across Watkins' chest, sending them both stumbling back until Watkins slams into the wall.

Meng pins Watkins there, breathing hard with effort. "When you win, do you even feel anything?"

Watkins grunts, shoving back against Meng. "I feel plenty."

Meng leans in and says against his ear, hot and low, "Only when you lose."

Watkins realizes he's holding his breath, his whole body one hard ache of anticipation for the rest of the fight, for something else. His head is back against the wall, neck bared. He can feel his pulse hammering against the taut skin of his throat. Meng's forearm is keeping him in place, but their bodies are still an inch apart. The potential in the space between them is electric, sparking. Watkins feels Meng shift fractionally. His mouth still isn't touching Watkins. Without moving anything else, Meng places his free hand just above Watkins' hip. Watkins stifles a sudden exhale. Meng breathes into his ear, "So, when I do this, do you win or lose?"

Watkins shudders as Meng's mouth follows the curve of his neck, his lips just above his skin. Meng's breath ghosts lightly over him as he reaches the juncture of neck and shoulder, pauses. He pushes Watkins' jersey up, baring him from waistband to chest. Watkins' nipples tingle as he takes a tight, shallow breath. His throat aches. He doesn't move as Meng slides downwards; just stays pressed hard up against the wall, neck and chest and belly exposed. His skin is on fire. Meng still doesn't touch him as he follows Watkins' body down. Watkins feels his breath on his right nipple, down his ribs, across the flat of his stomach. He doesn't look down; his only sense of Meng is of a faint warmth near his navel. Meng breathes his way to the waistband of Watkins' shorts, stops. He puts his hand back on Watkins' hip, hooking into the elastic, then slowly, deliberately, pulls his shorts down until Watkins feels the coolness of exposure from cock to knees. He's stapled in place; all he can do is hold there, breathing shallowly, as Meng draws a hand from bare hip to thigh. It's like all of himself is in that narrow strip of skin, catching alight underneath Meng's touch. The pressure of Meng's hand on his thigh increases slightly, and then Meng takes his cock into his mouth.

It's an overload of sensation. Watkins hears a drawn-out groan that he thinks is himself; he's distantly aware of his head banging back against the wall. He shuts his eyes and arches, chasing the warmth. There's just Meng's hand on his thigh and the slick, sweet warmth around his cock. He can hear his ragged breaths in a rhythm that doesn't quite match Meng's. There's too much happening: suction, the play of Meng's tongue, all of it a swirl of sensation that starts spiraling inwards, tighter and tighter until he's gasping, pressing back against the wall with nowhere to go. He's panting, his whole body sweating and burning, Meng's mouth relentless on him. He can feel his toes curling as Meng draws him down, slow and intense. It's hard to think there could be more than this, this complete immersion in a single point of sensation that just gets stronger and stronger until there's nothing else outside of it. It's torture, it's incredible, it's too much and suddenly he's gasping out shudder upon shudder of tight hot glorious release.

He pants through the aftershocks, head back against the wall. He's vaguely conscious of Meng standing up and leaning against him, a solid weight against the length of his own lax body. Their knees tangle and slot between each other as Meng presses his face into the side of Watkins' neck. His breath is coming in fast puffs against Watkins' skin; he's jerking himself in the awkward space between their bodies. Watkins feels Meng's knuckles banging against his stomach, his thighs straining and tight against his own, and then Meng makes a low, hot sound and tenses against him, striping warmth across the bare skin of Watkins' stomach.

They stay like that until they catch their breath, then Meng shifts and pulls up his shorts. As he does he says softly, "It's too hard work, all of this we do, for there to be no joy at all in winning."

Watkins can feel bodily fluids cooling and drying on him: their mingled sweat, Meng's come. There's a finality to it. He feels relaxed and blank, like the last season and all its frustrations are gone, the page turned.

The next season is ahead, and this time he's going to win.