*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination. Previous instalments in the Alternate Basketball Histories series: P.J. Tucker’s origins, and OG Anunoby’s origins.
“Yessir!” Pascal Siakam exclaimed after his digital clone finished another fast break on the hotel room’s small TV screen. His opponent did not reply, his eyes fully focused ahead, his hands gripping the DualShock controller intensely.
“You got no rhythm, OG, time to pack it up!” Pascal kept the one-way smack talk going against his all-but-defeated opponent. Jakob Poeltl chuckled shyly behind them.
“Yo, we heading to the airport in 20,” the team’s co-captain, Kyle Lowry, poked his head from the adjoining room, a heavily-salted french fry stuck in his mouth like a cigarette. The youngsters nodded in agreement, never taking their eyes off the 2k matchup between OG’s classic Raptors squad and Pascal’s current iteration.
Lowry’s floating head returned into view after a brief disappearance, the french fry long gone. “You seen JV?” he asked.
“I thought he was with you,” Pascal replied without much thought.
“That’s weird, he’s usually one of the first ones packed and ready to go,” Lowry said to DeMar, who was sprawled comfortably on the king-sized bed in the adjacent room, fingers interlocked behind his head.
“I’m sure he’ll be back in time,” DeRozan said, his tone unconcerned.
The din of heavy machinery sounded in the background, the noise of the conveyor belt consistently competing with the mechanized cutter. One had to yell at the top of his lungs to have the slimmest chance of being heard. The other senses fared none the better, the thick darkness lit only by the lamps mounted on the miners’ helmets. Even those could not fully penetrate the clouds of coal dust.
Worst of all was how confined it all was – the ceiling only five feet above the ground near the coal face. The toiling workers shoveled the fallen black rocks over their shoulders and onto the ever-moving rubber belt. They were kneeling, the cramped space not allowing anyone to stand upright for hours on end.
It would have been comical had someone been able to see in the dark – the giant figure, hunched even when kneeling, flinging bits of coal over his left shoulder, humming a song in a foreign language:
Nusalaida saulala, vakari raudona,
Tuto, tuto, tuto, betuto,
Ne tiek ji raudona, kiek pazaruota,
Tuto, tuto, tuto, betuto…
“Where you from, friend?” a voice reached Jonas’ right ear.
Moving his head in the direction of the sound, the large man was met with furious protests, as his headlight blinded his fellow miner. “Sorry!” Jonas offered, turning his gaze to the rocky ground once more. “I’ve grown up in Lithuania, but became a man in Canada,” he replied.
“Canada, eh?” Jonas could swear the man was smiling proudly as though he’d just told the world’s funniest joke. “So what brings you to this here mine in the fine state of Indiana, friend?” the miner spit some chewing tobacco which landed mere inches from Jonas’ right hand.
Pretending to ignore what he perceived as the hazing of a new collier, trying to sweep away the creeping claustrophobia from his mind, JV instead focused on the cutting up and shoveling of the hard rocks.
“It was time for a change,” the Lithuanian giant finally replied. “My whole life I was told one thing, trained to be one thing. Then, one day I realized, that thing doesn’t exist no more.” His knees ached, back throbbed, shoulders hurt, thighs burned. Besides all that hung the knowledge that he was separated from the surface of the earth by a few hundred meters of solid ground, supported by a mix of steel and wooden beams no wider than his arm. He kept shoveling.
When it was finally time for a short break, Jonas retrieved a tuna sandwich from his pack. The smell quickly filled the small space, to the irritation of his colleagues. But JV preferred it to the sulfuric stench it temporarily replaced. The coal dust had seeped into his mouth and throat, fouling the food he had been so excited to taste. The heat had begun to seep his strength, and he took off the thin sleeveless white top he had been sporting. Pointing the beam of light downward, he saw that every exposed body part was covered in soot.
“Let’s go! Break’s over!” the supervisor shouted, spurring Jonas back onto his knees.
Though he could not be certain about the passage of time, Valanciunas felt that his shift was nearing its end. It had to be, his weary body continually reminded him. Wiping sweat off his brow, he felt a sudden tremor all about him. His heart skipped a beat as his eyes darted around the space, the other light beams mimicking his own.
“Shut off the cutter!” he heard the overseer exclaim at the top of his lungs. The ground shuddered. With the cutter turned off, only the conveyor’s hum remained.
“We need to go! Everyone, form a line! Jonas, get the others, now!” the supervisor screamed, refusing to let his fear show.
JV staggered alongside the wall, passing on the urgent message to the miners working deeper within, but they already understood the situation. The conveyor belt had quieted down as well, turned off somewhere nearer the elevator.
“I told them to replace those ventilation fans!” Jonas heard the overseer say to another miner, as he crab-walked toward the direction of the exit, as all the colliers were now doing.
Another horrifying shake cracked a central beam, arched between two steel pillars that separated the most recently-dug tunnel from a central hub that led to others. At that moment, Jonas did not think – he acted. In a squatted position, he sprinted as best he could to the beam, and lifted his body into it to hold it up. He hoped his strength could buy the miners behind him a few precious moments to make it out.
“Come on!” he demanded, a small tremor causing the beam to crack a little more, as men slid past him with haste. There were a dozen more yet to come through, he estimated, feeling the earth’s pressure build.
“Yo! JV! What the f*** are you doing?!” a familiar voice echoed in his mind, the recurring nightmare at it again.
“I know, I know, I should have hedged and contested the shot, I’m sorry!” he yelled to no one in particular, embracing the madness overtaking him. Another pair of miners passed by, looks of gratitude that JV could not see on their faces.
“What the hell are you talking about?!” the voice boomed again, jolting Jonas into the present reality with force. The Lithuanian giant lifted his gaze, craning his neck with difficulty. The beam of light settled on a stout, crouching figure, his ample-sized derriere easily taking up half the tunnel’s diameter, the two miners struggling to squeeze past.
“Kyle?” Jonas let out weakly.
“Yeah, it’s Kyle,” a disgusted look crossed Lowry’s face. “Man, I got 99 questions, but this ain’t the time. We need to go, NOW!” he beckoned.
“I can’t, there are more guys down there, I won’t leave them,” Jonas said, a determined look on his face. “And besides, what’s the point of going back? My life in basketball is over. You saw what they did to me?” his gaze dropped back to his feet as the earth shook again, the weight on his back growing exponentially in response.
“Get that out of your head, JV! You’re our big man, we need you.” Lowry said, as six more colliers slid past. “Who you think is gonna deal with ‘Dre Drummond, ‘Dre Jordan and those guys?! Lucas? Jak? Those are my boys, but you’re my man.” Kyle moved next to Jonas, and put his own body into the nearly-broken beam, grunting as he felt the weight on his back. “You’re a part of our team, man,” Kyle finished, turning his head to another familiar face hurrying toward them.
“Freddy! Over here!” Lowry shouted, as VanVleet brought up a steel beam, pitting it into the rough ground to support the archway. Jonas could not help but flash a brief smile. His guys had not forgotten him. They refused to forget him.
“Hey! We can’t get through!” panicked miners cried from behind Kyle and Jonas.
Letting the weight off slightly to test the new pillar’s strength, Jonas saw it would hold, at least for a little while longer. He nodded.
“Freddy, lead on,” Kyle fired, and the remaining miners followed their trail.
It was an exhausting trek back to the surface. They staggered uphill in a crouched position for nearly half an hour, before boarding the steel elevator that took them back to the fresh air and blue sky, a world vastly different to the one below.
The mine did not collapse after all, but the danger felt all too real nonetheless. JV’s soot-covered face lit up outside, as all of his teammates cheered and ran to embrace him.
“Ya’ll stink,” DeMar remarked as the team broke into laughter.
They had only just made their flight on time, the airport security eyeing the filthy-looking Raptors suspiciously all throughout the checks. Resting his legs in an elevated position and irrevocably staining the spotless first-class seats, Jonas could finally relax.
“Man, you owe me big,” Kyle declared as he passed him on the way to his own seat.
JV paused to consider his response. “I’ll take you ice-fishing sometime,” he said, hearing an unhappy, incoherent mumble in response.
For the first time in many weeks, sleep came easy to Jonas. His eyes shut, a wide peaceful grin creasing his face, the giant felt lonely no more.