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Authors: E. Lynn Harris

Basketball Jones

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Also by E. Lynn Harris

INVISIBLE LIFE

JUST AS I AM

AND THIS TOO SHALL PASS

IF THIS WORLD WERE MINE

ABIDE WITH ME

NOT A DAY GOES BY

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS

A LOVE OF MY OWN

WHAT BECOMES OF THE BROKENHEARTED

I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER

JUST TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

Dedicated to
Friends for life

Anthony Q. Bell

Carlton A. Brown

Kenneth Hatten

Christopher Martin

Thanks for always being there even when you re not

Acknowledgments

Like the words from one of my favorite hymns, I’m
I
truly blessed and duly grateful to publish another novel.

I’m blessed to have a God who provides my every need and stories I can share.

I’m grateful for my family (all of them), especially my mother, Etta W Harris, my aunt Jessie Phillips, my son, Brandon, and godson, Sean. Also my nieces Bria, Whitney, and Jasmine, and my nephew Bryson for helping me to keep a young spirit.

I’m blessed with wonderful friends. Among them, Vanessa Gilmore, Sean James, Anthony Bell, Carlton Brown, Lencola Sullivan, Cindy and Steven Barnes, Robin Walters, Pamela Fraizer, Derrick and Sonya Gragg, Pam and Donnie Simpson, Sybil Wilkes, Yolanda Sparks, Ken Hatten, Reggie Van Lee, Tony and Brenda Van Putten, Blanche Richardson, Christopher Martin, Proteus Spann, Debra Martin-Chase, Kim and Will Roby, Victoria Christopher Murray, Troy Danato, Kevin Edwards, Tracy and David Huntley, Roy Johnson, Janet Hill, R. M. Johnson, and Dyanna Williams.

I’m grateful for my family at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. Especially Jean Nail, David and Jane Gearheart, and the U. of A. Spirit Squads.

I’m blessed with the best publisher and people in the business. They include: Stephen Rubin, Stacy Creamer, Alison Rich, Andrea Dunlop, Meredith McGinnis, Michael Palgon, Bill Thomas, Pauline James, Gerry Triano, Dorothy Boyajy, John Fontana, Christian Nwachukwu Jr., Laura Swerdloff, and Travers Johnson. Special mention to my former editor Janet Hill, who started with me on this novel and is truly missed.

I’m grateful for my necessary support team. Agents, John Hawkins and Moses Cardona. Lawyer, Amy Goldson. Accoun tants Bob Braunschweig, Barbara Sussman, and Richard Gold-enberg. Outside editors Don Weise and Chandra Sparks Taylor, who help me mold the book into shape. My assistants, Celia Anderson and Addis (AJ) Huyler, who try their best to keep my life in order. A special thanks to Trina and Jeff Winn, who are like members of my family.

Finally I’m thankful for bookstores, booksellers, book clubs, my students, radio stations, and all the readers who have supported me with love and prayers my entire career. Thank you from the bottom of my grateful and blessed heart.

Prologue

Can you keep a secret? Well, I, Aldridge James Richardson (AJ on the short), can. I’ve been doing it for so long it’s become second nature. I’m not a secretive person either. That came in time. Seven years to be exact. That’s how long I’ve been with Dray Jones. It’s for him—for us, really—that I keep all the secrets that allow us to stay a couple. I don’t mean ordinary secrets like “Where were you last night?” “Working late,” you say, when in reality you’re out with the bois. No, I’m talking career-destroying secrets that can make or break a guy and destroy a family. Stuff that, if word got out, your life is basically over—or in my case “our” life would be over, because Dray and I are in this together. Not that we’re in any real danger of having our secrets exposed. We’re extremely careful to make certain that never happens. Dray knows I love him with all my heart and that I’ll keep quiet as long as he needs me to.

But this hasn’t been a cakewalk for me. Truth be told, there are times I think I’ll burst from holding so much inside. Watching his back and mine is full-time work—a job made no easier by having to keep everything to myself. If there were just
one person I could confide in, then some of the weight would be taken off my shoulders. Only I don’t dare breathe a word of our business to anyone, not even my best friend or my mother. Instead I spend my life dancing around the truth with the grace of a prima ballerina. The things we do in the name of love!

I don’t want to mislead you: I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll do whatever it takes—and have
done
whatever it takes—to be with my first and only true love. That probably sounds romantic and sentimental, like the kind of melodrama that plays out only in tearjerkers. But I really do think of us that way. At the same time, I hope that with all the secrets and the truths not getting told I’m not kidding myself. I sometimes wonder if I’ve created this romantic image of our relationship to endure the demands our life together requires. It’s been so long since we first met that I can’t say for sure.

Dray, or Drayton, as his parents named him, wasn’t always a big basketball star hiding out from his adoring fans, and I wasn’t the boyfriend in the background who pretended to be the star’s buddy for their benefit. I fell in love with him in college, back when he didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. That’s real talk, people. I’d never before been involved with a DLB—otherwise known as a “down low brother”— but knew enough to guess that this probably spelled trouble. At first I wasn’t so willing to compromise myself. I’ve known I was gay my whole life and didn’t go out of my way to hide it. That meant I wasn’t prepared to help someone else hide his sexuality. But Dray didn’t see it like that. He wasn’t gay, he assured me. He pointed out the obviously gay men on campus, and would say, “See? That’s gay. I’m not like that.” Never mind that I was gay and I wasn’t like that either. When it came to discussing
who or what Dray was, you didn’t ask and he didn’t tell. In time it made less of a difference to me what he called himself or what people might make of our relationship if they ever found out about it.

We met when I was a senior at Clemson University. I was just a year away from getting my degree in architectural design and Dray was a five-star freshman point guard from Vicksburg, Mississippi, struggling with college algebra. I was hired by the athletic department to tutor him. For a semester our relationship was strictly business. Three nights a week I taught Dray math like he was learning it for the first time. He was an attentive student, but he was more interested in learning what he needed to know about managing his money once he went professional—and there was no doubt in his mind that he would— after a year of college basketball.

Let me say right here that Dray was drop-dead gorgeous. I don’t mean run-of-the-mill handsome, but a real knockout for a man. With graham-cracker skin, bow lips, and thick lashes that curled at the ends, he had me ready to lie down at his feet from the word go. The only thing that stood in the way—apart from his being straight and off-limits—was that Dray thought he was slick. He believed there was no one he could not charm or any situation he could not talk himself out of, and at first that ego turned me off. I discovered just how smooth he thought he was when he used a little innocent flirting to try to persuade me to sign in and take a test for him. You know I fought like hell not to fall for his come-on. Although he had no way of knowing it, he had me in his grip so badly that I’d have done backflips over a bed of rocks if he’d asked. But I came to my senses and told him flat-out that there was no way I was going to be part of his scheme, adding
that he’d better not try talking some silly girl into taking the test for him, because if he did I’d turn them both in. I took the honor code seriously.

It took my threat to cut through that slick veneer. For the first time, Dray understood that I wasn’t just another hustle but someone who took pride in his work. I could see that he was surprised and flattered that his passing the course actually mattered to me. Well, he jumped into his studies with the determination of a star athlete. He not only blocked out time on weekends to devote to algebra, he took the additional step of buying flash cards to improve his retention. He couldn’t wait to impress me with the latest lesson he’d learned. Naturally I had no trouble lavishing him with attention, which he ate up as if he’d never been praised for his intellect. This new spirit touched me, and I found it harder than ever not to fall for him. I had a history of falling for straight guys, especially athletes, so I reminded myself that these feelings led nowhere but heartache. Besides, with final exams nearing, it was only a matter of days before my job with him was over and we’d part for good. In the meantime I immersed myself in my own studies to put him out of my head.

As it happened, things weren’t that simple. Once classes let out for Christmas break, I flew home to North Carolina to visit my family—and to forget about Dray. I managed to do that for the most part, spending my days shopping with my little sister and enjoying my mother’s incredible home cooking. But I couldn’t leave him behind entirely. A television character in a syndicated sitcom that ran nightly looked a lot like Dray, and I was reminded of him every time the actor appeared. His character’s signature line was “Do yo thang, playa,” and each time this was said, he looked into the camera as if speaking directly
to me. I grabbed a book and spent the rest of the week avoiding TV during that particular half hour.

My first night back in my studio apartment, there was a knock at the door. The clock said it was half past ten, so I thought it had to be the crabby engineering student next door who sometimes complained when my music was a bit loud. There wasn’t any music playing, however, so I couldn’t imagine what his problem was this time. I opened the door and, if it had been my own father, I wouldn’t have been more surprised. There stood Dray, holding out a slip of paper in one hand and a paper bag in the other. He wore a very sexy gap-toothed grin that practically made me melt right there in the doorway.

Startled to see him so unexpectedly and thrilled to find him at my apartment, I asked with a laugh of disbelief what he was doing there.

He handed me the slip and with a playful slap on my shoulder said, “Take a look, boi.” It was his grade card, with a big letter B circled in blue ink.

“Dray, you passed!”

“I didn’t just pass, I got a B, dude!” He laughed. “Can you believe it? I’ve never gotten anything higher than a C in my life, least of all in math. Come on, this calls for a celebration.”

“Why do we need to celebrate? You’re the one who worked his ass off.”

“Because I couldn’t have done it without you, dude. But it’s not just the grade I’m so excited about. Seriously, if I hadn’t passed, I might not be playin’ this semester. That would hurt the team and my chances to be a first-round pick for the NBA.” As if suddenly remembering he was holding a bag, he said, “Hey, I brought you something.” He reached in and pulled out a six-pack of Coronas. “Aren’t you going to ask me in?”

I wondered what I might be getting myself into by inviting him in. Was this visit all about college algebra, or had Dray been doing some personal math in his head while I was away? Straight guys don’t just show up at a gay man’s place late at night with a six-pack of beer. You didn’t have to be a genius to know two and two makes four. But that wasn’t my only concern. Being conscientious of boundaries, I also asked myself if fraternizing with a student broke any rules set up by the athletic program. Dray wasn’t in my charge any longer, so technically we were cool. I thought, “What the fuck,” and let him in.

Fast-forward a couple of hours. After Dray’s third beer and my second, we stretched out on the Pottery Barn jute rug and fell asleep. Actually, he dropped off first, and I, lulled by the alcohol and the sound of Dray snoring, soon followed. About a half hour later, I opened my eyes and found myself staring into his childlike face. His mouth hung wide open with a tiny trickle of saliva drooling down his chin. Here at last was the slick ballplayer with his guard down. A handsome man-child. But even in that condition—or perhaps because of it—he looked so damned adorable.

I moved in nearer and lay down right beside him, just a breath’s distance from his face. I couldn’t resist the oppor tunity to admire his beauty more closely than I’d ever been allowed to see it. I lay there alone in my own private world, watching Dray’s peaceful body sleep for the next twenty minutes.

When he woke up, he turned his head toward me. I stared straight into his eyes, not knowing what was about to happen. My heart quickened in anticipation.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“About an hour.”

Dray smiled. “And how long have you been staring at me like that?”

I was at a loss but he wasn’t waiting for an answer. He slowly reached for my hand as if it were the most natural thing to do and pulled me into him. I curled up beside him, and without another word Dray held my hand tight in his for the rest of the night. Obviously mathematics wasn’t the only thing he was struggling with.

At first our relationship was based on the hottest sex of my young life. I mean we put it down! I’d had boyfriends over the years but the guys I met didn’t last. When they weren’t lying to me, they were coming up short in the bedroom. Not Dray. The boy could pound my ass into next week. In fact he was so skilled in this department that I would have sworn he’d been doing it his whole life. When asked pointedly if he had, Dray confessed to just one—and only one, he emphasized—drunken night with a basketball-playing buddy. Otherwise, he dated girls exclusively. I don’t know why this admission comforted me, but knowing that he slept with women somehow put my mind at ease. I guess I felt they were somehow less competition than another guy.

But our sex life was not without its complications. After our first time together, I could see how guilty he felt the moment sex was over. He shut down suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch. No longer the sweet-talking, smooth-as-silk man between the sheets, he turned dead serious, and in a tone more forceful than the situation called for, Dray made me promise to keep what we’d done a secret. He was especially terrified of his father finding out, believing the family would disown him. I thought this scenario a bit unlikely and said so. How would his father even hear about it, I asked. Rather than reassure him, my
comment only inflamed his paranoia. Dray sat straight up and told me in no uncertain terms that if I so much as hinted to anyone that we’d gone to bed, he’d kick my ass. Not exactly my idea of pillow talk, but in that moment I saw that Dray was hurting more deeply than he was letting on. His threat felt overdone, a tough-guy pose meant to frighten me, when in reality the bewildered look on his face was all it would have taken for me to stand by his side. I stroked Dray’s arm gently, vowing to keep his secret—now our secret. Nobody would ever find out, I promised, ever. All I asked in return was to continue seeing him.

Visibly relieved, Dray smiled his little-boy smile, then leaned over and kissed me gently on the lips. It was our first kiss. Although he didn’t have to say it, I knew he would love me like I’d never been loved before.

The summer after his first year of college, Dray was picked by the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA draft, just as he and his dad had expected. This had been Dray’s dream, and I was ecstatic over the news. Of course, I didn’t know where the sudden shift left me. Our relationship had blossomed into a deep and loving one, and as much as I couldn’t see Dray walking away from it, I couldn’t see where I fit into his new life. While there had to be gay ballplayers, none of them were out of the closet. Dray wasn’t about to become the first. Between the millions of dollars being thrown at him and the glow of celebrity that would accompany his career, our relationship would be scrutinized like never before. Something was going to have to give, and I feared it was going to be me.

I was therefore bowled over when Dray announced that I was moving to Atlanta with him. I asked how he planned to pull off our relationship right under the noses of the NBA brass,
coaches, and agent. Apart from the NBA, I pointed out, there was also the media and all the fans. And let’s not even get started with Dray’s close-knit Southern family; surely he didn’t think he could fool everyone. Dray smiled and told me not to worry. He had it all figured out, he said. I was hardly convinced, but I set aside my reservations. I was so grateful to be joining him after all that I didn’t ask questions. Instead I threw my arms around his big shoulders and fought back tears of joy. It looked like the Hawks were getting two for the price of one.

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