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The Life


June 12, 2002
Back Court
ESPN The Magazine

Mike Bibby spots his target and locks in. Clutching a crayon, he scrawls an X on the tic-tac-toe grid drawn on a paper place mat, and smiles. His opponent, Myron McGruder, a Phoenix buddy who's come up to Sacramento for the NBA West finals, just shrugs. Notch another W for Bibby. Too bad last night's Game 1 against the Lakers wasn't this easy.

Done playing for now, Bibby hunches over the table, his closest friends around him, slurping apple juice from a bottle. Everyone's restless, partly from hunger, partly because of the half hour it took to be seated.

Mike Bibby
Suddenly, the mood turns. "Remember when we walked into the football locker room freshman year?" says Matt Nielsen, Bibby's pal since Little League. "This kid looks at us and says, 'You wanna fight?' So Mike was like, 'Yeah ... '" Instead of finishing the sentence, Nielsen throws a roundhouse punch, aiming at nothing but air. Bibby pounces on this cue, driving his right fist into his left palm. Whap! His face, usually boyish and blank, hardens into a scowl. "I had the kid on the ground," Bibby says, eyes flashing. His punches beat out the rhythm of a lopsided rumble. Whap! Whap! Whap! "He's bleeding." Bibby mimes a choke hold and grins mischievously: This punk has no chance. Bibby whales on him, keeps whaling on him, grunting "Hunh!" every time an imaginary blow lands.

Now it's on. Adrenaline pumping, Bibby giggles about another time, when a drunk wanted to cut up Nielsen with a machete outside a laundromat. "You ran so fast!" he taunts Matt, mimicking his friend fearfully peeking at the fray from a distance. As the other guys crack up, Nielsen reddens. "The blade was this long," he protests, indicating 12 inches with his hands. Mike only snorts. The knife hadn't scared him.

Then Bibby's older half-brother, Dane Flores, takes a shot, something about a fool disrespecting him in Vancouver, back when Bib ran the point for the sorry Grizzlies. "This guy asks me, 'Do you consider yourself a nigger?'" Dane says, anger clouding his face. "I go, 'Excuse me?' He asks again, 'No, really, do you?'" With a nasty uppercut, Flores drops the redneck. Whap! Bibby and his boys lean forward, cackling like Bart and Lisa deep into an Itchy & Scratchy marathon.

"Be careful now," a waitress warns as she carefully sets down platters of burgers, shrimp scampi, crab legs and other Red Lobster specials. "These plates are really, really hot. We don't want you to burn yourselves, okay?"

One table over, sitting with the other women and children who are there with Bibby and his friends, is Mike's mother, Virginia Bibby, and his longtime girlfriend, Darcy Watkins. Their 4-year-old son squirms in his chair. "Michael," Bibby leans over and says in his firmest, most paternal voice, "you're eating those chicken strips."

***

They call themselves Team Dime, this crew of Bibby's buds, who've been punctuating what's otherwise a big, extended family's dinner with lurid tales drawn, apparently, from their personal head-cracking history. Or is all this just so much swagger and bravado, designed to stoke the ego of a man whose team got slapped around by the Lakers (and the refs) the night before?

Doesn't matter. Bibby's pals will say whatever it takes to keep their boy loose and hyped for the most important games of his 24 years. That's their job, as long as the Kings survive the playoffs. And that's why, as Mike Bibby breaks out into the rare air of NBA stardom, he's taking Team Dime along for the ride.

Dane came up with the team's name when Mike and his crew first walked into a Vancouver practice. "Hey, it's Team Bibby," said then-Grizzlies forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim. "Nah, this is Team Dime," countered Flores. The name stuck. Flores even owns the copyright. "Ten is perfection," he explains. "Dime" is slang both for an assist and a beautiful woman. And Bibby, who knows his way around both -- have you seen Watkins? -- has always worn Number 10.

A flock of Dimers are here in Sacramento: Flores, Hank Bibby (Mike's older brother), Nielsen, McGruder, Abdel Anzer (a Vancouver club promoter), Tony Thompson (a family friend from Philly), AAU buddy Anthony Lever, Phoenix boys Marlon Turner, Carvel Whitfield and Rob Cameron and cousins Raymond Walcott and Tariq McDonald. But that's just a fraction of the full corps. "Not even a smidgen," says Flores. "Niggas be everywhere in Phoenix."

Many have put college classes or office jobs on hold to watch Mike's first playoff run. And they're amped to make their bond more official. After dinner, they leave the women and children behind -- they aren't actual team members, thanks to a "No Girls Allowed" policy -- and head 16 miles out of town to Wild Bill's Tattoo in Roseville.

Lording over this second-floor lair of clean and sober tattoo artists is Wild Bill Hill, a bearded, hulking man who's quite literally a dyed-in-the-wool Kings fan. Family portraits and fantasy-scapes blanket his flesh. Jason Williams was a regular here; his mug's still plastered on the parlor's business cards. Wild Bill is thrilled that Bibby's picked up right where "White Boy" left off.

The parlor walls are a noisy collage of mirrors, posters, drawings and celebrity snapshots. A child's skeleton dangles from the ceiling. (It's real -- a worker at a nearby college lab bartered it for some tatts.) Though Bibby already has "Team Dime" etched along his spine, he studies a print-out of several new fonts. He considers having a "1" and a "0" seared into his trapezius. Wild Bill helps Mike drape six-inch-long paper cutouts of the numbers over each shoulder while he checks his look in the mirror. Nice, but it'll have to wait.

"How many people have these tattoos?" Wild Bill asks, suddenly curious. "Thirty? Sounds like a gang to me." Bibby glances at him, and says nothing. Gang? This "gang" spent the afternoon waiting outside Gap Kids at the Arden Fair Mall, while Mike and Darcy shopped for clothes for Michael and their 22-month-old daughter, Janae. "I don't know why we came here," Nielsen says, sighing. But of course he does: "Mike doesn't like to be alone. Ever." With little to do but lean over railings and stare at the shoppers below, Team Dime couldn't even muster the energy to clear out the fans circling Bibby for autographs. Mall security had to come to his rescue.

Electric needles buzz like radioactive mosquitoes as Turner, McDonald and Anzer are branded. Bibby scrutinizes the work, smirking as his friends wince and sweat and squelch whimpers. The thick black ink stains their forearms, backs and shins.

Team Dime's loyalty isn't merely skin-deep. They cater to all of Bibby's needs: Minute Maid apple juice from Wal-Mart three home-cooked meals a day (courtesy of Thompson and McGruder) weight training at L.A. Fitness in Phoenix (anyone who's there jumps in) ... pep talks during those 50-plus-loss seasons in Vancouver ... rebounds during off-season practices ... helpful tips ("Gotta take the gum out when you're on TV") ... players for card games (mostly Spades) ... deck-shufflers for card games ("I don't know how," explains Bibby) ... babysitters for Michael and Janae ... and PlayStation patsies. Bibby's squad of Bird, Stockton, McHale, Baylor and Chamberlain leads their NBA 2K2 league by a ridiculous 70 games, even though he finally let someone else draft the virtual Bibby this year.

For his part, Bibby keeps Team Dime rolling in cotton WWJD wristbands and free Jordan gear. His brothers, Dane and Hank, don't have to work for anyone but him, because he rents three houses near ARCO Arena and pays their bills. "If he gets an Escalade," says Flores, "we get Escalades."

Bibby mostly sticks to Applebee's and the Hard Rock Cafe so no one has to change out of his sneakers to eat. And he helps out with car payments and dinner tabs. Flores and Thompson dream of seed money for a record company; there's ample reason to think their dream will someday come true.

The mutual support system goes way back -- Thompson used to babysit Bibby -- and sometimes it backfires. At Shadow Mountain High, Bibby let Nielsen copy a chemistry test. "I had the exact same answers," Nielsen says with disgust. "He gets an 87, and I get a 73. Man, that teacher definitely had it in for me."

***

The talk and tattoos from the night before must have done the job: A fired-up Bibby steers Sacto to victory in Game 2. He brings Team Dime's swagger to LA for Game 3, and the Kings thrash the Lakers, 103-90. Afterward, Flores, who's been trash-talking with Lakers fans all game, yells to Team Dime, "Mike's brother's a gangsta! Of course he's a gangsta!"

Game 4 finds Virginia Bibby in a parking lot next to Staples Center. Unlike Dane, she gets no thrill from shouting down an arena full of hostile fans. "I'm not involved with Team Dime at all," she says with a terse laugh. "I have no idea where that's going." Her younger son's becoming a star, but Virginia wants no truck with chest-thumpers. So she sits in her car listening to the Kings' double-digit disintegration on the radio. Robert Horry's last-second trey kills her. She waits for her sons, wincing as Lakers fans flood the streets, hooting and hollering like they've already three-peated.

Come Game 6, Bibby is in LA by himself. Neither Team Dime nor his mom has made the trip. But Bibby knows it's on now. His winning shot in Game 5 showed everyone what Team Dime already knew: He never backs down from a fight. No way the Lakers disrespect him now.

Right. Late in the fourth quarter, the game still tight, Kobe Bryant shoves a hard elbow into Bibby's face. No call. Bibby wobbles and eventually collapses to the floor. ("I was just hoping my nose wasn't broken," he says later. "I tried to keep standing, but I couldn't.") True to Finals form, this hardwood battle has become as vicious as any street scrum. Bibby returns, bloodied nose fat with cotton, but he's woozy, pissed and off his game. The Lakers force a Game 7. In the locker room, Bibby's eyes stay red and teary a long time. He looks oddly forlorn.

As Game 7 approaches, Team Dimers insist Kobe purposely struck Mike in the face. Bibby won't let on how he feels. Even Matt, who's been staying with Mike, is stumped. "That's how he is," he says. "He never shows his emotions." Aside from a habit of chewing on his fingers, Bibby seems completely loose. He tries circus shots right before tip-off. He grins goofily at CWebb. He puts an arm around Hedo Turkoglu, playfully shaking him.

But Bibby's poise doesn't rub off on his teammates. Come crunch time, no one wants the ball -- except Bibby, who sinks shot after shot on the way to 29 points. He drags the rattled Kings into OT, but they seem unhappy to be there. When Webber misses a last-gasp trey, it's over. Bibby finally folds under the weight of the inevitable, tugs at his shorts and stares at his shins, unable to look up.

As soon as the buzzer sounds, Bibby seeks out Bryant. They embrace. The rivalry that had forearms flying on the court falls away. "You're a great player," Kobe tells Mike, his voice full of recognition and respect. Bibby is now his peer -- a long leap up from Game 1. And his ascension is the mark of a true warrior, not just a playa mouthing off at the dinner table. Bibby wishes Bryant luck. "I love you, man," he says as cameras circle them.

At the postgame press conference, Team Dime waits for Bibby to arrive. When he enters, dry-eyed, Michael trailing behind him, they say nothing -- no hoots, no pounds. Mike tries to cajole his son into joining him at the podium. "I don't want to, Daddy," says the boy. So Matt, who's been crying in this room full of reporters, gamely wipes his eyes and hoists little Michael on his shoulder.

Bibby speaks calmly into the mike, dodging nothing. He's fighting off pain and loss, but not letting it show, talking with the quiet assurance of a man who knows that he, and his team, have just broken through to a new level.

Offstage, Team Dime waits, ready to cushion the blow and rev up for next year's ride.

This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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