A few minutes before tip-off, Gorilla stretches in the locker room—he’s no longer allowed to stretch on the court, not since an activist group called it a prolonged obscene gesture—and he is beset by an unexplained sense of dread that makes him feel like he is drowning. Last time he had this feeling was when he’d found his nest dismantled by the health inspector, his room cordoned off by caution tape, a janitor pushing bleach around his room with a mop. It’s the kind of feeling the other gorillas had told him about experiencing themselves, when they’d fallen asleep in the jungle and awoken in captivity. A feeling like the world he believes in no longer exists.
* * *
He first saw a basketball when Gabriel, the zookeeper, tossed one into the gorilla pen and then tacked a little hoop up on a tree. The others had crowded around the ball at first, but ignored it when they realized it wasn’t some new fruit. But the moment Gorilla picked up the ball and felt the pebbling beneath his fingers, he understood intuitively; the ball was like an oracle, pulsing in his hand and telling him he had to dunk it through the hoop. Nothing in the world had ever made more sense to him.
Dunking was like swinging from five vines at once. Like peeling a banana and finding ten more bananas inside. He’d never before loved something so intensely. For the first time in his life, he stood on a hill in his cage and beat on his chest not because the children were demanding he do it but because he was so excited it was the only thing he could do.
He was too young to remember anything before the zoo. His father was dead—he’d lasted only a few weeks in captivity before succumbing to a mysterious disease—but his mother was there to tell him about life on the outside, before the tranquilizers and the tagging and being caged for their own good. Life in a cage is safe and comfortable, but it is also life in a cage. It is anesthetizing. Nobody wants to be there but everybody is afraid to leave. The older gorillas appreciated having an endless supply of food and never having to worry about a militia of drug-crazed teenagers hacking through their habitat. They never had to worry about rich white men trying to collect their heads as trophies. In the zoo, they had a family and they slept better than they ever would. But a cage is still a cage no matter how you decorate it.
* * *
The dread still weighing him down, Gorilla hustles onto the court to call the fans to their feet. Having only lived in captivity, he knows some of his instincts have been blunted, but still: there is something missing.
His bones feel heavier today. His blood feels too thick. He injured his elbow during yesterday’s halftime show. It’s midseason and the team is not good. He’s not particularly invested in them winning, except that it makes the other guys happier and easier to deal with. Gorilla had never bonded with most of the players. Some of them viewed him as a novelty. Some were terrified of him. Some treated him like a pet and took him out to the strip club, tried to get him drunk and blew pot smoke in his face. He would be content most days to be alone. But without the players, the game does not exist, the arena does not exist, and he does not get to sprint the length of the court at halftime, do a 360 spin, and throw down a dunk so hard it shakes the walls. Without the players, he wouldn’t be allowed to build a comfortable nest behind the locker room where he has an endless supply of toys and snacks and a stack of VHS movies, mostly sports films and nature documentaries he’s watched dozens of times.
The team is named after the sun, so Gorilla is an odd choice for a mascot, except that he was once the best in the world. In the early days, when he was younger and his knees were more cooperative and he could eat whatever he wanted without gaining weight, when the novelty of the job helped him cope with the monotonous grind of a full season, the joy in his performances was infectious. He was an athletic genius who turned dunks into artwork. He revolutionized the halftime show. It was his idea to introduce the trampoline, his idea to start doing flips. They added the pyrotechnics, which he doesn’t love due to a predisposition to fear men who make explosions, but which the fans very much enjoy.
He would perform in silence if it were possible. Life in the zoo had taught him to hate crowds. He would never miss the children hollering at him until he picked up a stick or scratched himself and they all said oh wow look how much he looks like people.
He picks up the team flag and sprints around the perimeter of the court, trying to rev up the fans. The humans are repressed beneath a dozen layers of self-doubt and social convention, and they need to be cajoled into expressing animal emotion. It starts with the beer, but it ends with Gorilla teaching them how to unleash themselves.
During the player introductions, he finally realizes what has been nagging him. The starting point guard is some guy named Duvell. The starting point guard should be Steve and it is not Steve. In the manufactured frenzy of the moment—pyrotechnics, blaring pop music, strobe lights—Gorilla searches for his friend. But he’s not there. Someone took him away.
* * *
Steve was much more comfortable with Gorilla than any of the humans ever had been. So many people, the moment they met him, would look for traces of their ancestors in his face, and then they would say something dismissive about Darwin. The day Steve arrived, he walked through the locker room introducing himself, and when he came to Gorilla, he opened with a handshake and then pulled him into a hug. He had press conferences and other responsibilities to attend to, but he said, “I want to talk to you later.”
That night, after everyone else was gone, Gorilla heard a knock on his door. He had learned to fear surprise knocks. In the zoo, there was a schedule, and when someone arrived off-schedule, it usually meant another gorilla was sick, or someone was being transferred to a different zoo. At the arena, surprise knocks meant visits from the team doctor with his array of needles and pills and his limited knowledge of primate anatomy. He opened the door and found Steve standing there with a basketball in hand. He wanted to play a game of one-on-one.
Gorilla had never actually played a game against a human before, but he was eager to get on the court without all the distractions. When he went up for a dunk, Steve fouled him hard in the air, and they both tumbled to the ground. The impact revived a long-dormant part of Gorilla’s brain; until that moment, he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed physical contact, how lonely he’d become. It had been years since he’d felt the touch of his mother picking through his fur for ticks, or roughhoused with another gorilla. After the game, Steve slapped Gorilla hard on the back the way he would have if Gorilla had been just another opponent. Gorilla had no aspirations to be human—their bodies seemed so useless, their minds too cluttered with nonsense—but feeling the intimacy of Steve’s hand on his back dragged him out of what had been a long, unacknowledged depression. Before Steve, He had become glum and moody, sulking in his nest between games. He loved one specific part of his job, found the rest of it tedious, and had hollowed out his life entirely to accommodate that one act.
They got in the habit of regular midnight games, after which Steve would have a beer and slump in Gorilla’s room on a beanbag chair, watching movies. Steve was unmarried and had no children, and Gorilla got the sense that he was afraid to be alone at night. Sometimes Steve talked about his charity work, about how they should take an off-season mission trip to Africa, but mostly he was quiet. Often, he fell asleep in the room and Gorilla kept watch over him until sunrise.
As Steve aged, Gorilla selfishly liked when Steve was injured because that meant he would spend even more time in the facility getting treatment, and sometimes he couldn’t travel with the team. But the injuries also meant they couldn’t play their own games, and their time together had become almost exclusively devoted to movies.
* * *
Just business, the players always say. But why had there been no warning? Where had they sent him and would he ever come back?
Why hadn’t Steve even told him?
Gorilla is expected to be light on his feet, sprinting around the court and waving rally towels above his head. He feels a decade of aging descending on him at once, and he hears his hip joints popping when he jumps onto an empty seat in the front row and calls for the fans to stand. Recently, Steve had been showing him how to wrap his joints in ice after games; he would sit in the back room with Gorilla’s leg propped on his lap and gently spin the bandage around his foot. He would shake a couple pills out of his bottle and drop them onto Gorilla’s tongue. “No more than that,” Steve said. “Bad for you.” The pain didn’t leave him, but he felt himself detaching from it, floating a few inches above the sore, throbbing husk of his body. Someday it would stop functioning and he would be replaced.
Each time Gorilla passes behind the bench, he expects Steve to be there. He tries to change his route and avoid the whole area, but there is only so much space. An empty basketball court is enormous, but once it’s populated with human giants, it feels as confined as a tomb.
The crowd feels subdued, maybe even questioning, finally, how this spectacle makes any sense. Why would a gorilla dance to a Michael Jackson song with a group of 18-year-old girls in tight shorts? How is this related to basketball? Who is this for? They clap because the big screen tells them to clap.
During the dance, something tears in his ankle and he nearly collapses from the pain. As soon as the music stops, he feels it swelling. Gorilla is not allowed to sit down during a game—the team claims he has ancient powers and as long as he’s standing, he keeps the team’s energy up. Putting weight on his left leg sends spears of pain through his body. He gets the trainer’s attention and points to his ankle, but the trainer is busy working with actual players. He tries to disguise his limp as he throws t-shirts out into the crowd. Steve used to play through pains like this too. Opponents would foul him hard and try to disable him, and Gorilla would have to restrain himself from charging to the court in his defense.
At halftime, he has eight minutes and thirty seconds to perform as many spectacular dunks as possible. Eight and a half minutes to live in the transcendence of flight and power and to forget about Steve and his pain and to feel like a king. He wants to start with an easy one, work out the kinks in the ankle. He charges, bounds off a trampoline, and throws down a standard two-hander. He lands on his bad ankle and an angry current of pain rushes to his head and makes him feel nauseous. There are eight minutes left. If he can survive them, he can retreat to the locker room for a quick injection to make it through the night.
So many fans are wearing Steve shirts, and he feels surrounded by Steves. He wants them all to come down on the court and wrap their arms around him and tell him this is ok, the pain is temporary, and eventually his friend will come back.
On the next dunk, he is supposed to vault off the trampoline and complete a front flip before finishing with a one-handed slam. But he stumbles and hits the trampoline off-center, so on his flip he unfurls like a plastic bag caught in the wind. He tries to extend his long arms and finish the dunk, but it clangs off the front of the rim. The force of the miss sends him sprawling onto his back beneath the basket, his head bouncing off the floor. This is the first dunk he’s ever missed in a game. He feels pain spreading like a halo around his head.
The PA announcer tries to salvage the moment: “Folks, let’s hear it for Gorilla! He needs your support!” They cheer and clap and the music gets louder and it’s supposed to inspire him. But lying on the floor, his vision blurry and his brain scattered, he thinks about how old he is. He thinks about how much it’s going to hurt to move, and he wonders how many of his bones are broken. It took a dozen fighter jets to take out King Kong, but a simple trampoline brought Gorilla down. He knows he has to get up, but the thought of ever standing again is too upsetting. He closes his eyes and thinks about being back inside the cage. The worst part of the zoo was when people in the audience asked “are they happy?” and Gabriel, the zookeeper, said, “Yes, in fact they’re happier here than they’ve ever been in the wild.” People nodded and smiled, relieved to have their guilt assuaged. “They have everything they need here: food, shelter, and lots of love,” Gabriel said, and then he looked to the gorillas, waiting for one of them to clap his hands in agreement. “See how happy they are?” he repeated, every day, several times a day, until it became possible to believe it.