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IT had been rainy and dark when I'd brought my friend to the airport to catch his early-morning flight. I had felt so sleepy as I'd driven around the vast, already-packed parking lot that I'd let one eyelid droop down and, steering with one hand, held the other eyelid up with two fingers. Now my friend was flitting high above the clouds, and I sat in the airport lounge, neither coming nor going. I couldn't for the life of me remember where I'd parked my car. A group of very tall, spiffily dressed fellows came into the lounge. Each of them was carrying an airline travel bag with the emblem of a golden basketball on it and the letters ``NBA.'' Some wandered aimlessly about. Others stood at the tinted windows, gazing pensively at the dismal morning, which was trying so hard, in the mirrorlike puddles, to make itself look pretty.

One of the fellows sat down in the chair across from mine. He looked at me, shook his head, and smiled. ``Man,'' he said, tapping the skin under his eyes, ``you'd better check in those bags you've got there before you board the plane.''

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``I just came out to see a friend off,'' I said. ``I'm more or less getting my bearings right now.'' I nodded toward his travel bag. ``What does `NBA' stand for?''

``Man,'' he said, ``you gotta be kidding. You never heard of the National Basketball Association? Don't you know we come to town today to blow your local heroes out of the league? We're just waiting for the bus to come to take us to our hotel.''

``I don't know basketball,'' I said, truthfully. ``I had to play it in gym class in high school, but I was never any good. If somebody threw me the ball, I'd catch it all right, but then I'd just freeze. I couldn't dribble. I couldn't shoot. I couldn't pass the ball. I'd just clutch it to my chest and shout at everybody to keep away from me. The teacher nearly went crazy; he kept threatening to have me expelled. But I finally squeaked through with a D-minus. I'll bet you got an A-plus.''

``I was handling the ball before they built the gymnasium. By the time I was 10 I could shoot over every head on the street.''

``You must really love the game.''

``The game is great. It's the travel that's rough. The airports, the hotels. They can be the pits.''

``I can imagine.''

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``You got to keep a sense of humor, you know? Take the national anthem. Before every game somebody sings it. Last week in Chicago, the guy who sang it did sound effects for the bombs bursting in air. You got to have a straight face and a tough heart for that.''

How strange it seemed to be sitting there and talking so naturally, even laughing, with this skyscraper of a person. He was probably very well known in sports, a celebrity. Maybe on television he endorsed shoes, thirst-quenchers, cars. And there was I, a little person compared to him, obscure, with baggy eyes, barely keeping my head above my sleepiness. And yet between us there was a kind of unquestioned equality. It was as if the loneliness of the hour had reminded us both that, after all, we shared th e same world, the same time. And wasn't my life as important to me as his was to him; weren't we in that universal respect the same size?

``I'm wondering if maybe you could do me a favor,'' I said.


``Would you mind coming outside with me a moment and taking a look at the parking lot? My car's out there, but I don't know where. You're so tall, maybe you could see it. It's an old VW bus, lemon-yellow.''

``No sweat,'' he said, and out we went. He spotted my car right away and pointed a long finger.

``I can't see it,'' I said.

He lifted me up, to his height. What did he need an airplane for, I wondered, when he already had such an altitude. ``Now I see it!'' I cried.

Putting me down, he held out his hand, palm up. I wasn't such an ignoramus about basketball that I didn't know how players shook hands. I gave his hand a friendly slap and offered mine for the same. ``Later, man,'' he said and loped away.

And thus it happened that a D-minus and an A-plus teamed up to defeat dismalness at the airport.

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