The feet of his teammates and his opponents pound on the court as loud as cannons, and with each boom, Alex feels his heartbeat begin to quicken. Sweat rolls off his cheek, his legs burn, and the volume of the ball’s bouncing increases as the pressure begins to enclose around him like a vicious serpent. Fear and stress clouds his vision, and the only thing Alex can see is the vitriolic gaze from the defender.
The lights are almost blinding. Alex hates the lights. They illuminate the floor so that he can see, but they also pierce his eyes, so he can’t.
“You’ve got five seconds left!” screams his teammate, as if Alex doesn’t know— as if Alex hadn’t been glaring at the defender for the past few minutes counting the time.
Alex increases his speed, plowing past the defender’s unsuccessful attempt to block him. The defender guarding him struggles to catch up. Other defenders begin to push him against the sideline. No. I can’t lose. His legs are screaming at him as he switches them into overdrive. He dribbles magnificently, but it’s rushed. The ball, cradled in his fingers, leaps off the hardwood floor just how he wants it to, but he’s still scared.
Alex’s heart rate matches the speed of the ball. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. This is the most important game of the tournament— the final shot. If Alex doesn’t make it, his team will lose, ending their chance of amounting to anything in the Southwest Ohio Regional Basketball Tournament, held exclusively for those in middle school. He’s in eighth grade, so this is his last year. In the previous years, Alex was a pitiful player, barely leaving the bench, but this year it would be different! This year, Alex tells himself, we’re going to advance beyond the first round!
Alex can see the shiny hoop clearly now. The path is illuminated. Now, Alex just needs to take it.
Alex had never been that good at lay-ups. Lay-ups were the ultimate shot. For most people, lay-ups should be at an 80% accuracy. For Alex, it's more of a 30% accuracy. To be honest, he isn’t good at anything— a jack of all trades, master of none.
Today, ‘master of none’ describes him more.
I can do this. Ignore the lights. Ignore the cheering of the crowd. Ignore everything.
For a moment, Alex only sees the bright red hoop, and everything else is gone. It’s only a few feet away. This is just a simple shot, he tells himself. But the moment leaves just as quickly as it comes. The fever pitch of cheering and squeaking and booming against the floor returns. The lights shine down harder than before. Filled with nervousness, Alex jumps too late, and throws the ball too hard.
It bounces off the backboard with a thump, and erases all chances of scoring— and winning the championship.
. . .
The room is serenely quiet. The darkness is comforting. Waking up is a really strange thing, thinks Alex drowsily. You don’t really know when you’ve woken up, since it’s gradual.
Alex accepts that getting out of bed will take some willpower, but he knows he’s up for the challenge. Nothing will be able to stop him. Today, I will finally get out of bed, but still be relaxed! For the past few days, Alex had been violently woken up by his sister, making his mornings miserable. Alex growls a little bit, harnessing the power within him. He musters all his strength, slowly pushing himself off the mattress. Good! Already a few inches off the bed. But the real trials have yet to come. Alex still needs to physically remove himself from the comfort of the bed with caution, or all of his hard work will be pointless.
Steeling his resolve, Alex pushes himself higher, reaching greater heights, and managing to pull the covers off his chest.
“It’s almost time for school, Alex!” screams his sister from across the house. Alex shivers in fear. Oh no. I tried to avoid this. With a roar, she bursts into his room and attempts to drag him out of bed by pulling on his foot. So much for waking up relaxed, thinks Alex gloomily.
Luckily, Alex isn’t a novice at defending against these kinds of attacks. After his sister has nearly pulled him off the bed, he jumps down with a force of his own, sending her toppling to the floor. Alex uses this chance to quickly dash into the bathroom and lock the door.
Most of the time when this happens, she cools down enough to not attack Alex by the time he’s done brushing his teeth, so he doesn’t need to worry.
“Thea!” Alex shouts so that his sister can hear through the door, “Did you eat breakfast yet?”
“Then eat while I’m getting ready!”
“Fine!” she replies, and Alex can hear her opening the fridge shortly after. He quickly brushes his teeth and puts on his school uniform, which consists of khaki pants and a navy blue shirt. He then grabs a bagel and rushes into the car. His mom and Thea are already inside, so Thea begins to poke fun at how slow and lazy Alex is. Since Thea and Alex go to the same school, they get sent together, but Thea recently began to wake up earlier, and by doing so, she started to drag Alex’s sleep schedule back. Sometimes, Alex suspects that she simply started getting up earlier just to torture him.
“Basketball tryouts are today, aren’t they?” asks his mom, speeding past a yellow light with inhuman timing. Strange, thinks Alex, my mom is always so groggy in the mornings, unless she needs to get past a traffic light. Adults are so weird.
“Yeah,” Alex frowns. Basketball didn’t bring back good memories. Last year, the team had suffered a horrible defeat, losing by one point in their first game in the tournament.
“Since Alex is so stupid, he gets to play another year,” Thea pouts, tying her straight black hair up, “How’s that fair?”
“Shut up,” Alex says, finishing his bagel. In truth, he intentionally failed his finals so that he would stay a grade. He’s never told anyone, because if his mother found out, she would have a heart attack.
He didn’t have any other options. Alex wasn’t going to let the history of the Marble Creek Middle School basketball team end on such a low note. He wasn’t going to let the history of the Marble Creek Middle School basketball team end. Period.
School is very dull, as usual. Alex’s elective is music, but it never truly interested him. The core classes like Algebra 1 and English were even worse. He didn’t know any of his classmates because he stayed a year, and it seemed that none of them had any interest in befriending him, either.
After suffering for eight hours, Alex is finally set free. Alex heard from his mom that the team was going to have a new coach. He rushes into the gym, completely forgetting that it’s still about half an hour until tryouts.
As he enters, a rush of emotions strikes him at once. As Alex steps onto the perfectly placed hardwood floors, he remembers mopping it with some friends before a practice game. That day, he never got to play, but he got to step on the court nonetheless, even if it was about half an hour before the game started. As he looks up at the basketball hoop, Alex shivers with excitement as he remembers the first shot he made during a practice game. His teammates were cheering, he was crying, his mom in the bleachers was crying, and Thea wasn’t paying attention because she was reading a book. But it was still amazing.
He remembers bringing his little sister to the gym to teach her basketball. It was so long ago. Back when Alex was still a beginner. Thea had interest, so Alex wanted to show her the ropes.
Alex inhales, relishing the stale air of the gym. The stinky, uncomfortable air. The broken-AC air. The sweaty, hot air. If he could live in this paradise forever, he would.
“Hey,” someone calls out from behind him, “Is this where the basketball tryouts are?”
Alex whirls around, and sees a guy from one of the younger grades. Since Alex doesn’t recognize him, the stranger is most likely in sixth grade.
“Yeah,” Alex replies, “You’re a bit early, though.”
“Huh? Then why are you here?”
Alex laughs, “I’m early, too.”
“What’s your name?” he asks, “I’m Dwayne.”
“Alex,” replies Alex, taking a sip from his water bottle, then asking, “Hey, Dwayne, what made you want to play basketball?”
It’s Alex’s surefire way to start a conversation with any basketball player, but it’s unfortunately limited only to those who actually play basketball.
Dwayne steps forward and closes the door behind him quietly. He places his bag down neatly near the locker room, and walks right up to Alex. As he gets closer, Alex notices that Dwayne is actually quite short. His skin is a dark umber and his buzz-cut hair is bleached blonde.
Dwayne looks him straight in the eye and says, “Because I like it more than anything in this puny world.”
Suddenly, Alex can’t help but grin, “What a coincidence. I like basketball too.”
However, Dwayne seems to take this as a challenge. He points at Alex, saying, “All right then! I bet you’d lose to me, one on one!”
Alex puts his bag down. It’s been a long time since he’s felt this way. The excitement of a contest. The adrenaline of competition. He can’t wait.
“Bring it on.”
. . .
Dwayne narrows his eyes as Alex walks over to the rack, grabbing a basketball. Dwayne can already tell what kind of player this ‘Alex’ is. Judging from Alex’s moderately thin appearance and toned physique from his calves to his thighs, Dwayne can assume that Alex will be a fast player.
Don’t get nervous. Beat him just like you beat other fast players. Dwayne starts going over all of the things he’s learned about combatting speedy players.
Dwayne grins. This guy won’t stand a chance. Not against an amazing player like me!
Having played basketball with his older brother from a very young age, Dwayne learned quite a few tips and tricks to play on par with stronger players. "You may be short, but you can still fight, just in your own way", his brother once told Dwayne.
Alex starts to dribble.
“Ready?” he asks, speeding up the bounce.
Dwayne replies, “To crush you, yeah.”
Dwayne then lowers his body into a crouch and raises his heels off the ground, so that he can move quickly.
Alex makes his move. First, Alex dashes to the right, and Dwayne follows. Their shoes squeak on the floor and echo around the gym. Since Alex is dribbling with his right hand, that must mean he’s right-handed. If Alex is right handed, it’d mean that going to the right is most likely not a fake.
However, Alex slowly, hypnotically sways to the left instead, leaving Dwayne in the dust, and dropping the ball into the basket, demonstrating a spectacular left-handed lay-up.
“No way!” Dwayne cries, examining Alex from head to toe. There is no way that this guy just got past me with just one fake, and made a left-hand lay-up as well!
“What?” Alex asks, picking up the ball.
“Are you right-handed?” Dwayne asks.
“I’m ambidextrous,” Alex replies.
“You . . . what?”
Alex sighs, “It means I can use both my hands equally well. No one ever knows what it means.”
Dwayne knows that this is no ordinary basketball player. The way he moves is too refined. He's not just amazing at basketball . . . this guy is basically a monster! Dwayne pauses before asking his next question.
"And . . . how did you get so good?" Dwayne asks.
“Me?” Alex laughs, ponders about it for a moment, and finally says with a grin:
“I guess I just like basketball more than anything in this puny world.”
. . .
Before long, Alex watches a few others come in through the gym door. One is insanely tall, seeming to be around six feet, in comparison to Dwayne, who drifts around 5”2’.
Two others are also quite tall, continuing to dwarf Dwayne, but Dwayne seems unfazed. In fact, he walks up to each of them, giving them a nasty look, and Alex has to drag Dwayne away before he antagonizes everyone. Suddenly, a strange thought comes to Alex.
‘Dwayne’ sounds a lot like ‘Dwarf’.
Unfortunately, not many people arrive. Other than Alex and Dwayne, there are only three people trying out. A tall one with dark brown hair. A slightly shorter one with a lighter hair color, almost dirty blonde, and an even shorter one with a skinny appearance and light brown hair, although none of them compare to Dwayne’s enormously immense lack of height. It’s enough to form a team, but definitely not enough to compete against powerhouses like Forton Academy.
Or . . . Pennel Creek.
Alex inhales again, calming his nerves. He doesn’t want to think about all the intense teams they’ll have to face.
Alex glances at the clock. It’s four o’clock sharp. Where’s the coach? Is he late?
With impeccable timing, a man bursts through the gym doors and pauses for a moment.
“You guys are the . . . basketball team . . . right?” he asks. The man has very dark hair. It’s brown, but only if Alex looks closely. He’s quite tall and appears pretty young.
Alex steps forward, “Yes. Are you the new coach?”
“Of course not!” he laughs incredulously, “I’m just a guy who managed to get here at exactly the time your basketball coach was. Oh, and I happen to have the same name, too.”
“You’re not funny, Jacob,” the near-six-feet player growls, and Alex gapes in astonishment. Not only did the tall guy insult the coach, he also addressed the coach by his first name. This guy could be crazier than Dwayne!
Coach Jacob, however, simply laughs, “Come on, Chris. Since I’m your coach now, you should call me Coach Miller. Or Coach Jacob. Just add ‘Coach’ to it! It sounds so cool, doesn’t it?”
Chris replies in a monotone voice, “You’re not funny, Jacob.”
Jacob grins, “Says who?”
“You’re not funny, Jacob,” Chris says, as deadbeat as a rock.
“Alright,” Jacob frowns, “I am your coach now, not your older brother, so you’ve gotta treat me with respect!”
“You’re not funny, Coach Jacob.”
By now, Jacob has already given up on arguing with Chris. He turns to the rest of them.
“Why don’t we introduce ourselves? I’m Jacob Miller and this is my annoying little brother, Chris,” the coach grins and adds, “And also, my position is coach.”
Almost immediately after Jacob finishes, Chris adds, “I’m Chris Miller and this is my embarrassing older brother. Please ignore everything he says and instead wreak havoc in the gym so he gets fired. And my position is guard.”
At this, Alex is a little bit surprised. Aren’t tall guys usually forwards or centers? He’s also relieved that they’re brothers.
Of the two people Alex doesn’t know so far, the taller one speaks up first.
“I’m Spencer Brennan,” he says, “I’m kind of new to basketball, but I hope you guys will teach me how to play and stuff like that.”
Although Spencer claims to be an amateur, he seems athletic, so Alex is sure that Spencer will be able to learn basketball without a problem.
The shorter unknown adds, “I’m Colin Richards. I play guard.”
Alex notices that Colin has a different aura than Spencer. He seems calmer and less bubbly. And he’s a little shorter. And less . . . built for sports.
Spencer then asks, “By the way, could you explain all these positions? Like guards and stuff?”
Jacob finds this moment to intrude, but considering he is a basketball coach, Alex supposes that the coach should do the teaching, even though Alex really wanted to.
“Guards are the ball-handlers,” Jacob explains, miming a dribble, “They can take outside shots, and they’re skilled enough to dribble around to annoy defenders. But most importantly, guards should know how, where, and when to pass to their teammates.”
“Then there are forwards, also sometimes called wings. If a guard were a swordsman, then the forwards would be his sword,” Jacob says, grinning at his own analogy, “Forwards run around to get open for a pass from a guard. They’re very versatile, often strong, but also able to handle the ball a bit, and even help the center when rebounding.”
“Finally, the center is probably the position that’s the easiest to remember. Basically , the center’s job is mostly to get rebounds, which is just getting the ball after a missed shot. Centers are usually the tallest, biggest players on a team, and they can move about on the court like it’s nothing. But, they also need to watch for fouls more than other players.”
Spencer pauses and finally says, “Well that’s a lot.”
“Don’t worry,” Chris says gloomily, “There’s a whole lot more to basketball that can basically be described as ‘a lot’.”
Alex is impressed. He thought that Jacob would be an incompetent coach, but after that very precise explanation, Alex no longer had any doubts.
Alex says proudly, “I’m Alexander White. I can play any position.”
Colin and Spencer look surprised. Dwayne looks surprised. Chris looks as if he’s hiding his surprise. Have they never seen an all-around player before? Alex thinks, surprised at their surprise.
“What about you?” Jacob asks, looking at Dwayne. Dwayne crosses his arms magnanimously, as if he is a king and everyone else is his servant. Alex can swear he's seen a look like that somewhere, but he just can't remember.
Dwayne looks up, grins, and says, “I’m Dwayne Lawrence. And I play center.”