The second quarter begins, and the game moves pretty smoothly, at least from Spencer’s perspective. He’s started to get his nerves under control, and he’s now feeling ready to do something.
Colin takes a shot, and Spencer moves toward the paint. Rebound!
The ball begins to fall, and some other defenders, like the Smiling Center and the bowl cut start closing in on the goal. At the moment, it’s only Malcolm in the paint. Being a guard, he can’t really do much in the paint, but he stays, boxing out an opponent.
Dwayne is off in the corner, and realizing his mistake, he starts running to the paint, but he’s already lost his position.
It’s Spencer and Malcolm against a six-foot giant who is apparently on par with Ethan Copeland of Saint Helena.
Spencer boxes out the giant as well as he can, putting all his force into it. For some reason, the Smiling Center isn’t as strong as Spencer thought he would be.
In fact, he literally feels like air.
Because he's no longer there.
The Smiling Center, who had simply done a quick spin, is now in the perfect position for a rebound. Spencer just falls backward and hits the floor.
The Smiling Center reaches his two huge hands into the sky and grabs the rebound effortlessly. He brings the ball down and sends a quick pass down the court for a fast break.
And Spencer sees the smile. He had gone into the game expecting it to be an evil smile.
Spencer understands now– the Smiling Center doesn’t smile because he thinks he’s better. He genuinely looks as if he is having fun.
He then glances down the court, at the ball sailing toward their basket.
Spencer is already off the floor, ignoring the embarrassment of falling.
He may be a weak player, but there’s no way that he’ll let someone score off of his mistakes.
He quickly gains on the player on the fast break.
Spencer brings his hand up to interfere with the shot, and the boy misses his lay-up.
The Smiling Center is right behind him, ready to rebound.
This time, Spencer is ready for the spin. When the Smiling Center leaves air behind him, Spencer moves to follow. He successfully blocks the Smiling Center from getting the rebound. He jumps and grabs it easily. When he does so, the crowd cheers, amazed to see a smaller player grab the rebound from a larger one. Wait ‘till they see Dwayne, thinks Spencer, amused.
He glances at the Smiling Center, hoping to see maybe a little bit of the smile come off of his expression.
The boy smiles back even wider.
"That was good!" says the Smiling Center, seeming to forget that Spencer literally has the ball in his hands. Spencer throws the ball down the court, and the Smiling Center makes no move to stop it.
"My name is Levi," says the Smiling Center, "You’re Spencer, right?"
Spencer recognizes Levi as the boy who had asked if Dwayne ‘really played basketball’.
"Yeah," Spencer replies, then starts running back down the court, uninterested in engaging in conversation with an opponent. Every second he spends talking is a second wasted that he could have been playing.
Levi just runs after him, smiling.
Spencer decides to ignore this strange player.
He gets back in time for the offense– Marble Creek is playing their Root Beer Offense. Spencer remembers the first time they learned it. Just like all the other times that he learned a formation or play, Spencer had asked Coach Miller if there was a reason for its name.
Of course, there was none.
However, the Root Beer Offense, Spencer knows, is basically the most complicated of all of their plays, consisting of more screens and cuts than any other play they learned.
According to the play, Spencer needs to screen the ball handler’s defender, then roll into the inside, and cut to the corner. During this exchange, the other players will also be moving around, causing general chaos on the court.
Spencer screens Colin’s defender and rolls inside. He leaves his hands in front of his chest, to signal to Colin that he’s ready to receive the ball. A defender gets in the way, and Spencer continues the play, cutting to the corner, in which Alex switches with him and is left wide open.
Colin throws a fast bounce pass at Alex, and Alex catches it, spinning to the inside quickly. He’s about to raise his arms to shoot, but Levi is suddenly in front of him, with both of his hands in the air above the ball.
Alex reacts to this impressively, while still in the air. He throws a bounce pass to Malcolm.
A hand reaches out from nowhere and blocks the shot easily.
Who was that from? thinks Spencer, remembering that only Levi was in the paint, so Malcolm’s shot should have been uncontested.
To his surprise, Levi has his left hand outstretched over Malcolm, while still having his right hand over Alex, simultaneously blocking both of their airspaces.
Levi brings his hands down as one of his teammates picks up the ball.
The color seems to drain from Alex’s face.
"I’ve got two hands for a reason," Levi says, grinning.
. . .
They're all a bunch of idiots. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Dwayne tells himself, they don't know basketball like I do. I'm the only one who can beat this stupid team, so my stupid teammates shouldn't get in the way.
He vaguely hears Coach Miller tell him that it’s about time to get onto the court. Nearly fuming, Dwayne stomps away from the bench and onto the court.
After Spencer got that rebound, it seemed to the entire universe like that newbie had suddenly scored seventy points, because the audience suddenly started clapping, amazed. I can get rebounds, too! I get them all the time! Why don’t they clap for me?
Jackson Wills sucks. I can easily beat them. I don't need congratulations from the audience because they all suck anyways. Everyone sucks. Everyone's stupid.
When the ball starts, Dwayne lunges forward toward the point guard, playing as aggressively as he can. I need to take control of this game and to do that, I need to give pressure.
Blocking out the voices of his teammates screaming for him to get back on defense, Dwayne stares at his opponent intently. Dwayne watches every single movement, every twitch of his finger, and every slip of his red shoes on the shiny basketball court.
To Dwayne's delight, the brown-haired opponent whom he is guarding seems to be struggling with getting around Dwayne.
See? I am a very, very, very useful player!
The brown-haired point guard dashes back and forth and almost gets around Dwayne, but he manages to defend well. The squeaking of the shoes on the court seems to drown out everything for a moment, and the point guard shoots past Dwayne. In a towering rage, Dwayne sprints alongside the annoying point guard, but is time and time again swung left and right by his opponent's skill.
With a growl, Dwayne attempts a steal but only manages to grab the opponent's arm.
The sound of the referee's whistle pierces Dwayne's ears.
"No need to worry," Dwayne murmurs to himself, "It's just one foul."
The ball is started off again, in Jackson Wills' possession. The point guard dashes around again, and Dwayne continues chasing after him.
Wait . . . I need to play aggressively! thinks Dwayne. He lunges forward again, invoking yet another foul.
Unsatisfied, Dwayne decides to slink further back into the defense.
"What the heck were you doing?" hisses Alex, obviously talking to Dwayne, but keeping his eyes on the ball.
"I was playing aggressively. That's the only way we can get points," Dwayne replies.
"No. The best way you can get points is through rebounds," Alex frowns.
"Well you guys have Spencer already," Dwayne looks away. Instead, he focuses himself on Jackson Wills' point guard, who is dashing around Colin.
"We do," Alex says with no hint of sarcasm in his voice, "But we need you."
However, as Alex says this, Dwayne has already moved out of earshot, watching another player.
Dwayne continues to foul and foul and foul.
He doesn’t realize until too late that there’s a limit to how many times a player can foul.
. . .
"Everyone, calm down and stop looking at the scoreboard," Coach Miller growls, and everyone immediately looks at the ground. The game has just reached halftime, and Dwayne just got ejected for fouling five times. At that moment, Dwayne stares at the ceiling blankly, having completely lost all of his charisma.
Alex hates this. The score is 25 to 15, with Marble Creek down by exactly 10 points.
Alex was told by a senior teammate once that if a game reaches a twenty-point difference, then the game is basically decided. But it’s different with this team. If the lead even pulls past ten points, I doubt we’ll ever be able to get it back.
"I get it," says Coach Miller, sighing, "Comebacks are hard, especially in basketball, but don't let that stop you. When has anything in life been easy? Do you think we should just give up just because this will be hard? No, we'll fight back. We're going to give them a taste of what Marble Creek's full ability is."
"Sounds fine to me," Alex says, glancing at his teammates, "But how are we going to pull it off?"
"The current line-up is Alex, Malcolm, Colin, Spencer, and Jackson, because of Dwayne’s fouls," says Coach Miller, "For this next quarter, I’m going to switch it up a bit. We’ll keep Colin, Malcolm, and Spencer because you three are doing the best at Root Beer. At least Root Beer seems to work on them"
"Chris will sub in place of Alex," Coach Miller says, "This is also because I suspect that Jackson Wills is going to bring out their trump card."
"Connor?" asks Alex, "Why shouldn’t I be out there when he goes out?"
"Because I want you to observe him," says Coach Miller, grinning, "Don’t think I plan on giving up this game just yet. If that Connor boy goes into the game, watch his movements, and come back, ready to strike!"
Coach Miller looks at every player, "Let’s make this brief. I don’t particularly need you boys to be the best of the best. But what I do want is for you to be better. If you could run three laps yesterday, then run four today, then five tomorrow. You’ve probably heard stuff like this so much from adults in your life, but they say it a lot because it’s important. Get better. Get stronger every day."
I’m going to get stronger. Yesterday I could almost reach the hoop, Spencer thinks to himself, so today . . . ?
. . .
I hate ceilings. Dwayne stares upward, not even sparing a glance at the court. Ceilings mean limits, expectations, and impossibilities. Ceilings mean the blocking out of sunlight. Ceilings represent the highest point that I can see.
Coach always tells us to pay attention to the game when we're not playing, but what's the point? I can't do anything anyways.
The bench is cold. Hard. Unforgiving. The floor under the bench doesn't squeak. The crowd doesn't roar for him. I wish I was back on the court.
Dwayne looks back at the court. Colin is unexpectedly driving through the defenders. Good for him. Looks like he's getting better.
He takes a shot from close up and misses, the ball yet again getting rebounded by the Smiling Center.
Dwayne sighs, glancing at the scoreboard.
Clearly, Jackson Wills is getting all the rebounds, and yet Dwayne's jaw drops in surprise as the scoreboard shows a completely different situation.
We're closing the gap? But . . . how?
"How is this happening?" Dwayne asks Coach Miller.
Coach Miller looks at him, raising an eyebrow, "You mean the score?"
"Because we’re good," replies the coach.
After a moment, Coach Miller starts laughing.
Coach Miller adds, "Anyways, what’s happening is that I’ve put the . . . well . . . hungriest players out there."
"What do you mean by that?"
Coach Miller shrugs, "The players who want to get better the most."
Dwayne jumps up, angry, "I do want to get better! I need to get better!"
"First," Coach Miller raises a finger to silence Dwayne, "You can’t play in the game anyway because you decided to foul five times within a few minutes. Second, do you really believe that?"
Dwayne responds immediately, "Yes!"
Coach Miller stares at him, and Dwayne falters.
"Y-yes," he repeats.
"All I’ve seen you do is try to prove your strength by selfishly doing whatever you want," Coach Miller says, a bit of irritation creeping into his voice, "I’ll be honest, I dislike ball hogs more than most coaches. What you did on defense is something a player with the mentality of a ball hog would do. After Alex’s little ‘engine’ mishap in the Pennel Creek game, do you know what I made him do?"
Dwayne shakes his head uneasily.
"I had him run," says Coach Miller, "For an hour and thirty minutes. He didn’t argue. He knew that what he did was wrong, and that is why he is still the captain of my team. I need players like him, who constantly look forward. Even now, sitting on the bench, he’s staring at the game intently, watching everything that the opponent does so that when he returns, he can play at his best. I didn’t see you do anything other than stare up at the sky."
Coach Miller’s voice softens, "Dwayne, understand that I’m not saying this because I’m mad at you. I think you’re one of the strongest players I know, and your effort alone is enough to make up for your height. It pains me to see you like this. This team needs you, but not in the way you are now."
Dwayne trembles, stepping backward slowly and sitting down on the bench.
But . . . but I love basketball.
Dwayne glances at the other players, confused. He stares at the court. Everyone is playing their hardest, but Dwayne knows that if he could stand on that court, then he would be able to prove that he wants that victory the most.
So why am I on the bench?
I love basketball. I may not be tall, but I’m stronger than anyone else.
Where did I go wrong?
Dwayne cranes his head back, taking a glance at the ceiling again.
He shakes his head, looking back at the court.
I’ll show you, Coach. I can be a hungry player, too. I can want the victory, too. I’ll show you that I’m strong enough.
Dwayne resolves that he will no longer look up.
He only looks forward.
. . .
Don't hesitate. Don't hesitate.
Colin dashes around a defender, feeling the ball comfortably rebounding off the floor from his right hand to his left. He moves forward and backward, side to side, moving in every direction in every possible way. A point guard is a playmaker! Don't just find the plays. Make the plays. Create the openings. Do whatever I can to put my teammates in the best possible spot.
He zooms towards the goal, past yet another defender.
Should I shoot? I think I should shoot. There aren't many defenders, and my teammates are slightly lagging behind. I'd have to make a risky pass to get it to Chris, and it'd be even riskier to attempt a pass to any of the other three. Their center is in front of me, but that's okay. I should be fine. Lay-up, or floater? Jump shot or fadeaway?
And suddenly, the light seems to be blocked out. The Smiling Center, towering over Colin, raises his hands in the pose to block a shot. Colin dribbles to the left a few steps and lunges back to where he originally was, still not shaking off the Smiling Center.
The pressure's too much. I've had the ball for too long. At this rate, I'm going to get stolen from.
Colin sends a quick bounce pass to Chris, and luckily, it's successful. Chris dribbles off to the side a few steps, diverting the defenders, and throwing the ball to Spencer. Spencer takes a jump shot and misses, the ball landing in the Smiling Center's hands.
Jackson Wills immediately begins the counterattack. The Smiling Center dribbles down, and Jackson steals from him quickly, but the Smiling Center slaps the ball out of bounds before Jackson can initiate the counter-counterattack.
The referee gives the gesture for substitutions, and Colin glances back towards the benches, noticing Alex walking onto the court to replace him.
"You're back? That was a pretty short break," Colin comments.
Alex shrugs, "I’m ready at all times. Connor never entered, so I guess they never felt that we were strong enough."
Alex says it casually, but Colin can see the fire in his eyes. Good luck Alex. You might as well be our only hope.
. . .
This is it. This is my game. This is our game. This is the game that decides everything. This could be our last great game. This could be our first great game. This could be the one game that makes us famous. This could be the game that makes everyone hate us. This could be the game that brings us all together. This could be the game that shatters us into pieces. This could, this should, this can, this may, this might be the greatest moment of my life.
So why do I feel so trapped?
The bright red hoop feels so far away from Spencer, as he dribbles the ball toward it. It feels so tall, so distant, so unattainable. How could I reach it? How can I possibly reach it?
I'm too scared.
Spencer stops in his tracks and passes to Colin, even though he has an open shot.
Why am I scared?
He cuts out, in fear of Colin passing towards him. The one thing that Spencer doesn't want in his hands right now is a basketball.
Why am I scared!?
Spencer then runs away from the hoop, while Colin runs toward it.
Colin is brave, so why am I scared?
Colin takes a shot, but Jackson gets the rebound, despite nearly losing the ball to the Smiling Center.
Jackson is brave, so why am I scared?
Jackson passes it out to Chris, who shoots and scores, even though he is guarded. He immediately runs back to play defense, as if his life depends on it.
Chris is brave, so why am I scared?
Alex gets a steal and dashes around defenders, taking a shot.
Alex is brave, so why am I scared?
The Smiling Center jumps up, grabbing the rebound.
I shouldn't be scared.
The Smiling Center begins to dribble.
I can't be scared.
Spencer’s legs move on their own again.
I won't be scared!
In a moment, the ball is in Spencer's hands. He’s stolen the ball. He's running towards the hoop, with no one in front of him.
I'm not scared. I won't stop.
He can physically feel the opponents behind him.
I'm not scared. I will never stop.
And Spencer's legs blast him off the ground. He can feel the air beneath his feet, seeming to push him higher and higher, to surpass his limits. His arms are outstretched.
Almost as if he's an astronaut.
Spencer can’t help but let out a little shout as he brings his hand down forcefully, slamming the ball through the rim just like how Coach Miller had shown it to him in their practice session.
The ball seems to rip through the air like a bullet as it slams onto the floor, and Spencer falls down next to it.
Spencer remembers when Alex had done that amazing block in his previous game. He remembers thinking how cool it was when Alex slammed the ball onto the ground.
Spencer pulls himself off the ground, facing the rest of the players, the officials, the coaches, and the audience. He wants to reach them. How can I reach them? How can I get their attention?
And he already knows.
He raises a clenched fist into the air, making sure that everyone can see it.
Throw whatever you want at me! I’m ready!