Chris is not particularly upset about not being in the game.
They look like they’re doing fine anyway, he thinks, watching as Saint Helena brings the ball down the court. Alex defends a boy much shorter than him.
The boy takes a step back.
Chris is very upset about not being in the game.
. . .
"Isn’t it just one shot?" Spencer asks, "I don’t see why you’re all so bothered by it."
Alex knows it’s a lot more to it than that. First, that boy’s shot was extremely natural– to the level of shots like Chris’ and Fernando’s. Second, he hadn’t appeared at all during the previous parts of the game, meaning that he’s going to be at full energy for the next quarter, while everyone else is running on fumes.
Meanwhile, Marble Creek had run out of ‘secret weapons’ they could throw at Saint Helena.
"Wait!" Alex shouts suddenly, "We haven’t shown them all of our formations yet!"
Coach Miller nods, "What about it?"
"How about we press them for the entire rest of the quarter if you all can handle it," Alex suggests.
"But wouldn’t we be giving up the triple-team on the giant?" asks Dwayne, taking a sip from his water bottle.
"I honestly think you three have caused enough damage. A true press could be really effective. Especially if we do it for the entire rest of the quarter. You guys all saw how lethal it was when we did it earlier, " Alex tells them.
"We’re only down by eleven, though," says Malcolm, "Is it really a good idea to start pressing this early?"
"What do you think, Coach?" Colin asks.
Coach Miller thinks about it for a moment, "I think a press is a good idea. Line-up will be Colin, Chris, Spencer, Dwayne, and Alex. Just make sure to use Orange if they press you."
"Which one was that again?" Spencer whispers to Alex.
Alex responds, "The press breaker."
"Just remember," Coach Miller says quietly, but somehow, everyone can hear him despite the volume of the stadium’s noises, "No one goes into a game expecting to lose. You’re no exception. Go out and destroy them."
Alex shouts at the top of his lungs, aiming his voice at the sky, "Marble Creek . . . !"
Alex is motivated. He’s nervous. He’s excited. He’s scared.
Even so, he shouts louder than he possibly can.
. . .
"You really think sending Max is a good idea?" Ethan asks Coach Johnson, "I mean . . . Max is . . . well . . . Max."
Coach Johnson shrugs, "Have you ever heard the concept of a double-edged sword, Ethan?"
"No?" Ethan says inquisitively.
"I understand that you are aiming to play at a higher level than just middle school, correct?" Coach Johnson asks.
Ethan makes his best ‘determined face’, "Yes."
"You might want to know this for future reference," explains Coach Johnson, "But a double-edged sword is simply a weapon that hurts your opponent as much as it hurts yourself."
"But Coach, why would that be useful?" asks Ethan.
Coach Johnson chuckles, "If you had a sword that hurts both yourself and your opponent, which of you two would you rather be the one holding it?"
Ethan nods, "I think I get it. So even though both teams will be hurt from Max entering the game, we’ll still be the team controlling the flow."
"Exactly," Coach Johnson pats Ethan on the shoulder, "Plus, Max has been doing very well so far. You never know."
Ethan laughs, "The Tourist has only taken one shot. I wouldn’t count on it."
. . .
"Let’s start with Bread," Alex tells his team, "We really don’t need to go crazy at first. Remember, they haven’t even seen Cheese yet. Also, Coach forgot to mention it, but we can even use formations on offense, so when we attack, we’ll use a Lemonade, all right?"
A few of them chuckle. Everyone loves Coach Miller’s food-based names. They don’t even make sense, but everyone remembers them.
The five of them look at each other.
"Is this the first time it’s been just the five of us since the tryouts?" Spencer asks.
Chris nods, "Don’t get too sentimental. Colin might actually start crying."
"Shut up," Colin replies.
Dwayne gasps, "It is! Oh my god . . . this is like . . . is this fate or something?"
"And the even bigger idiot comes in with the unnecessary comment," narrates Chris in a monotone voice.
Alex laughs. He loves this team. He can’t wait to win with them at his side.
"Let's do this," Alex shouts, sprinting onto the court, and the rest of them follow, laughing as well.
. . .
Copeland groans. Of course, they’re playing a press. Don’t they have any concept of restraint at all?
He receives the inbound and finds himself in a very tight trap of two players. He sends a skip pass to the opposite side, and a trap quickly forms again.
Copeland glances at the referee, who is counting down the ten seconds with his arm.
Five seconds left. We need to get through, now!
Copeland runs toward Max, who is getting trapped by two immense boys.
Max hastily passes to Copeland, and once the ball gets to his hands, Copeland is down the court, trying to break the press with brute force.
It does not work. Instead, he finds himself trapped between three players instead of two. The ball is ripped from his hands, and a lay-up is scored.
On the next play, Ethan returns backcourt to get the ball. He’s thankfully able to initiate some kind of offense by centering the passes around himself.
Copeland takes a shot.
Clang. It bounces off the rim. Copeland breathes a sigh of relief. He knows that Ethan will surely get the rebound.
He is wrong.
With three expert rebounders guarding his brother, the one thing that Ethan can’t do is rebound. The shortest opponent pushes Ethan backward, nearly out of the paint, while the other two grab the rebound easily.
However, Ethan doesn’t give up. He runs back into the paint and wrenches the ball back into his hands. He bounce-passes out of the three-point line to Max.
He makes it.
Copeland is pleasantly surprised. Typically, he knows, it takes Max three or four shots to finally start making them.
Upon hearing the whistle, Copeland says a word that his mom would kill him for if she heard.
The referee makes a familiar motion with his hands. Max traveled.
. . .
For the next few minutes, Alex watches as the game goes back and forth.
For every shot that the light-haired boy makes, another one doesn’t count because of a travel.
Thanks to the press, Marble Creek slowly starts to catch up. It’s barely noticeable, but Marble Creek is on Saint Helena’s tail.
"One point left to score in two minutes," Alex tells his teammates, "We can do it, guys."
"Actually, that’s an unrealistic way of saying it, because they can score, too," Colin observes.
"Stop being a downer like Chris," says Spencer jokingly. Chris slaps him on the back of the head.
"Glad to see you’re all getting along, but focus on the game," Coach Miller tells them, "Press as hard as you can. We can’t let them pull ahead or we’re done for. Score first."
The referee blows the whistle to start again.
Five boys in red uniforms step onto the court, and they are breathing heavily, already near the end of their line. Their red uniforms are like a weak fire, slowly burning out and disappearing. Even so, they try to make the flame grow as much as possible.
Five boys in white uniforms step onto the court, and they are breathing heavily as well, also near the end of their line. Their uniforms are like free-floating white clouds, but when pushed to their limits, can darken into thunderstorms and strike with bolts of purple lightning.
Perhaps they may even extinguish the fire.
Alex already knows what Copeland will do. Copeland probably knows that Alex knows.
Copeland throws a high pass to the giant.
The giant is practically open, save for one singular defender in the paint.
. . .
Christopher Miller, 9, 4th grade, July 16 (Summer Break)
Christopher Borden Miller likes to consider himself an exciting kid. He loves having fun and hanging out with friends, and those friends, in turn, follow him, and bring their fun along, too. Having fun is the principle of Chris’ life.
"Let’s play some more basketball today!" Chris instructs his group of friends. They all cheer and follow him as he leads them toward the basketball courts. He always acts as if it’s something really cool, but really they just play basketball every day. There are seven of them. Only four of them are actually good at basketball, but Chris likes to say that he counts as both the point guard and the main scorer, so he makes up for that last spot.
Typically, there will be other groups of children playing basketball. Chris' group often plays with them, or they might just play by themselves.
"Let’s play some two-on-two!" Chris tells his group, "You three can go hang out and do something else today."
The three who were kicked simply shrug. They don’t really care for basketball that much anyway, and they hang around Chris because he actually plays with them occasionally.
Chris, being the best in the group, teams up with the worst in the group, like always. He starts with the ball and starts to dribble.
He likes the feeling of touching a basketball. Sometimes it’s smooth, and sometimes it’s rough. Sometimes it is slippery, and sometimes it’s dirty. Each and every basketball tells a different story. Chris always brings the same basketball with him, hoping to put his own story on his basketball. He’s proud of his basketball. His ball says that he’s skilled. It says he’s a leader. It says that he knows how to dribble and that he knows how to even occasionally break his opponent’s ankles, but only the unskilled ones.
It tells him that he’s good enough.
He crosses left, then dribbles it behind his back a few times, enjoying his moment of showing off. He spins toward his right, then crosses left again, dribbling into the paint. Of course, since it’s a two-on-two, there’s another defender to be concerned about. Chris fakes a pass to the opposite side, and his opponent falls for the trick.
Chris prepares to shoot a wide-open lay-up. Let’s change it up this time, thinks Chris, remembering a shot that he saw an older player do on TV the day before.
He takes an extra dribble, getting really close to the rim before he prepares his lay-up. He brushes past the defender, and shoots a lay-up on the opposite side, with his left hand.
His friends give him whoops of surprise, seeing a move they haven’t seen before.
In his next possession, Chris pretends to drive, then steps out of the three-point line, taking a shot. It’s imperfect. Chris never really got professional coaching. He just liked to play a lot.
It’s imperfect, but it’s complete.
"Chris! Chris!" his teammate points toward the other side of the court, where the three boys who didn’t play are playing against some older kids, probably middle schoolers.
Then, he narrows his eyes. They’re clearly not playing– it’s obvious that they are bullying the weaker players.
Chris knows what he’s going to do.
"Come on, you three," all the excitement has left his voice. He is not and will never let something so disrespectful happen on his turf.
When the four of them get over to the others, two of their friends are collapsed on the ground, and the other boy appears tired and terrified.
"What did you do?" demands Chris, pointing a finger at the biggest of the bunch. There are five of them, and they look a lot older.
"Oh, we were just playin’ a little basketball, Chris. Is that short for Christopher?" he smiles, but it’s not a very kind smile.
Chris imitates his southern accent, "No it’s not. But you don’t mind if we playin’ basketball with you, do you?"
The older boy’s grin is replaced by a hostile glare, "Really, Christopher? With you weaklings? What’s the point?"
"There isn’t a point in it," it’s Chris’ turn to smile coldly, "I’d win anyway."
"With those dudes? I’d cross them up easily," the middle schooler points to Chris' less skilled friends.
Chris starts dribbling his basketball, "I could beat you fatties with four."
Clearly, some of them are actually quite conscious about their weight, because a few of them throw some inappropriate insults back.
Chris quietly asks his three terrified friends to get off the court, and they scramble off.
"First to 20, going by two and three-pointers. You can start, Christopher," the boy tells Chris disinterestedly, "With that garbage ball of yours."
He flares with anger. I’ll show you who is garbage.
"Stop calling me that," Chris replies angrily.
He crosses right, then fakes a cross left, continuing down the right side. He shakes the boy off easily and prepares for a lay-up. The boy guarding the rim is quite huge, and Chris takes his lay-up early, to avoid contact, but the center jumps forward and slams Chris’ entire hand, and the ball flies out of bounds.
Chris lets out a little yelp, that he quickly pretends did not happen. It feels like his hand is burning like it’s on fire.
Chris shakes his hand, trying to ignore the pain. I need to win this.
The older boys are clearly quite experienced, and they score the first point easily.
In Chris' possession, the older boys have a strong formation in the paint, which Chris can already tell will be very difficult to bust through.
He dribbles closer in, deciding not to take an outside shot. It’ll be easy to score on these clowns, he tells himself, picking up his dribble and readying himself to score.
Of course, Chris isn’t the type of person to learn from his mistakes. This time, there are two players to block him instead of one.
This time, Chris doesn’t bother holding back a pained shout. Never before has he played against players like this. His teammates look at him, concerned, but he tells them that he’s fine.
The older boys attack, scoring another point.
Chris breathes heavily, knowing that he has to do something. He passes the ball to his teammates, but they eventually return it to him.
There’s no way that someone like me can get blocked by bullies like them! Chris tells himself defiantly. He dribbles in again. This time, instead of trying to score before reaching the paint, Chris dives through the two centers and attempts a reverse lay-up, like the one he had done against his friends.
These boys are not nearly as merciful as his friends.
Sandwiched between two players, as both of them are crashing down with their full force, Chris feels his hand lose its grip on the ball. He’s falling.
His left knee and both of his arms slam onto the harsh concrete floor.
A cry of pain.
Blood flows from his skin.
Tears leak from his eyes.
Chris stands up, shivering, but not from the cold. He feels a dark, sweltering heat within him. He won’t stop at anything. He has to beat these boys.
The older boys attack again. 6-0
"Hey Chris," says his inbounding teammate, "Maybe you should try something else this time."
Chris doesn’t answer, but he’s now well aware that blindly attacking in the paint is pure stupidity. Only idiots would do something like that. I am not an idiot.
Chris dribbles down the court, slower this time.
Despite practicing his shots quite a bit, Chris never really liked it. Shooting three-pointers and jump shots always felt like they were a weak attack to him. But not anymore. His eyes have been opened.
Chris stops at the three-point line. The older boys, who were prepared for another headstrong drive, immediately realize what is happening. They’re not fast enough.
On the next attack, the older boys succeed, but it doesn’t bother Chris.
Chris scores again.
The older boys score again, starting to notice a pattern.
This time, one of the older boys guards Chris as close as possible, but he shakes the boy off easily. He takes a shot.
The older boys try a three-pointer of their own. It fails.
Chris is open for a fast break. The older boys are not fast enough.
No! Don’t go in the paint! Chris screams at himself, remembering the pain from earlier.
Too late. He instinctively takes a close-range lay-up. He makes it. A few moments after the shot, Chris narrowly dodges a blatant tackle from an opponent.
Stay away from the paint! Don’t score on the inside! Don’t get hurt! Never get hurt! You’re weak when you’re hurt. You’re pathetic when you’re hurt.
The older boys score on their return.
Chris makes his three-pointer.
The older boys make their shot.
Chris makes a two-point jump shot.
He steals. He scores.
The older boys score.
Chris breathes heavily. This could be the last point of the game. It needs to be a good one.
He dribbles up to the three-point line, then passes to his teammate on the opposite side. Again, the ball eventually returns to him, and there are two players in the paint, like before.
One of them surges toward him, aware that he might take a shot. Chris pump fakes, and the boy falls for it. You can’t get past me.
Chris feels as if he is the wind, breezing past his opponent. There is only one boy in front of him, in the way of the hoop. He’s very big. Bigger than Chris, and definitely bigger than anyone he’s ever played against, other than a few adults who just went easy.
You’ll be hurt! Chris ignores the voice within him. He doesn’t play basketball because he’s scared. If he doesn’t take this shot, he knows he will regret it.
The older boy lunges at Chris, clearly intent on hurting him. Chris, already very adept at dodging their attacks, weaves around him and takes his favorite reverse lay-up.
It flies up, hitting the backboard, but after that, Chris doesn’t remember, because the boy smashes into Chris.
An elbow in his face. A knee in his stomach. He’s on the ground. He cries. He bleeds. Sobbing. Pain. Hurt.
Chris slowly pulls himself off the ground. The older boys spit a few insults at him and then leave. Clearly, he had beaten them. I won. They won’t be coming back. Ha! I’m so good, I beat a bunch of middle schoolers!
Chris starts laughing, but he doesn’t know why. Nothing is funny about this situation. He simply beat a few kids who liked to play rough.
With all the pain all over his body, he can feel tears dripping furiously down his cheeks.
He’s laughing so hard that he can barely breathe, and his crying is so hard that it mixes with the sweat and drips down to the ground in big globs.
Chris loves to win. But something is not right.
He collapses on his knees helplessly. They’re already bleeding, but he doesn’t care. He should probably head home soon, but he doesn’t care. His friends got scared off after he started laughing maniacally, but he doesn’t care. I won. I don’t care.
But still . . .
"I won," he whispers to himself, staring at the sky, desperately pleading for an answer, "So why does it hurt so much?"
. . .
A memory from many years ago. An elbow in his face. A knee in his stomach. He’s on the ground. He cries. He bleeds. Sobbing. Pain. Hurt.
Chris looks up.
The biggest obstacle he’s ever seen stands in front of him.
He’s going to hurt me.
Chris takes a step backward, then clenches his fists, stepping forward again. He can’t let his feelings affect the team’s chances for victory. He’s the tallest player. He’s the one person who can even compete with the giant in the air.
Chris moves to intercept the high pass but isn’t strong enough to do it. The giant gets the ball.
The giant brings his elbows out, and pivots around, trying to get open. Spencer is thrown off. Jackson is thrown off. Dwayne alone is guarding him.
The giant raises the ball into the air to shoot.
Chris steps forward.
He takes another step. It’s a strong step. A step before a jump.
Chris feels some sort of impact. Someone’s hand is hitting something.
Did I just get hit?
Why am I even doing this-
"Nice block!" Alex shouts, getting the ball. He starts dribbling down. Everyone else follows.
Still not sure what happened, Chris uses the last bit of energy he has to run as hard as he can. He manages to keep up with everyone else, and he starts to lead the fast break. Alex sends him a pass, and the only thing between him and the rim is air.
And then, a wall
A huge wall, the giant, is suddenly there, blocking his path.
Chris almost stops, but he can’t stop.
I need to pass!
I can’t do this!
Draw the foul!
Don’t draw the foul!
Take the shot!
Don’t take the shot!
Just shoot three-pointers!
You love shooting lay-ups!
Your favorite shot is the three-pointer!
Your favorite shot is the reverse lay-up!
You . . .
. . . are strong, too.
Chris keeps pushing forward. This could be the last shot he ever takes, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if he crashes against the giant.
I will score!
Chris starts dribbling toward the left.
Once he gets to the rim, he fakes a left-handed lay-up, and the giant falls for it.
Chris jumps, ramming into the giant.
He shoots the lay-up with his right hand, almost like a scoop shot, in a perfect reverse lay-up.
Chris falls to the floor.
A memory from many years ago. An elbow in his face. A knee in his stomach. He’s on the ground. He cries. He bleeds. Sobbing. Pain. Hurt.
Chris stumbles but gets back up again. He’s not going to fall today.
Two free throw shots.
The score is 52-51.
Chris steps to the free throw line, not nervous in the slightest. He knows he will make these shots. If there’s one thing that never bothers him, it is open shots.
The giant narrows his eyes. The walls are about to fall.
The stadium seems to shake from all the screaming and cheering.
Seven seconds left.
Marble Creek leads by one point.
Both teams have run out of time-outs.
"Defend this shot with everything you’ve got!" Alex shouts.
"Attack!" the giant shouts, "Attack with everything you’ve got!"
. . .
The giant passes to Copeland.
Copeland passes to the shooter. Alex is immediately on him. You’re not scoring today!
The shooter passes to Copeland. Alex finally starts to notice the crowd’s countdown.
Copeland passes to Ethan, then cuts to the paint.
Ethan fakes a pass to Copeland, then drives to the paint himself, taking a precarious shot.
Rebound! Alex dashes into the paint. His left foot gets trapped. Too many people in the paint. He falls face first. He hits the ground. It hurts, not because of the fall.
The sound of the buzzer drowns out the sound of Alex screaming, and screaming, and screaming. His ankle hurts more than anything he’s ever experienced. Tears leak uncontrollably, and he’s still screaming, and screaming, and screaming.
Time moves by in a blur. Someone helps him up. Two people support him as he limps off the court as he’s still screaming, and screaming, and screaming.
He isn’t even screaming because he’s hurting anymore. He’s screaming because he’s horrified.
What if . . .
. . . I can never play basketball again?