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By B.W. “Bob” Morris
No pressure, right?
We’re up by two with two seconds left. Some kid – I think number 18 – had grabbed my wrist, pretending he had gone for the ball. It was obviously intentional and the red mark on my skin proved it, but the referees never call it. They always assume players go for the ball in these situations.
Sweat rolls down my forehead. My jersey clings to my skin. I haven’t even played that many minutes. The gym always gets stuffy, even with the doors to the lobby open. But I can’t worry about that now.
The referee approaches the scorer’s table, says, “Red, 18, with the hold.” He raises his hand and says, “Two shots.” Just two free throws, that’s all I need to make.
No pressure, right?
I figured the other team would foul me. Like I said, I don’t play many minutes. Coach uses me as a defensive specialist. But I have to be out here now. One of our best players fouled out.
I look to the bench and I see him. John had five fouls. He drew his fifth a couple minutes ago. He’s our leading scorer, but he can’t help us now. He must see the look in my eyes. “It’s all right, Steve, you got this.” He cups his hands to his mouth so I can hear him over the roaring crowd. “Just put them in.”
Just put them in, he says. Easy for that guy. He’s a junior, but man, that guy has a sweet touch on his jumper. Nice layups, too. Wish I could be that good.
I shouldn’t be out here right now. My role is to come off the bench and put in time on defense when I’m needed. I don’t mind, though. Coach always told me that everyone has a role to play. Sometimes people ask me why I don’t get more playing time. They say it’s the only way I’ll learn. Sometimes I wonder if they’re right. Then again, I’m just a sophomore. Maybe I’ll get more playing time next year.
I walk to the free-throw line. The other players have lined up. Well, only the opposing players. The rest of my teammates are at half court. They have to be there. If I don’t make these charity shots, they want to make sure the other guys can’t lob it down for a desperate three.
Somebody pats me on the back. I turn my head. There’s Anthony, our only senior. If we can win this game, we’ll be Kansas League champions, and I know Anthony would love to finish his high school career with a league title. He gives me a quick smile. “You can get this done, Steve.” He hurries back to half court.
I’ve looked up to Anthony for so long. He started as a freshman. I watched him that year, when I was in seventh grade. I remember how nothing rattled him. He’d always clap his hands, telling everyone, “Come on, let’s go.” He did that every year he played. And when I was a freshman, my first year of high school ball, he always gave me advice. Never treated me like I didn’t belong.
I know this would be even sweeter for him on senior night. They recognized him and the and the three senior basketball girls. Now I can make this night more memorable.
I step to the line and look ahead. There’s our student section, filled with kids dressed in our school colors. A few minutes ago, they were chanting “DE-FENSE” when the other team had the ball. The pep band is right beside them. Every time during time outs, I hear the students chant our school name and one of the band members pound the drum in rhythm. I feel the vibrations from that stomping and pounding. The pep band plays so many numbers. The one I like the most is that song that goes “nah nah-nah nah nah,” whatever it’s called. My mom told me that song was popular when my grandparents were in high school. But, hey, one of the band members told me it’s an easy song to learn, so that’s cool.
The girls won earlier tonight, had already changed out of their uniforms and were in the student section, clasping their hands, smiling in enthusiasm. Now they could sit back, flirt with the guys in the stands, and watch me freak out.
Another referee has the basketball. He reminds everyone I’ve got two shots. I get the ball and size up the hoop. Everybody thinks shooting free throws is a simple task. All you have to do is take a deep breath, bend your knees and roll the ball off your hands. If only it weren’t for the butterflies in my stomach.
Still, this is it. Deep breath. I dribble the ball once. Twice. Spin it in my palm before giving it a third bounce. That’s what I had seen a lot of players before they take a free throw. Eric has a unique ritual. Before he gets the ball, he moves his fingers across his heart, like he’s drawing a cross, kind of like a monk or priest. I considered doing the same. Eric has made 80 percent of his free throws this season. But I’m doing that. I’m not Catholic.
I pull the ball up.
The crowd falls dead silent.
I extend my arm and feel the ball slide off my hands and toward the hoop.
It touches the front of the rim. Rolls toward the net and… drops through. Our student section explodes. Man, they sure are loud. The drummer fires off a quick beat. Goes right in time with my heart thumping.
One down, one to go. No pressure, right?
I step away from the line. Anthony hurries over and high fives me. “Good job, Steve.”
I appreciate that. Now if I can get the other shot, I’ll make him happier.
I turn toward the sidelines. Coach is clapping. “Good job. Just relax now.” Coach is always telling me to relax. He thinks I get too tense. He’s right. I can’t help it, though. Sometimes the adrenaline gets to be too much and the nerves take over.
Another deep breath. They say once you make the first free throw, the second one is easier. I don’t know about that, though. I’ve always had this problem. Make the first free throw, miss the second. Seems to be a regular thing. Explains why my free throw percentage is just 50 percent. Coach always says I can do better than that. He tells me to keep practicing, not to think so much. I’m lucky he’s so patient. A guy who makes the first free throw but misses the second? It should drive him crazy.
No pressure, right?
Back to the line I go.
“One more shot, gentlemen.” The ref reminds the rest of the opposing players shifting into position as, out of habit, they prepare to block out for the rebound. It doesn’t matter that my teammates are all down court. Coaches teach you to always block out, no matter the situation.
I glance at the cheerleaders. They are about to raise their arms. They always raise them and wiggle their fingers, like it’s for good luck or something. I never asked them why. But if they think it helps, who am I to argue?
Deep breath again. I bounce the ball, bend my knees, and twirl the ball in my hands. I pause for a second. If I don’t make this, maybe I can get lucky and get the rebound. I think I saw it happen once, when I was eight years old; the only time I ever saw one guy beat four others for a rebound, though.
The ball goes over the hoop and sails toward the backboard. I don’t move, like I’m mesmerized by the ball’s path.
Uh oh. Looks like I pushed it too hard. It’s going off the back of the rim and…
My heart drop in my chest. I had lost it. I had lost it for Anthony, the school, my teammates and…
Wait a minute. The balls rolls back and falls through the net.
Got it! The student section roars. The drummer fires that beat again. I’m about to lose my mind. We just…
Wait, why did the referee blow his whistle?
I turn to see the opposing coach touching his hands to his shoulders, signaling for a 30-second time out. I forgot they had one left. They have two seconds on the clock. He’s hoping to run one final play.
I hustle to our bench. Usually during a time out, the guys on the floor take the seats and everyone else gathers around the coach. Not this time, though. We gather in a circle. Coach tells us that we need to be smart, play defense and don’t foul.
Sure, you’d think when you are up by four with two seconds, the other team has no chance. But if you foul somebody on a desperation three and it’s good, they send the player to the line. And a free throw means overtime. I’ve never seen a game like that, but I heard stories. I think my dad said he had a game like that when he was in high school. Then the other team won in overtime.
I hear just enough of what coach is saying. He says we need to focus. We all raise our hands, shout, “Finish!” and break huddle.
I look up in the stands and make out Dad and Mom. They’re sitting in the bleachers, not moving a muscle, even though people around them are on their feet. How can Mom and Dad be so calm?
I look back at the student section. There’s my sister. She’s two years younger than me. She played her last middle school game a few days ago, but I know she’s gonna be a good player on varsity someday. She’s clapping her hands along with the rest of the kids. Her enthusiasm fits right in.
Our student section is chanting our team name, over and over. The other team’s got a lot of students here, too. They’re on the other end of the gym, chanting something that I can’t make out. Or perhaps I learned to tune them out. Considering how obnoxious they can be, it’s not easy to ignore them.
I’m about to return to the court. I feel somebody tug my shoulder. Coach pulls me aside. “Steve, make sure you stay with number 24. They’re gonna try to get him the ball.”
Number 24? That’s their leading scorer. I don’t remember his name – like I said, I don’t keep track of our opponents by name. But I know Number 24 can shoot the lights out. I think he hit like six threes tonight. Maybe more than that? Whatever it is, I know he scored a lot. Usually, John would defend him, but he’s out of the game. Yeah, coach likes my defense, but he wants me on their top scorer?
No pressure, right?
I look around the court. There he is. Twenty-four. He’s a couple inches taller than me. He’s positioned himself about half court. I can see what’s developing; they want to get a long inbounds pass to him and he’ll let a shot fly.
We met this team earlier this season. Back in December, before league play started. Played them on the road. They beat us by 16 or something like that. All I remember was number 24 draining shot after shot. Somebody said he scored 20. I don’t know for sure. I don’t check the scorebook. None of us do. We only worry about the final score.
I step next to Number 24. He starts jockeying for position. He’s gonna try pushing me off, get himself open for a shot. I’ve got to be smart. Stay with him, not let him get away.
I look down court. The referee signals for play to start. He hands the ball to the guy making the inbounds pass. Number 12, again, I don’t remember his name. William defends him. I’m sure coach put William there because of his long arms. The kid making the inbounds pass looks in my direction. I read him like a book.
There’s the whistle. Kid has five seconds to make that inbounds pass. He doesn’t even wait a second. Lobs the ball right over William’s head.
Number 24 takes off. I hurry after him. Trying to keep pace with him, but he’s a step ahead.
Now it seems like time has stopped. I see the ball arching downward. Number 24 reaches for it. He’s got it.
He turns toward the hoop. I know I shouldn’t jump forward, but I can’t help myself. I raise an arm. All I wanna do is deny that shot
I feel my fingers graze the ball. Number 24 falls backward, pretending that I fouled him, even though I never touched him.
The buzzer sounds. I turn to the basket. The ball clatters off the rim.
I see the referee. He doesn’t blow the whistle. He just waves his arms.
One word out of my mouth: “Yeah!”
I run toward half court. Here come my teammates. John is first to meet me. I jump toward him, landing in his arms. He slaps my back, big smile on his face. “Way to go, man!”
The mob doesn’t last long. We gotta do that post-game show of sportsmanship. Walk toward each other, slap hands and say “good game.”
I’m toward the back of the line. Anthony’s behind me. I slap hands with these other players. Yeah, it’s a rivalry, but you gotta make nice afterwards. Number 24 is last in their line. When we slap hands, he also pats me on the back. “Good job,” I think I hear him say.
I turn, ready to join my teammates for a celebration. Before I can take a step, somebody puts an arm around my shoulder. Pulls me in tight. It’s Anthony. I feel like he’s crushing my ribs, the way he’s hugging me.
“Thanks, Steve,” he whispers. “I knew you could get it done.”
I look up at him. “That one was for you.”
He lets me go and we rush forward. Our teammates join us at the center of the court. Our student section has poured out to join us. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into somebody. But that’s OK. This is a celebration.
We all crowd around, raise our hands up above and start chanting. We finish it off with two words.
No pressure, right?
Nah, none at all. We’re league champions, man.