04 Apr The Game (Short Story)
I look at the clock. There are only three minutes left in the game. We’re down by ten and I don’t see how we can pull this one out. My buddy, Chris, tosses the ball my direction. It bounces a little too close to my feet and it takes a second effort to secure the ball. As I look under the basket, I spot Jeff. He’s waving his left hand frantically. I can tell he’s got positioning and thinks he can post up on his defender. I pump fake the pass, making my defender flail his arms for the steal. As he swings, I avoid his grasp and sling the ball over his head.
Jeff catches the pass securely with his left hand. His man over pursues the steal, allowing Jeff an easy spin move to his right side. The weak side defense came from the man defending Chris and I clench my teeth as I realize Jeff doesn’t have time. Luckily, Jeff realizes it too and sends a no-look bounce pass right into Chris’ path. The defense can’t get to Chris from the three-point line and he drops the layup in with finesse.
Down by eight. Still another two and a half minutes left. Not yet in foul territory, time for some full court press. Our big guy, Len, gives me a quick high five as we get back into our end. If we lose tonight, we’re out of the tournament and my dreams of going to college go down the drain. Not only for playing basketball, but I need that scholarship to make it. I know it’s not only this game, but we have scouts from all over the country watching. Good thing I love pressure.
Making it to the California State Championship Game was my dream since freshman year. At 72 – 64, I had to make the decision right now. Either I control this game, or I lose my future. Sometimes it all comes down to one moment, one opportunity. I had a 4.0 GPA and played in one of the best basketball programs in California. I could be the first of my family to even attend college. I had to win this game. I had to take care of my family and myself. I was tired of eating cereal for dinner and watching my parents skip meals. They never let my sister or myself go to bed hungry, but I couldn’t stand it. If I made this next step to college, I know I could support them all.
We backed inside our three-point line, playing zone defense. They’d been picking apart our defense all night. With little time left, we needed to make our stand. Their point guard dished it to the small forward. He crossed-over Marcus and drove it baseline. Unfortunately Len was too late in getting there to block the shot. The opposing player put up a little floater that dropped right into the basket.
Damn. We’re down ten again. They’d only burned a few seconds off the clock. 2:13 on the clock, time to get going. Chris dribbled the ball down the court easily, the defense backing into their scheme. Chris approached the three-point line and passes the ball to Marcus. I could see Marcus wanted vengeance for letting those last two points in. He faked the pass inside to Jeff, forcing the defense to lunge. He took that opening to dribble left and drop in a pull-up jumper from 15 feet.
Phew! That wasn’t the best looking shot but it went in. It also only used up ten seconds. Just over two minutes left. 74-66, let’s go. I stepped up into their shooting guard’s face and Chris stayed on the point guard. Their small forward was looking to inbound the ball but we were too quick. Nobody opened up and we got the ball back on a five-second violation. Nice!
Marcus takes the ball to inbound it. Coach calls out the perfect play. We’ve practiced this a million times in practice. I start at the top of the key. The ref blows his whistle, I run right. Len sets a screen for me and I cut left just as my defender moves with me. Jeff sits right there, setting a second screen for me and my defender runs right into it. Marcus sees me open and hits me with the pass. I catch the ball right at the three-point line, set my feet, and let it fly. I know instantly as it leaves my hands that it’s money. Nothing beats that feeling. I dance back down the court with my hand still outstretched from the jumper.
Our opponents try to take advantage of our excitement and quickly move up the court. They attack ferociously, sending a quick pass towards Jeff’s man, all the way down on our side of the court. I realize my man had already started running behind me. I break into a full sprint, catching up. Their power forward tosses a pass under the basket to my man and I see he’s got just enough room. I don’t know if I can make it but I put on the burners and try to get there. As he elevates for the layup I pump my legs and jump as high as I can. I feel like I’m flying, going up behind my man and slamming his layup right back into the backboard.
The ball came back, right into Chris’ hands. He hesitates and keeps the ball low, out of everyone’s reach as our opponents move back to play defense. I’m shocked to see that another 45 seconds had passed, 1:15 left. It was close now though, 74-69. I’m soaked in sweat and feel my lungs burning. It’s not time to think about that yet, still a lot of game left.
Chris moves left, then right, before then passing to Marcus. Marcus to me, me to Jeff, then Jeff back to me. Their defense is tight; we can’t get inside on them. 10 seconds left on the shot clock. 55 seconds left in the game. I dribble inside the three-point line and try to back my man down. 12 feet out, on the baseline, 6 seconds left. This is my bread and butter, this is my zone. I fake a left turn, and then spin right, falling back and deeper towards the baseline. My fade away jumper has a high arc, getting over my defender, and fits right into the tight angle between the backboard and myself.
Boom! There’s another two points. They have 45 seconds on the clock and we’re only down 3. We’ve pulled all men back, waiting for them to get down the court. We know they’re going to take their time here. Best thing would be to force a steal. They pass left, right, inside, outside, but we can’t seem to get the ball. They bring the clock down to 5 seconds before shooting. Their hesitation forced a bad look and their shooting guard missed the jumper. Len and Jeff box their men out excellently and I fly inside wildly for the rebound.
10 seconds left. My legs ache and my lungs are begging for forgiveness but my mind is laser focused. I dribble around my man who’s trying to get in my face at half-court. 5 seconds left. A second man comes to defend me but I swiftly cut right, between him and the man I’d just passed. 3 seconds left and this is it. I set my feet quickly at the three-point line, push hard off the ground while keeping my elbow in, and release the ball with confidence. The man behind me runs hard and attempts a block, swatting my arm and knocking me to the floor. My elbow lands hard and I can’t see the basket. But through it all, I hear the sound of nothing but net and know my ball found it’s target.
The referee blows his whistle and Len helps me to my feet. There’s only 1 second left in the game and I’ve got a free throw. At 74-74, the four-point play could clinch the state championship. I shake off my sore elbow and move up to the free throw line. My heart thumps rapidly and my stomach grumbles voraciously. I’ve never been so nervous; I know I can hit this though. The ref passes me the ball from under the basket and I breathe in. I close my eyes and tune out everything around me. The only sound I hear is my own heartbeat. I only feel the hardwood beneath my feet and the soft leather in my hands. I open my eyes and see nothing but the basket. I bend my knees, keep my elbow in and smoothly release the ball from my right hand.
It flies for an eternity. As the ball flies, everything around me comes back into focus. First, the guys waiting to rebound, then the referees, then followed by the rest of the crowd until finally the ball finds the net. Swish! I love that sound.
With no timeouts left, our opponents quickly inbound the ball and let out a ¾ court shot. It falls way short of its mark and the clock buzzes, signaling the end of the game.
We won! We won! I can’t believe it. Len lifts me up onto his shoulders and screams at the top of his lungs. Chris, Marcus, and Jeff are dancing in the middle of the court. I look up into the crowd with tears in my eyes. I spot my family hopping wildly up and down. My little sister waves at me from the stands, clearly calling to me. I’ve never been so happy in my life.