A short story where, following a family tragedy, a young athlete finds place and purpose in the game of basketball…
by: James C. Gordon
The Whitmore High School Wildcats basketball team boarded a Central Valley Transport bus for the ride to Los Angeles. As team captain I was responsible for a head count. The previous year, after an exhausting game in Merced, Timothy had fallen asleep in a corner of the locker room. We didn’t realize he was missing until we were on the road. Someone suggested we leave him. Even Timothy laughed about it later. We were teammates, brothers, and ribbing each other was part of our bond.
The players occupied the back seats and we were short one because Homer was at his grandfather’s funeral. The Wildcat cheerleaders clustered in the middle rows. A line of vehicles followed with a hundred supporters, including my mother. I knew she didn’t enjoy basketball. She came for me because my father could not.
Randy tapped his feet in a hyperactive cadence. At point guard, he had a jittery frantic style of play with his untethered long hair flopping around because he believed it distracted the opposition. “Why did we get McAllister for the final game, anyway?”
“Expose Whitmore to the big time,” Dominic said. He was our star forward and his girlfriend, Mindy, was head cheerleader. His voice was scratchy and he sipped DayQuil to douse a fever and bolster himself against the flu. “Maybe somebody wants to put us on the map.”
“In a cemetery. They’ve won thirty-seven in a row.”
“It’s thirty-eight,” Clyde said. “And they won the championship three of the last four years.” At 6’5” with a sinewy build Clyde played center and was a genuinely nice guy who didn’t like to throw elbows or fight for position. And he was an outstanding cellist.
“You can shut up anytime,” Dominic said. He popped a throat lozenge in his mouth, rolled the wrapper in a ball, and flicked it at Clyde who batted it away.
“Just stating facts. They’ll win again this year.”
“Like I said. Anytime.”
Every kid dreams of lofty stardom but I found my reality at ground level. Naturally short on talent, I built my career on competitiveness and endurance. That’s what got me on the varsity squad and why I was elected captain. After my father died, basketball gave me a place and purpose.
“Your value is not what you have but what you do,” was one of my father’s sayings. He imparted his life lessons while I ran basketball drills. The soundtrack of my adolescence was the scrape of sneakers on the court, the bounce of the ball, a shot swishing through the net, and my father tossing off phrases like, “Never be the weak link.”
Whitmore was a rural community with a small high school and basketball was our only notable sport. Players were big men on campus and on game days we wore our jerseys to school and everyone offered encouraging words. Girlfriends wore our letterman jackets and Rosalinda wore mine over her cheerleader outfit.
I sat up front with Coach Williams to discuss lineup and strategy. He didn’t know much about the game and he stepped in after his predecessor had a heart attack and retired. Williams taught algebra and geometry and all of us had been in his classroom.
“Pick five seniors to start,” he said, and looked at me. “Include yourself.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t start every game but he understood how important this game was to me. “You know we’re going to be destroyed.”
He nodded solemnly. “They have a good team. Just play your best.”
The Frederick J. McAllister High School Sharks of South Central Los Angeles averaged twenty-three points per game higher than our best score. They had seven players over six feet tall including a six-foot ten-inch redwood tree named Garfield who was headed for the University of Kentucky.
I left Coach with The Journal of Applied Mathematics as his best defense against Mrs. Faulk, the cheerleaders’ talkative mother hen, and I sat with Rosalinda. I hadn’t been a good student until she started helping me with homework in the tenth grade, and with her help I would get to college. She talked about when we might get responses to our applications but she knew I wasn’t listening. Eventually, she shooed me toward the back of the bus. “Go be Captain.”
Dominic was holding court from the last row. “This is my night, boys.” I knew his bravado covered anxiety about our final game. And the lingering flu left him pale and sweaty.
“You need to think about the team,” someone said.
“I am thinking about the team.” He forced a laugh. “The team is me and Randy, maybe Manuel or Darius on a good day.”
I noticed he didn’t mention my name. “Dominic don’t be an ass. Clyde can hold his own.”
“Against their center? That dude is a giant.”
Clyde had a look on his face, not quite fear but severe apprehension over facing an opponent destined for the NBA.
“I’ll hold my position.”
“You hold on while he steps on your head.”
“Leave it alone, Dominic,” Clyde said.
“Man, I’m just saying the way it is. You’re too timid on the boards.”
“Go to hell.”
A mocking “ooooooh” circled the group and I mustered my Captain authority. “Whoa, guys, cut it out.” They all looked at me. “Don’t kill each other before we meet the Sharks. Save some for the game.”
Dominic sneered but I knew he loved basketball and internalized his real emotions. College recruiters would never find him at Whitmore so there would be no scholarship. “I’m just saying these boys play hard. We won’t get many second shots.”
“We’re a team. Let’s act like one.”
“Here we go, Captain America talking teamwork.”
“You have a problem with teamwork?”
My voice rose enough that the cheerleaders turned in unison to listen. Mrs. Faulk put down her knitting and Coach closed his magazine. Rosalinda caught my eye and furrowed her brow. I knew even the driver was listening because the bus slowed.
I tried not to scowl. “I came here to play basketball so let’s make our best effort. Play like we intend to win.”
My father would say “Lead by example” as he lobbed passes and I ran up and down the court executing layups at each end. “When you win, act like you’ve been there before.”
Darius looked up from his phone. “L.A. Times picks them by sixty.”
“Stop reading the news.”
Silence followed until someone asked, “You really think we can beat McAllister?”
“Playing well in defeat is better than not playing.” It was a parody of my father. Many of his pronouncements had been cliché and I wondered if sometimes he tossed out placeholders and saved his good stuff for when I was listening. I tried again and my effort felt like a bad shot clanking the rim. “Sometimes just showing up is a win.”
We pulled into the McAllister High parking lot. We filed inside and faced a large glass case stuffed with championship trophies like a gaudy display of treasure. The locker room felt like a tomb with the bouncing rhythms of the McAllister band vibrating against the metal door. Attempts at humor fell flat. We changed into uniforms and sweats and waited until Coach said it was time.
“Alright guys,” I said, in my best Team Captain voice. They all looked at me. “Starters are Dominic, Clyde, Randy, Darius, and me. We’ll substitute a lot to keep fresh legs in the game. Let’s show them Wildcat pride.”
We entered the court and thunder bombarded us from a thousand McAllister fans jeering at a fifth-rate team in their arena. McAllister fielded twelve players to our nine and they had three coaches to our one. Even our cheerleading squad was outnumbered eight to five. A wedge of seats behind our bench held the Whitmore faithful. They offered a smattering of applause and Mindy led the hearty school cheers.
We watched the Sharks warm up with the precision of a Marine Corps drill team. Jump shots, snappy passes, fluid layups, pounding slam dunks. They were jet bombers and we were crop dusters.
Dominic whispered to me, “Do they ever miss?”
By comparison our warmup was lethargic and uncoordinated. We started a routine of passing multiple balls around. The idea was to keep the balls moving quickly and pay close attention for the next toss. Sometimes we looked like a ballet but that day we looked like clowns. Passes were missed and players were hit. One ball rolled to the home team bench and their coach tossed it back underhand with an amused look. The starters shed their warm ups and we huddled in front of our bench. Coach gave us a pep talk as inspiring as math homework assigned on a Friday.
McAllister scored nine points before we got on the board when Dominic corralled a long pass and completed a short layup. Our high fives were more conciliation than celebration. We missed shots, lost balls, and played awkward defense. I missed twice and had the ball stolen from me. We were down 27-10 after one quarter. Their coach scowled as if the margin wasn’t large enough.
In the second quarter we had three players in foul trouble. Calling fouls against us was ironic because the Sharks played a physical game with elbows, shoulders, and body screens more suited to hockey. Coach Williams tried to reason with the referee without success. After one collision, Manuel went down hard, clutched his knee, and pounded the floor, his face contorted in pain. His father and brother came out of the stands and helped him to the locker room.
“The refs are helping them roll up the score,” Dominic muttered during a time out. He was drenched in sweat and breathing heavy.
“This whole thing sucks.”
“Don’t make excuses,” I said. “Just play our game.”
A scuffle led to the ejection of two players and we lost Randy. Coach stood up for his boys. He argued with the referee, drew a technical foul, and let out a colorful fusillade sprinkled with mathematical terms as his version of swearing. The referee looked dumbfounded and flung his arm in the ejection motion. I wondered if Coach wanted to be thrown out to avoid watching the slaughter.
I took over running the team and we tried to slow the action but the Sharks were a machine and the score stretched away. The halftime buzzer was a welcome relief and the Wildcats slunk into the locker room escorted by laughter from the crowd. My chest was heaving, my thighs and calves were on fire.
Inside the locker room we flopped down on the benches or the floor. Manuel was in street clothes with his knee wrapped and iced. Randy fumed at being ejected and his hair flapped around as he paced. Dominic looked ready to pass out. Blood stained the towel that Clyde held under his nose. Everyone was exhausted.
Darius hurled a towel against a locker. “I can’t believe these bullshit fouls.”
“We look like fools.”
“The crowd is laughing at us.”
Our breathing rasped like old men in a sauna. Coach made a halfhearted talk about working for open shots.
“Maybe we should just call it a day,” someone suggested.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean quit?”
“We can keep getting beat up or call it over and go home.”
I looked at Coach and he spoke in a conciliatory tone. “This is a team decision and it has to be unanimous. Raise your hand if you vote to forfeit.”
After a slow minute one hand went up, then another, and another. They all looked at me sitting hunched forward with my forearms on my thighs, still breathing heavily. I could feel sweat running down the back of my neck. My fists were tight and my legs felt like jello.
“We’re going to lose anyway,” Dominic said, and closed his eyes. He had scored 11 points but the Sharks were targeting him and he was exhausted. I’d known him since first grade and for the first time I saw defeat in his eyes. “Let’s go home.”
I stood up and mumbled my way through an impromptu speech about finishing what we started, channeling my father like a devoted mimic. With Manuel hurt, Randy ejected, Timothy fouled out and three guys in foul trouble, I wondered if we could keep five players on the court to the end. “This isn’t about winning and losing,” I said, my mouth felt like a ball of cotton. “It’s about sportsmanship, teamwork, playing for love of the game. You gotta have heart.”
No one looked me in the eye.
“The refs let them get away with everything.”
“Clyde is getting his ass beat.”
“I swear their center looks like he’s twenty-five.”
It was my responsibility to rally the troops. “I’m not quitting. You can come with me or you can stay here.”
They looked like cattle in a pen not sure of what they would come next but sensing it wouldn’t be pleasant.
“I’ll play alone if I have to.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Maybe.” For me it was more than a game. “My father taught me to play basketball when I was five years old. He came to every game. We practiced at five in the morning and after dark. When he died this game saved me.” My eyes were getting moist and my voice cracked once. I had known these guys all of my life, they were family and I was angry at them, these brothers who let me down. “I only have sixteen minutes of basketball left in my life. I’m not going to spend it in the locker room.”
I grabbed a ball and walked out.
The band was rocking a hip-hop tune when I emerged alone. When no one else followed me the music stopped and crowd noise faded to a murmur. I took practice shots.
McAllister players loitered on the court bouncing balls, taking a few shots. They looked toward their bench. I heard remarks about Whitmore, the team, me. I walked to my bench, retied my laces, and dried my palms and face with a towel. A thousand pairs of eyes drilled into me. I looked into the crowd and saw confusion on my mother’s face.
Rosalinda stepped close and asked, “Where are the other guys?”
“What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know.”
The McAllister coaches huddled and glanced at me with perplexed looks. Their players were chuckling and pretending to hide their faces in towels. The referee called the teams onto the court. I walked into position for the jump ball with McAllister players on all sides. Whitmore was down by 37 points.
“What gives, son?” the referee asked.
“Is your team forfeiting?”
“Nope,” I said. I had never felt more certain of anything in my life. “I’m playing alone.”
He stared at me as if waiting for a punchline. Then he shrugged, blew his whistle, and waved us into position.
The McAllister center looked down at me. “You one crazy homeboy.”
“Probably,” I said. “But I’m here.”
He barely left his feet to tip the ball away.
I wish I could say that through some superhuman effort I dazzled the opposition and rained shots into the hoop. That didn’t happen. But if I looked like a fool at least I displayed energy and good fundamentals.
The McAllister players sauntered up court, dribbled lazily, and passed the ball around a few times before they scored over my skimpy defense. They let me dribble to midcourt and then took turns guarding me. I tried perimeter shots and drove in twice for layups, missed both, and hustled back on defense. My long range shots drew laughter from the crowd until one of them bounced off the backboard and went in. I heard a wispy cheer from behind my bench and hoots from the other side. The Sharks played their second and third string.
Between quarters I slumped on the bench, exhausted beyond words. I had scored one basket. My jersey was soaked and my face felt on fire. I fished a plastic water bottle out of a cooler, pour some into my arid throat, and dumped the rest over my head.
“Last quarter, son,” the referee said, as he handed me the ball at the end line. “I give you credit for trying.”
Maybe they all did in a way. Laughter had been replaced by a bemused murmur. I saw that my mother had her arms wrapped around her waist and she was biting her lip. Funny but in that moment I imagined my father shouting encouragement as if the score was close and game hung in the balance.
A deep breath cleared my head. The Sharks defense was slack while I took long shots from outside. It looked like a bad practice session until one went in and I heard a ripple of applause.
I trotted back on defense and in front of the Whitmore section I held up both hands, extended my right index finger and all five on the left hand, and shouted, “Five on One! Five on One!”
The Whitmore fans laughed and cheered. Mild booing and Bronx cheers came from the McAllister side. Admittedly, they weren’t making a serious effort, and everyone seemed amused by my antics.
Halfway through the quarter a McAllister player drove for a layup. I backpedaled, turned, jumped with him, and knocked the ball away. Another player scored but it didn’t matter, I had blocked a shot. A resounding cheer erupted from the Whitmore fans.
My next great play came a minute later. Two Sharks were passing the ball back and forth and ignoring me. I darted forward, tipped the ball, took possession, dribbled behind my back once, and drove to the basket for a score. As they say on television, the crowd went wild. Even the McAllister coach nodded, clapped, and shouted, “Nice play, kid!”
As I ran past the Whitmore fans I held up my fingers again in my newly invented “Five on One!” salute. Fans on both sides of the gym mirrored my gesture.
With two minutes remaining and a 59-point differential, I saw my teammates emerge coyly from the locker room. They lingered near the door and watched me toss up a prayer that hit the rim and bounced away.
I called time out and sucked air into my heaving lungs as my team clustered around. “It’s about time you guys showed up.”
“What the hell is happening?”
“I’m playing ball.”
Five Wildcats took the court. McAllister scored again. I called timeout with three seconds on the clock. We would inbound the ball at midcourt.
We huddled in front of our bench, bent forward so our shoulders touched. “Screen left on the inbound. Set up Dominic for a shot on the base line.”
“Last shot,” he said. He looked pale and sick. “You want to take it?”
“You’re our best shooter,” I replied. I was mad at them for staying in the locker room but they were still my team, my brothers, my family. “Let’s finish strong.”
Players shuffled to into position and the guy guarding me mumbled under his breath that it was too bad I played on such a crappy team.
“We might be crappy but we don’t quit.”
I faked my guy and caught the inbound pass. Dominic broke left and I had every intention of snapping a pass to him near the corner but two Sharks were in the way so I cut right, dribbled once, and used the last ounce of energy in my throbbing legs to jump and let loose a shot that swished through the net as the buzzer sounded. That was the most satisfying basket I ever made in my life.
The McAllister band boomed their fight song and their players clustered together in celebration. I fell to the floor and my teammates piled on me. When I looked up the Whitmore crowd was standing and applauding. Then I looked around and realized the McAllister fans were also standing and clapping, and not only for their team. People all around the gym were shouting, “FIVE ON ONE! FIVE ON ONE!”
I felt my father watching. “Play with heart and you’re always a winner,” he would have said.
My eyes were drowning. I could barely speak when Rosalinda hugged me with tears in her eyes. “You’re my hero,” she said.
Later, I slumped on the locker room floor with my back against the wall, a quart bottle of Gatorade in my hand. I was exhausted and exhilarated, too tired to strip off my uniform and shower.
Dominic looked at me across the room. “Captain went down with the ship but nobody losses better than Whitmore.”
“What does it matter how you lose?” someone asked.
I loved basketball, the emotion, the energy, teamwork. The game gave me something that I never found anywhere else. I spoke in my father’s voice: “When losing is all you have left, it matters a great deal.”
James C. Gordon grew up and resided in California. He viewed the world as raw material for Fiction. He said, “The human experience is a never ending story worth telling.” Unfortunately he died tragically on 9/6/2022 and the world will miss his kindness, generosity, and unique perspective of the world around him.
Rest in Peace James C. Gordon. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.