The overhead lights glared permeating a white haze. Or maybe it was just that Her eyes were tired. She squinted up at the clock, then back at Her teammate who was in-bounding the ball. She took no measure of who it was…it was always Seble.
No pressure was offered. The opponent had fallen back into their defensive positions.
As they moved to the offense, Seble would advance to the weak side, deep middle. Mac posted on the base line while Kelly backed into the strong side base. Shelby would move through ‘no man’s land’ drawing the defense’s attention, which was set up in a 2-3 zone. The middle was the “key” area, the sweet spot. No one wanted an opponent to penetrate there or if so get a clean shot off. It was mugging territory. Shelby bruised easily. She would wear ‘purple.’
Her uniform was soaked. The right hand had two fingers tapped together, the middle one dislocated and swollen. He breath ragged shallow, legs pulled heavy. She had put up 19 points so far this second half and defended their ‘castle’ as ferociously as She could. The game was still in doubt.
She shifted into autopilot; muscle memory mode. A quick look took in the the five black and four white uniforms to her front.
That previous morning they had been on a ‘rocket ship’ ride playing one of their main rivals, Faith, in the semi finals. For the last three years during the regular season Faith had held the top rung of the scores. Disheartening. They wanted the game badly. Both teams brought back most their rosters for another go.
Anxiety slid under their door through the crack prior to the game. History. It showed as they started slow and were down early. Coach took them into the room at half, the differential; down 10. He gave them his concoction of technical, emotional, and soothing advice. In the second half they had taken off, ignited, hitting fifth gear in a wink, slipping through every press Faith employed. The eighth graders, extremely talented for their age, were there, giving them not only additional manpower ( the team had six girls in rotation without them) but the opportunity for Coach to attack the way he wanted. They ground Faith into powder, 81 to 62. And it was not a fluke. The girls knew. Many in the gym said they had not seen such speed from two girl teams in one game ever. Faith had played fast and hard. This year was different. Faith knew it too. It was as if they were hit by a runaway locomotive. It was exhausting fun. The win.
One game remained. The girls were confident.
The championship game was going to be slower and more physical. Grace Christian brought one extremely athletic big girl and surrounded her with a contingent of decent talent. They had one x factor, a taller blonde girl who had not shown much in the previous games yet had good statistics from earlier games and the year before. She also seemed to have an attitude. Grace won both of their earlier games easily, muscling through their opponents and dominating the inside.
They were playing in a Christmas tournament. Playing. Competing. She loved to play. Challenges pumped her. And to play with close friends for a coach She cared for just before the holidays screamed FUN.
She, Seble and Shelby, had been friends now for several years, ever since the Dobles had found their way to Ethiopia and adopted Seble and her brothers. Seble and Shelby, now sisters, were in the same grade, one year behind. This would be the last year to play together as She graduated in the Spring. For three years they had been together. Their fellowship was refined to a strong trust and belief. They all loved to play, compete. They enjoyed each other’s company in so many other ways as well. They went to a small private Christian school and quaint friendships were relevant. If health could be maintained there was no doubt that the year would be fun and rewarding.
Being with Coach now for two years, they understood his system. This tournament would also strip away any false ideas they had about themselves. A barometer for the year. Upperclassman, their maturity helped stabilize the age disparity in the ‘ranks.’ It also gave them a pursuant attitude that they could win, should win, would win. The year before She had led the team in scoring, but the disparity between her and her teammates was too stretched. It allowed teams to concentrate on keeping Her at or below Her average while giving minimum attention to the other players and keeping them off the score card. They did not win the big games. The load was often too heavy. They finished respectable, but unsatisfied. Coach had set as one of the objectives a lower scoring average for Her and an increase for each of the others. He felt the others could and would step up. Better spread of scoring meant an offense harder to close down. They needed more contributions from the others to make teams address these other threats.
She too accepted the idea. They were her friends; wanted the best for them. She wanted to play, with friends, and win. They worked hard for this ‘temperament’ and had improved. Now it was ‘test’ time. They did well the first two games.
While the girls “rested” in one of the classrooms for the start of the final game, the small gymnasium became packed with a mixture of onlookers; supporters of both teams, teams who had finished and stayed to see how this game, the Championship, would play out and normal onlookers. There was a festive atmosphere swirling about. Holiday time! As the day wore to its climax the noise level accelerated. The gym became heated, the stands full and the concession stand pumping full throttle.
Her coaches watched the third place game and conferred about Grace. It was obvious that their lack of size would necessitate doubling down on the big girl whenever she touched the ball. Get position, low, was key. It would be a much chopped down version from the up tempo game played against Christian Academy. But they also felt they could push the ball to create fast breaks and, hopefully, wear the larger girls down (and not themselves.) A ‘dash’ of their game and more bodies down low would be the nucleus of the strategy. Adjustments would come as needed. However one adjustment could not be made. There were no eighth graders.
The crowd loved their pink shoes. The team wanted to wear pink ones this year and Coach had agreed. A bonding ‘thing.’ Other teams found themselves watching their warm ups… and those shoes. The shoes actually blended with the blue uniforms quite nicely. No one could remember who came up with the idea, but they loved them. They even went with tiny pink bows or ribbons in their hair. Feminine. Then the jump ball to start the games threw that adjective out the window. Willowy but tough, tenacious, determined and with ‘game.’ And the shoes.
They gathered for one last hand high shout and released from the room, all but two who had not finished braiding their hair with pink ribbons. They followed soon after.
The greatest difference bar none was the eighth graders not being present. They were committed to a Jr. High day long tournament and could only play the morning game. That left six. One substitute. The game now would also ride on how the referees called the game. In the previous two the refs had not been charitable. Maybe they did not like pink. Coach had told them to go out and play their game. The end would fit together.
They lined up for the tip off. Most girls wiped the bottom of their shoes with their hands. Kept the dirt off to prevent sliding. More a nervous habit but such little actions kept their minds from locking in on nerves. Negative thought followed by consequential actions. They would produce enough on their own during the course of the game. The positives had to break through and trounce these. Or at least keep them in check.
She shook hands with the girl in black next to her and waited. Nervous but ready. Excited. The gym rocked.
It continued to rock, yelling on the two teams. Grace started the tall blonde girl at point guard, a move not really anticipated. She had never played there before that Coach knew about. She was awkward but was extremely effective. Her height allowed her to gain the middle to produce shots or get a pass of to the big girl underneath. She had a way of holding her none dribbling arm extended to keep an opponent away from her body and the ball. With the referees allowing it, taking the ball away was extremely difficult. That and she could hardly miss a shot, when taken. The girls felt smothered by the size and frustrated with the success of the blonde guard.
The action underneath was beyond physical. Shelby, Mac and Kelly were on the floor as much as they were standing. The big girl held her reputation. She got her points though she ‘earned’ each one. This was somewhat expected, except the coaches had hoped she would have been ‘off’ a little this game. They kept battling her. Success came when they were able to deny her the ball. She was just good. They kept her at her average. And received bruises.
Where they had no answer was with the blonde point guard. Even when they went to a man to man, She went directly to the blonde guard but found it very difficult to get the ball away. She did make her miss more, mostly by denying her the position she was trying to obtain, but the physical work on the defensive end was wearing and the movement they had hoped for on the offensive end was more taxing than fluid. The shots were not high caliber selections. Desperate more than selected. Some of the crowd who thought Grace would be run off the court were surprised. Coach took it in, watched the first half and tried to get the girls to the half in one piece. Ice bags were leniently applied. Of course no blood could show, so they kept busy cleaning scratches up, wrapping them with gauze and tape.
The game was withering. as if a forge kept breathing on them. They were physically slower and bursts of energy sapped. When it looked like they might get a fast break going, the tall blonde was back blocking most of the clear runs to the basket. Old habits that had been broken down and rebuilt occasionally reared their ugly heads. Coach needed his team to get to half with the deficit in single digits. They had been behind in the first two games at half, but the dynamics of this one was different. The girls were breaking down. Not for lack of effort, just exhaustion and swelling.
The Grace fans were enjoying the game and letting their players know it. But the game was having an affect on them as well. They were tired, some wheezing. He needed to get to half with no one in foul trouble and regroup. She had two fouls.
It certainly wasn’t a horse race. Maybe box turtles breaking out of the circle during a summer festival. They were on the short end 29 -19. Not pretty. But ‘the game’ itself was exciting. The fans were buzzing. Grace was going to hammer the thoroughbreds down.
The Buzzer sounded. Half.
No one said a word. Exhaustion and heat had them all spread out, drinking water, chewing on ice and sprawled where space could be found. White skin matched their shoes, pink. They were frustrated, but mostly they were ‘punked’ out. Coach took his time with his thoughts. 19 points. Total for the half. He shook his head slightly and gazed at the floor, mind racing. He waited until five minutes were left of the half time break.
He would have loved to press, but not with just six girls. He needed to give up something to take away the penetration of the point guard. He decided that he would release Kelly on the base to come up immediately and take the right flank away. Shelby, all bones, would have to take on the big girl herself, but he would have Mac come over from the right to make sure that anything under the basket was denied. He was giving up the whole weak side, but he counted on Grace to do what they always did, go mostly to the strong side and pound the ball in or take the jump shot. This would allow Her to cut on top of the guard and get some steals… hopefully. At least distract the play. If She got the ball Seble would be free to release and head to the basket. He called them together, gave instructions and they exited. No one was braiding hair.
They came back on the floor in the same offense and defense they had started the game with. Fatigue showed on both teams as they traded a basket here, one there.
Then, as with all games, something takes place that one would not think big. But it is. It turned the game. Grace scored and called a timeout.
They rested their blonde point guard. A good move as she was tiring quickly now. They replaced her with a smaller girl. She could handle the ball so it did not seem like a big move. It was hopefully for just a few minutes. They had done it once in the first half. Coach had rested Her about the same time. This time he kept Her in.
It was a full time out. One minute. The girls whipped down with towels and watered up. Coach changed the defense. 1-2-2. She was going to go after the ball on top. It was half way through the half, they were still down by 4, and if something was going happen, it had to be now. They could not just trade baskets. He looked at Her as he whipped the whiteboard clean. She nodded her head in acknowledgement, pulled her ponytail tighter and put Her hand in with the rest. Then they took their positions.
The crowd sensed that this was going to be where the game was decided. Had to be. About 7 minutes left. She had been their leader now for two years. She had to take on ‘something’ that they had been pulling away from. She was going to have to be selfish. Score points. And She was best when she was left to guard the ball on the top and use her quick hands and speed, even the injured one.
As the ball in-bounded, she was within gum smelling distance when she deftly knocked the ball away, recovered it and went in for the basket. Grace came down again and she moved in quickly. Few saw the steal until she had taken two strides down court.
Tie score. A revved crowd, the smell of hot dogs and popcorn, sweat and those hard lights propped the scene. A scene played out in thousands of gyms, but it only mattered right here, now. The team found new energy.
Grace got their starting point guard back in and she did not back down either. Between the the two of them they slid, blocked, pressed, and worked. The crowd was frenzied. She had no idea what the score was except close. She either was stealing the ball, shooting, scrambling after it, or dribbling up after a Grace basket.
Grace scored and Coach called a 30 second time out. Seble was in tears with cramps. Coach put his only sub in. While he was saying a few words, She heard nothing. Wiping her face and splashing a little water on her head, She went into another world. How to win this game. Coming off the court for the break, She had looked up at the score for the first time. THEY were ahead by 4! But it was hard to take in with how She felt. Strange. She was amped up, tired, hot, and desirous to end this marathon of a slug fest with a win. It had to be win.
She always looked for Seble to begin an offensive thrust. The ball was in-bounded to Her and as She got just above the key She looked to Her left, the weak side, waiting for Seble to come to the ball and get it. Someone was moving toward Her, but it wasn’t Seble. In fact She wondered if it was their guard in disguise. Where was Seble? She yelled it over the din…”Where is Seble??”
“Right here on the bench getting her leg massaged!” shouted the assistant coach.
She looked over and sure enough, there was Sebes, looking at here with tears running down her cheeks.
Did the noise stop the time? She stared for a second or two and then at the girl coming for the ball. She gave it to her and mechanically moved to Her position to start the play. Too quickly the ball was turned over and no one was back to defend. The score settled to 49-47. They came down and Mac got fouled under the basket, the big girl’s 4th. Mac missed both. The crowd roared. Nobody was moving. Grace in-bounded and moved quickly to the attack. The clock was down to a minute left. She got her hand on a pass into the big girl, but it hit hard on Her finger and deflected to a wide open girl on the weak side who laid it in. Tie score. People were kicking the stands, jumping up and down, crossing fingers and saying prayers. She took the in-bounds pass and took off. It was not a thought out play or decisively arranged team movement. She was going to end this.
She caught all by surprise. Instead of setting up for the last shot, she decided to take this game and put in on the shelf. She actually passed a couple of her mates and defenders moving slower back to their positions. Then Grace realized she was coming ..fast. She split two girls who reached for the ball but her hands flashed it out of range. She had one girl left, the big girl. She headed to the right side of the net, made her commit, then cross dribbled to her left. The only thing now was to put it in or get knocked down… She landed on Her right hand. Pain flashed. She was helped to Her feet by her teammates. As She was heading to the floor She had used Her left to deftly flick the ball off the backboard…and in.
All sensation was gone. She stepped to the free throw line for the one charity shot, went through her routine. Swish. She had already headed back to defend. She heard no crowd noise. She did not hear anything now.
Up 3 with under 30 seconds to go. She quickly shuffled to her post, except She moved closer to the half court line. They were not going to lose this game. She took a quick peek at her bench. Seble was cheering. She pulled on her shorts and waited. The big guard had no chance. Dribbling to the outside, she found herself pressed hard to the sidelines. Before She even thought through the next move, a left hand flitted in and poked the ball two feet toward Grace’s basket.
No one was going to beat Her to it. She scooped it up and raced in for a layup. 54-49. 9 seconds. Checkmate! Game. Match. Championship.
All the congratulatory salutations were over. The concession stand was cleaning up, the gym floor was being swept, miscellaneous debris picked up, people chattering about the game or perhaps where they were going shopping. The next movement of life was taking place.
They began heading out of the room. She, Shelby and Seble were last. Shelby turned around to get the trophy sitting on a desk looking cheap.
Seble put her arm around Her. She did the same. They looked at each other, smiled and touched foreheads. It had been exhilarating. Decompression would soon follow. But their first ever Championship was intact and it was not measured by a trophy. It was measured by what took place in each girl. They were satisfied, happy and together.
They remained deeply committed friends their whole lives. And neither forgot the time She could not find Seble. It was touching. And meaningful.