By: Bethany Lewis
I slammed the water bottle to my lips and threw my head back until the bottle was almost vertical. By now I knew better than to drink slowly. One mouthful, two, three…
Coach’s voice rang out behind me. “Ten, six, two, one, you’re done!”
Not bad. I put down the water bottle and snapped the cap shut in one movement, then slid the basketball out from under my arm and started dribbling it over to where everyone else was gathering around our coaches.
“Put the balls down!” yelled Coach. “We don’t need ‘em!”
He hadn’t exactly said my name, but I knew when I was being called out. I dropped the ball and ran the last couple of steps over to the group.
The eight of us there that night formed into a slightly unwieldy circle around the two men who coached us and waited to hear what was next. What was next, it turned out, was yet another review of some of the plays that we’d only been discussing all season (although, admittedly, we did keep forgetting to use them, and messing them up when we did). Coach squatted down, produced a dry-erase clipboard and marker, which he hardly ever used, and started drawing out the ‘stack’ inbound play in quick, bold strokes, while Coach Remlinger stood watching over his shoulder. (In my mind, Mr. Remlinger, the good cop in the good-cop/bad-cop routine that got pulled out when our team needed it, was Coach Remlinger, but Mr. Farnan, who probably wouldn’t even mind being called the bad cop, was just Coach.) After the explanation finished, Coach got back to his feet and started calling out positions, which he did, as always, without ceremony. “One, two, three, four, five.”
Carly, Taylor, Kaitlyn, Erica, and my sister Rhiannon scattered to their positions. I, one of two eighth graders on the team, watched four seventh graders jog to their positions on offense and said nothing. I knew what was coming, though. “Bethany, Taylor, Bobbie, you’re on defense.”
Defense. Again. I went, though. Arguing would accomplish nothing but getting Coach mad, and anyway, if I was going to be completely honest, those five were about a thousand times better at the game than I was. I wasn’t an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. If it hadn’t been such a small school, with a team open to anyone who wanted to join, I wouldn’t even be standing on this court to complain about being put on defense.
I shook my head and put my hands up, and watched as Coach took up defense with Taylor, Bobbie and I, under the hoop where the play would be. Carly slapped the ball and yelled, “Break!” and the offense girls scattered in what looked like random movement. Rhiannon ran parallel to the baseline, and I followed her, mimicking what the players from the other team would do in a game. Meanwhile, Carly passed the ball in to Erica, left wide open under the hoop, and she shot. It went straight into the hoop.
Coach stopped the play immediately, and high-fived Erica with his famous line. “Say, ‘Mr. Farnan, you’re a genius!;”
“Mr. Farnan,” said Erica, “you’re a genius!”
Erica, Carly and the rest of them really did make a fantastic team. By February, we had defeated most of the teams in our section. Our only problem was with the infamous Holy Moley (as we called them) who also had an amazing team. We had managed to beat them the first time, but only by one point a few seconds before the buzzer. None of us were exactly looking forward to playing them again.
When we did, we lost.
By some streak of luck, though, another team had managed to beat them. The way the games fell, we took section champs anyway, which put us up against St. Malachy for the first round of the playoffs.
Coach showed up in rare form on game day. He wore his suit and tie, stalked into the locker room as soon as he heard we were ready, and informed us in no uncertain terms- and some that weren’t exactly G-rated- that we were capable of beating this team, but we had to want it. So if we did want it, he concluded with his usual colorfulness, “Let’s go out there like Jackie Chan, Uncle Sam, Kick the Can and a can of Spam!”
I wanted it. I was ready. When we went out on court to warm up, I swished every one of my layups. Then we switched to free shooting, and I was doing all right there, too. The whole time, I was praying, “Let me start. Please, please, let me start.”
It would be horrible to not start in a playoff game as an eighth grader, especially since this could be my last.
About a minute before the buzzer for the end of warm-up, Coach called us over. I anxiously awaited my fate.
Of course he spent the full minute talking more about ‘wanting it’. He still hadn’t addressed the starting lineup when the buzzer sounded, and we were called out into the middle of the court for the prayer and handshakes. It wasn’t until we were huddled up again and Coach asked, “Where are my starters?” that someone reminded him he hadn’t picked any yet.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Without any drama, without even seeming to think about it, he tapped five people on the heads. “One, two, three, four, five.”
Five was me.
“Oh,” he added, still with his hand on my head, “and you’re tipping.” Letting go, he pulled out the clipboard again and stabbed the marker down four times, one for each starter except me, showing them where to go. “Carly, Kaitlyn, Taylor, Erica.”
Every one of them was behind me. He was conceding the tip to the other team. Even with my near-perfect record of tip-offs leading straight to a basket for our team.
I may not be much good at playing basketball, but I still know it’s not a good idea to start a game steaming mad.
I couldn’t help it.
“Bethany! Be aggressive!”
I was trying. I really was. In fact, I’d actually thought I was going to be called for a foul once. (I hadn’t been, of course.)
If Coach had yelled that at Rhiannon or Carly or Kaitlyn, it would have made them mad. That would have made them get more aggressive. It made me mad too, but it also made me extremely self-conscious, which had the exact opposite effect.
Carly missed a shot. A girl on the other team snagged the ball and they started downcourt, but Coach’s drills on fast breaks hadn’t been for nothing. We beat them down.
The point guard pulled back and let her team get set up. She yelled out a play, and some complicated position changes took place on the other team. None of us moved from our zone defense.
Suddenly, the ball was passed to a different girl. Then another. Then back to the point guard, who swung around and dribbled down my side of the court, circling around to come towards the hoop.
Was she going to stop, or was she going to try to come in closer? I had to guess, and I had to guess right.
Stop, I decided. I held my position and waited for her to pull up.
Instead, she dribbled neatly around me. I was too slow to block her again before she put a nice, neat shot into the hoop.
I was turning to start back downcourt when Coach jumped to his feet. “Gimme a timeout! Thirty!”
I knew what was coming.
As soon as we reached him, he signaled Rhiannon to her feet. “You’re in, five. Bethany, you’re out.”
Whatever else he had to say during that timeout, I didn’t hear it. I sank into my chair, thoroughly disgusted with myself.
I remained benched for the next two quarters. In the few moments I was totally honest with myself, I was glad I wasn’t in, since even without me screwing anything up the score was seesawing back and forth. There was also a ton of fouling going on- Rhiannon had miraculously managed to stay clean, but Carly and Taylor both had four fouls, Erica had three, and Kaitlyn had one.
The rest of the time, I steamed.
Late in the fourth quarter, the score was 27-28 in St. Malachy’s favor. I started praying desperately for our team to make just one shot.
My prayer must have gotten filed wrong. It was the other team who sank a 2-point shot. The score was 30-27, with 40 seconds left.
Coach, looking rather irritated, called a timeout. He informed us that he wanted the other team to shoot a foul shot, so we could get the ball and take it down for a shot of our own- Kaitlyn was chosen to do the fouling because of how few fouls she had. To make sure it would be easy to foul them safely, he also asked that someone hit the ball out of bounds, forcing Malachy to inbound. Both teams were in bonuses, so even that floor foul would lead to a foul shot. When he released them back onto the court and the game restarted, someone obediently knocked out the ball.
Coach hollered to Kaitlyn, “The one who catches it!” meaning that the girl who caught the inbound was the one she should foul. Kaitlyn tried, but missed. Carly, trying to keep the plan from failing, fouled the next girl who got the ball.
The foul was called.
Suddenly a horrified look came over Carly’s face as she remember how many fouls she had. Probably hoping she was wrong, she held up five fingers and mouthed to us, “Is that five?”
I’d been keeping count. I knew it was.
There were three of us on the bench- Bobbie and the younger Taylor, who were both only in fifth grade, and me.
Even without being told, I knew I was going back in.
Unceremoniously, Coach signaled me in. I slapped the table and ran to the spot right under the hoop on the key for the foul shot. It was a 1-and-1, meaning that if the shooter missed, the ball was fair game for anyone to catch.
The girl missed her shot.
I jumped up. I leaned back a little, caught the ball, cushioned it, and landed. I looked over the girls around me, and threw the ball over two defenders, right into Erica’s hands.
She caught it on the run, pulled up, shot. A beautiful 3-pointer soared into the bucket.
We were now tied 30-30.
After that it moved fast. My team ended up inbounding the ball under our hoop with 9.5 seconds left. Coach used his final, one minute timeout to call us in. He told us not to panic. Coach Remlinger told us to wait for one of them to call, “Three seconds left!” before we shot, so we wouldn’t shoot on panic. Coach said not to worry, because, “If we don’t let them get the ball, we go into overtime.” He paused. “I am proud of you guys.”
The horn sounded. We went back on court and lined up for the inbound- it was our ‘stack’ play. I was five, Erica was four. Either of us could theoretically get the ball and shoot.
While the other team was lining up, I turned to Erica. “I’ll clear ‘em out. Your shot.”
Taylor hollered, “Break!”
I did exactly what I was supposed to, exactly what Rhiannon had done that day in practice. I faked right, putting all my weight that way, then shifted and ran left.
One of the girls on the other team followed Kaitlyn back. Two more followed Rhiannon out to the left. The last two followed me across the baseline, completely out of the play.
Taylor passed the ball in to Erica, left wide open under the hoop, and she shot. It left her hands just in time, just as the last second disappeared off the clock.
Everyone in the gym was completely silent as we watched the ball arc toward the hoop.
The buzzer went off.
The ball bounced lightly off the back of the rim, just once.
Then it fell in.
Silence turned into utter pandemonium. The entire gym, it seemed, was screaming and pounding on the bleachers and tearing out onto the court.
Just before the wave of insanity hit us, Erica looked over at me and grinned.
Mr. Farnan, you’re a genius.