Author Archives: Jeff LeJeune
Toward the end of my sixth and final grade year at Holy Trinity me and Mom go to Hanson for a visit and tour. Our escort introduces us and clarifies my importance by reminding them of my brother, Dirk McLachlin, who they probably remember from a few years back. I am proud of and love my brother and love even more being compared to him. It’s the only real place of belonging I’ve ever known.
The students were standing already before we walk in, probably doing some type of group work or something. When I’m being introduced to them, with my purple Lakers hat, black Michael Jordan t-shirt, and nifty 80’s-style stone-washed jeans on, Saved by the Bell style, I can tell they are genuinely excited to see me. I’m not sure why then, but I can guess that it probably has something to do with Dirk. And I’m cool with that. Some of the girls are smiling and gathered together, seemingly tugging on each other’s arms. I’m not sure what that means either, but I’m sure it has something to do with Dirk too. It must.
I allow the dream in and it feels good, like a nice gulp of milk with warm cookies. It is the beginning of something brand new, further evidence of the perfection of a place that, to this point, I’ve only known through hot gyms, hot popcorn, and an even hotter cheerleader.
The tour isn’t long but it doesn’t have to be. It only confirms what I have long known.
On the drive back home, which is twenty minutes long, Mom asks me if I like it. Are you kidding me? I say. Can I switch tomorrow?
The day passes, and all I want to do is call Dirk. I try probably ten times and never can get in touch with him. I can share my excitement with my buddy next door and it was good to talk to mom and dad about it earlier, but I really want to talk to big brother, my hero. The guy who has single handedly made me one of the coolest people on campus before I’m even a student there.
The next day I wake up and it’s back to reality. Means putting on the light blue shirt and navy pants of a Holy Trinity student. Means hanging out with my Crusader friends, the ones that don’t know Hanson, that don’t know Dirk, that obviously don’t know me.
There is a bit of a roller coaster, though. In math class I am faced with one last temptation to stay at Holy Trinity for at least one more year: AstroWorld.
Jeremy Coco looks at me when Coach Vanguard brings up the annual trip to Houston and the academic field trip we’d be taking next year. We look at each other.
Man, I say. I don’t want to miss that.
For the rest of class and for much of the rest of the day, I seriously consider the idea of having to miss this trip with my friends. My friends. As much of a roller coaster ride these years at Holy Trinity has been, I still love them for some reason. And there is definitely a tug on me to ask mom and dad to let me stay at Holy Trinity one more year. It’s driving me crazy at the dinner table.
Do I really want to give up such an incredible dream just for a trip to AstroWorld?
But I’ve never been to AstroWorld and it sounds really cool.
The ball is bouncing. The cart is racing up and down.
That’s when the phone rings.
And ten minutes later I’m no longer thinking about Astroworld. No more roller coaster.
I go to school the next day, thinking about me and Dirk’s conversation, wondering what in the heck I was thinking even considering staying another year at Holy Trinity. For AstroWorld? I was wanting to come back for that?
Already, I can feel the breakage. There is a disconnect, even though my experience at Hanson has only amounted to the tour a couple days ago and a bunch of hour-long basketball games. I go to school today and something inside me has already switched schools. It’s mostly the same ol’ same ol.’ Schoolmates talking down to me, poking fun. Coco isn’t even around to talk about AstroWorld. I want to ask them, Do you know that everyone at Hanson—which has a high school, like a real school—loves me? Do you even know my brother Dirk and the fact that his blood runs through my veins? We are family. He is an All-State basketball player and people at Hanson are saying I’m going to be better. Do you know these things?
The break doesn’t make me bitter. It isn’t sad in the least. It’s just a fact, like saying you’d prefer not to get your head slammed against the bus window if someone ever argued against it, that my days as a Crusader are already over. I am already a Hanson Tiger. The stripes are already branded.
I’m constantly bouncing the ball in the backyard, except from noon to three in the afternoons, of course, when it’s lockdown time at the McLachlin house. Naptime for Mom and Dad means absolutely no noise around the house, or else you’ll get it. You’ll hear a “son-of-a-bitch” from the room down our long hall, like a gutteral growl uttered from the bowels of hell down there, and you just freeze still hoping that they won’t come through the circles of Dante’s Inferno. Naptime will eventually become legendary when I am in high school, when my friends find out the hard way not to call early in the afternoons on weekends.
Noon-3 pm aside, basketball is a fundamental part of my life from early on. According to reports, I could bounce a ball forty consecutive times when I was just two years old. A feat courtesy of the direction of Mom, apparently. Pretty sure they weren’t napping then.
One of the highlights of my time at Holy Trinity is our victory over Hanson’s junior high team during my fifth grade year. Even better is my dad’s reaction to it. It is the first time we’ve beaten them, ever. Or at least it seems like ever, they usually beat us so bad. We have no business even keeping it close during this game either (even though they didn’t have their whole team—shhhhh), but in the end, we prevail.
Before I left the house for the game, my mom told me to go score ten points for her. I find out later that Dad, after I left with a friend for the game, wondered aloud why in the hell she would put that pressure on me. Not that my dad was a wimp. It’s just that our whole team, he said, rarely scored ten points as it is, what in the hell are you doing telling him to go score ten points for you?
I score fourteen points and we win something like 22-15. Dribble forty times as a two-year-old? Check. Score ten points in a game we shouldn’t even score ten as a team? Got it. No problem, Mom.
The friends I make at Hanson when I go to watch my brother’s basketball games save me, I think. My first shots with a future teammate are with Thad Stanley, the tall and lanky sixth grader and son of the head coach of Dirk’s high school team. I’ve watched him from the bleachers, out there on the court by himself at halftime, shooting. I’ve wanted so bad to go shoot with him, but I wonder if he’ll punch me in the chest like Peter did.
So I just sit there many times and my mom and Thad’s mom laugh to each other that I could be so bashful. How cute, they say.
I finally summon the nerve to do it one night in Iberville. I bring my ball that night and maybe that is the strength I need. I’ll have my own ball and I won’t have to bother him and his ball and maybe he won’t punch me in front of everybody. Still, always the polite young boy, I ask him if it’s okay if I shoot on his goal.
It’s not my goal, dude. Shoot wherever you want.
Not exactly as nice as I hoped he’d be and I feel even more stupid for asking him permission.
He asks me, You Dirk’s little brother, ain’t ya?
This is like a badge of honor. It’s my link to acceptance, my hope that I am indeed human. I let the feeling settle in. It feels good to be Dirk’s brother. It is the difference. My friends at Holy Trinity can’t appreciate him. My new friends at Hanson will. Because they worship him every Tuesday and Friday night.
And I’m the king’s little brother. Bound by blood. If Dirk’s cool, I must be cool too.
I take it. I never miss another halftime shooting opportunity again. Me and Thad in front of the thousands in attendance and the millions watching around the world.
I get pretty comfortable around some of the other junior high guys during Dirk’s last two years in high school. For two years my favorite nights are game nights. Game nights at Hanson mean I can expect a showering of complements for my own basketball talent. Having watched Dirk play, and then finding out I scored fourteen points in a win over their sixth grade team, and apparently hearing from Thad how good of a shooter I am, the older junior high boys from Hanson are all too ready to welcome me, The Man’s little brother, into their circle.
My parents are moving me in eighth grade, I tell them.
No! You need to come sooner than that. Get used to playing here. Maybe you can even be moved up to play with us on the eighth grade team.
Am I dreaming? There is such a disconnect inside me, a true line of separation that makes me feel like two different people entirely. I am like that basketball again, suspended in mid-air, on the one hand wondering how my friends at Holy Trinity can be so stupid that they are unable see what greatness is in their presence, and on the other hand wondering how long it will take for me to screw this up, for my new Hanson buddies to realize that I’m not that great of a guy, that I’m not as tough as Dirk, that I let dicks named Peter slap me around while I say nothing. How long? How long before they see the true me?
The ball bounces.
By the time we’re seniors, they say, you’ll be a sophomore, and Ryan will be a junior! With all of us together, there’s no doubt we’ll win state!
I blink again and wonder if this is really happening. I’m a hero and haven’t even fought in a battle yet. I owe that to Dirk. I can’t wait to wear the blue and gold and wear the same #21 Dirk wears. Hopefully they won’t retire his number like they do in the pros. Otherwise I’ll have to pick some stupid number.
By the time you’re in high school you’re going to be better than Dirk!
Get the hell outta here, I wanna say.
It isn’t all good. For some reason a guy named Kyle Neville calls me a computer nerd one night. Not sure why he’s picking on me. Maybe he’s just one of those guys who likes to tease little elementary kids. Or maybe he’s talked to my friends at Holy Trinity and found out who I really am. It won’t be long before he tells all my new Hanson friends about this little secret of mine. That I’m really a weakling inside. And I just can’t bear the thought of that.
Tough guy named Kyle aside, these nights are the beginning of my love affair with Hanson. So enamored am I by the idea of being a Tiger, I have Dirk, who’s a junior, give one of the senior cheerleaders a Sylvester the Cat Valentine’s Day card for me, one of those perforated ones that has the funny curved edges. She says she’s flattered. Flattered. She doesn’t know me from Adam, but she’s pretty and she’s got big boobs and she smiles big when she does the spirit fingers, and she says she’s flattered. It’s my first crush on a girl I have absolutely no shot at, a habit I will not soon break.
I melt at the thought of this gorgeous blonde cheerleader and wish I could be her little brother when I see him hugging her and sitting on her lap before basketball games. I’m so jealous of him. But then you wouldn’t have a chance at romance with her, I say. That’s true, I say. But he’s still sitting on her lap. And she probably smells good, I say. It is a tough call, whether or not to continue this wild pursuit of the girl across the gym floor. I grieve in disappointment when I realize that she will be graduated and gone by the time I become a Tiger myself, gone and away and out of my path of pursuit. I share this concern with my brother, who encourages me by saying even he doesn’t have a shot with her.
“I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared, and
because I’m the only person who will listen to me.”
I know I avoid trouble in school because I am twice as scared of my dad when I get home. Maybe that’s why I shy away from confrontation. A fight means trouble at school. And that means trouble at home.
Then again maybe I’m dead wrong about my dad. I know he wouldn’t want me going looking for trouble, but it’s also hard to think that he’d want me to be bullied in such a way. Maybe I should pop one or two of these guys that keep messing with me.
Yep, that’s what I’ll do. Next time.
My fear of confrontation even leaks into meaningless moments that involve no anger or danger of a fight at all. It just gets to be a general thing, that I’ll get teased if I admit to being different. One such night is when two of my friends, Randy and Gerald, are riding in the back seat of a car with me to one of my brother’s basketball games. The topic of kissing girls comes up, and Randy’s the first to claim that he’s kissed a girl. Fourth grade and he’s already been with a girl. When he’s finished his story, it’s either my turn or Gerald’s turn to spill a kissing story.
I, uncomfortable with the silence that is screaming GERALD’S THE ONLY REAL MAN IN THIS BACK SEAT NOT NAMED RANDY, quickly divulge my story lest my friends see right through me. Evidently, unbeknownst even to me, I kissed a girl a couple years ago.
Yeah, I kissed this girl once, I say. But it was nasty. She was so ugly she had three braids in her hair.
I’m not sure why I add this last point. Maybe I figure if I exaggerate the lie with something like that, they’d focus on that lie instead of the one that mattered.
What was her name? Randy asks me.
I don’t even remember it was so bad.
Where’s she from?
Some girl from Jeanerette. But I think her and her family moved since then.
Don’t see how you could’ve kissed somebody and you don’t even know her name.
That’s how much it didn’t matter, I say. What’s the big deal about kissing anyway? So I kissed a girl. Big deal.
What a stud. Not only have I, Andre McLachlin, kissed a girl, but I’ve been choosy enough to discard the kiss. Unsuitable for a man of my tastes. Like a boy version of The Most Interesting Man in the World. Once Randy stops drilling me with questions and appears satisfied with my responses, I feel like I am good enough for the present company. I am equal to the manhood Randy Goodle has shown me.
So. Two of us have spoken, and now it’s Gerald’s turn. I haven’t even thought of it. My lie isn’t about making Gerald feel bad. It’s about making me feel good. I never consider that Gerald might say what he does end up saying after a moment of silence, after Randy redirects his scope to him.
I’ve never kissed anybody, Gerald finally says. I wish I was like y’all.
No, you don’t, I think to myself. Gerald’s confession is so plain. It isn’t even a confession. It’s a statement. The grass is green. Trees have trunks. Boys have them and girls don’t. There isn’t any passion. No regret. The truth is that he doesn’t want to be like us. He doesn’t care one way or another if he’s kissed a girl or not. I can tell that in the plainness in his voice and that’s just how Gerald is.
I wasn’t even moderately honest. Three braids?
It’s okay, Gerald, I say. I know a lot of girls that would want to kiss you.
Not sure why I say that one. It seems like girls like him. Or do girls think boys are stupid? I think I heard Katie Landry say that one day a while back. For a long moment, I want to be Gerald. I feel sick in my skin. Had I only told the truth just now, as Gerald just did, I’d still be in the two/thirds majority as I am now. Minus the lie. Minus the weakness. Minus the inability to just be. Gerald had to listen to two of his friends share their wild escapades with women and he has no problem admitting, what would have been for me, an embarrassing distinction. I want his strength.
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“I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared, and
because I’m the only person who will listen to me.”
SEVEN YEARS EARLIER…
Attending Holy Trinity School through sixth grade has more ups than downs, but as a kid in the middle of it, it’s hard to see past the downs. I’m good in sports I guess and make the best grades, but I’m teased a lot. It probably stems from how sickly and gangly I am till my third grade year when my dad finally tells my mom he’s sick and tired of seeing me sick on the couch. Find another doctor, he says.
Maybe it’s the brown mop of hair on my head that makes my 48-pound frame look even skinnier.
My physical prowess notwithstanding, I am one of the two best students in the class, me and Katie Landry. I wonder if she gets as popular as I do from four to six every evening. The phone rings off the hook with the same classmate sometimes calling more than once. All of it is to get the answers for the homework. It’s easier that way, just to call me and have me give them the answers. I don’t want to, but I feel loyal to my friends, especially my baseball buddies or my tackle-the-man-with-the-football-at-recess-head-hunter buddies. It’s typical. I start out thinking it’s no big deal, a one-time thing, and then I feel like I have to be fair and bail out the next cheater, and before I know it I’m in the middle of a big mess not knowing how to get out of it or what to say that won’t make them want to take my head off at the next recess to mop the floors with.
The end of it, for the most part anyway, comes when my dad answers the phone one day. Dah, as I affectionately call him, is usually at work until five-thirty in the afternoons, so rarely is he around for much of the onslaught of calls. My mom has apparently apprised him of this little afternoon ritual, though, and on an afternoon that he happens to be home early, he lights into one of my friends. Of course, it’s a friend I like.
Yeah, he’s here, he says, and you can’t talk to him. Andre will do his work. You do your work.
I cringe at the brute force my friend must be hearing through the phone line. It isn’t Friday, either. I’ll have to face him and the rest of my friends tomorrow. I run my hand through my hair and look at my skinny wrists.
Who was it, Dah?
I don’t know, he says, and now I’m wondering why in the hell he’s angry with me. Now don’t you let me hear you helping those mooches again, you hear me?
There is never a need to answer that question. It’s rhetorical. I know now that I will never have to worry about my classmates bothering me like that again. I also anticipate tomorrow’s onslaught.
Dah’s admirable rescue still does nothing to fix my powerlessness in the face of conflict. In fourth grade when I tap fifth grader Peter Reinhart on the shoulder, telling him good game after a kickball contest during P. E. as a thank you, Peter drives his open wrist into my chest. I cry, because I’m a big crybaby sometimes, maybe because I’m skinny with a big head, but I’m not a tattler, and I hold the pain and embarrassment in for a while until Mr. Munchak approaches me.
Andre, is there something wrong?
Andre, you know it’s wrong to lie. Now tell me the truth.
Yes, sir. Peter punched me and it hurts a little bit. But not that much. It’s not that big a deal.
Does it hurt?
A little, but please, Mr. Munchak, please don’t go to Peter with this.
Even though Peter is a dick, I like him. I have this strange fascination with him. All the girls like him, his hair is cool, and he’s better than me in basketball. I guess he’s the rebel I wish I could be sometimes, and it mortifies me to think that he’ll know I’ve tattled on him.
I think Mr. Munchak is wrong for confronting Peter. I’ve asked him not to; seems like I should have that right. It is my chest, after all. Now I’m really in for it. I may die at recess tomorrow.
Mr. Munchak calls me to the door between the fourth and fifth grade classrooms. Peter is with him. I’m confused. From the looks of Mr. Munchak’s face, it looks like he has taken Peter’s side.
Andre, did you hit Peter first?
I can’t believe it. How unfair is this. All I did out there was tap him on the shoulder and tell him good game. I know I should tell Mr. Munchak the truth but I don’t. Maybe I’m just disgusted with myself for being unable to do what I should have done right there on the spot in the first place when Peter hit me. I also know what the truth might mean for me at the next recess if I come clean. And since I know there’s no way I want to get in trouble for fighting at school, I think, what the hell.
Yes, sir, I say, looking away.
Mr. Munchak doesn’t tell me it’s wrong to lie this time.
I let it go. It’s not worth it. It hurts, sure, but Peter’s the bigger, cooler bad-ass everybody worships, and I already have enough to deal with without alienating myself from Peter Reinhart. I’d be considered even more of a wimp than I already am. Nope, just shut your mouth and wish you’d knocked his head off earlier.
Swear things’ll be different next time.
“When you’re close, you can feel that force pulling you, and you can use that force to get across. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. It’s inexplicable, mystical, these twin forces, these contradictory energies…. I’ve spent much of my life seeking the one, fighting the other, and sometimes I’ve been stuck, suspended, bounced like a tennis ball between the two.” ~Andre Agassi, Open
I’m sitting with our forward Chad Alleman at the top of the stands, overlooking the gym floor. It’s about 3:30, and it’s here. Not one fan is in the stands, and yet the energy, the smell of it all, is here, like a basketball in mid-flight back to your hand on the dribble. It’s not touching, but it is, because you know it will be.
We did this very thing before the Buchanan game and decided to copy ourselves. No sense in changing what works. So we run through the dialogue we originally said just four days ago.
You know, it’s funny, I say, that after all we’ve been through, all the games, it could all end tonight.
Don’t think like that.
No, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a fear that’s going to hurt. But just thinking about the finality of it all…
Exactly, I say. Like brushing your teeth for the last time. There will only be one final buzzer.
It’s five-thirty. An hour and a half away. Coach Hillman has scheduled a pep rally for the fans but it’s awkward from the start. Hardly anyone shows and me and Alleman look at each other and know what each other is thinking. We don’t need a pep rally tonight. Some fires burn without gasoline.
Then I wonder if I really mean it. I suddenly wish the game was tomorrow.
We’re shooting, staying loose before we have to go into the locker room for our pregame routines. Some song by the rap group Bone is playing over and over again, and when finally someone turns it off, the few early fans there are happy. They are not happy, however, when the Airline team walks into the gym. Apparently, as we’d find out later, they are huge and too athletic looking for us to beat. That’s what our fans would think, anyway. The only thing I could think of though was one player in particular: Matthew Johnson, the player coach said could really shoot and the name I recognized but couldn’t wrap my mind around at the time. Now I know the face attached to that name. He’s a guy I went to Boys State with last summer.
Me and Matthew talk and laugh at the fact that both of our coaches just yesterday warned his players about us yet neither one of us could link a face to the familiar name. He tells me it was because he never could get my last name down at camp. I laugh. I tell him I’ve simply forgotten about him. He laughs back. We wish each other well. And promise to talk after the game.
I suspect both of us thinks he will be the victor.
It’s six-fifteen. We’re in the locker room and the lights are out and we’re pacing like we always do. Prowling, a bunch of hungry tigers. Coach comes in and reviews the game plan.
They’re good, he says. They’re quick. They press the whole game. They will try to wear us down. We’ll have to try to slow down the tempo of the game. If we can get ahead three or four points with the basketball, we’re going to spread them out and try to make them play us man-to-man. The key to the game is breaking the press, keeping them off the boards and praying we don’t get in foul trouble.
I don’t like the sound of praying to God for things like that.
If we lose one of you early to fouls, he says, we’re in deep trouble.
Great. No Plan B, huh, Coach?
He says, I’m very proud of this group and all you’ve accomplished. You’ve had a great career. Go play your last home game and have fun.
It sounds like a death sentence. I don’t think Coach thinks we can win. Something inside me tells me he’s right. And that part wants him to be right.
But something else tells me I don’t want it to end tonight. We’ve got them at home.
It arrives. Finally. The place is packed and they’ve taped to the wall above the stands a huge sign that reads WE ARE HMS. Damn right, I think, as we run out for warm-ups.
There is one thing we don’t do during warm-ups, and that’s sneak any peeks at the other team. It’s not even something I realize at the time. It’s just always been our way. Quiet and focused before the game, worried about us and this team and this moment. Nothing else. Tonight is no different.
But apparently even more fans are sneaking peaks. And thinking that there’s no way we win tonight.
We don’t do much to deter their fears in the first half. Airline is everything Coach said they were, quick and talented. And Coach’s prayers weren’t answered either. For the second consecutive playoff game I pick up two early fouls. I look at Coach and he has a dejected look on his face. It’s decision time.
Normally he would take me out of the game to avoid picking up a third foul in the first half, much more so in the first quarter. I am watching him to see his reaction and I know that he is agonizing over this decision. Leave me in and risk a third foul. Take me out and risk being blown out of the gym before the second quarter even starts.
I think I know by the mere fact that he hesitates that he’s going to choose the former. He never hesitates and didn’t hesitate to substitute for me in the first round against Buchanan. Tonight the hesitation is permanent. He’s going to trust that I can play without picking up that third foul.
His gamble pays off. I don’t foul again the rest of the night.
My careful play and ten first half points notwithstanding, Airline builds a 26-16 lead, based largely on Johnson’s shooting and Kent Prather’s play inside. But a cruel twist of fate bites our opponent when Prather is charged with his third foul. Like Coach Hillman, their coach had a similar decision to make earlier in the game when Prather picked up his second foul. The gable doesn’t pay off for Airline. A third foul means no decision. The coach has to pull him midway through the second quarter.
We have Chad to thank for the benching of Airline’s All-State post man. Coach talked to him yesterday at practice and again tonight before the game that if we could get their big man in foul trouble, we could offset their distinct athletic advantage. Chad has taken that to heart. Using an array of pump fakes and a savvy use of the pivot foot, Chad pinned those three fouls on their star and gave us hope. Gave us life. We go into the locker room down 45-35, but the last half of the second quarter shows us we can play with these guys. Especially at home.
Our defense is stifling in the second half. Outgunned in the first half with superior quickness, Coach rolls the dice in the second half and switches us to a 2-3 zone. The gamble is leaving their three-point shooters, especially Johnson, open for target practice. Coach tells us that we are going to have to play the zone better than we ever have, quicker and more alert than we ever have, if we have any chance of shutting down their shooters. Once again the gamble pays off. We are a machine on the defensive end, holding the high-powered Lions to just 27 points in the second half.
We cut their lead to 2 and keep it between 2 and 5 for the first ten minutes of the second half. It’s a ballgame. No blowout tonight. Even when Prather re-enters the game the momentum has shifted. The gym is rocking with electricity.
But we can never get over the hump, it seems. We’ll cut it to 2 but then they push it back out to 4, or 6, we cut it back to 3, they go back up by 5, we cut it to 2 again, and then, finally, down to 1. A single point separates us. The team with no shot is at the doorstep of glory. A defensive stop here and we take the ball with a chance for the lead.
That’s when it happens. Maybe two of the biggest possessions and shots of my career. We get the stop, we break past them, I get the pass from T. J., shot goes up…nothing but net. The crowd erupts. We lead. We stop them again. We break again. Another pass up the court from T. J. Same spot on the floor. I let ‘er rip. Splash. Nothing but net again. Just like that we lead 68-63, and the roof on the old Hanson gym is about to come down.
Our charge ends soon after. Airline hasn’t won forty straight district games for nothing. They’re not the defending 2A state champions because they quiver in the face of adversity. The Lions stay true to their name over the next few minutes with a 9-3 run that puts them up again by 1. 72-71 with just under two minutes to play.
We fail to score on our next possession as the clock continues its methodical meltdown. They have the ball and the lead. And still way more talent than us.
But we’re at home. And crazy things happen in this gym. They talk about Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium but I swear there are ghosts here that play on our side in games like this.
Ghosts or not, our defense scurries desperately as the Lions play keep away with under a minute to play. They are inviting the intentional foul to stop the clock now, but apparently we aren’t playing the odds. We’re taking a page from our riverboat gambling head coach on this night. The ball goes to the baseline and we trap the ball-handler with naked aggression. T. J. once again comes up with a huge play, stealing the ball and getting the ball to me at around half-court. We have a 3-on-2 advantage, and I have to make a decision. Isaac, who has come up huge just like we needed him to this game, is practically begging for the ball.
Athletically, he is the better option. And if I have to make the play nine more times I’d go to him every time.
But for this one time I have other plans. I know you’re a talented one, young fella, but this one’s going to my man Gus. He’s a senior like me. We’re either going to win it or lose it with him.
I don’t know how Gus is able to catch my slightly errant pass, avoid a traveling violation, and score the goal with Johnson swarmed all over him. Maybe it’s those ghosts. No matter the hows and whys of the miraculous play, it is a successful play nonetheless. Gus scores the biggest points of his career and gives us a lead we would not relinquish.
Final score: 75-72. When the final buzzer goes off, I just stand there and point to the ceiling. To God. I don’t normally do this. I think it’s silly when athletes thank God for their victories. But at this moment, all the hours of hard work and pain I put in last summer come rushing back to me. I believe he has blessed me. I believe he has blessed this team. This little team of seniors and a couple sophomores off the bench has beaten one of the most powerful teams in the state. It’s something you dream of when you watch Hoosiers and Rocky, when you wish with all your might that you could have an experience remotely close to that.
In tomorrow’s paper our beloved beat writer will write that those in the neighborhood may have heard a seismic boom right around eight-thirty when Hanson High pulled off maybe the most unlikely upset in school history. Yes, the roar can probably be heard a good ways in the neighborhood. Is it a seismic boom? Is it a chance freak of nature? Nah, not even close. It is something much more powerful, something much more divine and mystical. A community of great people showering each other with love after witnessing a miracle. A group of boys who believe in each other and love each other more than the very game they play.
The crowd swarms us. We are bombarded with hugs and congratulations. We are winners. We are heroes. I have never understood what it means to cry tears of joy. I’ve always teased people who claim to be crying for joy. But now I understand. Now I understand that I’ve been wrong. I feel the same deep joy those people I’ve made fun of have felt. For the rest of my life I will understand.
I hug Coach Deitz and thank him for forgiving me for quitting the football team last summer.
I hug my girlfriend Kelly. And, of course, Holly Gale.
Victory makes me crazy, like clinically. We are back in the locker room and I suddenly remember a promise I made to someone. I decide to find my Boys State buddy to wish him a good game but I find out that they have already boarded the bus. Crazy: I walk out to their bus to meet him. Yep, clinical. There is no one around, just that lonely bus with a bunch of angry basketball players and here I am still in my gold uniform walking toward them. I realize my stupidity—and audaciousness—when Matthew meets me near the bus outside. He looks back at the bus and gives me a knowing look and I understand. Maybe not the best idea to go find him in there. We hug and wish each other well.
I’m riding home with my brother and the joy in the air is tangible. He tells me about the pregame write-up in the paper, how Coach sounded as confident (or not) in it as he did before the game in the locker room, and that Airline’s coach didn’t appear to be worried in the least. No concerns at all about a little country town team that hadn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs since my brother himself played a decade ago. And to tell the truth, he really had no reason to be concerned. Like Dirk says, we play those guys ten times, they beat us nine. No doubt about it. He’s right. But tonight was that one night, that one game where all the stars aligned and all the ghosts came to the party. Heart and hustle was too much for talent and athleticism on this night.
It is truly a miracle.
We arrive home late and I try to get out of the truck. I buckle under the pain of the cramps. I’ve never had cramps. I’ve done what the old cliché says, I’ve literally left it all out on the court. Dirk has to carry me into the house, where I drink lots of fluids and don’t get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning.
What’s new, I think. I don’t sleep anyway. But in a few hours I’ll be brushing my teeth again, still a Hanson Tiger basketball player.