There must have been forty of us, maybe fifty, kids of all shapes and sizes, crammed into that stuffy gym after class, the place reeking of sweat and dirty socks and farts, chattering, fidgeting, roughhousing. It was chaos on that Monday afternoon at three-forty-five, the first day of basketball tryouts, all of us vying for only eleven spots on the varsity team. Some clearly wouldn’t make it, some clearly would. And the rest, like me, fell somewhere in-between.
I wanted this. I really wanted this. I had to be on this basketball team. After all, I was a legacy. My dad had been on this basketball team, way back when, when the high school was down by the armory, the stoic yellow brick building on the other end of Winchester Avenue where every so often they would host professional wrestling. I would see my dad’s team picture hanging on the wall in his office whenever I stopped by on my walk home from school to grab a cold can of pop out of his mini fridge and a handful of jelly beans from his candy bowl, that grainy black-and-white photo that looked like it had been taken a hundred years ago, guys with buzz cuts and baggy jerseys and canvas Chuck Taylors, staring straight ahead, expressionless, a sheet of poster board in front simply proclaiming “State Champs, 1965–66.”
That team had made history, the first team from this sleepy little town to win the state title, beating out all the other schools from all the other parts of the state, even those powerhouses from Lexington and Louisville. Folks still talked about that team and its starting lineup, a who’s who of local legends: “Too Slow” Hank Johnston, “Captain” Ralph Felton, Maximillian “Lefty” Wannamaker, Duke “Blue” Durham and Preston “The Giant” Burgher, all seven feet and two hundred and fifty pounds of him. That team was something special alright, not only winning the first state championship, but going on to win four in a row!
Ever since then, every kid who grew up around here dreamed of being on this basketball team, of wearing the maroon and white uniform, and the wool letterman jacket with the thick block letter stitched on the front, of sauntering onto the gym floor on Fridays for pep rallies, the band playing our fight song, the cheerleaders calling out your name, of being a big man on campus. There were no more envied and respected guys at school than the members of the varsity basketball team. If Coach picked you, you were set. Your life changed forever. You were a member of this basketball team — forever.
I had been training all summer for this very day, had it circled on my calendar. I knew I had my work cut out for me. It wouldn’t be easy. I was only a ninth grader, and Coach hardly ever picked ninth graders for the varsity team. But the school was getting rid of the junior varsity team, something about not having enough money in the budget, and I didn’t want to play in the church league. My dream, like everyone else’s dream, was to be on this varsity basketball team, and I could do it — I knew I could. I would just need to train. And that was what I did.
My dad put up a goal out back of our house in the driveway, and I was there every day, starting, or finishing, sometimes both, beneath the dim yellowish glow of the lone street light in the alley, even in the rain (although my mom made me come in if it was lightning). My buddies would stop over but it was mostly just me, practicing my dribbling, my shooting, my ball handling, layups and jumpers and free throws, my pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, my post-up, my crossover, driving past invisible defenders, swishing in the game-winning last second bucket.
When my dad got home in the evening, I would challenge him to a game of “Twenty-One” or “H-O-R-S-E” or “O-U-T” — anything so that I could show off my progress. When I wasn’t playing outside, I’d be inside flipping the basketball above my head, flicking my wrist to perfect the backspin for my shot, flipping, flipping, flipping the ball up, falling into my hand, and flipping it back up. It drove my mom nuts. She’d say, “no balls in the house — I’m serious!” She used that voice of hers she only used when she was serious, so I knew she meant it. I wound up with calluses on my fingertips, the skin having split and cracked and then toughened under the repetition, but I didn’t mind it any.
It wasn’t just basketball skills I was working on. I built up my conditioning too. I would run around the park, on the crushed limestone walking track. The first time, I was barely able to make it halfway on the mile oval, huffing and puffing and queasy to my stomach like I was about to die. Yet by the end of the summer, I could go around three times straight without stopping, no problem. I also ran wind sprints, to increase my speed, across the street in the parking lot of the phone company after they were done for the day, when the last of the cars and trucks had gone, as fast as I could, timing myself on the black plastic watch my Uncle PJ had given me for Christmas. And for agility, I set up an obstacle course in the yard with garbage cans and empty boxes, my bike, my sister’s bike, whatever I could find, darting in and around, tripping over my own feet until I got the hang of it. Quick as a cat, I would tell myself — quick as a freakin’ cat!
I did all of this training, all summer long, without any breaks, without any days off. When we went to visit my grandparents in Florida for two weeks in July, I found a rusted hoop with no net in this abandoned playground by their neighborhood, weeds and dandelion greens growing up in stray clumps through the cracks in the concrete, and I jogged on the beach in the morning before the heat became too stifling. In the evenings after dinner I would sit on the front stoop and flip the ball up above my head until it was time for bed.
Once school started in the fall, and the tryouts sheet went up on the bulletin board outside the PE office the third Monday in September, I was ready. I was the first to sign my name — big and bold, my middle initial included. And today I was the first changed into my shorts and t-shirt, and brand new Nike leather high tops that I bought with my grass cutting money. And now I was the first standing at attention, serious as could be but excited to the point where I could burst apart at the seams, eager to get this going (to get this going already!), to begin these tryouts and make this team, along with forty or fifty other kids, all of us wanting the same thing.
But tryouts, at least on this first day, were not what I had expected. There was no shooting. There were no drills. There weren’t even any basketballs, at least none out. The basketballs stayed stacked on the double-decker metal cart against the side wall beside the tumbling mats and thick braided climbing rope. No, all we did this first day of tryouts was run — up and back, up and back, the full length of the court. “Suicide drills” they called them, or just plain “suicides” because I reckoned running them made you want to kill yourself.
We lined up along the baseline, in two rows since there were so many of us, and when the assistant coach, a scrawny fellow who didn’t much look like he had ever played any ball, blew his whistle with a shrill, off I went with the first group, sprinting to the foul line and reaching down to slap it, then pivoting and racing back to the baseline and slapping that, then spinning around and running to the center court line, slapping that, and back to the baseline, slapping that line again, and back around and on past the center court line to the opposite foul line, slapping that, then all the way back to the baseline, slapping that line, and finally clear across to the other baseline, one last slap, and a mad scramble to the baseline where we had started, giving it my all, storming through like it was the finish line of a fifty-yard dash. When the last guy in our group came stumbling across, the assistant coach blew his whistle and the next group of guys stepped up to the baseline, and with another blow, off they went, the same as we had, the gym thundering with the sounds of trampling feet and squeaky sneakers and slaps on the hardwood court.
I was choking and coughing, struggling to catch my breath, everyone was, bent over, hands on hips or knees, red-faced and gasping. What a sorry lot we were, and Coach let us know, yelling at us from midway up in the bleachers where he sat taking notes into a clipboard he cradled under his arm. He also warned us to be ready because as soon as this second group finished, we were up again. And again. And again. On and on and on like that, for the entire first day of tryouts. All we did was run suicides, so many suicides I lost track of how many exactly — and that was probably a good thing.
Guys were dropping like flies. One kid puked on the court, yellow and clumpy, probably mac and cheese from the cafeteria at lunch only it smelled a heck of a lot worse, and did that ever set Coach off. He came rumbling out of the bleachers, hollering and cussing. He ordered the team manger to bring out a mop and bucket from the janitor’s closet, and then made the kid who puked clean up his own vomit, to set an example, letting us know that if anyone else had the urge to throw up they had best not do so on “my goddamn court!” Once things ramped up again, guys were rushing out the door of the gym to puke in the parking lot, two-, three-, four- or five-at-a-time, and then staggering back in to finish their suicide. It was some sight alright, nothing I had ever seen.
At the end of this first day, in the locker room changing to go home, guys were fuming, cursing Coach left and right, out of earshot of Coach of course, but still, all sorts of terrible things. Some guys vowed that they were done with this “bullshit,” that they weren’t coming back, not in a million, trillion years, griping that if they wanted to run all day they would join the track team. Other guys vowed to never have PE class with Coach, said they would get their mothers or doctors to write them notes, or they would transfer schools or drop out of school altogether. One kid was so upset he picked up a light bulb he found on the floor and flung it as hard as he could against a row of lockers near where I was standing, shards of glass like miniature daggers exploding around me.
And yet, for all this complaining, and there was a lot of complaining, there was another group of guys, guys who had played for Coach last year, who were much more calm and composed, assuring us that this had been nothing compared to a “real practice,” telling us how Coach was actually taking it easy on us. Hearing that made something inside of me drop and sink, because if this had been Coach taking it easy on us, I could not imagine how tough a “real practice” would be. Maybe I hadn’t trained enough, and I was beginning to doubt that I had, if this first day of tryouts, and how I felt afterwards, were any indication. But I wasn’t going to quit either, no way. It was only the first day — and my mom told me that first days for anything were usually the toughest.
That night, at home, after dinner, after shooting free throws on the hoop in the driveway, and after flipping the ball above my head inside, right before I went to bed, I got down on my knees and prayed, like I always did, like I had been praying all summer. I prayed for God to help me make the team, because that was the only thing I wanted, that was the only thing I would ever want. I promised God I would never ask for anything else as long as I lived, if I could only make the team. After this first day of tryouts, I suspected I was going to have to do a lot of praying.
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This is an excerpt from the novella, Tryouts, available March 15 from Amazon, Kindle Unlimited or order from your favorite independent bookstore (ISBN: 978–1–7375801–3–3).