I roll down the car window. It’s hot. The engine murmurs steadily. I can feel my stomach flipping as we near Fullor. The basketball courts loom ahead, all empty but one. The two-door Toyota stops. Amy jumps out quickly. I take my time, slowly stepping out onto the scorched cracked blacktop. I can feel the heat through my black sandals. We wave good-bye, and I force a smile. Inside I am whimpering.
Amy jogs over in her running shoes, short brown hair tied back. A blue sweatshirt casually blends into relatively baggy jeans. I wobble after her, my shoes slowing me down. I had curled my hair the night before. It lay like a doll’s. Big hoops dangle from my ears, giving way to a silver choker necklace. It was all planned out the night before. The clothes. I wanted to make a good first impression. Tight jeans match with my tank. It reads “Princess.”
We stop in front of the coach. He frowns at me, observing my ensemble. I can feel my face turn red. I didn’t know they would all be boys. Sixteen boys. Sixteen pairs of eyes. Sixteen smirks.
We need to run a warm-up lap around the bare field. The boys gradually pass me. Sympathetically, Amy matches my slow pace. I stare longingly in the direction of home, but am forced to turn a corner and head for the sneering crowd instead. A ball rolls out toward me, slowly. I pick it up. What am I doing here? Who am I trying to fool? Being on a team seemed like a great idea two weeks ago when I applied. But now, as I look around me . . . I just don’t belong . . . I close my eyes, in hope that I can just wake up from this bad dream . . . They open, looking down. I hold in my hands a basketball. I drop it, watching it roll away. Slowly, I turn to run.
We both slip on the gravel. The boys make no attempt to muffle a loud laugh. I know they’re laughing at me. Amy goes to Felton Junior High. Fullor and Felton are like brothers. The two schools end in the same high school. They accept Amy as one of them. I am the outsider at Remdon Private Middle School.
I arrive last, panting loudly. Everybody stares at me, annoyed. I held back the group. Coach says something about an all-star team. “The judges will choose the two best players . . . It’s in your hands . . . Only those who really want it . . .” I am not listening. A boy with mousy brown hair and large front teeth whispers something to his friend. Distinctly I can make out the words “pathetic” and “blondie.” They snicker, causing the coach to clear his throat loudly in their direction. I stare down at my feet. The private whimpers inside of me are threatening to reveal themselves to the world. The only pathetic blond here is me.
I feel my forehead. It seems fine. I stand still and close my eyes, searching every inch of my body for any sign of pain or illness. If I concentrate really hard, I can almost feel some pressure in my head . . . It’s useless. Unfortunately, it seems I’m in perfect health, and basketball practice starts in fifteen minutes.
I don’t know if it is the boys’ taunts or really just my lack of ability that is causing me to miss. Every shot. Insults are murmured constantly in my direction, loud enough for me to hear, yet concealed from the coach. Things like “princess” and “loser.” I don’t dare tell him, for fear of what the rest might do to me. It doesn’t make the situation any easier to accept, that apart from Amy, I am the oldest.
No matter how much older I am than the boys, I’m still too young to have a nervous breakdown, but I fear it is edging close. Sobs echo throughout the inside of my head. My life is turning into a living nightmare. Amy gave up trying to convince me to ignore them. Ignore them? How can I just ignore them? Easy for her to say; feet don’t stick out in attempts to trip her as she walks by. Every little mistake of hers is forgotten automatically. Mine are as good as posted for public viewing.
Shoot . . . miss. Shoot . . . miss. Shoot . . . miss.
The boy with the big teeth goes by: C.J. Every now and then I make a shot. Nobody notices.
C.J. says he’ll give me a dollar for every shot I make. He coughs when I’m about to shoot and makes attempts to trip me when Coach isn’t looking. So why don’t I just leave? I thought about it. It’s too late. If I go now, C.J. will think he defeated me. I feel like Hamlet. To leave or not to leave . . . I’m not the quiet accepting type. I’m proud. Perhaps too proud. I shout back the first insults that come into my head. C.J. and his followers can top anything I say. I don’t care what the coach thinks, either. I don’t think he even notices anything is wrong. He’s far too ignorant and absorbed in his own little world.
C.J. says something about my school. I throw the ball so hard at him, he falls over backward. Coach sees this as an accident. With their “chief” gone for the day, the boys don’t seem to find any pleasure in making my life miserable. Only a fraction continue to taunt me. Today I made my first three-pointer.
I am wearing sports pants today. My hair is tied in a ponytail and I have no jewelry. I am not the last chosen for the team today, and say nothing to C.J. He remains silent as well. I’m beginning to understand why it was so hard to move and why I wasn’t fast enough . . .
There is tension in the air. Our game is coming up. The weather took a sharp turn from blazing sun to icy rain. We have only one real game before two all-stars are chosen. Unfortunately, C.J. doesn’t cease screaming things at me. It doesn’t seem to bother me as much anymore.
Coach says we can’t go home until we finish ten layups. One by one my teammates leave. Ten people left . . . seven . . . five . . . three . . . and then I’m alone. Coach says I don’t have to finish them. I refuse to leave. I pick up the ball and throw it continuously at the net.
That night in bed I dreamed of nothing but the twenty layups that I made.
The whistle blows and the ball is in the air. It shoots from team to team. It looks fun from the bench. That’s where I am and have been for three-quarters of the game. Coach forgot about me. He and the other judges are picking two all-stars from the teams. Fifteen minutes left in the game. Ten minutes. Five . . . Suddenly C.J. crashes into the wall. He is bleeding. I am the only replacement. The score is 44 to 44. Three minutes left. I’m in.
There are two seconds on the clock, and the score remains a tie. A bulky boy from the opposing team smashes into me. I am fouled.
I step to the foul line. Raindrops fall silently around me. The court blurs slightly. Everything slows down, almost as if the world were paused for that brief second of time. I hold in my hands a basketball. And then it’s not the crowd of laughing boys . . . it’s not the annoyed looks . . . it’s not the insults, and the mockery . . . it’s just me and the ball. Nobody else is there. There is nobody in the world but me and my foul shot. The judges are watching me . . . somewhere . . . It is all so simple. Tomorrow I will be an all-star. I aim for the basket and shoot.