I emerged from the tunnel connecting the locker room and the court with the rest of my teammates. Coach had instructed us not to pay too much attention to the hype and steady flow of embellished rumors regarding this game but it was rather difficult. It was our home opener and our very first opponent was arguably the best assembled squad in the league. They made some serious off-season moves which put them in considerable favor to win it all this year. But their road to possible stardom began with us.
As we made our way past the bench and onto the court for our pre-game warm up, I couldn’t prevent myself from embracing the atmosphere. The place was packed, the lights were bright and the noise was loud. Thousands of chanting fans were already screaming the names of players on our team and the game hadn’t even begun yet. A pulsating sea of navy blue and red seemed to cause the building to feel like it was moving.
I tried to find Audrey within the wave of people but I didn’t see her. Guests of the team usually sat behind the bench but as only a second year player, I had to pay my dues before earning such a privilege. I continued to look over at her section but still couldn’t see her. I hope she was able to make it on time. I could imagine traffic being a nightmare for this game.
The buzz in the crowd continued as our shoot around and stretches came to an end. During the pre-game routine, our team captain and MVP of last year’s championship exchanged a hand shake and hug with one of his good friends, another former MVP, on the other team. I didn’t know that they knew each other so well. It was kind of eerie to see our leader fraternizing with the enemy but great to see good sportsmanship between two of the league’s most fierce competitors.
A horn sounded to signal that it was time for the introductions of the starting line-up. The crowd showered the opposing bench’s area with their nastiest boos and heckles. Our crowd really took their sports teams seriously. They were always there to have our back, show us support and expected nothing short of perfection from us in return. So far we had delivered, giving them back-to-back championship seasons the past two years. Regardless of the mini all-star team that our opposition had put together, in their minds we were still the team to beat.
As the lights went dark for our introductions, the crowd erupted with praise. They cheered and clapped all throughout the video being played that recapped their team’s championship run last year. I watched it intently, still in awe, still feeling like a first year rookie. Last season seemed like a dream that you had during an afternoon nap. It went by so quickly, I couldn’t pick out any details other than the playoffs. I, personally, had spent the postseason securely fixed upon the bench. Although a little frustrated I understood. We had enough talent on our team to guide us to the top and I would have probably simply gotten in the way.
Free agency and contract negotiations gone bad had removed some of that talent that aided us in capturing those two championships. Well only one for me because I hadn’t been drafted yet when they won the first one. The announcer introduced our starting line-up and the crowd called out each and every player’s name right along with him. Even though I knew that I probably wouldn’t play tonight, given who our opponent was, I could still feel some of the electricity in the air. It was certainly game time.
The tip-off started the game and we were under way. Everyone’s eyes in the building were fixated on the court. Not one person had their attention elsewhere even the vendors going up and down the aisles providing food & beer to everyone. Every basket made, every pass, even every dribble of the ball had the building’s full attention. I looked over at the section where Audrey was supposed to be sitting again but didn’t see her. I did see an empty seat where she should be however.
I kind of felt a little relieved to see no one sitting there. I knew I wasn’t going to play and having her come to another game to see me sit on the bench was just downright embarrassing. I sometimes wondered why she was even with me. She was a wonderful girl and normally any female would go crazy about dating a professional ball player but I wasn’t anything more than a professional bench warmer. But for whatever reason she stayed with me and I was more than thankful.
Before I knew it the first quarter was over and we were down by seven. Not a bad start against a team who was expected to score the most points this season. The second quarter began and almost immediately our captain took over the game. He put together a series of offensive attacks to give us the lead. The crowd was ecstatic. They chanted his name as if their lives depended on it.
Now up by three, our starting point guard brought the ball up the court and dribbled around a screen set by the center. He ran into a defender and swung the ball over to our cutting captain who had the hot hand. He caught it in stride and without taking a dribble took to the air for what looked to be a furious finish. But he collided with their power forward and both players fall out of the air with the bulky forward crumbling on top of our captain.
A loud “Oohhh” came from the crowd which was followed by everyone holding their breath hoping that he would get back up. But he didn’t. He laid on the wooden court clutching his knee in agony. The trainer and team doctor rushed out to examine him. After a couple of moments, they helped him up and aided him as he limped off of the court. The building was almost in complete silence. It felt like the air had been sucked out by a giant vacuum. They sat our captain down and he continued to grab at his knee. By the look of anguish on his face it didn’t look like he was going to re-enter the game.
Coach made the necessary substitution and put in our second shooting guard to replace the captain. Eventually the team doctor had him removed from the bench and taken into the locker room so they could continue to work on him. Things went from bad to worse as we not only lost the lead but our deficit grew as the game neared halftime. As hard as our team was trying out there, they couldn’t put a dent into the lead that the opposition had put up against us. As time expired indicating the end of the first half and the other team were giving each other high fives and pats on the back, we were down by fifteen.
We slowly filled in to the locker room, many of us with our heads down not really ready to listen to Coach’s halftime speech. It wasn’t going to be good. Coach was the last one to enter and stood in the middle of the room. What he was said wasn’t as bad as many of us expected. He still seemed positive despite our hefty deficit. Basically he told us that the captain’s situation didn’t look very good and it was doubtful that he would he return in the second half. I bet the media is eating this news up right about now. I felt bad for our team but I felt even worse for our dedicated fans.
They surely deserved better than the performance that they were receiving tonight. I know the coach seemed surprisingly optimistic about the second half but I thought different. The morale of the team wasn’t that much better by the time the second half begun. We were still at a lost for answers on how to contain so many scorers at once.
One unorthodox solution came about a minute and a half into the third quarter. Our frustrations officially brimmed over when one of our forwards got into a skirmish with their lead rebounder. Somehow they became entangled while going for a loose ball and what resulted was a short shoving contest. There was no real winner as both were given technical fouls. That wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t continue to shout at each other. This prompted the referee to calmly eject both players.
Although they were now down a decent scorer and great defender, we were without yet another player. Our forward stormed off of the court with the crowd trying to boo the ref out of the building and probably the city. Coach looked down the bench that I had been consistently keeping at a reasonable tropical temperature. Our team wasn’t very deep due to the offseason moves and with a few of my teammates already being sidelined with injuries, it was looking pretty bleak.
I turned to look to see whether or not Audrey had finally made her way to the arena. To my delight, her pretty brown eyes were staring right back at me. They were accompanied by her wonderful smile. I couldn’t help but smile too now seeing her. She waved over at me which made me feel a little better despite how the game was turning out. I wanted to wave back but I had already been reprimanded for that last season about maintaining a sense of professionalism. I simply continued to smile back at her until I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It snapped me out of my Audrey-daze and I turned around to see who it was. It was one of my teammates who usually rode the bench along with me. He was pointing at the Coach who was beckoning me over to him. Quite confused I hesitantly made my way to him.
“You’re going in”
Initially I responded with a look of “huh”. I didn’t quite hear what he had said. It wasn’t until he repeated himself that my heart instantly began to pound like it was trying to literally burst through my chest. He told me to hurry up so I pulled off my warm-up jacket, yanked off my pants revealing my knee high socks and walked over to the scorer’s table to check in. I stuttered a little as I tried to tell the scorer what my name was, that is when I finally remembered it.
They checked me in and walked out onto the court. It was weird being out there. I mean I had been on the court before, obviously. But only during warm-ups and practice. But this was completely different. My mouth was dry, my palms were wet and my entire body was tingling. I tried to find Audrey in the crowd and saw that she was as shocked as I was. Her eyes were wide and she was biting on her souvenir towel. I was actually about to play. I couldn’t believe it.
Coached called me over once more and informed me that I was taking over running the point for the team. He ran off a couple of plays for us to run and with a pat on my butt sent me on my way. I jogged over to my teammates already on the floor. We huddled together like we were a football team. I passed the plays to them and we were off.
The ref blew the whistle and my forward inbounded me the ball. As I caught it, I could really feel how slippery my palms were. I took a quick second to wipe them on my uniform before beginning my dribble. I crossed the court and threw a pass to my center which was instantly intercepted by his defender who had come around him to grab it. He heaved the ball down the court to his sprinting teammate who threw down a dunk to increase the lead. I know, terrific start.
I took the inbounds pass once again and was immediately swarmed with a double team. Panicking, I tried to lob a pass of desperation to the nearest teammate but it was stolen which lead to another basket for the other team. Now the lead was twenty-two and the Coach called a timeout. I slowly walked over to the bench with my other teammates and listened to what he had to say. He drew up some more plays for us and then pulled me aside. He told me to try to calm down and just play my game.
I must admit, during practice I was pretty amazing. I ran plays, I played defense and I got all of my teammates involved but this was a completely different atmosphere. It was new to me on a pro level and I didn’t know how to handle it. Before he finished talking to me, I glanced over at Audrey again and she looked back at me with one of those endearing smiles. As if she was trying to tell me that it would be ok. She gave me a thumbs up and I smiled back at her. I suddenly felt a little better.
As I walked back onto the court I looked out into the crowd and saw the disappointed faces of our fans. They didn’t have anything to cheer about. Some of them probably wished they had stayed home. Some were chatting away on their phones, no doubt about how horrible we were playing. I didn’t even want to look directly at the people sitting courtside. Seeing as they were so close, they might actually try to say something to me which I was sure wouldn’t be anything nice or encouraging.
I looked down to re-tie in the string in my shorts and took one last deep gulp of air before raising my head again. My teammates were all looking at me as if seeking for an answer to stop the bleeding that was going on. I gave them a nod and tried to focus at the task at hand.
Ok, 15 minutes, 22 points
The ref’s whistle blew and I was off. I took the inbounds pass and jogged up the court steadily bouncing the ball with my right hand. As soon as I crossed the half court line, another double team came. But I was expecting it. Before they could completely set the defense in front of me, I shot a quick pass to my teammate not too far away from me and took off past them. As soon as I was in the clear, he sent the ball back to me in stride and I found myself wide open. I drove to the basket for the easy lay in. My first two points as a pro.
There was kind of a sarcastic cheer from the crowd as the ball fell through the hoop. Immediately I darted back down the court to play defense. As their point guard brought the ball up the court I could see my teammates setting up the defense beside me. I got in close to him and made sure not to let him get by me. He tried to cross over in front of me but I knocked the ball loose which was picked up by my teammate. It was then off to the races. I ran out in front of him and he tossed me a lob. Their point guard, now a defender cut off the lane to the basket as we approached it so I left it behind me for my trailing teammate for an easy slam. A more genuine cheer arose from the crowd this time. My first assist.
We were now down 18 with under a minute left in the third. We managed to stop their next possession which gave me an opportunity to set my shooting guard up for a wide open three pointer. We had put together a small but effective 7- point run to cut the lead to 15 as the third quarter expired.
Back on the bench we received high fives from the rest of our team and listened to the Coach draw up the next couple of plays. I listened rather intently to be sure I didn’t miss anything. As the point guard, I had to run every play and run it to perfection. If we were to come back in this game, we had to do it as a team. But it was on me to make sure that that happened.
The fourth and final quarter began and I was ready to finish this game. Coach subbed out our center for a quicker big man. This was so we could establish a run and gun pace to hopefully tire out the other team. It didn’t quite work right at the beginning. They were able to score 6 points to our 8. The score was 88-75. Despite a decent start to the fourth by our team, we were still down by 13 points.
With 9 minutes left in the game, Coach chose to sub our bigger center back in for defensive reasons. We had to find a way to stop them from scoring consistently. There was no way we would even have a chance at winning if we traded baskets with them. I decided it was time for me to try to establish some kind of outside shot to draw the defense towards me. This would open up easy opportunities for the rest of my team. Our center must have had the same idea because as he checked back into the game, he walked past me and said;
“Shoot the ball. Don’t worry, I’ll get your rebound if you miss. But I don’t think that you will”.
I nodded in agreement and my confidence instantly shot up. On the very next play, I dribbled around a screen set by one of my forwards and put up a jump shot. It slid through the basket as if covered in butter. The crowd roared and I looked at my center who pointed at me. I pointed back and ran back on defense. We needed a stop. One more basket would put us within single digits of them.
Their point guard brought the ball up the court slowly. He was deliberately trying to slow the game down so the clock would run out. My coach was screaming “Press! Press!” from the sideline so I ran at him. He dribbled to the side of the court and I followed suit. I felt I had a pretty good beat on him when my teammates began to yell something. I didn’t completely understand what they were saying because I was too focused on stopping their guard from getting into the lane. Suddenly my right side collided with what felt like a wall.
I had run almost top speed into a pick set by their 7-foot center. I collapsed onto the floor boards and held my side. This allowed their guard to hit an open jumper. The lead was back to 13. I rose to my feet disappointed in myself for failing to pay attention. My shooting guard came over to me and asked if I was ok. I nodded my head and ran to grab the inbounds pass. I was even more determined now to win this game. I sprinted up the court and pulled up for a three. The ball hit the backboard and ricocheted through hoop. The crowd got loud once again. We were now down by 10 with 7 minutes to go.
It was like that pick jolted a basketball switch into the “on” position for me. I wanted this game. I wanted it bad. They tried to throw their point guard an inbounds pass but he was being covered by my shooting guard. I looked back at the player inbounding the ball and realized that he had thrown the ball towards another player not too far from me. I jumped in front of the pass and caught the ball. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my shooting guard streaking towards the basket. I threw the ball towards the hoop and he caught it mid-air for the easy dunk.
Now down by only 8. Still enough time left to complete this comeback. The whistle blew for the other team who had taken a time out. We all walked back to the bench where Coach asked me if I was ok enough to keep playing after running into that pick. Before I could give him answer, he told me that it was a stupid question and not to answer it. We absorbed the plays he developed for us and it was time to re-enter the battle. I looked in Audrey’s direction and she was on her feet with the rest of the crowd clapping away. She was smiling from ear to ear as she looked at me. I wanted to smile back but I was too focused on the task at hand.
The other team brought the ball up the court again, this time working just a little bit quicker than before. Once again, I pressed the ball handler and followed him everywhere he went creating issues for him to progress past the three-point line. He dribbled to the opposite side of the court from the last time. Again they tried to pick me off, but this time I fought my way around it. As the center rolled out to the side of us expecting the pass, I stuck my hand out and knocked it towards the half court line. Me and my counterpart both sprinted towards it but I got there first. By the time I had picked it up and gathered myself, my shooting guard was already running towards our basket. He sent a bullet pass at him which he caught and laid the ball in. The crowd was now going crazy. Deficit was now 6.
I looked up at the clock which showed we had three minutes left to play. I really felt like we could do this. Again they brought the ball up the court quickly and threw a direct pass to their center who had managed to find very good positioning on ours. He posted him up pretty well but settled for a fade-away jump shot which he missed. One of our forwards snatched the rebound out of the air and tossed the ball over to me. My coach was screaming for me to “Push” so I darted up the court as if trying to create my own fast break.
I had gone so quickly that I left the rest of my team behind me not allowing myself any help. By the time I realized my error, another double team found its home in front of me. As if on reflex, I dribbled the ball behind my back which made the defender on my left go towards in that direction and it opened up a small space for me to run through. I then sent it backwards through my legs so I could change direction while still protecting it from the double team. I quickly scurried through the opening I created for myself leaving the two players looking back at me and had an easy path to the basket for the lay in. Down by 4.
It was the closest we had been since the opening minutes and loudest the crowd had been all game. They were jumping up and down by now. That last play forced the other teams coach to take a time out and had every one of my teammates congratulating me when I arrived back at the bench. After a couple of seconds, we were back on the floor. Two minutes left now.
They came up the court and again threw the ball into their center. This time he backed our guy all the way down to the basket and easily laid it in over him which quieted the crowd some. The lead was back to 6. I quickly brought the ball back the other way and managed to get around my defender quite easily with a little cross-over and got into the lane. This brought my shooting guards’ man into me which left him open. I swung the ball over to him as he stepped into a three which he nailed from the corner. With the lead now 3 the crowd was shaking the building.
Back at the other end, they ran the same play as the prior two times. This time we doubled their center to give our teammate some help. He went for a jump shot but dumped it off on a pretty pass to an open man for a reverse lay in. Lead back up to 5 with just under a minute to go. We were running out of time. I took the pass and again sprinted up court trying to make something happen. I spun around one man and found myself in the lane. But I also found myself with their center who had tried to put me down for the count earlier. All 7-feet of him stood between me and the basket as I moved towards it. I went up for a shot but he threw his hands up in front of me to block it. I ducked under him and came up on the other side and laid the ball up and into the basket as he bumped me out of bounds. I landed on my other side this time but even harder than before.
I heard the whistle blow as I crashed onto the ground so I knew that the referee had seen the foul. Now I had to go to the free throw line and try to bring us within 2 points with my side still stinging from the fall. I looked up at the clock again as my teammates rushed to my aid. I saw that there were forty seconds left as I took my spot on the free throw line. Something told me to turn around so I did and looked directly at where Audrey had been sitting all night. All I saw was an empty seat where she used to be. I had about half a second to wonder where she had gone before the whistle blew again and I remembered that I had a free throw to shoot.
The referee bounced the ball to me and I stood there at the line staring at the basket. I bounced the ball once and noticed that the entire building had gone dead silent. I couldn’t hear anything that even resembled a sound. All I could hear was my own breathing which was beginning to speed up. I forced myself to calm down and bounced the ball another time. I caught it and looked back up at the rim. I brought the ball over my head and with a flick of my wrist sent it on its’ way. It spun backwards as it sailed through the air. It hit its’ climax and started to fall back down to the earth. I held my breath until I finally heard that reassuring sound the net makes when the ball falls though it; “swish”.
The crowd erupted once more and we were down by 2. Still forty seconds left. Without taking a time out, the other team tried to walk the ball the up the court but we intentionally fouled their worst shooter who they had trusted to protect the ball. It was now his turn to feel the pressure at the free throw line. Unlike my time up there, the crowd was doing everything in their power to distract him. They were waving their towels, chanting obscenities & screaming “Miss it! Miss it!”. It felt like an earthquake in our arena.
I guess it was too much for him because he missed the first shot terribly. The crowd’s jeers turned to cheers. The ref gave him the ball back for his second attempt. He took a little more time than his first shot and sent the ball towards the basket. It clanged on the back iron and rattled around a bit before falling into the hands of my center. The crowd cheered again. He threw me a pass and I quickly took it across the half court line and called for a time out.
We now had just under a shot clock’s worth of time left in the game. So a little less than 24 seconds. I walked over to the bench and the first thing I noticed was Audrey sitting right behind it. I couldn’t prevent a smile for spreading across my face. I wanted to jump over it and run towards her but I couldn’t. She was waving and chanting frantically along with the rest of the crowd. I stepped into the huddle with my teammates as Coach drew up our last play on his board. We had to execute a play that gave us a basket but didn’t leave enough time on the clock for the other team to have a chance at another possession.
We took in the play and put all of our hands in the middle of our huddle in a show of team unity. We yelled our team name and five of us took to the floor. Our opponents met us on the other side and it was now time for the final act. We took our positions on the floor as the play called for and waited for the ref to blow his whistle. The sound came and my forward threw the ball at me. I caught it with both hands and the time began to wind down. My defender was playing off of me a little probably to prevent me from blowing past him again. I slowly dribbled the ball letting some of the time work its way off of the clock.
About 10 seconds went by when my center came over to set a pick for me to run around. I was about to take it but saw that his man had followed him and was preparing to meet me on the other side. I waved off the pick and signaled for him to go back under the basket. Confused, he ducked back under it. Now the clock was down to 7 seconds. I continued to dribble. At 4 seconds I made a quick move towards the basket and my defender moved with me. In one motion I stopped on a dime and stepped back behind the three point line. With 1 second left to go on the clock I hoisted up a shot making sure to get the ball out of my hands before the buzzer sounded.
As the ball carried itself through the electrified air, time literally seem to slow down. It felt like I could run up to the concession stand and grab a hot dog before the ball came back down. What seemed like every eye in the world was now all on that one basketball. As it made its descent I continued to stare hoping that I had made the right choice in taking a three instead of running past my man for what might have been an easier two. It didn’t matter now and all of that doubt was erased as the ball sank through the net and the building almost exploded.
Before I could gather my thoughts on what had happened my entire team, the ones on the floor with me and the rest that were sitting on the bench, came rushing at me. They mobbed me at mid court as I was unable to get away from them and the celebration was on. I could see the other team slowly walking off of the court looking rather dejected. I felt that they shouldn’t be. They beat our brains out tonight; they had played well. But we had played just a little bit better.
After my team finally allowed me to walk around freely, I instantly made my way to the sideline and leapt over the bench to find Audrey. I embraced her in a sweaty hug and gave her a kiss before letting go. I didn’t care who was watching us and how much ribbing I would take from the team when I made it back into the locker room. It was because of her that I played well. It was because of her that I was no longer afraid.