Moving wasn’t unfamiliar to us. This move would be the third that Dennis and I could recall (not counting one that occured just after we’d hit the ripe old age of one, which we didn’t remember)… and easily the most difficult, for me anyway.
It was happening in mid-year, as a result of Dad’s job, which was tough enough. And it was happening as we were starting to really set roots down in Calgary, and get comfortable, something we hadn’t really done since we’d left Nova Scotia at eight or nine years old. We had friends we’d really gotten connected to, a church we loved. School… well, school was school, but the real friends would be missed.
None of those reasons had anything to do with basketball. But it would affect that as well.
We were leaving with games left in the season. Not that playoffs were any concern, but Dennis and I leaving put a gaping hole in that team, such as it was. I recall the coach asking us and our folks if we knew anyone who wanted to play (and though he was smiling, not joking a little bit).
But we kept practicing, and playing, trying to make the best of what we had left.
It came down to the final game. The last we would play before our move to Ontario, and the one that would effectively end our season.
I knew coming in (and I’m sure Dennis did too). We wanted to end well. This was our championship, the one we wanted to make count, to make memorable. To leave ourselves, and those who’d battled with us the whole season, with a winning taste in our mouths (a rare taste for this team).
Dennis and I started together, with him taking the tip, as would almost always happen. We may have slapped hands, exchanged looks, or made a silent vow (as we were prone to do, in those overly dramatic days).
The game went as so many of our games did- we fell behind quickly, and couldn’t do enough to stem the tide. A bucket for us would be two for them, and as the deficit grew bigger, heads would slump, shots would become flatter, and defense slower.
We were down 11 late in the second half. Not having a scoreboard, and the one clock being small and at the scorer’s table, you were never really sure how much time was left. But you knew, in your head, or because of the score, or what time someone’s watch had relative to when the game started (does it show that I was good at math?).
Dennis and I went back in for the final push. There was no ‘agitation’ from me, no trash talk, nothing that wasn’t the game. This was the time.
As happened initially when young, undisciplined players enter games with energy, we started to chip away at the lead. But I had the clock in my head… how much time did we have? Even if we went full bore until the final whistle, making and blocking shots like we never had, would it be enough?
I remember another pause, with their lead around eight points, and them shooting free throws, my own frustration starting to boil, about to show itself in the kind of stupid, immature display I was prone to on the basketball court. Their man stopped for a moment on the line, and frustration replaced itself with resignation, and sadness. We’d thrown our best effort out there, but we were going to lose.
I turned to the guy next to me at the edge of the lane, the guy I’d guarded the majority of the game, and would block from getting the rebound in a mere moment. “Hey,” I said, a rare moment of humanity in what I’d always intensely competed. “I might go nuts or something before the end of the game, but I don’t mean anything by it. You beat us fair. Good game, alright?”
He smiled, and I felt better, without knowing why. “Good game,” he said, a slight inclination of the head showing respect, the same respect I tried to show him by playing hard.
The shot from his guy went up, and I boxed him out. The game was on again.
A funny thing happened on the way to inevitable, crushing, final defeat. We kept chipping away at the lead, and the time seemed to stretch on for a bit.
It was our opponents getting frustrated, starting to make the mental errors that usually plagued us, starting to feel the seeds of doubt in their minds.
This was shown on one sequence when, ahead by five points (I think), one of their players drove the lane, and put up a shot, colliding with one of our guys as he did. The ref’s whistle blew, and the guy looked at the ref expectantly.
“Offensive foul,” the ref said, motioning for a charge, and handing us the ball to inbound.
The guy went NUTS. “What?!” he screamed, yanking his jersey off and stomping out of the gym as a coach went after him.
Standing next to my opponent, who I’d just had a ‘moment’ with earlier, it seemed neither of us could really believe it. But the game went on, as most of us shook off what we just saw, and I hoped it was a harbinger of things to come.
Another bucket for us, another stop, and then I made a shot to bring the deficit to one. “Get a stop, boys,” I said as we jogged back, fired up with victory tantalizingly in our grasp. “Need a stop.”
We didn’t get one, and the lead was three. But we came back and scored, bringing it down to one again.
We did make a stop this time- me grabbing the rebound. I don’t remember if our coach called timeout, which is what would have happened in a movie. If he did, he might have drawn up a play- though not in this case, since he didn’t have one of those fancy white boards or chalkboards, and we were too young to be able to run ’em well.
It was under a minute- maybe that’s why I remember a timeout, because I would have walked past the scorer’s table, and really looked at that awful teeny-tiny clock and seen that we were under half a minute, and ready for a storybook ending. One that I thought scant minutes before was impossible.
The lead was one. A score would win it.
I wish I remembered the final play- whether it was a dribble drive, or a jump shot, or a play gone wrong that ended up right. But the ball ended up where everyone on our team knew it was going- in Dennis’ hands. He deserved the shot.
He took the shot- and missed it, just before the buzzer sounded, amidst a flurry of contact.
At the same time as a referee’s whistle. There was a foul on the play.
Coach and player from the other team protested (fruitlessly, since it WAS a foul. And I’m an expert on such things), as Dennis got ready to shoot two free throws to win it for us.
I said something to him as he went up to the line. I don’t remember what it was. It was probably trite, or something out of one of those historical videos, or some banal encouragement designed to take his mind off the pressure but instead adding to it.
I took my position on the edge of the lane by rote, even though there was but a half-second left after, and a rebound wouldn’t make a difference if he missed.
I held my breath as the first one went up- and sank through the hoop, amidst cheers from our bench (and maybe from the part of the crowd that was our parents).
I knew then if I was writing it, I could not have scripted a better moment. A team, beaten down by losses over the year, Dennis and I wanting to make a heroic, defining exit on a winning note, leave them with something. They were good boys, good people all, even if the lot of us were a pretty mediocre basketball team. They deserved something, with us leaving them.
Dennis made the second shot- and we mobbed him there, on the court, as the other team made a desperation heave, the buzzer sounding for the final time as they did. The other team may have thought us strange (even with the dramatic comeback), but we didn’t. This was our championship, our finale, and we’d won it. One meaningless game in a season to our opponent was everything to us.
You knew how it ended, didn’t you? Even if I didn’t then.
Maybe Dennis remembers it differently… but I know we came back, in that game. I know he made the shots to win it for us. And that, ultimately, is the point of the story. Of any story, really, even in as ultimately meaningless a competition as a community basketball game in junior high that few others remembered past the next week.
There’s no real graceful way to tie this off… outside of another thanks to Dennis, who’s going to come home today and discover his brother’s written thousands of words about a game that occurred half a lifetime ago, and maybe he doesn’t remember.
Thanks for reading.