Ted Jones grabbed the bounding basketball and headed back toward the foul line. If he made this basket, he’d go home. Glancing up, he saw Coach Turner watching him. Ted hoped that the coach had seen him at his best and would let him play sometime when it really counted.
Ted blanked everything from his mind but the orange rim suspended high on the backboard. He was short, barely five feet, and made his shots from the foul line by standing with one foot back and almost lunging forward as he used both hands to push the ball from his chest toward the basket. He did so now, and the ball swished through the net.
Turning to head for the showers, Ted saw his two best friends standing by the bench. The three boys usually walked home together.
“Everybody else is gone,” Danny said. “I don’t know why you spend so much time practicing every day. You’re too short to play basketball, anyway.”
“Yeah, and too skinny!” Keefus shook his head and then burst into laughter.
Ted answered good-naturedly, “You guys laugh now. When I’m the star of the Yellow Jackets, your tune will change.”
Ted loved basketball. Even though he knew he’d probably never be very tall—both of his parents were short—he thought that he could master one part of the game. Each day he stayed after regular practice until he made at least twelve foul shots in a row, and he dribbled over, under, and around all the obstacles he could set up. Ever since he’d gotten his first basketball the Christmas when he was eight years old, he’d made Danny and Keefus—and anyone else he could find—double- and triple-team him to try to get the ball away. He wasn’t fast, but he was quick and almost always got the ball to the open player.
“How are you planning on being a hero?” Keefus asked later as the boys headed for home. “None of us have played for more than twenty seconds in a game unless it’s been so lopsided that it wouldn’t matter.”
Ted answered, “Maybe it won’t be this year, but I’ll be ready whenever it happens.”
“I sure wish it would be tomorrow night,” Danny said. “We had such a lousy start this year that I never thought that we’d even be in the intramural tournament!”
“Yeah,” Ted agreed. “It’s down to us and the Panthers—but they’re unbeaten.”
“Boy, would I like to blow them plumb out of the gym!” Keefus declared.
“I’d just settle for a win,” Ted replied, turning up the walk to his house. “See you guys tomorrow night.”
Nervous tension was as thick as pea soup in the Yellow Jackets’ locker room the next night. The starters were pacing back and forth while the rest of the team exchanged teasing remarks.
“Hey, Michael!” Keefus shouted above the banter, “you’re gonna walk a hole in the carpet!”
Ted looked at the tall center for the Yellow Jackets. Michael was the team’s high scorer. They depended on him to pull them through.
“OK,” Coach Turner called, “gather around.”
The team, dressed in black and gold, huddled around the coach and listened to his familiar pep talk. When they ran onto the floor, the Panthers, in purple and white, were already warming up. Ted got in line behind Danny to start the lay-up drill.
“They look as sharp as ever,” Danny muttered, glancing over his shoulder at the other team.
Ted was determined to think positively. “They can still be beaten, though. We’ll show everybody how much we’ve improved in the last few weeks.”
The five starters formed a circle around Coach Turner for final instructions. Ted took a seat on the end of the bench as the two starting teams met in the middle of the floor. The Panther center matched Michael’s six feet, and Ted wished for the hundredth time that he were tall.
From the first the game was fast-paced and fairly even. By halftime it was evident that it was a shooting match between Michael and a tall Panther called Irish. There were surprisingly few mistakes, and neither team had gotten into the one-and-one bonus. The only problem was that Michael had three fouls.
The score at the beginning of the second half was 20–17 in favor of the Panthers. When the clock ticked down to the final minute, the Yellow Jackets were trailing, 44–42, and Michael had picked up his fourth foul. The crowd went wild when he stole the ball from the Panthers under the Jackets’ basket and stuffed it over the rim to tie the game.
The Panthers threw the ball in and carefully worked it down to their end of the court, obviously intending to hold the ball for the last shot. Ted watched in dismay as Michael hacked Irish on the arm just as the pass came to him.
“Oh, no!” Keefus said, groaning. “Now he’s out, and the Panthers have the one-and-one!”
Ted’s hopes fell as Irish sank the first foul shot, moving the Panthers ahead by one point. The second shot ricocheted off the backboard into the hands of a Yellow Jacket player. He moved the ball past midcourt and called time-out.
Coach Turner paced the sideline, rubbing the back of his head. Suddenly he barked, “Jones!”
As Ted yanked off his warm-up suit and joined the circle crouched around Coach Turner, the coach was saying, “OK, we’re going to keep the ball in Ted’s hands and try to decoy the others so that he’s clear for a shot at the free-throw line. Ted, if nothing happens by the time the clock is down to six seconds, shoot anyway and we’ll try to get the rebound. That means the rest of you had better be close to the basket—now go get ’em!”
The buzzer sounded, and the teams moved back onto the floor. Darryl threw the ball in to Ted. A Panther guard slapped at the ball, but Ted dribbled around him as if he weren’t there. When another Panther came over to help, Ted passed the ball off. It was quickly returned to him as the clock ticked down: ten seconds, nine, eight, seven, six … Ted took aim and let it fly. The Panther guarding him blocked the shot but slapped him on the arm on the follow-through.
Ted stepped to the foul line amid dead silence. Two seconds showed on the clock. The game was up to him.
I know I can do it, he told himself. I’ve been working hard for a long time for this chance.
He eyed the basket, bounced the ball twice, took aim, and pushed it toward the hoop. The ball hit the inside of the rim, wobbled around it twice, then dropped through the net. The game was tied! And, as far as Ted was concerned, the pressure was off.
Grinning happily, Ted bounced the ball, took careful aim once more, and put up his second shot. The ball never drew iron as it swished through the net. String music!
When the final buzzer sounded, Ted was swarmed by his teammates. Later, as they ran toward the locker room, Coach Turner shouted above the uproar, “I knew you could do it. After watching you practice extra every day, I’ve been waiting for the right time to put you in. It finally came.”