“But, Shawn, I don’t think Tyrell will let me play,” my friend Richie protested as I grabbed the basketball from the box in the garage and started for the door. “He hasn’t ever had much to do with me.”
“He didn’t have much use for me a few weeks ago,” I replied, “until he found out that I’m a pretty good basketball player. I ran into him down at the park, and we started shooting a few baskets. Since then he’s invited me to play with him and some of his friends. We get along just fine.”
“But I’m not one of his friends.”
“But you’re my friend. Frankie isn’t going to be there this afternoon, so we’ll be short a guy. We need six players to have a good game. You’ll be the sixth man.”
Tyrell was the most popular guy in sixth grade. He wore the nicest clothes and hung around the other popular kids like Nick, Frankie, Logan, and Blake.
I had never tried to be Tyrell’s friend, not because I didn’t like him, but because I didn’t think I’d stand a chance. That’s the reason that I felt pretty special now that I was playing ball with him. I’d even gone to his house a couple of times.
When Richie and I reached the park, we strolled over to the basketball court where Tyrell, Nick, Logan, and Blake were talking. “Let’s use Shawn’s ball,” Logan called out when he saw me. “He has the newest one.”
I tossed Tyrell my ball. “I brought Richie along,” I explained, “because I knew Frankie wasn’t going to be here. This way we can have three to a team.”
Tyrell looked Richie up and down, and I heard Nick mutter, “I don’t think he even knows how to play ball.”
I swallowed and spoke up. “He plays all right. He can be on my team.”
Everybody was quiet because Tyrell was still thinking. I knew that whatever he decided was the last word. After a pause, he tossed the ball at Richie. The ball came hard and fast, but Richie caught it. “All right,” he finally said slowly, still eyeing Richie, “I’ll play with Shawn and this new kid.”
Richie was nervous, but I knew that if the others just gave him a chance, he’d show them that he could play. He missed a few baskets and threw the ball away a couple of times. Then he settled down and played really well.
We had a tough time keeping up with Blake, Nick, and Logan, but we didn’t ever fall behind more than six points. Then, right at the end, we finally pulled away from them when Richie hit a long shot and followed it up a few seconds later with a quick layup. We ended up beating them by two baskets.
“I guess old Richie here can play ball,” Tyrell panted as we all walked off the court and lay on the grass under a big pine tree. “He can be on my team next time, too.”
We all horsed around at the park for a while longer. While we were goofing around under a big sycamore tree, where a group of people had been picnicking earlier, Richie stopped dead in his tracks, bent over, and picked up a small red and orange package.
“What’d you find?” Tyrell asked, walking over to him.
“It’s a pack of cigarettes,” Richie rasped, “and it’s almost full.”
All of us crowded around to get a closer look. “We’d better crush them up and throw them away,” Richie suggested.
“Hold on,” Tyrell called out, taking the package. “We don’t have to do anything right this second. Let’s see what we have here.”
For a minute we all studied the cigarettes. Tyrell and his buddies joked about them and pulled one out and tried it between their fingers. Richie nervously held one when Nick demanded that he take it. “It won’t hurt you to touch it,” he growled. “What are you, some kind of baby?”
“Why don’t we just chuck them,” I said, trying to smile. I held up my basketball. “Let’s play another quick game.”
“I have a lighter,” Blake suddenly volunteered, digging in his pants pocket and pulling out a small yellow disposable lighter. “It was on my brother’s dresser,” he explained, smiling. “I just picked it up this morning.”
Tyrell looked around the park. “Hey,” he suggested, “let’s go over behind the baseball bleachers and light one.”
“Light one of the cigarettes?” Richie questioned, his voice shaking a little.
“We’re not going to inhale,” Tyrell laughed, shaking his head and giving Richie a shove. “We’re just going to light it and see what it’s like. Come on.” He started moving away. Richie, Nick, Blake, and Logan followed.
Something in my head kept telling me to return to the basketball court and start shooting baskets or to take my ball and go home, but I didn’t. I told myself that I was just going to watch.
My stomach was twisting and turning, though, as I walked around the bleachers with the others. Tyrell took the cigarette and handed the pack to Blake. “Take one,” he ordered, “and pass them to Nick.” He looked around at all of us. “We can each try one. It’s no big deal.”
“I’ve never smoked before,” Richie rasped when Logan held the pack of cigarettes out in front of him.
“One cigarette isn’t going to kill you,” Tyrell said with a grin. “After all, they’re yours. You found them.”
I could see the battle inside Richie. He knew he wasn’t supposed to smoke. He’d been taught that all his life, just as I had. But this afternoon he had a chance to be part of Tyrell’s popular group. Not only that, but Tyrell and his buddies had treated him all right. He had been one of them. Just like I had. Now we realized that to still be one of them might mean smoking a cigarette. I knew that Richie was trying to decide whether it was all worth it.
“Go ahead and take one,” Tyrell growled. “Don’t be such a baby. The rest of us are going to—even your buddy Shawn,” he added without looking at me.
Richie stared down at the pack of cigarettes. Even before he did it, I knew he was going to look at me. And he did. His eyes were scared, but more than that, they were asking me what to do.
I just stared back at him, worried about what I was going to do. Ashamed, I looked away without saying anything.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Richie slowly reach out and take one of the cigarettes. “Will one cigarette be that bad, Shawn?” he asked me.
I looked up. More than anything, I wished that I had gone home right after our basketball game. I wished that I had walked away as soon as Tyrell took the cigarettes from Richie and started playing with them. I wished a lot of things.
I was the only one without a cigarette. Logan was holding the pack out to me. I had been excited and happy to be Tyrell’s friend. It had been nice to feel popular. I could still be popular—if I took that cigarette.
“My mom and dad don’t want me smoking,” I stammered, trying to smile while I said it.
“Your mom and dad aren’t here,” Tyrell came back. “They’ll never know. Do you think we’re going to tell them? This is our secret.”
“Should we do it, just this once?” I heard Richie ask me.
I looked at him. He wouldn’t be here right now if I hadn’t invited him. And then I made another frightening discovery. I realized that whatever I told Tyrell, I was making the same decision for Richie. I knew that Richie would do whatever I decided to do.
“Come on, Shawn, take one,” Tyrell ordered. “We’re waiting.”
I felt a sick, ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach. I started to speak, but the words didn’t come. I stopped, swallowed hard, then announced strongly, “I’m not going to smoke, Tyrell.”
“Are you afraid that somebody’s going to rat on you?”
I shook my head. “No. I just don’t want to do it. It’s something I decided a long time ago.” I thought of the promise I’d made when I was baptized to always keep myself clean. “If I smoked and didn’t get caught, that wouldn’t matter, because I’d always know. I’d always know that I’d broken promises I had made. I’m not going to do it, Tyrell. Not today, not ever.”
I started to push past him. He reached out and grabbed my arm. “Friends hang together, Shawn. I thought you were one of our friends.”
I coughed nervously. “I thought I was, too. Is this what I have to do to be your friend?”
“We’re a team. We do things together.”
“Then I guess I won’t be part of your team.” I pulled my arm free and started walking.
“Wait up, Shawn,” Richie called, dropping his cigarette on the ground and crushing it under his heel. “I’m going with you.”
Richie and I walked from behind the bleachers and started across the park. The sick, ugly feeling I had felt just seconds before was gone. It was as though a hard, heavy rock had been lifted off my shoulders.
“I was waiting for you to tell them no,” Richie whispered beside me. “I was praying you would. I just knew you would, Shawn. You had to, for both of us.”
“Run off like a couple of babies,” Tyrell taunted. “We’ll find somebody else to play ball with us. And if you’re not part of our team, don’t figure on being our friends. You sorry guys probably don’t even have any friends.”
I smiled over at Richie. He was still my friend. I thought of Jesus and the promises I had made to Him. He was still my friend. I knew then that I didn’t have to worry about being popular. I could choose the right and still have the very best kind of friends.