The game was down to one final play. We were well matched—except for the fact that he had been standing taller lately.
For five years my family and I had lived in Eagar, Arizona, a town of a couple thousand, and I had attended Round Valley High with 400 other students. My next-door neighbor was Bishop Ashcroft. The stake president lived two blocks over, and most of the people in my neighborhood were members.
The summer before my senior year our family moved to Florida where I attended Meadowland High. Its student-body population was a little more than 3,500. Talk about culture shock. My dad and I drove ten miles just to visit our five home teaching families, and at Meadowland there were only two other Church members besides me: my younger sister, Tracy, and Jeremy James, my chief rival for a spot on the varsity basketball team.
As a junior I had started for Round Valley, but at Meadowland, just trying out was a privilege. Head Coach Pat Angelo held three week’s worth of practices before he made his final cut to the 14-man squad. Those practices were the toughest challenges I had ever faced. Relentless in his demands for perfection, he barked commands and instructions at us in language that scorched my ears. In addition, he held Sunday practices.
“You’re practicing Sunday, David?” my dad had questioned the first time I mentioned Coach Angelo’s practice schedule.
“It’s just until he makes his final cuts,” I explained uneasily. “If I’m going to have a shot at the team, I’ve got to be there, Dad. This isn’t Round Valley. It’s different here. Sunday’s just another day. If I want to play it means I have to be there Sunday. Besides, it’s only three Sundays, and I’ll still be able to make it to all my meetings.”
“Have you told the coach how you feel about practicing on Sunday?”
“Dad,” I moaned. “Coach Angelo doesn’t care about how I feel about Sunday. He’s not interested in a first discussion or reading the Book of Mormon. He wants to win basketball games.”
“David, I’m not asking you to try to convert your coach. But I do think it’s important that you let him know how you feel about certain things. You don’t have to hide your convictions.”
“Dad, I’m not trying to hide anything. I just want to play basketball.”
I couldn’t deny that I felt a tinge of guilt about my decision, but I rationalized that I was only going to do it for three Sundays.
After three weeks, Coach Angelo had narrowed the squad to 16 guys, and I was one of the 16. The last Sunday we were scheduled to have an intra-squad game. I knew the struggle for the last two positions would be between Rodney Tillery, Ramon Guzman, Jeremy James, and me. Of the four, I was the only senior—which was actually a strike against me. Jeremy was a better player, but I figured I had the edge there because Coach Angelo was a bit cool toward him.
Some of the other guys told me that Coach Angelo had thrown a party for the junior varsity team at the end of the season. Jeremy ended up leaving early because he felt uncomfortable with what was going on. The coach had been steamed by the slight and still seemed to harbor a grudge.
At the end of practice the Saturday before our intra-squad game, I dragged into the dressing room after staying in the gym alone working on my game. When I walked by the coach’s office, I heard Coach Angelo talking to someone.
“If you expect to play, James, you’ll be here tomorrow.” There was genuine irritation in Coach Angelo’s voice. “You’ve asked to be excused from the other two Sunday practices. I cut you some slack then, but I’ve been unfair to the other guys making the effort to show up. If you want to play, you better skip Sunday School, or wherever it is you go.”
There was a pause and then Jeremy spoke. “Coach, I’ve always come early and left late. I’ve made up my time when I’ve missed a Sunday practice.” There was another pause. “You know I’ll put in any amount of time you want. But Sundays are, well, different from any other day. It’s the way I believe. I can’t come Sundays.”
“Can’t or won’t? Is it because you’re Mormon and your parents won’t let you?”
Jeremy cleared his throat. “Coach, I’m not throwing blame on my mom or dad or my church. This is my decision. I made it a long time ago, before I knew anything about your Sunday practices.”
There was a long pause before the coach spoke. “David Bluth is Mormon, isn’t he?”
“I think so,” was Jeremy’s delayed response.
“He hasn’t missed practice. He’s going to be here tomorrow.”
I had planned to shower before heading home, but instead I slipped quietly from the dressing room without hearing any more of the conversation.
The following day, Coach Angelo met me at the end of the scrimmage and invited me into his office. “Bluth, I believe in being up-front with guys. I like your style and your drive. You’ve got talent. You could play for most high school teams.” He shook his head. “But we’ve got some great talent this year. If you were a junior, I’d keep you.”
His blunt announcement was a crushing blow. I had convinced myself that I was going to get one of those last spots on the team—especially since Jeremy hadn’t showed up for practice.
“I’m going with Tillery and Guzman,” he said.
“And Jeremy?” I don’t know why I asked. I knew he hadn’t made it. Coach Angelo’s face hardened. “He didn’t even come in today; had other junk more important than playing with the team.” He grabbed a ball and studied it a moment. “You’re Mormon, aren’t you?”
The question caught me off guard. For a second I just sat there without saying anything, and then slowly I nodded and stammered. “Yeah, I’m Mormon.”
He shook his head. “It’s no big deal. A couple of the guys just mentioned it. The thing is, you’re all right, Bluth. You go with the flow. You don’t make waves. I don’t care what you or any other guy believes, but I’m glad you don’t pack your religion around with you all the time.”
Coach Angelo had meant those last words as a compliment, but they left a burning uneasiness in the corner of my conscience. To gain a spot on the team I had been willing to negotiate my principles and beliefs. I had convinced myself that playing for Meadowland was more important than what I believed. The horrible irony was that after compromising my beliefs, I still didn’t make the team.
Church ball was my chance to make up for being cut. Our ward team was the best church team I’d ever played on. Brother Sid Rogers was our priests adviser and coach.
During the season we went undefeated. The only team that came close to us—and we still beat them by seven points—was Jeremy James’s ward. They had a couple of decent players, but Jeremy was really the team.
In the stake tournament the championship game was between us and Jeremy’s ward. During warm-ups I watched Jeremy. He was a quiet, reserved kind of guy. And even though he was the best player on the team, he didn’t make a big deal of it. He passed the ball around and shouted encouragement to his teammates. And he was good. Oh, was he good!
The game was close throughout. We took the early lead when Joel Preston made a three-pointer. But Jeremy’s ward kept it close. Jeremy couldn’t miss, it seemed. When we double-teamed him, he managed to get the ball to a teammate who would score. It was frustrating. Things looked bleak when we went down six with two minutes to play.
Then we started battling back, finally taking a one-point lead with ten seconds to go. And we had the ball. But then I bobbled a pass and Jeremy stole it. He began driving toward the basket and drew up for a quick jumper from ten feet as I lunged to block the shot. He grimaced even before I hit him. It was as though he knew I was going to bat away his shot. As I reached my hand to swat the ball away, I slapped his forearm. The whistle blew, and the ref pointed at me.
Then something happened. Jeremy, still grimacing and shaking his head, intervened. “I traveled before I went up for the shot,” he explained, the disappointment and anguish heavy on his face.
Jeremy’s coach fired off the bench, a look of shock pinching his features. “Let the refs make the calls,” he hollered, turning to the officials. “I didn’t see the traveling. You didn’t see it, right?”
“If he said he traveled,” the ref said apologetically, nodding at Jeremy, “I can’t just ignore that. He called traveling on himself.”
Every eye was on Jeremy. Everybody was wondering what he was going to do. But more than anyone I knew what Jeremy would do. I had seen him sacrifice more than the last two points in a church ball game. I wanted him to stand by his call, but not so we could win. I suppose I wanted reaffirmed to me that someone could actually guard his integrity more intensely than he guarded his team’s chance to win.
Jeremy shrugged and shook his head. “I traveled.” Turning to his coach and teammates, he muttered a quiet, “I’m sorry.”
Jeremy’s coach, obviously frustrated, put his arm around Jeremy. Ever since my experience with Coach Angelo I had packed an annoying pocket of guilt in the pit of my stomach. Many times since I had reflected on the decisions I had made to earn a varsity spot. I had come to know that to experience the comfort of clear conscience sometimes demands the sting of public disapproval. As my team celebrated, I felt a deep-down empty sickness born of disappointment. For a moment I wondered what it would be like to lose on principle instead of winning in spite of it.
“We ought to play it over,” I blurted out. “That would be the fair thing to do. Jeremy would be hitting free throws right now if …” I stopped and glanced at Jeremy. I detected surprise in his look. “If we’re going to win,” I continued, “we ought to win without a questionable call at the end.”
“C’mon, Dave, we’ve got it won if the ref calls traveling on James,” Joel said.
It was now my turn to feel the pressure of the crowd. Then I remembered that Sunday afternoon when Coach Angelo “complimented” me by saying I went with the flow without making waves. He hadn’t meant to, but he had labeled me a coward.
“We can replay the last ten seconds of the game,” I explained. “This is a church game. We ought to do that. They get the ball where Jeremy stole it and we play from there.”
There were protests and arguments, each team struggling for the advantage. But the referees went along with my suggestion. We were ahead 68–67 with ten seconds on the clock.
Joel and I double-teamed Jeremy as he brought the ball up court. Jeremy made a move, and Joel slipped and fell. It was Jeremy and me, one on one. I knew I couldn’t foul him. My only chance was to block the shot. I expected the crucial moment to come under the basket as Jeremy drove the lane. But as soon as Jeremy reached the three-point line, he pulled up for a jump shot. The ball hit the bottom of the net as the buzzer blared.
Jeremy’s team went crazy, slapping high fives, hugging, laughing, and shouting. We stared in disbelief, and then my teammates turned away, some of them grumbling, all of them shunning me.
I made my way to the dressing room, more to be by myself than to shower or dress. Dropping down on the bench, I held my head in my hands. I had wanted to win. Yet there was a quiet, tranquil peace inside me. I had no regrets.
“Hey, Bluth.” I looked up to see Jeremy standing there. We stared at each other a moment before he spoke. “It was a good game. I just wanted to say thanks. I wasn’t sure … I just wanted you to know that …”
He smiled and shrugged, words escaping him. He swallowed and tried again. “Thanks for playing tough and hanging in there.”
Neither of us knew what to say after that. We both stood there silently. And then Jeremy held out his hand and I took it, feeling a lump squeeze into my throat. We shook hands firmly and looked into each other’s eyes, and I knew that between the two of us there was nothing more that needed to be said.