Though only moments remained in Franklin High’s last preseason scrimmage, several players were still fighting for their basketball survival. Final cuts were tomorrow, and the intense action on the court reflected the athletes’ anxiety. It was now or never to make that one last good impression.
Jeff Anderson, on the other hand, was as confident as they come. A slim six-foot-one senior with aspirations of a college scholarship, Jeff had made the varsity team three years running. He had even been named an all-star twice. The competition was a little tougher this year, the team had a new coach, and Jeff hadn’t exactly found the top of his game yet, but that was nothing to worry about. His position was sure.
When the buzzer finally sounded, the exhausted contenders headed for the showers. On the way off the court, Jeff found himself next to Mark, a freshman who had been giving his all to make the varsity squad. Poor Mark probably didn’t have a chance, Jeff thought.
“Think you’ll make the cut?” Jeff asked him anyway.
“I don’t know,” Mark replied cautiously. “I hope so.”
“Well, since this is your first year, don’t take it so hard if you don’t land a spot. Good luck, though.”
“Thanks,” Mark said as the two split to go to their separate lockers. “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”
The next day when Jeff reported to practice, the final team roster was posted outside the coach’s door. Jeff almost didn’t bother to read it, but curiosity made him stop.
Mark had made the cut, as had a few other underclassmen. But when Jeff got to the end of the list, a terrible realization hit him like a right hook to the jaw—his own name was missing.
Jeff went white with shock. For five minutes he stood there dazed, frantically scanning the paper over and over. This can’t be happening, he thought. In desperation, he opened the door and asked the coach if there had been a mistake. There hadn’t.
“But why?” asked Jeff in disbelief. “I’m a senior and a two-time all-star. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
The coach sat down. “Yes, Jeff, it does,” he began, “but I have to go with my best players. This year there were a lot of younger guys who were better. I could have kept you on the team and let you sit on the bench, but didn’t think that would be fair to you. I’m sorry, Jeff.”
It’s still not fair, Jeff thought as he walked away. You just don’t cut an all-star. He could feel the anger and frustration swelling within him. Even if your younger guys were better, seniors should have priority. But right now it didn’t matter what he thought. That morning he had been a star basketball player and a member of a real team, but now he was nobody, and when people found out, his life would be over for sure.
That afternoon, Jeff’s mom was quick with her usual greeting.
“Hi, Jeff. How was your day?” she asked cheerfully, unaware of the day’s events.
“Bad,” Jeff retorted bluntly. Avoiding eye contact, he threw down his backpack and stomped into the kitchen. His mom followed.
“How bad?” she asked. “What happened?”
Silence. He didn’t want to talk, but he guessed it would have to come out sometime.
“It’s so stupid,” he finally confessed, banging his fist on the counter.
“The basketball team,” Jeff started. “The new coach thinks the sophomores and juniors are better than me and today he cut me from the team—just like that.”
Jeff’s mother knew how much basketball meant to him. “Oh, Jeff, I’m sorry, but it’s not the end …” she stopped abruptly, knowing this was not the time for a lecture.
“End, nothing,” he replied angrily. “My life is ruined.” And with that he tromped upstairs to his room and slammed the door.
By dinnertime, word of Jeff’s catastrophe had spread through the entire family, and as expected, everyone had questions and advice he didn’t want to hear.
“Are you still going to be on the basketball team?” Jeff’s ten-year-old brother, Doug, wanted to know. As younger brothers often do, Doug idolized Jeff and wanted to know every detail of his athletic affairs.
“No,” Jeff snapped, still mad at the world. “I got cut, okay? Now leave me alone.”
Jeff’s dad tried to offer some sympathy. “Well, I think the coach made a poor decision,” he said. “But even if we could make him take you back, you know he wouldn’t play you. Just don’t let it get you down. When I was a freshman in high school I wanted to be a star baseball player, but I didn’t make the cut either. I was angry and disappointed like you, but instead of letting it eat at me, I got involved in other things and still had a fun four years. Just look at this as a kind of intermission,” Dad continued. “With the right attitude, you could still have a great second half.”
“But Dad,” Jeff countered, “I’ve already made the team three years in a row. You hadn’t put as much into it as I have. You still had plenty of time to start over. I don’t.”
“There are still plenty of activities you could try,” his mom interjected. “Maybe you could audition for the drama club or join the school choir.”
“Ha ha,” Jeff said dryly. “You couldn’t get me into those things if you paid me. Besides, I’m an athlete.”
“How about baseball?” Doug suggested. “You could be the pitcher!” Any sport was fine for Doug.
“Baseball is different than basketball,” Jeff explained, brushing Doug aside. “Now could everyone please just let me eat in peace?”
The room immediately fell silent. Except for the occasional clink of knives and forks, no one spoke for several minutes. Finally, someone dared to try again.
“I hear there’s an opening for a sports reporter on the school paper,” suggested Cindy, a year younger than Jeff. “You’ve always been a good writer, and that might be right up your alley.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Jeff said, getting up from the table. He couldn’t stand it anymore. “If none of you mind, I’ll just run my own life.” He stomped from the room, and with a loud clatter he dropped his plate in the kitchen sink and disappeared. It looked to be a long basketball season for the Andersons.
Several days passed, and Jeff refused to cheer up for anyone. He avoided his family whenever possible, and at school he distanced himself from friends. At lunch he sat alone, far from anyone who might dare talk to him, until one day he had a surprise visitor.
“Hi, Jeff,” she said as she sat down across from him. Her name was Kristy Campbell, and Jeff knew her from a few classes they had taken together. She had also been in his sixth period study hall at the beginning of this year but had disappeared after only a few weeks.
“Lately you look like you could use a friend,” she announced, “so I’ve come to apply for the position. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” Jeff shot back. It was a nice gesture on her part, but it looked to him like she only wanted to be his psychiatrist, and the last thing he needed was one more self-styled shrink to analyze his plight.
“I heard about the basketball team,” Kristy revealed. “That’s really too bad.”
“Yeah, what else is new?” Jeff asked sarcastically. He wasn’t in the mood for this.
Kristy chuckled. “What are you doing with your spare time now that you’re not playing basketball?” she asked.
“Not a lot,” Jeff answered evasively, looking down at his tray.
Kristy didn’t give up. “Say, don’t you have a free hour sixth period?” she remembered.
“It’s my study hall hour,” he said. “Why do you want to know?”
“Well, since you’ve got a little time on your hands, I thought you might be able to come down to the gym sixth period and help me out with something.”
Kristy got up from the table. “It’s a surprise,” she said with a smile, “but it has to do with basketball, and you’re just the person I need. I’ll see you there.”
She turned and bolted for the door. By the time Jeff could say anything, she was yards away and out of earshot. Oh well, he thought, she’ll be disappointed when I’m not there.
By the end of fifth period, however, Jeff’s curiosity was piqued. What kind of favor could Kristy possibly need that involved basketball? And why him? His homework was light today, so maybe he would at least go see what it was. If it didn’t look interesting, he could always go back to the library and study.
When the bell sounded, he walked slowly down the hall, still imagining what might lie ahead. As he neared the gym, he heard basketballs bouncing. He racked his brain again for possible explanations. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to find.
When he entered the gym he saw several students dribbling or shooting basketballs, but they weren’t in any of his classes and they weren’t on the basketball team. They were members of Franklin High’s special education class, and all of them had some kind of mental disability. Some were physically handicapped as well.
Jeff instantly felt out of place and turned to make a quick exit, but an excited Kristy Campbell stood between him and the door.
“You came!” she nearly shouted. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Then she explained. “You see, I’ve been using my study period to help out with the special ed P.E. class, and today we’re playing basketball. I thought I could use a little help, and with your expertise, you’re the perfect person to be my assistant. Come and let me introduce you.”
This was awkward. Jeff had seen the special ed class in the halls and in their own corner of the cafeteria, but he had never felt comfortable enough to talk to them and didn’t feel like starting now. He didn’t know them, and they were, well, different.
“Attention everyone. This is Jeff Anderson,” Kristy announced to the group. “He was on the school basketball team last year and today he’s going to watch and give us a little advice.”
Great, Jeff thought. Now I’m stuck.
“And since he’s such a hotshot superstar,” Kristy continued, shooting Jeff a grin, “we should all be pros by the end of the period.”
As soon as Kristy finished, Jeff was immediately mobbed by his new fan club. One boy in particular was eager to get close to him.
“My name is Joseph,” he shouted above the clamor. He was Jeff’s age, and he shared Jeff’s love for basketball, but he also suffered from Down’s syndrome. Jeff didn’t know what to say.
“I went to five games last year and you played great,” Joseph said. “In the last game against Jefferson you scored 18 points and Franklin won, 55–40. Can you teach us to shoot baskets like you? Please?”
Jeff was flattered by Joseph’s compliments, but more than that, he was astounded at Joseph’s amazing memory of scores and statistics. He hadn’t thought anyone like Joseph could be capable of such a feat, but now he realized that he was wrong. More than that, he was intrigued.
“Sure, I can show you,” Jeff finally agreed, his face now sporting a visible grin. The small crowd erupted in cheers, and Jeff began to notice that for them this was an exciting day.
From there Kristy basically ran the show, naming the drills and organizing the students. Jeff, meanwhile, demonstrated each move and offered pointers and assistance wherever he could. All the participants loved his attention, and no one was the least bit annoyed with his suggestions. If only everyone could respond this well to coaching, he thought.
At one point during a shooting exercise, Joseph became discouraged because he couldn’t get the ball in the basket. He had tried several times from the same spot and hadn’t come close to hitting anything.
“I give up!” he shouted in disgust. “I’m never going to make it from here.”
“Hey, relax,” Jeff broke in. “Let’s try it again. Bend your knees a little bit, and push off with your feet when you shoot. Focus on the front of the rim and try to shoot the ball just over the rim.” He gave the ball back to Joseph, who followed his instructions carefully. The shot still didn’t fall, but this time it went high enough and far enough and banked off the rim.
“The most important thing to remember is to never give up,” Jeff told Joseph. Then almost as a joke he added, “And if that doesn’t work, try a different shot.”
“Thanks,” Joseph said. “You’re awesome. That’s good advice.”
“You bet,” Jeff replied without thinking. But as he passed the ball on, it suddenly hit him. These students were the embodiment of perseverance and improvisation. If anybody needed that advice, he did.
When the bell rang, the regular instructor returned and Kristy asked the students to gather up all the equipment. While they were busy, she ran to grab Jeff before he left the gym.
“Thanks a lot, Jeff,” she said. “I know you didn’t have to stay or even show up in the first place.”
“You really didn’t need me here,” Jeff pointed out. “You could have done all this yourself.”
“Maybe,” she answered, “but they needed you. You gave them your attention, along with a shot of inspiration, and they won’t soon forget that. Besides, I think you needed them.”
Jeff didn’t admit it, but he knew exactly what Kristy meant. Just being there to actively help her students had forced him out of his shell. It had even been fun. What’s more, Joseph’s astute observation had made him realize that he shouldn’t let anything keep him down for too long—not even getting cut from the basketball team.
“We don’t play basketball every time,” Kristy continued, “but we could sure use you again if you have the time. Our next class is Wednesday, same period.”
Jeff hesitated. Although the hour had gone well, he wasn’t sure he wanted to make a habit out of it. “Well …” he started.
“Hey, Jeff!” a voice suddenly bellowed from behind. It was Joseph, on his way out the door with the rest of the class. “Are you coming back Wednesday?”
Instantly all Jeff’s excuses seemed to vanish. “Sure,” he answered. “You can count on it.”
Joseph grinned and waved good-bye. Jeff waved back and then turned to look at Kristy. “Thanks,” she said as she hoisted the equipment bag over her shoulder. “You’re a real hero.”
On the walk home that afternoon, Jeff thought about the day’s developments. He wasn’t any closer to regaining his spot on the varsity basketball squad, but now he had a new team, and for the first time in weeks, he felt important. He had only coached Kristy’s students in small ways, but they had managed to teach him a lot more. He still had a lot to give, no matter what uniform he was wearing.
As for Kristy’s class, Jeff would see them Wednesday, and maybe more Wednesdays if Kristy asked. In the meantime, he might even check into that reporting job with the paper. If he couldn’t play the games, at least he could write about them. The second half was about to begin.