Every Player's Dream
© Copyright 2011 by Jaclyn Pietrafetta
“Oooooooh!” we all moaned in agony.
Of all the exercises we had to do at basketball practice, foot fire was definitely the worst. Having to crouch down and run in place as fast as you possibly can for five whole minutes was agony enough, but doing it three and a half hours into practice was just plain torture.
The beads of sweat that had been creeping down my face and back all through practice now made my whole body itch.
“Libby, straighten your back,” ordered coach Madigan.
“Libby, straighten your back,” I mimicked annoyingly under my breath.
Valerie, who happened to be my biggest enemy and was standing right next to me, turned to glare at me.
“If you were doing it the right way, coach wouldn’t have to criticize,” she snorted. “Or maybe I should just be a brownnoser like you,” I mumbled.
“Alright girls, water break!” coach Madigan yelled.
Rolling her eyes, Valerie tramped off to join her snob squad just as my best friend, Mandy, strolled up behind me.
“You know, she thinks she’s so much better a player than me just because she’s a starter. God, she is such a snob!”
“Libby, I wouldn’t take it so personally. Val thinks she is God’s gift to the whole world,” Mandy said.
“How can I not take it personally? Do you remember what she said in front of the whole softball team last year? She had the nerve to tell the coach not to expect too much from me because I was lazy at every sport I played. Remember when you told me about that? Of course, if I had actually been there, she wouldn’t have had the guts to say it to my face.”
“Listen to me,” Mandy said, grabbing my shoulders. “We are seniors. This is our last chance to play for the state champs at the Boston Garden as a varsity basketball team. Now you can either let Val get the best of you, or you can wait and prove her wrong on the court tomorrow.”
“Time’s up!” coach Madigan interrupted. “Give me ten laps around the gym and then meet at the center of the court.”
“Ughhhh,” we all moaned in exhaustion. After twenty more minutes of dragging our legs one final lap around the gym like programmed robots, we gathered for our last motivational speech before the big game.
“This is it ladies. This is what you’ve been working for all year. You’ve all made a tremendous effort to come to practice five days a week, four hours at a time for the past six months. You may all be exhausted. You may even hate me right now, but in less than twenty-four hours, you will be playing on the same court as the NBA.”
“Yea, baby!” we all yelled in unison, “Boston Garden, here we come!”
“Listen up. I’m not through yet,” coach continued. “Whatever concerns or problems you might have right now, put them all aside. For the next twenty-four hours, I want you to eat, sleep, drink and breathe basketball. Tomorrow is the day to show everybody what champions are made of.”
I noticed coach looking directly at me when she said this. I don’t know if she really knew that something, or should I say someone, was bothering me, but I took the hint anyway.
Even though it was only 8:00 when I got home from practice, I went right to bed anyway. Despite what Mandy said and what coach Madigan advised, I couldn’t help still being ticked off at Val – mainly because I secretly agreed with her. I wish I were a lot better at basketball, but I still don’t think it’s right to put other people down just to make yourself feel good.
Anyway, I guess I was a lot more tired than I thought, because the last thing I remember was staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling before I woke up the next morning.
“Libby? Libby, Mandy is on the phone,” my sister, Kirstin, said shaking me lightly on the shoulder.
Still half asleep, I took the cordless phone from her hand.
“Hello?” I mumbled.
“Woman! What are you still doing in bed? The train we have to catch leaves in a half hour,” Mandy replied.
I turned my blurry eyes to my alarm clock just as it turned 6:30 a.m. Suddenly, I found myself wide-awake.
“Great. The last thing I need is to miss the biggest game of my life. Wouldn’t Val have a field day on that one?” I asked sarcastically.
“Forget her. I was calling to see if you needed a ride.”
“Well, I do now,” I replied.
“Then get your lazy butt out of bed. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“Alright. Thanks. Bye.”
Even though the train station was only a five-minute drive from my house, I wasted no time getting ready. Tossing the phone on my bed, I ran to swipe the hangers off my closet, where my warm-up and game uniform were neatly hung.
After quickly getting dressed and throwing my basketball sneakers into my bag, I was about to run out of the room when the reflection in my bedroom mirror caught my eye. I slowly turned to face myself. Was it me, or did my royal blue uniform seem to shine brighter than usual? Even the number 7 on my shirt seemed bigger. I looked down at my hands and realized they were shaking.
“Oh boy, Libby. It’s just another game. Don’t freak out now,” I thought. On second thought, pointing to myself in the mirror, I said out loud, “But don’t blow it either.”
With that, I tossed my bag over my shoulder and walked out of my room.
As soon as Mandy and I stepped off the train into the Boston Garden building, the smell of hotdogs and popcorn filled the air, making me wish I had eaten something before I left my house. A huge sign reading, “Buy State Champion Tickets Here,” hung above the ticket booth, where long lines of people stood.
For a second, I could feel my stomach flip-flop.
“I almost wish I were here to watch a game and not actually play in one,” I said to Mandy.
“I know what you mean,” she laughed nervously.
Walking with Mandy into the heart of the Boston Garden, I could here the stadium beating with excitement. The first few rows of seats around the court were already partially filled. I had to laugh when I looked over at one end and saw a bunch of guys from our high school standing on their chairs with their stomachs painted blue and white, our school colors. On each of their stomachs was written a different letter so, standing side-by-side, they spelled out, “Go Big Blue!”
Most of our teammates had already arrived and were shooting around when we reached the benches. Reality didn’t quite hit until I grabbed a ball and walked out in the middle of the court. I looked up in awe at the scoreboard hanging what seemed like miles above my head in the center of all the retired shirts of legendary basketball players. For a second, I couldn’t find my breath and felt my heart skip a beat when I suddenly realized that I was standing in the exact spot where Larry Bird probably once stood. And Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe Bryant…
“Libby. Oh earth to Libby,” Mandy repeated.
“Libby! Pay attention and get in line for lay-ups,” Val snapped. “We do have game to practice for, ya know?” Mandy looked at her and then at me and shrugged her shoulders. Glaring at Val, I stepped into line.
The clock began counting down from thirty minutes, when the loud buzzer would sound the start of the game. For every second that passed, my heart pounded louder and harder. My nervousness seemed to be at a natural high. Lay-ups then jump shots and three-on-threes. We practiced until the time had only five minutes left.
“All right, girls. Locker room.”
“Pull up a seat. Relax,” coach Madigan said after we had situated ourselves.
“We’re going to start off with full court defense for the first half. Caitlin, you’re going to be point guard. Val and Michelle, guards. Jamie and Mandy, forwards,” coach instructed.
I looked over at Mandy and gave her the thumbs up sign. I was happy for her that coach put her in as a starter. As for me, I knew coach wouldn’t have called my name. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t put me in the game at all. I looked over at Val who, as usual, was wearing her most serious game face. To me, it always made her look like she was constipated.
“Well, that covers it. I hope you all slept well last night, because I expect you all to work harder these next few hours than you ever have in your life.” When coach was finished, we all joined hands and screamed a hopeful, “Win! Win! Win!”
Back on the court, the buzzer sounded. The game was about to start. I took my best position as benchwarmer, sitting there with my hands clenched and resting on my chin. The entire place became completely silent as the ref threw the ball in the air to see who would have first possession of the game.
Our ball. Jamie taps it to Caitlin. Caitlin bounces to Val. Val passes back to Jamie for a lay-up. It’s good! The stands go crazy with excitement. The opposing team has possession now as our girls take their defensive positions up the court. Pass. Pass. Jump shot. Miss! The crowd goes wild. Mandy jumps up for the rebound, throws it to Caitlin who dribbles up the sidelines and throws it to Michelle. Michelle bounces the ball down to Mandy. Mandy to Jamie. Jamie shoots another lay-up and misses. A sigh of disappointment echoes in the stands. The opposing team grabs the ball, passes down the sidelines and shoots a wild three-pointer and scores. The score is now 2 to 3, their lead.
You can imagine the nervousness, excitement and anticipation of every individual watching the game when this back and forth possession went on for the whole thirty-minute quarter. When the timer finally buzzed, the players, hot and heaving with exhaustion, walked off the court. The score was now 45 to 40, their lead.
Despite my teammates looking like they were going to keel over, coach didn’t want to take any chances and left them all in the game. Five minutes came and went. Jamie, Mandy, Caitlin, Michelle and Val all walked back on the court. They were on a mission to win and their faces said it all.
The opposing team had second half possession. Once again, they dribbled the ball down, shot and missed. Caitlin grabbed the rebound, bounced it back down the court with lightning speed, stopped, popped a three-pointer and scored!
People in the stands were going so crazy at this point that I could feel my own feet vibrating against the floor from the crowd, stamping with excitement. “Big Blue! Big Blue! Big Blue!” The crowd’s roaring was so loud that it sounded more like a hum.
I was watching with so much intensity that I didn’t even realize only two minutes remained on the clock. The ref blew the whistle. A foul was called against the opposing team. Mandy shoots at the line and made both baskets!
“Yea!” the crowd shouted. Somewhere in the stands, a foghorn blew.
The score was now 67 to 70. We were still behind.
Bounces, passes, shots and misses. Only one minute remained until the end of the game.
“Put me in. Put me in. Dear God, I want to play. I need to play,” I prayed.
A sudden screech of agony sounded from one of the players. Another whistle was blown. Another foul was called. Val had been tripped! She was lying on the floor wincing as she grabbed her ankle in pain. I sat on the bench in total shock, while coach ran out to check the damage.
A few minutes later, with coach at her aid, Val hobbled off the court. “Libby, check in,” coach ordered.
“Did I just hear her right? Did she just say I was in the game?” I thought.
My heart skipped two beats this time, and a lump formed in my throat as I found myself joining the rest of my team on the court. Mandy looked at me and smiled. She knew as much as I did that my biggest dream in my four years of playing high school basketball had just come true.
The ref blew the whistle. The game must go on.
I played defense harder than I ever had in my life, but all I really wanted to do was score. Bouncing and passing, shooting and missing. Nothing was happening anymore for either team. They were too exhausted, but not me. I could have gone for another entire half easily. Then it happened. Nobody, especially me, saw it coming. Nobody had time to see it coming.
Ten seconds left in the game. The other team shot and missed. Mandy grabbed the rebound, threw it to Caitlin, who bounced it up the court. The defense could not have played any tougher. Three players were on Caitlin. She needed help now.
“Libby, come up!” she yelled in desperation.
I immediately obeyed. Caitlin bounced the ball around the defense in my direction. Five. Four. Three…
“Shoot it! Just shoot it! Now!” my teammates screamed.
The whole crowd was yelling along with them. So I shot it. I squared up, shot and…
Before I even realized what had happened, my team was running, screaming, jumping on top of me with hugs. Val remained on the sidelines. I didn’t notice her reaction. Quite frankly, I didn’t care. I could only stand their frozen with my mouth wide open. Tears started forming down the corner of my eyes, from the corner of everybody’s eyes. The final score was us, 72, them, 70. I had just scored the winning basket for my team – me, an average player who barely got any playing time.
That night, I watched replays of our game on the news, how we fell behind and jumped ahead, how much we fouled and how much we scored. I watched in detail this time how Val was tripped and how I scored the winning shot in her place. I even watched the interview I was given after the game by the local news channels.
“This must be a very memorable moment for you right now. How did you feel when you scored the winning basket for your team’s State Championship game?” the sports announcer asked.
All I could say in response with a smile on my face and a tear rolling down my cheek was, “I almost didn’t wake up this morning.”
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