Authors: Matt Christopher
Copyright © 1998 by Matt Christopher Royalties, Inc.
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To my great-grandson, Evan Robert
aren McCall was
It wasn’t the noise of the screaming fans in the echoing gym or the glaring lights. It wasn’t that the basketball game was
close or that he’d been racing up and down the polished hardwood floor for what seemed like hours.
What Daren really was, was
. He’d expected the game to be a romp. His team, the Rangers, was one of the best in the league, way better than the pathetic
Demons, the bunch they were playing.
Daren had hoped to score a lot of points, maybe even a personal high.
But the Demons had hung in all the way. Now, with four minutes left, the Rangers led by just five points, and the game was
still up for grabs.
Lou Bettman, the six-foot one-inch Ranger center, was having a terrible game — again. He seemed to be sleepwalking, unable
to score or rebound. Daren couldn’t understand what had happened to Lou. He was the star of last year’s Rangers and had looked
even better as this year’s season began. Then, suddenly, he’d fallen apart.
But the person who was irritating Daren the most was a guy named Carl Mantell. Carl was guarding Daren. A mediocre player
according to his stats, Carl was giving Daren more trouble than Daren had thought he would. No matter what Daren did, Carl
stayed in his face, cutting off the lane when
he tried to drive or giving him little shoves to keep him off balance. What was worse, the ref, a skinny dude with hair in
his eyes, hadn’t called these obvious fouls. With a decent ref, Daren felt, Mantell would have fouled out by now.
After Lou blew another layup, the Demons raced up-court. Carl got the ball in the corner and threw a bad shot, way out of
his range. The ball bounced hard off the front rim and into the hands of Ranger guard Lynn Mayes, Daren’s best friend on the
team. Daren, seeing a possible fast break, spun and raced toward the Ranger basket. Lynn’s pass was short, making Daren slow
down to catch it. As he spun to shoot the hoop, Carl darted in to block him. As Daren threw up an off-balance shot, they collided,
and Carl staggered back, arms wheeling. Daren knew he hadn’t hit the guy hard and that Carl was acting. Sure enough, the ref
blew his whistle. Daren snagged the ball, sure he would be taking a trip to the foul line for two free throws.
A blocking foul on Carl, at last, he thought with satisfaction. But that feeling changed abruptly when he saw the ref pointing
“Charging, number four,” he said as Daren stared in disbelief. “Green ball.”
He saw Lynn signal him to cool it, but he was too angry to care. This ref was unreal!
The ref held out his hands. “C’mon, let’s have the ball.
Daren slammed the ball to the floor as hard as he could and stomped away. Behind him, he heard another shrill whistle.
“Technical foul, number four!”
Daren’s face burned as the crowd booed and jeered. He didn’t know if they were
booing the ref or him, but he wanted to kick himself for giving the Demons the chance to cut into the Ranger lead. Maybe
he could make it up in the last few minutes, if—
shouted Coach Michaels, drilling Daren with an icy glare. As the team went to the sideline, he pointed at Daren.
“Sit,” he snapped. “Shawn, go in for Daren. Listen up, everyone.” Daren started to protest, but a look at the coach’s face
made him shut up. The coach began talking to the team as Daren slumped in his seat. He knew that Coach Michaels was mad and
that there was no way he’d get back in this game, not even if six Rangers broke their legs.
It wasn’t fair. Carl Mantell was playing dirty, the ref was blind, and now the coach was making him look bad by benching him.
When the game resumed, he stared at the floor. He could tell from the crowd’s groan
that Carl had made the technical. Now the Ranger lead had been cut to four, and the Demons had the ball.
Could the Demons pull this game out? And if they did, would Daren’s teammates blame him?
He forced himself to watch. A moment later, he jumped up in excitement when the Rangers intercepted a Demon pass. Guard Cris
Campbell banked in a jumper, and Daren cheered. The Ranger lead inched ahead to six points.
A moment later, Mac Gould, the Demon center, took a pass from Carl Mantell, spun away from Lou Bettman, and tried a soft jumper
from eight feet. Lou hit Mac’s arm as the shot went in. The ref called the foul on Lou, and Gould sank the foul shot. The
Ranger lead was cut to three with two minutes left.
Daren slapped his thigh with his lucky
towel. What was going on with Lou? Had he forgotten how to play basketball? Didn’t he care anymore? Daren felt like running
in and shaking Lou by the shoulders, hard, and yelling at him to wake up. Maybe Daren had not had a very good game, but Lou
was totally messing up.
When the Rangers inbounded, the Demons tried to trap Lynn in the backcourt, swarming around him and waving their arms. Shawn
Howe came back to help, and Lynn bounced a pass to him. Shawn passed to Cris, who sank another jumper.
The Demons seemed rattled. Lynn intercepted the Demons’ inbound pass and laid it in to make the Ranger lead seven. Daren looked
at the clock and knew it was all over. The Rangers had the game in their pockets now.
At the final buzzer, the scoreboard read Rangers 52, Demons 45.
The teams headed for the locker rooms. The Demons looked unhappy, but the Rangers weren’t too cheerful, either. They knew
they hadn’t played anywhere near their best.
Daren felt bad about the technical and knew it might have cost his team the game. Just thinking about the events that had
led up to it made him hot under the collar. He might have had a good game if Carl Mantell hadn’t played dirty and if the ref
hadn’t needed glasses. It was really their fault he had lost his temper and been benched.
And what was up with that? He was sure that he could have made up for his mistake if the coach hadn’t benched him. Coach Michaels
should have given him another chance instead of making him look bad.
It just wasn’t fair.
he first thing Daren saw in the visitors locker room was the Ranger team manager, Andy Higgins. Andy, with his usual geeky
grin, was clapping his hands, trading high fives with whoever was willing, and slapping players on the back. Didn’t he see
that the Rangers hadn’t played well today, even though they’d won?
Apparently, he didn’t. “All
he yelled. “Way to go! Rangers rule!” Andy was no athlete, but he loved basketball and hanging with the Rangers. Daren loved
basketball, too, but he doubted he’d spend
free time rattling around on an old school bus to away games just to hand out towels and drinks.
“Way to go, Dar!” Andy said, holding out his hand. Daren brushed by him, ignoring the hand. Andy looked hurt, but Daren was
too upset to care.
“Right, Andy,” called Lou Bettman, sitting by his locker. “Daren did great… for the
guys. Real smart, Daren, getting a
Daren heard a couple of others muttering agreement with Lou and felt his temper heat up.
“Hey, Lou,” Daren said, sneering. “You want to talk about great games? You want to talk about
were a real all-star out there —
. You couldn’t find the basket with a road map, and you wouldn’t know what a rebound was if it bit you on the leg. Talk about
pathetic. You were the worst —”
Lou stood up quickly and walked away, almost falling over Andy, who was stooping to pick up towels. “Watch it!” he shouted.
“Look where you’re going!”
“S-sorry, Lou,” Andy mumbled as he edged away. “I didn’t… I mean, I wasn’t…”
“Hey, McCall! Don’t hassle Lou!” Shawn glared at Daren. “Maybe Lou didn’t have his shot working, but that doesn’t change the
fact that what you did was just
Daren knew that Shawn was right. It
been stupid. But he wasn’t about to admit it, not the way he was feeling. He matched Shawn’s glare with one of his own. “That
ref was the pits!” he said. “If he hadn’t swallowed his whistle, Mantell would’ve fouled out! First the ref gets on me, and
now you! You must be glad I got benched so you could get some playing time. What a team player!”
Shawn looked disgusted. “It’s all about you, huh?
talk about team players! A
team player doesn’t blow up like you did, and he doesn’t hassle a teammate just because the guy’s game was a little off.”
off!” Daren laughed. Lynn came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. Daren shook it off. “Right! And the Grand Canyon’s
hole in the ground!”
“Quiet, everybody!” Coach Michaels stood in the doorway and looked around the suddenly silent room.
“That’s better,” the coach said. “I think you all know we didn’t give a hundred percent today. We could just as easily have
lost it at the end.
“We play the Blazers next, and you’d better be ready. If you don’t pick up your game, those guys will walk all over you. We
have our work cut out for us, so be ready to sweat at practice tomorrow. I’ll go over the things we need to work on. That’s
all for now. Daren, come with me.”
Uh-oh, Daren thought. As he stood up, Lynn whispered, “Be cool. Hang in there.”
In the hallway, Daren faced Coach Michaels but looked away fast. The coach’s eyes were cold, and his lips formed a thin line.
Daren braced himself to get chewed out.
But the coach didn’t say anything at first, and when he did, his voice was soft.
“What happened out there? What did you think you were doing?”
Daren looked up. “I — I guess I sort of blew it, huh?” Daren tried a little smile, but he got no smile in return.
“‘Sort of’? You
blew it, big time. Sometimes I wonder what you’re thinking.”
Daren stopped smiling. “Well, it’s just that… Coach, didn’t you see Mantell shove me around and foul me all game long? That
ref was —”
The coach cut Daren off. “So it was all Mantell’s and the ref’s fault?”
“Well…” Daren shrugged. “No, not
their fault, but —”
“That technical wasn’t anybody’s fault but yours,” said Coach Michaels. His eyes bored into Daren. “It was that temper of
yours — again. We’ve talked about it before.”
Daren looked down. “I know. But —”
“No, Daren. No ‘buts.’ If you can’t learn to control that temper, you’ll wind up hurting the team more than you help it. I
won’t have that. Next time you go ballistic in a game, you can expect to spend a lot more time on the bench. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Daren muttered.
The coach nodded. “All right. Just as long as we understand each other. Now, let’s put it behind us and get ready for the
When Daren went out to the team bus for the trip home, he felt everyone’s eyes on him. He found a seat alone at the back.
“How you doing?” Lynn sat down next to Daren, who shrugged.
Lynn peered at Daren for a moment. “Got chewed out, huh? Well, Coach doesn’t hold a grudge. Tomorrow it’ll all —”
Daren cut him off. “He doesn’t like me. He’s going to kick me off the team soon.”
Lynn shook his head. “No way, Dar. He likes you as much as he likes any of us. It’s just that he —”