Authors: Thatcher Heldring
For Staci and Jack
or as long I’d been playing basketball, all I’d ever wanted to be was a gym rat. I was just happy playing the game. All the other stuff—coaches, practices, and drills—got in the way. Take my best friend, JJ. When varsity basketball practices started Monday, his sorry butt would be stuck in the school gym five days a week until January, while I was living free, playing pickup ball at our local rec center. Sure, there were those nights when JJ would bring down the house with a game winner and I would get just a little jealous because I wasn’t down there on the court with him. But that was how it had always been, and as far as I knew, that was how it would always be. I was the gym rat and he was the star.
How that all changed started around Halloween—which had a lot do with it, too. We were playing pickup ball with the gym rats. It was five on five and as always, we were playing to eleven, win by two, which meant the game continued until one team scored two straight baskets. If the teams traded baskets, like we had been doing for twenty minutes, there was no telling how long it would go on.
At the moment, I had two things on my mind. Trick-or-treating. And of course beating Vinny Pesto. Vinny was first. He was the captain of the basketball team at Hamilton Middle School—our school’s archrival. Vinny and I had been going at it since the sixth grade. He never let me forget that Hamilton had won the league championship the year before. And I never let him forget that he was a cherry-picking ball-hog chump who wore his team jersey to open gym—major loser move.
I had just missed a jump shot and now Vinny was letting me hear about it, as usual. “That’s a nice two-handed jump shot, Wheeler,” he said. “They teach you that at Gym Rat Junior High?”
“That’s a nice costume, Pesto,” I shot back quickly. “I didn’t know they sold dog-butt masks.”
I used my jersey to wipe the sweat from my hands and smiled, thinking how Vinny was one of the best things and worst things about open gym. The worst because he
seemed to get me in the end. The best because without him, it wouldn’t be any fun.
JJ was taking it easy that day, holding back. Every once in a while we’d try to run some no-look pass we’d practiced on the hoop on our street, but usually that led to a turnover. Otherwise JJ was just having fun and laughing at the dumb stuff Vinny and I were saying to each other. JJ moved without the ball, played defense, and passed off instead of shooting. But anyone who had seen him play knew he could switch his game on like a light.
In the meantime, it was the Toby vs. Vinny show. Vinny hit an ugly runner off the glass to put his team back up by one. I hit an eight-footer from the baseline. He scooped in a shot on a drive after taking more steps than a walkathon. I let it go, since this was pickup ball, and answered with a little magic of my own—a slash and dish to Old Dude for a layup. Vinny came back with his go-to move—the jab-step, pull-back jumper—and nailed it.
“I think we can beat these guys,” I told JJ even though we were down by one and Vinny’s team had the ball. There was no answer so I added, “What do you think—JJ?”
But JJ was focused on the doorway, where two men were watching us play. That was unusual. We didn’t get many spectators at open gym. JJ’s dad was on the right in heavy boots and a thick work jacket. The other man was larger than him—thick in the middle with a neck like an ox. He was dressed in nice pants and a sport coat. He had a tie, too, and glasses. They had been talking and pointing for a minute or so when JJ’s dad whistled, gestured to the other man, and mouthed to JJ,
This is him.
He mimed a jump shot and nodded. Translation: Shoot.
JJ closed his eyes, exhaled, and opened them again, ready to play. One thing about JJ’s dad—when he said shoot, you shot. First we had to get the rock back. I wondered who the other man was, but Vinny interrupted me before I could ask. “Ready to get burned like a piece of firewood, scrub?” he asked, bouncing me the ball so we could check it in.
I returned the ball. “Ready to get stuffed like a turkey, loser?”
Vinny passed, then got the ball back. He dribbled in place. It was a showdown.
You are not winning this one, Pesto.
I went into lockdown mode, keeping him between me and the basket, ready to pounce the second he twitched. “Stay with me, gym rat,” he said. My eyes never left his. I knew his tics like the back of my hand. A quick breath meant he was going to drive. A curl of the lip meant he was going to shoot.
Gimme what you got, hotshot.
All of a sudden, the pace of his dribble quickened. He went from his left to his right hand and back to his left—
ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
On the last
he inhaled and cut inside. I tried to stay with him, but crossed my own feet and stumbled. Vinny laughed all the way to the hoop, but shut his mouth when he got there. Like a lightning bolt, JJ had flashed across from the weak side as Vinny rose for the layup and snatched the ball cleanly away—almost in midair.
Vinny might have called foul, but JJ’s dad whistled and clapped, causing play to stop while everyone looked around. We never got a lot of fans at the rec center. While I caught my breath and silently thanked JJ for coming alive at the right time, Old Dude shuffled past me. “Watch the ball, not the man,” he said, winking. Old Dude was old—old enough to have a few gray hairs and two knee braces that made him look a bit like a robot in short shorts—but he knew his basketball.
JJ had the ball now, with Blue Shirt sticking him tight. Too bad for Blue Shirt—JJ was harder to guard than a ghost. One second JJ was standing in front of him with the ball. Just chilling on the right wing. Close enough to touch. Then he jab-stepped, pump-faked, and
he was on his way to the basket, and the game was tied. Blue Shirt just stood there, frozen, first staring straight ahead, then down at his blue shirt.
The game went on full speed now. Before we had a chance to get set on defense, Vinny’s team inbounded the ball and rushed it upcourt. Blue Shirt wound up with it but was too strong on a shot that would have put them back up by one. I got the rebound and brought it back the other way. I raced up the right sideline, dribbling the ball with my outside hand. When I got to midcourt someone yelled “Whoooop,” which in gym rat means “I’m open!” I looked up and a half second later felt the ball go off my toe and out of bounds. Turnover.
I could see JJ’s dad slap his hat against his thigh. He wasn’t pleased. But that changed the instant JJ jumped in front of the inbounds pass and flipped it behind his back to Old Dude. We were up by one! Then Blue Shirt saw Vinny cherry-picking and hurled a full-court bomb that hit the wall behind the hoop. Our ball! Now JJ’s dad was crouching on the sideline, nearly pulling his hat apart.
Sport Coat was watching closely, too. You can tell sometimes by the look in someone’s eye that he’s taking notes in his head, and that was what this guy was doing—taking notes. But about what—or who? Me? It was bad enough I had just blown a chance to tie the game again. I didn’t need strangers thinking about it too. I caught up to JJ near the free-throw line and asked him about the mystery man.
“That’s him,” JJ said, “our new coach. Well, my new coach.”
“What’s he doing here?” I asked.
“Dad brought him. It’s his way of helping.”
“Coach. Me. Himself. I don’t know,” JJ said quietly. When JJ turned on his game, he turned off something else. He disappeared into some autopilot mode. After that, he wasn’t playing, he was working. It must have had something to do with his dad—or coach—because the moment he saw them was the moment he had stopped having fun.
To bring JJ back, I punched him in the shoulder. “Let’s run Boardman,” I said. Boardman was one of our plays. We named it after our street, where we made it up. Basically, all that happened was that one of us—usually JJ—started in the corner, cut to the wing, then to the baseline for a back-door pass.
JJ glanced at his dad, then at me again. He shook the hair from his face, knocked my fist with his, and said, “Game on.”
was our own greeting. It started on Boardman Street too. Whenever a car would come by, we’d say “Car” and stop the game. Then, when the car was gone, we’d yell “Game on!” and the game would continue. Before long, we began using it on the phone. Instead of “Hey, are we playing?” it would be “Game on?” After a while, “Game on” just took the place of “Hello” altogether.
JJ checked the ball in with his man. Vinny lined up against me in the corner. “This is it, Pesto,” I said. “You’re going down like Old Yeller.”
Vinny tapped his captain patch. “I don’t know who that is, but trust me, gym rat, even
your superstar friend, you will never, ever beat the greatest show on earth.”
A moment later, we were running Boardman. I caught a laser-perfect pass from JJ on the baseline and sliced to the basket. Unfortunately, I sliced too far and ended up under the hoop. Leaning back, I tried to maneuver the ball in, but it clanked against the bottom of the rim. From the sideline, I heard the sound of a hat being slapped again. After that, things got sloppy. We turned it over twice more—once when Headband passed to the wrong guy, and once when my look-pass hit JJ in the back. A couple of jump shots and a layin later, the game was over and Vinny was standing at midcourt taunting the next challengers.
For the record, that was Vinny Pesto: 8,497,330. Toby Wheeler: 0.
After the game, JJ’s dad pulled him aside, leaving me alone with the new coach. He offered his giant bear paw. “I’m Coach Applewhite,” he said.
I shook his hand. “Toby Wheeler.”
“That was a nice finish on the back-door cut, Toby. Why didn’t I see your name on my roster?”
I had to admit, I was flattered. The coach of the basketball team had just complimented me. But it would take more than a little flattery to get
in uniform. I had heard a rumor that he had coached in college, and that his players would have to practice like college players. If I had avoided the team when Mr. Morales, the math teacher, was the coach, there was no way I was going within a million miles of that gym now that Sergeant College was in charge.
“I like it here, Coach,” I said.
“Well, I could use someone like you. Just something to think about.” Coach handed me a flyer. “If you change your mind, this is your ticket in.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, taking the sheet of paper before Coach left the gym. “I’ll think about it.”
A few feet away, JJ and his dad were going at it. JJ’s dad wanted him to come straight home to look at game tapes from last season. Trying not to make a scene, JJ was pleading his case. “Can we do it some other time?” he said as I stood nearby, unsure whether to leave the rec center or keep waiting, which was getting uncomfortable.
The other gym rats were passing by. Some looked over. Others just hustled out the doors to the parking lot.
“Your season starts next week. What’s so important you can’t watch an hour of videotape? You might see something to give you an edge on the court.”
“I’m going out,” JJ said without offering any details.
But his dad pressed. “Where? With who?”
I knew JJ’s dad thought I was okay. Mostly because when JJ and I were together, there was a pretty good chance we were playing basketball. “Well, I suppose that’s all right then,” he said, slipping on his beat-up hat. “I have some things to pick up in Everett anyway. But I’ll be home in a couple of hours.”
He followed us to the lobby, then went his own way. JJ seemed happy to see him go. And I was looking forward to a big night out.