‘We’ve won two of our three home games so we’ve got an advantage,’ Scott was saying. They were in the changing rooms pulling on their white tops. Some of the squad were out on the court already, warming up. He snapped his tee-shirt on Adam’s leg. ‘Bring your balls, Adam! Big game!’
Adam dodged a second flick. ‘Wainui are second on the table, aren’t they? This is going to be really tough to win.’
Richard cracked his knuckles. ‘The only thing that can stop us winning is ourselves.’
Adam nodded, then shook his head. ‘Yeah, but, you know. They might win. It’s just statistics. They might.’
Richard gave Adam a stern look. ‘You go out there thinking like that and it’s all over.’
‘I’m just saying!’ Adam was getting frustrated. ‘I don’t have that attitude you guys do, okay? I just don’t, I wish I did but I don’t. I’ll go out there and I’ll try as hard as I can, but that’s not inside me, all right?’
Richard, surprised, didn’t say anything. Adam looked away, uncomfortable with the whole thing.
Scott put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. ‘You’ll try as hard as you can, sure. You always do. But maybe too often you try from here,’ he tapped Adam’s head, ‘instead of from here.’ He slapped Adam’s chest, hard, the sound echoing through the changing rooms.
Scott and Richard both backed off a bit. Adam folded his arms, feeling his skin smart where Scott had slapped him. He rolled his shoulders. Maybe they were right. Maybe he’d been doing it wrong all this time.
Dennis would know. But Dennis wasn’t in the team any more.
The old St Francis gymnasium had filled up with spectators. Adam wasn’t sure he was exactly happy about that, now that he was there, even though he’d asked people to come. Down the other end of the court the Wainui team were going through their drills with a busload of supporters cheering them on. Adam tried to put them out of his mind and waited for his turn in the free throw drill. His eyes skipped along the wall: Mark Keyes with mouth hanging open, Kane with sleazy-looking girl in scruffy school uniform, big Will with Ray’s and Lio’s girlfriends, Julian’s tight curly hair all messed up, bigmouth Craig and his sixth-form buddies, Mike and Brett jangling carkeys at each other in some kind of Freudian contest, Jacob looking seedy, and then more. He needed to pee again. His turn: two claps, two claps. Both in. All that work on free throws might be finally paying off. Lio slapped his back and he excused himself. He threaded through people arriving around him. Phil and Sasha. Shane, smiling hugely, wearing his trademark shades. Alone.
The toilets were at the far end of the locker room and they linked through to the foyer. They weren’t empty. Lurking by the basins were three guys he’d never seen before, bundled in thick jackets and oversized jeans. One of them stared at Adam with a smoke at his lips. Adam went to the urinal and hitched the front of his shorts down and he could feel their eyes on the back of his neck, hot like cigarette ash. He tried to put it out of his mind. They weren’t talking, they weren’t doing anything that he could hear, which meant they were just staring at him. He stood there and tried to summon back the urge that had been so pressing a moment back. He tried to think of running water, to concentrate on water, to flow. It wasn’t working. Were they moving towards him? He peered at the stainless steel cistern for reflections but saw only his own face distorted.
It became clear to him that nothing was going to happen downstairs. No water. He contemplated hitching up his shorts and sauntering out nonchalantly but knew he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. He’d worked it out, they were from over the hill and they’d be there to watch the game, and they’d watch him and they’d know he hadn’t even had the confidence to piss in public. It would be bad. He had no idea what to do. Why were they hanging around in here?
There was muttering and a stifled laugh. Adam waited, frozen, hoping it meant they were giving up and heading out the door. These hopes were dashed by a loud ‘Fuuuuck’ from one of the visitors. Adam jolted nervously as the other two laughed, but he caught up with himself and turned the reaction into a shoulder-jiggle. Then he pulled his shorts back up. Once he’d started he didn’t let himself stop. He came back off the step and went over to the basin, and they were looking at him with hooded eyes and he turned on the tap and soaped his hands and rinsed them clean. It was easier when you were in motion. He turned his head towards them and they were looking at him and he went right next to them to dry his hands on the handtowel. He met their eyes. And then he walked out of the room and rejoined the team at courtside.
‘One minute!’ called the referee, a stocky guy with a face like worn-out rubber.
‘All right, all right,’ Damon Taylor said, reeling his team in. ‘This is the one, we sink or we swim. I’m talking the momentum of the season, and we have the move now, this is the game. I want you all to be aware of each other out there. You are a team, that means you operate as a team. Each of you affects the others. If a big rebounder subs off, step up and rebound more! If a ball handler goes then adjust to help the passing. Get it? Balance! I want team, on three!’ They put hands in. ‘Starters are Rich, Adam, Ray, Lio, Viane. We’re going big and I want that ball pounded inside until their defence starts to bleed. Hands in, hands in…’ Chris Tala’s huge palm came down on top and the shout of team punched the air.
Adam came away as the circle broke, heart pounding, nervous, but ready. Richard was across from him. Ray slapped his back. Viane was nodding, quickly, totally certain. Adam felt the energy rising.
He stopped by Scott as he headed on court. ‘Seen Dennis?’
Scott shook his head.
The referee held the ball in the centre of the circle. ‘Okay, white attacking that hoop, red attacking that hoop… Let’s go boys.’
Adam got into position. One thought. Jump, feel everything beneath you and jump.
The referee threw the ball upwards.
Adam watched the ball rise higher and higher and the other centre was coiling down, the ball was hanging above like the sun, and Adam was up and rising, his arm stretched upwards reaching, and his fingers found the leather, and the crowd exploded. He was flying.
The ball tipped sideways to Ray, who charged at the basket, streaking through gaps to leap and switch hands and kiss it off the backboard. The coach was clapping but somehow, impossibly, the basket didn’t come, the ball racketed out. Adam glanced off the court but there was no sign of Dennis, there was an empty doorway with no shadows beyond. Wainui were coming down court and Adam slotted back into position. The game had begun.
The crowd noise grew every play. Slamming down walls, Wainui slipping through like eels, a bucket right under the backboard, far too easy.
Pushing an attack, the ball came into Richard’s hands but he pulled up short as a defender snapped him up. Ray was marked, Adam too, Lio was trailing, Viane also covered, Rich had run out of teammates, the defence converged.
Hunting the rhythm. Viane was caught by surprise as the big Wainui forward put the ball on the floor and drove past him. Adam crossed over to contest the shot but as he hit the player hard and the whistle blew he knew he’d been too late. The ball rolled around the rim and dropped through, two points and a free throw for Wainui and another foul against Adam’s total.
Another shot dropped through. Two more points. Whistle for a time out and they were at the sideline, Damon hauling them in. ‘We’re getting the crap beaten out of us! Weren’t you listening before? Out of position, not moving right, like you don’t even know who’s out there with you! Get balanced! Get moving!’ The scoreboard showed a margin of seven. Lio put his hand in and the others followed, Richard last and hardest.
The game continued, calming it down into the second half, driving tenacity from the guards bringing them back in touch, Richard stepping up to put the team on his shoulders. Lio fouled out and Damon got a final warning from the refs. Richard, Chris, Scott, Kelvin and Ray, all panting furiously, collapsed into seats as the others gave them room. The crowd kept going despite the time-out, clapping and cheering and yelling. A chant of ‘Wai-nu-i’ was opposed by Shane’s solo but enthusiastic cry of ‘Francis uber alles!’
Taylor pointed at Adam. ‘You’re back on, Adam. Viane, you’re on for Kelvin.’ Kelvin nodded thankfully, he’d put in long minutes with Viane in foul trouble.
‘Who am I on for?’ Adam asked.
‘Richard, come off.’
There was silence in the huddle.
Richard nodded and leaned back but Scott couldn’t stay quiet. ‘You’ve got to be kidding! Richard’s keeping us in this game!’
Ray agreed. ‘Leave him on, coach!’
Damon looked fierce. ‘Listen. Richard isn’t going to be here forever. He’s not going to be here for the post-season. If you want to get to the finals, then prove you can play in them. Clear?’ The referee whistled to restart play. Damon’s eyes found Adam and held there. ‘Go do it.’
Scott planted his body as a Wainui player cannoned into him. Adam cut past Scott’s screen to get free along the baseline. Viane looked at him but dished to Ray instead. The big shot rimmed out and Wainui grabbed the rebound.
Francis was down three, thirty-three seconds the clock. Wainui slowed down the play, using up as many of those seconds as they could. Scott grabbed Adam’s arm, shouted into his ear, ‘cover my back!’, sprinted out to defend. Scott had never been patient. Adam found his ground and dug in, his opposite trying to shove past but Adam wouldn’t give an inch, his feet went down into the earth. Scott was on the wing, stepping up to the guard with the ball, tempting him, and the Wainui player ate it up, switching directions and driving towards the baseline. Scott got there faster. He forced the player further down until he was stuck along the bottom edge of the court, and Adam loomed out of nowhere to complete the trap. Desperate, the Wainui player threw the ball past him, but it was Ray who picked it up. He didn’t wait.
Fifteen seconds left and Adam powered up the court. He’d known the trap was good and had taken off so fast he was beating Scott, beating his defender, but he hadn’t needed to hold back, he knew Ray was going to move in and he knew where he was going now. He drove right into the lane through two hustling defenders, and Ray just nodded once. The ball shifted through space, unnerving quickness, point to point, heavy like stone, and Adam leapt through bodies. The rim came to him like a halo, hands and arms were knocked away, he swung the sun above his head and stuffed it down, and through.
The crowd erupted on all sides, and the whistle blew.
Adam stepped up to the free throw line. Both teams’ coaches were screaming but the referee swept them aside and gave him the ball. He wasn’t smiling. He hadn’t when Ray and Scott and Chris and Viane had converged on him, exuberant, and he hadn’t when the time-out Wainui called had been spent by Damon yelling at the ref, and he hadn’t when Richard nodded approvingly at him.
The rebounders lined up as he readied his single shot. Eight seconds left, down by one. This would tie it up. Beneath the backboard and a bit to the left was the doorway. There was a figure there, watching. Adam looked harder.
It was just Mr Sheldon.
He released the ball and missed. Wainui’s power forward seized the rebound. With three seconds left a Wainui guard scorched into the lane. Viane cut off the drive but the guard stopped and lifted and poured in a jumpshot. He came down screaming and the buzzer sounded. Adam watched, and something hardened inside him, and he knew there’d be no more excuses.
‘Wai-nu-i! Wai-nu-i!’ shouted the winning team.
Adam subsided on to the bench. Damon went to shake the other coach’s hand. Lio started talking. He demanded that they all put their hands in and one by one they did, Adam last. ‘Right to the wire, sure this feels like shit and it should but next week we win, next week we fix it, and then we plan to see these guys at finals time, so let’s give them one hell of a cheer, all right, one hell of a cheer so they recognise us when we meet again…’