‘Free throws win ballgames. Say it!’
The basketball team shouted it out and jogged in place on the baseline, arms achingly high above their heads. Coach Taylor continued: ‘Statistics from June four against Hutt High. Free throws attempted: fourteen. Free throws made: five. That’s thirty-five percent.’ He shook his head, put his whistle between his lips, and blew. The team sprinted, hands still above heads, to the midcourt line. ‘Keep those feet going! Keep those arms up high! Higher! Number four, James Travers: one of three, thirty-three percent. Number five, Scott Collins: none of one, zero percent.’
Scott clenched his jaw and kept at it.
‘Number eight, Richard King: one of two, fifty percent.’
Sweat ran down Richard’s face. He breathed deeply.
‘Number nine, Chris Tala: one of two, fifty percent. Number ten, Adam Curtis: two of six, thirty-three percent.’
Adam realised when he heard his name that his feet had slowed down and his elbows had drooped. The fatigue was toxic in his system. He struggled to rally himself. Two of six. That was awful. He was awful.
Taylor blew the whistle again and the team ran to the far baseline, slower now, showing the strain. Adam closed his eyes, burying himself in the need to make his hands reach to the roof, to make his feet rise and fall and rise and fall, tears almost coming as he wondered when this was going to end.
‘Every one of you is going to improve. Coaching is worthless if you don’t hit free throws and I will not be made a worthless coach. Keep going!’ Taylor drew it out, standing and watching, and then at last he blew his whistle. The team broke stance and sprinted the entire length of the court as best they could, then collapsed at the other end, sucking in the air and nursing aching limbs.
They weren’t allowed to linger. ‘On the baseline, on your feet! Adam, come out here.’ The coach pointed towards the free throw line. Adam slowly took his place and Damon gave him a ball. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him, but now he was out there with everyone watching him. His tired arms felt strange and unfamiliar as he lifted them. He had to make this shot. He had to.
The ball hit the front of the rim. He felt sick inside as Taylor’s whistle sounded. ‘On the baseline! Arms up, feet moving!’ As soon as his arms were up the pain kicked right back in, worse than ever.
They ran to centre court. ‘Shout it out, free throws win ball games!’ Same again at the far baseline and then they sprinted back, stubborn, wrecked.
‘Adam,’ said Coach Taylor. Adam blinked hard but he hadn’t misheard. He walked out from the baseline, feeling every step. He took the ball and bounced it twice. Everybody was watching him. The hoop seemed far too high but he promised himself he would not mess it up.
The ball ricocheted off the rim and Taylor blew the whistle. ‘On the baseline! I don’t care if we do nothing tonight but running!’ Again the pain, the movement. Adam crawled into a hole inside himself as he forced his body to continue. Taylor made them wait at each line, his eyes sharp for drooping elbows and sluggish feet. When they had made it back, he called out Adam’s name a third time. Adam gripped the ball and wondered if this would continue forever.
Then Richard called out: ‘Relax, Adam, you can do it.’
Adam heard Richard’s words. He swallowed and tried to relax, and released. The ball went through the hoop. Richard clapped twice, hard, and Lio called out, ‘Yeah! Good job, Adam!’
‘That’s right,’ Taylor said, nodding. ‘This is your teammate. That means that he’s bound up with you. What happens to him happens to you all, so show him some support! One more!’
The team was vocal in its support, and Adam looked at the hoop. He looked hard at it and the team gave him some silence, and Adam found himself thinking of Dennis’ calm shooting stroke. And as he cleared his head and began to shoot, he caught himself, because Dennis wasn’t there. The ball clanged on the rear rim, rolled forward and fell off the front.
Damon blew the whistle. ‘On the baseline!’
Adam sat in the bus with a black pit in his gut. He stared out the window, frowning, face flushed and throat sore. A seagull perched on a rubbish bin glared at him as the bus rolled past. It leapt into the air, flew skywards, crying out.
He’d got the free throws eventually, but then he’d messed up the weak side offence, and he’d missed a lay-up in the lay-up drill and forced more running, and he’d taken a stupid shot in the scrimmage game and let Ray, little Ray, block him. Each time, Damon Taylor saw. No one had said a word to him, of course. None of them would. Taylor had talked about the team not being up to scratch but Adam knew what he meant. He was trying his hardest, and no matter how bad he felt, he wasn’t going to get better.
Maybe he should just chuck it in. He’d played in four games and scored twelve points – for a starting centre, that was pathetic! And how many shots had he missed? How many times had someone shorter forced past him for a rebound? How many times had someone stepped around his defence to score?
The others wanted to win with a fierceness that ignited their whole body, but Adam didn’t have that inside him. He knew he didn’t, he wasn’t stupid. He would yield to a boxout, jerk away from a contest to his shot. All he could do was scavenge around the edges of the game, and the others knew it.
This wasn’t working. Something had to change. He’d known for a while, since Dennis moved, since Richard said he was leaving. But it was getting harder to ignore. It couldn’t carry on like this.
He was a long way down in the dark when someone sat down next to him. He wasn’t pleased. Weren’t there still some seats unclaimed? He just wanted to be left alone to be properly depressed by himself.
The person next to him was Kirsty.
She was smiling. ‘Hey! Okay if I sit here?’
Adam sat up straighter. ‘Yeah, um, yeah, of course.’
‘I guess you’ve been at basketball, right? How is all of that going?’
‘It’s okay. We’re going okay.’
‘Cool,’ she said, and Adam wasn’t sure if she couldn’t tell he was lying or was just being too polite to ask about it.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Oh, hell, working on an assignment at the library. Such a waste of time. I mostly just stared out the window. I’m so stupid with stuff like that, I’ll have to really rush to get it done tonight now.’
‘What, is it due in tomorrow?’
’mm hm. I should have worked on it on Sunday but I was so hungover. God, that sounds awful. I’m not really that much of an alcoholic mess! Still, not my best bit of planning.’
‘I didn’t mean to ignore you on Saturday. I was going to say hello, but...’ Adam trailed off. He wasn’t sure he wanted to get into Richard’s mood and all of that – he wouldn’t know how to avoid it getting really awkward.
‘No, that’s okay. You guys weren’t there that long.’
‘Yeah, we had to, there was a thing why we had to go.’
‘Oh, yeah, sure.’
There was a beat of silence.
’so, that’s why I came and sat here,’ she said. ‘Because we didn’t talk on Saturday. It’s silly but, you know, I just don’t want the thing with Rich to become a problem or anything. So I thought I’d come and sit with you and make sure it wouldn’t be a problem. That’s all right, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, that’s all right. It’s not a problem.’
‘Good. Because I’d hate if that meant we couldn’t be friends or anything, you know?’ Kirsty smiled at him. ‘God, there’s few enough good guys around to lose them over nothing.’
Her smile was just about the best thing Adam had ever seen.