“I don’t want to drink all your dad’s beer,” I tell Mardi.
“Don’t worry about it. He stocked up for you.”
“Thought you would. My suggestion. Wanted to get you talking.”
“Bet you’re sorry now.”
“Au contraire. I’m on the edge of my seat. You’ve got the prayer to say before the first game of the tournament. And then . . ..”
“At the time I don’t know when I’m gonna say it, or even IF I’m gonna say it, but I’ve got it ready, just in case.”
At least I think I’ve got it ready, and I do repeat it to myself at various times during the day, just to be sure. It’s Friday, and we have a full day of school and a drive to Shelton before the first contest of the tournament, a night game in a full-size high school gym where we’ve never played before. The hardwood floor separating the glass backboards at each end looks to go on forever, and we find ourselves miscalculating our most basic footwork, passing, and shooting during warmups. Instead of feeling game-ready, the strangeness of our surroundings, the fresh new uniforms, the spanking new leather basketball, the sense of importance attached to every movement and gesture seem to add to the air of self-conscious discomfort. If I thought my little pregame prayer would fill us with confidence and competence, I could forget that vain notion, just as I had forgotten to say the prayer.
Really. What with all the excitement, I plain forgot. Praying has never been part of our pregame warmups, and under the circumstances it’s easy to overlook.
Game time. Jump ball. Mary M. Knight’s center is shorter than me but more muscular. He has dark-haired armpits and looks like he could grow a beard. In previous games, I had always controlled the tip. This time he stands close against me, so close he can pinch the front of my jersey without me or the ref seeing. It throws off my leap just enough for him to tip the ball downcourt to a breaking teammate for an easy layup.
The full-court press on the inbounds play has us lobbing a weak downcourt pass that’s quickly intercepted and converted by our jeering opponent, who hits double figures before we score our first point, a free throw by Evers, fouled trying to dribble through the press.
Time can pass very quickly when you’re getting your ass kicked, and before I know it the klaxon is rasping the end of the first quarter, and we’re already behind by a lot. Coach Petersen counsels that we have plenty of time to turn things around, just stay calm and play our game.
Calm we are not, and if the game we’re playing is “our” game, then maybe it’s time we got a new one. It would be hard to say just what we’re dong wrong and Mary M. Knight is doing right, but it isn’t hard to see which team is winning and which team is a confused collection of stumblebums who’ve never seen a basketball before tonight. Errant passes, double dribbles, air balls, hacking fouls, you name it. By halftime we’ve barely made double figures on a DeMiero putback, and we’re down by more points than we’ve scored. Mary M. Knight is jubilant, their fans clapping their hands, stamping their feet, big fat grins on their players’ faces.
We drag and stumble our way bak to the bench, behind which our fans sit with pained expressions exhibiting their support, their frustration, their sadness. Nobody has an explanation. Our heads are bowed, our shoulders slumped. Coach Petersen can’t explain why there’s a lid on our basket and a ball magnet over theirs, why rebounds elude us, why our feet tangle, our passes go astray. “You look tired out there,” he confides. “You need to play with more energy.”
Well, ur, yeah, thanks for the advice, coach, but, uh, well just how do we do that, we’re all wondering as we huddle up for the second half. It’s a pretty half-hearted cheer we give each other as we break for the floor, and suddenly it comes to me. “Wait!” I yell at teammates straggling to the court. “Huddle up!” I yell. “Come on, huddle up!” They’re looking at each other, at me, and at Coach Petersen. I’ve got my hands in the air. What’s up?
“Bow your heads,” I say and wait a sec for their confused compliance. “Lord, please help us all to do our very best. Amen. Come on, let’s go!” I clap my hands and head for the center jump circle to start the second half.
“Was that a prayer?” Byerly asks. Nobody answers.
On the center jump this time their center does not bother to grab my jersey, so I control the tip to Evers and post up at the head of the key. Evers dribbles right, feints to Swanson at forward and backhands a quick pass to me. With my back to the basket, I leap, twist in mid-air, and find myself hopelessly out of range.
Oh well, nothing to do but fire away and hope for a long rebound. Putting everything I have into it, I manage an archless line drive that heads directly for and skids off the front rim, nails the bak rim, then plunges through the net, all in an incredible split second that has me as amazed, confounded, and grateful as I’ve ever been. No way that shot should have gone in. I could do a hundred more like it, and not one of them would fall. But the one that counts does fall, and our fans love it.
Suddenly, then gradually, everything changes. Evers does a one-man kamikaze on the inbounds pass, but only manages to knock it out of play. Inspired by his effort, Byerly dives to bat the ball to me off a Knight dribble, and I pass it to a breaking Evers who scores on a ten-foot jumper. The lid has switched from our basket to our opponents’, rebounds that had been out of bounds are dropping into our hands, first-half air balls become second-half swishers, our fans cheer giddily. We’re still in this, we’re catching up, we could win!
At the end of the third quarter Coach Peterson tells us to keep playing hard, and DeMiero wants me to pray again. I decline. One prayer a game. Let’s not get greedy.
Back on the court their center tries his grab-my-jersey maneuver again, but this time he gets caught and I sink the free throw. Our opponents are of course as surprised by the turn of events as we are, surprised, frustrated, confused. MAD! Oh, they are mad and determined not to let this game get away from them. The madder they get, the harder and dirtier they play, the more erratic. They can’t score, can’t stop us from scoring. Finally, they’re swearing at the refs, at us, at each other, and we end up practically winning on free throws.
Of course we are ecstatic at our incredible comeback and look forward to winning two games tomorrow and the championship on Sunday. And that is exactly the way it happens. I pray once again at the team’s request before the first Saturday game but decline before the second. “One prayer is good for the whole day,” I say, and we handily win both games.
Before Sunday’s championship game, I pray again, again at the team’s request, and when we again win handily, I become
quite the hero and am pronounced the tournament’s MVP. Coach Petersen, parents, and teammates are united in their praise and kind of at a loss as to what to make of it all. Minority doubters and unbelievers have a hard time explaining away God’s helping hand. “The shots started falling, that’s all,” some say. “You keep shooting, eventually you start hitting.”
Yeah, well maybe, but most people think I’ve made a special connection with a Greater Power and deserve all the attention I’m getting.
“Interestingly, it’s my teammates at the core of my changing status, my promotion from popularity to adulation, almost to literal godliness.”
“After that, did you keep praying before games?” Mardi asks.
“Never. I prayed every night and morning, I prayed a silent grace before meals, and I prayed an occasional silent word or two at moments of stress or anxiety. But openly, in public? I never risked it again.”
“Didn’t your fan base demand it?”
“Every once in a while, even in high school, someone would mention it. Quietly. With respect. A reminder of an uncanny shared experience. Holy, you might say.”
“Another Lone Star?”
“Sure. Last one.”