Bouncing from the floor to my hand again, the basketball was the backbeat of my heart. I caught it with both hands as it came up this time, cupping the hard, crumb-rubber sphere like it was a life buoy. The muscles in my legs coiled without me telling them to, poised and ready like a poison dart frog ready to strike. Everything melted away until it was just the foreboding net in front of me and the sight of my own arms stretched above my head, the ball poised in my long fingers that were suddenly cured of their shakes.
And then something pierced through my bubble of concentration: a player from the sidelines darting into view, breaking the aura of slow motion that had wrapped around the gym, in one bounding leap.
Was it really my fault that I looked?
Coach always told us that our bodies were made to work together with its individual parts. This can work to our advantage for the most part, except that the minutest disturbance upset the delicate balance that induced the maximum power: our bodies had been trained to shoot the ball wherever our attention was directed, and even through my lax concentration, the rule still held.
The slow-motion blanket was sucked away, the roar of the crowd slamming into my ears. The momentum that had been building up in my arms and in my legs was ignited by my shock, and exploded in ill-aimed shot that was much too hard. Colliding violently with the clear plastic backboard, the orange basketball ricocheted off of the hard shiny surface and hurtled toward the player who had distracted me.
He was standing under the basket, a wide smile stretched across his face. He didn’t have time to see the ball rocketing toward him at full speed. I called to him to get out of the way, but the ball careened into the back of his glistening bald head. His smile and his eyes went wide as he tipped forward, toward the gymnasium floor. The sound of hitting the hardwood was drowned out by the dismayed shouts of the crowd.
However, a miracle of miracles happened. The ball ricocheted again, back the way it had come, having lost enough power to backboard cleanly into the net.
Swish; screaming, the crowd leapt to their feet.
For one second, my breath still in my lungs. The noise of my blood pounding in my ears was utterly quiet—the inside of a tomb after midnight. I didn’t register the ball rolling to the feet of one of my team mates on the outside of the key. They were all as stunned as I was, looking from me to the boy moaning on the floor to the ball resting at our centre’s feet, all in one smooth rotation of their heads. Then the moment was over; the buzzer blared for the final time, the score flashing red on the neat black scoreboard: 20-23 GUEST. I had won the championship for our school, having never made a foul shot in my life before that day.
Someone slammed into me, and it took me one moment to realize that my team was hugging me, screaming in my ear. Heavy-metal victory music encouraged the crowd to slam the floor with their feet, the vibrations buzzing through the souls of our feet in perfect time.
There were high-fives all around, and over the shoulder of one of our guards I saw the other team helping up the boy who had ran onto the court. He caught my eye, an ocean of space closing between us as our gazes connected. He shook his head at me, glaring in what I could only describe as disgust.
My friends noticed us gazing at each other. Rena, our centre, suggested we go have a chat with him. Rena was tall and broad-shouldered, and at that moment her face was contorted with anger. We all followed behind her to make sure that her “chat” didn’t involve dunking anyone’s head through the basket.
The boy’s name was Raja, and he was the Harkland Minnows official centre. Rena was braced for a centre-centre smack down, snarling at him at him to answer for himself. Making their way out the door, the spectators and the families of the players headed to Gymnasium A for some post-game refreshments. My blood tingled at the malice in Rena’s tone. Lightly placing a hand on her arm, I prepared to hold her back if I had to. I wasn’t sure I could possibly match Rena’s raw strength, but maybe I could stall her enough for the other centre to get away. The other girls leaned toward her in a similar way.
Raja glared at us. I thought that was quite rude, considering we only wanted to know why he had tried to sabotage my shot. “You think I wanted to lose to you…you girls?” he spit. Shaking his head, he grumbled. “Of all the dumb luck…”
The only thing he looked sorry about was the goose egg swelling up on the back of his head. Rena looked like she wanted to give him a few more to feel bad about. She took a step toward him, lips curled in the human version of a snarl.
The coach of the Minnows stepped into view. Sporting a black tuxedo and shiny shoes, he looked nothing like a coach, but I recognised him from the other times we had played the Minnows. He cleaned up well. Right on his heals was our coach, still wearing a tracksuit and a sweatband.
“Raja!” boomed the Minnows’ coach, grabbing the boy by the shoulder. Ignoring his yells of pain, he haled Raja to his feet. “I want you to apologize to these girls right now!” The coach’s fingers dug into Raja’s skin like claws. He didn’t seem aware of how tightly he was holding on, or maybe he didn’t care. I pitied poor Raja as he cowered before us, sweat popping out on his forehead.
“I’m not apologizing to them!” he protested in a whiny voice extremely unlike the one he had just been snarling at us with. “They’re girls! They don’t belong at District Championships!”
The coach gave Raja a shake, his hands becoming unbearably tight. “Well, then, Raja, I’m sorry to say this”—he didn’t seem sorry at all, more relieved and slightly euphoric—“but theses little escapades of yours are getting out of hand! You will not be going to Nationals, and I will make sure you don’t get on the team next season. We’ve had it with you!”
We glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. The empty gym rang with the sound of the other coach’s outrage. Our coach quietly regarded the exchange her sweet perfume that was at odds with her rumpled tracksuit mingling with the smell of our sweaty bodies. None of the other Minnows were there to vouch for Raja.
“Not a word, Raja,” he interrupted icily. His glare intensified, surprising me that it was even possible. “I’m sorry for this, ladies.” He jerked Raja as indication of his remorse. “Congratulations on your win! See you at the award ceremony.” With that, he dragged his son out of the gym.
So I guess Newton was right every action really does have an equal opposite reaction. Smiling, we slapped hands and ran in the direction of the changing room. Pausing for a moment, I pick up the lonely orange ball that had been abandoned on the floor, twirling it on my finger as I strode out of the gym.