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The Heart of the Matter

March 31, 2009

By Melissa A. Lee

He’s gotta pass it to me this time. I’m wide open. I crane my head as I look over the mob of players. Nick’s holding the basketball. He seems to look in my general direction, but then looks away. I know he’s cornered. I’m his only option. Funny—I used to be his first option all the time. That was before Amber. Now my so called “best friend” acts like I’m invisible.

The referee holds up two fingers, announcing we’re in the last two minutes of the game. Nick’s eyes dart briefly to mine. The sounds of squeaking sneakers and the cheering crowd become muffled, like I’m under water. “Come on, Nick!” I try to tell him with my stare, rapidly nodding my head. “This is it! Let’s show them who’s boss. It’s our trait, man.” With a sigh I can see all the way across the court, Nick throws me the ball.

I catch it easily. The opposing team starts running toward me. The crowd chants my nickname, “Swoosh! Swoosh!” I quickly glance up to the top corner of the gym’s bleachers and spot Amber in her usual place, clapping and smiling her adorable smile. I wink at her. Here goes the three-pointer for the Hawks’ definite win. I place my hands in their familiar places on the ball and throw it with a jump and flick of my wrists. The cheering on the Hawks side grows deafening. I watch the ball whiz through the air…and hit the hoop’s rim, bouncing off.

I swear time stands still. As the crowd begins booing, I feel like I’m two inches tall. This can’t be real. I had missed! I never miss! I’m Swoosh! Vaguely I see Nick dodging through the other players, rescuing the bouncing ball—my big orange failure. The crowd once again roars, jumping to their feet as Nick makes the winning basket.

*

“Matt, it’s okay,” Amber tries to reassure me as I walk her home. “You can’t get them all.” She slips her gloved hand in mine as we turn the corner.

“Amber, I never miss a shot like that! I had it! I was wide open.” I glower down at the sidewalk. Our steps crunch on the frozen snowplow tracks. “Nick and I are pros at that kind of thing. It’s been our trademark since middle school! It’s what puts the Hawks in contention for the lead in the sophomore conference.” I kick at a broken icicle hunk. The temperature’s probably twenty below zero, but I don’t feel the cold. “He hasn’t thrown me a pass like that all season. And I blew it.”

“Next time you’ll get it,” she says in her soft voice. “We’re here.” We walk up her front porch steps. In its light I see a few carefree snowflakes drift by. A cloud puffs out of my mouth with a sigh as I turn to Amber. Her cheeks are pink from the cold, making her blue eyes shine even brighter. A few blonde strands of her hair have escaped from under her knit hat. Looking into her sweet expression, my heart lightens a little.

“You’re right,” I say as I hug her. “I just wish I knew what’s up with Nick lately, you know? He didn’t say a word to me in the locker room; not like that’s news these days.”

“Maybe you should call him. You’ve been spending a lot of time with me lately. He might miss you.”

I guess she has a point there. I love her common sense. She always has a way of making things simple. “Okay, I’ll do that.” I lean down, giving her a quick kiss.

She smiles up at me. “Goodnight, Matt. Remember the church youth group has the ice skating night at the rink on Tuesday.”

“Yeah, that’ll be fun. G’night, Amber.” I leap over the stairs onto the frozen ground, my mind on Nick.

*

“Hey, what’s up?” I hear Nick answer in his laid back manner.

“Nick, it’s Matt,” I say, holding the phone in a death grip. I pace across the only floor space showing in my room between the stacks of Sports Illustrated and dirty laundry. “What’s with you, man?”

“‘What’s with you, man?!’” he repeats. “I think the question’s what’s with you, Matt. Since summer, the only thing I hear is ‘Amber this…Amber that…’”

“Oh, so you’re jealous, is that it? Is that your explanation for humiliating me throughout the whole game tonight—never passing to me anymore? You gonna do that next week too? Huh? The big game of the year?!”

“You did all the humiliating to yourself, ‘Swoosh,’” Nick sneers. “You’ve lost all your heart in the game! You don’t practice with heart, you won’t play with heart.”

“What are you talking about? I missed a shot tonight. That doesn’t mean I’ve ‘lost heart!’ Mistakes happen.”

“Not like that, they don’t. Not to you. You aren’t some rookie. You were wide open. And I still didn’t want to pass it to you. Want to know why? Because I’ve been watching your game slip all season. It’s like you don’t care anymore. I can’t trust that. Tonight’s performance just proved it.”

I wince as his words rub it all in. He never used to be this unforgiving. “You’re just on a glory trip!”

“Oh yeah? You might make some baskets at practice. Average ones, when the stakes aren’t high. But that’s it. My friend Swoosh is gone. You probably didn’t pick up your ball all summer. I never see you at a court except now during the season, when practice is required. Think about it, Matt. If it’s all about Amber, what’s left for basketball?”

“It’s not all about Amber. There’s school, and practice, and church, and-”

“I’m talking about where your head is, not where your feet are! You want to settle for average, fine, go right ahead. But you can’t play on reputation. I know you’re better.”

This is too much. I start seeing red. “What, so now you’re my coach? You’ve been MIA as my friend, and now you think you’re qualified for coaching my game and my life?”

“MIA and being a third wheel are two different things,” he growls. “You know what? About the big Stars game next Friday—forget me being there! See what kind of glory you get for yourself!”

His phone clanks in my ear and I slam down my end as well. “He’s not showing up for the game?!” I say aloud. The Stars live up to their name. Beating them has always been his dream!

I flop back on my bed. He’s acting too weird. He’d never give up that chance. Here I’ve been thinking I don’t know who he is anymore, but it’s the opposite. He doesn’t know me anymore. And about Amber—what would he know? He doesn’t have a girlfriend. I can’t believe how jealous he sounds, like I’m not entitled to some changes in my life without him. The only way he’d like Amber is if she just decorated the park bench at the basketball court everyday after school while he and I practiced same as always. Maybe he was trying to get back at me and make a name for himself tonight. But if that was the case, I doubt he’d give up the Stars game.

I think back on all of the basketball games we’ve played. And how we’ve been best friends through everything since second grade. The fact is we were always as close as brothers. Now he wants to throw in the towel on all of that just because he thinks that’s what I’m doing.

“Mom, I’ll be in the driveway!” I yell over my shoulder as I run out the door, putting on my jacket. My ball’s in here somewhere. I hunt around in the garage and find it in the back corner. Now I just have to make a basket, and watch, it’ll swoosh.

I dribble it on the driveway and dust flies off from the impact. I go for a free throw first. I watch it slide through the net after it bounces off the backboard with a bang that vibrates through the icy air. An easy shot like that, and I can’t get it to swoosh? Maybe it’s because I’m upset. I’m not focused. Or, maybe I’m thinking about it too hard. It can’t come naturally if I’m overanalyzing everything I do. I back up for a long shot and shoot again. I miss.

I look up at the black sky and take a deep breath, which forces me to cool down. “Your game’s been slipping all season…” I hear Nick say. “You’ve lost heart.” Why hadn’t I noticed that my game’s been off? Was I happy settling for average, as he put it?

I guess I have been spending all the time I can with Amber this year, even cutting out of practice the second it ends. Nick and I haven’t practiced in a long time. Now the biggest game of the season’s in a week, and we won’t get that chance. But I can practice. I have to, until it becomes natural again. I used to be the ball so easily. I shoot for another free throw and walk back inside, not turning around as I hear the sharp bang of the backboard.

*

It’s the big night. We’re standing in our usual starting lineup—the black and red Freemont High Hawks facing the blue and orange Buffalo Ridge Stars—except Jefferson’s on my left instead of Nick. I haven’t seen Nick anywhere. He’s avoided me all week. I even stayed after practice every day ’cause I knew if he wasn’t showing I’d have to be twice as good. But he never came.

I look over at the bleachers and see Amber in her spot. She understands how important this game is. When I had to cancel on her youth group ice skating night, I knew she was disappointed, but all she said was, “It’s okay. Just win Friday.” She’s so great.

My eyes skim over the rest of the crowd and freeze. I’m staring at Nick sitting smack dab in the middle. He’s got his green fisherman hat on. That thing would stick out in a dark room.

“Hey, thirteen—Swoosh, isn’t it?” I meet the cold stare of Stars’ number eighteen. “I heard what happened last week. Hope you live up to your name tonight; you’ll need it,” he snickers.

The whistle blows and the ball’s tossed up. Here we go—time to prove to Buffalo and to Nick that Swoosh is back…and to myself.

The cheering from both sides of the gym is an equal roar. I wipe the sweat off my brow and watch the guest’s score pull ahead at sixty-one to fifty-nine as the Stars get another basket. Only one minute’s left in the fourth quarter. At least my practice has been paying off. I’ve made twenty of those points. None have been a three pointer, though.

I glance up again to the middle of the bleachers, looking for the green hat. Every time it’s been the same—he’s staring straight ahead with no expression. But this time I can’t see him. So he left. He didn’t even stay to see if we’ll get the chance to win this thing. I shake my head. Even if he didn’t notice that I’m playing better, the score is so close.

Then I notice Coach talking to someone on the sidelines. Nick! In uniform! He goes and sits on the bench, resting his elbows on his knees, like he’s always been there. But Coach pulls Jefferson from the court and points at Nick to fill his spot. We make eye contact for a second as the whistle sharply blows, starting the game up again.

Nick ducks through the players and smoothly swipes the ball, never breaking stride. He dribbles it down the court, with the Stars chasing him like a pack of wolves. They completely block him once he’s at the sideline. I’m in position directly across the court from him, outside the three-pointer line. I’m open. Our eyes meet. My heart’s pounding. Come on, man. Trust me!

Twelve seconds…eleven seconds… Nick passes me the ball. It sails across the court and I catch it. The Stars barrel toward me as if there are no Hawks trying to block them. Don’t think about them. Be the ball! I focus on the hoop as I did all week when the gym was empty. I take a deep breath and throw the ball.

“Swoosh! Swoosh!” I hear the Freemont crowd yelling and stomping their feet. I want to close my eyes, but won’t. I stare at the ball as it flies to the hoop. Swoosh!

“Yeah!” My shout’s drowned out by the roaring crowd as I throw my fist in the air. The digital scoreboard lights up sixty-two Hawks. The team starts slapping me on the back and giving me high-fives. I grin up at Amber on her top bleacher and wink. She blows me a kiss.

I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around, finding myself face to face with Nick. “You were late,” I say, trying my best to quit smiling, but it doesn’t work.

“So were you,” he says with a smirk. “Welcome back, Swoosh.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2009 3:27 PM

    I enjoyed the fast pace of the story.

  2. April 2, 2009 9:48 PM

    Lots of good basketball action here, and realistic dialogue. I lost sight of the speakers during some of the dialogue when the boys spoke without actions or other visual references. But the characters were very likable and I enjoyed how the story unfolded.

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