This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Home Court Advantage.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
Parts of this story are based on actual events, but I’m not saying which parts. Enjoy!
Home Court Advantage
The zebra shirt was too big for me, stretched out by the previous wearer’s wide back and sagging belly. I tucked in the shirt past my underwear and hung the whistle around my neck, the impression of someone else’s teeth still denting the rubber that covered the metal of the whistle. Almost time for the big game.
McNeil, the school principal and my boss, had grabbed me after lunch, talking with the fast, loud voice he used with disruptive students.
“Listen,” he’d said. “Neither of my refs can make it tonight. Would you do it for us, Johnson?” He had started walking away as soon as my head had begun to nod. As the only first-year teacher at Bancroft Public School, I didn’t have much choice but to agree.
“By the way,” he’d yelled, already halfway down the hall, “we’re playing ‘Bago.”
I stepped out into the gym wishing I could’ve had time to get my knee brace from my apartment. A cold breeze blew in from the side door, drying the light sweat that had broken out on my arms. Two junior high kids from Bancroft tossed around a wadded-up ball of used making tape on the home side, the ball getting away from them and bouncing down the length of the empty wooden bleachers.
On the other half of the gym, the Winnebago side was already full. Little brown-skinned kids ran around the edge of the worn, uneven court, while stocky dark-haired men and women sat knee to knee and hip to hip, talking loudly and punctuating their conversations with laughter. At the top of the bleachers, squinting at their grandsons warming up on our worn wooden floor, old Native American women and men leaned against the wall.
I nodded at Mr. Davidson, our business teacher and the clock operator for the game.
“Look who’s wearing the stripes! Welcome to the big time, Steve.” He laughed with a coughing, grating sound, and then his voice lowered a couple of notches. “You’d better not miss anything out there, rookie. Both sides might scalp you if you flub a call or don’t —”
A cheer from the visitors’ side drowned out Davidson’s final words of wisdom as one of the Winnebago players barely missed a dunk during a lay-up drill.
A deep, laughing voice yelled, “Way to go, Weaselhead!”
I wondered if that last bit was an insult or the kid’s last name. It was all still fairly new to me.
I grabbed the game ball from behind the scorer’s table and carried it to the center of the court. McNeil stood there, arms folded, wearing the stripes as well. He must not have had any luck recruiting any of the other teachers.
Either that, or he wanted to be in charge of this game. The two towns of Bancroft and Winnebago were only fifteen miles apart in eastern Nebraska, and I’d heard that the rivalry had grown more intense over the past years. I remembered the wide-eyed stories my students told me in study halls about the flagrant drug use in the reservation schools, and how someone from Bancroft got jumped after a football game at Winnebago.
Talk like that was all I had to go on here: second-hand stories and stereotypes passed on from one generation to the other. I should have been a substitute teacher in Omaha.
“We about ready to go?” I asked, slouching a bit as I looked down at him. McNeil nodded, not smiling as he shifted his weight from foot to foot, his dark eyes scanning the visitors’ side. He was five inches shorter than me and squat and muscular, like a fullback. Discipline wasn’t a problem here in our little Nebraska school.
I turned to watch the six members of the Winnebago varsity shoot lay-ups. They wore plain yellow windbreakers with their school name on the back, and all of them had their black hair pulled back into ponytails.
Waiting in line to attack the basket, standing still, they didn’t look like much of a team. But once they sprang into motion, they moved fluidly and gracefully, guiding the ball with ease across the floor and through the net. I’d never seen anyone move like these six kids did, at least not up close. I suddenly thought of war paint and buffalo hunts, and I brushed the stereotyped visions away like mosquitoes.
Hurrying to beat the final buzzer before tip-off, the band launched into a shaky, rushed version of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
I winced at the sour notes. Today had been the last day of school before Christmas break. If it weren’t for this game, I’d be visiting my old hometown many miles to the east with my parents and the rest of my family, not risking my knee here on our school’s warped hardwood.
Davidson hit the horn when the song ended, and both teams jogged to the sidelines. After an even more rushed “Star Spangled Banner” by the twenty-odd members of the school band, the Bancroft players tore off their breakaway pants and blue pullover tops and kicked them under the bleachers. I swiveled my head and watched the Winnebago starters carefully unzipped their windbreakers and placed them in a neat pile on the bench.
The starters formed a circle at midcourt and waited for the tip-off, glancing from ball to opponent and back. I wiped a track of sweat that had suddenly popped up on my forehead and caught an odor of sweat and deodorant from the circled athletes.
For a second all the players tensed, then McNeil tossed the ball into the air. Joel from Bancroft batted it to Matt, who leaned into number eleven from Winnebago and tried to take him one-on-one.
Eleven bumped Matt with his body, but not enough to earn a foul; I wanted to let them play. Matt shot and missed, and Winnebago rebounded. McNeil and I trailed the ten boys to the opposite end of the court.
By the end of the first eight minutes, Bancroft led eighteen to fifteen. There was more banging around and pushing close to the basket than I could handle, and I ended up calling two fouls on the home team, two on the visitors. Eleven had both of Winnebago’s fouls.
My knee was holding up, but I was getting winded from all the whistling and running. McNeil hadn’t called any fouls, and he glared at me every time he heard my whistle.
The home side was half full when Warren, the Bancroft coach, called time-out. He was working the Bancroft crowd, trying to pull some noise from the hometown factory workers and farmers just now coming in after a long day of work. Most of the men leaned back against the bleachers behind them as if they were at home in front of the television, silent but watchful.
The Winnebago side never relented with their cheering and clapping. The drafty old gym was getting warm.
Inbounding after the time-out, Matt threw a baseball pass upcourt to Travis, who stood waiting at the three-point line. Just as Travis shot, fifty-three swung his arm up in desperation, but instead of hitting the ball, the palm of his hand landed on Travis’s nose.
I ran over, whistling like a madman. Fifty-three stared at Travis’s bloodied nose without moving, his mouth partly open.
I almost wrenched my knee pulling Matt away from the taller Winnebago player. For a second I thought about calling a technical foul on fifty-three, but it looked like the big guy had just lost control of his long arms.
McNeil thought otherwise. As I bent over Travis, motioning for the manager to bring some towels and water over, McNeil formed a T with his thick hands.
“Technical foul on five-three,” he yelled, glaring at the tall Winnebago player.
The Winnebago side blew up. Their angry voices reminded me of the crowds at some of my college games a few years go, in places twenty times bigger than this crackerbox gym.
A huge Native American, his black hair braided down his back, walked onto the court, yelling “What?” over and over. He towered over McNeil. Someone behind him threw a bag of popcorn onto the court. He looked ready to take a swing at McNeil.
Without even pausing, McNeil strode up to the big man and gave Winnebago another technical.
“Stay off the court or this game is over!” his voice boomed over the mayhem of voices, and the crowd quieted down. McNeil had a reputation among the three reservation schools in the area, ever since a legendary bar brawl just outside the reservation when he was my age. Someone in the brawl had ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a detached retina.
I was supposed to be intimidated, like all the other teachers were.
Kicking popcorn out of his way, McNeil turned his back on the visiting crowd and marched Matt to the foul line to shoot the free throws from the two technicals.
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