Sports reporter Mike Lupica has made a name for himself , not only covering sports, but in writing novels about them as well. "Game Changers: Play Makers" takes a look at one young athlete's struggle to get better in the face of a new rivalry, while still trying to maintain an enjoyment of the game itself.
The Rams had had a good week of practice, offense and defense, running their plays, getting better at pressing and breaking a press, working hard on being the kind of help defenders that Coach Wright wanted them to be, learning when to switch and when not to, and when he wanted them to double-team the ball.
Sam was still the one player on the team Ben knew they could least afford to lose, just because he did so many things well. But it was clear already that Shawn had it in him to be a game changer, too.
Ben was trying to be one now against Darby. Holding their own this time, even though they were behind eight points at halftime. The Rams had gotten behind by more than that early, Chase and his teammates coming out hot again in the first quarter.
But then Darrelle, the Rams’ shooting guard, made a couple of three-pointers, and with two minutes left in the first quarter, the game was tied, and stayed tied until Chase Braggs went on an 8–0 run all by himself at the end of the half, the last coming after he blocked Ben’s shot, pushed the ball with time running out, had to pull up at the free-throw line for the jumper that beat the horn and made the score 32–24 for Darby at the half.
Ben went hard after Chase, had no chance to catch up, watched from the top of the key as he buried the jumper. Then walked over toward the Rams’ bench, slapping his thigh hard with his right hand.
“I should have passed it to you,” Ben said.
“You had a better look.”
Shawn said, “Baby jumper, right side, we’d want you taking that every time.”
“Chase seemed pretty happy with my shot selection,” Ben said.
Coop said, “Dude, that’s the only shot of yours he got the whole half. No worries, we got this today.”
“You know how much it always chafes me to say this,” Sam said, “but Coop’s right. We showed that we can play with those guys. And with that guy.”
After they’d all gotten their drinks, Coach Wright talked about all the good things he’d seen from them, starting with the way they’d fought back after another bad start. Then he went through his personal checklist, all the things he stressed at practice, about sharing the ball, focusing on their next stop.
“We could’ve folded up like a cheap suit,” Coach said, and Ben could see Sam and Coop smiling at him.
“But we didn’t fold,” Coach continued, “and that’s why I’m seeing the team now I expect us to be. Just keep playing hard and having fun.” Smiling up at them as he said, “Which are one and the same as far as I’m concerned.”
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As they went out to start the second half, Sam leaned close to Ben and said, “Where did Coach get a crazy idea like that, having fun against the hated Chase?”
Ben said, “I don’t hate Chase.”
Shawn was behind them. “Well I’m starting to hate him. The guy doesn’t let you get comfortable on defense for a second. It’s like he can see everything, even when he’s looking the other way.”
“Let’s just have him see us get a W,” Ben said. “See how comfortable he is with that.”
“I hear that,” Shawn said.
It was 47–41, Darby, at the end of the third. Both coaches had done a lot of substituting in the quarter, both making sure everybody on their teams got to play. But when they went out to start the fourth quarter, Ben could see the Darby coach, Mr. Coppo, going with his starters, same as the Rams were.
Rams ball, side out, Chase next to Ben on the court, waiting for the ref to hand the ball to Darrelle.
“Well, now it’s on,” Chase said.
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Ben didn’t respond.
“Don’t want to talk?” Chase said.
“After the game,” Ben said.
Chase gave Ben a little pat on his back and said, “Well, if you still want to.”
The crowd was a lot bigger this Saturday, maybe because the game did count, and so the noise from the parents seemed to build as the game stayed close, and kept building to what Ben was sure was going to be a great ending in the gym at The Rock.
Wanting to make sure it was the right one for the Rams.
There was even a moment, Shawn and Darby’s Ryan Hurley on the ground fighting for a loose ball, when Ben thought they might really go at it, neither one of them willing to take his hands off the ball. But Sam and Coop pulled Shawn up and away from Ryan — Shawn having finally ripped the ball away — before things turned stupid.
Shawn, breathing hard, said, “We are totally coming away with the W.”
Darby led by a point, 57–56, with a minute left. Down the stretch, Chase had seemed perfectly willing to pass the ball every time the Rams tried to collapse on him, had only taken two shots that Ben could remember the whole fourth quarter, making both of them.
But now, at the Rockwell end, Sam lost his man on a switch, Ben threw him a perfect bounce pass, Sam made a jumper from the right corner. The Rams were ahead, 58–57. First lead of the game for them, first lead of the new season.
Chase came right back, came right at Sam, got a step, seemed to slow down like he was about to pass again, got Shawn — who’d jumped out on him — to relax just enough before Chase blew past him for a layup.
For most of the game, it seemed to Ben as if the guy had kept his showboating to a minimum. He still found ways to draw attention to himself, like he couldn’t help it. He’d just been less annoying so far today.
Even if he was still annoyingly good.
But now it all seemed to kick back in for him, he took a wide route back on defense so he could slap Mr. Coppo a low five, then pointing with both index fingers at his parents.
Forty seconds left, Darby back up by a point.
Ben held up a fist as he brought the ball up. It wasn’t a play so much as a trigger, his sign to Sam to come up to the top of the key for a high pick-and-roll. Not a set play as much as the outline for one. But always the best way for them to get into their offense, Coach Wright trusting Ben enough to let him decide where the play should go, what they had, once Sam set his pick.
Sam set a beauty now and, as soon as he did, Chase yelled, “Switch,” and jumped out on him. Sam still knew enough to run around him and then cut toward the basket, Chase backing up with him, watching Ben’s eyes as he did.
And Ben purposely kept his eyes on Sam as he kept his dribbling, waiting until Shawn came around the pick Coop had set for him on the baseline, and came open. Ben fired a pass to him and Shawn turned and made a short, no-sweat jumper, like he was still shooting around during pregame warm-ups.
Rockwell by a point, twenty seconds left, the gym louder than it had been all afternoon, everybody on their feet, Mr. Coppo making no move to get up himself or call a time-out, putting the game in Chase’s hands.
Letting his guys play.
Ben picked up Chase in the backcourt, trying to get him to burn a few extra seconds having to deal with Ben, hoping to make him rush a little once he got the ball past midcourt. But Chase spun away from him, pushed the ball hard up the sideline, Ben scrambling to get in front of him.
Seeing Chase smiling as he did.
Like he’d waited all day to get here.
Ben saw Chase’s eyes go to the clock. Ben followed his gaze.
Chase waved his left arm now, telling his teammates to clear out. So it was him against Ben.
Ten seconds now.
Chase started backing him in then. The way Ben had told Sam to back him in at McBain the day before. Still not rushing, taking his time, not looking for a clock himself. Like the clock was one more thing he could see without looking.
Backing Ben toward the low blocks.
Ben tried to reach around him for the ball, but didn’t come close, Chase blocking him with his free arm just as he went into his shot, turning and shooting in one motion, falling away just slightly, putting up the soft jumper that won the first game of the season for Darby.
This time Chase didn’t just hold his shooting pose, he turned with his right hand high and pointed at the scoreboard:
Visitor 61, Home 60.
And even as his teammates ran for him, Chase still wasn’t quite done. Almost like he’d left himself just enough time to get off one more shot, not over Ben this time, but right in his face.
Taking a long step forward, smiling that cocky smile, leaning down so that only Ben could hear, saying:
“You actually think you can stop me, little man?”
Excerpted from the book "Game Changers: Play Makers." Copyright © 2013 by Mike Lupica. Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive