*Inspired by a true event*
It was fall of their Freshman year in high school when Kevin was rebounding for his neighbor and long-term best friend, Dijon, a week before high school tryouts. Growing up, Dijon was always seen as the best player in his class, being a 6’1″ point guard with superb dribbling skills and a deadly jumper with accuracy from 25 feet out. He surely had a bright future ahead. Kevin was never much of a player, standing at a unimposing 5’9″ with a shaky handle for the ball, but a decent eye for the rim. This worked for Dijon because Kevin would always rebound for him when he had no other teammates to workout with. When Dijon was catching his breath, he’d rebound for Kevin who couldn’t reach from three-point range, but had a nice mid-range jumper. Once Dijon started varsity at point guard as a freshman, Kevin and Dijon stopped working out together because Dijon’s teammates took up most of his time. Once the season was over, Kevin walked into the coach’s office, unannounced, and said, “I wanna play.”
Kevin knew it’d be a difficult task to make the team having no in-game experience. Most of the upcoming players on the freshman squad already had privilege over newcomers, and the incoming freshmen were solid players. Since his ball-handling would never be good enough to compete with Dijon, or any of the other back-ups, he decided that if he was ever going to make the team, it’d be because he played good defense. So every day until the sun went down, he worked on his conditioning, and played defense against Dijon when he wasn’t away for AAU tournaments.
The school year began, and tryouts quickly approached. Every year Dijon sneaked into the PAL each Thanksgiving between dinner and dessert to get some shots up. Kevin always tagged along, except this year was different. While Dijon was sure he’d make the team, it was Kevin’s first year ever trying out for the team. Instead of Kevin rebounding for Dijon, Dijon rebounded for Kevin. Kevin knew in the back of his mind that he’d have to compete with his best friend the next day to earn a back-up spot on the team.
“You just never made the cut, kid.”
Tryouts began the next day. For the most part Kevin was paired up with the JV players except for a few drills that required both teams to play together. Sprints came easy for Kevin, having worked all summer on his endurance, and he made sure that he was the first to complete every sprint. He made it past the first tryout, possibly out of the coach’s respect for Dijon, but the coaches called Kevin into the office after the second tryout and explained, “We love how hard you work, and how hard you play defense on Dijon, but there are other players who we need on our team. You just never made the cut, kid.” Upset, Dijon hastily stormed into the coach’s office, and pleaded for them to change their mind. They negotiated a deal to keep Kevin on the practice squad, but he wasn’t allowed to play in the game, or be on the roster. Kevin jumped on this offer, and saw it as an opportunity to prove to himself and others that he belonged on the team. By the end of the year, Kevin earned the reputation of being the hardest worker on the team. Meanwhile, Dijon was closing in on a 1,000 point milestone.
By the time Thanksgiving came around, Dijon thought that the coaches would surely put Kevin on the roster. Throughout the summer, Kevin worked endlessly to improve his quickness and ball handling skills, and it was clearly paying off. He was able to keep control under pressure, and he was starting to grab rim pretty easily. Dijon, on the other hand, grew a few inches during the summer and started to get some serious looks from Division I colleges throughout the country. The coaches announced Dijon as captain of the squad.
“There aren’t enough spots on the roster, but there’s room for you on the court.”
Tryouts began, and Dijon was a monster standing at an imposing 6’4″. At least, he seemed like one standing next to Kevin, who was a frail 5’10”. Despite the height difference, Kevin was able to grab rebounds over other players, but was turning the ball over more than dishing out assists. His defense, as always, was stellar. Just not stellar enough. “I’m sorry, Kevin, you’ve become a good player, just not good enough. You’re hard-working, dedicated, have a great attitude, and will push players every day in practice. While there aren’t enough spots on the roster, there’s plenty of room for you on the court. We’d like to offer you one more year on the practice squad, in exchange for a spot on the team next year. What do you say?”
“I accept,” Kevin said. However, Kevin never truly accepted the treatment he was receiving from the coaches. Who would? The coaches were basically using all of his hard work to their advantage. And what for? A chance to work in practice, but watch from the stands? Instead, he accepted it as a challenge. He knew that any opportunity to compete in a sport that he loved should never be taken for granted. Besides, at this point, all that mattered to him was to prove to the coaches that they were wrong for taking him for granted.
Dijon and Kevin meet at the PAL the day before the first tryouts. Dijon and Kevin dedicated the summer toward getting stronger because the school Dijon committed to required that he gains some weight. And since Kevin is definitely on the team this year, he no longer has to focus on developing his skills as much as previous years. Kevin tosses an ally-oop to Dijon and Dijon flushes it with two hands. “Ready for the season?” Dijon asks. “It’s our time now.”
That would’ve been true to Kevin, but the sophomore point guard from JV impressed the coaches during the summer league, and they already planned on making him the back-up for the upcoming year. “I just want to get in the rotation.” Kevin responds emphatically, knowing damn well that he’d be sitting the bench.
“I want you to model yourself after his work ethics.”
The next day, the coach stops tryouts after Kevin knocks over a few girls from the gymnastics team after diving to save a ball. “Everyone, you see Kevin over there?” Everyone pauses, waiting for the coach to make a joke. “He’s been doing that for two years now, and he never saw a minute on the floor. That’s why him and Dijon are co-captains of the team this year. I want you to model yourself after his work-ethics. If everyone can do that, we might just make a run at winning it.” The air stood still for a moment while everyone absorbed what just happened. Kevin worked hard. No one could ever say anything about that. But Captain? Even if he worked the hardest on the team, he’d rarely see time on the floor. Even he knew that.
“They just weren’t deep enough.”
The entire year, Kevin played the hardest defense out of anyone, pestering at the ball, pulling at jerseys and shorts, and knocking the occasional ball loose from the sure hands of Dijon. Some days, despite being his best friend, even Dijon hated him. Kevin rarely saw any action on the court though. Sure, he’d get a few minutes in a blowout win or loss, but that was against JV players. He wanted to go in when it mattered. As the season progressed, Dijon had his way with opposing teams, but their record was suffering. 6-7. It’s a team sport, but their team just wasn’t deep enough.They had just one game left in the season to make it to the playoffs.
Tight game. Ten seconds left. They trail by 1.
Kevin hears his name called as the players materialize around the coach for their final time out. The coach draws up a play to give Dijon the final shot. The horn sounds, and Kevin in-bounds the ball to Dijon. Ten. Kevin wonders why he’s in. Nine. The crowd stands tall and silent. Eight. Onlooking eyes burn holes through his body and gather in the pit of his stomach. Hands cover mouths and eyes. Pom poms shake. Seven. Both benches grit their teeth and lock arms. Six. Dijon takes a hesitation dribble. The defense slaps the floor. Five. Kevin trails Dijon. Dijon crosses the ball over and approaches the three point line. Four. Dijon gets double teamed, picks up the ball, and pivots. Three. Dijon passes the ball to Kevin? Two. Kevin shoots the ball, hoping it meets it’s mark.
One. Kevin misses.
Half of the crowd shrieks and then gasps into silence. The other half erupts into cheer. Kevin kneels, hands on head. They shake hands and ride the bus home.
Dijon and Kevin gather at half court in their empty home gym. Kevin wonders, had they played on their home court, would that shot have gone in? Maybe the lighting, or the forgiving rims would have sparked just enough familiarity for him to meet his mark. Kevin asks, “Why did you pass it to me? You could have taken those guys.” Dijon slowly spins, surveying the stands, and studying the banners like he’d never see them again. He thinks of all the sweat that once dropped on that floor, all the shots that went in, and all the shots that were sure to miss. Dijon looks at the names on the banners and thinks there should be more. He shifts his eyes at the basket, and thinks of his future. It reminds him of his past. About how many shots Kevin rebounded, how many times he had the ball stripped away from him, and how often he was motivated to be better. Without Kevin, he wouldn’t have been the player he’s become.
“Because you deserved it.”