The way Coach Verck drew up the play, the ball was never supposed to find its way into Reuben’s hands. He wouldn’t have even been in the game if Reggie wasn’t stuck on the bench as punishment for coming up well short on a fast break dunk attempt with 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter of a tie game against Riveryard High.
“I can’t trust Reggie,” said Coach Verck. He had his hands on Reuben’s shoulders and his eyes darted back and forth across Reuben’s face. “Can I trust you, Reuben?”
The crowd was in a frenzy. Riveryard was up 58 to 57 on Multioak High with six seconds left in the game. Reuben heard a Riveryard player’s mother screaming something about the Multioak basketball program being a breeding ground for druggies and spouse beaters. The Riveryard fans, though outnumbered on Multioak’s home floor, had been savage all night. Their voices were uniformly piercing and they rained down abuse on the Multioak players that plunged well beyond all normal standards of propriety for a high school game.
Reuben did his best to tune them out and concentrate on Coach Verck’s instructions. “Trust me to do what?” asked Reuben.
“Stay out of Monty’s way,” said Coach Verck. “Stand in the corner until Monty shoots and then crash the boards in case there’s time for a put-back, which there won’t be. You will not be the hero of this game. Got it? Can you do that?”
But by the time Monty caught the inbound pass, performed an unnecessary jab step, drove to the right, jumped with no plan, and dumped the ball to a dumbfounded Reuben in the corner, all Reuben had time to do was loft the ball toward the hoop from well outside his range as the buzzer sounded.
His view of the basket was obstructed by a Riveryard defender flying at him, but the ensuing eruption from the Multioak supporters assured Reuben that his desperation heave had made him the hero Coach Verck had assured him he would not be. As his team mates swarmed around him, the Multioak fans cheered and pumped their fists, and the Riveryard fans slumped on the bleachers or headed for the exits, Reuben’s eye was drawn to one specific fan in the stands. A thin, middle-aged man with thick glasses and a gray stocking cap pulled down over his ears sat by himself in the top corner of the visitors’ section of the bleachers and rubbed his knees. The other Riveryard fans looked disappointed or shocked, but this man looked out over the celebrating Multioak fans with an expression that poured deep sorrow out into the oppressive heat of the gym.
Reuben’s teammates continued to bump him with their chests and shove him with their forearms, shouting congratulatory nonsense, but he couldn’t look away from the crushed Riveryard fan. The man’s misery sucked all the elation out of Reuben and left only a desire to shower, go home, and evade his parents’ questions about his life with non-committal grunts. As coach Verck herded the team into the locker room, Reuben took one last look over his shoulder at the fan, now alone in the stands with his head cradled in his hands in a pose of agony.
In the locker room, the team sat on the bench in front of their lockers and dripped sweat on the floor while Coach Verck paced back and forth and snapped the clip on his clip board. “Well, boys,” said coach Verck. “The good news is that we won the game. The bad news is that I don’t know if I can trust a single one of you to do as you’re told.”
The players looked at their feet to hide their smirks.
In the showers, Reuben was whipped mercilessly with wet, coiled towels. Reggie put him in a slippery headlock and said, “Come to the party. I’m serious. You have to. You’re the hero.”
“I don’t feel like it,” said Reuben. “I’m tired.”
“Whip him until he says he’ll come to the party!” shouted Reggie.
Reggie’s mom was staying at her mother’s house until Reggie’s dad decided if he wanted to actually try to make their marriage work or just keep ignoring her in favor of making a documentary about one of his buddies’ quest to drive a motorized wheelchair across the country. Reggie’s dad was home, but he didn’t care what the kids did as long as they didn’t interrupt him while he was editing, so the party was free to take whatever course it would.
Reuben was surprised at how few people there were at the party. A handful of guys from the team, a few of their friends, some senior girls that hung around with Monty’s girlfriend, and a group of shy sophomore girls who clustered together in a corner of the basement and barely sipped their beer.
Reuben’s mood hadn’t improved. He knew he should be happy, that he should be taking advantage of his moment in the spotlight, but the memory of the miserable Riveryard fan’s face made it impossible. Reuben was laboring through his third beer and starting to think about finding a room where he could sleep when two of the sophomore girls detached themselves from their corner and came across the room towards him. Reggie saw what was developing and gave Reuben a thumbs-up that waggled back and forth to the beat of the rap song thumping out of his dad’s second-string stereo system.
“Congratulations, Reuben,” said the shorter of the two girls. She was wearing the kind of shoes that Reuben had heard girls describe as “strappy.” “We saw you make that shot,” she said. “It was so good. I didn’t think it was gonna go in, but then it did and we were jumping and screaming.”
“We didn’t even care who saw us,” said the other girl. “We were freaking out.” She was wearing a green dress that Reuben had a hard time believing was fashionable. “You probably don’t know who I am,” said the girl, laughing at herself. “I’m Ruby.”
“And I’m Mattie,” said the first girl. “It’s not short for anything. It’s just Mattie.”
“You looked so calm when you took that shot,” said Ruby. “I would have been freaking out.”
“We were freaking out,” said Mattie. “And we weren’t even playing. You were. If I was you, I would have been freaking out even more than I already was.”
“It wasn’t supposed to go like that,” said Reuben. “I was surprised when I got the ball. There was no time to do anything but shoot.”
The girls laughed. Ruby grabbed Reuben’s arm for a moment in what may have been - but probably was not - a legitimate attempt to steady herself. Reuben felt uncomfortable. The girls were hot, but he couldn’t enjoy their attention. His mind wouldn’t let him. He hated that he felt guilty when he should have been feeling pumped up.
“You really shut those Riveryard loudmouths up,” said Mattie. “They’re crazy obnoxious. I was so happy when you broke their hearts.”
Reuben gritted his teeth. The girls were watching him, smiling and waiting for him to say something, failing to pick up on the hostile signals he was trying to broadcast to them with his body language. “I dunno,” said Reuben. “I just don’t feel that good about it. I dunno.”
Ruby patted his shoulder. “Do you feel like it was a lucky shot and you don’t deserve the credit?”
“No,” said Reuben. “I can shoot.”
Mattie patted his elbow. “Do you feel bad for Monty because he’s not getting enough credit for the assist?”
“No!” said Reuben. “That pass was terrible. I feel bad because I think I might have ruined someone’s life when I made that shot.”
The girls looked confused. “Ruined someone’s life?” asked Ruby. “Whose?”
“A guy in the stands,” said Reuben. “A Riveryard fan. After I made the shot, I saw him sitting by himself in the visitor’s section and he looked really, really sad. I think the game was really important to him. He took the loss hard. He looked like he’d…lost everything.”
“Someone has to lose, though,” said Ruby. “If you’d missed, people you know and care about would have felt sad.”
“Not as sad as this guy,” said Reuben. “This was like real suffering.”
The girls were silent. Reggie was dancing with his girlfriend with a can of beer in each hand. Beer foamed out of the tops of the cans and sloshed onto the carpet. A few other Multioak players were making out with girls on the couch. A few more kids were gathered around a glowing computer monitor that illuminated their laughing faces with a video that Reuben couldn’t see.
“See, part of me says that if he takes high school basketball that seriously, then that’s his problem,” said Reuben. The girls nodded. “But then I’m like, well, that doesn’t make him hurt less.”
“Would you feel better if you kissed me?” asked Ruby. Her concern seemed genuine.
“Or me?” asked Mattie, shooting a sidelong glance at Ruby and standing up straighter.
“I probably would,” said Reuben. “Either one of you. But why do I deserve to feel better?” He set his half finished beer down on the floor where it would probably be kicked over, went up the basement stairs without saying goodbye to anyone, and walked out of the house into the early morning darkness. His cousin’s house was only a few blocks from Reggie’s. Even if he took his time he’d be in a sleeping bag on his cousin’s bedroom floor within half an hour, inhaling the distinct smell of the guest pillowcase and doing his best not to think about the shattered Riveryard fan crying himself to sleep.
The Riveryard fans didn’t recognize Reuben in his jeans and hoodie. He scanned the crowd as he made his way to the top of the upper bleachers in the Riveryard gym, but Reuben didn’t see the fan he was looking for until a few minutes after tip-off when the fan sat down less than ten feet away wearing the same gray stocking cap pulled down over his ears. Reuben tried to read the fan’s face for signs of lasting emotional damage. The fan looked grim, but not nearly as wounded as he had the night of the buzzer beater.
The game was a blowout. Riveryard jumped on St. Dymphna right from the opening tip and kept pouring it on, staying with a full court press even when the lead stretched to 24 early in the second quarter. By the time the buzzer sounded at the end of the first half, Riveryard was sitting on a 31 point lead. The fan, though still fairly well composed, had begun to show signs of strain around his mouth and eyes.
Reuben scooted down the bleacher seat until he was right next to the fan. “Hey,” said Reuben. “Looks like another easy win, huh?”
The fan didn’t look at Reuben.
“Don’t you recognize me?” asked Reuben. “You’ve probably never seen me dressed like this.”
“I don’t recognize you,” said the fan, still not looking.
“I play ball for Multioak,” said Reuben. “I hit the game winner against you guys four days ago? I saw you there.”
“Maybe,” said the fan.
“No, not maybe,” said Reuben. “I did hit the game-winner and I did see you there.”
“Congratulations,” said the fan. “I don’t remember it.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Reuben. “I’m sure you don’t. I saw you after I hit the shot, dude. You looked so sad I almost felt bad about making it.” Reuben paused to allow the fan to acknowledge his sadness. The fan said nothing. Reuben realized the man was probably too embarrassed. “Actually,” said Reuben, “I did feel bad. I still do, actually. I couldn’t even enjoy the party after the game. Everyone was congratulating me, a couple cute girls wanted to make out with me, and all I could think about was how sad you looked. I kept thinking it was my fault. Like If I’d missed, then you wouldn’t be so sad.”
The fan finally looked at Reuben. After a moment he said, “Don’t flatter yourself. I know you think that shot should be one of the highlights of your life, but some day you’re gonna realize there are a lot worse things than losing a high school basketball game.” He rubbed the back of his index finger over the lenses of his glasses and said, “And I really don’t remember the shot. I don’t come to the games to watch them. I don’t even like basketball. Or any sports.”
Reuben looked at the Riveryard cheerleaders as he tried to process what the fan had told him. What the girls lacked in synchronization they made up for in smile magnitude.
The fan leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and hung his head, his shoulders slumped. “You don’t get it, right kid? You think you deserve an explanation so you can redeem your moment of teenage heroism. You think the world owes you a nice clean memory without me moping around in it.”
“I’m just confused,” said Reuben.
“Oh, God forbid,” said the fan. He pointed down at the crowd of Riveryard supporters spread out below them, chatting with the ease of fans who know that victory is assured. “See that woman?” asked the fan.
“Which one?” asked Reuben.
“The one in the purple dress,” said the fan. “The only one in a dress. She’s my sister. But we’re estranged. She goes to every game, home or away. Know why? She’s married to the head coach.”
“Oh,” said Reuben. “So you felt bad for her when I hit the game-winner.”
“No,” said the fan. “You really are full of yourself, aren’t you? I feel bad because my sister and I haven’t spoken in three years. And I keep hoping that if I come to the games, we’ll talk. She knows I’m here. Every game’s an opportunity. And every game we don’t talk is another missed opportunity. More time wasted. When the game ends and she leaves again without speaking to me, well…” He paused and bit his lower lip. His hands trembled. “I know you think you’re a main character, kid, but your buzzer beater is nowhere in this story. You’re not in this story at all. You’re just an arrogant kid who thought he was in the story and stuck around long enough to find out he was mistaken. I’ll forget you as soon as you leave me alone, which I hope will be any second now.”
Reuben stood up. “I know you think my buzzer beater was just a lucky shot, but I practice hard. I’d make shots like that all the time if Coach would let me.” He walked down the aisle to the steps and stopped, turning back to the fan long enough to say, “I am a main character.” Then he descended the steps until he was in the thick of the Riveryard crowd, standing even with the row in which the miserable fan’s sister was seated. “Ma’am!” he shouted. The people seated nearby stopped their conversations and turned their attention from the cheerleaders’ interminable dance routine to see what the yelling was about. “You,” shouted Reuben, pointing at the fan’s sister. “Coach’s wife!”
“Me?” asked the fan’s sister, tapping herself on the chest. She looked worried.
“Yeah,” shouted Reuben. “You. Your brother’s pathetic. Talk to him anyway. I’m sure he’s probably watching us, but when you do talk to him, make sure he knows I made it happen.”
“Hey,” said a bearded man in a Riveryard t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. “Aren’t you the Multioak scrub who hit that lucky shot against us the other night?”
“That’s me,” said Reuben, puffing out his chest and sneering. “And I’ll do it every time your loser sons are dumb enough to set foot on the floor with me.”
As a hail of popcorn, plastic bottles, and threats swept over him, Reuben fled the gym grinning exactly like a leading man on a movie poster.