Isaac Reach was taking a few more jumpers. He’d rebuilt his shot mechanic over the summer in hopes of gaining a higher, quicker release and he was struggling to get comfortable with it. The new stroke still took too much concentration. It needed to be automatic, instinctive. Once that was established, Isaac could worry about results, could worry about whether or not the ball was going through the hoop. For now, though, he just needed to keep firing them up, shot after shot. High, quick release. Fluid.
Isaac let one more shot fly from a step behind the free throw line and turned to see Maxwell Pretcher standing behind him, jersey in hand, sneakers tied in loose knots, a bulky, black brace on his left knee. His bare chest gleamed under the humming fluorescent lights hanging overhead.
“What’s up?” asked Isaac.
“I’m feeling good,” said Maxwell. “The knee feels real good today. Toss me a couple alley-oops?”
“Uh, sure,” said Isaac. “You really think you can get one down?”
Maxwell smiled. “I’m feeling good, man. I got this.”
Isaac and Maxwell were both seniors. Between their sophomore and junior seasons, Maxwell had grown from just under 6 feet tall to a full 6 feet and 4 inches, transitioning from a mediocre small forward who excelled at nothing in particular to an athletic, high-rising center. In his first year as the starting point guard, Isaac had developed good chemistry with Maxwell, and the duo could be counted on for at least one alley-oop attempt per game, some of them spectacular, some of them less so, but Coach Verck never seemed to mind. He knew how a successful alley-oop energized the home crowd and deflated away crowds. Maxwell was also notoriously sensitive and prone to mental lapses, so Coach Verck was all for anything that kept him happy and engaged in the game, especially considering that Coach Verck’s entire system was built around feeding the post and funneling slashers towards an intimidating shot blocker. But, in the second to last game of the season, with Multioak up by 16 in the third quarter, Maxwell had gone after a loose ball, jumped up on the scorers’ table, stepped on somebody’s stupid hand, twisted his knee, and torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
Since then, Maxwell had undergone surgery, been through rehabilitation, and his doctors had cleared to him play as long as he wore his brace, but so far Isaac hadn’t seen him display any of the effortless bounce or quickness that had given him such an edge over the collection of uncoordinated stiffs who played center at the other area high schools.
All this to say that Isaac did not expect these alley-oop attempts to go well.
Isaac stood under the hoop and dribbled the ball between his legs while Maxwell stood out at the three-point line and wiped the bottoms of his shoes with his hands, first one and then the other. “Start easy,” said Maxwell. “Right at the front of the rim.”
“All right,” said Isaac. “Get it.”
Maxwell approached the hoop at an angle, crouched low, shuffling his feet, gathering himself. Isaac tossed the ball. It was a perfect throw, so soft it seemed to hover just in front of the rim. Maxwell leapt with both arms extended toward the ball and just managed to graze it with his fingertips. The ball tapped the front of the rim and fell to the floor, bouncing out toward the free throw line.
“Whoa,” said Maxwell. “I was close.”
“Yeah,” said Isaac. “Sort of.”
“Again,” said Maxwell. “I’ve got it this time.”
The second attempt was even worse.
“I think our timing’s off,” said Maxwell. “We just gotta get back in our groove.”
After the third miss, Maxwell said he’d slipped. “Floor’s too dusty. I can’t get any traction right here.”
After the fourth miss, Isaac said he had to go because his mom had dinner waiting, which was not true.
“All right,” said Maxwell. “We’ll try again when my legs aren’t tired from a full practice. I almost had that first one.”
“Yeah, you did,” said Isaac. He didn’t know much about torn ACLs, but he was beginning to suspect that he’d never see Maxwell finish an alley-oop again.
On the way home after practice, Isaac stopped at the Diamond Foods to get a container of potato salad for supper. When he returned to the parking lot, there was a man in a bulky coat and stocking cap pulled down tight against his head standing next to Isaac’s car and smoking a long cigarette. When he saw Isaac approaching, the man stepped forward and extended his hand. “Isaac Reach. How are you?”
“I’m all right,” said Isaac, shifting the potato salad to his left hand so he could accept the man’s handshake.
“My name is Herm,” said the man. “I’m the head scout for the Dewardnik College men’s basketball team. You’ve heard of Dewardnik College?”
“I don’t know,” said Isaac. “I think so.”
“Well, we’ve heard of you,” said Herm. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on you. We think you’ve got a lot of potential.”
He stopped talking so Isaac felt he should say something. “Thanks. I’ve been working on my jumper all off-season.”
Herm made a dismissive gesture with both hands, exhaling twin jets of smoke through his nose. “We don’t care about that. You’re a point guard. Your job is so much more important than merely shooting and scoring.”
“Court vision,” said Isaac. “Is that what you mean? Facilitating?”
“Exactly,” said Herm, beaming as if Isaac was his own infant son who had just taken his first steps. “At Dewardnik, we value pass-first point guards who can run the offense without turning the ball over above all else.”
Isaac’s pulse raced. He’d had a decent junior season but so far had failed to attract the attention of any of the area colleges where former Multioak players usually ended up. He had assumed his low field goal percentage had been the problem. “And you want me?” asked Isaac.
“We do,” said Herm. “At least, we think we do. It depends what we see from you this season. It depends what you show us.”
“What are you looking for?” asked Isaac. “What should I be focused on?”
“Assist to turnover ratio,” said Herm. “It’s the only stat we care about.”
“What ratio should I aim for?”
“We can’t tell you that,” said Herm. “But I will tell you this: you should be very careful with the basketball. We take turnovers very seriously.”
“I will,” said Isaac. “I’ll be careful.”
“I hope so,” said Herm. “And one more thing. You can’t tell anyone we had this talk. If anyone else finds out we’re scouting you, we will cut all ties with you and you will never hear from us again. We will pretend as if we don’t even know who you are. This includes your coach, teammates, friends, even your family. Understood?”
“I do,” said Isaac. “I won’t tell anyone. I won’t screw up. I’ll be careful with the ball.”
Herm smiled and dropped his cigarette on the ground, grinding it under the toe of his boot. “Never forget that we’re watching, Isaac. You won’t see me, but I’ll see you. Every time you get an assist or turn the ball over, I’ll know. Good night.” With that, he turned and walked across the parking lot and into the Diamond Foods.
When Isaac got home, he looked up Dewardnik College online while he ate his potato salad. The website’s main page was littered with pictures of gorgeous girls taking notes in class, eating in the cafeteria, laughing while wearing lab coats, and sunbathing. Isaac clicked on a link that said, “Men’s Basketball.” The monitor went black. Then, out of the blackness, the words “Dewardnik College” flew at the screen, red and pulsing. Then those words exploded. When the smoke cleared, a single phrase was in their place. It read, “Where the point guard is king.” Then that phrase was replaced by a picture of a group of stunning girls in Dewardnik t-shirts with their arms raised over their heads, cheering in apparent ecstasy. At the bottom of the picture were the words, “Page under construction.”
Isaac didn’t bother to finish his potato salad. He went straight to the unfinished basement to work on ball-handling drills.
The next day at the end of morning practice before school, Coach Verck called the players together before they went to the locker room. “Guys,” said Coach Verck. “Principal Urliss has asked me to choose one of you to represent the team during a special convocation today. She hasn’t told me what it’s about, exactly, but I’ve decided that Maxwell will be the one to represent us. Perhaps some of you believe that you should be the one chosen, not Maxwell. You’re wrong. Maxwell is our center, our big man, and everything we do begins and ends with our big man, right? This isn’t intended to disrespect any of you. Isaac, for example. You’re a senior. You’ve improved a lot. What you do is important, no question. But there are degrees of importance. Maxwell is the most important. Any questions?”
No one said anything. Maxwell did not have the grace to look humble.
“All right,” said Coach Verck. “I’ll see you at all at 3:15.”
As Isaac began to make his way to the locker room with the rest of the team, Maxwell grabbed his elbow. “Hey, Isaac, couple of alley-oops? I figure it’s morning, I’m probably fresher, our timing’ll be better today.”
“Nah,” said Isaac. “I’ve got some homework to get done before school starts.”
“Just a couple,” said Maxwell.
Six failed alley-oops later, Maxwell frowned and shook his head. “This is weird. Isn’t this weird, Isaac?”
“Not really,” said Isaac. “I mean, you tore your ACL, Maxwell. It’s going to take you a long time to get back to where you were, if you ever do.”
“My knee feels great, though,” said Maxwell. “I think it’s just hard for me to be motivated when it’s just us screwing around, you know? If these were in-game alley-oops I’d have gotten all of ‘em. I just need to know they matter.”
“Maybe,” said Isaac. “But it’s probably not worth the risk to try ‘em in games. We gotta take care of the ball better this year.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Maxwell.
“We were a little sloppy at times last year,” said Isaac. “We just have to make sure we’re not wasting possessions.”
Maxwell laughed. “What are you, a coach now? Verck doesn’t care if we do alley-oops.”
“He will if you can’t finish ‘em,” said Isaac, scowling. “He will if they go sailing out of bounds because you can’t get up anymore on your gimpy knee.”
Maxwell looked stunned. “What’s wrong with you, Isaac?”
“Nothing. You’re just not being realistic. You’re not being honest about your knee.”
“I told you,” said Maxwell. “If we’re in a game and I’ve got a chance to put one down, I’ll do it. I swear I will. The adrenaline will kick in. I’m a natural showman, you know that.”
“Whatever,” said Isaac. “I’m gonna get showered.”
“One more,” said Maxwell. “If I get this one, you’ve gotta toss me at least one in the first game.”
“All right,” said Isaac.
It wasn’t even close. Maxwell blamed the throw.
The convocation was in the gym because the auditorium was too small to accommodate the entire student body. While the other students talked and laughed and shouted, exhilarated by the unexpected break from routine and the power they felt whenever they were all massed together, Isaac sat in the bleachers and looked down at the basketball court, empty except for a microphone on a stand, and brooded over Coach Verck’s misplaced priorities. It was ludicrous to say everything started with the big man. Without a point guard to bring the ball up and initiate the offense, the post players would never even get the ball.
Principal Urliss, wearing a peach pantsuit and an amount of make-up unusual for her, walked across the gym to the microphone and spent a good deal of time scolding the students into silence, calling out some of them by name. When the students had finally settled into their seats and gotten as quiet as any reasonable administrator could expect, Principal Urliss began to speak in her clipped, condescending voice.
“As some of you may know, from Multioak High School’s inception in 1919 until 1974, the school mascot was something too offensive for me to say here today. Some of you may know it. I hope you don’t. Do not look it up. In 1974, the school board voted to change the school mascot to the Medicine Men, a name that seemed fine for years, but was not, in fact, fine.”
Principal Urliss paused and glared at the students as if daring them to contradict her. No one took the dare. “As young people on the verge of adulthood,” said Principal Urliss. “You deserve a more detailed explanation. This is a learning opportunity. Who knows why ‘Medicine Men’ is no longer an acceptable mascot for Multioak High School?”
No one seemed sure if the question was rhetorical or not. Principal Urliss pulled a note card out of her sleeve and began to read aloud. “First, it’s offensive to Native Americans. Second, religious people are offended by its connection to witchcraft as are other people who disapprove of witchcraft. Third, it’s too gender specific. Fourth, there is perhaps an implied connection to drug use. Fifth, the logo is objectively distasteful. There should never be shrunken heads in a high school logo.”
Principal Urliss paused to tuck the note card back into her sleeve and then broke into an alarming smile. “That said, I would not have called us all together as a school family today unless I had some good news as well. If we can no longer be the Multioak Medicine Men - which we definitely cannot nor would we want to - then we must be something else.”
An anticipatory buzz ran through the assembled students.
Principal Urliss turned to her left and held one hand out toward the doors leading to the hallway. “Say goodbye to the Multioak Medicine Men. And say Hello to…the Multioak Marionettes!” As she pronounced the new name, Maxwell strode through the doors and into the gym wearing a new Multioak basketball jersey and shorts. The royal blue and white uniform was exactly the same as the old uniform, but it had “Marionettes” written across the chest instead of “Medicine Men.” Maxwell’s expression seemed to indicate that he had expected cheering, but the students didn’t cheer. No one seemed to know what to make of the new mascot. Isaac suspected that some of them didn’t know what a marionette was.
Maxwell walked across the gym floor and stopped next to Principal Urliss. The two of them faced the students, side by side, Principal Urliss only as tall as Maxwell’s shoulder.
“Starting tomorrow,” said Principal Urliss, “all traces of Medicine Men will be eliminated from our school, starting with the murals by the main office and in this gym. Please bear with us as we undergo this transition. The faster we embrace Marionette pride, the faster the community will as well.”
Maxwell rocked back on his heels and looked at the ground, his thumbs hooked in the waistband of his shorts, clearly trying to disassociate himself from Principal Urliss.
“And now,” said Principal Urliss, her smile coming back out of nowhere, “to give us our first big helping of Marionette pride, here is the new Multioak High School dance squad, The Marionettettes!”
A driving techno beat from a bygone decade, already in mid-song, blasted out of the gym’s PA system and The Marionettettes came prancing out onto the gym floor, royal blue ribbons in their hair, midriffs bared, grinning savagely. Their uniforms just said “Marionettes” on them, not “Marionettettes.” They fanned out in a line in front of Principal Urliss and Maxwell and began to dance in a way that suggested they were building up to better dancing. Maxwell looked a bit dumbfounded. Principal Urliss said something to him and he turned and walked out of the gym, faster than he’d entered.
There was a small part of Isaac that was glad he hadn’t been chosen to model the new basketball uniforms considering how awkwardly it had gone. But there was a much bigger part of Isaac that was still upset that he hadn’t been chosen because of what it signified, which was that Coach Verck and the rest of the school couldn’t see what Herm and everyone else at Dewardnik College knew: that without the point guard, there is no basketball. That the point guard is king.
While the team was changing for practice after school, Coach Verck called Isaac into his office. He sat down behind his desk and motioned for Isaac to sit facing him in a folding chair.
Coach Verck crossed his legs and drummed on his knee with his fingers. “What’s this I hear about you telling Maxwell you’re not going to throw him alley-oops in games?”
Isaac sighed. “We’ve been trying them in practice. Haven’t you seen them? He can’t jump anymore, Coach.”
“So?” said Coach Verck. “Who cares?”
“But if I throw him an alley-oop in a game, it’s just gonna be a turnover. There’s no way he’ll finish.”
Coach Verck leaned back in his chair. “So what, Isaac? So it’s one, maybe two turnovers a game. That’s a small price to pay for keeping Maxwell happy. An insignificant price. You think I don’t know he can’t jump anymore? Of course I know that. But he’s still taller than anyone else on the team by three inches. He still finishes around the rim. He still gets in there and bangs and boxes out and clogs the lane and protects the rim just by virtue of being a big body. But you know as well as I that if he’s sulking, he won’t do any of that. Our whole system will break down.”
Isaac fumed in silence.
“You can fume in silence all you want,” said Coach Verck. “But if you’ve got the ball and Maxwell’s going to the rim and he makes that special eye contact with you and you don’t lob that alley-oop pass, I’m benching you. It’s that simple. I’ll play Denny, I don’t care. He won’t sit here and take some holier-than-thou no-turnovers stance with me in my own office, I know that much. Now go warm up.”
Maxwell was waiting for Isaac out in the gym. “Let’s try to get a couple alley-oops in before practice. I think off the backboard might work better with the way my timing is now.”
“Maybe you should finish with layups for a while,” said Isaac. “Just until you’re back to full strength.”
“Nah,” said Maxwell. “Alley-oop layups are pathetic. I’m pretty much full strength now.”
And with each botched, fumbled, and bricked alley-oop, tossed off the backboard or otherwise, Isaac’s spirits sank further. He could sense his scholarship from Dewardnik receding into the distance. He needed to let them know that this wasn’t his fault, that the inevitable failed alley-oops would not stem from a lack of comprehension concerning the value of each individual possession. Though he had no idea how to get a hold of him, Isaac needed to talk to Herm. He needed to make him understand.
Days passed. Isaac went to practice before and after school. He worked as hard as he could to learn the offense, to learn his teammates’ tendencies, to learn from which spots on the floor they were effective scorers and from which spots they weren’t. If he knew coming out of the gate that he was going to have at least one turnover per game from disastrous alley-oop passes to Maxwell, then he would need to really pile up the assists in order to ensure a good ratio. But he also knew that Maxwell would probably not be content with only one alley-oop attempt per game, especially in blowouts when possessions mattered less and opposing teams were demoralized and not hustling back on defense. Isaac stopped working on his jump shot altogether. Every shot he took in a game would be a wasted opportunity for an assist, and he would need every assist he could get.
Maxwell demanded alley-oops both before and after practice. Not only did he never finish them, he almost seemed to be getting worse. Isaac wondered if Maxwell could even grab the rim anymore.
Isaac woke up angry and went to bed despondent.
He hated the new mascot much more than he should have.
He failed a Chemistry test and forgot entirely about a presentation he was supposed to give in Government called “My Ideal Congressman.”
His morale had never been lower.
Four days before the first game of the season, after another quick stop at the Diamond Foods, Isaac came home from practice and parked his car in the driveway. As he headed up the front walk to the house, a bag containing three pieces of deli chicken in hand, he heard a voice from the shadows of his front lawn say, “Isaac. Over here.”
Isaac stopped and peered into the night. A dark shape stepped out from behind the blue spruce, a point of orange light glowing at mouth level. “Herm? Is that you?”
“It is,” said Herm. He was dressed exactly as he was the first time Isaac met him. “Your first game is coming up soon, correct? I just wanted to check in on you. I wanted to make sure things were going well for you. To remind you of our previous conversation.”
Isaac walked across the stiff, frosty lawn to Herm. “You don’t need to remind me. I remember everything. Assist to turnover ratio. That’s all I’ve been working on.”
“And you haven’t told anyone we’re scouting you?”
“No one,” said Isaac. “Not even my parents. No one suspects anything.”
“Good,” said Herm. Isaac couldn’t see his face clearly, but he sounded pleased.
“But there is a problem,” said Isaac. “With one of my teammates. And my coach.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Herm. “But we don’t accept excuses at Dewardnik. Especially not from point guards.”
“I’m not making an excuse,” said Isaac. “I just want to explain something. There’s a guy on my team, Maxwell Pretcher. He’s a center and he wants me throw him alley-oops in games, but he can’t dunk at all anymore since he tore his ACL last year. But Coach Verck says I have to throw them anyway because it keeps Maxwell happy and our whole game plan, everything we do, is built around our big men, especially him.”
Herm said nothing for a few moments, taking deep drags on his cigarette. Then he said, “That makes me sick. That makes me want to puke. Big men are stiffs. They’re nothing. They aren’t basketball players. Can’t shoot, can’t dribble, can’t pass to save their lives. Lumbering foul-machines. So they grew up to be tall. Big deal. They’re a necessary evil, nothing more than a means to an end for a real basketball player, by which I mean a point guard.”
“But Coach Verck doesn’t see if that way,” said Isaac. “He was a power forward in college. He says he’ll sit me if I don’t throw Maxwell alley-oops whenever he wants them, basically.”
“And that’s not what you want?” asked Herm.
“No!” said Isaac.
“You want to play for Dewardnik, right? You want to be a true point guard, a pure point guard? You want to have an assist to turnover ratio you can be proud of? You want to value each and every possession?”
“Yes,” said Isaac. “I do. All of those things.”
“That’s the right answer,” said Herm. “Dewardnik basketball, while firm in its convictions, is not without understanding. Don’t worry about this issue anymore. Just focus on being the best point guard you can be.”
“Thank you so much,” said Isaac. “I knew you’d understand if I just had a chance to explain.”
“Good night,” said Herm, and he turned and walked away across Isaac’s neighbors’ lawns. Isaac went inside and got online to see if the Dewardnik College Men’s Basketball page was finished yet. It was not, but this time after the words “Dewardnik College” exploded, they were replaced by the phrase, “Where the point guard is immortal.” Also, the picture accompanying the “Page under construction” message had been changed to one in which a torrent of beautiful girls in Dewardnik attire was pouring onto the court from the bleachers, presumably to celebrate an especially thrilling victory. The actual basketball players were impossible to pick out in the onrushing wave of girls.
It wasn’t until hours later when his mom yelled down the basement stairs to stop bouncing the basketball because she was trying to sleep that Isaac remembered his deli chicken.
The next morning at practice, while the team was in the locker room changing into their practice jerseys, Coach Verck came out of his office and said, “Is Maxwell here? Has anyone seen him yet?”
Everyone looked around. No one said anything.
“His mom’s on the phone,” said Coach Verck. “She says his car is still in the garage but he’s not in the house. None of you gave him a ride? No one knows where he is?”
The team, frozen half-dressed and bleary-eyed, offered nothing.
“All right,” said Coach Verck. “But if you know something and you’re not telling me and I find out, there will be severe consequences. His mom is very worried, obviously, and furthermore, this team needs him. Now hurry up and get dressed. You’re wasting time.”
Maxwell never showed up for practice. He was absent from school too. After fifth period, Isaac saw a sophomore girl crying at her locker while a group of her friends tried to comfort her, and someone told him that the girl was Maxwell’s girlfriend. She was one of the Marionettettes. Isaac hadn’t known Maxwell had a girlfriend.
Half way through afternoon basketball practice, two police officers came into the gym and told Coach Verck that they needed to speak with him and the players concerning any leads as to Maxwell Pretcher’s whereabouts.
When it was Isaac’s turn, he told the cops that the last time he’d seen Maxwell was at the previous day’s afternoon practice, which was true. He didn’t tell them anything about the resentment he felt towards Maxwell, the scholarship from Dewardnik College, Herm, or how ominous Herm’s words of the previous night seemed in light of Maxwell’s disappearance. He didn’t mention the guilt and worry and fear boiling together inside of him.
That night in bed, Isaac couldn’t sleep. He had a headache. When he was under his covers, he was too hot, but when he kicked his covers off, he felt too exposed. Isaac wondered if he was getting a bad cold or the flu. Finally, just before 2 a.m., Isaac went downstairs to the kitchen to guzzle orange juice thinking maybe a blast of Vitamin C would keep his developing illness at bay.
Isaac was halfway across the dark kitchen to the refrigerator when he realized there was someone sitting at the kitchen table. Isaac jolted and jumped back against the counter, one hand going to his throat. The figure was too big to be his mother. “Herm?”
“We need to talk,” said Herm. “One last time.” His voice sounded weak, tired. He had his hat in his hands. His face was turned away from Isaac but he looked much older with his thinning white hair exposed.
“How did you get in?” asked Isaac. “How long have you been waiting for me?”
Herm leaned forward and rested his elbow on the table, rubbing his forehead with one hand. “There’s so little time,” he said. “But you can still save yourself if you listen to me.” He turned his head to face Isaac and even in the dim light of the kitchen, Isaac saw that Herm’s face was bruised and swollen.
“Save myself?” asked Isaac. “Save myself from what? From who?”
“I was only going to scare him into quitting the team,” said Herm. “Or, if that didn’t work, I was going to reinjure his knee. But I wasn’t strong enough to hold him. I’m just too old, Isaac. And he surprised me. He was waiting for me when I got home tonight. I don’t know how he got untied. He jumped me when I opened the door. He did a number on me. He really did.” Herm’s voice cracked and he wiped at his puffy, blackened eyes with the back of his wrist.
Isaac was shocked. He couldn’t process what he was hearing or seeing fast enough to respond.
“I have to go,” said Herm, collecting himself. “I mean, I have to disappear. It’s a serious crime. And I’ve got priors, so…” He stood up and pointed at Isaac. “You may be questioned. I never told him why he had to quit the team and I never mentioned you by name. But still. Or maybe you won’t be questioned. Maybe you’ll just be tempted to volunteer information. But that’s why I’m here, Isaac. That’s why I’m here even as precious minutes tick away. If you say even one word about Dewardnik College in connection to this incident, you will suffer. If you describe any sort of connection between me and Dewardnik College, you will suffer. Even years from now, if you tell anyone that you were scouted by Dewardnik College, you will suffer. You asked me who you could save yourself from. The answer to that question is ‘Dewardnik College.’ It’s too late for me, but I have to try.”
“So there’s no more chance of a scholarship?” asked Isaac, reeling, grasping.
“No,” said Herm. “Dewardnik College has decided to go in a different direction.” And with that, he limped to the back door and left. The door didn’t creak. And that door always creaked.
Isaac went to the computer in the living room and sat down. The Dewardnik College website’s main page was unchanged. Instead of clicking the Men’s Basketball link, Isaac clicked on a link that said “English Department.” The screen went black. Then, out of the blackness, the words “Dewardnik College” flew at the screen, still red, still pulsing. They exploded. When the smoke cleared, they had been replaced with a single phrase: “Where the technical writer is a god.” Isaac closed the browser before he could see what the gorgeous girls were doing in the “Page under construction” picture.