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200 to Nothing

                The Multioak High School boys basketball team was having its best season of all time. There had been other teams that had started with records as good as the current team’s, but none of those teams had won by an average of over 30 points per game. This team was talented, they were deep, they were tall, they were fast, they could score inside and outside, on the fast break or in the half court, and they could lock other teams down, when they felt like it, but they never needed to. Now, exulting in the locker room after a 28-point drubbing of Riveryard High School, one of their most hated conference rivals, the team sat in silence as Coach Verck delivered his postgame remarks.

               “Next week is Silvercrest Christian,” said Coach Verck. He flapped his bland tie with his left hand. “And I know you’re overlooking them. Even if you say you aren’t, I know you are.” He paused and pointed his clipboard – if it’s possible to point a clipboard – at Tanner. “Are you overlooking Silvercrest, Tanner?”

               “Me?” said Tanner. “No.”

               “Yes, you are,” said Coach Verck. “And I don’t blame you. I really don’t.”

               “I’m not, though,” said Tanner.

               “You are,” said Coach Verck. “And there’s nothing you can say or do to convince me otherwise.”

               “OK,” said Tanner. He hated it when Coach Verck talked directly to him. He felt like it never went well.

               “So you’re overlooking them,” said Coach Verck. “Right?”

               “No,” said Tanner.

               “Give me a break,” said Coach Verck. “Silvercrest is terrible. Why wouldn’t you overlook them? They haven’t won a game all year. You guys know Riveryard? The team we just got done beating by 28 points? They beat Silvercrest 126 – 14. They beat them by over 100 points! And Riveryard’s starters didn’t even play for the entire second half. It was all end-of-the-bench guys. So, given all that, given that you beat the team that beat Silvercrest by over 100 points by 28 points, why wouldn’t you be overlooking Silvercrest, Tanner?”

               “Because every game matters,” said Tanner.

               Coach Verck rolled his eyes. “Tanner, I had a very specific way I wanted this speech to go, and you’re ruining it. This should be a happy night, but you’re ruining it for everyone.”

               “I guess I’m overlooking Silvercrest,” said Tanner. “A little bit, at least.”

               “Of course you are,” said Coach Verck. “And why wouldn’t you? They’re terrible!”

               “Yeah,” said Tanner. “They suck.”

               “Tanner, please,” said Coach Verck. “We don’t need to be crude about it.”

               “Sorry,” said Tanner.

               “The point is that you’re overlooking Silvercrest, and with good reason,” said Coach Verck. “Right, Tanner?”

               “Yes,” said Tanner.

               “Well, let me tell you something you may not know,” said Coach Verck. “And I want all of you to listen very closely.” He used one big gaze to look at all of the Multioak High School boys basketball team at the same time. “My first coaching job was at Silvercrest Christian High School.” He paused to allow for gasps, but there were none. Coach Verck was visibly disappointed at the lack of a stir caused by his revelation. “Yes,” he said, with some alterations to his inflection, “I was once an assistant coach at Silvercrest.” The angled-for stir remained unattained. “If you pause to think about it,” continued Coach Verck, “to really consider what I’m saying, I think you’ll find yourself surprised that a coach as successful as myself began his career at such a notoriously unsuccessful program. Shocking, right? Right, Tanner?”

               “Yes,” said Tanner. He didn’t understand why Coach Verck continued to address him in particular. The whole team was here, why couldn’t he address Kevin or Lance or Alfredo?

               “But this is what I ask you to consider,” said Coach Verck. “Would Silvercrest be a notoriously awful basketball program if Coach Fillaut hadn’t fired me for trivial, non-basketball reasons?”

               “No,” said Tanner, trying to anticipate what Coach Verck wanted from him so that the interaction could be as brief as possible.

               “Correct,” said Coach Verck. “And why is that, Tanner?”

               “Because you would have made them good,” said Tanner.

               “Correct again,” said Coach Verck. “I don’t know why you insist on playing dumb, Tanner. You’re actually pretty smart when you make an effort. Right?”

               “Yes,” said Tanner.

               “Of course, if Coach Fillaut hadn’t fired me, I wouldn’t still be at Silvercrest,” said Coach Verck. “I would have moved on to bigger and better things long ago. My career would have really taken off. I wouldn’t be coaching here either. I’d be coaching in Heavenburg by now, or maybe coaching a college team. That setback cost me years, not to mention the lingering effect it’s had on my reputation. But the point is that whatever Coach Fillaut’s stated reasons for firing me, the true reason is that he feared I was about to take his job despite being ten years younger than him, and if that had happened – which it would have – then even in the very short time I would have been there, I would have set the program on the right track, and they would be much better off today just from my positive influence during the short time that I was in charge there.”

               Tanner nodded. He hoped that a light, continuous nod would keep him from having to answer anymore rhetorical questions aloud.

               “And that’s why we can’t overlook the game against Silvercrest Christian,” said Coach Verck. “Do you understand, Chris?”

               Chris’s vacant expression switched to shock at being addressed instead of Tanner, then switched to concern for his own well-being when he realized he hadn’t heard Coach Verck’s question. “No,” he said.

               “Tanner,” said Coach Verck. “Explain it to Chris.”

               “We can’t overlook Silvercrest because they’d be better now if Coach Fillaut hadn’t fired Coach Verck,” said Tanner.

               “No!” screamed Coach Verck. He hurled his clipboard across the locker room and into the shower area. “This is how you respond after I pay you a compliment, Tanner? Come on! The reason we can’t overlook Silvercrest is because Coach Fillaut ruined my career and ruined my life, and now we have a chance to publically humiliate him!”

               “Oh, right,” said Tanner.

               “Explain that to Chris,” said Coach Verck.

               Tanner looked at Chris, who looked back at him with sympathy. “Coach Fillaut ruined Coach Verck’s life so we have to humiliate Silvercrest,” said Tanner.

               “Got it,” said Chris. “Thanks, Tanner.”

               “You’re welcome,” said Tanner.

               “And tell him how we’re going to humiliate Silvercrest,” said Coach Verck.

               “You haven’t told me yet,” said Tanner.

               “We’re going to beat Silvercrest 200 to nothing,” said Coach Verck.

               “We are?” asked Tanner. “Wow.”

               “Tell Chris,” said Coach Verck.

               “I heard you say it,” said Chris. “200 to nothing.”

               “Don’t let Tanner off the hook,” said Coach Verck. “He has to learn.”

               “We’re going to beat Silvercrest 200 to nothing,” said Tanner.

               “I know,” said Chris. “I heard.”

               “And not only are we going to beat them 200 to nothing,” said Coach Verck, “but I’m going to announce our intention to do so tomorrow. It will be in the newspaper and it will be on the TV news, so you boys will have to win 200 to nothing or we’ll be the ones who are humiliated.”

               Tanner cleared his throat, trying to remember everything Coach Verck had just said. “He’s also going to tell the paper and, uh – ”

               “Stop it, Tanner,” said Coach Verck. “Everyone heard me.”

               Alfredo raised his hand. “Why did Coach Fillaut fire you if it wasn’t for basketball reasons?”

               “It wasn’t for basketball reasons,” said Coach Verck. “It was because without their parents’ permission, I took two freshman players duck hunting with me to teach them to have a killer instinct on the court, and then I gave them alcohol to lower their inhibitions so they’d be less resistant to killing ducks, and then we killed way over the legal limit of ducks, and then I got a DUI on the way home. And that’s it. That’s literally it. I was fired for that.”

               Tanner couldn’t help but think that the firing sounded kind of justified, but he knew better than to say so out loud.

               Coach Verck looked at him. “Does that firing sound justified to you, Tanner?”

               “No,” said Tanner.

               “Then stop overlooking Silvercrest,” said Coach Verck.


               Three days later, Coach Fillaut addressed the Silvercrest Christian High School boys basketball team in the locker room before practice. Julian hoped whatever Coach Fillaut had to say wouldn’t take too long. He liked Coach Fillaut, be he never found his speeches helpful or inspiring. The only way he could imagine he and his teammates becoming less of an embarrassment on the court was by spending more time practicing basic basketball maneuvers, such as making layups. Why were they all so bad at making layups? Other teams made making layups look simple.

               “I’m sure you’ve all heard by now,” said Coach Fillaut. “But I think it’s important that we address it. Just in case some of you haven’t heard, well, you probably know that our next game is against Multioak on Thursday night.”

               “It is?” asked Josh.

               Julian sighed out loud so that Coach Fillaut would know that at least someone on the team found Josh’s obliviousness as frustrating as Coach Fillaut probably did.

               “Yes, that’s who we’re playing next,” said Coach Fillaut. His tone betrayed none of the frustration that Julian assumed he was feeling, which frustrated Julian almost as much as Josh’s obliviousness. Maybe if Coach Fillaut expressed some frustration every once in a while, the team wouldn’t feel comfortable delivering record-shatteringly bad performances on the court over and over again.

               “Is Multioak good?” asked Josh.

               “Yes,” said Coach Fillaut. “They’re very good.”

               “Uh oh,” said Josh. “That’s bad news for us!” He grinned as he said it. Julian wanted to punch him in the Adam’s apple.

               “Well, that’s what I want to talk about,” said Coach Fillaut. “Because over the weekend, Coach Verck – he’s the head coach over at Multioak – and anyway, he announced that he intends for his team to beat us 200 to nothing.”

               “Oh yeah,” said Xander. “I heard about that.”

               “Is that even possible?” asked Julian.

               “Well, yes, I think it is, unfortunately,” said Coach Fillaut.

               Josh snorted. “Are you kidding, Julian? Of course it’s possible!”

               “Multioak beat Riveryard by almost 30 points,” said Coach Fillaut. “And you recall how badly Riveryard beat us? And they didn’t play their starters in the second half. Coach Verck will be doing everything in his power to beat us by the score he predicted.”

               “But why?” asked Julian. “Why does he want to beat us by so much?”

               “He wants to humiliate me,” said Coach Fillaut. “He was an assistant coach under me when he first started out, and I fired him for some very good reasons, but he’s been bitter ever since, and he sees this as his opportunity to even the score.”

               “But wait,” said Julian, a small flicker of competitive spirt blooming in his heart. “If he declared that they’re going to win 200 to nothing, then if they score any less than that, or if we score even one point, then it’s almost like we won. Right?”

               “No,” said Coach Fillaut. “Losing 200 to one will not be like a victory, nor will losing 199 to nothing.”

               “But it’ll prove Coach Verck wrong,” said Julian. “Maybe it won’t be like a real victory, but it’ll be like a moral victory.”

               “No,” said Coach Fillaut. “We’re not going to approach it like that. We’re not going to give them the satisfaction.”

               “So what are we going to do?” asked Julian.

               “If Coach Verck wants this game to be a farce, then a farce is what he’s going to get,” said Coach Fillaut.

               “What’s ‘farce?’” asked Caleb.

               “We’re not going to try,” said Coach Fillaut. “Let them do whatever they want. Let them beat us 200 to nothing. Let them beat us 300 to nothing. Because how can they humiliate us if we’re not even trying? Who cares?”

               Josh cackled. “I love it,” he said. “But sometimes people think we aren’t trying when we really are.”

               “Right,” said Coach Fillaut. “So we have to make it extra obvious that we’re not trying.”

               “How do we do that?” asked Julian. His stomach felt hollow even though he’d had multiple extra helpings of cherry crisp at lunch in the cafeteria. He knew it wasn’t good for his physique, but he couldn’t help himself. He’d told himself he’d work extra hard at practice to work all that cherry crisp off.

               “How do we make it obvious that we’re not trying?” asked Coach Fillaut. “Well, for one thing, we’ll go with a different starting lineup.”

               “Does that maybe mean that I…?” Julian couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

               “Um, probably,” said Coach Fillaut. “I’ll probably start you at small forward, Julian.”

               “Why are you smiling?” asked Connor, the usual starting small forward. “You know he’s starting you to make it obvious that we’re not trying, right?”

               “I know, I know,” said Julian, still smiling. He knew he should be insulted, and he was insulted, in a way, but he was also, in another way, excited.

               Josh pointed at Julian. “Coach, I think if you start him, Julian’s gonna try.”

               Coach Fillaut considered Julian for a moment, then turned to Josh and said, “That won’t hurt anything.”

               The rest of the team snickered, but Julian didn’t care. All he had to do was score one point. Just one. One! If he scored one point, he would be the winner, the sole winner of the game. One free throw, that was all it would take. Of course, he’d never made a free throw in a game before. Or in practice. He tried to think if he’d ever made one outside of practice. Surely he had. But what if no one on Multioak fouled him? Maybe he should try to make a layup. That would be worth two points! He couldn’t wait to hit the practice floor.


                Chris’s mom Darla picked up Chris and Tanner from basketball practice on the Tuesday before the game against Silvercrest Christian. “How was practice?” she asked as the two tall teenage boys – one 17 and one 18 – climbed into her SUV. Tanner rode shotgun because it was the policy of Chris’s family that guests got to ride shotgun, which meant that guests had to ride shotgun unless they could convince Chris’s mom that they really didn’t want to, which was impossible to do because Chris’s mom always assumed the guests were lying to be polite.

               “It was good,” said Chris.

               “Do you agree with Chris, Tanner?” asked Darla. “Was practice good?”

               “Not really,” said Tanner.

               “You don’t agree with Chris?” asked Darla. She looked at Tanner, which required her to look away from the road, which caused her to run a stop sign.

               “He’s mad at Coach Verck,” said Chris.

               “Don’t speak for him,” said Darla. “Tanner can speak for himself.”

               “I’m mad at Coach Verck,” said Tanner, wishing that Chris’s mom would just let Chris speak for him.

               “Why?” asked Darla.

               “I won’t say why,” said Chris. “I know why, but I’ll let Tanner say why.”

               “Because he publically announced that we’re going to beat Silvercrest 200 to nothing,” said Tanner. “So now we have to do that, which seems almost impossible, or else it’s like we failed and Coach Verck will be super mad at us and make us run the bleachers for a whole practice or something. And it’s all because of his own personal grudge against the Silvercrest coach, which has nothing to do with us, but he expects us to care about it as much as he does.”

               “Why 200 to nothing?” asked Darla.

               “I don’t know,” said Tanner. “It’ll set the record for most lopsided victory. It’s a big round number. He also says the number 200 is ‘personally significant’ to him right now, whatever that means.”

               “Have you ever heard of a video game called Charm Snaker?” asked Darla.

               “I think so,” said Tanner. “Isn’t it pretty old?”

               “Yes,” said Darla. “It is pretty old. Which is why I’m so good at it. I’ve been playing it since I was a teenager. And now I’m so good, just beating the game isn’t a challenge anymore. So I set little goals for myself to make it more challenging. For example, I have to snake over 100 charms in less than an hour, or I have to snake all 10 legendary charms without leveling up. Which, if you know the game, that’s very hard to do. Maybe that’s what Coach Verck is trying to do for you boys: give you a challenge beyond merely winning or losing so that you still have something to work toward.”

               “No,” said Tanner. “The whole thing is based on spite and nothing else. He told us.”

               “Well, that doesn’t make much sense,” said Darla. “I remember why Coach Verck got fired from Silvercrest and it was very justified, and I’m surprised he hasn’t come to terms with that yet at his age. I was shocked when Multioak hired him, but I figured, well, it had been years and years since the incident, surely he’d learned from his mistakes. This is all a little disturbing, frankly. It makes me wonder if I want him to coach my son.”

               “So I can quit?” asked Chris. It was the most hope Tanner had heard in his voice since he’d known Chris.

               “No,” said Darla. “You’re the best player. You’d be letting the whole team down.”

               “We won’t care,” said Tanner.

               “Thank you, Tanner,” said Darla. “But you don’t speak for the whole team.”

               “I often do,” said Tanner. He could tell Chris’s mom didn’t know what he meant, but she didn’t ask him to clarify.


               Julian’s older brother Dorian picked him up from basketball practice on the Wednesday before the game against Multioak. “How was practice?” Dorian asked as Julian heaved his overburdened backpack into the trunk of the car and accepted his customary post-practice fountain drink.

               “Good,” said Julian. He eased his body into the front seat of his brother’s fancy car and seatbelted himself.

               “Good?” asked Dorian, zipping the car out of the Silvercrest Christian High School parking lot with a tiny horn-beep. “It was actually a good practice?”

               “Yes,” said Julian. “I made a layup and almost made two free throws.”

               “Does that mean you made one free throw and almost made a second?” asked Dorian.

               “No,” said Julian. “I almost made one, and then I almost made another one. But I did make a layup.”

               “Did you almost make a second layup?” asked Dorian.

               “No,” said Julian.

               Dorian let a respectful minute pass before he asked, “Was anyone guarding you on the layup?”

               “No,” said Julian.

               “The Multioak guys will probably be guarding you,” said Dorian. “If they’re going for 200 points, they’re probably be going to trying to force lots of turnovers, not waiting for rebounds.”

               “I just need to take them by surprise one time,” said Julian.

               “Won’t Coach Fillaut pull you if he sees you trying?” asked Dorian. “Isn’t he trying to make it obvious that the team isn’t trying in order to make the 200 to nothing final score a hollow victory for Coach Verck?”

               “Well, that’s the thing,” said Julian. “Coach Fillaut says that if everyone sees me trying, and sees what it looks like when I’m trying, then it’ll be clear that the team as a whole is not trying, because no team that is trying would ever let me go out on the floor and try, much less start, much less play the entire game. If I just went out there and didn’t try like everyone else, then it wouldn’t be clear how having me on the floor instead of Kyle, for example, shows that the team is not trying.”

               “And the fact that you made a layup in practice today doesn’t concern Coach Fillaut?” asked Dorian. “He isn’t worried that if you make a layup in the game, then that might make it seem like the team was trying?”

               “He didn’t see me make it,” said Julian.

               “So he still thinks you’re incapable,” said Dorian.

               “Yes,” said Julian. “But I’m not incapable. I’m capable. I’ve done it once, I can do it again.” Julian did not feel bad about lying to his brother about making a layup in practice, because he really had almost made one. It was even closer to being a make than either of the free throws he had almost made. The nearly-made layup had rattled around the rim and popped out in such a way that Julian considered it as good as a make; it was a mere fluke that the ball had not passed all the way through the hoop, no doubt attributable to some quirk of that specific rim, some flaw in that specific backboard. If Julian did the exact layup that he had done in practice in the game against Multioak on Thursday, the ball would certainly proceed through the hoop in a manner common for regular makers of layups, and he, Julian, would win.


               Coach Verck addressed the Multioak High School boys basketball team in the home locker room before they took the floor against Silvercrest Christian High School. With his clipboard nowhere to be seen, Coach Verck occupied both of his hands with mangling his tie as he spoke. “Some of you are still overlooking this game,” he said. “I can sense it. I can smell it. I don’t want to have to call those of you who are overlooking this game out by name, but Tanner, you’re one of them.”

               “No, I’m not,” said Tanner. “I want to win 200 to nothing so badly. I’m dedicated to winning 200 to nothing.”

               “Then why don’t I smell that dedication?” asked Coach Verck.

               “Maybe my dedication is odorless?” said Tanner. He wasn’t sure how literally he was supposed to take this smell-of-dedication talk.

               “Impossible,” said Coach Verck. “You’re good on the break, Tanner, and if we play how I want us to play, this game is going to offer tons of fast break chances. This should be your exact kind of game. This game could be a big boost to your scoring average. But if I see you exhibiting anything other than total dedication to beating Silvercrest 200 to nothing, thereby humiliating Coach Fillaut and exacting my vengeance upon him, I will yank you to the bench so fast that your head will spin around like you’re possessed by a demon, but you won’t be possessed by a demon, so that kind of head-spinning will break your neck, if not full-on decapitate you.”

               “What happens if we don’t win 200 to nothing?” asked Chris.

               “That’s the one question you’re not allowed to ask,” said Coach Verck. “Well, not the one question you aren’t allowed to ask. One of the questions you’re not allowed to ask. One of many.”

               “What if we go over 200 points?” asked Chris. “Is that question allowed?”

               “That question is allowed,” said Coach Verck. “When we get to 200 points, we will stop trying to score. I want the score to be exactly 200 to 0, because that’s what I predicted it would be, and hitting the number exactly demonstrates my control over not only my team, but over Coach Fillaut and his team as well. It demonstrates my control over reality.”

               “Yes, it does,” said Tanner.

               “I don’t need your confirmation, Tanner,” said Coach Verck. “Who asked you to talk?”

               “I thought it was a question,” said Tanner.

               “No, you didn’t,” said Coach Verck. “You just like the sound of your own voice. But some of the rest of us are getting a little sick of it.”

               Tanner nodded. But he couldn’t wait to ruin Coach Verck’s plan, quit the team, and join his friends’ intramural team. Their team name was an innuendo they’d sneaked past the administration, and they all had funny names on the back of their team shirts. Some of those names were innuendos too.


               Coach Fillaut addressed the Silvercrest Christian High School boys basketball team in the visitors’ locker room before they took the floor against Multioak High School. The look on his face was that of a boy being forced to perform an embarrassing role in a didactic school play with a moral he did not agree with. “Strange things can happen,” he said. “I’ve seen many strange things happen in my years as a coach. Heck, just in life I’ve seen strange things happen.”

               “Like what?” asked Julian.

               Coach Fillaut shrugged. “Well, like, once when I was probably 10 or 11, I tied my brother’s scarf in a knot and threw it in the empty garbage can around the side of our house as a prank. And I put the lid on the garbage can. And he saw me do it, and we struggled for a minute at most, and then he got past me and took the lid off of the garbage can, and there was nothing in it. No scarf, no nothing. And we never found it. The scarf was just gone.” He cleared his throat. “The point is that even if we tried our hardest tonight, Multioak might beat us 200 to nothing. But they might not. One of you might make a lucky shot, might get fouled and manage to bank in a free throw or something. It would be strange, but strange things can happen. But that can’t happen, boys. We can’t let anything strange happen. Because if we score even one point, Coach Verck will feel like he failed, and I’ll just have to deal with something like this again next year, or he’ll think up some new, even worse way to get back at me, and maybe next time it’ll actually be something he can’t accomplish, and then it’ll just go on and on, he’ll never feel like he’s gotten even, and I’ll have to deal with this kind of crap forever. Do you understand what I’m saying? Because you cannot try out there.”

                “But I’m still aloud to try,” said Julian. “Right, Coach Fillaut? Because I’m so bad?”

               “That’s what I’m saying,” said Coach Verck. “I’ve been giving it some thought, and I’ve realized that strange things can happen. Even very strange things can happen. And that means, Julian, that as bad as you are, you might make a shot. So you can demonstrate how bad you are and how you starting the game for us demonstrates our overall lack of trying in other ways, like trying to play defense, trying to dribble, trying to pass the ball, and so on, but you cannot shoot. OK? No shooting from anyone, not even Julian. We’re not going to tempt fate. I’m not going to have this nonsense continue beyond tonight because one of you makes a lucky shot. If I see any of you even looking at the rim like you might be considering taking a shot, I’m gonna yank you to the bench so fast that your head will bobble on your neck like you’re a bobblehead, and the crowd will think that this is life-size bobblehead night, but they’ll think that I accidentally put one of the bobbleheads in the game instead of the player the bobblehead was meant to represent, and that I’ve just realized my mistake and I’m taking the bobblehead out of the game.”

               “I won’t shoot,” said Julian.

               “Thank you,” said Coach Verck. “I’m almost certain that you’d never be able to make a shot, especially with Multioak players guarding you, but that ‘almost’ haunts me.”

               “I understand,” said Julian. He was going to have to pick his spot very carefully. He was going to have one chance to make a basket at most. Make or miss, Coach Fillaut was going to pull Julian out of the game as soon as he took a shot, and he’d probably never put him into a game ever again. Coach Fillaut might even kick Julian off of the team. The shot, if Julian happened upon a chance to take it, was likely going to be the culmination of his athletic career for his entire life barring a dramatic physical transformation or the invention of a sport designed to favor his particular abilities, if he had any. He was almost sure he was going to blow it. But that “almost” thrilled him.


               The game, as Coach Fillaut had predicted, was a farce. The crowd began the game in a raucous mood. Coach Verck’s declaration had created much more interest than the matchup would have been able to generate on its own. Some fans made bets before the game about whether or not Multioak would be able to achieve the 200 to nothing final score, but by the end of the first quarter, most of the drama was gone. Multioak was already up 66 to nothing, and it was clear to everyone in the building that not only were the Silvercrest boys making no attempt to compete, they were not even attempting to slow the Multioak boys down. Two minutes into the 2nd quarter, and the initial buzz in the crowd was dead. Even the Multioak student section, which had arrived primed for a messy public execution, seemed drained of enthusiasm. The spectacle of stone-faced Silvercrest players idly dribbling around until a Multioak player poked the ball away and raced to the basket for an uncontested layup was not entertaining to behold. And those constituted Silvercrest’s best possessions. Many times, Multioak players simply stole Silvercrest’s inbound passes before converting their uncontested layups.

               Coach Fillaut’s face showed nothing but the depth of his boredom, his players looked like they were digging ditches for minimum wage, and the Multioak players looked only marginally more engaged. Coach Verck, however, looked like he was coaching a real basketball game. He kept clapping his hands and calling out standard coachisms such as “Push it!” and “Control the pace!” and “Let’s get a stop!” It was a bizarre performance, or else it was sincere, in which case it was even more bizarre.

               In this environment, Tanner struggled to figure out how to ruin Coach Verck’s plan. If none of the Silvercrest players were interested in taking a shot, how could he allow one of them to score, thereby besmirching the crucial “nothing” component of Coach Verck’s precious “200 to nothing” pronouncement? It seemed clear that Coach Fillaut had instructed his boys to lie down, to avoid the greater indignity of struggling pitifully against the inevitable. As Tanner ran fast break after fast break with his teammates, he tried to observe the demeanors of individual opponents. Was there a spark of defiance in even one eye, a hint of resentment in the clenchedness of even one jaw? The answer, he soon realized, was “yes.” The problem was that the spark of defiance and hint of resentment were most visible – only visible – in the eye and the jawline of #64, the most evidently incompetent player of basketball Tanner had ever seen in uniform.


               Coach Fillaut’s halftime speeches were never inspiring, but this was his least inspiring halftime speech Julian had yet witnessed. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” said Coach Fillaut. “Verck’s eating it up, embarrassing himself and he doesn’t even know it, which is perfect. We’re almost done. One half to go, then we can get back to basketball, or whatever our version of basketball is.”


               Coach Verck’s halftime speech was mostly dry cackling. “134 to nothing,” he said. “We’re at the threshold, boys. 66 points to go, and then we just run out the clock, hit the showers, and leave Coach Fillaut to take a serious look at the decisions he made that brought him to this low, low moment in this low, low place.”


               In the third quarter, only two interesting things happened. The one that everyone who hadn’t yet left the gym noticed was that Multioak hit the 200-point mark and immediately quit trying to score, playing keep away with the ball as the clock ran down, an exercise made simpler by the fact that the Silvercrest players did not try to gain possession of the ball. The other interesting thing that happened – the one that no one noticed – was that Tanner exchanged a few whispered words with Julian while holding the ball above his head, well out of the chubby Silvercrest player’s reach.

               “Do you want to make a basket?” asked Tanner.

               “Yes,” said Julian.

               “Can you make a basket?” asked Tanner.

               “Yes,” said Julian.



               “Have you ever made one before?”

               “I will this time,” said Julian. “Give me a chance.”

               “Wait until the closing minute,” said Tanner. “We’ll have one shot.”

               “I’ll be ready,” said Julian.

               “At least tie your shoes,” said Tanner.

               “They don’t stay tied,” said Julian.

               The buzzer sounded, bringing the 3rd quarter to a close. All that remained was another 8 minutes of skilled players tossing the ball around the three-point line while unskilled players stood nearby and watched, feeling the tick of every departing second in their as-yet-unfixed teenaged bones.


               Having won the opening tip, of course, Multioak received possession of the ball at the start of the 4th quarter. Tanner inbounded the ball to Chris, then sauntered up the court, veering toward his co-conspirator without appearing to do so on purpose, he hoped. Once he was close to #64, Tanner walked back out beyond the three-point line, standing near the Multioak Marionette logo painted on the floor. #64 followed, keeping a respectful distance. The kid might not have been an athlete, but he seemed to understand the importance of subtlety.

               Out of the corner of his mouth, Tanner said, “When we hit the minute mark, I’ll clap for the ball. I’ll hold it for a few seconds. Then I’ll hand it to you. That’s when you have to go. I’ll run interference for you so none of my teammates catch up with you from behind. I’ll block for you. I’ll take them down, if I have to.”

               “Got it,” said Julian.

               “You can do it?” asked Tanner. “You’re sure? You won’t dribble it off of your foot?”

               “I won’t,” said Julian. “I’ll dribble. I’ll shoot a layup. The layup will go in. And I’ll win.”

               “You’ll what?” asked Tanner.

               “Win,” said Julian.


And when the time came, Julian did not dribble off his foot. And Tanner did block his pursuing teammates. And Julian did shoot a layup. And after that moment, reality split in two. Technology, as is often the case in moments such as this, failed. The footage of the game was corrupted and rendered unwatchable, a black screen, not un-voidlike. So the eyewitness testimony of those in the gym that night became the only means by which one might ascertain whether or not Julian made his layup, and, therefore, whether Multioak High School beat Silvercrest Christian High School 200 to nothing or 200 to 2.  And that eyewitness testimony was directly contradictory.

Half of the people in the gym saw the shot go in. Was Julian’s layup form unconventional, even ugly? Absolutely. But did the shot go in? Absolutely. Off the middle of the square and through the net without touching the rim.

Half of the people in the gym saw the shot miss. And what else would you expect to result from a layup form not just unconventional, but downright ugly? Nothing. The shot did not go in. Off the middle of the square with far too much force, bouncing forward and caroming off the front of the rim. Even that description makes it sound like a near miss, in a way, but it was not a near miss. It was a bad miss.

Julian saw the shot go in, and he pumped his fists beneath the basket by himself, the solo winner in solo celebration. Tanner saw the shot miss, and clutched his head in his hands. Why hadn’t he just taken the ball and scored in the wrong basket? Why hadn’t he thought of that? Coach Verck saw the shot go in, and his decades-long desire for revenge, seconds from being quenched, came roaring back, burning hotter than ever before as it gulped down this fresh new fuel of betrayal. Coach Fillaut, his heart in his throat, heaved a great sigh of relief when Julian’s shot missed. Strange things can happen, yes, but tonight, a strange thing had not happened, and he would not have to worry about Coach Verck dragging  him down into this miserable muck anymore. One referee declared the basket good. One said that it was no good. Arguments broke out everywhere. On the team benches, in the stands, at the scorer’s table. The arguments continued in the halls of the school, in the parking lot, in the locker rooms, in cars on the streets of Multioak, on the Silvercrest team bus. But these were not stimulating arguments. What evidence could one present to bolster one’s case? “But I saw it! I saw it!” Corroborating witnesses were gathered, but for every witness gathered by one side, there was always a matching witness for the other side.

               “What did you see, make or miss?”


               “See? See?

               “What did you see?”


               “Yes! See?”

               And who knows how the lives of the people who saw Julian’s layup diverged after that night? How might living in a world where one saw Multioak beat Silvercrest 200 to nothing differ from living in a world where one saw Multioak beat Silvercrest 200 to 2? What repercussions might those conflicting outcomes have on the rest of one’s days?

Imagine this: a father takes his young daughter to her first high school basketball game, wherein she sees Multioak beat Silvercrest 200 to nothing, yet the father sees Multioak beat Silvercrest 200 to 2. How does that affect their relationship? Where do they go from there? There is a gulf between them. They are in parallel dimensions. They feel as if they can communicate with each other, that they can spend time together, that they can touch each other, but is it an illusion? What can they share if one saw a make and the other saw a miss, and only by choosing to willfully deny their perceptions can they be brought together?

We could return to our protagonists, Tanner and Julian, but in the aftermath of the layup, where do we land? How do we pick a side? They no longer belong to the same story. Their trajectories point in different directions. So we will stop here in the middle of the knot, where the disagreement is still fresh and we do not yet have to reckon with implications or consequences. Tanner and those who saw the miss will either inhabit the same space as Julian and those who saw the make, ignoring the tension, or perhaps even bound together by it, or the two sides will fade from each other’s view, drifting apart until their rafts land on opposite shores.

Or, most likely of all, memory will make such a muddle of the whole event that most people involved will throw up their hands, stop worrying about it, and move on. 

Discussion Questions

  • Is it possible to satisfy the kind of person who would voluntarily choose to coach?

  • What’s the biggest blowout you’ve ever been on the wrong end of? Feel free to interpret this question figuratively.

  • Explain what the number 200 means to you.

  • Was Coach Verck’s firing justified? Keep in mind that it had nothing to do with the on-court performance of the team!

  • Do you live in a different reality than anyone/everyone you know?

  • Enough screwing around! Did Julian’s layup go in or not?