Issue 128: The Big Shot

I wrote a book! It’s a collection of short stories and of course, I had to include a lil’ basketball throughout. Since you’ve been a wonderful reader, I wanted to share a chapter from the book.

Hope you enjoy, and if you’re interested in a copy of the book, you can order here or here.

The Big Shot

Doug Madison had gotten quite comfortable in his seat at the end of the bench. As the fourteenth man on the Lawson Leopards, currently the fifth-best high school basketball team in the district’s division (out of a robust seven teams), he had never made it into a game. He didn’t mind, though. Just being on the team was cool enough.

At practice, his teammates called him Dig Doug because of his penchant for chasing after opposing players like they were monsters in the arcade game of a similar name. He also once spent the entire practice excitedly talking about a time capsule he had buried in the park earlier that day.

Doug wasn’t enjoying this game very much, though. The Leopards were facing off against the Town Park Toros, who had only lost two games all season. Tonight would not be the third. The Toros had a fifty-two-point lead by halftime, and as the third quarter came to a close, the score was 84–21.

Doug was the first one on his feet to greet his teammates. The horn had barely sounded to signal the end of the quarter, and he was already at half-court, slapping hands and giving encouraging chatter. He couldn’t keep track of how many times he yelled a “Let’s go!” or “You can do it!” during the season. He knew what part to play on the team—that of the lovable goof that could lift spirits up, even in the darkest of times.

“Thanks, Dig Doug,” Rufus Ledletter said, lightly bumping Doug’s outstretched fist. Rufus was the star senior on the team but, like the rest of the Leopards, was having a rough night. He had missed his first eleven shots and was currently sitting at only four points. He hadn’t scored fewer than ten in any game this season.

Doug hurried over to Coach Morris, who was dejectedly scribbling a play on his miniature dry-erase board. Halfway through, the ink ran out in his marker. It was a fitting symbol of how terribly this game was going. Coach Morris sighed heavily. He looked at his players. “Just don’t screw up too badly, okay?”

The five players taking the court headed back out there, and Doug clapped wildly. After a moment, he realized he was still standing on the court and everyone else had already taken their seats on the bench. He scuttled back to his spot at the end.

With about two minutes remaining in the game, the Leopards had actually closed the gap. It was now 95–38, a mere fifty-seven-point deficit. Rufus had just scored to reach ten points, continuing his streak of double-digit performances.

“Madison,” Coach Morris called out. “Get in there for Ledletter.”

Doug heard the words, but they didn’t register. He took a sip of water and kept looking out toward the court.

“Madison!” Coach Morris bellowed. “You’re going in! For Ledletter.”

Doug froze. This was uncharted territory. Sure, he played during practice, but in an actual game? He looked deep into Coach Morris’s eyes, hoping for some sort of empathy.

“Well?” Coach Morris said, smacking his chewing gum across his lips. “Get going!”

Doug got up and trudged over to the scorer’s table. Maybe he wouldn’t even make it in the game. After all, the clock was ticking down, and if there wasn’t a foul, a ball out-of-bounds, or a timeout, he’d just stay at the scorer’s table and wouldn’t have to go in the game. That wouldn’t be so bad at all.


The whistle blew. So much for that. The Leopards had committed a foul, so Doug was coming in. He got up from his crouching position at the table and started a slow walk onto the floor, his knees buckling with each step. He pointed at Rufus. “R-Rufus,” he stammered, his voice cracking, “I’m coming in for you.”

Rufus came over to him and gave him a pat on the chest. “Hey man, breathe. It’s just basketball.”

Doug nodded. It was just basketball, after all. So why did his legs feel like jelly?

He found his man. Number 22. Doug looked up at him; this guy was a few inches taller and several pounds heavier. But Doug was determined. Number 22 wasn’t going to score. Doug placed a hand on his opponent’s hip. Number 22 slapped it away. Doug put his hand back on the hip. Number 22 cut hard to get open, but Doug was right there. He had never been so focused in his entire life.

Number 22 caught the ball. Doug was so close to him, he got a mouthful of jersey. It tasted salty. Number 22 dribbled four times, then passed the ball to a teammate. Doug relaxed for a second.

But Number 22 got the ball right back and Doug tensed up again. He was so high on the balls of his feet, it was almost as if he were floating. Number 22 dribbled to his right, and Doug slid along with him. He reached to knock the ball away and—


Doug hit a brick wall. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like. He had actually hit the Toros’ center, a big hulking lug of a man.

There is no way that guy is under 30 years old, Doug thought, lying dazed on the gymnasium floor. He blinked his eyes several times, trying to shake off the cobwebs. As he rolled his head back and forth, he started hearing something. It was faint at first, but soon it got louder.

“Doug! Doug! Doug! Doug!”

The crowd . . . They were actually chanting his name. He couldn’t believe it. Not only was he making his first career appearance in a game, he now had an entire group of people cheering for him. He leapt to his feet, raising a fist in the air and pumping it over his head. The crowd roared its approval.

Thirty-four seconds left on the clock. The Leopards were getting the ball back, and Doug knew what he had to do: make the game-winning shot.

Well, it wouldn’t really be the game winner. But it sure would feel good to see the ball go through the hoop after leaving his hands. He took the inbounds pass and started dribbling up the court. Across from him, Number 22 was digging in, playing defense without giving up an inch.

Doug’s teammate Mike Stoudamire was standing with his hands up. Mike was Doug’s best friend on the team, mostly by proximity. Mike sat one spot ahead of Doug on the bench and rarely made it into the games either. But he had scored before. This was Doug’s moment.

“I got this,” he said, waving Mike off.

“Okay, man,” Mike said. “Whatever you say.”

He ran over, setting a screen on Number 22. That caused just enough of a ruckus to get Doug open on the wing. Number 22 was clawing his way around the screen. Doug saw another defender flailing toward him. This was his chance.

He squared up to the basket. The crowd was on its feet, stomping on the stands, clapping their hands, whooping and hollering. Doug sensed they could tell they were about to witness something remarkable.

Doug lifted his arms. The ball felt weightless in his hands. He took one last glance at the oncoming defender, then rose up and snapped his wrist, releasing the ball at the apex of his jump. It was perfection. One magic moment. The crowd silenced itself instantly, the cheering turning into an excited hush.

As the ball came off his fingers, Doug felt everything moving in slow motion. He became acutely aware of what was happening around him. Number 22 was standing to his right, his hand outstretched in a valiant yet failed effort to block the shot. The other defender lunging toward Doug stopped and turned, his eyes fixated on the ball.

Mike, who had rolled toward the top of the key after setting the screen, was staring at the ball as well, his mouth slightly open. One of Doug’s other teammates, Louis Finnegan, had been battling with a defender down low before the shot had gone up. But now, with the orange sphere hurtling toward the rim, the two of them momentarily paused, their arms intertwined. Neither one of them noticed their locked appendages.

Doug glanced over to the bench. Rufus and the rest of the starters had risen to their feet, their eyes tracking the path of the ball. Even Coach Morris had stopped yelling for a moment, his open mouth revealing a wad of gum that had been chewed far too aggressively.

The ball was in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Doug looked toward the stands. He saw his buddy Chris, who had come to the game with his girlfriend Christine. Doug always teased Chris about dating a girl with the same name. Chris would get mad and tell Doug, “At least I have a girlfriend.” Doug didn’t have a counter for that.

Near Chris was Zack, who was kind of a jerk. He had bullied Doug, among several other nameless victims, throughout junior high and high school. He smelled of stale beef jerky and loved to creep up behind Doug while he was grabbing his books, slamming the locker door in his face. Maybe now Doug could get some respect from Zack.

And there, two rows behind Zack, was Vanessa. Oh, Vanessa. Doug sat behind her in English class, and it was the best forty-two minutes of his day. They were reading The Grapes of Wrath, and their teacher would call on students to read passages in class. When Vanessa read about Rosasharn and the rest of the Joads dreaming of a better life in California, Doug’s heart simply melted. Sometimes Doug would forget his pencil on purpose so he could ask to borrow one from Vanessa. She’d smile as she took an extra one out of her pencil case. “Okay, but don’t lose it,” she always playfully warned. Doug wouldn’t dare lose it. He would cherish that pencil for the entire class.

But right now, none of that mattered. Doug was going to score his first points as a varsity athlete. This was going to be the start of something big. This could change his whole life.

The ball was nearing the hoop now. Every single player had stopped and was following its arc along with Doug. He had finally come down from his jump, his feet softly landing. He got new shoes before the game and loved how comfortable they felt. He couldn’t help but smile as the ball launched toward the backboard.

And went right over it.

The horn sounded as the ball harmlessly bounced out of bounds. An audible groan rose from the crowd. Doug had missed. Badly. An airball. He couldn’t have hit something, anything?

Doug scanned the gym again. His teammates on the bench winced, shaking their heads. Coach Morris had resumed chewing his gum again, seemingly grateful to get this game over with. He distinctly heard Zack’s laugh in the crowd; he turned to find the bully’s long finger pointing at him. Chris and Christine gave a sympathetic wave, but Doug didn’t see Vanessa anywhere. Doug breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she’d forget all about that miss by the time Monday’s English class rolled around.

The gym slowly emptied out. Various teammates and opponents came up to Doug, tapping him on the shoulder and telling him he played a good game. He heard them saying words but couldn’t quite process them, maintaining a thousand-yard stare all the while.

After a while, Doug was the last one left in the gym. He decided it was finally time to go home; he wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. As Doug walked toward the door, the school janitor entered from the other side of the gym. “What are you still doing here?” the janitor yelled across the floor.

“Oh, just reflecting on the game, I guess,” Doug said.

“Yeah, that was a tough one to watch!” the janitor said. “Those Toros sure can play some ball.”

“They sure can,” Doug said. “Anyway, sorry to startle you. Have a good night.”

“Wait a minute, is this yours?” The janitor started bouncing a ball from the corner of the gym. Doug’s air ball had rolled so far away from the basket that no one had thought to pick it up.

“That’s from the game,” Doug said. “If you want, I can drop it off in the locker room on my way out.”

“That’d be great!” the janitor said. “I’m just doing my nightly sweeping, and then I’m out of here, too. Time to get the weekend started.”

The janitor took a few more dribbles out onto the court and flung it toward Doug, standing on the opposite baseline. The ball soared through the air and whipped through the net. The sound of the swish reverberated through the gym.

“Ha! Would you look at that?” the janitor said. “I was just trying to get it over to you, and it went through the hoop. How far away do you think that was?”

“The length of this court is eighty-four feet,” Doug said, his face locked on the hoop where the janitor had just made a full-court heave. “You just sunk a shot from almost a hundred feet away.”

“Oh, that’s funny,” the janitor said. “Guess I should have been out on the floor tonight!”

He chuckled as he retrieved his broom and started whistling a tune as he swept the gym floor. The ball had finally come to a stop a few feet from Doug. He sighed and left the gym. The janitor could pick up the ball himself.