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My Life in Briefs
By L.D. Harkrader
MacmillanCopyright © 2005 L.D. Harkrader
All rights reserved.
I should've suspected something.
The other guys whooped and dribbled around me, slapping balls out of each other's hands and charging in for layups at both ends of the court. Layups that mostly bounced wide of the basket.
For somebody like me, growing up in a basketball-loving family in a basketball-crazed town, you'd think I'd be screeching around the gym, too. You'd think I'd be rebounding every shot and sinking three-pointers from the lobby.
I just stood there on the free-throw line, in the shadow of that big orange sign above the scoreboard, clutching a basketball tight to my chest. Outside, a wild October wind whipped through town, rattling the windows high above the bleachers in the gym. The very air felt like change. Like anything could happen.
You know the kid who kicks the ball out of bounds when he dribbles? The kid whose jump shots look like bounce passes? The kid who spends most of the game skidding across the floor on his face? That's me. Last summer my own grandmother beat me in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
I studied that orange sign and tried to imagine what it felt like to be six-foot-nine with a gym full of fans cheering and chanting my name. Kirby. Kir-by. KIR-BY!
"Hey, Kirby, if you're just going to stand there like a jockstrap, give us the ball."
Russell Wiles and Eddie Poggemeyer thundered past.
"And get out of the way."
I pried the basketball from my chest and thumped it on the floor. I eyed the basket and thumped again. I lined up the ball, flexed my knees, and shot, flicking my wrist like Brett McGrew.
The ball hit the rim and bounced straight back. About knocked me over.
My cousin Bragger chased it into the bleachers.
"Your aim's good," he said, "but you need a little more arc." He curled one hand up over his head, then down, demonstrating arc. "You get that, Kirby, you'll be a starter."
"They have this rule, Bragger. To be a starter, you actually have to be on the team. And I'm not going out for basketball, remember?"
"That's what you keep saying." He twirled the ball in his hands. "Who holds the NBA record for most points in a single game?"
"You already know."
I rolled my eyes. "Wilt Chamberlain. One hundred points against the Knicks. March 2, 1962."
"How many rebounds did Brett McGrew pull down in the NCAA championship game his senior year?"
"Twenty-four," I said. "Why?"
He shrugged. "You love basketball, Kirby."
"I can't play basketball, Bragger. And I don't need an after-school athletics program to prove it."
He shrugged again. "Can't be a hero if you're afraid of looking stupid."
"No problem then, because I don't want to be a hero."
"Sure you do, Kirby. Everybody does. Down deep inside, everybody wants to be a hero."
Bragger twirled the ball again. "Guess it's up to me to lead the team to victory."
He dribbled in place, charged the basket, and shot. Airball. Bragger didn't care. He ran after it, snagged it as it rolled into the wrestling mats, and lobbed it up over the backboard to me.
I let it bounce right past. Because that's when I heard the growl. Deep, low, and gurgling, like a water heater about to blow. I knew that growl. It was Coach Armstrong. Coach "Iron Man" Mike Armstrong. Our new gym teacher. Favorite saying: "Practice till you puke." Favorite aroma: sweat. Favorite hobby: watching me run extra laps because I couldn't climb a rope, steal a base, or sink a free throw.
That's all I'd learned about him since he took over the seventh grade P.E. program at the beginning of the school year. But that's all I needed to know.
Well, that and one other thing: When Coach growls, it means he's about to yell at somebody. Usually whoever's moving the slowest. Usually Kirby Nickel.
He marched over and stopped in front of me, his nostrils puffed out so wide I could see his nose hairs quivering inside. His whistle was clenched between his teeth, and from the way his cheek muscles were knotted up, I thought for sure that whistle would snap in two.
But he wasn't looking at me. He was glaring at the bleachers, his stubby blond flattop standing at attention above his raging red face. "Nickel!" He spit my name out around the whistle. "How long have they been here?"
I swiveled sideways.
And that's when I should've suspected something. Mrs. Zimmer, the school board president, was seated in the first row of bleachers. She sat there straight as a thorn, a big black notebook open on her lap. Every time one of the guys took a shot, Mrs. Zimmer scribbled something in the book. Every time they missed, she pressed her lips into a grim line and wrote something else.
Mr. Dobbs, the vice president, sat beside her. He wasn't scribbling in a notebook, and he didn't seem interested in the players. He was leaning back, elbows propped on the bench behind him, John Deere hat pushed back on his head, staring at the big orange sign over the scoreboard. The one that said:
Welcome to Stuckey
The Basketball Capital of Kansas
Home of the Great Brett McGrew
Coach clenched and unclenched his fists, then blew his whistle. Right in my ear.
The guys stopped screeching around the gym and gathered at the free-throw line. I sidled up alongside them. Coach whirled to face us. A stack of papers fluttered against his clipboard. Institutional green, neatly stapled at the corners.
"Permission slips," Bragger whispered.
"You people think you can play basketball?" Coach thumped a finger against the papers. "If so, you need one of these."
He started passing the papers out. The other guys crowded in around him. I stood off to one side. No sense getting in anybody's way.
Coach handed a permission slip to Eddie Poggemeyer. "First page is for your parents."
Sure, I'd come watch. Like Bragger said, I love basketball. From the bleachers.
"Second page" — Coach slapped permission slips into the outstretched hands of Russell Wiles and Duncan Webber — "is the physical form."
I might even keep unofficial stats on the players. I couldn't pass, shoot, or dribble, but I could figure percentages in a coma. Being a basketball fan and a citizen of the Basketball Capital of Kansas, I owed it to my fellow seventh graders to support the team.
"You want to play basketball, get both pages signed."
But I didn't need to put on a uniform and invite the entire town down to the gym to watch me look pathetic. No way.
"This year we have an added bonus."
No way. No how.
Coach pushed a permission slip toward me. "Brett McGrew."CHAPTER 2
I blinked. "Brett McGrew?"
"Are you deaf, Nickel? Yeah, Brett McGrew." Coach was still dangling the permission slip in front of me. He narrowed his eyes and studied me for a long moment. "You going to take this or not?"
I peeled one arm loose from my chest and snatched it from his hand. I scanned the page for Brett McGrew's name.
Coach circled back to the front of the class. "The University of Kansas is retiring Brett McGrew's jersey at a KU game in Lawrence this coming February. Big, momentous occasion." Coach puffed out his nostrils. "National press coverage, big-name guests, everybody getting teary-eyed. To make the whole thing even more special, the university has invited Stuckey to send a basketball team to represent Brett McGrew's hometown. Our school board, in their infinite wisdom" — Coach glanced at the bleachers — "chose us."
"Us?" Eddie Poggemeyer narrowed his eyes. "You mean, like, the seventh-grade team?"
"Yeah," said Coach. "I mean, like, the seventh-grade team. You got a problem with that?"
"No, but why —"
"Because if you've got a problem, I can talk to the school board, see if they'll send —"
"Didn't think so." Coach tucked his clipboard under his arm. "So. You sign up for basketball, you play your little buns off, you get to meet the big hero. First practice is a week from Monday. Be here. On time. When Brett McGrew meets this team, I want him to see he's not the only basketball player that ever came from this town." He blew his whistle again. "Line up, gentlemen. It's not every day we have esteemed members of our school board" — he said "school board" like he had gristle caught in his teeth — "right here in our gym. Let's show 'em what we're made of."
I already knew what we were made of, and I would've voted that we keep it to ourselves. But Coach wasn't taking suggestions. He herded us together for a layup drill.
I folded the permission slip, tucked it into my sock, and meandered back toward my usual place at the end of the line.
Bragger grabbed my arm. "Here's your chance, Kirb."
I looked at him. "Chance for what?"
"Chance to get Coach on your side."
"My side? Why?"
Bragger didn't answer. He elbowed his way toward the front of the line, dragging me along behind. He shoved me ahead of him and stood there grinning like a jack-o'-lantern.
I knew that grin. It was a bad sign. It was the same grin he flashed at the school nurse just before he volunteered me to read the captions on the Welcome to Puberty slide show.
Bragger says he got his nickname because when he was little, he couldn't pronounce his real name, Brandon. He says it always came out "Bragger," and everybody thought it was so cute, they started calling him that, too.
Grandma says that part's true enough, but the name wouldn't have stuck if it didn't fit so well. Which wouldn't be so bad if he'd just stick to bragging about himself. But he always has to brag other people into his mess of trouble, too.
People who frequently turn out to be me.
Coach clapped his hands. "Let's show a little hustle." He swung around and saw me standing at the front of the line. He stopped mid-clap. "You going first, Nickel?"
I swallowed. "Well, no, I just —"
"Sure he is, Coach," said Bragger. "He's got a great shot — Brett McGrew's famous spinning layup."
"Brag-ger." I glared at him.
Coach chewed on his whistle. "Spinning layup, huh?" He glanced at Mrs. Zimmer, then turned back to me and narrowed his eyes. "Think you can pull it off?"
"Well, no, I —"
"Sure he can, Coach." Bragger grinned at him, then leaned toward me. "It'll be okay, Kirby," he whispered. "You've been practicing this layup since you were born."
"But I never got it right."
"Exactly. But now your butt's on the line. You got to make this shot. You'll have all that adrenaline pumping through your veins." He kneaded my shoulders. "Trust the adrenaline, Kirby."
Coach blew his whistle. "You two can do therapy on your own time," he snarled. "I want to see this spinning layup." He leaned forward till his nose practically touched mine. His hot breath whiffed out onto my upper lip. "And don't embarrass me." He shoved a basketball into my gut.
I nodded and swallowed.
Coach licked his teeth. The other players crowded around. Mrs. Zimmer watched, her pen poised over her notebook.
"Dribble, Kirby," Bragger whispered.
I thumped the ball in front of me and started running. At least, I think I was running. I could see one foot, then the other, shoot out in front of me. I could see the lines on the floor disappear behind me. I could hear the ball bouncing — thonk, thonk, thonk — perilously close to the toe of my right sneaker as my shoes thwapped against the wood.
With each step I knew I'd kick it. Kick it out of bounds and into the bleachers.
But I didn't. I kept dribbling. Dribbling and dribbling and dribbling, for miles it seemed, until I couldn't feel my arm, couldn't feel my hand pumping up and down, couldn't feel the nubby roughness of the ball.
I pulled the ball up, took my final step, and leaped.
"There he goes." Bragger's voice echoed through the rafters. "Brett McGrew's famous spinning layup."
I spun, all right. Up and around and around again. I kept on spinning till my legs and feet were practically braided together. Then gravity kicked in, and down I came.
Belly first. The ball looped out of bounds. I lay on the cold, polished wood, breathing shoe grit and floor wax.
Coach blew his whistle.
I peeled my cheek off the floor. I could see Mrs. Zimmer scribbling in her black book.
Mr. Dobbs shook his head. He unfolded himself from his seat and ambled across the gym toward the lobby.
"I'm not sure Brett McGrew himself could help this bunch," he muttered as the door clanked shut behind him.CHAPTER 3
Folks around here claim Brett McGrew could dribble before he could walk and could make a jump shot by the time he reached kindergarten. They say he got the nickname "Brett McNet" when he sank fifty-seven three-pointers in a row one morning during ninth-grade P.E. They say he grew to be six feet tall drinking warm milk straight from the cows on his daddy's dairy farm, then grew another nine inches doing pull-ups on the hay hook in the barn.
I don't know if all that's true. But I do know Brett McGrew never got the wind knocked out of him running in for an uncontested layup.
"You didn't look half bad going up," Bragger said. "Gotta work on that dismount, though."
We shuffled through a little whirlpool of brown leaves on the sidewalk. School had just let out, and Bragger and I were headed over to the Double Dribble Cafe for a Coke. I still had the permission slip tucked in my sock. The neatly stapled corner was rubbing a sore spot on my ankle.
I should've pulled it out right then. Pulled it out and let it blow away in the wind. Blow away with the leaves and the dust, down the street, past the grain elevator, and out of my life.
That would've been the smart thing.
Of course, that would've been littering, too, which, according to Grandma, is a sign of weak character, right up there with lying, cussing, and goaltending.
We reached the Double Dribble. Bragger swung the door open. The little bell jangled against the glass, and the aroma of warm onions and dead french fries billowed out at us. A table of farmers, in for their afternoon coffee, glanced up, saw we weren't worth stopping their jawing and guffawing for, and went back to their discussion of Lloyd Metcalf's fancy new combine.
Mrs. Snodgrass saw us, too, and started filling two glasses with ice and Coke. Bragger headed straight for the counter.
I squatted down by the glass case under the cash register. Inside were trading cards and pencils and little pennants that said, "I ate at the Double Dribble Cafe in Stuckey, Kansas, home of Brett McGrew." The T-shirts said that, too. So did the menus, and if you wanted to keep your menu, Mrs. Snodgrass would sell it to you for three dollars.
There was only one thing Mrs. Snodgrass wouldn't sell, and I knew, because I'd asked so many times she wouldn't answer anymore. It was one particular menu lying in tissue paper in the center of the top shelf. It was yellowed and dog-eared and had a big ketchup stain down one side.
But that wasn't why she wouldn't sell it.
She wouldn't sell it because on the other side, right over Side Orders, was Brett McGrew's big, scrawling autograph:
To Mrs. Snodgrass, who makes the best
biscuits and gravy on the planet.
Brett "McNet" McGrew #5
The pen he wrote it with was lying in the tissue, too. Medium blue ballpoint. Brett McGrew's teeth marks on the cap.
I squinted at that menu, trying to find some resemblance between Brett McGrew's looping, confident signature and my own scratchy handwriting.
Mrs. Snodgrass thumped me on the head. "You're fogging up the glass again, Kirby." Her Brillo-pad voice rattled in her chest. "Go on and drink your Coke. You got better stuff than that at home."
She was right. I did. I had cards and mugs and posters and team schedules and a gym towel Eddie Poggemeyer swore his uncle caught during the last game of the Final Four when Brett McGrew flung it into the crowd after winning the NCAA Championship. Cost me sixteen bucks and a McNet Rookie Year NBA Frisbee, but it was worth it. It had Brett McGrew's dried sweat all over it.
I stood up and threaded my way through the tables to the counter. I slid onto the stool next to Bragger's. He'd already sucked his glass empty and was chewing on the ice.
"Grandma's going to faint when you tell her you're going out for basketball," he said. "She'll sign your permission slip first, of course. Then she'll pass out cold."
Excerpted from Airball by L.D. Harkrader. Copyright © 2005 L.D. Harkrader. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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