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Michael Mancino could hear the game as he approached the park next to the school. He heard the ball pounding the pavement and sneakers scraping against the blacktop. He heard voices rising into the sunlit winter sky and the distant clanging of a loose metal rim.
After Michael turned the corner of the tan brick school building, he stood for a moment with his basketball on his hip and studied the court in front of him.
He saw Kelvin Wells, Conor Kilgore, and Charlie Rosenthal, three of his teammates from the Falcons seventh-grade basketball team, shooting baskets. Their breath and voices sent small puffs of white mist into the chilled December air.
Suddenly the ball bounced wildly off the court. Charlie jogged after it, looked up, and saw Michael standing at the side of the school.
"Hey, Michael's here!" he shouted. "Now we've got enough for a game of two-on- two."
Michael trotted onto the court, took a few quick dribbles with his basketball, and attempted a long shot. Air ball.
"How about Michael and me against you two?" Conor suggested, ignoring Michael's shot.
Kelvin and Charlie eyed each other in silence. "I don't know," Kelvin said slowly.
"Come on," Conor said, sounding annoyed. "We're all about the same size. Let's just play."
"Hey, let me have a couple of shots, will ya?" Michael said, grabbing the boys' basketball and dribbling around the court. "You guys are all warmed up."
But Conor was ready to play. "Well, hurry up," he said impatiently.
"Game to seven. We'll switch teams after each game," Kelvin said.
"All right," Conor agreed.
"I'll shoot to see who gets the ball first," said Kelvin, placing his feet at the foul line. He bounced the ball three times and eyed the rim.
"Hey, can we play?" a voice sounded from the other end of the court. The four friends turned and squinted into the setting sun. There, standing like a tall picket fence, were four eighth graders: Jake McClure, James Becker, Jerome Dobson, and Johnny Palotta. The four boys walked closer, their long shadows stretching black across the court.
"Uh-oh," Charlie whispered to Michael. "It's 'The Four Js': Jake, James —"
"Jerome and Johnny," Michael chimed in, finishing the lineup.
"We're just starting a game," Kelvin said to the newcomers, and he turned to look back at the basket.
"Come on, let's play four-on-four," James Becker said, dribbling closer to Kelvin and his teammates.
The seventh-grade Falcons looked at each other, agreeing in silence.
"Okay, what are the teams?" Conor asked.
"Us four against you four," James said with a wide smile.
"No way!" Michael blurted out. "You guys are all eighth graders."
"Yeah," Kelvin agreed. "You're all older and taller than we are. You'll kill us."
"Come on, you guys are just a year behind us," Jerome Dobson said, flipping an easy jump shot at the basket.
"All right," Michael said. "The four eighth graders against the four seventh graders. But Kelvin shoots to see who gets the ball first."
Kelvin set his feet once again across the foul line. He bounced the ball three times and took a deep breath, then dipped his legs slightly and sent the ball spinning toward the basket. Swish. Nothing but net.
Jake McClure grabbed the bouncing ball and tossed it to Michael. "Your ball," he said. "Game to eleven by ones. I'm covering Michael."
The boys darted into action. Michael snapped a quick pass to Kelvin, who passed to Conor for the shot. Swish.
"1–0," Michael said happily. "Winners out, right? If a team scores a basket they keep the ball, right?"
"Winners out," Jake agreed.
Michael passed to Charlie in the corner. Charlie faked a shot, then dribbled underneath the basket and spun a shot against the backboard and through the net.
"All right. 2–0!"
"My man, Charlie!"
Then Kelvin made a long jump shot and the score was 3–0. "Are we playing 7–0 is a shutout?" Kelvin asked with a grin.
Jerome Dobson bounced Kelvin the ball. "You're a long way from a shutout, wise guy. Just play ball."
Kelvin's next jumper bounced off the rim, and James Becker got the rebound. "Let's go to work," he cried.
The older boys did just that. Using crisp passes and their greater height, the eighth graders worked the ball close to the basket for easy scores. In no time, the younger Falcons' lead had vanished and the eighth graders were ahead.
"What's the count?" Michael asked, catching his breath.
"6–3, us," Johnny Palotta replied.
"Come on, let's get some rebounds," Conor pleaded.
Michael darted out and intercepted the ball, whirled quickly, and flipped a pass to Charlie. Charlie swished a short jumper. 6–4.
But that was the last basket Michael and his friends could score. The eighth graders scored five straight baskets. James Becker muscled up over Charlie, sending Charlie's glasses flying as he scored the final basket.
"Game," James said as the ball fell through the net. "Do you guys want to play another?"
"No, thanks," Charlie said, leaning over to pick up his glasses.
"Come on, guys," James said to his friends. "Maybe we can find a real game up at the high school."
The older players strutted off. "See you boys at the end of the season," Johnny called back over his shoulder.
"Yeah, good luck in the seventh grade–eighth grade game," Jerome said.
Michael and his friends milled around the basket, tossing up lazy shots.
"How are your glasses, Charlie?" Michael asked.
Charlie tilted his glasses. "They're kinda wobbly, but that's okay," he said. "Do you guys want to play two-on-two?"
"Nah," Kelvin said, shaking his head.
"Man, they killed us," Conor said.
"We had it going for a while," Charlie said bravely. "We were up 3–0."
"Yeah, but we lost 11–4," Michael said flatly.
Kelvin took a shot. "It's the same old problem," he said. "We got no big guys, so we get no rebounds."
"We're not really small," Michael said. "We're just regular."
Kelvin laughed. "So we get beat regular."
"We're fast, and we're good shooters," Michael insisted. "We hardly missed a shot."
"Yeah," Kelvin agreed as the boys each started to head for home. "But before you can shoot the ball, you gotta get the ball."CHAPTER 2
Michael dribbled all the way home. First he dribbled with his right hand. Then he switched and dribbled with his left. Always keeping his head up, Michael moved easily through the streets of his hometown.
As he turned the corner onto his street, Michael could see the basketball backboard and rim nailed to the Mancinos' garage exactly ten feet above the blacktop driveway.
Michael's father had set up the basket shortly before Michael's parents had divorced. That was five years ago.
Good, Mom's car isn't here. I can practice my jump shot, Michael thought as he dribbled up to the house and noticed the empty driveway. He pulled off his sweatshirt and tossed it on the muddy lawn. Then he took a quick dribble and shot a long jumper that bounced off the rim. He reached up, grabbing the ball as fiercely as he would in a real game.
"Mancino snaps down the rebound," Michael said, pretending to be both the announcer and the player in a professional game. "He dribbles to the corner. The defense just can't stop him. He shoots." Michael lofted a perfect jump shot that floated up to the basket and splashed through the net. He threw his hands up in celebration and shouted: "Mancino scores! It's all over. The Falcons win!" He tried to make his voice sound like the roar of 10,000 screaming fans.
"Hey, Michael Jordan. You know when Mom's getting home?"
Michael felt the blood rush to his face as he turned and saw his older brother Daniel standing in the back doorway. "I think she's trying to sell the Schafer house," Michael said, trying to act as if his face weren't bright red. "She'll be back for dinner. Where have you been?"
"Working at the House of Cards. Hey, a guy brought in a whole bunch of old Sports Illustrateds today. There must be over two hundred. They're cool. Where have you been?"
"Down at the park. I was playing hoops," Michael said, practicing his between-the- legs dribble.
"Who was there?"
"Some of the guys from the team: Kelvin, Conor, and Charlie. We played a bunch of eighth graders."
"How'd you do?"
"They killed us, 11–4. We couldn't get any rebounds," Michael said with a frown, remembering the game.
"You gotta keep moving around against those big guys," Daniel said, trying to offer some advice.
"We were moving. But that didn't do any good!" Michael snapped back. "Those guys are gonna kill us in the seventh–eighth grade game at the end of the season."
Daniel nodded. "The eighth graders always win that one. They're older and bigger."
"Yeah, I guess."
Daniel stepped out onto the driveway and held out his hands for the ball. "Come on," he said, "give me a shot."
Michael passed the ball to Daniel, who banked a quick jump shot through the net.
"One-on-one for the house championship," Daniel suggested, tossing the ball to his brother.
Michael groaned. "Man, if I can't beat an eighth grader, how am I gonna beat a tenth grader?"
Daniel's face twisted into a look of disgust. "You're never gonna beat me if you just keep whining about it," he said. "Come on. Game to seven. Your ball."
Michael sighed, sensing his second defeat of the day. "Okay," he said.
On the first play, Michael faked and drove hard to the right. He hooked a shot up over Daniel's outstretched hand, and the ball nudged off the backboard and through the hoop.
"Lucky shot," Daniel said, tossing the ball to Michael.
Next Michael tried a quick shot that bounced off the rim. Daniel grabbed the rebound and dribbled back to the foul line. He backed his way to the basket, bumping his younger brother closer to the hoop. Then he tossed in an easy ten-foot jumper.
"1–1," Daniel said cheerfully.
The game continued, hard fought like the thousand house-championship games before. Michael used his speed and skill to try to overcome Daniel's size and strength.
"What's the count?" Michael asked after scoring on a twisting layup.
"6–4," Daniel answered. "My way."
"Gotta win by two?" Michael asked.
Daniel shook his head. "Nah. Straight seven. It's getting dark. First guy to seven wins."
Just then, the boys' mom pulled the family car into the driveway and honked the horn.
Michael and Daniel waved her back.
"Don't pull the car up, Mom," Daniel said. "We're almost done with the game."
Janine Mancino stuck her head out the car window. "You kids want to go out for pizza tonight? I sold the Schafer house."
"Yeah, one second. Just one more basket," Daniel answered. "I gotta teach Michael some respect for his older brother."
Michael dribbled right, then spun quickly to his left. But Daniel reacted quickly and forced Michael to take an off-balance shot. The ball clanged off the rim. Daniel snatched the rebound, dribbled to the foul line, and whirled around, driving hard to the basket. Michael dashed back on defense, trying to block his brother's path to the basket. But Daniel placed the ball high above Michael's hands and laid in the winning basket.
"Game. 7–4," Daniel said, patting Michael on the head. "Maybe next time, little brother." Michael stared up at the rim and then turned to watch his older brother run to the car and get into the front seat.
"Come on, Michael, hurry up," his mother called.
Michael picked up the ball and tossed one last shot through the strings. Then he walked slowly to the car and got in the back seat.CHAPTER 3
All right," Coach Cummings called, "warm-up drill. Chest passes." The seventh-grade Falcons eagerly lined up in the four corners of the basketball court.
Michael started dribbling as fast as he could. Looking up, he snapped a chest pass to Gina Brillante, who was standing in the middle of the court. Gina was a high school junior who was Coach Cummings's assistant coach. Gina returned the pass to Michael, who caught it, dribbled, and passed to T. J. Burns at the opposite end of the gym. T. J. raced by Michael, who got in line behind Kelvin. Soon two lines of flashing Falcons were streaking up and down the court through the rays of afternoon sunlight that slanted in from the windows high above the polished gym floor. The two coaches shouted instructions above the echoes of squeaking sneakers and pounding basketballs.
"Head up, T. J. Always look up."
"Come on, Conor. Let's hustle."
"Snap passes, Kelvin. Nothing sloppy."
"Stretch it out, Bobby. You're running like a duck."
"Left hand, Michael, left hand."
Coach Cummings's whistle pierced the noise of the gym.
"Layups," he called.
Without a word, the Falcons broke into two lines. Passes flew. Players ran. A steady stream of balls glanced off the glass backboard and into the net. Again the whistle sounded.
"All right, line up along the foul line by height," Coach Cummings ordered. "T. J. to my left, tallest guy to my right."
The Falcons fell in line, finally settling on an order after several good-natured arguments.
"There's no way you're taller."
"I got you by an inch, Conor."
"I'm taller than you, Bobby, you just got taller hair."
Coach Cummings, a tall young man with a whistle dangling from his neck, stood in front of the Falcons and smiled. "There's our problem," he said. "You guys are all about the same size."
"Except for T. J.," Kelvin said, laughing. "He's the smallest."
"The only thing big about you, Kelvin, is your mouth," T. J. shot back.
"Cut it out," Coach Cummings said sternly. "Well, we don't have any big guys so we better learn to rebound. Come on, Gina. Let's show 'em."
The coaches stepped toward the basket.
"Listen up," Coach Cummings called. "We might have won our first game if we had gotten more rebounds."
The team crowded closer, and the coach tossed the ball to Charlie Rosenthal.
"Take a shot, Charlie. Gina, you go for the rebound and I'll keep you from getting it: I'll box you out."
As the ball left Charlie's hands and floated toward the basket, the coach described what he was doing. "When the ball goes up, I start boxing out Gina. That means that while I'm looking for the rebound, I'm keeping Gina behind me. I'm blocking her so she can't get the rebound before I do."
Charlie's shot bounced high off the rim, and Coach Cummings kept talking. "Okay, now I keep my eye on the ball, and Gina's behind me. She's trying to get around me but I get my hands up, jump, and reach for the rebound."
Coach Cummings leaped and pulled the ball from the air, letting out a loud "Aargh!" His booming voice filled the gym.
The Falcons laughed as the coach landed with a thud.
"You guys think it's funny," he said with a smile. "But rebounding is attitude. You gotta be aggressive to be a good rebounder. So I want to hear some roars."
The coach tossed the ball to Charlie. "Take another shot," he said. "Gina, try to get around me."
Again the ball went up. "Remember, keep your feet moving. Stay between your man and the basket," Coach Cummings said.
Another leap. Another roar. Another rebound.
The coach rested the ball on his hip. "If we do it right," he said, "we can get rebounds even without big guys."
Coach Cummings pointed to the basket at the other end of the floor. "Gina, you take T. J., Conor, Bobby, Danny, and Jason down there. Michael, Kelvin, Martin, Walter, and Charlie, stay with me."
"Okay," Coach Cummings said to the five players gathered around him. "One player shoots. Two players box out the other two players for the rebound. Any questions?"
Coach Cummings looked at the Falcons. "Okay. Let's go, and I want to hear some roars."
Michael and Kelvin stood under the basket ready to box out their teammates, Martin Estevao and Walter Albee. As Coach Cummings watched, Charlie tossed up a jump shot. Michael and Kelvin battled to hold their positions, their sneakers squeaking against the polished floor. The ball bounced off the rim and backboard toward Kelvin's side of the basket. Kelvin quickly moved in front of Walter and set his feet for the rebound. As he leaped, Kelvin gave out an enormous roar.
But the ball bounced off Kelvin's fingers and trickled out of bounds.
Coach Cummings couldn't keep from laughing. "You've got the roar down, Kelvin," he said. "Now let's try to get the ball."
Excerpted from Full Court Fever by Fred Bowen. Copyright © 1998 Fred Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
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Posted January 14, 2014