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Worried that his inability to make free throws is making his junior high basketball team lose games, Marcus learns an unconventional underhand shooting method from a friendly custodian but is not sure he wants to use it. Includes a history chapter discussing great basketball players who have used the underhand toss.
Marcus Devay leaped above the tangle of players stretching high for the rebound and snapped down the basketball. In one smooth motion, he took a quick dribble and sent a fadeaway jump shot toward the basket. The ball angled off the glass backboard and dropped cleanly through the net.
Marcus's teammates cheered as Marcus and the other Forestville Middle School Cardinals raced downcourt to play defense.
"All right, Marcus."
"You're the man, Marcus."
A satisfied smile creased Marcus's face as he got into position on defense. "Hands up," he called to his teammates as he waved his hands above his head. "Tough D."
A Bradley Hills guard tossed a long, off-center shot toward the basket. Marcus moved in for the rebound, jumped, and snagged the ball. He wrapped both hands around it, then zipped a bullet pass to his teammate Daniel Grady and dashed upcourt.
Daniel dribbled up the middle of the court, weaving his way past several players. At the last instant, he flipped a high pass to Marcus, who was sprinting toward the basket. Marcus took one final step and jumped. He caught the ball and, as he floated to the basket, laid a soft shot up and in. The basket stretched Forestville's lead to 50–44.
"Time out! Time out!" the Bradley Hills coach shouted from the sidelines.
The Forestville Cardinals were full of cheers and high fives as they gathered at the bench.
"Okay, cut the celebrations," Coach Lerner said. "We're only up by six points, and there are almost three minutes to go. Plenty of time left. We've got to keep playing good defense and keep rebounding."
Coach Lerner looked around the circle of seventh- and eighth-grade boys. Then he stared straight at Marcus, the tallest of the group. "Let's try to get the ball in to Marcus. And Marcus, you've got to take it up strong. They may try to foul you."
Marcus nodded silently. I hope I don't have to take any foul shots, he thought. I hate taking foul shots.
"And remember," Coach Lerner continued, "we need good ..."
"DEE-fense!" the team yelled. The players ran onto the court ready to play.
But Bradley Hills quickly cut the lead to four when its star forward got lucky with a desperate jump shot that bounced off the backboard, onto the rim, and through the net.
Marcus jogged upcourt, set up near the right side of the basket, and held up his left hand, signaling for the ball. Carl LaRue, a Forestville guard, saw that Marcus was open and fired a pass to him. Marcus tried to dribble around a Bradley Hills defender to the basket, but the defender gave him a swift shove. Marcus managed to balance on one foot long enough to send an awkward scoop shot to the hoop.
Phweeet! The referee's whistle shrieked as Marcus tumbled to the floor and the ball headed for the basket. It teetered on the rim for a few seconds, but fell off to the side. Marcus slammed his fist against the floor in frustration.
"Foul on blue, number 12," the referee called.
The referee signaled that Marcus would get two shots.
As Marcus slowly prepared to take his foul shots, all the game's action froze. Players stood motionless in their positions along the lane. The referee was still. The crowd was quiet. And all eyes were on Marcus.
Marcus spun the ball in his hands and bounced it low and hard three times. Each bounce made a loud thump on the gym floor. Come on, you can do it, Marcus thought to himself as he stared at the rim. It's an easy shot, you've got to make it. Then he took a deep breath, brought the ball up high, and flicked it toward the basket with a snap of his wrist. The ball clanged off the back of the rim, onto the floor, and back to Marcus. He pounded the ball against the floor with a short, angry bounce and then tossed it to the referee.
"Second shot," the referee said, holding up the ball. "Don't move until the ball touches the rim."
This time Marcus's shot was way short. It barely grazed the front edge of the rim. Marcus shut his eyes and hung his head for a brief moment before turning around and racing downcourt. Still up by four, Marcus thought as he ran. We've gotta hang on.
The Bradley Hills team worked the ball around the Forestville zone defense. A Bradley Hills forward slashed to the basket.
Tulane Hayes, a Forestville forward, reached in for the ball but grabbed the Bradley Hills shooter's arm.
Phweeet! "Foul," the referee called, pointing to Tulane. "Two shots, blue."
The Bradley Hills player calmly stepped to the line and sank both free throws. The lead melted to two points, 50–48, with thirty seconds to go.
Daniel Grady and Carl LaRue, the Forestville guards, played a desperate game of keep-away as the seconds ticked off the clock. Marcus moved out to take a pass.
The moment Marcus caught the ball, the Bradley Hills coach was off the bench and on his feet.
"Foul him!" he yelled, pointing to Marcus.
A pair of players pounced, slapping Marcus's arms.
The Bradley Hills coach clapped as the referee called the foul.
"Number five on the arm," the referee said. Then, pointing to Marcus, he said, "Number three is shooting two."
"Time out!" the Bradley Hills coach shouted.
Marcus felt dazed as he walked slowly to the Forestville bench. He hardly listened to Coach Lerner giving instructions to the team. There were twelve seconds left on the clock and Forestville was only up by two points. Marcus looked past the huddle and stared at the Bradley Hills coach. He wanted them to foul me, Marcus thought, because he thinks I'm going to miss the shots.
As the teams moved back onto the court, Coach Lerner grabbed Marcus by the arm. "Use your legs and follow through," he reminded Marcus.
Daniel jogged up to his buddy as Marcus made his way to the line. "You're the man, Marcus," he said confidently.
But Marcus barely heard him. All he could hear was the pounding of his heart. It sounded like it was going to pound right through his chest and team jersey. I've gotta make these shots, Marcus kept saying to himself as he stepped to the line.
But the moment the first shot left Marcus's hand, it didn't feel right. The ball bounced off the rim and fell to the right.
"Second shot," the referee said as he handed the ball to Marcus. "Ball's live."
By now, Marcus could barely feel his hands and feet. He took a deep breath, puffed up his cheeks, and blew out a burst of air. He looked directly up at the basket and took his shot.
"Short!" he screamed as the ball started to fall. The ball thudded against the front rim, and the Bradley Hills center snatched the rebound.
"Back on defense!" Coach Lerner shouted, waving and motioning wildly from the sidelines. Marcus glanced at the clock as he raced downcourt, wishing the game were over.
The crowd started the final countdown as the Bradley Hills players looked frantically for the last shot. "Ten ... nine ... eight ..."
A Bradley Hills guard dribbled toward the basket and Marcus moved over for the block. At the last moment, the guard fired a pass to a teammate standing past the three- point line.
"Four ... three ... two ..."
The ball was in the air. Marcus stood helpless near the basket. He followed the flight of the ball with his eyes and knew. He knew that the shot was good and the game was lost.
He shut his eyes just before the ball splashed through the net.CHAPTER 2
Marcus didn't look up as he walked out of the winter cold and through his front door. He plopped his gym bag down on the living room floor with a thud. Then he slumped into a chair, twisted to the right, and hung his long legs over the arm.
"Is that you, Marcus?" his mother called from the family room.
"It's us," Marcus's father answered as he came inside and closed the front door.
"The high school principal made it to a game on a Monday?" Mrs. Devay said in astonishment.
"Yeah, luckily my meeting with the teachers got over early, so I walked down to the junior high," Mr. Devay replied. "I got there in time to see Marcus play." He glanced over at Marcus, but Marcus was staring straight ahead.
"Well, how did it go?" Marcus's mom asked as she entered the living room.
Marcus turned his head away from his mother.
"They lost a really close one," his dad said. "On a last-second basket."
"Oh, no. That's too bad," his mother said, looking at Marcus, who clearly was in no mood to talk. "How did Marcus do?" she asked, turning her attention to her husband.
"Oh, he did really well. He led the team with twenty-two points and must have had more than ten rebounds. He blocked some shots, but ..."
"But what?" Mrs. Devay asked.
"But he missed a couple of foul shots at the end—"
"Four," Marcus said, interrupting.
"What?" Mrs. Devay looked over at Marcus, who finally met her eyes.
"I missed four straight foul shots in the last minute to lose the game," Marcus said slowly, his anger growing as he remembered each missed shot.
"You didn't lose the game," his father protested. "You just missed a couple of shots at the end."
"Four," Marcus said again. Then he bolted out of the chair and paced around the room, swinging his long arms as he walked. "I can't believe I missed all those shots!" he moaned.
"Missed all what shots?" Marcus's older sister, Bree, asked as she breezed into the room.
"Marcus missed a couple of foul shots and his team lost by one point," Mr. Devay explained to his daughter.
"Four. I missed four foul shots, Dad," Marcus said.
"Four what?" Bree asked as she checked her hair in the mirror.
"Foul shots! Ever heard of them?" Marcus said. "I missed four foul shots in the last minute to blow the game."
"Doesn't sound like much fun," Bree said through a small smile.
Marcus rolled his eyes and turned on his heels. He walked back to the chair and flopped down into it.
"Come on. Stop feeling sorry for yourself," Bree said and then she started to sing. "Somewheeeeere oooover the rainbow...."
"Stop singing," Marcus said. He was tired of listening to all those songs from The Wizard of Oz. He knew Bree was going to be auditioning for her high school musical in a few weeks, but couldn't she just practice in her room?
"Marcus, you're upset about the game," his mother said. "You didn't lose it. Your team lost. And there's nothing you can do about it. Now come eat." She walked into the kitchen.
"Let's go, son," his dad said as he gently patted Marcus on the shoulder.
Marcus got up slowly. He took his place at the table as Bree placed plates around it, singing as she went. "Get over it," she sang in his ear as she plopped a plate in front of him.
"Lay off," Marcus said, pulling his plate into position. "I'm not mad about losing the game," Marcus began to explain to his family. "It's just that I ... you know ... I ..."
"You choked," Bree said flatly as she took her seat.
"Bree," her mom said with a sigh. "That is not helpful."
"I'm just saying that yes, he choked," Bree explained, looking back and forth between her parents but avoiding Marcus's gaze. "But it's no big deal. Everybody gets nervous."
Marcus shot an angry look at her.
"He thinks he's gotta to be the big star of every game," she said.
"At least I've been the star," he snapped at her.
"You watch. I'll get a big part in The Wizard of Oz," Bree fired back.
"You two stop," his mother said firmly. "And Bree, try to be a little more sensitive."
"But Bree's right," Mr. Devay said.
Marcus looked up, surprised. Bree straightened up in her seat.
"Nobody makes every shot," Mr. Devay said. "I remember a game I played in high school...."
Oh, no. Here we go, Marcus thought. He usually enjoyed his father's stories, but he wasn't in the mood tonight.
"I had to go to the line with about five seconds left. I needed to make two foul shots to tie the game." Mr. Devay took a sip of water and continued. "I made the first shot. But I was so nervous about the second shot that it barely touched the rim. We're talking air ball." He smiled at Marcus, but Marcus didn't smile back.
"At least you made one out of two," Marcus said. "If I had made half my foul shots, we would have won the game."
"Marcus, give yourself a break. You were just nervous," his father said. "Pass the green beans, please, Bree."
Bree reached for the dish. "Maybe Marcus just stinks at free throws," she said matter- of-factly to her father.
"Bree, you've said enough," her mother scolded. "Let's change the subject."
Marcus looked at his sister. His eyes were blazing. Sometimes he couldn't stand her. He hated the way she was always singing those dumb songs from those dumb shows she kept trying out for — always worrying about how she looked. He hated the way she was always commenting on things she didn't know about.
But he really hated it when she was right.CHAPTER 3
Marcus stood in front of the mirror in the boys' locker room. His red Forestville practice shirt fell loosely about his waist and hips. His gray, baggy shorts reached almost to his knees. His white socks were pulled just over his ankles, the way he liked them.
"Come on, Marcus," Daniel said as he passed by on the way to the gym. "Staring in a mirror isn't going to help your game."
Marcus took one last look at himself and then walked with Daniel out of the locker room and into the gym. "We'd better be ready to run today," Marcus said as they stepped onto the gym floor. "Coach Lerner is going to practice us hard after losing to Bradley Hills."
Marcus was right. Coach Lerner put the Cardinals through their paces. Layup drills. Three-man full-court weaves. Wind sprints. The works.
In one fast-break drill, Marcus caught Daniel's eye as the two boys raced up the court. Daniel flipped a high pass over the defender's head toward Marcus, who was flying to the basket. The pass was behind Marcus, so the star center had to reach back, cradle the ball for an instant in midair, toss a shot toward the basket, and hope for the best. The ball banked high and soft off the backboard and dropped through the net.
The team burst into cheers.
"That makes the highlight film."
"You're the man, Marcus!"
Coach Lerner was less impressed. "Daniel and Marcus are on defense now. Carl, Jamie, and Victor are on offense. Let's run it. This is supposed to be a fast-break drill."
Marcus pointed at Daniel and smiled as the two scrambled back on defense. Their teammates running the drill, Carl LaRue, Jamie Thomson, and Victor Ortiz, hustled downcourt looking for a score.
"Take Carl!" Marcus yelled at Daniel, pointing to the Cardinals starting point guard.
Just as Daniel lunged forward, Carl drilled a pass to Jamie, who drove hard to the basket. Marcus closed in on Jamie and forced him to pass.
Jamie bounced a low pass just past Marcus to Victor. Marcus whirled around, took one long stride, and leaped into the air. Victor was gliding toward the basket for what seemed to be an easy two points. But the ball had barely left Victor's hand when Marcus swatted it away with a thunderous block.
Again his teammates cheered.
Coach Lerner bounced the ball back into play. "Victor and Carl, back on defense!" he shouted. "Keep running, guys."
This time, Marcus hustled up the left side of the court. Daniel bounced him a perfect pass on the wing. Marcus took one quick dribble and went up for the shot. At the top of his jump, he flicked his wrist. The ball sailed straight to the basket.
Phweeet! Coach Lerner's whistle stopped the action. The coach held a basketball over his head.
"Foul shots!" he called as he pointed to the baskets around the gym. "You know the drill. Break into groups of two. First player takes five shots, then the second player takes five shots."
Marcus motioned Daniel to a basket at the far end of the gym. The two boys walked in that direction as Coach Lerner continued to shout instructions.
"Keep track of how many you make. We have to make our free throws if we want to win our games."
Marcus winced at the coach's words as he walked toward the basket.
"You want to go first?" Daniel asked.
Marcus shook his head. "Nah, you go first," he said.
Daniel went to the line, set his feet apart, and casually tossed up a shot. Swish. It was good.
After five shots, the boys switched places.
Daniel went to the line, set his feet apart, and casually tossed up a shot. Swish. It was good.
After five shots, the boys switched places.
"Four out of five," Marcus said to Daniel as he stepped to the line. "I hope I shoot that well."
Excerpted from On the Line by Fred Bowen. Copyright © 1999 Fred Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 13, 2014