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I'm about to shoot the most important free throws of my life, and I'm shaking like a man on death row.
"Relax! You can do it, Mark!" calls out Coach Antonelli from the sidelines. At least, that's what I think he says. Almost everything is drowned out by the screaming fans. We're at the University of Connecticut's Gampel Pavilion — a gigantic arena, seating almost ten thousand — and the roof is about to blow off the place.
How did I, Mark Chamberlain, a Clifton High reserve, get in position to decide the Connecticut Class S state championship game? It's too surreal. We were ahead 51-50 with ten seconds left, and I have to admit, I didn't want any part of the ball. If we were playing baseball, I'd have been hiding in deep right field, out of sight. As it was, I tried to hang out under the radar in the corner of the court, behind the big guys on our team. Roosevelt High had to either get a steal or foul someone in order to catch up. Let the seniors handle the ball. I'm just a junior — and only sixteen, young for my grade!
But even right fielders have to make a play sometimes. Somebody knocked the ball loose from Cedric Jones, our point guard, and it rolled to me. I had to pick it up. They fouled me with five seconds showing. What was I supposed to do, politely decline the foul?
For a few seconds after the ref called the foul, I didn't move — a deer caught in headlights. Finally, a teammate nudged me toward the free-throw line.
"Two shots, man." Chris Cummings, our superstar senior, laid his hand on my sweaty back. "They're over the limit. No pressure."
At least one of us is relaxed, I thought.
Now I'm lining up for the free throws, and this jerk from Roosevelt brushes up against me. "Don't choke, white boy," he whispers as he walks by.
Whooa. White boy? I may not be as black as him, but I'm hardly white. I'm half black, the child of an interracial marriage.
He shoots me a little grin like, I know you're going to blow it.
It's funny — I've always dreamed of hitting the winning shot in a championship game, but now that I'm in position to decide the state title, it's terrifying. I guess that saying is true: Be careful what you wish for.
I wait for the ref to hand me the ball. My eyes are drawn skyward to the NCAA banners waving from the rafters — championship banners. This is it, a moment that determines champions. Please, God, let me sink these shots!
Suddenly, I feel the basketball being shoved into my gut. The ref raises two fingers.
In some ways I feel like one of those dudes in the movie Gladiator who piss in their pants when they're about to enter the Roman Colosseum to do battle — the same feeling I get when math tests are handed back. But this is more important than school. This is basketball. The whole team's counting on me.
I quickly heave up the first shot, treating the ball like it's plutonium and my Hazmat suit is at the cleaners. I just want to get rid of the ball. My shoulders jerk on the release and my arms feel like they're bound together by athletic tape.
The shot misses everything.
"Air baaall! Air baaall!" chant the Roosevelt fans. Laughter erupts from the stands. I feel my face flush red.
"Not even close, baby!" says the Roosevelt jerk. "You got another one like that?"
It feels like every player to my left and to my right is staring at me: some snickering, some ticked off.
I need to find Coach Antonelli. I spot him squatting in front of the bench, and as our eyes meet he just gives me a clenched fist that says Stay strong. But some of my teammates are praying. They look as worried as I am.
Even the cheerleaders look desperate. Sheila, the hot one with the long blonde hair, is down on her knees staring hopefully at me.
Cummings reaches out. "Take your time," he says. But there's concern in his voice this time.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the bench guys locking elbows to form a chain. Maybe they think a show of solidarity will transmit positive vibes. Hey, I'll take whatever karma I can get.
"Box out! Rebound a missed shot!" the Roosevelt coach calls out to his players.
My heart feels like it's beating out of control. The ref gently hands me the ball for my second free-throw attempt. "Don't step over the line," he says. I detect a trace of sympathy in his voice. To me, the line I'm about to cross is far more significant than the so-called "charity stripe." A championship is at stake, and so is my reputation.
It's impossible to concentrate. The Roosevelt fans are screaming their lungs out and stomping their feet. My body's shaking.
I feebly try to position the ball in front of my face.
Here goes. Raising the basketball over my head, I say a quick Hail Mary and let it fly again.CHAPTER 2
The stiff, flat shot bangs off the front of the rim and into the hands of the Roosevelt jerk. My feet are frozen as Roosevelt frantically pushes the basketball up the court. I want to scream, "Stop them!"
But no one can. A driving layup at the buzzer and ... final score: Roosevelt 52, Clifton 51.
I want to melt into the court. Instead, I collapse to my knees and tug my jersey over my face, hiding from the celebration exploding around me.
"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" The screams are like sirens torturing my eardrums. Tell me this is just a bad dream.
I manage to scrape myself up off the court and slink to the locker room just as they haul a table onto the court for the trophy presentation. Roosevelt players rush by. One knocks into me. The final insult.
A thought strangles my brain: How am I going to face my teammates?
We were a "sure bet" to capture our second state title in four years. Even though we finished third in our conference, everyone knows the Clifton Tigers are big favorites in states because we compete in the small-school division, where we usually kick butt. This loss feels like a jolt from a Taser gun. Everyone is numb.
"We gave it our best," Coach Antonelli says in the dead- silent locker room. "I know you're all disappointed, but sometimes things just aren't meant to be. They played a little bit better than us tonight. But I'm proud of you guys. We had a helluva season. Hold your heads up."
"I blew it. I'm sorry," I mumble to no one in particular, my eyes fixed on the ground. I hear my teammates storming away. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one glare back at me with absolute disdain.
I'm embarrassed to cry, but I can't help it. Tears roll down my cheeks as I try to hide my face.
"Hey, Mark, you've heard me say this before: A basketball game is forty-eight minutes long. No single play decides it. Don't blame yourself. We win and lose as a team."
Coach Antonelli drapes his arm around my shoulder as he offers those hollow words. He acts like it was just a preseason scrimmage we lost. He deserves an Oscar for Best Actor.CHAPTER 3
According to the calendar, the first day of spring is just nine days away. It's almost fifty degrees. But instead of being reborn with the season, I'm withering in bed. If only last night's game was just a bad dream. It had to be!
A reality check comes at precisely 6:30 a.m.
"Get out of bed, Mark," my father says. "You've got school."
"I can't. Please, let me just take one day off."
I'm buried under layers of blankets and sheets. An old poster of Steve Nash, my basketball god, hangs over the bed, and LeBron James covers the door.
"No, you need to go to school."
"But I can miss a day."
My dad yanks the covers off. "Don't make me force you."
It's useless. No amount of begging or fighting can save me. When it comes to school, Bill Chamberlain always wins. My legs feel like hundred-pound weights as I crawl out of bed, kick aside a copy of ESPN The Magazine and a crumpled Skittles wrapper, and throw on my clothes from the day before.
I bump into my dresser, knocking down a framed picture of my dad and me holding up two huge bluefish we caught off Narragansett, Rhode Island, a few years back. I wince as it hits the floor with a crack. I stare at it, take a step forward ... then walk out of the room.
Why can't Dad show a little stinking compassion?
"Where's Mom?" I ask as I yank down a box of Cheerios from the kitchen cupboard.
"She's driving Danny to school today. He was afraid his science project would get wrecked on the bus." My dad glances up from his seat at the table, where he's reading the morning newspaper. "You want the sports section?"
"Not today," I mumble with a frown. I can't believe he's even offering it. Talk about rubbing salt into a wound.
"The write-up isn't that bad. You did your best, Mark. I know you're disappointed, but you'll get over it."
Get over it? If only I could. Last night's game is burned into my memory with a branding iron.
"Hey son, part of growing up is learning how to handle adversity. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. You don't think this made me stronger?"
Without looking down, Dad points to his left leg, hidden under the table. His left foot was amputated when he was fifteen — close to my age — after he developed Type 2 diabetes. But he survived. Now he lives his life managing diabetes with insulin injections and being constantly aware of blood-sugar levels.
"You can't afford to miss algebra class, the way your grades are. Concentrate on your studies. Remember, last night was only a basketball game."
I slam the cupboard door shut. "What do you know? You weren't even there to see it. You never go to any of my games! If you did you'd know basketball is what I live for!"
"All right, calm down Mark. It may feel like the most important thing to you right now, but you'll see. There're other things in life."
Before he says another word, I leave my Cheerios in the bowl and storm off to the bathroom, where I take my sweet time brushing my teeth.
"You better get down to the bus stop!" Dad calls out after a while.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm going."
As I head down my street, I replay my missed shots over and over. If I had just — Caw, caw, caw. I glare at the crows. It feels like those birds, perched so smugly on telephone wires above, are heckling me. Can it be that, in bird talk, the crows are saying, "There goes a loser?" Scooping up a rock without breaking stride, I fire it at one of the birds, only to miss badly. The crows flap their wings and fly away.
Almost miss the bus too, which would give me an excuse for blowing off school, even though my dad wouldn't buy it. But I make it to the end of Cedar Brook Road just as the final kids board. Can't run away now — people have seen me.
Maybe my timing is perfect, being the last one on the bus. I pull the hood of my black sweatshirt over my head and plop down in the first seat, which is always empty. I want to be the invisible man. No such luck.
"Hey, I got company. That's unusual," Sam, the bus driver, says. "To what do I owe this great honor?"
"No reason." I feel like saying, "Just drive."
There's whispering behind me.
I brace myself as we get off the bus and enter Clifton High. It takes about a minute before the first insult lands. It's silent but painful. Steven Massey, a smart-ass whose locker is three down from mine on the right, yells, "Hey, Chamberlain."
When I look up, he motions with his hand up to his throat — the universal sign for a choker, someone who doesn't come through under pressure.
Get lost, fat boy.
Other insults follow. On the way to my first-period biology class, a guy I don't even know weighs in.
"Yo Chamberlain, you better learn the Heimlich maneuver." The kid's wearing a T-shirt that says, "It's only funny until someone gets hurt ... then it's freakin' hilarious!"
But the shot that's really painful — the hollow-point bullet — comes from someone I consider a friend, Kareem Robinson. Kareem and I have always had a strange relationship. I'm drawn to him, in some ways, because we both have black fathers. But he kids me about being Halfrican since my mother is white. He's much darker, wears his hair in cornrows, and acts street. I just try to fit in at Clifton High, caught between two races.
"Hey Wilt," calls out Robinson as we pass in the hallway between second and third periods. "That name fits you, man. When the pressure's on, you wilt." He never breaks stride. Kids laugh at me.
I was born with the same last name as a legendary basketball center, and I've occasionally been called Wilt before, but only by a few people who really know hoops history. I never minded. It's kind of cool, in fact. Who wouldn't want to be linked to a superstar? But now the name Wilt Chamberlain takes on a whole new meaning.
Kareem Robinson is calling me a choker, too. That, coming from a teammate — one of the few African-Americans on the team — feels like a knife through the heart.
I keep to myself all day, but just like on the court, I can't seem to hide. I'm constantly reminded about last night's game. When I return to my locker at the end of the day, a copy of Tiger Times, the student newspaper, is lying on the floor nearby. It's hot off the press, so I scoop it up and stuff it in my backpack.
That night before going to sleep, I pull out the issue while getting into bed. There's a feature polling students on their favorite band and a story about Helmut Mueller, an exchange student from Germany who I recognize from class but don't know much about.
Then, turning the pages to the back, I'm face to face with the devil — an article on the game. "PARADISE LOST" is the huge headline.
There's no way I want to read the story, but some sadistic force grabs hold of my eyes and drags them to the print. In some sick way, maybe I feel compelled to punish myself.
Clifton snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when substitute Mark Chamberlain, in for the fouled-out Kevin Barnes, blew a pair of free throws with the Tigers clinging to a 51-50 lead and five seconds left. If Chamberlain had made both ends of the two-shot foul, Clifton would have surely been crowned state champion. Even if he had made just one, the Tigers were in good shape to win.
Who wrote this crap?! My eyes shoot up in search of the byline. It's John Nicholson, a kid I've known since grade school. We used to be tight. I fling the paper across the room, scattering the pages, and get up to turn out the light.
Just then, my dad opens the door. "Everything all right at school today?"
"Yeah, I guess so," I say, climbing back into bed.
"Okay, sleep well." He scans the room and sees the scattered newspaper. "You better clean up this room tomorrow."
Typical of my dad. He's always bugging me to keep my room clean or do my homework. But he also offers good advice, like the time he steered me away from getting a tattoo. He convinced me that what's cool now won't be in the future.
I call out before he closes the door all the way. "Dad!" My father stops in his tracks, reopens the door and peers back at me.
"Everybody in school thinks I'm a choker."
He stands silent for a few seconds, lips pursed. "That's pretty rough, Mark. You did your best; the ball just didn't drop. Things happen."
"Why did it have to happen to me?"
My dad sits down on the edge of the bed, and the mattress squeaks under his weight. The glow of moonlight, shining through a front window, illuminates the foot of the bed and part of his face.
"You know, I remember the Orlando Magic once had a guy named Nick Anderson, a heckuva shooter in the pros. He missed four consecutive free throws in the closing seconds of the NBA finals. All he had to do was make one and the Rockets were dead, but they got new life and ended up winning the game in overtime."
He shrugs. "Sometimes things can't be explained."
He glances over at my dresser, which is topped by several small participation trophies from youth leagues past. All but one — a runner-up trophy for third-grade pee-wee ball.
"You know something? Many of the greatest players in history overcame setbacks. Look at Peyton Manning. Everyone said he couldn't win the big one and he wound up winning two Super Bowls. The same thing with LeBron. They said he'd never win an NBA title. Now the same people who called those guys chokers call them champions. Your best days are ahead of you too, Mark. I guarantee it."
"It's not fair to judge someone on two lousy free throws," I say.
"No, it's not. Sometimes life ain't fair." Dad speaks with a tinge of remorse in his voice, as if he personally relates to his last statement.
"I wish Barnes never fouled out. Then I wouldn't have even been in the game."
"But you were. That's fate. Good night, son." Dad stands up and takes uneven steps to the door. He hesitates in the doorway and looks back at me. "The sun will come up tomorrow."
Thanks a lot, Little Orphan Annie. I pull the covers over my head.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Choker: A Basketball Story"
Copyright © 2019 Bob Moseley.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
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