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It’s Detroit, 1961. Fifteen-year-old Dale Wheeler, the son of an unemployed, alcoholic autoworker, has big dreams of leading his team to the City Basketball Championship. But his dream is shattered when Dale—the co-captain and top point guard—is cut from the team to make way for the son of a big money team sponsor. His life in a tailspin, Dale finds a helping hand in Miss Furbish, the beautiful homeroom teacher whose well-meaning kindness gradually builds into a potentially dangerous passion. And in his lowest times, Dale gets a final shot at his dream: a hardscrabble team of street-ballers that may have what it takes to win the City Championship.
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Winning the City Redux
By Theodore Weesner
Astor + Blue Editions, LLCCopyright © 2012 Theodore Weesner
All rights reserved.
This is it. Today is the day. The first practice of the year after school in the boys' gym. Time to show the speed, do the deed, take the lead! All these weeks and months Dale has been able to think of little else. Since last spring.
Since forever. Now it's his turn to be the oldest, the biggest, the best. Tryouts. But he's a returning starter and is sure as hell not trying out. He'll be leading the way, making them pay! His excitement is such that for days on end he has been telling himself to be cool. Time to be cool and not a fool. For playing it cool is the only tool ... if you're out to win the city.
Dale Wheeler is fourteen all the same, and whatever energy he may be bringing to his talking-the-talk temperature he doesn't know how not to dream. He's grown an inch and a half since the season ended last year and is growing still. In this instant he's pushing up through five-nine. Sitting at his desk in school he can look at a forearm and see it growing larger, stronger, longer. Can pump up bicep-pears before the bathroom mirror at home. One on the left, one on the right! Pop, pop! Pow, pow! Hey, hey, get outta my way ... my name is Dale Wheeler and I came to play! Besides confidence Dale can call up conviction in his mind and heart. Secret power leading the way, making his day! Call me cocky and I'll make your fat ass pay!
Dale knows he's good. There's no doubt he's done the work. Like a saver saving every penny, he's given himself to little else. At times it seems it's all he's done, all the time, is work-work, practice-practice. And work some more. And worked on anyway. Worked into work. Sweated into sweat all over again, before taking his shower, doing his homework, dreaming his dream. For work, as every athlete knows, is the key. The more you practice the luckier you get. Acquire the moves, absorb the steps ... and when the time comes you'll hit the groove, no matter some hee-haw in the stands sputtering about luck and the bounce of the ball.
Dale has done it, is doing it, will do it. For an athlete is what he is. Maybe he's only fourteen, but he knows what he knows and he knows it's his turn to take them all downtown to win the city! "Here comes Wheeler," cries the sportscaster on high. "He takes the shot! No—he fakes the shot! He fakes the shot! He drives! shoots! SCORES! SCORES! SCORES!"
Even in his sleep at night Dale dreams of winning the city. Moments and moves from outdoor pickup games under the lights (amazing things happen in outdoor pickup games) blend in his dreams into games indoors rocking with all the students and teachers he has ever known or passed in the hallways of Walt Whitman Junior High. Waking from a dream with his mind full of rainbows, he reminds himself not to go off the deep end. To settle down.
Don't be a fool, play it cool! Playing it cool is the only tool!
Everything is a game. Life, Dale knows, is a game all the way and everything that happens depends on how you play. It's something else he knows he knows. He has no notion of himself as a thinker, or as a smart ass ninth-grader either, but he knows what he knows and he knows that everything is a game. That playing it cool is the only tool ... when you're out to rule.
(Okay, maybe he is a smart ass, but whoever won the city who wasn't?)CHAPTER 2
Coming in late from working second shift at Chevy Plant Ten—a weaving silhouette filling his bedroom doorway—Dale's father invites his sleepy-time son into the kitchen for a Coney Island dog. Could anyone in the world more appreciate the taste of a Coney Island dog in the middle of the night than an ever-voracious fourteen-year-old playmaker, ball handler, first string guard?
As on every other night, Dale practiced at the park until the lights went out ... before shooting a few in the dark. Dribbling home, into and out of illumination under corner streetlights, driving one telephone pole after another, pulling it back at the last minute (all but the dream), he showers with the landlady's hose, reviews his school notebook at the kitchen table, and hits the sack dreaming his dream ... into which swamp there appears the purveyor of tender words and unconditional love in his life. "Hey, sleepy time pal ... come have a Coney Island dog with your old dad."
Daylight is in Dale's eyes and it's time to rise and shine ... despite a spur picking at his mind. Clomping into the bathroom to wash and brush, he detects "I Fall to Pieces" circling his father's phonograph in the living room and sinks within, as always, to the old cry of loss haunting their handful of rooms at an off-beat hour. The message is familiar: His father is up yet and loaded, emotional and sentimental, drunk and dangerous. With no one else upon whom to visit his sad memory of Dale's runaway mother visiting his pickled brain, his father is waiting for him to appear. In Dale's adolescent mind another lyric begins circling the breaking day:
You get loaded ... and I fall to pieces.
* * *
He has no choice but to make his way into the kitchen that offers the only exit from their attic apartment ... down the backside of the landlord's house to driveway, sidewalk, refreshing air. He enters without making a sound. His father stands there. Head hanging, he's leaning to the wall, his chin on his chest. How long has he been on his feet? His neck looks rubbery as his head lolls to one side, a grin comes on like a dim light as he says: "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
Dale opens the refrigerator, explores possibilities, ignores his father as he does at times like these. Life with an alcoholic. Life with Patsy Cline's heartbreak lining the air they breathe: 'You want me to forget ... pretend we've never met.'
"You're the guy stood me up!" his father tells him. "Thas who you are! Bring home a treat for the only person in the world plays tunes on my weary old heart ... get left standing at the counter."
You walk by ... and I fall to pieces ...
Dale remembers then and says: "I fell asleep! That's what I did!"
"Musta been dreaming about something a hell of a lot better looking than a Coney Island dog," his father tells him.
"Basketball," Dale confesses, deciding all at once to share his high hopes with his father. "I was dreaming about basketball, winning the city ... which is what we're gonna do!"
"Basketball?" his father asks. "You say basketball? Did I hear you say basketball? Is that what I heard you say?"
"It's my big year at school!" Dale tells him.
"First time I knew anything would keep you from your favorite middle-of-the-night snack. Surprised it wasn't something better looking than a fat old basketball."
"I'm the biggest at school this year!" Dale tells him. "I've been working like a demon while everybody else has done practically nothing. Been working all summer, all fall. Gonna lead the way, make 'em pay!" Dale did not add how proud he hoped to make his father, or how his dream included saving his father's life, too, to a modest degree. Turning things around. Leading them to the promised land.
You tell me to find ... someone else to love. Someone who'll love me, too ... the way you used to do.
Continuing to grin, his father squints. "Son ... gotta tell ya. Hope you dream other things, too. Don't wanna put all your eggs in one basket."
Dale nods, indicates that he knows, is cool, isn't a fool ... know all about eggs and baskets. Doesn't he?CHAPTER 3
What Dale Wheeler does not know, not yet, is how not to dream, and anticipation remains his companion. Even as he is surrounded by school—needing to review his homework, to think about something else, anything else, Zona Kaplan sitting in front of him and smelling so good, Miss Furbish's Word Power Challenge—basketball moments from the sportscaster in the sky keep rising in his mind and presenting themselves as irresistibly as puppies eager to play. Get outta here, he thinks, while a puppy keeps snuggling as playful as a girlfriend he has never had, licking his face, smiling, unbuttoning her blouse and letting fall free those items his father thought not unreasonable competition for Lower Downtown's natural casing dogs smothered in onions and secret recipe Coney Island sauce.
Don't be a fool, play it cool! Don't be a jerk, do the work!
* * *
Sweeping his school's two gyms, Dale thereupon jumps, squares up, checks eye and aim, and pulls the trigger a hundred times. Shoots free throws, too. Makes himself sink five in a row, then five more, then five more, before driving the hoop with his twisting over-the-shoulder crowd-stopper one last time ... and hurrying through the locker room and into the hallway at the last second to join the sleepyheads (they'll fill the stands when the time comes) wandering into the building to start the day, sleepyheads who know nothing of discipline and commitment, of practice versus luck, that life is a game, that everything depends on how the game is played.
Oh, it's his year, sweet Jesus, and man, he is ready to go. To say the least, as Zona Kaplan ... as all the girls in their ninth grade class like to say. To say the least. A flame of desire burning within. To say the least.
There all at once is Sonny Joe Dillard, the school's biggest star and most legendary athlete ever, coming in Dale's direction in a slouch and not hurrying at all. "Hey, I got us a name for City League!" Dale tells him.
"What's the name, Wheels?"
"Not gonna say right now ... tell you later, asshole."
"What if we don't like it, Wheels?"
"We'll like it, don't worry ... asshole."
"Thought we'd be going for a sponsor this year ... Wheels?"
"Aah, you have to go all over town begging people. Screw that."
"Tell me at practice," Big Joe says, ambling on and drawing gawking twin stares over their shoulders from two seventh grade girls passing by.
"Practice ... what're you talking about?" Dale calls after him.
Joe grins on looking back, adds, "As if you didn't know."CHAPTER 4
Dressed ahead of the others, goose bumps alive on his legs, Dale leaves the locker room and passes through the tunnel into the boys' gym. Before him, however, is a surprise. The wall between the two gyms has been opened. They've always used the boys' gym alone for practice while there is the sweep of the main gym with its glass backboards lowered into place at the ends. Loping the perimeter, reminding himself to take the lead, show the speed, do the deed, Dale has to wonder what Coach Burke is up to using the full gym at a time like this. (Five-six at most, Dale tells himself as goose bumps travel his shoulders.)
He lopes on. Afternoon light from end windows reflect the golden floor and move him as others might be moved by reflections in a cathedral. Dreaming the dream. Today is the day and the future is in his hands. Take the lead ... show the speed ... do the deed! The time is here, smart ass.
"Belly high ... without a rubber," Dale sings out, removing himself from a bugaboo thought of his father visiting his mind. The lyric is one he dared recite to Zona Kaplan in homeroom, pleasing him on causing her to raise her dark eyes in disgust. "Ninth grade boys are so immature," she told him, making him like her even more than he had liked her before. As he lopes on, Zona bounces in his heart, too. And elsewhere. To say the least.
Loping ... sensing other players entering through the tunnel, he loops under one side basket and another, lays in imaginary shots while loping on. This is like love, he thinks in his silly-but-cocky not-so-silly frame of mind. This ... is what love feels like ... if you know the score and came to play. This is what it feels like to sit in homeroom and have the hots for Zona K. This, he thinks and, pulling up, sends a make-believe Whipp! on its way. "Shake Marilyn Monroe!" he sings aloud to the tune of Shake, Rattle, and Roll.
Gonna shake ... Marilyn Monroe! Gonna bake Marilyn Monroe!
The glass backboards offer heavier nets, from which hemp he imagines emanating the sound that can thrill his heart with the power of a kiss stolen on the playground. For even in the all-but empty double gym, in his ongoing dream—in a sport in which to enter practice is to enter a dream—he can call up that sweetest of sounds: Whipp!
The sudden stopping/pushing up (few players his age can elevate so instantly) in-taking air and up-fixing periscope, hanging for an instant during which to square on the rim and pull the trigger—fire one!—sending the ball tumbling through space, through a pause of heart and mind, genitals and soul and, seeing it arrive, alas, triggering that snapping of nothing but threads! The swish that isn't a swish at all but the whipp! of a skirt. A payoff sensation letting him know he's okay, is right with himself and with all things ... is real and good, leading the way like he knows he can!
Whipp! Take that, you sonsabitches! Take that and stick it up your candy asses! Did you think Dale Wheeler did not come to play? Whipp! He's here to do the job, and nobody will be laughing at his old man this time around, you can be sure of that.
"Wheels, whatta ya doing?"
Knowing it is his day to lead the way, Dale replies to a boy who is a third-stringer at best: "Getting ready to win the city!"
"Hey, you bet!"
"Betcher sweet ass!" Dale tells him.
"Mine ain't sweet!"
"Mine's sweet as candy! Be-bop-a-lulu, she's my baby!"
Dale lopes on, singing and telling himself to not get carried away. Telling himself to play it cool ... for cool is the only tool when you're out to rule.
The year is his, but of course it's theirs, too, the others in their last year of junior high and certainly the school's star, Sonny Joe Dillard. Scholastic Conference, for which these tryouts have been called, is important; still it's City League, starting in three weeks, that is the stage for the deepest competition, that calls up dreams of glory and serves as a platform for players like Sonny Joe, and Dale, too, to do their thing for the scouts and coaches in a metro area where students decide which high school to attend.
Districts, playoffs, and a twelve-game season distinguish City League, compared to the eight-game Scholastic League. Playoffs are the key, offering excitement and sometimes magic. Teams winning districts and progressing through playoffs to the finals at City Auditorium, in March, play sixteen games. Teams with sponsors or names invented by players enter from every district and from private and parochial schools, drawing on a student body five or six times the junior high conference alone. Crowds grow large and wildly partisan when the weather breaks in March and City League finals are on at the big auditorium where the Class A high schools play and Dale has yet to ever put up a shot, where General Motors puts on its New Car Show and Barnum & Bailey rigs its nets when the circus comes to town. Where, on March nights, nothing else in the world matters and hazed excitement fills the air for those who have survived the competition.
It's what he's doing, where he's going: making his move to win the City. His dream is genuine, for it is more than likely that they'll pull it off, that the first big deal dream of his life will come true. More than likely, as everyone knows. The Blue Arrows. Thus the name, as all-but-acknowledged captain, he has invented for City League, the name he'll move they adopt. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Blue Arrows! Winners of this year's City championship, captained by ..."
"Be-bop-a-lulu, she's my baby!"
The Blue Arrows. Dale loves the name so much—like other items of anticipation—that he can hardly wait to present it to his teammates. Still he holds it back, for cool is the way to be. Need to stay cool if you're going to rule! Everything in due time, as his father would say. Know thyself, as his homeroom teacher, Miss Furbish, would say. And, okay, he isn't captain just yet, he'd have to admit. But he'll be co-captain at least, with Sonny Joe, that's for sure, and they'll be saying, "Co-captained by ..."
Excerpted from Winning the City Redux by Theodore Weesner. Copyright © 2012 Theodore Weesner. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This one turned into a 3 for me. I did read it all although it is more for the sports fan. This is a drama filled coming of age story. But in the end it just wasn't for me. "*I received a copy of this book for free to review, this in no way influenced my review, all opinions are 100% honest and my own."