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Caleb’s body went numb. He tried to flex his fingers but felt no response. He no longer was in control of himself. No matter how hard he tried, he could not bring himself to lift his head from the ground. Panic flooded his thoughts. Caleb’s breathing grew shallower with each fleeting breath. Lying down on the cold wooden court, with the ever-bright fluorescent ceiling lights shining down on him, Caleb never felt so alone. The gymnasium had turned into a fishbowl, and he was the goldfish. Everyone’s eyes were locked on him. The concerned expressions of his teammates faded slowly from view with each passing second. Clarity transformed into obscurity. Blackness spread swiftly across their blurry frames. Caleb had always believed that death comes as fast as a speeding bullet. Time flies past in the blink of an eye, and before you know it, you’re gone. This notion could not have been further from the truth. An unsettling serenity cascaded over his paralyzed body like a heavy waterfall, filling him to the core with dread and worry. Caleb thought of all he would never accomplish. He would never play point guard on Georgetown’s Basketball Team. He would never know the joy of winning the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden or suiting up under the bright lights of the Capital One Center against fierce rival Syracuse. Even more, he thought of all the people he would disappoint. His parents, his friends, Coach Smith, and all those rooting for his success. Going out like this, tarnishing his reputation, turning into a cautionary tale… All these cluttered thoughts and whispers in the back of his head clouded his vision as the world fell out of focus and his heart took its last beats.
Caleb ran the game scenario through his head. His East High Cougars were down two with seven seconds left in the game to reining league and state champion West High Orcas. This moment was everything. West High had eliminated them from playoff contention the previous year in heartbreaking fashion with a double overtime victory in the final game of the regular season. Last year’s loss had left Caleb and his teammates devastated; this was the first time in fifteen years that East High had failed to make the state playoffs. Caleb had received most of the heat following the loss. He, East High’s best player and the league’s leading scorer, had choked in crunch time, missing two pivotal free throws and a baseline drive in the second overtime period to seal West High’s 79-72 victory. Caleb and his teammate had pushed themselves to the limit this entire season in efforts to right last year’s wrongs and re-establish their position in the winning legacy of East High Basketball. And the moment of redemption had finally arrived.
The ref handed the ball to Joe on the baseline. Joe was the team’s tallest player, standing at a legitimate 6’7”, and a terrific passer; it was like he had a bird eye’s view of the entire court and could pick out any pass with ease. Liam, Caleb, Rob, and Mac broke from the straight, stagnant line they were in and moved into action. Liam sprinted into the backcourt while Rob streaked into the frontcourt towards the basket. Mac set a screen on Caleb’s defender, springing Caleb free down the right sideline. Joe lobbed the ball over the outstretched arms of his defender and into Caleb’s hands as he sprinted to the three-point line. Caleb felt the defender on his back left hip and slowed down the tiniest bit, allowing the West High player to pass. Then, as the West High defender tried to recover, he crossed the ball over quickly from his left to right hand, shifting his weight to his right foot and causing a yard of separation between him and his man. Caleb calmly gathered himself, squared his hips to the hoop, and elevated. He followed through with his wrist, remembering to hold it high and place his fingers in the “cookie jar,” a lesson drilled into him by his father when he was first learning how to shoot. To Caleb, the ball sailed through the air for what seemed like eternity. Both opposing benches were on their feet, waiting for the outcome of the shot. Finally, the ball clanged the front of the rim as the final buzzer pierced the gym’s silence.
Caleb’s heart filled with instant dread. He had let his teammates down for a second straight year, cracking under pressure and failing to make the game-winning shot. The lights had proven too bright for him once again. Caleb put his head down and started walking back to his bench. Then he was hugged from behind. Actually, it felt more like a tackle from a NFL linebacker. As Joe’s long arms wrapped around his chest, Caleb turned his head left to the team benches and their respective student sections above. West High’s fans stood stunned and speechless. They looked like characters from an animated cartoon with their incredulous eyes and gaping mouths. Three West High girls were even crying in dismay. East High’s students were quite the opposite. They were going insane, jumping up and down like popcorn kernels being heated in the microwave. Like they had not just witnessed their team lose the game and throw away another season.
This realization dawned on Caleb all too slowly. They had won the game. Caleb could not even muster a sigh of relief as the rest of his teammates joined in on Joe’s fun and wrestled him to the ground. Although no one could see him under the befuddle of bodies, Caleb was wearing the largest smile on the court. Never mind the court, the whole state of Connecticut. Excitement coursed through his veins at a torrid pace. They were going to the state playoffs. They had earned redemption. He had come up big down the stretch. He would no longer be thought of as the kid who could not perform at the biggest stage. The weight of missing the playoffs was finally off his back, and he could not have been more relieved. He had made his coach, his teammates, his school, and himself extremely proud.
Caleb heard all about his shot the next morning. Although the ball had shattered the front iron, it had taken a funny bounce backwards, hitting the backboard perfectly before falling smoothly through the net. It was far from a feathery swish, but it had certainly done the job. Caleb’s classmates certainly thought so. Everywhere they went the Monday following the game, Caleb and his teammates were met with compliments, pat-on-the-backs, and warm smiles. They were the stars of the show, a feeling unknown to them until now. Even Miss Scholes, Caleb's nasty, seventy-year-old English teacher who failed kids as frequently as she ate her disgusting tuna fish sandwiches, gave him a nod of approval during his fourth period class.
Caleb was on Cloud 9. And they day just seemed to keep getting better. The lunch special was chicken pot pie, his favorite. Gorgeous Julia Silva came up to him during their biology lab and told him how great he had played. A bunch of the school cheerleaders had baked the team chocolate chip cookies to celebrate the win; they were absolutely delicious. Caleb even found ten dollars lying unclaimed in the hallway. And later that day, Caleb dropped by Coach Smith’s office during his sixth period free for their daily chat.
Caleb opened the door and stepped inside. East High tradition was plastered all over the room. Innumerable photographs of victorious teams posing with the state championship trophy and former players who had gone on to play college ball hung proudly on the wall. Coach Smith was the reason for all these accolades; his dedication to this program and building a winning tradition drove all these championship teams to highs even he could not have predicted. Caleb held a lot of respect for Coach Smith. He had brought him up to varsity as an unproven sophomore and had immediately given him the keys to the kingdom. People around town called him crazy for trusting a 5’ 7”, buck-ninety point guard with the ball and the team, but he did it nonetheless. And now here they were contending for a state title. Unbelievable.
Coach Smith peered up from his book and smiled. He got up from his seat and gave Caleb the handshake he had come to love and always expect. He told him to sit down because he had great news. Caleb thought it involved the state playoffs. He wondered what it could be about. Had one of the state teams lost one of their better players, or had they drawn an easy bid to the state championship? These thoughts fluttered in his head as Coach Smith took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Caleb, once again, terrific job in last night’s game. I am proud of the way you handled yourself out there and pulled through for me and the guys on the team. It must feel great knowing that you have led East High back to the promised land.”
“Thanks Coach. I’m really excited for what’s ahead. I know I definitely couldn’t have done it without you. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that the shot had gone in. I just assumed I had missed because it hit the rim so hard. Thank God for the lucky bounce.”
“That’s pretty funny Caleb. The basketball gods must have done you a favor. They saw how hard you and your teammates worked and decided to reward you guys. P.S., I wouldn’t go around telling everybody that you didn’t know your shot had gone in. Kinda makes our win look a fluke and shows a lack of confidence on your part.”
“You’re right Coach. Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine. This is beside the point. I just wanted to let you know that Coach Ewing called from Georgetown this morning and is really excited about you as a player. He saw last night’s game on film and was impressed by your decision-making and shooting ability. He told me that he’ll be watching all our games in the state playoffs and may possibly want to offer you. Now son, this is the chance of a lifetime. A full athletic scholarship to play basketball at a school with an historic program. I told you because it is your right to know. That being said, I don’t want you pressing or letting the glory get to your head. Just because you have Coach Ewing looking at you doesn’t mean you have to change your game. I want you to continue taking good shots, making smart passes, and getting your teammates good looks. Now, I’ll see you later at practice. Get to class.”
“For certain Coach. Thanks for telling me. Don’t worry, I won’t change my game. I’ll play like I have for this whole season and will do all I can to win you another state title.”
“I don’t doubt it son. See you later.”
Caleb could hardly breathe as he left Coach’s office and went to his afternoon classes. He had dreamed of playing basketball for Georgetown for most of his life, ever since Georgetown beat North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 2007 Elite Eight. He and his dad had made the journey to East Rutherford to watch the highly anticipated game. The way Georgetown played, storming back and winning the game in OT, made a lasting impression on Caleb – he wanted to be a Hoya above all else. This realization led to innumerable hours of practice in the years to come. Morning jogs at 6:00 to work on his cardio. Marathon shooting sessions in his driveway to expand his range. Heavy lifting during the summer in his steaming basement to improve his strength. All of this to earn a Georgetown scholarship. Caleb could not stop himself from smiling. His effort had finally paid off. He had a real opportunity to seize his dreams and become a Georgetown Hoya. He was so close he could almost taste it.
The school bell’s obnoxious ring interrupted Caleb’s thoughts and snapped him back into reality, signaling the end of the day. Caleb grabbed his backpack, exited the classroom, and made his way to the Varsity Locker Room. Coach Smith held practice at 3:05 sharp, meaning that all players must be on the court stretching by 3:00. As Coach put it, “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is inexcusable.” Caleb walked through the open door to the familiar banter of his teammates. He navigated the labyrinth of dirty towels, smelly sneakers, and wrinkled practice jerseys to his own locker. He quickly changed, threw his clothes into his locker hurriedly, and swung it shut. The closing of his locker door revealed a closer look into the adjacent locker of his teammate Joey. Rows and rows of orange pill bottles glowed within what looked more like a medicine cabinet than a varsity locker. Caleb shook his head with disgust. Joey had by far the most talent on the team. He could hit any shot on the floor, whether it be a floater in the lane or a pull-up three in the corner. However, he had squandered the potential he once had with years of drug use. Joey was far from a bad kid; everyone in the school liked him. He had a bright smile that could light up any room and a laugh that would leave girls hanging on for more. That smile was not so bright anymore though. Ever since his mother had run off with her new boyfriend and left him and his father alone, Joey had hardly spoken let alone smiled. Dark shadows had formed deep within his eye beds, and his skin had turned a sickly white, as if washed with bleach. Caleb’s gaze lingered too long, and Joey slammed his locker shut with a metallic bang.
Caleb had no time to respond as Coach Smith blew the whistle signaling the start of practice. All of the players poured out of the locker room and on to the court. Caleb familiarly led the team in its pregame dynamic stretches before layup lines. As he and his teammates performed their lunges, Caleb noticed a slight twinge in his right knee. It did not hurt, but Caleb definitely could feel some discomfort near the top of his kneecap. He shook it off as soreness and continued with his routine. Soon, stretches were over, and the team was going through its layup lines. Caleb caught a pass from Mac and dribbled up the court. He reached the block and tensed his legs for a strong leap. As he went to jump, however, he felt no support. He skidded out of control and came crashing down on his side. His knee has simply given out. Caleb held his breath. His teammates rushed to his aid and tried to settle him down as he scooched across the floor, in too much pain to hold still. Coach Smith came over with the athletic trainer and told him to not move as they lifted him up and carried him off the court.
Caleb could hardly keep his eyes open as the athletic trainer diagnosed his injury. His knee felt as if it had been torn in half during a horrible game of tug-of-war. Laying there on the trainer’s table in the Athletics Office, Caleb tried to clear his mind and conquer the pain. Unfortunately, this proved easier said than done, and Caleb whimpered quietly to himself as the trainer bent his knee in different directions to test its strength.
Caleb went home that night on crutches. Coach Smith drove him home in his old black Escalade. It was a whole parade to get Caleb in the car, with his teammates grabbing his equipment while the athletic staff lifted him off his feet and helped him into the front seat. The car ride was a quiet one. Coach Smith could not conjure the words to console his wounded passenger. Tears streaked down Caleb’s face like a torrential rainstorm. The training staff had told Caleb to not even bother with an MRI. They said that he had strained his ACL – they had seen this injury before with a former player and did not need a second opinion. Caleb was devastated. He could not move his knee without tremendous pain. All he could think about was how Coach Ewing would surely withdraw his interest in him upon hearing of his injury. No coach in his right mind would want to sign a player with a bum knee. Caleb could see his future slipping away through his fingers, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. All he could do was remain positive and cheer on his teammates from the sideline for the remainder of the season, which Coach Smith continued to remind him from the driver’s seat.
“Caleb, I know you are extremely disappointed, and you have every right to be. But you cannot let this injury get in the way of our playoff run. You are the leader of the team, and it is crucial that you remain vocal and positive. We can still win if we stay together. I know that you want to be on the court. I get it. Georgetown’s your dream and it seems to be growing farther and farther out of reach. Just know son that this isn’t the end. As cliché as it sounds, God gives his toughest soldiers the hardest paths to success. I firmly believe this. You’ll only come out of this stronger son. Believe me.”
Caleb did not believe Coach Smith. He thought that it was an act; he was talking Caleb off a bridge with all his Scripture and did not even believe his words himself. Their season and playoff hopes were over. There was no way that they could win without their best player. Caleb did not fall asleep that night. He lied in bed awake, pounding his foam Nerf basketball against the ceiling. Thud. Thud. Thud. His heart beat steadily to the dull drum of the ball as he drifted deep into sleep and despair.
Caleb limped the halls of East High the next day with his head down and shoulders slumped. He crutched past the whispering voices and staring eyes of his teachers and classmates, all of whom were extremely disappointed. They had such high expectations for the Cougars this year. He was letting everyone down, and this possibly disappointed Caleb the most. The win over West High had brought his school, his teammates, and his coach such pride and joy. He had wished to reproduce this happiness with a league championship and ring. Well, it was too late for that now, and Caleb could only hope that his team prevailed in the first round. He had never felt so hopeless.
Then the realization hit him during third period Calculus. Maybe there was a way to get through the playoff game later that afternoon. He would pop some of Joey’s locker pills. Half of them could bring a three-hundred pound man down to his knees. They could certainly take away the pain in his knee and allow him to perform. With this in mind, Caleb went through the rest of the day with a pep in his step. Figuratively speaking that is. Time flew and soon the game time had arrived. The East High Cougars were playing at home against the North High Titans, a solid but beatable opponent who East High was predicted to defeat before Caleb went down with his injury. Once the team had cleared the locker room for warmups, Caleb, using a thick metal ruler from his Biology classroom, pried open Joey’s locker. Caleb’s mouth dropped in amazement. Joey had many problems and certainly possessed the pills required to solve pretty much all of those problems. There must have been at least fifty bottles in there. Caleb could tell they were all opioids from the labels and figured that any single one would do the job. With this in mind, he grabbed the closest bottle to him at the front of the locker and downed five pills.
What happened next could not have gone better. A calming sensation spread throughout his entire body, warmly dispersing from the tops of his toes to his fingertips. Euphoria took over Caleb; he had to balance himself he was so dizzy. He did not expect the pills to take effect so fast. Caleb certainly no longer felt like himself. It was like someone had taken control of his body and he was watching from the outside, like something from a Black Mirror episode. Caleb was fine with it, however, and smiled pleasantly to himself. The pain in his knee had vanished without a trace, a distant and distressing memory wiped off the face of the Earth. He could play again, and the chance to play with Georgetown and Coach Ewing was back on the table. Caleb grabbed his uniform from his own locker and suited up, excited for what the future might hold. Taking a deep breath, he exited the dim Varsity Locker room and stepped into the bright lights of this Tuesday evening playoff game.
Caleb ran… not walked… ran to the sideline and over to Coach Smith. Coach Smith saw him coming and stared at him incredulously when he approached. Caleb laughed to himself; it was like Coach Smith had seen a ghost.
“Caleb, what are you doing. How are you running let alone walking?”
“I don’t know coach. I just feel better and want to give playing a shot. Put me in, I know I can do it.”
“You sure, Caleb? Your knee looked pretty bad yester…”
“Coach, I got this.”
“Alright son. Go out there and do your thing. But if your knee starts hurting again, don’t be a hero. Tell me and come off the court.”
Caleb walked over to the scorer’s table and checked in. Boy did he play like a hero. Caleb starred in one of the best games of his career. Whether it be a fade away jump shot over his right shoulder, a baseline reverse layup over the opposing team’s 6’ 4” center, or a teardrop floater right down the middle of the lane, every shot for Caleb was falling. And with every made basket, East High’s fans grew louder and louder; the energy was contagious. Even his own bench had to be held back by the assistant coaches. Caleb could not contain his smile as East High continued to throttle North High. Victory was imminent, and they were on their way to the next round of the state playoff. Most important, his future was back on track.
As the seconds of the game clock ticked away and East High grew closer to a first round playoff win, Caleb noticed an abnormal pain in his chest. At first, it was a small pressure from deep within, poking at his mind but raising no immediate alarms. However, by the time the fourth quarter pulled around, the pain was so great that he could hardly stand. The players on the court, the coaches on the sideline, and the fans in the bleachers were no longer as vivid as before. Their mouths moved but no sound came out. The court zoomed in and out of focus. His stomach quaked angrily with sickness, and his throbbing head roared with searing pain. Caleb looked at the game clock.
Only ten more seconds left. Last ten more seconds and you’ll be a hero. You can sleep this off and worry about the next game later. You’re fine. This is not serious like your knee. Last ten more seconds. Coach Ewing will know something’s up if you’re subbed out. Come on Caleb, last ten more seconds. You got this. Georgetown and the finals are so close only ten more seconds Cal…