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“Alright, Pat,” Mac said into the speaker phone on her desk. “I want you to go home. And make sure everyone else is gone too. I’ll have Mandy go over to the other locker room and see what, if anything, the Rafters needed.”
“Too late for that, Mac,” Pat said, watching Mandy’s car speeding away from the arena. “She just took off. I can go over there.”
Mac thought about saying a few choice words about her niece but stopped herself. “No. I’ll find somebody to check on them.”
“Okay,” Pat didn’t argue, she wasn’t much in the mood to face the visiting team anyway.
“Someone is beating on my door, I’ll bet its Palmer.”
“Sure you don’t want me to stick around.”
“Go home, Pat,” Mac stood up. “That’s an order,” she punched a button ending the call. “Hang on,” she yelled at whoever was on the other side of her office door. “I’m coming.” Pausing long enough to take a deep breath, she pulled the door opened to reveal an extremely red-faced Coach Palmer. “Geez, Palmer, calm down before you blow a gasket or something,” she said, stepping aside when the enraged man rushed into the room.
Palmer spun around after a couple of steps, “you have to fire that...”
“That what?” Mac slammed the door shut. “That what?” The owner’s tone was icy as she challenged the coach to complete his comment. “Sit down, Palmer,” Mac ordered. “I’ve got a call to make before I listen to your newest batch of lies.
When Mac had released the announcement naming Pat the Cougar’s head coach, Michael Palmer had been the first person to call her. Instead of the usual comments of support she expected to receive, she’d been subjected to an hour long ranting of innuendo and lies that only ended when she’d slammed the receiver into its cradle disconnecting the call. Since then, she’d never been in the same room with the Eugene coach that she didn’t get another earful of his hate filled spewing.
Returning behind her desk, Mac glared at Palmer who was pacing about the room. “Sit down,” she snapped. “I just had this carpet put in and I don’t need you wearing a hole in it tonight.”
Palmer dropped into a chair, glaring back at the Cougar owner.
Mac punched buttons on the phone pad and waited for someone to answer.
“Security,” a male voice said after the second ring.
“Tom, this is Mac.”
“Kinda late for you to be here, boss. Is there a problem?”
“No. At least, nothing I can’t handle. I need you to send someone to the visiting locker room and find out what the Rafters needed that would cause their coach to barge into our locker room. Chances are they won’t know anything so go easy on them.”
“Will do, Mac. Anything else?”
“Make sure they get the hell out of here tonight.”
“I’m on it.”
While Mac made her requests, she studied the reaction of the man sitting across from her, smirking when his anger turned to shock. Ending the call, she smiled smugly, “did you really think you could pull a stunt like that in my arena and I wouldn’t know about it? Tell me, Palmer, why did you enter the Cougar locker room. There are several signs stating it’s off limits so it must have been very important for you to ignore them.”
Palmer glared at Mac, refusing to answer.
“That’s what I thought,” Mac sneered, leaning back in her chair. “Alright, you’re here and you obviously have something to say. So spill it so I can go home.”
“I’m filing an official complaint with the league in the morning on behalf of the player that woman,” he shivered when he said the words, “was forcing herself on.”
“And that player would be?”
“And just how was Coach Calvin forcing herself on Sherry?”
“She had her hand on her shoulder and she was leaning over her. I could tell what she was trying to do,” Palmer said, disgustedly.
Mac chuckled. “Did you, by chance, happen to take the time to ask Sherry her feelings on the subject?”
“Why would I? She wouldn’t tell me the truth, her career depends on giving that woman what she wants.”
“Why would you, indeed?” Mac said calmly. She sat for a moment gathering her thoughts.
The sound of Mac’s hand slamming down onto her desk exploded in the room, the force causing everything on top of the heavy piece of furniture to clatter.
Palmer’s head snapped up, his eyes wide when he saw the look on the owner’s face.
“Let me tell you something,” Mac snarled, her body shaking with anger. “I’ve put up with your crap as long as I plan to. The league may not want to rock the boat when it comes to you but I plan to sink the bloody thing.”
“You can’t talk to me like this.”
“You came in here with your lies, remember. I’ll talk to you any damn way I please and you’ll listen to me.
“I don’t have to…”
“Sit down, you self-righteous, hypocritical, homophobic, waste of a human being. You hate lesbians and you make sure everybody knows it. Yet you hire them to as your assistant coaches and you recruit them to play for you. Why? Because about the only thing you’re smart enough to have figured out is that you can’t win without them. But you still continue to do everything you can to make their time in the league as miserable as possible. You’ve made accusations against Pat and others that have absolutely no basis in fact yet you feel free to spread your shit as far and wide as you can.”
“She’s a dyke,” the coach screamed. “A filthy dyke.”
“A dyke, yes,” Mac nodded. “But she’s not a ‘filthy’ anything.”
“So you condone her behavior,” Palmer refused to back down, “of seducing players.”
Mac chuckled. “Pat has never seduced or attempted to seduce any player while she worked for me. Although there’ve been plenty who have tried to seduce her.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because, if I had even the smallest hint of something like that happening, I’d kick her ass out of here myself.”
“Then explain why she was touching that player.”
Again, Mac chuckled. “Don’t you touch your players, Palmer?”
“Only in my official duties, when I’m coaching. Maybe to make a point or offer encouragement.”
“As would be expected,” Mac nodded. “Just as I would expect it of Pat when a player that’s been having trouble on the court finally managed to regain her confidence. Sherry broke out of a slump tonight, Palmer. A slump she’s been in since being dumped on her head. I’m sure you’re aware of it; it was in all the papers. The very least I would anticipate of my coach in that situation would be to acknowledge the player’s accomplishment. Even if it meant an encouraging squeeze of the shoulder. That’s NOT A SEDUCTION, Palmer,” Mac slammed her hand down on her desk a second time.
The coach stood. “Just because you’re willing to turn a blind eye to what that woman is doing, doesn’t mean I am. Whether you like it or not, I’m taking this to the league.”
Mac waited until the man had almost reached the door. “One more thing, Palmer.”
“What?” the coach barked, not looking back.
“If you do go to the league with this, it will be the end of your career not Pat’s.”
Palmer laughed. Slowly, he twisted around to stare at Mac. “Is that a threat?”
“A statement,” Mac shrugged. “You see, I find it very odd that someone with your history would be so willing to make accusations of seduction against other coaches.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Palmer took a step back into the room.
“It means that coaches who sleep with their players generally don’t have a very long career ahead of them once the word gets out.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Palmer took a few more steps back into the room but each step was a little more hesitant than the prior.
“I’m talking about a young eighteen year old girl you recruited out of high school when you coached for Middle State College.”
Palmer turned white, the blood draining from his face.
“A young girl who had quite the future in basketball to look forward to. Or so you told her. What ever happened to her, Palmer? Funny thing, she only played for you that one year. Then she disappeared and you left Middle State behind to coach in the league. One didn’t have anything to do with the other, did it?”
“You bitch,” Palmer spat the word out. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Mac smiled, but her eyes and voice were hard as steel. “Try me.”
Palmer spun around. “This isn’t over,” he shouted, storming out of the room.
“It better be,” Mac yelled after him.
Pat wasn’t surprised the next morning when Mac walked into her office, carefully shutting the door behind her. “How bad is it?” she asked when the owner walked to the window and stared out across the parking lot.
“He said he was going to the league but I just checked with a friend of mine there, they haven’t heard from him. Yet.”
“Nothing happened, Mac.”
Mac turned slowly, leaning against the narrow ledge under the window. “What’s going on between you and Sherry? Give it to me straight.” Mac smiled, “guess that’s not the best word to use under the circumstances.”
“Probably not,” Pat blew out a long breath. “Officially, nothing. We’ve met a few times for hikes. Strictly hiking, nothing more,” she explained. “That’s it.”
“Nothing else outside of the team?”
“I’m not sure. There’s an attraction, Mac. I can’t deny it.”
“Does Sherry feel the same?”
“Yes. But I’ve made it clear, it can’t go any further. Not now. Not while we’re both with the Cougars.”
“And the room situation in Tulsa?”
“There wasn’t anything I could do about it.”
“You could have picked a different player.”
“I could have.”
“What would have happened if Sherry hadn’t been injured?”
Pat spoke her answer in a quiet whisper. “No.”
“This is a nasty situation, Pat.” The room became deathly quiet as Mac turned around to again stare out the window. She had some options but they were limited and she couldn’t make a mistake.
Because of Mac’s own beliefs, and at the league’s insistence, the contracts Cougar coaches and players signed contained conduct clauses and immediate termination was the penalty for breaking them. But was having feelings that had yet to be acted upon grounds for destroying the careers of the two women?
“No more hiking, concentrate on basketball,” Mac told her coach, walking for the door. “And no more shared hotel rooms. Understand?” she asked, her hand resting on the knob as she looked at Pat.
“We’ll talk again at the end of the season.”
Pat went through the motions of practice but her mind was on her conversation with Mac. She knew the owner was right that she had to stop taking chances with Sherry and stop seeing her outside of the team. The reality was that there wasn’t any hope of something developing between them as long as both were on Mac’s payroll. She had to concentrate on the Cougars and the goal of the championship that she herself had set for the team.
“Sherry,” Pat called to the player. Since Sherry had been in the locker room when Coach Palmer had barged in, Pat felt it was only fair to tell the woman she dreamed about every night what had happened and how it would change the way they interacted.
Sherry stood at mid-court with Pete watching Wendy and Amie run through plays. She looked over when she heard her name, “yeah, Coach.”
“Give me a minute.”
“Sure,” Sherry jogged over to Pat. “What’s up?”
“Let’s walk down to the other end of the floor,” Pat said. She wanted to talk to Sherry in private but she also needed it to also be public enough so there could be no misunderstandings.
Sherry felt her stomach ball up into knots as she followed the coach. Guessing that Pat wanted to talk about the events of the previous night she remained silent, too afraid of what might have resulted from the incident to say anything.
“Let’s sit,” Pat said, dropping into a seat in the first row and stretching her legs out in front of her. “I’m beat. Didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night.”
“Me either,” Sherry began to sit in the adjoining seat.
“Move down one, please,” Pat smiled, apologetically.
“What’s going on, Coach? Did Mac believe what he said he saw? Because if she did, I’ll go tell her myself that nothing happened.”
“Sit down,” Pat said quietly. “Mac wouldn’t believe Palmer if he said the building was on fire and she could see the flames.”
Sherry sat and waited.
“Look, I’m just going to tell you what the score is, okay? It’s not necessarily the way I want things to be but it’s the way it has to be until the season is over.”
“Okay,” Sherry said, hesitantly.
“Palmer is threatening to file a complaint against me with the league in your name.”
“He can’t do that,” Sherry sputtered. “I won’t go along with it,” she almost shouted.
“Sherry, please,” Pat asked, the pain of the situation written all over her face. “Just listen to me. Please.”
Sherry took a deep breath, trying to relax. “Alright.”
“Thank you,” Pat said quietly. “Mac doesn’t think he’ll go through with it but it’s pretty irrelevant anyway. This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of something with one of my players. One of the drawbacks of being gay and single,” she shrugged. “But it’s the first time that there’s been some truth behind the accusation.”
Sherry looked at Pat, the corners of her mouth rising into a small smile at the coach’s declaration.
“I told Pat about us,” Pat said.
“What about us?”
“The feelings we’re having.”
“But we haven’t done anything.”
“I know. And I told her that too. But some of what I’ve done hasn’t been right, Sherry. I’m your coach and I’m supposed to know better than to put you into situations where things could happen.”
“Yes. And the hotel room. You never should have been in there. I knew it but I…”
“I’m glad I was,” Sherry whispered, looking into Pat’s eyes.
“It can’t happen again.”
“So what do we have to do?”
“Play out the season. Keep everything, and I mean everything, between us professional and nothing more. We don’t see each other off the court. We’re never alone together. We never touch.”
“That’s going to be hard, especially the never touching,” Sherry murmured.
“I know. But we can’t let whatever there may be between us hurt Mac or the team. And we have to remember the contracts we both signed. We agreed to the terms and we need to respect them.”
“I can quit,” Sherry offered. She knew she was falling in love with her coach and if she had to give up basketball to have a chance at a relationship with her, she was ready to do it.
“No,” Pat shook her head.
“No,” Pat said, more forcefully than the first time. “I’m not willing for you to give up what you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Not on a ‘what if’.”
“I think it’s more than that. And so do you.”
“If it is,” Pat looked into Sherry’s eyes. “Then it’ll still be there at the end of the season.”
Sherry slumped against the seat back. “I guess I can stand to ignore you for the next three months,” she groaned.
“Your set the rules, don’t complain to me about them now.”
Dawn pushed open the door and hurried out into the parking lot where she could see Pat getting into her pickup. She had observed the private conversation between the Pat and Sherry and wondered what could have been so important that the coach would pull the player out of practice. Later she watched Pat lock up her office shortly after practice ended; something she almost never did. When she noticed Sherry also preparing to leave the arena immediately after practice, the thoughts began to race around in her head.
Opening the door to her car, Mandy’s eyes followed Pat’s pickup as it moved across the mostly empty parking lot to an exit. She pushed the key into the ignition, starting the engine before she had both feet inside the car.
Dawn dropped into the seat beside Mandy. “What’s so damn important,” she grumbled. “I really could use a shower.”
“You can take one later,” Dawn said, her eyes still on the Pat’s pickup. “This is more important,” she threw the car into gear, racing out of the lot in chase of the coach.
“Where she’s going,” Mandy pointed down the street. Pat’s pickup was a half block ahead of them.
“Why do you care?”
“I want to see if she’s meeting Sherry somewhere.”
“Sherry? Oh, come on,” Dawn grabbed the shoulder harness, clicking the belt into place. She was sure Dawn would kill them some day with the way she drove. “Coach is not that stupid.”
“Palmer claimed to see something.”
“The guy’s a homophobe, everybody knows that.”
“Won’t hurt to check it out.”
“What makes you think she’s going to see Sherry?”
“They were talking earlier, during practice.”
“Yeah, everybody saw them. So what?”
“They both left right after practice.”
“Again, so what?”
“I want to know. That’s so what.”
“Let’s just go home, Mandy. I’m tired and I need a shower.”
Mandy sped up, switching into the other lane by cutting off another car.
“Geez, will you slow down before you get us killed.”
“Don’t you even care if they are?”
“No. I don’t care about anything but a hot shower right now.”
“Think what we can do with that information if it turns out to be true.”
“Dammit, Mandy,” Dawn screamed when they almost rear-ended the car in front of them. “Turn around and let’s go home.”
“I want to know. And so should you.”
“Shit,” Dawn looked out the side window, the car was moving too fast to jump. “Look, Mandy, Coach can sleep with whoever she wants. I don’t care.”
“It’s against the rules for her to sleep with a player.”
“It’s against the rules for you to sleep with a player. Now, if you’re not going to go home, stop the car so I can get out.”
“No. You’re going with me. I’ll need another witness.”
“Like hell I am. I’m working on something good here and I’m not going to ruin because of your obsession with Coach. Now stop the damn car,” Dawn shouted.
“I think you owe me this little favor,” Mandy sneered.
Dawn looked ahead to the next intersection, smiling when she saw the signal turning yellow. “I hate to break this to you, bitch. But if you think you’re that good in bed, think again. You’re free room and board to me, nothing more,” she laughed as the car rolled to a stop. Releasing her seat belt, she pushed the door open and jumped out. “You want to chase shadows go ahead but I’m not helping you try to ruin Coach’s career.” She slammed the door shut, trotting over to the sidewalk.
Mandy turned around in the seat to see Dawn walking in the opposite direction, her hand held high and the middle finger pointing skyward. “Get back in here, you bitch,” she screamed.
The driver of the car behind honked his horn when the light turned green.
“Hold on to your shorts,” Mandy snarled, turning back around in the seat. The car lurched forward when she stomped on the gas pedal. She squealed tires around the corner of the intersection, sped down to the next street and squealed tires around that corner. Another identical turn at the next cross street and she started searching for Dawn. She looked in the direction the player had been walking. The sidewalk was empty for as far as she could see. She looked in the opposite direction for any sign of Pat’s pickup. “Shit,” she muttered, slamming her hand against the steering wheel when she saw neither.
“Thanks for the ride, Pete,” Sherry said, getting out of the other player’s car.
“Sure you don’t want to come over to my house for dinner. Hubby’s working late, we could talk,” Pete offered. Sherry wasn’t the first player she’d seen looking devastated after a having private talk with the coach.
“Thanks but I’m not really hungry. I think I’ll hit the sack early tonight.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay, good night,” Pete waved pulling away from the curb in front of the house where Sherry rented a basement room. “Looks like the season is going to be a lot longer for some of us then others,” she smirked as she drove down the street. Sherry hadn’t been the only one to walk away from her talk with Pat with a distressed look on her face.
“Can you handle it from here?” Pat asked Kelley. It was near the end of practice and the team was alternating between running wind sprints and completing passing drills. “I’ve got some stuff to go over in my office.” The Cougars would be leaving the following morning for a five game road trip and Pat wanted to review her notes on game plans. At least, that’s what she told herself.
“We can handle it, Coach,” Kelley spoke for both herself and Marcie, the other assistant coach.
“Okay,” Pat nodded. “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
Kelley watched Pat walk off the court. The coach normally had very erect posture but her slumped shoulders told the assistant coach all she needed to know about Pat’s emotional state.
Since the accusations made against her and her talk with Sherry, Pat had withdrawn from any contact with the team except for what was demanded of her job during practice and games. She rarely entered the locker room and always retreated to her office before the team was released from practice. Any contact she had with players off the court was friendly but none, especially Sherry, failed to notice the invisible wall that the coach had built around herself.
“This season can’t end fast enough for me,” Marcie trotted up to stand beside Kelley.
“Bet it seems a lot longer for the two of them,” Kelley said, not having missed the look on a certain point guard’s face when the coach left the court.
Sherry was handling the frustrating situation completely different, delving into the details of the game. Endlessly questioning Marcie and Pete for every piece of advice their experience in the league had taught them. She spent hours reviewing film of past and present point guards, picking up a move here and there and discovering tricks she had never thought of. All her work was showing on the court where she was proving to be the premier player in her position and a dominant force behind the Cougar’s eighteen and three record.
Pat had barely sat down behind her desk when Mandy buzzed the intercom.
“Pat,” Mandy’s tone gave away her feelings about announcing the call. “There’s a Karen something or other on the phone. Should I tell her you’re busy?”
“No, I’ll take it.” Pat reached for the phone, wondering why her ex would be calling. “Karen?”
“Hi, Pat. Is this a bad time?” Karen asked softly. She was unsure of the response she would get from the woman whose heart she had once broken.
“Not too many good times around here lately,” Pat muttered, leaning back in her chair.
“So I’ve heard. Palmer’s been busy.”
“Still hasn’t gone to the league yet. At least, not officially,” Pat swiveled around to look out the window.
“You doing okay?”
“Yeah,” Pat sighed. “Is there a point to this call?” she asked, never really comfortable talking to her ex-lover. She continued to carry a lot of pain over their break up.
“Debbie is at a conference in Spokane, I thought we might be able to have an early dinner.”
“Tonight. I drove over.”
“That’s a long drive to make without calling first,” Pat said. Spokane was two hundred miles away and even though it was interstate the whole way, it was mountainous with a handful of high passes to cross. “What if I say I’m too busy?”
“I’m hoping you won’t. I thought you might like to talk about what’s going on.”
“I have people here to talk to, Karen.”
“I know, but considering our history,” Karen paused, unsure of where she wanted to go with her comment. “Look, I just figured at one time we talked about everything. I’m offering that again.”
Pat didn’t respond. Her heart skipped several beats as she watched Sherry walked across the parking lot on her way home.
“Sure, why not. I’ll meet you at Creekview in a half hour,” Pat named a favorite restaurant of hers.
“I’ll be there. Bye.”
“Yeah, bye.” Pat continued to hold the phone long after the line went dead; she was too captivated watching Sherry to notice.
“Hi,” Karen said as she slipped onto the bench seat across the table from Pat. “Nice view,” she added, looking out the window to the creek flowing beneath the restaurant.
“I like it,” Pat smiled but her eyes betrayed her sadness.
“You look tired.”
“It’s the middle of the season,” Pat studied her reflection in the window. “I should look tired.”
“The Cougars are playing extremely well,” Karen commented, picking up the menu. “Sherry especially,” she added, trying to sound indifferent.
“She’s very talented,” Pat said absently, suddenly wondering if agreeing to meet her ex had been a mistake. The last thing she wanted to do was talk about the point guard. Pat was grateful for the short interruption provided by the waitress arriving to take their orders.
“Do you think the Cougars will make it to the championship?” Karen asked as soon as the waitress left.
“We’re going to try.” Pat lifted her coffee cup to her lips, staring over its rim at Karen. After a few sips, she replaced it on the table. “I’m sure you didn’t make a four hour drive just to ask me if I thought we could win, you could have done that on the phone. So do you mind telling me why you’re here?”
“I was worried about you.”
Pat remained silent, waiting for the rest to be revealed.
“Alright, when I heard what Palmer was saying about you and Sherry, I guess I felt…”
“What? And please don’t say jealous,” Pat said bitterly.
Karen’s eyes flashed but she quickly contained the anger. “No, I’m not jealous,” she laughed. “But I am concerned about you. And about Sherry,” she said of the guard that had once played on her own team. “Are you in love with her?” she asked, bluntly.
“You know that’s against the rules,” Pat said quietly.
Seeing the pain in Pat’s eyes, Karen softened her own tone. “Are you?”
“Don’t ask me questions I can’t answer.”
“If you didn’t have basketball between, what would you say?” Karen asked, refusing to let the subject drop.
“Karen, you’re a coach. Don’t put me in this position.”
“I’m a coach in a long term relationship. I’m not looking for anything else.”
Pat stared at her ex-lover, no longer thinking of Sherry. “You told me that once before. Remember?”
“I’m sorry Pat. I handled that whole thing really bad when it came to you. But by the time I realized what was happening between Debbie and me, I was in too deep.”
Pat remained silent for a long time. “Did you sleep with her?” she finally asked the question that had haunted her for years.
Karen hesitated. Thinking about lying she changed her mind seeing the look on Pat’s face. “Yes.”
Pat released her held breath, lifting the napkin off her lap and carefully folding it before placing it on the table. She stood pulling her wallet out of her pocket. Tossing enough bills on the table to cover the cost of their meal, she said, “I wish you well, Karen. But this is the last time I want to see you,” then she turned and walked for the exit.
“Pat, wait,” Karen called after the coach. When people at the tables around her looked to see what the problem was, she smiled turning toward the window. From her seat, she watched Pat walk to her pickup and drive out of her life.
Pulling into traffic, it was all Pat could do to contain her emotions. The last slim thread of trust she had clung to regarding her relationship with Karen had just unraveled like a slap in the face. She needed someone to console her. And the person she needed was Sherry.
“Do you have plans for tonight?” Pat asked fighting to hold her emotions in while she spoke to Sherry, the phone trembling in her hand.
“No, coach, I’m just watching some TV,” Sherry answered, more than a little surprised to be talking to Pat.
“Take a drive with me?”
Sherry glanced over at the clock which read a little past six. “I don’t think I can arrange to borrow Val’s car this late.”
“I’ll pick you up. Walk to the park down the street, I’ll be waiting at the corner behind the bandstand.” She had driven past the point guard’s apartment enough times to be familiar with the neighborhood.
“Ok.” Before Sherry could say more, the line went dead.
Sherry quickly pulled on her hiking boots and grabbed a jacket before leaving the apartment. She walked to the park, her steps steady but not too fast as she didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention her way. Walking across the park, she looked for Pat’s pickup and was surprised when she didn’t see it. An older model Oldsmobile was sitting alongside the curb with its engine running and she assumed it to be a mother waiting for her children. As she walked alongside the car, the passenger window rolled down and she heard Pat’s voice from inside.
Sherry pulled the door open and literally fell into the seat when Pat drove away from the curb before she could sit properly. The window was already being rolled up when she pulled the door shut.
“Pat?” Sherry turned to face the coach.
“No, let me get to someplace we can talk.”
Seeing how upset Pat was, Sherry nodded yielding to her wishes. She adjusted herself comfortable in the seat, pulling the shoulder harness in place.
Pat drove along residential streets working her way to the east end of town. She swung onto a freeway onramp and accelerated, the Oldsmobile picking up speed smoothly.
Sherry had to say something, the heavy silence too much for her to handle. “I didn’t know you had another car.”
“Most people don’t. I inherited it from my mother when she passed away. Don’t really know why I keep it except it reminds me of her,” Pat smiled at her memories. “It spends most of the time in the garage. I take it out once in awhile just to keep it running.”
The women kept up the small talk as Pat took the off ramp to Highway 200, slowing her speed to drive through the twin logging towns of Mill Town and Bonner then accelerating again when they entered the canyon of the Blackfoot River. Pat described points of interest as they drove through the Potomac Valley on their way to the Clearwater Junction where Pat turned at Stoney’s Corner taking the highway to Salmon Lake. It was dusk when she pulled into the state park along the lake shore, glad to see they had the place to themselves. She parked near the picnic area.
“Do you mind?” Pat asked getting out of the car. “I have to…” she indicated she wanted to sit beside the water.
“Sure,” Sherry climbed out of the car. “I’d like that.”
Pat led Sherry to the picnic table closest to the lake. Sitting on top of it, she pulled her long legs up to rest her feet on the bench and stared out over the water.
The surface of the lake was smooth as a piece of glass, the only disturbance caused by the occasional trout breaking its surface.
Sherry sat on the table, leaving a respectable space between herself and the coach.
Pat remained silent.
Sherry didn’t stop to think of the propriety of doing what Pat asked. She scooted next to the coach, wrapping her arms around her and hanging on tight when the sobs began.
It took some time for Pat to cry herself out but she eventually did and then she told Sherry of her conversation with Karen.
“I’m sorry, Pat,” Sherry wiped at the tears that had stained her own face. “You must have really loved her.”
“I thought I did. I was planning to ask her to marry me when we finished our senior season. I thought we could find a team to play on together. I guess I didn’t know her at all. I sure didn’t know she was sleeping with Debbie.” Pat felt Sherry shiver as the evening breeze began to ripple the lake’s surface. “We should probably get back.”
“Why’d you call me? Why not one of your friends?” Sherry knew the chance Pat was taking by them being together. If they were seen, it would mean the end of her coaching career.
“Because I wanted your arms around me,” Pat explained in a voice soft with longing. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. It just complicates…”
Sherry reached out, cupping her hands around Pat’s face. She leaned forward, pressing her lips against the coach’s and showing her just how much she loved her. When Sherry pulled back after several moments, she left her hands where they were.
“Pat, I lo…”
“Don’t,” Pat said, pulling out of Sherry’s caress. “Don’t say it.”
“But it’s true.”
“I know. But the only way I can deal with this is if we don’t say it.”
“Then you feel it too?”
“Yes,” Pat smiled and for the first time in a long time, she actually felt good about something. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Pat held out her hand and Sherry immediately grabbed hold of it, letting go only when they reached the car.
Neither spoke on the drive back to Missoula but their hands never separated.
“Gallagher is on fire tonight,” the television announcer shouted into the microphone. “Seventeen points, twelve assists and four steals in the first half. Those are pretty good numbers.”
“And the way she runs the Cougar offense, she is definitely on her way to a Rookie of the Year season,” the second announcer shouted above the crowd. “It will be interesting to see if Kansas City can contain her in the second half.”
“If they don’t, the Cougars will win their fifth game of this road trip and return to Missoula with a twenty-three and three record. That’s a tremendous lead over the rest of the league.”
“Coach Calvin has not been secretive about winning it all this year.”
“Yes, she has. And it looks like Gallagher is going to help her do just that. Here come the teams,” the rest of the announcer’s comments were drowned out by the screaming fans as both teams reappeared from their respective locker rooms.
Sherry stood at mid court, bouncing the ball in place as she studied the defense. She smiled. The Kansas City players were slowly inching their way towards her, so afraid were they of her again faking a drive and attempting a long three point shot. She caught the motion of Pete slipping behind her defender and running her into the corner of the court. At the same time, Tonie stepped into the key raising her hands for the ball.
Sherry began a half trot, half walk movement forward. Reaching the three point line, she charged forward two steps then abruptly stopped. Four defenders converged on her. Faking a jump shot put all the defenders into the air and Sherry waited until they were on their way back down to the floor to make her move. She jumped up between them, easily dumping the ball off to her unguarded teammate.
Tonie caught the ball, turning towards the basket she scored on an uncontested hook shot.
“Time,” the Kansas City coach yelled from the sidelines.
Pat waited for the Cougars to trot to the bench. A glance to the scoreboard told her they were almost thirty points ahead with less than five minutes to play. She looked at the players on the bench, “Wendy, Amie, Latesha, Ashley, Dawn, you’re in. Take a rest, ladies,” she said to the five players coming off the court. “Let’s let the rest of the team get some playing time.”
“Sherry is one rebound shy of her first triple double,” Marcie said looking at her list of stats.
“Getting her injured isn’t worth a record,” Pat turned to her assistant coach. “The way they’ve been playing her, someone’s going to get frustrated before the night is out and do something stupid.”
Marcie nodded. It was her job to keep the head coach aware of stats during the game but she agreed with Pat, it was time to rest the player.
The crowd let out a collective sigh of relief seeing a complete change over of Cougar players trot onto the court. Even the Kansas City players appeared happy at the prospect of not facing the Cougar point guard any more that night.
“How’s it feel?” Pete chuckled, handing Sherry a cup of water.
“How’s what feel?”
“Being the big, bad player everyone in the place is afraid of?”
“I’m hardly that,” Sherry said after draining the cup of its contents.
“Oh, really?” Tonie laughed. “Not too many players I know of in the league get quadrupled guarded every time they touch the ball.”
“I was having a lucky night,” Sherry frowned at the teasing.
“I’ll say,” Pete was looking up at the overhead scoreboard as Sherry’s stats for the night were displayed. “Twenty-nine points, fourteen assists, nine rebounds. I wouldn’t mind having a few lucky nights like that myself.”
“Geez,” Tonie read the scoreboard. “Perfect from the line and eighty-seven percent from the floor, no wonder they were throwing everything they had at you. Keep that up rookie and you’ll make everyone in the league look bad.”
“Just doing what Mac pays me to,” Sherry tried to growl but she couldn’t control the grin developing on her face.
“Right,” Tonie smirked, leaning over close to the guards so she wouldn’t be overheard. “I’d say it’s more because of all the pent up energy you’ve got to find an outlet for.”
Sherry’s grin faded, “excuse me.” She stood then walked down to the end of the bench to sit alone by the small table that held several cups of water and sports drink.
“Shit, Tonie,” Pete frowned at the post player. “Don’t you think the situation is hard enough for her without you throwing it up in her face?”
“I was just teasing,” Tonie muttered.
“This isn’t the time or the place,” Pete looked down to the end of the bench. “I’m not sure there’s ever going to be a time or place for it,” she sighed.
Sherry was sitting with her elbows on her knees, her head bent down covered by a towel.
Pat was standing further down the sideline also looking at the point guard. Though her face was passive, it didn’t take much imagination to read the emotions in the coach’s eyes.
Dawn turned onto a side street, looking for an out-of-the-way place to park Mandy’s car. Seeing the lot for the public library, she drove into an empty parking spot under the overhang alongside of the building. Grinning, she turned off the engine. From here she could walk the block to the hotel and if anyone happened to spot the car, they would just wonder what the non-reading Mandy was doing at the library.
It didn’t take long for Dawn’s long legs to cover the distance to the end of the next block. She skirted the hotel’s lobby, looking for the back stairway she had been told about. Locating it, she quickly made her way up two flights of steps and hurried down the balcony lined with numbered doors along one side.
“Just a second,” a voice called from inside the room when Dawn rapped on a door.
“Hurry up,” Dawn called back, looking around to see if anyone was watching her. As soon as the door started to open, she shoved her way inside.
“Good to see you again, Dawn,” a woman pushed the door close, making sure the security latch was in place before pulling the heavy drapes across the room’s window.
“You too, Coach Buttram,” Dawn looked across the room where another woman sat at the corner table in shadows. “I thought you were going to be alone.”
“Oh, I thought I’d mention to you that Miss Tomkins would be here.”
“Tomkins?” Dawn asked, squinting into the shadows at the woman. “As in…?”
“Teresa Tomkins,” the woman said, stretching an arm out to flip on the light over the table, “general manager of the Los Angeles Beachcombers and your prospective new employer if things work out.”
“Miss Tomkins wanted to meet you,” the coach of the Los Angeles team said to Dawn. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“I rarely agree to sign a player I haven’t met,” Tomkins smiled as Dawn sat in the other chair. “I must say I had my doubts about you when Coach Buttram first approached me with the idea of you joining the Beachcombers. You’ve given me a couple of jolts since then too.”
“I’ve held up my end,” Dawn said suspiciously, “and done everything you asked. Now I want to be sure you’re going to come through with what you promised,” she turned to look at the coach who had taken a seat on the side of one of the room’s beds.
The owner chuckled, “I said I had my doubts. As you say, your performance on the court has been greatly improved since the start of the season. Pat has done well by you.”
“Ah, I see you don’t think she deserves any credit for the improvement in your playing skills.” Tomkins commented. “That surprises me.”
“I had talent before I met her,” Dawn grumbled.
“Talent, maybe. Potential, yes. But you did little to use either. I believe you owe a debt of gratitude to Coach Calvin for bringing out both. Without her, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now. You know,” she paused to study the player, “I’m actually surprised she kept you on the team the full season, especially after that stunt with your teammate.”
“It was a good play,” Dawn muttered.
“It was a cheap shot that could very possibly have injured a valuable talent. Had it been me, I would have released you right then and there,” Tomkins glared.
“It was a mistake, Teresa,” Coach Buttram quickly interjected. “She learned her lesson.”
The Beachcomber owner looked at her coach. “Good thing,” she nodded. “At least, it proves she takes direction.”
Dawn squirmed under the scrutiny of the two women. “Look, can we get this over with? I need to be at the arena in an hour.”
“You must be nervous,” Tomkins looked back at the player, “playing in the championship game your rookie season.”
“Alright,” Tomkins smiled. “We do want you to be at your best tonight.”
“Here’s the deal, Dawn. Everyone knows Mac only signs one year contracts with rookies,” Coach Buttram explained. “She’s been burned one too many times with players that didn’t perform once they got into the league and had a multi-year contract to fall back on. So as soon as the last game of the season is played, in your case, tonight’s championship, you become a free agent if Mac hasn’t already re-signed you. I’m sure she’s already made an offer,” the coach grinned.
“And you want to know what our offer will be so you can choose the best one?” Tomkins asked.
“Miss Tomkins is ready to offer you a five-year contract with the special terms we’ve already discussed.”
Tomkins slid a piece of paper across the surface of the table. “Is this what you’re waiting for?”
Dawn looked at the number written on the paper and smiled. “That’s it. Where do I sign?”
“Sorry,” Coach Buttram stood up. “Can’t do that until tomorrow. League rules, you know.” She picked the paper up from the table, handing it back to the Beachcomber owner without looking at it.
“What guarantee do I have you’ll still be here tomorrow?” Dawn asked, watching the paper disappear into the woman’s pocket.
“We’ll be here,” Buttram said, walking to the door. “You just be sure that tonight you show us how you plan to play when you’re wearing a Beachcomber uniform,” she added, unlocking the door.
Dawn stood. “I’ll do that,” she assured the women as she walked to the door.
“Dawn,” Tomkins called to the departing player.
“Yes?” Dawn turned around.
“Good luck tonight.”
Dawn smiled. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she said as she stepped outside. After spending the last several minutes in the dark room, the bright sunlight was harsh on her eyes and she raised her arm to shield them as she made her way back to the stairwell. “Tomorrow, Dawn, my dear,” she said out loud. “You’ll be on a plane to LA with a big fat check in your pocket. I can’t wait to see Mandy’s face when I tell her,” she grinned.
“Good evening, basketball fans and welcome to Denver Pioneer Arena for the Womens’ Professional Basketball League championship game between the Miami Surf and the Missoula Cougars. This is going to be one heck of a game.”
“That it is. A lot of people would not have given Missoula much of a chance at the beginning of the season but they have plowed their way through the league leaving most opponents wondering what hit them.”
The television announcers were standing at mid-court waiting for the teams to emerge from their respective locker rooms for the pre-game introductions.
“Well after losing last year Coach Calvin did promise the Cougars would be here.”
“Yes, she did. And tonight, we’ll see if she will be going home with the trophy that eluded them last year.”
“It hasn’t been an easy year for Coach Calvin, starting with the unexpected retirement of Kinsey Donaldson, the point guard who had captained the Cougars the last four years. Coach Calvin really had to scramble to find someone to replace her, not an easy task.”
“I would say she did quite well in that department. Replacing Kinsey, who is here tonight and we’re told will be on the Cougar bench and suited up. Coach Calvin found Sherry Gallagher, a completely unknown guard with a mediocre, at best, college record playing amateur ball back east. Calvin brought her to tryout camp and turned her into a point guard with some of the most unbelievable moves you’ll ever see on a basketball court.”
“And we’re not the only ones to think so. Earlier this week, Gallagher was named Rookie of the Year, something never done before by a player at that position.”
“That’s because it’s almost impossible for a rookie to come into this league and play point guard, a position that is the heart and soul of every team.”
“We’ll be right back after a commercial break to get things started. Don’t go away. You don’t want to miss this one.”
Pat stood, leaning casually against the wall at the front of the locker room. The players were spread out on the benches in front of her making last minute adjustments to their shoes and uniforms. “Ladies,” she said quietly then waited until she had the attention of every player. “It’s been a long season but we are where we said we wanted to be. We have only one game left between us and this,” she pointed to the picture of the championship trophy that had traveled with the team to Denver and was taped to the wall next to Pat. “One game to prove that you are champions. One game to put an end to any doubts remaining. You’ve worked hard and you’ve come together as a team. Tonight you will face your most difficult challenge. Tonight you will face yourself. None of you have been here before so it’s all going to be new. And scary. The basket will look smaller and the ball will feel bigger. The court will seem longer and the crowed will seem louder. Your opponents will be quicker and faster and smarter.”
Pat pushed away from the wall.
“But they’re not. Nothing you see, hear, feel or touch out there will be any different than what you’ve dealt with all year. NOTHING. The only difference will be what you create up here,” she tapped the side of her forehead. “There’s only one thing that can turn you into losers tonight. And that’s you. Don’t become a loser. You’re winners. You’ve proved it over and over again these past several months. THINK LIKE A WINNER! And this will be your reward,” she pulled the photograph off the wall, holding it out for the players to look at.
“One game. This is it. You go out there and you leave everything you have to give on the court. You hold back nothing. There’s no tomorrow, no next game, no second chance. This is it. ARE YOU READY?”
The players responded to the question by jumping to their feet and shouting their affirmative answers at the coach.
“Then let’s go out there and show them who the Missoula Cougars are,” Pat smiled.
Marcie pulled the locker room door open, quickly backing away to avoid the rush of players charging through it.
Kelley started gathering up a handful of clipboards and notebooks to carry out to the court so the coaching staff could refer to them during the game.
“Leave ‘em,” Pat instructed. “If we don’t know what they say by now, we haven’t been doing our jobs.”
“Good,” Kelley let the items fall back onto the bench. “I think I’d be too nervous to use them anyway.”
Pat turned to her assistant coach, “Kelley and Marcie, listen up. The one thing we can’t be is nervous. The players are going to be taking their cues from us. If we’re nervous, they’re going be. If we’re confidant, they’re going to be. Got it?”
“It’s just one more game,” Pat said.
“That’s easy for you to say, Coach,” Marcie grinned. “You’ve been here before. The rest of us haven’t.”
“Then believe me when I say, keep the nervousness for after the game,” Pat smiled. Having won two national championships in college and playing for one other, she was the best prepared for the emotions every one was experiencing. “Right now, we need the confidence.”
Both Marcie and Kelley nodded.
“Good. Let’s go join our team,” Pat led the women out of the locker room.”
Sherry stood beside the row of chairs that would serve as the Cougar bench for the game. She bounced nervously as she waited for the pre-game festivities to end and the game to begin.
Pete walked up to the anxious rookie. “Calm down,” she placed both hands on Sherry’s shoulders, gently exhorting pressure until the rookie stilled.
Sherry looked at her teammate, “aren’t you nervous?”
“Terrified,” Pete grinned.
“Then how can you be so calm?”
“Because I trust Coach. If she says we can win, then we can win. Besides, the worst thing you can do is let them,” she looked over her shoulder at the Miami players gathered at the other end of the court, “know you nervous. Look at Coach,” she instructed. “See how calm she looks?”
“Don’t you think she’s nervous? I bet she’s got butterflies inside her butterflies. But she’s not going to let anyone else know that. Now, look at the Miami coach. I bet he’s had to change his shorts three times already.”
Sherry laughed but she saw what Pete was talking about. The Miami coach was pacing up and down in front of the team’s bench, his jacket already off and his shirt stained with nervous sweat. Pat stood calmly at the end of the Cougar bench, a smile on her face as she exchanged pleasantries with the games officials.
“You show them you’re ready to play from the get-go and let them be nervous,” Pete removed her hands from Sherry’s shoulders. “Confidence, rookie. We’re here to win and we don’t care who or what we have to run over to do it. Got it?”
“Got it,” Sherry nodded, much more relaxed than she had been just moments before.
“Good,” Pete smiled. “Because I want that trophy. Not so much for me, but for Coach and Kinsey. They’ve earned it.”
Sherry smiled, thinking how true her friend’s words were. “Then let’s make sure they get it,” she said determinedly.
“Now, that’s the spirit.”
“And now the starting line-up for the Missoula Cougars,” the arena announcer’s voice boomed over the crowd’s cheers. “Starting at Forward, Valerie Jensen,” the announcer waiting for Val to trot onto the court. “Starting at Low Post, Antonia Jessep,” again a pause while Tonie joined her teammate. “Starting at High Post, Terry Peters… Starting at guard, Diane Sundee.”
Pete trotted out to her teammates, slapping high-fives with the others.
“Starting at guard, Sherry Gallagher,” the announcer had to shout to be heard as the arena reverberated with cheers for the rookie player. “And the Cougars captain, Kinsey Donaldson.”
Hearing her name announced, Kinsey looked up in surprise at Pat standing in front of her.
“I told you if we made it this far, you’d be here as one of us. I meant it.” Pat pulled Kinsey to her feet, pushing her out onto the floor to join the other starters. Even though she’d made the offer to the team on several occasions, they had never voted in another captain. Kinsey was the only Cougar whose uniform bore the capital ‘C’ designating that honor.
“Coaching the Missoula Cougars, Pat Calvin,” the announcer made his final introduction.
Pat waved to the crowd, acknowledging the numerous chants of ‘Kodak, Kodak, Kodak’. It was apparent that many Missoula fans had made the trip to Denver to support their team.
After the singing of the national anthem, the Missoula starters trotted over to shake hands with the Miami starters.
Kinsey walked back to the bench, a huge smile on her face, all the pain and frustration over her early retirement having been wiped away by her coach’s unanticipated gesture.
Sherry stretched her hand out to the Miami player she would be playing against. Feeling the player’s damp skin, she grinned. “Good luck,” she said as she looked into the player’s eyes. She was startled to see nervousness tinged with fear reflecting back at her. Releasing the clammy hand, she walked up to Pete. “You were right,” she said. “She’s as nervous as a cat on a hot, tin roof.”
“Hmm,” Pete smirked. “Sounds like a good title for a book.”
Sherry swatted at the other guard’s arm. “It’s the best I could come up with under the circumstances.”
Pete laughed. “Of course, she’s nervous. She has to guard the Rookie of the Year. Now that you know that, show why you are. Hey, huddle up,” she called to Val, Tonie and Terry.
“Don’t you want them over here?” Marcie asked when she saw the Cougars gathering on the court while the Miami players huddled around their coach.
“I’ve said all I can to them,” Pat told her assistant coach. “It’s up to them now.”
“I want that trophy,” Pete told her teammates. “I’ve earned it and I want it. This team has nothing on us. We’re faster. We’re smarter. We’re the better team. I don’t give a shit what they come out playing. I don’t care how many different defenses they throw up against us. I don’t care how many fancy plays they’ve designed to confuse us. We’re going to play OUR game. Not theirs. If you see something new, slow down and take your time to figure it out before you make a stupid mistake. If we control the ball and we play the game that got us here, we can’t lose. Now,” she smiled at the four faces staring back at her. “Let’s go win us a trophy.”
Continued in Part 11
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