This story is a sequel to my stories , Fast Break and Footsteps (Ghost Towning) . You may want to read the preceding stories before reading this one. Fast Break and Footsteps (Ghost Towning) can be found on my on my website – mickeyminner.com
At precisely 8 AM, Pat walked into the locker room. With Sherry, Kelley, and the roster players already out on the court, the locker seemed abnormally empty with only a small cluster of restless rookies nervously waiting for her to address them. Moving purposely to the front of the room, she could feel the tense energy coming from the players. Stopping to stand directly in front of the list of neatly printed names in the center of the wall of white boards, she turned to face them. “Good morning,” she greeted.
“Morning, Coach,” came the immediate but apprehensive response.
“Not too many of you left,” Pat told the rookies what they already knew then paused a moment to take in the fretful nods of agreement from all but one.
Jackson sat separated from the others in the last row of folding chairs that were used only for the duration of training camp. She was gazing back at Pat with a resolute look fixed on her face.
“You should be proud that you've made it this far,” Pat said with a smile. “But, unfortunately, at the end of today, most of you won't make it onto the roster,” she continued more seriously. “You've had good days… and you've had bad days. Now, you're down to your last day. This is it… one final day to prove to me that you can play for the Cougars. Or that you can't.” She took the time to meet each of the rookies' eyes noting the determination in some and the indecision in others. Mentally, she compared the varying responses with the list on her desk of the players she expected to survive the day. She was pleased to note that their attitudes were matching well with her list.
“Today, you will have the opportunity to show me how well you can work to accomplish a goal. And on this team, we have only one goal and that is to win. This morning, we will be focusing on a special half court drill that will show me how willing you are to work with your teammates. This afternoon, we will run a full court, true game scrimmage. That means the clock will be running and play will be officiated. In both sessions, you will be playing against the roster players. And, believe me, they will not take it easy on you so you're going to give everything you've got to impress me.” Pat smiled as the rookies glanced at each other as if to gauge their chances at besting their others. “Questions?”
“I have one,” Jackson said casually.
“Will you be on the court today?”
Pat's eyes focused on the rookie. “No,” she answered. “Today, my job will be to assess your play and your attitude,” she spoke directly to the talented but antagonistic player. “And to determine if you will be a good match to this team. I can't do that from the court.”
“Too bad,” Jackson replied, her eyes holding the coach's glare.
“You want your chance at me, Jackson?” Pat challenged the audacious rookie.
Jackson grinned. “Yeah… I do.”
“Then I suggest you do whatever it takes to make sure your name is still up here,” Pat gestured over her shoulder at the white board behind her, “at the end of the day. Now, if that's the only question, let's get out there and play some basketball.”
“Yes, Coach,” the rookie's shouted jumping up and running through the door into the corridor.
Pat was surprised to see Jackson race from the room with the others. Today should be interesting , she told herself before following the rookies out of the locker room.
Kelley and Sherry were standing at the end of the court talking when the rookies burst out from the corridor. Kelley blew a quick blast on her whistle to stop them from advancing onto the court. “Dimchek, Jackson, Hudson, and Killen you're on the court. The rest of you on the bench,” she instructed pointing to the sideline where the roster players were already seated and waiting. “Pete, Jade, Val, and Latesha, you're up first,” she called out.
Pat walked to the free throw line as Pete and the other roster players took positions evenly separated inside the three point arc. “Dimchek, there,” she directed pointing to a position on the floor outside the arc. “ Hudson , there. Killen, there. Jackson , there. You will need to work together to get the ball into the basket,” she instructed the rookies as they took their positions. “One rule… you cannot dribble. That means passing. Sharp, accurate, quick movement of the ball will be the only way to get it to an open teammate. And to be open, you will have to move… and keep moving. I don't want to see anyone standing around waiting for the ball to be passed to them.”
Sherry, having retrieved a ball from a cart, flipped it to Pat.
“Got it?” Pat asked the players. Without waiting for an answer, she slapped the ball and fired it to Hudson who was instantly guarded by Pete. Pat backpedaled to the end line then stood there to watch the players.
Hudson passed the ball to her right where Dimchek had managed to free herself from Val's close defense.
Dimchek caught the pass and immediately fired the ball to her right where Killen was running toward the basket.
Jade quickly cut Killen off before she could reach the key. Unable to shoot over Jade's outstretched hands, Killen passed back to Dimchek.
With her elbow, Jackson shoved Latesha back then spun around putting herself between her guard and the basket.
Dimchek swung the ball around Val, passing it to Jackson.
Grabbing the pass, Jackson turned to the basket and shot an easy six foot jumper.
“No basket,” Pat snapped snagging the ball after it dropped through the net. “You pushed off, Jackson. That's a foul. You've got to get around your defender cleanly,” she instructed the rookie. “Let's do it again.” She slapped the ball then passed it back to Hudson.
Hudson caught the pass then attempted a head fake on Pete. “Damn,” she muttered when the smiling veteran maintained her position. Frustrated, she passed the ball to Jackson.
Jackson fired it right back to Hudson who threw it to Dimchek.
Dimchek faked a pass to Killen who was running toward the basket with Jade right behind her. Seeing Latesha start to cheat over to help out on Killen, Dimchek passed to Jackson.
Jackson caught the pass and looked at the basket. Latesha immediately moved back into position while Pete faded over to double team Jackson. Jackson tossed the ball to a now undefended Hudson.
Without hesitating, Hudson jumped into the air and let loose a twenty foot jump shot.
Pat watched the ball drop cleanly through the hoop and gathered it up. “Latesha, next time make sure Jade needs your help... she was between Killen and the ball. There was no way she was going to have a play. Pete, you left your player too open. Don't do it again.” She tossed the ball back to Hudson. “Nice shot.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Hudson said catching the pass while smirking at Pete.
“The day is young, rookie,” Pete warned.
“Let's go,” Pat shouted.
Hudson smacked the ball then before she could pass it off, Pete had moved out on her, guarding her close. Hudson spun to the left but Pete stayed with her, her hands moving rapidly in an attempt to slap the ball free. Hudson spun back around to the right but again found herself again closely guarded.
Pat blew her whistle. “Pete, that's not what we're here for,” she gently scolded her veteran guard while fighting the smile that threatened to appear on her face.
“Right, Coach,” Pete said grinning at Hudson as she backed off a couple of feet. “Not so cocky now, are you?”
“Okay, Hudson, let's try it again,” Pat called out.
Lizzie had been sitting several rows up in the stands as she watched the action on the court. She was looking for any signs of injuries that players might be hiding from their coach. She noted that some of the rookies were looking winded and was glad to hear Kelley call out a new rotation.
Sherry trotted off the court with the others. Grabbing her water bottle, she continued to the steps and, running up two at a time, moved quickly up to where Lizzie sat. “Hi,” she said dropping into the seat next to the team's trainer.
“Hi,” Lizzie answered with a smile. “You look tired.”
Sherry swallowed a mouthful of water. “Exhausted. I sure don't remember camp being so draining.”
Lizzie laughed. “I think you might have been too focused on something else last year.”
“There's some good talent down there,” Lizzie said changing the conversation back to the court and off the coach's personal life.
“Sure is. I think Pat will have a hard time making the final cuts today.”
“Knowing Coach, she already has them done in her mind. Today is just her way of convincing herself that she's keeping the right ones.”
“Hmmm.” Sherry sucked another swallow from her water bottle.
“So who is she keeping?”
Sherry shrugged. “Don't know. She hasn't told me.”
Sherry nodded. “Yeah. We have a coaches' meeting during lunch to discuss Kelley and my thoughts. She said she'll make her final decision during this afternoon's play.”
“I don't envy you gals,” Lizzie commented. “On the one hand, you'll make a few players really happy. But, on the other…”
“We'll destroy dreams,” Sherry acknowledged with a frown. “I know… I never thought about it before but there are some things that make being a coach really sucky.”
“Dimchek's winded again. Heck, she's only been on the court as long as I've been sitting here. I guess she hasn't adjusted to the altitude yet. She's a good player and I really hope that doesn't stop Pat from keeping her.”
Lizzie watched the rookie for a few minutes. “Pull her out. Let me talk to her.”
Sherry looked at the trainer. “You know what's wrong?”
“I have an idea.”
“Okay,” Sherry said pushing herself up from the cushioned seat. “I'll send her your way,” she told the trainer as she started back down the steps to the arena floor.
Lizzie watched as Sherry spoke to Dimchek at the side of the court. The rookie turned to look up at her, her face a mixture of curiosity and concern. She continued to watch as Dimchek nodded to Sherry then turned away from the assistant coach and toward the steps.
“Um,” Dimchek said when she reached Lizzie. “Coach said you wanted to talk to me.”
Lizzie smiled. “Sit. I'm not a coach, I don't bite.”
Dimchek grinned nervously. “Good to know,” she said lowering her tall body into the less than adequate seat and then tried to fold her long legs into the narrow space between the rows.
“These aren't meant for long legs,” Lizzie said as she watched the rookie struggle to find a comfortable position. “Do what Coach does, hang them over the seat in front.”
Dimchek followed the trainer's suggestion then sighed happily when she found that made sitting more comfortable. “How do the fans sit in these for an entire game?” she asked relaxing against the seat back.
“Sad to say, but Mac isn't as worried about comfort as she is about squeezing in more ticket buyers.” Lizzie waited a moment then asked, “Have you caught your breath, yet?”
“You were looking pretty winded down there,” Lizzie explained.
“I'm okay,” the rookie insisted. “Just getting used to… things.”
“You're in good shape, Sophia. You're strong and you're used to running up and down the court for forty minutes without a break. I make it my business to know players' capabilities,” she explained when the rookie stared at her suspiciously. “It helps to me to know when they're hiding injuries.”
“I'm not injured.”
“I know. What I don't know is if you are aware that you have a bad habit of holding your breath when you're on the court.”
“Whenever you're concentrating on something… a particular move, shooting, whatever, you hold your breath. Even working out in the weight room, you'll do several repetitions without breathing. You even did it when you walked up the steps just now. Sophia, you're starving your muscles of the oxygen they need and that's not good… especially here where we're almost four thousand feet up. It's what's pooping you out.”
“I'm not pooped out,” Dimchek countered angrily.
“Getting mad won't get you a place on this team,” Lizzie calmly told the rookie. “Now, you have two choices… don't listen to me, go back down there, and at the end of the day you'll find your name erased because you can't stay on the court more than a few minutes at a time. Something I assure you Coach won't put up with. Or, listen to what I'm telling you and, in the time you have left today, change what you're doing.”
Dimchek frowned. “How?” she muttered.
Seeing that the player seemed to be struggling with her thoughts, Lizzie waited quietly.
Dimchek took a deep breath then concentrated on releasing it slowly as she thought about what the trainer had just told her. Over the next several minutes, she took several more measured breaths. “I've always done it,” she finally admitted. “I've tried not to but I can't seem to find a way,” she said dejectedly.
Lizzie reached a hand out and patting the rookie encouragingly on the knee. “You just need to change what you're concentrating on,” she suggested withdrawing her hand. “You're a good player and you've developed some good moves over the years. Trust that they'll come naturally for you and concentrate on breathing.”
“I'm not sure I can.”
“I doubt you can break the habit completely because it's part of you. But, be aware it's happening and when it does—breathe.” Lizzie grinned. “Your muscles will thank you. And your energy will last longer.”
Dimchek looked at Lizzie then turned her head to look down to the court where the players were working hard to impress Pat. “I guess I've got nothing to lose,” she said retracting her legs from their resting place on the seat back in front of her. She stood up. “Thanks,” she told Lizzie before turning away.
“Sophia,” Lizzie called to the rookie.
“We wouldn't be having this conversation if I didn't think you'd be around after today. Coach likes you. Now is your chance to show that you can do whatever you need to do to help the team.”
Dimchek stood for a moment digesting the meaning behind Lizzie's words. Then she nodded, turned and bounced down the steps to the court.
“Okay, let's hear your thoughts,” Pat said as she led Sherry and Kelley into her office. She dropped her clipboard onto her desk as she walked directly to the table where their lunches had been left to claim a plate.
“Killen, Dimchek, Hudson are shoe-ins,” Kelley said placing her clipboard on a chair before moving to the table.
“I agree,” Sherry said picking a ham sandwich off another plate. “Wilson and Karam would make good reserves,” she added after taking a bite.
“I don't know,” Kelley objected. “They're struggling.”
“They're good players,” Sherry countered sitting down and balancing her plate on her lap. “Yes, they're a little green. But they played at small colleges and didn't see too much competition at this level. I think with time to gain that experience, they would fit in well.”
“I agree with Killen, Dimchek, and Hudson,” Pat said placing check marks on her list next to the players' names. “I'll have to see how Karam and Wilson do this afternoon. What about Jackson?”
“She's good,” Sherry commented. “But her attitude…”
“Kelley?” Pat asked of the coach who had recruited the rookie.
“Dammit, Coach, for the life of me, I can't make up my mind. One minute, I think she has what we need. Then the next, I'm ready to kick her butt out the door.”
Pat nodded. “Yep, she's a frustrating one. We could use her at post… she's strong enough to not be intimidated.”
“But?” Sherry asked.
“She reminds me a lot of someone else,” Pat answered.
Sherry grinned. “True. But, in the end, Dawn turned out okay. And, there's one good thing about Jackson.”
“She hasn't tried to dump me on my head,” Sherry said grimacing.
“That's true. She hasn't tried to prove she's better than the others by doing damage,” Kelley agreed. “But I still think I'm leaving that decision up to you, Coach, I just can't make up my mind on Jackson.”
“Fair enough. Sherry?”
“She's strong. She knows what she's doing. She's been trying hard and she's been listening. Ashley and Toney have been talking about this being their last year. We definitely need someone to fill that void if they do retire.”
“You think we should make her a reserve?” Pat asked.
“She won't sit the bench,” Kelley declared. “I doubt she'd even sign a contract if she knew that's what you had planned for her.”
Pat grinned. “Who says we have to tell her?”
“You know reserve players don't get paid the same,” Kelley snapped. “She'll know.”
“Calm down,” Pat told her assistant. “You know I won't lie to a player about that. I'll give Jackson credit trying but I admit I have doubts too. And I only have two open spots for active players. If I had to make a decision right now, those spots would go to Dimchek and Hudson. So if Jackson won't sit the bench then maybe we shouldn't be wasting time discussing her.”
Sherry swallowed the last of her sandwich. “You should talk to her,” she told Pat. “She's too good of a player to let one of our competitors sign. I'd rather have her on our bench then have to play against her. And she just might surprise you.”
Pat looked at her list of players. “Are they any others we need to talk about?” When both Kelley and Sherry shook their heads, she picked up a pen and started crossing off names. “Okay, let's see what they do in the scrimmage,” she said putting the pen down and picking up her sandwich.
To Be Continued...
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