Chapter 1: Home Sweet Home
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 16th
The headlights glistened against the newly fallen snow as I pulled into the driveway of my old home. The house looked just the same as it had when I'd left, except the basketball hoop in the front yard was gone and was replaced by a small oak tree that was bare of leaves. The sight was somewhat disconcerting to me, and I found myself wondering when and why Dad had gotten that done.
The drive back from Chapel Hill had been a long one—a countless number of hours on the road with just my own company, a CD player, and traffic. Since I'd started college at the University of North Carolina three years ago, I'd hardly found time to come home except on holidays—to tell the complete truth, there really wasn't much time for UNC's starting point guard to even get away from campus—and now here I was, sitting alone in my car in my old driveway, on Christmas vacation.
It had been against my father's will to go to college in North Carolina, so far away from home. No, Eugene, Oregon wasn't my home—it was a prison. My father, Jim Palmer, had been the head coach of the University of Oregon Ducks—the local college basketball team and Dad's lifeline—for over six years now, and since he had started, it had been all his one track mind could handle. The importance of Eugene's most prized possession (yes, the citizens of a small college town do tend to search for something to cling to, and since Dad had arrived at the University of Oregon, basketball had been it) did seem to outweigh that of a, at the time, seventeen-year-old daughter, but the way the transition happened still mystified me. My father seemed perfectly happy though and, bitterness aside, I suppose I was happy for all that he'd accomplished.
That wasn't quite me, though. I had the feeling that Dad planned on staying in that dreadful waste bin of a city for the rest of his life—that, frankly, was not quite what I had in mind. I wanted to do something special with my life; something I'd be remembered for. Something that would get me far away from the black hole that was Eugene, Oregon, and everything in it. Unfortunately, that was exactly the problem. I was going on twenty-three years old—being senior at UNC—and I had not the slightest idea what I wanted to do with myself.
I guess you could say that I'd always been a fairly independent person, never relying on anyone but myself if I could keep it that way. I think that started when my mother walked out on Dad and me when I was seven. Dad had been struggling as a high school coach at the time, and apparently the stress of never having enough money got to her, and after months of constant arguing, she'd slammed the door behind her and was never seen again. She had wanted me to come to a distant country called "Pennsylvania" with her (remember, I was only seven), but I'd wanted to stay with Coach. I'd always been a daddy's girl—up until a few years ago, that is. He was my father, always the big, brave hero. I'm Hayden, the wandering daughter.
Finally I pulled my keys out of the ignition and stepped out into the chillingly cold night air. I wrapped my arms around myself and stood watching my iridescent breath lofting toward our house. My attention then turned to the large white split-level with the luminous gabled windows, so like eyes, staring back at me. It was so very familiar, yet still so utterly surreal. As I looked, a flood of memories rushed back at me. My father and I sitting on the porch eating ice cream while he regaled to me basketball "war stories" from when he was young, my father pushing me on the tire swing that still hung from the tall oak tree in our back yard, my father teaching me how to dribble and cheering for me when I made my first basket. Basketball had always been my life, and that was all because of him.
The cold wind was chilling me to the bone, so finally I locked the doors to my silver Mustang—my pride and joy; testimony that slaving over a grease pan for two years at KFC pays off—and walked up to the doorway. I hesitated for a second or two, collecting my thoughts, and then finally rung the bell. I could hear the sound of footsteps coming from inside and could see his shadow through the glass window that was stationed beside the doorway. I heard the sound of the door unlocking, and taking a breath to dispel my nervousness, I waited as it opened.
"Hayden! You didn't tell me you would be getting here this soon! I wasn't expecting you until at least midnight," the man at the door announced, pulling me into his arms in delight. My father was not a big man, standing at about 5'10, with a head full of thick light brown hair that, after forty-nine years, was finally streaked with grey. Being a man with a reputation of being "hard as a rock", he had never really been one to show affection. When I was younger, I had been the only one with the ability to break through his façade—I was his soft spot. I can't rightly say when and why that all changed, but the fact of the matter was that it had, and his abnormally warm welcome couldn't help but make me feel uneasy.
"My cell phone battery died—I was going to call you as soon as I got on the road," I said. "How are you doing, Dad?"
"Almost one-hundred percent," he answered, looking me over. "You look great, Hayden!"
"Well, don't just stand there, come in!" he said enthusiastically, and I tried to push aside the all too present feeling of nostalgia as he lead me into the familiar hallway filled with framed pictures of me as a child on the walls and closed the door behind me. I followed his retreating form past the kitchen and into the living room where a fire was burning brightly in the fireplace.
"How's college, dear?" he asked after we were both situated on the couch.
"Great," I replied, studying him warily. His overbearingly animated attitude was bothering me...it was too uncharacteristic of him to be acting the way he was. "How's the team?"
"They've gotten a good start—undefeated so far. Ah…Hayden, there's something I'd like to talk to you about…" And this would be the reason for his drastic change in attitude, I thought to myself, the anger senses going off at an alarming rate in my brain. I just walked in the door and he's already going to get on my back for not coming home enough…
"Dad, look, if this is anything about college…" I began indignantly.
"No, no, that's not it at all!" Dad interjected. "I wanted to talk to you about the team."
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "What about it?"
"Well, you see I got a letter from your Uncle James…" he said, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and handing it to me. I looked over it for a minute, feeling my eyes widening in surprise as I read.
"James is getting married?" I asked.
"Yes, this Friday. You see, I need to fly into Salt Lake City tomorrow morning, but the team still needs to practice if they're going to win on Sunday afternoon. As of now we don't have a coach, and since you're home for a couple weeks, I was wondering if you could take over for me until I get back."
I stared at him in shock. He wanted me to coach his team—the people I'd not known but still hated ever since his new job had made our relationship fall apart? My unknown adversaries; and he wanted me to be a part of them?
"Dad! I did not come here to waste my Christmas coaching your basketball team—they're you're responsibility, not mine," I said when I regained the ability to speak. The idea was ludicrous to the point of almost being comical.
"Well, it's not actually…coaching, per se. It would be more like watching. All you have to do is tell them what to do, and they'll do it. They're a very disciplined bunch. Won't you even take the time to think it over?" he pleaded.
I raised my eyebrows at him. Simply stated: "No."
"But you're on break! You have nothing else to do—your uncle's wedding is important!"
"If it was so "important" then why am I not going? You haven't talked to James in years, Dad!" And that was true. My father had never shown much expertise in family relations. Perhaps I should have felt a bit of remorse for my dear Uncle James, as truly I could relate to his position, but at the moment I could only be angry with him for deciding to get married and putting such ridiculous notions into my father's aging head.
"He's still my brother! I can't just not show up!"
"You've made a commitment to the team, Dad!"
"I've made a commitment to your uncle!"
And you made a commitment to me, too, Dad, I thought dryly to myself. And just look where it's gotten us. Sweeping away my thoughts with the efficiency of a high-powered vacuum, I stared straight into his piercing almond eyes – the exact same shade as mine, I noted with disapproval – and said, "Well, you're going to have to choose because I am not doing this for you! Sure, I love to play as much as the next person, but I am not a coach, and I really don't care one way or the other about your basketball team!"
"Shut up, Dad," I said quietly, irked to no end at his use of my childhood nickname. It had been used as an endearment then. Now, it only meant he wanted something. "I just came home for Christmas! I'm not going to waste my break taking on your responsibility for you just because you have commitment issues!"
Again, our home was in an uproar. Every time I came home we seemed to find ourselves in a heated argument over something—but this time it was different. My uncle was getting married, I wasn't invited, my father made one commitment too many, and I was stuck with the only thing basketball-related that I truly couldn't stand. The Oregon Ducks basketball team...because it was Dad-related.
"It's not a waste, Hayden. It can be fun, if you let it! I'm sure you'll be compatible with all the guys, they're high class! Besides, you don't know what you're going to do with your life, do you? You may find that you like coaching, just like I did! Give it a shot!" I groaned—my father was persistent.
"But I'm not like you, Dad! I've been trying to tell you that for years!"
He fell silent for a moment, as if he were actually considering my comment, and I found myself wondering feebly if Hell really had, in fact, frozen over here in Eugene, Oregon. "You're right," he said finally. "We are different, but can't we put those differences behind us? I need you now, Hayden. Please."
I sighed softly, inwardly kicking myself for succumbing to my own wishful thinking. Of course he wasn't going to be the one to relent. It would be me, just as it always had been. "Listen," I said, though I couldn't help but chuckle to myself at the prospect, "even if I do decide to do this, how will I get your guys to listen? I mean there's no way they'll ever take me seriously. I have no experience whatsoever…sure, I've played ever since I was a little girl, but coaching…that's a whole different story."
"They'll listen, hun, you just need to show them that you have authority over them. Show off a little. Prove to them that you know everything there is to know about the game. If that doesn't work, you can always let them know who you are – they certainly wouldn't challenge you if they know you're my daughter."
"What do you want me to do, take them each one-on-one? And I don't know everything there is to know about the game…I'm not that good, Dad." I had to guess that that statement had some truth to it. I'd always had an uncanny knack on the basketball court, ever since I could remember. When I was little, Dad and I would go outside and shoot around for hours and hours on end. That progressed into playing for numerous summer league teams, starting varsity as a freshman in high school, and by the time I'd committed to UNC, I was one of the most highly touted recruits in the state. Now, with three years of experience under my belt, I was estimated to have a breakout year, even topping my stats from last year of sixteen points and six assists per game.
"Hayden, just give it a shot, please? I can't back out on your uncle now."
"And so you're backing out on me?" Not that I can expect any different anymore, I noted sadly. Just as always, Dad – if you're anything, at least you're consistent.
"It will only be a week—plus I'll be back on Sunday in time for the game. All you have to do are the drills that I've written down in my playbook for you…" he explained.
So he'd known all along that I'd give in! He'd already written down my orders!
"…The guys will love you. It's just for a week, it's not like I'm hiring you on my staff…"
"What about the guys on your staff? Why can't they run the practices while you're gone?" I demanded, suddenly feeling enlightened, and my father sighed.
"I gave them Christmas week off."
Inwardly shook my head, fighting to clear away the nonsense I was hearing coming out of my father's mouth. He gave his staff the week off and left the team in my hands? He must be getting far more senile than I had realized!
"If you really hate it, you can just…call me on my cell phone, I guess, and I'll try and get one of my guys to come in and take your place. Just give it a chance, please?"
"All right, fine, I'll do it! Just leave me alone about it!" I relented – just as I'd successfully predicted I would – with a groan. The fight had gone out of me—there was just no point in arguing if he was inevitably going to win anyway.
"See, I knew you'd come to your senses! Don't worry; I'm sure everything will go fine. Let's see, I guess I should give you a little background here…" he said, pulling a small paperback book out of the magazine rack and handing it to me. I looked it over—"Official Media Guide of Oregon Basketball".
"I don't like to brag, but I do have to admit that we have the best backcourt game in the PAC-10. All right—this here is our starting point guard, Luke Welling, a junior. Goes by "Wells". He's got to be one of the best points in the nation—you two should play one-on-one sometime. He's originally from Blaine, Washington—he was a McDonald's All-American, and was very highly recruited," he paused a moment and stared into space with a cringe, as if remembering just how harrowing the recruiting process really was. "Anyway, he knows what he's doing, and he runs the show almost better than I do, you can trust him. Real humble, good background, very polite…hmm, what else…oh, and he carries around a basketball wherever he goes. He's a young Pistol Pete," he explained, and I studied the black and white print of the point guard's face. He was cradling a basketball in his right arm, and the smile on his face was confident. I could almost sense his enthusiasm for the game by just looking at him.
"Okay?" Dad cut in, and I looked up at him.
"Oh, yeah, okay…go ahead," I mumbled, waving a hand at him to continue.
"This guy here is our wingman/small forward, Luke Jacobson, also a junior…"
"Whoa, wait a second," I said, holding up a hand. "I don't mean to interrupt, but you have two "Luke's" on your team?"
"Yep, don't worry about it though – they typically go by their nicknames. Jacobson goes by "LJ" most of the time. He's buddies with Wells – they're almost inseparable, which I guess can cause a bit of confusion about which Luke is which since they're always together. Don't worry though, you'll get used to it," he added quickly, I suppose in attempt to ease my skepticism. "Anyway, he's from Creswell, Oregon, which is only a couple hours from here. Let's see…he's also a good leader, he, Wells, and Adam Morrison are our main go-to guys, and LJ's one of the nation's leading rebounders, as well as sixth in the PAC-10 in scoring at about fifteen points a game. Let's see…he can be kind of rambunctious, and loves to joke around, but he's a good guy nonetheless."
I nodded, studying this time the face of the team's other Luke. His grin was full of life, and it looked as if someone had been distracting him at the time the photo was taken, because his head was turned slightly to his left and he looked to be laughing. Although I couldn't tell the color because of the awful resolution of the picture, I noticed that he and Welling as well boasted a head full of somewhat shaggy curls.
"Now Adam Morrison, a junior, our other wingman, transferred here from Marquette University last year, so this is his first year to actually play for us since he had to redshirt last year—he was originally from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. He's a real talent, and has made some real contributions to the program—he's first in the PAC-10 in 3-point shooting, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is outstanding. He plays his position like a point guard that has an amazing jump shot—he's got to be one of the toughest guys I know, and shares the duty of leading the team with Wells, even though it's only his second year in the program.
"He also hangs around with Wells and LJ, so you'll be seeing the three of them together a lot. It's nice having our backcourt comprised of three kids who get along so well, the chemistry's really great – actually the three of them (both Lukes and Adam, I mean), along with DeMario Mason, who I'll get to in a minute, just bought themselves a house about this time last year. Anyway, back to Adam, he's also a good guy, has a lot of the same qualities as Wells as far as leadership goes…he's got a really warmhearted personality—I'm sure you two would get along well."
Adam Morrison's picture—horrible resolution and all—was outstanding. You could almost see a twinkle in his eye, if you looked hard enough. Like Wells, he had a basketball cradled in his arms, and like LJ, he seemed to have been distracted by someone when the picture was being taken. I could almost hear the young man's laughter through the picture.
"What? Sorry…I just…never mind, go ahead," I apologized, feeling somewhat embarrassed, as I realized that my face had somehow gotten positioned only a few inches away from the page as I'd tried to make out all of the shooting guard's facial features.
"Now DeMario Mason, our 6'5" freshman forward…"
To make a long story short, this continued until I had been introduced to the pictures of DeMario Mason (who, I swear, was an Eddie Murphy look-alike), the remaining starter, senior center Michael Bruce (who, quite frankly, resembled the stereotypical gangster), and the notable subs, forward Ian Wyatt the Australian sophomore, diminutive sophomore point guard Ryan Robertson, and the 6'10 freshman guard in a forward's body, Zeke Novak, and Dad had proceeded to go back to Welling, Jacobson, and Morrison and tell me the life story of each. Seriously, Dad, did you really need to tell me every single thing that Luke Welling has ever accomplished in his life, or are you just trying to rub it in my face that you think you've found someone better than me? I think he would have continued to ramble had I not let out an elaborate yawn.
"Well, okay, I guess that's all you need to know." Thank you, God. "Now one more thing, Hayden: try not to get too close to any of my guys, okay? After this week, unless you change your mind about staying, you'll probably never see any of them again, and plus, it could hurt the team. We don't want anyone left brokenhearted, do we?"
I quickly looked to him in disgust, startled at the absolute ridiculousness of such a suggestion. "Dad, please! I'm not a little kid anymore, and I certainly have no intention of getting even the slightest bit close to any of them." Or even speaking to them, if I can keep from it, I added silently.
"That's my girl!" he said proudly. "Now how about some dinner?"
I nodded, for really what else was there that I could do? So now I was committed. Let the fun begin.