Breathing heavily, I leaned over, resting my hands on my knees. Taking a quick sip of water from my bottle, I glanced towards my coach, trying to pay attention to what he was saying.
"Where the hell is the defence, girls? I see five basketball players in front of me drenched in sweat, when out there on that court I'm seeing five lazy ass girls watching that ball pass by them without a second thought. Arms up, heads in the game, and keep the wall solid, you hear me? Nothing gets by. Nothing."
Nodding my head, I looked around to find my teammates eyes now upon me. My coach looked at me expectantly. I straightened up and pushed my hair back out of my eyes.
"Alright, we're down by five points and I reckon that team of stuck-up snobs over there think that they've got this game. Three minutes left, they're thinking, what the heck can those girls do in three minutes?"
I said this calmly, trying to make light of a situation that was heavy with stress, fear, and pressure. All around us, screaming and cheering, were the students of Dallington High School. The bleachers encircled almost the entire gym, and there was not an empty seat to be seen. The bright lights of the gymnasium shone off of what could have been around 800 pairs of eyes, most of which were staring down at our small huddle in anticipation. Trying to block out the noise around me, I leaned forward, and I let a grin spread over my face.
"I'll tell you what we can do in three minutes. We can shove that scoreboard up their snotty, private-schooled noses and show them how a basketball game is really won!"
Seeing them smile at this, I felt the tension ease. It was still there, as thick and stifling as ever, but we could breathe now. Taking a turn to look each of my teammates in the eye, I could tell they were losing concentration under the pressure. Dannie Willington, our centre, and the tallest girl on our team at exactly six foot, was looking very pale and although she was smiling, her eyes held defeat. Julie O'Connor, our shooting guard, who had always been quiet, was staring up at the crowd, looking very sick. Maya Fitzgerald, our power forward, was doing her best to keep smiling, although her hands were shaking and she was also watching the crowd. Standing next to me, and grinning as she took in the screams of the crowd and the tension of the moment, was my best friend and our teams small forward, Christie Blackwood. She caught my eye and nudged me with her elbow, snickering as she whispered, "I say, is this inspiring speech number five hundred that I'm hearing?"
I ignored her and raised my voice slightly.
"C'mon girls, you know we can take them! We've just left it until the last three minutes to show that lot," I jerked my thumb backwards toward the bleachers, indicating the crowd, "a game worth cheering for! So how about we give them something to talk about Monday morning? We've won games with less of a chance before. How about we give them something to really scream about?"
My teammates whooped and yelled their agreement, and we all looked towards our coach, who was still looking grim and worried.
"Okay, serious now, we've got the ball, and soon as that whistle blows out there, I don't want to see any of you stop moving. Keep the defence tight, and when on offence, I want to see quick feet and fast passing. Play smart, girls. Taylor, you know the routine, take the lead."
I nodded and began to walk back on the court with my team. As if the world had been on mute, the noise of the crowd suddenly hit me, and it was deafening. Dallington High School took sports very seriously, and basketball was their top sport. Dallington High School did not lose to St. Joseph's Private School for Boys and Girls, as it appeared they were about to.
And so, as I stood in my position, awaiting a pass from Christie, who stood on the sideline, waiting for the referee to blow his whistle, I felt every single pair of eyes in that gym turn to me. I heard the whistle blow as if it were a thousand miles away, and saw Christie make a quick, fake movement as if to pass the ball towards Julie, and then felt her eyes meet mine as she threw a swift pass my way. I felt the girl who was guarding me, a number ten with fast hands, shove against me and pull on my shirt as I moved towards the pass. The ball landed in my hands, and in one fluid movement I was moving down the court, head up, dribbling the ball fast and low.
I held one hand up, indicating the play we were going to use, and moved it down quickly to protect the ball, as number ten had lunged forward threateningly. I spun off of her lunge, and sent a bounce pass to where I knew Christie would be waiting. The other team had a tight defence, and as we moved rapidly through the play of speedy passes and manoeuvres, I desperately searched for an opening. The play depended upon this, and suddenly I saw that opening, unfolding flawlessly before my eyes. Julie and Dannie had both drawn their defenders out towards the left, and Christie had thrown a pass from the top of the key to Maya, who was on my right. Shoving away from number ten, I called out Maya's name as I moved towards the basket. Maya had seen the opening a second after I had, and in on quick pass around her defender, the ball was bouncing into my hands just as I reached the basket, leading into a perfect right handed lay-up, which smoothly hit the backboard and sunk into the hoop.
My teammates screamed their delight, but their reaction was nothing compared with that of the crowd. I grinned, but kept my concentration on the game. The other team had already passed the ball in and were heading down the court. I tore my eyes off of the ball that was coming down the court to quickly check that our defence was ready. Maya guarded the right wing, while Julie covered the left. Dannie stood possessively in the centre of the key, ready to block any shots. I saw Christie out of the corner of my eye, and turned to catch her eye. She nodded, and moved forward two steps.
Watching number ten move forward with the ball, I dropped into a defensive crouch and stepped forward. I saw her eyes flick up, behind me, through the middle, to where her teammate would be standing, motioning for the ball. She quickly moved her eyes back towards me, and our eyes met. She smirked, and moved back slightly, holding one hand up as she bounced the ball- an obvious challenge. The crowd around us hissed with anger at this insult, and the smirk on her face grew. I almost laughed as she drew back for a pass towards her teammate behind me and I saw how easy a steal would be. Already knowing where the ball would go and which path it would follow, I moved quickly to my left as the ball left her fingers, and jumped forward, feeling the ball catch on my outstretched fingers. In the split second that I was in the air, hovering above a stunned looking number ten, I was unaware of everything else around me. But as I landed back on the ground, moving into a fast-paced dribble down the court, I was aware of the crowd around me jumping to their feet, the screams of anticipation growing louder and louder. Looking up, I saw Christie sprinting down the court, ahead of her defender, and launched the ball towards her. It spun through the air and Christie caught it effortlessly, before leading into a left-handed lay-up.
I did not even have to look to know that she had made the shot, as Christie never missed a lay-up. Besides that, it was the noise of the crowd that told me she'd not only made it, but had also added some sort of fancy move, delighting the onlookers.
I shook my head, grinning. Christie could never resist a chance to show off. As I moved back into defence once again, the referee blew his whistle, signalling a time-out that had been called by the other team. Jogging off of the court, I glanced at the clock, where exactly 47.21 seconds had frozen.
The crowd was cheering insanely, and for the first time that night I felt anticipation worm its way into my thoughts. Anything could happen in 47.21 seconds. We could score. They could score. We could win. They could win. And although these thoughts worried me, I couldn't help but let a small smile slide across my face. I lived for this. This moment. Christie thrived on it, but I lived for it. Playing basketball gave me complete happiness, ultimate disappointment, and best of all, pure competition. Pure, straightforward, team against team, competition.
"Damn it, Taylor, get that insane grin off of your face and listen to what I'm saying! You girls can score easily in the time left, but it's the defence that I'm worried about. Do not let them get through. I repeat, do not let them get through. Keep your concentration, keep your eyes on the ball, and stick to the plays. No funny business. I want good, clean basketball out there."
I nodded, trying to keep my attention on what my coach was saying. The buzzer went off loudly, motioning that the time-out was over. Both teams were on the court very quickly, knowing that the next minute would be at the same time painfully long and frustratingly quick. The referee blew his whistle, number ten caught a pass and began to bring the ball down the court, and the crowd was up on its feet, watching the clock and cheering without restraint.
Knees bent, arms spread, I crouched down, keeping my distance from number ten while still remaining close enough to threaten. Once again assessing my opponent, I saw no trace of the confidence her eyes had previously displayed. Sweat trickled down the side of her face, and I could see that she was stalling for time, as she moved backwards and forwards quickly, playing with my defence. Feeling the seconds slipping helplessly through my fingers, irritation formed within me.
47.21 seconds was tough, a real challenge.
And number ten, with a decent dribbling technique, a good shooting form, but an awful, sloppy lay-up, would not be the cause of a failure.
Moving forward, so fast that I did not even have time to register what I was actually doing, and causing number ten to stumble backwards clumsily, attempting to guard the ball, I slammed into the girl, tipping the ball slightly forward with a quick hand. The steal was well practised, and the referee did not call a foul. Surprising, really, as most would have, but that thought had not crossed my mind. The movement succeeded, and number ten lost her control, falling backwards while I raced after the ball, picking it up and moving into a dribble down the court.
I heard Christie whoop loudly behind me, and my other teammates scream out words of encouragement.
I heard my coach at first curse loudly at the steal, and then begin screaming orders at me.
"Keep control, Taylor!"
"Not too fast!"
"Think about the shot!"
The crowd were screaming wildly, jumping up and down and watching my every movement as I moved closer towards the basket.
These things I would only remember afterwards, but in the space of about 2 seconds, as I moved from the steal to the dribble, the world around me numbed, and I was only aware of the basket, the ball, and myself.
Myself, I was tired. My throat was burning, every breath felt like fire. I was drenched in sweat, my jersey plastered to my back. My legs were aching, complaining loudly through their pain.
The basket was new and very shiny. Cleaned and polished until it gleamed in the harsh lights of the gym, it promised glory in an otherwise ugly world.
The ball was new also, bouncing in the sharp, immediate way that only a newly bought basketball could. Its response to my hand was instantaneous, flowing smoothly with me as I approached the basket.
In my mind, I flicked through the many choices I had to attempt my shot. It had to be a lay-up, I decided. They were my specialty, and never failed me. Only paces away from the basket, I moved to the right of the basket, shifting the ball up between my hands. I focused on the basket, moving smoothly into a well-aimed shot, pushing the ball forwards with my outstretched right hand, watching confidently as it spun in the short distance to the backboard… and gasped in pain as a hard body crashed into me, causing me to fly backwards and crash into the hard surface of the brick wall behind the basket. Pain flashed across my mind as my head cracked against the wall, and I fell forwards towards the gymnasium floor. Landing heavily, shock coursed through my body along with a throbbing pain.
Ignoring the pain, I pushed myself up, watching the ball circle lazily around the hoop, drawing out the tense moment in the gymnasium. Every eye on that ball, it hovered carelessly on the edge of the hoop for a split second, and then fell ever so slowly through the netting.
Before the ball could hit the floor, the room exploded. Cheering pulsated off the walls, stamping shook the wooden floor, and screaming vibrated throughout the gymnasium.
A moment later, the buzzer went off, signalling the end of the game, and a win for my team.
I sagged to the ground in relief, happiness coursing through my body. My muscles burned, and a dull ache pounded in my head. And yet nothing could ruin this moment for me. I pushed myself up onto my knees, and saw number ten crouching down near me, breathing hard in exhaustion. I knew it had been her who had so painfully slammed into me, just as I had to her, trying to throw off my shot. She shot me a look of pure hatred and stood up, walking stiffly back to her teammates.
I climbed to my feet, dizziness sweeping over me. Before I could raise a hand to stop them, my team, my coach, and the crowd were jumping around me, slapping me on the back, hugging me, and screaming in delight. I found myself face to face with Christie, and grinned back at her as we shared our excitement.
Ten minutes later, the grin was still on my face, despite the amount of pain I was in, as I pressed an icepack to my head and listened to our slightly angry, and yet delighted, coach trying to reprimand me in the locker room.
"Christ, Taylor, that steal, what were you thinking? It was a damn good steal, I might add, flawless form also… but we're lucky that ref didn't call you on it! It was sloppy playing, that's what it was. Fast hands though, and amazing defence… but don't you ever think about pulling a stunt like that again without my permission!"
I nodded my head, hiding my grin, and murmured my agreement.
Maya grinned and threw her arm around me. "Aw, c'mon coach, it was fucking amazing, that's what it was!"
Dannie, Julie, and Christie all agreed, cheering and jumping around once more. Leaning back against the cool, white brick wall of the too bright locker room, I closed my eyes and tried to finally relax, but the energy of the game was still pumping through my body, and no matter how tired I was, I couldn't sit still.
Standing up, wincing as the world spun around me for a moment, I slung one arm around Julie's shoulders, grabbing my water bottle and saying, "But hey, Julie, was that nine three pointers you sunk this game?"
She laughed softly, ducking her head in modesty. Christie grinned, dancing around us insanely, and Dannie and Maya followed happily.
"See ya later, Coach!" I called out, glancing behind me and smiling.
"Bah, piss off the lot of you! You'll be the death of me, I swear." Coach grumbled, grinning all the same though.
We all laughed, and entered the gym once again.
Some of the crowd had left, but many still remained, talking excitedly and cheering when they saw us. Walking towards the exit of the gymnasium, we laughed and chatted with the students who came up to congratulate us. Many of them I knew, and was smiling happily as I walked along with Christie and Julie. Pushing my hair out of my face, I looked up and met a pair of dark, amused looking eyes.
Lounging on the lower benches of the bleachers right next to the exit was a group of around ten guys, all laughing and joking amongst themselves. They quieted as we approached however, and the owner of those dark eyes stood up slowly.
James Stirling, wearing a black hoodie, dark green basketball shorts, and casual black flip-flops, grinned disarmingly and said in a smug voice, "Nice game, Taylor. Couldn't have fouled that number ten better myself."
I felt Julie tense by my side; it was common knowledge that she had a thing for James.
I grinned back and said just as smugly, "Yeah I know. Don't worry though, I'll teach you the trick someday."
James moved forward, his dark eyes flashing as he grabbed my water bottle, taking a sip. "Watch my next game, Hampton, and you'll learn something yourself."
Christie shoved past him, laughing, and moved to sit down with his group of friends. She started chatting and flirting with them, Dannie and Maya soon joined her, followed by Julie, and soon enough a heated discussion about the game had arisen. Sighing inwardly, I knew I would be waiting for a while.
Looking around me, I noticed girls around the gymnasium shooting looks of jealousy towards us. The group of guys that Christie, Dannie, and Maya just happened to be flirting shamelessly with were the most wanted, best looking guys in our high school. They played basketball, making them the jocks, and they were hot, making them players. And the one standing in front of me, James Stirling, just happened to be the hottest, the most popular, and, I had to admit, a pretty damn good basketball player.
This also made him the most conceited and arrogant, in my opinion.
I sighed again, out loud this time, grabbing my water bottle back and going to sit on the bleachers with my friends. James followed, sitting down next to me and once again taking my water bottle, much to my annoyance.
"Still," James started before I could take my drink back, "That foul was pretty lucky, Hampton. Most refs would have called it, and no wonder that number ten mauled you at the end. You kinda deserved it."
Yanking my water bottle back out of his hands, I turned to him, extremely insulted.
"Excuse me? I deserved it? The foul was risky, yeah, but it was worth it, and I had it covered."
James laughed incredulously, saying "Risky? That foul was down right dangerous. Fuck, could you imagine what would have happened if the ref had called it? Every single student at Dallington would hate you right now."
Leaning forward, he continued, "C'mon, think about it, if I had pulled a stunt like that, Coach would have had me doing sprints for the rest of the night."
I laughed, turning away from him. "I guess you just don't have the guts for something like that. You always did play it safe."
I glanced up at the huge clock in the gym, which read 9:45.
Not giving James a chance to respond, I turned around to Christie, who was in the middle of flirting with an extremely hot guy with dirty blonde hair, saying, "Christie, can we please go now?"
Christie sent me an annoyed look, so quick that I knew no one else would have been able to catch it, and then smiled sweetly saying, "God, could you please learn to drive!"
By this, I knew what was meant. Piss off, Taylor, can't you see how fucking hot this guy is!?
Some best friend she was.
I groaned, turning back around and placing my head, which currently felt as if it were being hit repeatedly with a hammer, in my hands.
"I could give you a lift home." A voice rumbled from beside me.
Knowing the owner of that voice, I searched desperately for an excuse. I did not, under any circumstances, want to be driven home by James Stirling.
"Um, no don't worry about it, I'll just wait for Christie to stop flirting." I said casually, trying to not appear too obvious.
Leaning back, resting on his elbows, he looked at me. "Or, maybe, you just don't want me to drive you home?"
"What!" I exclaimed, faking surprise. "That is so not true, it's just…"
I faltered, seeing that he was laughing at me.
"Don't worry about it, Hampton. As if I care."
Right. Well, that definitely puts me in my place.
15 minutes later, Christie was still openly flirting with the hot guy, Julie, Maya, and Dannie had all left with their parents, people were slowly filtering out of the gym, and James had my water bottle once again.
I silently cursed my parents for being work obsessed and never having time for their only daughter.
Glancing back towards the two flirting, James sighed in annoyance, closing his eyes and resting his head on the wooden step above us. I realized that he was also waiting for his friend, and that by refusing his offer for ride home I had made it so that we were both stuck here.
I looked around me, searching for something to do, and my eyes fell in excitement on the lone basketball hiding behind a trashcan in a corner of the gym.
I stood up quickly and went to get the ball, and moved onto the court to practice my shots. Dribbling the ball slowly, I moved it upwards into my hands, bending my knees and shot it up into a perfect arc, watching it spin and swish almost silently through the netting.
"Nice shot." James commented from his seat across the gym.
"Yeah, I know." I commented back.
"I could do better." He stood up, moving lazily towards me, and motioning for the ball.
Passing him the ball, I laughed at him. "Yeah? Prove it."
He smirked, his eyes brightening at the challenge, and shot easily from where he was standing, making the shot in a completely silent swish.
I moved for the rebound, him following just behind me, and before I knew it an intense game of one on one had begun.
It lasted only a couple of minutes before I heard Christie call out, "C'mon Taylor, I gotta get going now or my parents will kill me."
While I was looking up at Christie, James used my moment of distraction to his advantage and stole the ball, quickly making a shot and therefore, technically, winning the game.
He left the ball where it had fallen and shrugged at me, saying, "You were close, Hampton, maybe next game you'll give me some competition."
Sweating and breathing heavily, just as he was, I gaped at him, unbelieving.
"What! You know that I lost my concentration, and you know that you were losing, Stirling. Tied with a girl, you wouldn't have lasted much longer."
Grabbing my stuff, and he his, we followed Christie and her fellow flirter, who I had remembered was called Michael, out into the dark parking lot.
I couldn't see James' smile in the darkness, but I could hear it in his voice.
"Hampton, you're kidding yourself if you think you had a chance. Next time, and there will be a next time, you'll be hanging off my arm in amazement, just like all the other girls."
I scoffed. "In your dreams. This point guard doesn't hang off any guys' arm."
He moved closer to me, slinging an arm around my shoulders, and whispered softly in my ear, "I could change that."
His breath was warm against my neck, making me shiver, and I shoved him off lightly, feeling slightly unsteady.
"As if you would have a chance," I scoffed, almost angrily. I knew he had done it to annoy me, and yet I still couldn't help but feel troubled at my reaction.
James smirked, obviously aware that he had bothered me, "Nice game tonight, ladies. See you at school, Hampton. You too, Christie."
We had reached Christie's car, the normal dark red colour appearing almost black in the darkness, and I threw my bag into the backseat, before opening the door to climb into the passengers seat.
As Christie said her goodbyes to Michael, no doubt once again flirting, I watched James' dark figure walk out towards Michael's car, on the other side of the parking lot.
I shook my head; I just couldn't understand that boy.
Christie climbed into the car and we drove out of the school grounds, the radio playing as she turned to me and almost shrieked, "Holy shit, Taylor! How HOT is Michael!? I think I like him. Yes, I most definitely do. Do you think he likes me back? I can't wait 'til Monday! And oh my god, James Stirling was looking fine tonight, as usual, and I noticed you guys talking a bunch, what's going on there?"
I laughed at her, "C'mon Christie, of course Michael has a thing for you, you guys were flirting non-stop."
She sighed happily, and turned the radio up, singing along as we drove through the streets to our neighbourhood.
I rested my head on the cool glass of the window, leaning back into the soft seat, and tried to finally relax, wondering at the same time why I had just purposefully avoided the topic of James Stirling with my best friend.