Authors: Matt Christopher,Robert Hirschfeld
Copyright © 2004 by Matt Christopher Royalties, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
First eBook Edition: September 2007
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is a registered trademark of Catherine M. Christopher.
Text by Robert Hirschfeld
For my great-grandson, Travis Chamberlain Howell
— Cay Christopher
hat’s wrong with this picture?
When Julian Pryce was little, he loved the drawings in kids’ magazines with that caption. You’d look at the pictures, and everything would seem normal at first, until you noticed that someone in the picture was floating in the air with his feet off the ground, or wearing one black shoe and one white shoe, or that, though it was daytime, a crescent moon hung in the sky. Maybe there would be a dog in a necktie. Something wouldn’t make sense.
He felt as if he were staring at one of those drawings now. At first glance, the gym looked pretty much like any gym does when a basketball team is getting ready to work out. There were kids scattered here and there, dribbling, shooting jumpers or foul shots, passing basketballs back and forth, stretching, and goofing around. It all seemed just as it should be.
Julian recognized all the sounds, too. Basketballs thumped the floor and swished through nets. Rubber soles of basketball shoes squeaked as players darted around the court. Boys chattered and laughed and clapped their hands. All of these noises rang out in the high-ceilinged room, much as they usually did.
Even the smells were right: the scent of gleaming hardwood floors that had been recently waxed, of kids sweating and straining in a warm room. And yet...
Then he realized what was different. It was the faces. Julian did not see a single familiar face.
It had only been nine months since Julian’s team, the Tornadoes, finished its miracle season. They had gone undefeated for the entire year, almost always winning by a wide margin. Then it had been on to the regional play-offs, and then the state championship. The Tornadoes sailed straight through those contests, too.
Last year, twelve-year-old, six-foot-tall Julian had been the star center of the unbeatable Tornadoes. He led the team — and the league — in scoring and rebounding, and set a record for blocked shots. The newspapers gave the Tornadoes a lot of ink, and Julian’s picture became a regular feature in sports sections. His long, bony face, framed by curly brown hair, was drawn by cartoonists in the school and town newspapers. There were even write-ups in two national magazines, and some television coverage. It had been like a dream.
Julian had a couple of thick scrapbooks full of clippings, plus a bunch of trophies, plaques, certificates, and other awards decorating his room. Coaches from a few high schools in the area had even sent his family letters, wondering if Julian might want to transfer into their school district. Julian and his family hadn’t considered the offers; they were happy where they were.
And then, suddenly, it was over. The cheering and bright lights were just a memory, and all that was left was the stuff in his scrapbooks and the souvenirs in his room.
Now, Julian was thirteen and two inches taller. He was also stronger and faster. He’d been looking forward to the beginning of what he was sure would be another great season for the Tornadoes — but something was wrong.
None of the guys who’d started on last year’s team was anywhere to be seen. Almost every face was new to him. This wasn’t totally unexpected, since two of those starters were now too old for the league. But where were the others? Julian looked at the clock. Practice wasn’t due to start for a few minutes yet. Maybe they’d show up. He knew that he ought to warm up a little himself, do some stretches, maybe grab a ball and shoot some jumpers. But he stood there, not wanting to get on the floor.
“Yo! Jools! How you doing, dude?”
Hearing his nickname echo through the room, Julian turned. At last, someone he knew! Grady Cough-lin stood by the door to the locker room, a big grin on his face. Seeing an old friend and that smile, Julian felt a whole lot better.
Grady had spent most of last season coming off the bench as a substitute point guard. For a few games, when the starting point guard was hurt, he’d been the starter and done well. Julian and Grady had hung out after practices and games. Though he’d seen Grady at school, they hadn’t talked about the team. Now, here he was. His straight hair seemed blonder than ever, as if he’d spent lots of time in the sun that summer. But his broad smile was exactly the same.
The boys exchanged low fives.
“Hey, good to see you, man,” said Julian. “I was wondering where everyone was. I mean, I knew Danny and Art wouldn’t be back, but where are Barry and Max? They should be here, right?”
Grady’s sunny smile faded a little. “I heard that Max’s family moved last month. His dad got a job out of state, I think. But Barry, he’ll show up. He always used to get here at the last minute. Remember Coach Valenti getting on his case about that?”
Julian wasn’t happy to hear about Max, a solid forward who always provided tough defense. “Max moved? That’s too bad.”
Grady shrugged. “Yeah, I liked Max, too. And he really knew how to cover a guy. Great D. But hey, Barry’ll give us some points, and he can clean up on the boards. And don’t forget the Tornadoes’ secret weapon.”
Julian stared at Grady. “Secret weapon?”
Grady nodded. “Right! Me, man! I’ll be at point guard this year! I guarantee I’ll feed you the ball plenty!”
Julian couldn’t help laughing. “Oh, yeah, right. How could I forget?” He felt better, although it would have been cool to have three of the championship starting five back again.
“And the coach’ll be here, too,” Grady pointed out. “He’ll put this team together. He always does.”
Julian knew that Grady had a point. Coach Valenti always seemed to come up with winning teams. And Barry Streeter had a deadly jump shot from almost anywhere on the court. He also knew how to box out opponents and position himself for rebounds if Julian couldn’t get them. The Tornadoes would be all right.
Grady nudged Julian’s arm. “Here’s the coach now. You know the dude with him?”
Julian shook his head. “Never saw him before.” Coach Valenti had entered the gym from the locker room with a boy in shorts and a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. The coach was talking to the boy, who looked around nervously. Julian thought the guy looked like a forward — pretty tall, strong-looking legs, and broad shoulders.
A moment later, the coach reached for the whistle hanging around his neck and blew a couple of short, shrill blasts.
“Everybody, can I have your attention?” he called out. “Group up over here, guys.”
The chatter and activity stopped as the boys gathered around the coach and the newcomer.
Coach Valenti looked around at the boys and smiled. “I see a lot of new faces. Well... good! We need new blood because some talented players aren’t back this year. That’s one reason I enjoy coaching the Tornadoes — there are always changes to be made and adjustments to work out. Before we get started, I have some news to pass along.”
Grady whispered so that only Julian could hear him. “I guess Barry’s still having trouble making it on time, huh?”
Julian nodded and smiled, never taking his eyes off the coach and the boy with him.
The coach continued. “We’ll say hello to each other shortly. In two weeks, we play our first game, and you’ll know each other well by then. Let me introduce a player whose family is new in town. This is Mick Reiss. Mick was a forward with his old team, and he’ll be a forward with the Tornadoes, too.”
Mick muttered a quiet “Hi,” and several boys waved and mumbled greetings back.
“There’s another piece of news I have to report, news that isn’t very good at all,” said Coach Valenti, his face serious. “I learned this morning that Barry Streeter, who some of you remember as an outstanding forward last season, was hurt in a car accident last night. It’s not known yet how serious his injuries are. But we do know that Barry can’t be here today and that he’ll be lost to the Tornadoes for some time.”
There was stirring and some whispers among the players. Julian stared at Coach Valenti in shock. His first thought was of Barry lying hurt in a hospital. But something else was bothering him, too. All of last year’s starting team was
The coach quieted everyone. “Of course, I see a few guys here who I know will be able to get us moving in the right direction. Plus, I’m sure that some of you other boys will make contributions, too. But the fact is that we have a challenge facing us and just two weeks to make ourselves into a team. I’m sure we can do it if we put our minds and bodies into it.”
The coach went on talking about what players would have to do, how hard work would pay off, and how the result could be a fine team, and so on and so forth. But Julian wasn’t listening. He tuned the coach out and looked around the gym at the other boys.
This was bad news.
It had come on so fast that he was only now realizing how bad it was. At first, he’d figured it would be up to Max, Barry, and him. Well...and Grady. Then he found out it was just Barry and him. Now it was all on Julian’s shoulders. All on
Suddenly, he remembered the hard work he’d put in last season: the warm-ups and drills, the scrimmages and sweating and aches and hassles. Last year, it led to a dream season, an undefeated team, a state championship.
But this year, he’d have to work just as hard, and the result might be... no,
had to be
... worse. Maybe a lot worse.
He heard Coach Valenti say “I’m glad to see that our all-star center, Julian Pryce, is back and looking good. He was a big part of our success last year, and he’ll be a big part of our success this year as well.”
Everyone turned to stare at Julian. Most of them smiled. He tried to smile back, but his mind was still reeling. Last year, he’d been a hero on an unstoppable team. What would happen if... no, make that
... they lost? Who would get the blame? Whose fault would it be? Whom would the newspapers and the crowds point to?
They’d point to
It wasn’t fair.
oach Valenti began practice with some stretching, followed by warm-up drills. Julian, who had been looking forward to getting the new season started, suddenly found himself unable to work up any energy or enthusiasm. After loafing his way through the stretches, he took it easy as the drills began, concentrating on watching the other players and deciding whether he saw any talent there.
The team split into two lines for a layup drill. The first player in the right-hand line took the ball to the basket and laid it in, then went to the end of the left-hand line. The first player in that line grabbed the ball and passed to the next player from the right line before running to the end of the line on the right, and so on. After a while, the coach had the players from the left-hand line shoot, while the ones in the right line grabbed the rebounds.
Julian took the ball on his first feed and made an easy, effortless layup. He was confident he could make those shots all day long. He focused on the other guys. Grady showed a lot of hustle, as he always had, and was a good passer; no news there. The new guy, Mick, looked nervous. He could jump, but he fumbled the ball when it was passed to him.
Julian decided. Another new guy, whose name Julian didn’t remember, looked as though he might have good hands, but he didn’t get off the floor very well. This one had red hair and freckles. As for the others, Julian didn’t see anyone do anything worth noticing.
After the layup drill, they ran a dribbling relay, with the team divided in half and players dribbling the full length of the court and back, passing off to the next guy in line until both squads had finished. Here, Grady was at his best. The guy really could dribble and cover ground quickly. One or two other newbies were okay, but several looked as if they had never seen a basketball, much less dribbled one. Mick wasn’t too hot at putting the ball to the floor, Julian noted. Of course, he wasn’t one to talk. Dribbling had always been his own major weakness.
“Too much arm movement, Mick!” called the coach as Mick dribbled downcourt. “Use more wrist and less elbow... that’s better! And try keeping the ball lower so it’s easier to maneuver.”