By John Affleck
It was cold, and the snow squeaked under our feet on the way into school, but the sky was clear, which meant practice would be outside, on the court by the teachers’ parking lot, behind the elementary school. After classes were over, we changed into sneakers and put on gray sweats with forest green letters that said “Bishop Franklin High School.” Everybody took a shovel or a broom, and we cleared off the court. The snow was the dry, fluffy kind that hits deep in the winter when the lake is frozen, so the accumulation is less. It was easy to move, but when the wind picked up, it blew hard off the snowbanks and stung our faces. Our center took a broom handle and knocked the ice off the playground nets.
Nobody wore gloves because point guard told us not to. And hell, we’re girls’ varsity, so we huddled when we finished court duty, swaying back and forth and clapping out a slow beat to warm up our hands. Then Coach Haley dragged the ball bag out, and we went right into layup drills, setting up a shooter line and a rebound line on both ends of the court. When we finished on one end, we had to race to the other. After that, we did a weave, then a fast break-pass-pull-up-for-3.
About that time, they sent the second string kids on the freshman boys’ team out to scrimmage us. Billy Donnelly, Ray Johnson, Joe Keenan, Fred Fryer and Antonio d’Lillo, plus two varsity starters who were being punished because they got caught for drinking together behind Fulton Road Market before school, Tom Deluca and Clinton Hamilton. Deluca had to sit out one game. Hamilton got suspended for two. They both were going to miss winter homecoming for the boys’ varsity when the guys would be playing for their third win of the year having already lost six. We were unbeaten.
Coach explained to Deluca and Hamilton how the game worked: all the boys had to play us at the same time — no one on the bench — which meant they’d be taking us on seven-against-five. Haley told them to play a 2–2–3 zone on defense. No heavy contact, no copping a feel. Deluca looked at us and said something through his fist to Hamilton. They laughed. Deluca put on sunglasses. Coach glared at him, but the kid said it was bright out, pointing to the snowbanks and the sky. There was something to what he said, with the winter sun already throwing long shadows on the court.
We huddled again, started the beat, and did the thing we did before every practice. That is, we named our pain. Point guard, who also was our captain, led us through it.
“OK, go,” she said, pointing to center.
“Chemistry. It’s killin’ me. I may fail. If I can’t do this lab, I’m gonna get thrown off the team.”
Power forward. “I got nothin’. Uhm. Mom’s still a bitch.”
Small forward. “Joey’s stealing from my secret stash o’ cash. I know he is.”
Shooting guard. “Wait listed. Goddammit.”
Point guard pointed to herself. “Period’s late.” Then she waited for the clap to come around to the downbeat. “Now, listen,” she said, quiet but intense. “Let it go! Let it all go! Baskets, baskets, baskets!”
We did our cheer, the breath from our lungs making a single plume, frozen in the air. Coach stepped in and gave us the ball, and off we went for 20 minutes, no stopping. We hustled straight down the asphalt court, the boys playing just like what they were, boys who had to be there. Point guard set us up in half court. Pass to shooting guard, to small forward, to shooting guard, to point guard, right back to shooting guard. Feet set. Three ball. Good.
Hamilton took the inbounds pass. The freshmen all had their hands up, looking for a feed, but he ignored them, hitch-stepped at the top of the key and drove the lane, tried to cut around center but got boxed by power forward, who came rotating over to help. He looked for an outlet, ignored the freshmen and tried to kick out to Deluca. The problem was point guard anticipated the pass and cut in front of it, catching the ball in stride and flying down the court for a layup. Score, 5–0.
It was like that. They made some buckets, but it was dribble-dribble-drive or dribble-dribble-drive-kick or just dribble-screen-shoot. Pretty soon the freshmen had their hands under armpits when they were on offense while Hamilton and Deluca cursed in low voices as they ran up the court, and small forward, always the most amped one of us, started to bounce around after big shots and fist pump or look for a chest bump. We tried to stay cool, but nobody was about to shush her. Deluca was the one who tried to start something, crashing in hard for a rebound off a miss by Hamilton and knocking small forward into a snow bank in the process. Center gave him hard shove. His glasses went flying and he cocked his arm to swing but everybody was on it. Coach came in whistling and shouting, and started to pull bodies apart when another whistle blew, even louder. It was the boys’ equipment manager, who had driven over in his SUV from the high school. “Hey!” he yelled. “Varsity’s done. You ladies can use the gym. Deluca, Hamilton, jump in.” And off they went. The freshman took this as their queue and jogged behind.
We watched them leave and picked up the basketballs around the court, in the snow. Shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center each grabbed a corner of the ball bag, and we started the half-mile hike back to the high school, with point guard dribbling in front us, doing a crossover every fourth or fifth step. Coming out from behind the elementary school, we could see the beginning of the sunset, one of those perfect winter days when the palette of the sky is pink and silver as the light reflects off the crusty snow. We saw it together. Nobody said anything. All we could think was that we were so happy.
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John Affleck is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State. Before that he was a national editor in news and then sports at The Associated Press. He covered everything from presidential politics to the World Cup, and even served a short stint in the AP’s Baghdad bureau. Offered a chance to be the full-time war editor on his return home, John decided that, on balance, he prefers sports as a metaphor for war. Read more about him here.