by: Wes Ishmael

Part II

Hooter and the boys—the Apache Flats All Stars—were 10 points down at halftime, but it felt worse.

Rather than playing against other alumni in the 30th annual charity basketball game, organizers had made it an invitational. That meant the opposing team—the Quad-county Pirates—was comprised of younger players, several with at least junior college experience, but all with Division I egos.

Hooter and his former high school team were more than a step slower than the opposition, which they anticipated. They were also in abysmal game playing shape, which was also a given considering their age, working schedules and the vagaries of biology.

What they hadn't counted on was the arrogance and dirty play of the opposition, the flagrant elbows, pointless shoves, jersey holding, all of the tricks their high school coach Ezekiel Grant would never have tolerated. The legendary Coach “Granite” respected the game too much.

The opponent's unsportsmanlike tactics were so egregious, that even the normally reserved Peetie Womac had been assessed a technical. Older than the rest of the boys, Peetie had been a long-time favorite and friend of Coach Granite's; the only one Coach ever allowed on the bench as an assistant. At the end of his life, Coach handed Peetie his ever-present Bobcats ball cap with the simple instruction: “Don't screw up.”

Peetie was wearing that same cap on the sideline, serving as the All Stars coach. After several warnings about yelling at them, one of the referees came over to stare Peetie down. Borrowing from another legendary coach, Peetie said calmly, “Can you give me a technical for what I'm thinking?”

“Of course not,” replied the baffled ref.

“Good,” said Peetie, “Because I think the way you're calling this game stinks.”

Loud, long whistle—technical foul.

Even so, when Hooter reminded his beleaguered teammates at half-time that Coach would tell them to let the other team interpret the rules and play accordingly, they all knew that meant doing so within certain bounds.

The Short End of Long Ball

So it was that the Apache Flats All Stars entered the gym for the second half with renewed spirits and game plan. Any doubts they might have had vanished when they heard one of the opposition announce to his teammates coming out of the tunnel, “Press these geezers; they're about out of gas.”

As it turned out it was the same young man flapping his arms wildly, yelling like a banshee as Hooter attempted to inbound the opening possession. Hooter looked clear down court, reared back and rocketed the ball square into the defender's face.

“Owwwww!” cried the defender falling to his knees, blood gushing from his nose, teammates running to his aid.

“That's a foul,” yelled one to the referee.

“He can't do that,” complained another.

Hooter smiled calmly. “Good job, Slick. You blocked my pass. It was out on you, though, so still our ball.”

Everyone looked to the referees: “All Stars ball.”

When play resumed, the same defender who'd caught the previous pass with his nose made a big show of waving his arms and screaming again. Hooter head-faked him, sailed a full-court pass into Izzy's waiting paws, who easily scored.

All Stars down by 8.

Mr. Nosebleed was inbounding the ball. Hooter was standing right in front of him. Hooter knew exactly what was going to happen. So, did Cousin Charlie standing about 10 steps behind him. Sure enough, seeking revenge, the young man tried to look nonchalant about slinging the ball at Hooter's face. Hooter ducked, Charlie caught the pass in full stride and scored an easy bucket.

“It takes practice,” Hooter whispered to the bewildered Pirate on his way back down court.

All Stars down by 6.

Tilting the Tide

If luck made rather than hoped for is the handmaiden of destiny, then timing is surely a first cousin.

Both teams played even for the next several possessions, until another young man guarding Hooter suddenly took off after him, screaming and swinging his fists. He was promptly ejected. On his way to the free throw line, Hooter explained to Lonnie Johnson, “I simply told him that we played against his daddy in high school, and we were proud to see that he'd gone on to have kids, which proved he apparently wasn't nearly as light in the sneakers as we'd suspected.”

Hooter made both free throws.

Pirates down to their reserve player.

All Stars down by 4 points.

More even play resumed for the next several possessions.

The Pirates had the ball beneath the basket. Spindly Delmar Jacobs was putting his long arms to good use, valiantly guarding a bulkier opponent. In fact, Delmar was guarding so completely that the frustrated opponent spun toward the basket while hooking Delmar into the second row of spectators, losing the ball out of bounds in the process. The usually unflappable Delmar had to be restrained by his teammates. To the crowd's disbelief, the referee assessed technical fouls to both players. At least the All Stars had the ball.

By now, the Pirates had long since given up their full-court press. So, Hooter dribbled his way up court without traffic. Just as he got to half-court, he winked at Delmar and seemed to make an errantly weak pass in his direction. Hooter dove after the ball as did two Pirates, then Delmar after them.

Just like that, both Pirates bounced up, one with the ball.

Just like that, both pirates crashed back to the floor, shoe laces flapping, ball lost. Delmar's current knot-tying prowess was apparently even more lethal than in high school.

All Stars down by 2 points.

The Pirates were looking more like the Pillaged as the clock and their lead trickled away, while their elder opposition seemed to be gaining steam.

That might be why the Pirate guard fell so easily into the trap the All Stars called their cage pick. Like everything else to do with round-ball, they'd learned it from Coach Granite. In slow motion, the cage looked simply like three defenders surrounding the ball handler. At game speed, though, and executed properly, it created a human pinball machine as the guard ran into one pick, changed direction, ran into a another pick and so on.

An easy steal and pass down court to Lonnie.

Game tied.

Time running out.

The largest Pirate who had been cheap-shotting Lonnie the entire game was bringing the ball up. When he got to Lonnie, he forgot the ball and shoved him to the ground from behind. Lonnie was holding the defender by the throat, against the wall and off the floor when both were ejected.

“It was worth it,” growled Lonnie on his way to the showers.

Both teams down to four players.

All Stars with the ball.

“Ladder!” yelled Hooter.

Though they hadn't seen it in decades, a few of the elder spectators knew exactly what was in store.

The Ladder pay was a sort of inverted fast break, combined with the football hook and ladder. Whoever had the ball dribbled as fast and far as they could up the center of the court. As soon as he encountered a defender, he simply bounced the ball backwards where one of three trailing players picked up the ball to continue in like fashion. This was repeated until the ball was lost or they were in scoring position.

It worked to perfection.

All Stars win by 2.

Crowd goes wild.

There's a satisfaction in besting an opponent you're not supposed to that goes beyond the win column. That's what the boys seemed to be contemplating in exhausted silence, collapsed in the locker room, aching and gleeful.

“You know how I said a few weeks ago we needed to get in better shape because when it came to overcoming youth and exuberance, age, experience and cunning had their limits?” asked Hooter. “Apparently, I was wrong.”

Amid the ensuing shouts of victory, a misty-eyed Peetie raised Coach Granite's weathered cap above the din: “Coach would be proud.”


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