The group assembled on the other side of the camera for the team photo was more motley than a load of Mexican steers traded six times before hitting the border.
Starting from the left: Tiny Simpson—all 375 lb.—oozed out of his faded maroon cotton sweat suit, holes in both knees; Izzy Franklin, complete with one black eye and two flaring nostrils caked in dried blood peered with that empty, wide-eyed, demented, “Hit anybody,” expression shared by many former dedicated high school linebackers; Whizzer Burkhart (Claude's computer-hacking whiz-kid nephew), bushy eye-browed, hump shouldered, pony-tailed and looking as surprised as anyone to be holding a basketball; Hooter's cousin, Charlie, the most color-coordinated of the group; Jorge Rodriquez (Hector's dad), the fittest and most athletic looking, despite a middle-aged paunch starting to creep over the waistband of his old high school varsity basketball shorts; Tubby Finkelbein (Pinkey's great nephew), razor blade thin and flexing a golf ball-sized bicep; Bob Houston, owner of Apache Feeders, glaring over the top of a walrus mustache, a can of Copenhagen forming a circle in his left sock, which was snugged tight with a faded blue bandanna; and Hooter McCormick, looking regal as a pet coon in a tie-dyed muscle shirt proclaiming, “Surrender is for Sissies!”
To a man, their knees were knobby; all attached to legs paler than an albino Charolais (except for Jorge), and stuck into the tops of faded canvas Chuck Taylor All Star high tops, snugged tight with dirty, busted, knotted shoelaces.
These were the eight comprising Apache Flats' Arc Angels basketball team, moments prior to tip-off in the finals game of the Rio Rojo Invitational Roundball Classic. The Classic is an annual event that began almost three decades ago as one of those innocent FFA Donkey Basketball games pitting chapter members against faculty as they attempted to play Naismith's Sport of the Gods astride trained donkeys, some of which would never move out of their tracks, some that would only go in circles or back up, others that would coast along, hit the brakes, duck and send another frustrated rider sliding over the top of their witherless frame grabbing for air and what was left of their dignity.
This had evolved into innocent donkey ball games against other chapters and other communities, all in the name of good clean fun and a little fund-raising. It went along for years until Tiny Simpson's sagging girth flattened one wobbly-legged Eore wannabe in the second half, prompting worries about animal welfare implications and a blue-streaked affirmation from Earl Hornsby—owner of Earl's Harlem Honkey Donkies—never to return. So, a genuine invitational basketball tournament had been born, featuring competitive and recreational divisions for cradle-to-grave age groups.
The Arc Angels had no coach and no manager. Well, they did have Delmar Jacobs, self-proclaimed refreshment coordinator, who rode the end of the bench, continually ladling what he called Tiger-aid into squirt bottles the team would guzzle during a timeout or even as they trotted by during the course of the game. And the players had no real position; they just played.
Through creative interpretation of the rules, however, along with fox-like cunning, badger-like tenacity, and outright sympathy from the crowd and referees, the Arc Angels were always among the top finishers in the Classic's 35-50 division. It didn't hurt that by having no system and no game plan it was impossible for the opposing team to figure out how to defend them. At any given time, in any given situation, any member of the Arc Angels was liable to do anything, supported fully by all of the other members of the team.
Like two years ago when Tiny Simpson, surrounded by the opposition on the last in-bounds play of the game, simply launched the ball toward the rafters, only a split second after three of the Little Blarney Brewing Company's own Leprechaun Ladies, standing on the front bleacher behind Tiny, shed their green raincoats to reveal flesh-colored bikinis. While the refs and the opponents craned their necks toward Ireland, the Arc Angels—including some off the bench, according to the other team, but never proven—set midget picks on their hands and knees, effectively tripping all of the opposition, allowing Hector to snatch the ball and launch it to Tiny who lumbered in for a game-winning lay-up.
Plus, call it luck if you want, but the Arc Angels had some pure shooters, anchor-footed and out of shape, but guys with the guts to launch one from half-court with a discus like throw and a grunt; and the guts to keep launching them no matter how many clanged off the rim or the backboard and out of bounds. “You can't miss ‘em all,” was the team motto.
As for defense, the Arc Angels weren't fast, but they weren't above tackling, either. Fouling out was improbable. While other teams had real jerseys with numbers affixed to them permanently, the Arc Angels preferred the “portability” of making numbers with black electrical tape and sticking them on whatever they happened to be wearing. By the end of a game, addled officials would still be trying to sort out how the scorer's table had come up with better than 28 different jersey numbers reported for a team roster of eight.
All told, for sheer entertainment value, win or lose, the Arc Angels perennial predictability in unpredictable attire, attitude, and dynamic strategy had helped make the Classic one of the hottest tickets in five counties.
Are Yoouuu Ready to Ruummmmmble?
This year, it had come down to this: the Arc Angels beat the Nueces Net-witchers outright, won their game against the Denver City Dime-droppers in overtime, then earned a victory in the semi-finals on a forfeit from the Saguaro Peak Road Runners. Officials began questioning the Road Runners when their star guard's false teeth fell out of his mouth and clattered across the hardwood during the team's exuberant, chest-bumping, head-butting celebration; caught with their chompers exposed they had to admit their best player was too old for the age bracket and thus ineligible.
So, in the finals the Arc Angels would go up against the Wichita Falls Pocket Pickers, a new team to the classic comprised of employees from the IRS's regional auditing office. The Pocket Pickers looked for all the world like gazelles in designer sneakers. Trim muscle rippled beneath matching, well fitting uniforms. Their average margin of victory leading to the finals was 42 points.
“You oughta protest,” said Lonnie Johnson in the pre-game team huddle. “There ain't no way those guys ought to be in the rec division. Three of their guys played Juco, for crying out loud. They're just looking for easy meat.”
“Well, they came to the wrong place,” said Izzy in a defiant voice as he paced the sideline.
Hooter pointed to the team bench where Bob Houston was glaring at the Pocket Pickers as he returned the snooze can to its sock. “Really, Lonnie, it's gonna be fine. Given their affiliation, we all have some extra incentive. And, Bob there, you figure all the money he lost feeding last fall, well, he's going to have a thing or two to share with these hotshots.”
While not as confident, the rest of the team assured Lonnie that justice would drip out of the right net in the end.
The two referees—Father Herman Buzzletop from the Catholic Church at Saguaro Peak and Pastor Nick Dinkins from Nailon County Methodist Church —called the team captains to center court for the coin toss while the announcer introduced the teams.
“Men,” said Father Buzzletop, “Congratulations on making it to the finals. We want a clean game and a good example for the youth. Any questions?”
“Just one,” said Tiny Simpson, suddenly backing away from the circle, pounding his chest and shouting to the heavens: “Who's playing for second! Who's playing for second! Who's Playing for sec….”
While the rest of the Arc Angels and their boosters picked up Tiny's query as a new cheer, Hooter leaned in and asked, “How many players can we have in an inverted mid-key zone defense without being called for a technical?”
The Pocket Picker captains who had looked downright smug watching Tiny work himself into a frenzy, looked at Hooter as if he was insane. The refs looked at each other, then in unison: “Huh?”
“I'll take that as it being a non-rule, then.” said Hooter.
“Now, wait a minute…” began the Pocket Picker captains, as the scorer's table blew their air horn repeatedly to get the referees' attention.
“What is it?” shouted Pastor Dinkins.
“Technical difficulties!” the scorer shouted back.
Turns out someone had rigged the score clock to give the Arc Angels three points for every two-point basket and one point to the Pocket Pickers for every two-point basket. The Arc Angels grinned in Whizzer's direction when informed of the problem. Whizzer just kept trying to spin a ball on one finger.
The problem fixed and the captain's back at center court, Father Beezletop cleared his throat, “As I said before, we want a clean game and a good example. No grandstanding,” he said firmly, looking square at Tiny. “And, I hope that the technical difficulties were just that.”
Both teams sent out their starting five. At 6' 7”, Tiny was about 2 inches shorter than the opposing center, but he outweighed him by a good 70 lb. Besides, Tiny never jumped for the tip anyhow. As soon as the ball went up, he merely stuck his arms straight out from his ponderous sides and began turning in circles as if he was trying to locate the ball, innocently knocking everything within reach out of the way.
“Foul!” cried the opposing center leaping back up from the floor and rubbing his jaw where Tiny's windmill had caught him.
“Hey ref,” called Tiny, “Keep an eye on this guy, he just hacked my hand with his face.”