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"The Players" by Dan Sweet

"The Players"

by Dan Sweet

A note from Dan: The following story is a work of fiction. I wrote it simply for the fun of it, not to cast aspersions on any person living or dead. I used names similar to those of real people simply for my own amusement, and as a matter of creative license. I offer my apologies to any person that might be offended by this story.

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Trinity Valley University radio announcer Kevin Karl looked over the roster of the school’s basketball team and let loose a long sigh. The team was just finishing training camp for what looked like a breakout season, but Karl was looking at an unusual problem.

"There is no way anyone could keep this team straight if we had to announce players by their first name," Karl told his broadcast partner and color commentator Gary Whitsitt. "We have five guys on the team named Shawn in one form or another, and it looks like there’s a strong possibility that Coach Ackerley could start all of them."

"Look on the bright side," laughed the easy-going Whitsitt. "We usually only call the players by their last names, and it should make it easier for Coach to get the players’ attention during practice!"

Trinity Valley University was a relatively small Indiana school playing in what the television networks amusingly called a mid-major conference. The "Hounds" had increased their number of wins significantly over the past three seasons, and there were expectations that this season could be one of the strongest in the school’s history.

"I know it’s not going to be so bad for you and me," said Karl. "We can always use nicknames or something too. I just wonder if the coaching staff realized what was happening when they started recruiting all these kids.

Standing across the floor from the broadcasting team, Coach Sam Ackerley had indeed known what he was doing when he started recruiting the team a few seasons ago. While a few of his players did share variations of the same first name, each of them – from the raw freshmen to now-skilled seniors - shared a deeper bond. As far as he knew, it was a secret of which he alone was aware.

Running his players through drills up and down the highly polished wood floor, he again debated whether or not to share that binding detail with his coaching team, the university administration, or even with the players themselves. Ultimately, while he felt that his plan was sound, he expected heavy criticism from a wide variety of sources if his plan became public knowledge.

Ackerley had played in the professional leagues for a few seasons, and he had enjoyed developing young players since turning to coaching after his playing career ended. Like many coaches, he was also interested in moving up the ladder – perhaps even to the professional level. Now, with his team poised on the edge of what could be a great season, he was hoping that his collection of talented youth might bring him into brighter sections of the spotlight.

While each of his players were outstanding athletes, recruiting a few of them had been something of a nightmare, and he had found it necessary to apply pressure to some of his assistant coaches to visit some of the recruits who had shown little basketball prowess in high school.

The "Shawns" had been the easiest part – each had proven themselves just talented enough in high school that he could recruit them for his lower tier program without having to fight against bigger schools. Not all of them had been the best students, but it had nearly been as simple as dangling a full-ride scholarship in front of their mothers and the kids were as good as signed.

It was the lesser skilled players with whom his Assistant Coaches had objected. Most of them had played a little basketball on the playgrounds, but two of them hadn’t even played on their high school varsity teams. It had been tough not to reveal his knowledge of the players’ backgrounds, but in the end he felt there was no need to share this extra information.

"We know this kid can jump, Coach," they’d said of Richard Concord during the recruiting process three years ago. "But he can’t dribble the length of the floor without losing the ball, and he’s never seen a shot he didn’t like. He seems to think passing the ball is ONLY meant as a way for his teammates to get the ball to him."

"Concord!" yelled Ackerley.

"Yes Coach," came the quick response from his 6-foot 9-inch power forward.

"You’re leading the passing and dribbling drills today," ordered Ackerley. "Go 20 reps the length of the floor. I want to burn off a few of those cheeseburgers you picked up over the summer."

While Concord might have been raw before coming to Trinity Valley University, he had taken to the game like duck to water – but only if the duck had required countless hours of training to get it used to passing the ball out of a double team in the paint. In fact, sometimes Coach Ackerley wondered if that proverbial duck might have picked up the fundamentals even a little faster. However, Concord, like the other players with more than a year under Ackerley, had developed a much better understanding of his role on the team and had vastly improved through countless hours of drills.

Following the fundamental drills, Ackerley broke the team up for a scrimmage. "Shawns against "Non-Shawns," Ackerley commanded. "I want to see if all of you remember the new plays we practiced yesterday."

The five Shawns grabbed the blue practice jerseys and pulled them over their sweat-soaked t-shirts. Shawn King was the team’s 6-foot, 2-inch point guard who could thread defenses with uncanny ability, reminding Ackerley of a pro point guard with whom he had once played on a Pacific Northwest team. Seven-footer Sean Patrick stood tall and lean at center, and was quickly becoming a true back-to-the-basket threat. At shooting guard, Shawn Richmond could put out the lights from outside the pro three-point line, but loved to penetrate against defenses that were too slow to react. Happily, he was the team’s free throw percentage leader as well. Shawan Lister was an inside-outside scoring threat at small forward, and boasted a 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan. Shawn McMillan was the team’s bruising power forward at 6-foot, 9-inches and 270 pounds.

Both teams pounded up and down the court with corrective shouts coming from the couching staff. Showing their depth, the "non-Shawns" kept the scrimmage close until the end when a Shawn Richmond free-throw finally sealed it for the starters.

As his team headed for the showers after practice, Ackerley called his coaching staff together for a debriefing. "I know we’ve got some problems with the players thinking instead of reacting, but for a small school, I’m beginning to think we’ve got the talent to win the conference and make a few ripples in the NCAA tournament, he told the staff. "With a little luck and a lot of practice we should be able to stay healthy and get past these little mental mistakes."

"Coach, I have to agree with you and I think I may even owe you an apology," said Assistant Coach Philip Carlesimo. "This team is freakishly athletic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group with more speed or leaping ability. If the ball is anywhere remotely close to the rim, these guys will get it in the bucket."

"When you told us to go get these guys, I thought you were crazy. I still don’t even understand how you found some of them," continued Carlesimo. "There’s no way that a couple of these guys could have been on anybody’s radar."

Ackerley frowned. "All it took was research on the internet. And just because someone hasn’t played a lot of organized basketball doesn’t mean they don’t have the natural physical ability to be great players. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding them and pointing them in the right direction."

"All right Coach, all right," laughed Carlesimo. "I get it now. Some players are just born with genes and talent to be great basketball players."

If any of the other coaches had been paying attention, they might have noticed Coach Ackerley’s abrupt reaction to the comment, but he quickly turned his attention back to his clipboard. "That’s too close to the truth," he thought.

The season progressed as expected, with the Trinity Valley University Hounds rolling through most of their conference games and posting a respectable winning record against some very tough non-conference teams. As a result, the team broke into the national polls and eventually made their way into the mid-teens

"I’m betting these big schools expected a creampuff win when they scheduled the Hounds a few years ago," Coach Ackerley told his team after a particularly big win over Kentucky. "You have stepped up to bigger and bigger challenges, slaying bigger and bigger giants. If you are able to maintain this intensity throughout the rest of the regular season, I believe our team has a very good shot at playing into the Big Dance."

Amid the cheers and promises from his team, Ackerley stood tall and proud. "I guess I was right," he thought. "These guys were born to play."

Ackerley’s master plan became public news through unexpected circumstances. Just after the Hounds won the conference championship, it became known that the daughter of the Trinity Valley University’s Athletic Director needed a bone marrow transplant. Since the AD was well-liked, it wasn’t difficult to start an on-campus search for a match.

Coach Ackerley was with the AD in the middle of a conference call with the Director of their athletic conference when the school’s Sports Information Director, Kathy Durant, came into the gym where the basketball team was practicing in anticipation of their invitation to the NCAA Tournament. She was accompanied by two nurses who were part of the Athletic Department’s health unit.

"Is Coach Ackerley here?" Durant asked.

"No," replied Carlesimo. "We expect him to be tied up most of the afternoon preparing for the tournament."

"Maybe you can help me then," continued Durant. "You already know about Melissa, the AD’s daughter who needs a bone marrow transplant. We are kicking off a publicity campaign, and all of the teams are pitching in to help raise awareness."

"Do you need a team photo or something?" asked one of the coaches.

"We already have the official team photos," Durant replied. "We’re asking the players on every team to allow us to draw just a few drops of blood for the bone marrow test to see if we can find a match. We don’t necessarily expect to find the match within our student athletes, but the publicity of every athlete participating is sure to draw national attention."

"There’s no way our kids could participate," answered Carlesimo. "We expect to be playing in the national tournament in just about 10 days."

"In the very unlikely event one of your players does match up properly with Melissa, they wouldn’t have to make the decision to become a donor until after they finish the season," responded Durant. "Just think about what a great story line this will make for the networks during the tournament."

Carlesimo looked at the other assistant coaches who shrugged. "It’s just a couple of drops of blood, right?" he asked. "I don’t see where that could cause any problems."

The technician at the Trinity Valley University hospital rubbed her eyes. She must be more tired than she thought, or someone on the basketball team was trying to be funny. The process of testing hundreds of athletes’ blood samples - on top of her midterms - was enough to push the harried technician to the brink of tossing everything to the floor and running from the building screaming like a mad woman.

Instead, she thought about the AD’s young daughter and how much help she needed, she picked up the phone and called the Sports Information Office and asked to speak to Kathy Durant.

"I’m sorry to bother you while your office is getting ready for the tournament," she told Durant somewhat curtly. "But we’re really busy too, and trying to play a joke on us is wasting a lot of time. If you want to find a donor for Melissa, then we can’t waste time screwing around."

"I can’t begin to imagine what joke you think we’re playing," responded Durant, genuinely puzzled. "Is there some sort of problem?"

"You know we’re looking at the genetic markers in the samples to find a match for Melissa. The blood you brought me from the basketball team all seem to be from the same player," stated the technician.

"That’s simply not the case," replied Durant. "I was at the practice where the blood was drawn, and I was watching as the nurses collected the samples from each player. I even shot a few photos for the press releases."

The technician paused, flipping back through the results of the tests. "Something isn’t right here. The genetic markers we’re looking for are the same for every member of the team, but some of the blood types are different. I’m going to talk with my supervisor, but can you come over here in 30 minutes?"

The Trinity Valley University Hounds made it to the "Elite Eight" of the tournament before being eliminated by an incredibly hot-shooting team from the University of Oregon. But instead of being the Cinderella team of the tournament, the Hounds were the focus of an entirely different level of media attention. In fact, Dick Vitale presented the entire team as part of his "Diaper Dandies" segment during the playoff coverage.

The story broke shortly after the University Hospital’s lab had confirmed that every player on the Men’s Basketball team had the same father. While the school tried to keep the information under wraps, the information was just too salacious for anyone involved to keep quiet.

The first question from the media came at the press conference after the Hounds accepted their invitation to play as an eighth seed in the playoffs.

"Coach Ackerley," asked the stunning blonde television reporter. "Can you explain how former professional basketball player Shawn Kemp just happens to be the father of every one of your players?"

After long discussions with the Athletic Director and other Trinity Valley University officials, Ackerley was prepared for the question.

"It’s very simple. I recruited them specifically for that reason."

Ackerley explained that he and Kemp had played together in Seattle some 20 years ago, and that his role sitting deep in the rotation allowed him ample time to watch Kemp’s amazing athletic skill. And like the rest of the players, he was aware of Kemp’s tendency to hook up with women in every city where the team spent a night or two.

"I know that most of you have heard the stories about players like Wilt Chamberlin. It’s really no different today, despite the threat of diseases like AIDS. The basketball groupies were always standing outside the arena, or in the lobby of our hotel," explained Ackerley. "Most of us were either already married or committed to someone, so we just ignored those women. But some of the players really enjoyed the attention, and apparently Shawn wasn’t too careful a lot of the time."

"After the first few paternity suits surfaced, I joked with some of the other players that he was building his own team," continued Ackerley. "It made me wonder just how good those kids would actually become."

"How did you find them?" asked another reporter.

"My wife has a friend in the King County Courthouse. Since paternity suits are generally public knowledge, it wasn’t too hard to find the names on those filings. Then I started looking in the counties of all the other cities where there is a professional basketball team, and I found quite a number of suits naming Kemp as the father."

"You mean there are others?" demanded another reporter.

"Shawn didn’t father just boys," answered Ackerley with a smile. "And not all of his sons play basketball as well as my team. I basically cherry-picked the players I wanted. Can you imagine the team someone could have put together with Wilt’s offspring?"

"Isn’t this just some weird genetic experiment," asked the blonde reporter.

"I don’t think anyone has ever doubted that most players on an elite level are gifted genetically," responded Ackerley. "I just took the time to do some research and find the players I wanted. I think our regular season success has proved that genetics do help a great deal, but we’ve had to do some very intensive training with some of the players. Natural ability is irrelevant without proper coaching."

"Did the players know that they were essentially half-brothers?" asked another reporter.

"I guess it never occurred to them to talk about it," Ackerley responded. "Unfortunately, not all of them even knew that Kemp was their father. Several of them grew up with adoptive fathers who were the only Dad they had ever known. This news has caused some problems within those families, and that’s the only part of this entire situation that I honestly regret."

"You have no other regrets?" asked an astonished reporter.

"I’ve spoken with the University administration, and ethically I’ve done nothing wrong," said Ackerley. "I’m paid to find the best student athletes I can find, prepare them for games, and see to it that they are getting a getting a great education at the same time. The fact that this team is so successful is bringing donor money to the University and attention to the players. I also think several of our players may have a pro career ahead of them."

Ackerley’s prediction of several players turning pro proved accurate, as King, Patrick and McMillan all played in the NBA. While Ackerley’s genetic experiment was widely seen as gimmick, more than one athletic director or general manager appreciated his "thinking outside the box" and recognized that his coaching ability played a huge role in the development and success of the team. As a result, Ackerley was offered a number of head coaching positions at larger schools, and a few assistant coaching positions in professional leagues around the world.

While other teams would occasionally track down and sign the sons or daughters of other world class athletes, no other college program ever tried to put together a full team again.

However, the Golden State Warriors – nicknamed "Chamberlain’s Warriors" – enjoyed several successful seasons under new head coach Philip Carlesimo.

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Selected for publication as part of the Rufus on Fire Basketball Fiction Contest