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"Shooting Threes and Eating Candy" by Victor McConnell -- Fiction Contest Grand Prize Winner

"Shooting Threes and Eating Candy"

by Victor McConnell

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The local YMCA had old maple floors, a few sagging boards creating soft spots where my dribble often faltered, not rising as it should. That was one reason why I never practiced my dribbling. That and shame. I remember practicing one day, no one else in the gym, thinking it was safe. Twelve, maybe thirteen years old. I was just trying to walk and dribble through my legs with each step. I don’t know why. I’m not saying it was practical. But I’d seen people do it and I wanted to be able to do it, too. I managed to link a few, raising my knees absurdly high. I sped up, dribbling faster. I lost control and when I turned to retrieve the ball there was a man standing inside the door of the gym. He was watching and must have been able to tell how hard I was trying. I thought he could, anyway. When I looked at him, he just smiled and nodded and walked around the edge of the court and into the weight room. I felt exposed.

That wasn’t the only time I was caught dribbling. Another time I was sprinting from the three point line to the baseline and back, only able to control the ball at high speed with my right hand, semi-out-of-control, when someone came in. Their presence changed everything. Right after the door swung open I lost the ball and went scrambling across the court after it. The speed and sense of concentration was shattered and I felt ridiculous. A skinny kid running around, bouncing a ball. And not very well. So I mostly stuck to shooting.

Shooting I could do. I treated it like a science. Experimenting with the position of my elbows, with how much my non-shooting hand pushed the ball. I wasn’t strong enough to lift the ball overhead and shoot like I knew was proper. But my two-handed chest shot worked, and I figured I could change it when I got older and stronger. I did try and get stronger. The weight room was adjacent to the court and there was a large window between the two. The bench press was right against the window. I worked on my bench like I worked on my dribbling – sparingly and only if I was alone. It was just as embarrassing to be seen struggling with 65lbs as it was to be seen doing dribbling drills. I figured that the regulars identified me as a weak, shy, skinny kid who couldn’t handle the ball.

The days when the gym was empty were the best. No one judging me, measuring me. No expectations beyond my own. Just me, the basket, the wood floor, and the ball. Everything was different then. Even sound. Each dribble echoed, resounded, seemed weighty and important. Those echoes calmed me. The gym stilled. I shot free throws for hours, finding rhythm, chasing it, then moving out to the 3-point line as I started to feel it. Even now, decades later, I still think that was the closest I’ve ever been to perfection. It was right there.

There was one day, in particular. One day that is still so clear. It was around 8:45pm and I was twelve years old. I know I was twelve because my Mom was still picking me up at night when the Y closed at nine o’clock. I know the time because it was near closing and the gym had emptied out. I dreaded 9pm, for it meant I had to head home. The bus dropped me off after school, around 4pm. Five hours of peace and freedom. The gym was better than home. Mom didn’t beat me or anything, but she also didn’t really want me around. I could tell. It was just me and her in the house and after work she liked to have a few drinks and watch TV. Maybe there were things she wanted to watch that she couldn’t watch while I was at home. Or maybe she did something else. Or maybe she had just never wanted kids. I don’t know. I know she didn’t want to mess with dinner or keeping me entertained. She always complained about that. "It’s not my job to keep you entertained." "You’re always hungry." Those were the two sentences I think I heard the most. So from age 11 until age 15, when I got a job, I spent most days at the Y. She gave me three bucks to buy something at the snack bar. It was clear that I wasn’t supposed to come home hungry. Sometimes I did, though, playing basketball and forgetting to eat and I’d get home and say I was hungry and she would tell me the kitchen was closed and that she’d already cleaned up and what had I spent my three dollars on and why couldn’t I be more responsible. Eventually she’d make me something to eat but she always made me feel bad about it first. When I turned 13, she told me I was old enough to walk home. I’d been asking to do it for about a year, but the truth was that I kind of hoped she wouldn’t let me. I liked coming out of the gym and seeing her car waiting in the parking lot. Every evening, I imagined that I would get in the car and she would be warm, welcoming. That she’d say she missed me but that she hoped I’d had fun. She usually didn’t say much at all. Sometimes she complained if I took too long getting outside, told me it was inconsiderate to keep someone waiting.

The night that I remember so well was one of those nights where I forgot to eat. I didn’t realize it until near closing, and I thought about getting a snack then, but I didn’t want to miss out on the last few minutes of court time. I’d been waiting for the last few guys playing pick-up to leave. I was in the corner of the weight room by the water fountain, doing a few sets of standing dumbbell curls. I could do curls and be away from the window, out of sight. Plus I wanted bigger arms. There was no one else in the weight room and after each set I peeked through the window to see if there was still anyone on the court. If the court stayed occupied until near closing, I would eventually go out and shoot at one of the side baskets anyway, but I preferred to wait for an empty gym, if I could.

When they were gone I came out and shot a few free-throws, my arms feeling heavy and swollen from lifting. But I made the first few anyway. Surprised, I backed up and shot a three. Front rim. I thought about my legs, about flicking my wrist slightly harder. The next one went in. And the next. A few more dropped in smoothly. Then one with a lucky bounce. My record was 9 threes in a row and I paused for a moment at number ten, feeling tense. When it fell through, the floodgates opened. I hit another ten without thinking, each feeling easier than the last. I shot, jogged forward and collected the bouncing ball and moved back out beyond the line. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Just after the twenty-fourth shot, a YMCA staffer came through the door. He usually said closing time right away but he didn’t say anything that night. I wonder if he saw my expression, saw that I was in the midst of something special. He took a few steps onto the court. I wanted to tell him that I had just made 24 threes in a row. I wanted to make the twenty-fifth. I had a witness now and twenty-five seemed a special number, round, a quarter of the way to one hundred. A milestone of sorts. I turned back towards the basket and shot. Twenty-five.

"Nice shot," he said. He took another few steps forward, retrieved the ball, and passed it back to me. I mumbled thanks and shot again. I missed. The miss took a second to register. That should have gone in, I thought.

He smiled. "Can’t make ‘em all." He corralled the ball again but this time didn’t pass it back to me. "Sorry, kid, but it’s time to close up shop."

I nodded and started to jog off the court. He stuck his hand out as I passed and I slapped it, pretending to be exuberant even though I was devastated that I missed the shot and that he probably thought that me making one three-pointer was an accomplishment. Why couldn’t I tell him that I’d hit twenty-five in a row? I told myself he wouldn’t believe me anyway.

I thought about my mom waiting in the parking lot and about telling her what I’d done. I thought she would be proud. Maybe she wouldn’t know what it meant, exactly, but I could tell her that most of the guys who play in the pick-up games couldn’t hit twenty-five straight threes. Maybe she would want to come watch me shoot sometime.

Just as I reached the front door, I remembered that I hadn’t eaten. The snack bar, which sold pizza and hot dogs and nachos, closed at 8:45. The vending machines were at the opposite end of the hallway. I thought about my mom complaining about waiting versus my mom complaining about me coming home hungry. The first was worse, I decided. I jogged down the hallway, hoping they hadn’t shut the machines down for the night. They were still on, and I bought a Snickers and some M&M’s. I put the M&M’s in my pocket and tore the Snickers open and ate the entire thing in less than a minute. I didn’t want to come out the front door eating it and have my Mom see me and get on to me for eating candy. I swallowed and wiped the back of my hand across my mouth.

No one was at the front desk when I walked by and so I grabbed my school backpack from behind the desk and then rushed straight out the door. My skin was moist with sweat and the chilled night air surprised me. Her car was idling with the headlights facing the front entrance. I headed down the steps, ready to tell her. I swung open the passenger door and got in, setting my backpack between my feet on the floorboard.

"Hey Mom." She looked tired.

"Hey."

"Guess what I did?"

"No telling." Her voice was flat, carrying more an inflection that spoke to a threatening you better not have than a hopeful something amazing, I’m sure. I hesitated. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.

"Well, um, I made a bunch of 3-pointers in a row. Twenty-five."

I waited. It seemed to take a second for her to realize I was done. She saw me looking at her and raised her eyebrows. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine.

"Oh yeah? That’s nice."

"Mom. Twenty-five is a lot. Probably a record. I mean, even the grown men who play pick-up can’t do that."

"Well," she said. "Anybody see you do it?"

I tried to think how to answer. Would lying be wrong? Someone had seen number 25, after all. And what did it matter if someone had seen me. I felt myself growing angry.

"Mom. I’m not lying! It’s the truth. And yeah, somebody saw it. He walked in towards the end, anyway. Saw most of it." That was kinda true, I thought.

She turned her head and looked at me. It was almost like she was deciding something.

"Baby, I believe you. I was just asking. Take it easy now. Lean over here and give Mama a kiss."

I leaned in and kissed her cheek. As I moved my head away she gripped cheeks between her thumb and index finger, squeezing them together, forcing my lips apart. I lifted my eyes to hers and saw her squinting, staring at my mouth.

"Boy, you had chocolate, didn’t you?"

I jerked my head away and closed my lips.

"No," I said.

She jaw creased with tension. "Don’t lie to me."

I already did, I thought.

"Now, I’ll ask again," she said. "Did you eat chocolate?"

I nodded my head. She became loud.

"What have I told you about eating candy for dinner? You spend my hard-earned money on that? And while I’m giving you the freedom to spend your days playing basketball? You get mad at me ‘bout not believing you then you outright lie to me, right to my face?"

I said I was sorry. She said I never did mind and what was wrong with me. We were almost home by then and I stared out the window until we pulled into the driveway. I followed her through the front door and brushed past her and headed to my room. She yelled something like you better have done your school work and not just basketball all day but I knew that she wouldn’t come into my room, that she was already back on the couch, in front of the television. I closed my door, laid on my bed and pulled the M&M’s from my pocket. I stared at the package for a minute. Then I opened them and began tossing them one after another into the air and catching them in my mouth, wondering how many I could catch in a row.

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