as designed, in the last twenty-seven games we hadn’t come within twenty points of a win. Do you have any idea what it’s like to show up and know absolutely—every game—that you are going to not just lose, but be embarrassed? That if you give 100 percent you’re not doing your job? That your job is, in fact, to play the stooge every single night? No, you can’t know what it’s like to look in the mirror in the locker room after one of these games. Have you ever considered that guys like us, we might have families and kids? That it’s our job, that we’re not just out there to entertain you? How about this: what am I supposed to tell my son when he asks what I do for a living? And then later, when he asks how come we never win? Ever thought of that? No, I’ll bet you haven’t. At the end of the day, it’s not the losing that bothers me so much, it’s the not playing hard. It’s unnatural.
That’s why tonight, at the designated moment at the start of the fourth quarter when I usually wait flat-footed for an inbound pass so Whirlybird Wilkenson can steal it and glide in for a fancy, behind-the-back, 360 dunk—there are moments like this in the game for each of us—I let my instincts take over and I stepped to the ball. When it hit my hands, I spun hard to my right without even thinking about my knee, and Wilkenson went sprawling, skin squeaking, across the floor. There was a collective oohh in the crowd; they must’ve thought it was part of the show. As I brought the ball up the court, I glanced quickly over my shoulder and saw Wilkenson look to the sidelines. Coach glared at me as I passed half court, but in those few seconds I’d decided that for the rest of the game, things were going to be different, at least for me. I was going to play straight, take the game to the Trotters. And, since the Trotters don’t play much defense (no one pays to see the world famous Harlem Globetrotters play good defense), all it took was a head fake and cross-over to beat my man for a lay-in and an easy two, which gave me eight for the night, my usual quota. But why, in all the moments of all the games on the tour, did I decide to play at this moment on this night? Because, in the silence before the opening of the fourth quarter, I heard, crystal clear, my wife’s whistle. It’s a shrill, trilling whistle that her father taught her; it’s the same whistle she used when she watched me play in college and one I would recognize anywhere. Tonight’s game was the closest stop on the tour to where we live, and it was the only chance she and my son would have to see me play on this tour. She’d only seen me a handful of times while I was playing Belgium, the last game being the one where I tore up my knee. And my son had never seen me play. I wanted him to see me out on the court at least once, even if it was like this, and even if he was too young to be able to remember it later. We don’t get any allotted tickets, and there is no designated section for wives and families of Generals’ players, so I had no idea where she and my son were sitting. They had to make a three hour drive, so I knew they’d be late, and I didn’t even know if they were there until I heard her whistle.
Instead of heading back down the court, I stayed for a full-court press. Jerry, our other guard, didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and he stopped at mid-court. The look on his face told me he thought he missed a cue, but he didn’t. I’d officially gone off script. He hustled back, and with his help we trapped Ronnie Flash Gordon in the corner, and when he tried one of his sweet little behind the back passes, I got a hand on it, deflecting it to Roland, our forward, who, looking as lost as Jerry did, took it to the rim two-handed. For a second he looked like he’d just been caught stealing, and clearly he was worried about having dunked the ball. We’d been coached to strictly play old-school, under-the-rim basketball. The crowd cheered, but I could tell they weren’t sure what to make of the last two possessions.
Coach called a time-out, perhaps the first unscheduled time-out called by the Generals in Harlem Globetrotters’ history. Usually, the Trotters go off and do their thing—throw buckets of confetti on the crowd, give high fives and hugs to children, joke with the adults, pester the referees—but it looked to me like both the Trotters and the referees didn’t know what to do. And usually Coach makes a show of bringing us all into a huddle around a clipboard, acting as if he’s drawing up a play. “What the fuck was that, Marcus?”
Clearly, he was off the script now, too. His job was to play the villain a little bit, taunting the Globetrotters and such, but nothing like this. A family of four was sitting behind our bench and the mother’s eyes went wide. The two kids, probably six or seven years-old, didn’t seem to notice; they had their eyes on the video board above. “Just trying to play some ball, Coach,” I said, and tipped my chin toward the family.
He glanced over his shoulder and cleared his throat. “Good. Good. Now, look here men. I’ve got just the play,” he said, and all of us huddled up. Using his dry erase marker and board, he made bold sweeping marks and large Xs and said things like, “and then Johnson, you’ll set a screen here, and Davis, you’ll be open for the easy three,” and so on. The thing is, Ed—that’s his real name, not the one you’d find in the program—doesn’t know anything more about basketball than the casual fan. He’s just another actor, really, collecting a paycheck just like the rest of us. He’s just going through the motions, following a script, helping to put on a good show.
The buzzer signaled the end of the time out, and as we headed back to the court, Ed grabbed my shoulder and leaned in as if to impart some last minute advice like he’d probably seen real coaches do. “You better cut that shit out,” he said. “Don’t forget which team you’re on.”
“Kiss my ass, Ed,” I said, nodding my head and smiling.
He swatted me hard on the ass as I walked away. Normally I wouldn’t talk to him like that, but I knew he couldn’t take me out of the game. First, we only travel with eight players, and the only other two guys who can play guard, Nick and Bobby, were both out of commission. Nick sprained his ankle two nights ago in Kansas City and was in street clothes for tonight’s game, and Bobby flew home for the birth of his child. Our extra man, Dennis, is a big man, pushing seven feet, and even Ed wouldn’t put him in to play guard. Besides, Mr. Klotz, the owner of the Generals, never said we couldn’t play. In fact, he publicly claims we try to win every game. Second, Ed was going to get ejected sometime in the next three minutes, so all I had to do was wait him out. Every fifth game he gets ejected in the fourth quarter, and I knew it was tonight because we went over it in our pregame meeting. He pretends to blow a gasket, slamming his clipboard on the floor and tossing a chair onto the court Bobby Knight-style. It’s really something to see, Ed with his bright red bow tie and checked blazer stomping around in front of the bench and then leaving the court under a blanket of boos.
As I jogged back onto the court, I scanned the stands again for my wife but didn’t find her. The game wasn’t a sellout, but it was close. We get the best crowds in Midwestern cities with colleges but no pro teams. While I was looking up, Wilkenson bumped me hard with his shoulder and I nearly fell. “How you gonna punk me like that?” he said. “Who you think you are?”
There’s usually a little trash talk during the game, but it’s G-rated and mostly for the fans. Basically, the Trotters make fun of us—hide the ball under the backs of our jerseys, pull our shorts down, run us all over the court doing crazy figure-eight ball handling moves. It’s all designed to make us look stupid. But this was different. Whirlybird didn’t say this for anyone’s benefit but mine. “I suppose I’m just an actor,” I said and smiled. “Like you.” He stepped up in my face; he’s got a good three inches on me. “You gonna do this here, with all these kids watching.” I spread my arms and shrugged my shoulders, and the crowd, the ones who were actually paying close attention, booed lightheartedly, though I wasn’t sure if it was for him or me.
“That’s how it’s going to be, huh?” he said and backed away. “You think you got enough game?”
“Let’s find out,” I said.
Whirlybird laughed and waved his hand dismissively.
As we set up for the Trotters to inbound the ball, I brought my teammates in for a quick huddle.
“I’m playing. No bullshit the rest of the quarter.”
“Goddamn it, Marcus,” Jerry said, and he dropped his head.
Roland started to speak, “But what about—”
I reminded him, and everyone else, of Ed’s impending ejection. “I’m just asking,” I said, looking up at the clock, “for six and a half minutes.”
“I ain’t getting fired over this shit,” said Stu, our center.
If there had been time, I would have explained that if anything happened, I would take the heat, but the referee handed the ball to one of the Trotters and blew his whistle. When the ball came in, I stayed with my man. As much as I wanted my teammates on board, I wasn’t going to let them keep me from taking it to the Trotters. As they worked the ball up court, I glanced at the rest of my guys and saw that while they weren’t playing tight, man-to-man, the defensive formation looked more solid than usual.
They scored on a twelve foot jumper, though they had to settle for it. We were easily able to get those points back, plus one, on our end when Jerry drained a three. After the basket he had a spring in his step I’d never seen before, though when I tried to catch his eye after the basket he looked away. For some reason (pride, perhaps? conditioning?), the Trotters still tried to pull their trick stuff. What can you say? They’re committed showmen. But it doesn’t work when the other team isn’t a part of the act. In the next three possessions, the game sort of took hold of us, and even though a couple of the guys weren’t playing hard, they weren’t playing along anymore, and we found our rhythm, and I went into a kind of zone. I couldn’t see the crowd, and the Trotters’ red, white, and blue jerseys went fuzzy. The court spread out before me, and it felt like everyone but me was moving in slow motion. All I heard was the slap of the ball on the hardwood, and the squeak of my teammates’ shoes as they cut and juked to get open. I know it sounds cliché, but that’s the only way to describe it, and it was a feeling I hadn’t had since before I blew my knee out in Belgium. We went on a 6-0 run and cut their lead to nine.
The Trotters must’ve finally figured out that we were not letting them have this one, that at least a couple of us did have enough “game” because they pushed the ball hard up the court and began to play straight. What else were they going to do, stop the game? That’s not really an option, especially since thousands of fans put down their hard-earned to see a real game. Go ahead, check for yourself. The Harlem Globetrotters do not participate in fixed basketball games. The Trotters are great players, there’s no doubt about it, but they’ve gotten used to not playing hard, to having the game handed to them each night. But us, we’re the fundamental guys who played the game right so that the great players on the team could do their thing. In fact, sound fundamentals are one of the core requirements to be a General. That, and “to understand the role the Generals play in the Harlem Globetrotter’s tour and that a game’s final score doesn’t always determine who wins.” Tonight I was doing my best to change that.
After we picked off one of their lazy passes, they played defense, but it’s been a long time since any of these guys had to play defense where the team with the ball was actually playing. It had been a long time for us, too, but it seemed to come back more quickly for us. Jerry and I beat them down the court with a textbook give-and-go, and we cut the deficit to seven with just over four minutes to go. I stole a look at Ed pacing by our bench. He was doing his best to look like a concerned, focused coach, like I’m sure he thought a good coach was supposed to look when the game was on the line, but his face told a different story. He was worried we might actually win.
The Trotters slowed the pace of the game to burn up as much time from the clock as they could, but we got within five on a fade-away jumper from Roland, and on his way back up the court he nodded at me, and I knew he was on board. We gave up two when Hang-time Harris drove the lane for a dunk. Roland had his feet set and took the charge, but surprise, surprise, we didn’t get the call. If we had, it might’ve been another first in Globetrotters’ history. The blown call gave Ed the perfect opportunity to get tossed. I worried for a moment that he wouldn’t go through with it, but he did, thrown chair and all. I have to think he considered his options, but he probably figured getting tossed would only help his case if he was nervous about being implicated in our growing coup. After Ed’s ejection, the Trotters seemed to think they had the game won and couldn’t help showboating and playing to the crowd, but we took advantage and scored five unanswered, two on a running floater from me and another three from Jerry, to bring the game within two.
If this were real basketball, we would’ve fouled the first Trotter to touch the ball on the inbounds and taken our chances with one of them at the line, or we would’ve double-teamed the guy inbounding the ball to try to get a five second call, but that wasn’t likely to happen given that the refs let the Globetrotters do pretty much whatever they want. No, we had to play it straight-up. Get a clean steal or force them to miss.
I gave Wilkenson room as he brought the ball up the court, and maybe he thought I was letting him have it, that I was finally back on script, that all of this was just to make the game exciting for the fans, because he went between his legs twice and around his back, his signature move: The Whirlybird. Maybe he just couldn’t help himself. Maybe he thought his move was so good that it was impossible to defend, that all the nights he’s beaten me with it were real. When he faked right and went left—he always goes left—I was right there and it was as if he handed the ball off to me. I raced down the court, and even though I knew I should let the rest of my team catch up, get set to play for the final shot, I couldn’t wait. I set my feet behind the three point line, and as I shot, I heard Wilkenson’s feet pounding the court just over my shoulder. As the ball left my fingertips, I saw him in my periphery, lunging, trying to get a hand on the ball, but he was too late. He and I both watched the ball arc through the air and drop cleanly through the net. As hard as I listened for my wife’s whistle in the silence that followed my shot, I couldn’t hear it.
Down one with twelve seconds on the clock, Whirlybird took better care of the ball this time as he brought it up the court, and I played tight, clean defense because I knew the refs would call even the slightest contact now. The Trotters moved the ball crisply around the perimeter trying to find the open man, but I knew that Wilkenson was going to take the last shot so I stuck to him. If we were going to lose it was going to be because he beat me. The crowd counted down the seconds—Five. . .Four. . .Three. . .Two—and just before they got to One, Wilkenson stepped to a pass, set his feet, and went up for a jump shot. I got a hand directly in his face. Who knows how long it had been since he’d taken a shot under that kind of pressure? As the ball left his hand, the buzzer sounded and the entire arena went quiet while they watched his shot kick off the heel of the rim.
The crowd let out a collective groan and again went silent. Most of them just stood in their places, and it seemed they didn’t know what to do, as if they thought the Globetrotters had one more gag in store for them, and this was part of it. Gathered in the center of the court, jumping up and down and mobbing each other, you’d think we’d just won an NBA championship. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the Globetrotters looked as confused as the fans. The way they were standing around reminded me of a boxer who has had a tough round and can’t find his corner. Eventually they headed to the tunnel in the corner of the arena. Despite what you might think, the Harlem Globetrotters have lost to the Generals before, seven times in fact, but not since the ‘70s, so this current incarnation of the team had never lost to us. Until tonight.
When the booing started, I could see it begin to sink in on the faces of everyone on the team. They’d just defeated the mighty Harlem Globetrotters. What did this mean? Would they be fired? I have to admit, I hadn’t planned on the kind of reaction we got from the fans. I would take the heat for all of it, if we got any. I didn’t want everyone fired because of some sudden, misguided sense of pride on my part. I’d been selfish, but my teammates stood by me.
As we went back to our bench—we don’t have equipment managers to carry in our warm-ups and water bottles—I saw the two kids in the front, the same two that belonged to the mother who heard Ed cuss during the time-out. The girl, looking up again at the video board, didn’t seem to care what had happened. The boy, on the other hand, looked confused. His father had probably been telling him all about the world famous Harlem Globetrotters ever since they got the tickets. Probably told him how much fun the game would be, how the Globetrotters would make spectacular shots and unbelievable slam-dunks, and certainly that the Globetrotters would win. The Globetrotters always won. The boy looked so pathetic standing there clutching his souvenirs—a poster and plush red, white, and blue basketball—I wanted to go to him and tell him that what he’d just seen was something good, a triumph, a true victory, but I knew he wouldn’t understand. He’d just seen the Easter Bunny get run over by a truck in front of his house or Santa Clause crash his sleigh into their backyard. He couldn’t understand what it meant to have done what we did. I thought then about my son. He was much too young to comprehend what happened, but even if he wasn’t, would he understand why I did it?
Behind the kids, all the way to the press boxes, fans were yelling and booing. I even saw a few balled up hotdog wrappers come down. Clearly, they couldn’t appreciate it, either. It was as if we’d slayed the dragon and saved the village only to have the village feel sorry for the dragon and hate us for slaying it. Should I have expected any different? After I quickly picked up my stuff, I nodded at the children to show them I was aware of what I’d done.
Usually, on our way to the tunnel a few fans will hang over the railing to shake our hands and tell us we played a good game, or to tell us to hang in there, that we’ll get the Globetrotters one of these days, but tonight, no one was sticking around to congratulate us, and the ones hanging over the railing looked angry, like they’d been cheated. A couple of the guys on the team ran into the tunnel, and I don’t blame them. I would have run if I were them, too. But I was the one who hit the game winning shot.
“You got lucky, Twenty-two!” someone shouted. Though my name is in the program, no one even bothered to look it up.
“I want my money back, asshole!”
“You guys are just a bunch of bums! You don’t deserve to win!”
Just before I went into the tunnel, I thought I heard my wife’s whistle and I stopped. I cocked my head but the sound was gone, if it was ever there, and someone from above dumped their soda on me. The pieces of ice bounced off my head and shoulders and broke apart when they hit the floor. Someone else, taking a cue from the first guy, poured the dregs of his beer over my head. I stopped and looked up at the people at the railing above, but I didn’t say anything. I stood there a winner, waiting for what I had coming to me.
Casey Pycior is a second-year PhD student in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University and an MA in Literature from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Big Muddy, Storyglossia, and American Life in Poetry, among other places. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife, Janell, and his son, Carver.