Fade Away Page 14

The pep talk lasted a full two minutes. Some of the guys never bothered turning off their Walkmans. TC was busy taking off his jewelry, a task that took great concentration and a team of well-trained technicians. Another minute or two passed and then the locker-room door opened. Everyone removed their Walkmans and headed out. Myron realized they were heading for the court.

Game time.

Myron stood at the end of the line. He swallowed deeply. A cold rush swept through him. As he made his way up the ramp he heard a voice over the loudspeaker scream, “And nowwwwww, your New Jersey Dragons!” Music blared. The jog quickened into a full trot.

The ovation was thunderous. The players automatically split into two makeshift lines for the lay-up drill. Myron had done this a zillion times before, but for the first time he really thought about what he was doing. When you were a star or a starter, you warmed up casually, loosely, unhurriedly. There was no reason to press it. You had the whole game to show the crowd what you could do. The scrubs—something Myron had never been—handled the warm-ups in one of two ways. Some went all out, slamming reverse dunks, doing windmill moves. In a phrase: showing off. Myron had always found this behavior sort of desperate. Others hung around the superstars, feeding them the ball, playing the mock defender like a boxer with a sparring partner. Cool by association.

Myron got to the front of the lay-up line. Someone passed him the ball. When you’re warming up, you are subconsciously convinced that all eyes in the arena are on you, though in point of fact, most people were settling in or chatting or getting food or checking out the crowd and those that were watching couldn’t care less what you did. Myron took two dribbles and laid the ball against the glass and in. Sheesh, he thought. The game hadn’t started yet and already he didn’t know what to do.

Five minutes later the lay-up lines disintegrated and players began to free shoot. Myron glanced into the stands for Jessica. She was not hard to spot. It was like a beacon hit her, like she came forward and the rest of the crowd stepped back, like she was the Da Vinci and the rest of the faces were but a frame. Jessica smiled at him and he felt a warmth spread through him.

With something close to surprise, he realized that this would be the first time Jessica had seen him play in anything but pickup games. They’d met three weeks before Myron’s injury. The thought made him pause. And remember. For a brief moment his mind dragged him back. Guilt and pain washed over him until a ball careened off the backboard and smacked him in the head. But the thought remained:

I owe Greg.

The buzzer sounded and the players moved to the bench. Coach Walsh blurted out a few more clichés and made sure each player knew who they were covering. The players nodded, not listening. TC still glared. Game face, Myron hoped, but didn’t really believe it. He also kept an eye on Leon White, Greg’s roommate on the road and closest friend on the team. The huddle broke. The players from both sides approached the center circle, greeting one another with handshakes and hand slaps. Once out there, the players on both teams started pointing around, trying to figure out who was covering whom since no one had listened thirty seconds earlier. Coaches from both sides were up, yelling out the defensive assignments until the ball was mercifully tossed in the air.

Basketball is normally a game of momentum shifts, keeping things fairly close until the final minutes. Not tonight. The Dragons cruised. They led by twelve after one quarter, twenty points by halftime, twenty-six by the end of the third period. Myron started getting nervous. The lead was big enough for him to get in. He hadn’t really counted on that. Part of him silently cheered on the Celtics, hoping they could stage enough of a comeback to keep his butt on the aluminum chair. But it was a no-go. With four minutes remaining the Dragons led by twenty-eight points. Coach Walsh shot a glance down the bench. Nine of the twelve players had already gotten in. Walsh whispered something to the Kipper. The Kipper nodded and walked down the bench, stopping in front of Myron. Myron could feel his heart beating in his chest.

“Coach is going to clear the bench,” he said. “He wants to know if you want to go in.”

“Whatever he wants,” Myron replied, while sending out telepathic messages of no, no, no. But he couldn’t tell them that. It wasn’t in his nature. He had to play the good trooper, Mr. Team-First, Mr. Dive-On-The-Grenade-If-That’s-What-The-Coach-Wants. He didn’t know how else to do it.

A time-out was called. Walsh looked down the bench again. “Gordon! Reilly! You’re in for Collins and Johnson!”

Myron let loose a breath. Then he got mad at himself for feeling such relief. What kind of competitor are you? he asked himself. What kind of a man wants to stay on the bench? Then the truth rose up and smacked him hard in the face:

He was not here to play basketball.

What the hell was he thinking? He was here to find Greg Downing. This was just undercover work, that’s all. Like with the police. Just because a guy goes undercover and pretends he’s a drug dealer doesn’t make him a drug dealer. The same principle applied here. Just because Myron was pretending to be a basketball player didn’t make him one.

The thought was hardly comforting.

Thirty seconds later, it started. And it filled Myron’s chest with dread.

One voice triggered it. One beer-infested voice rising clearly above all others. One voice that was just deep enough, just different enough, to separate it from the usual cacophony of fandom. “Hey, Walsh,” the voice cried out. “Why don’t you put in Bolitar?”

Myron felt his stomach plummet. He knew what was coming next. He had seen it happen before, though never to him. He wanted to sink into the floor.

“Yeah!” another voice crowed. “Let’s see the new guy!”

More shouts of agreement.

It was happening. The crowd was getting behind the underdog, but not in a good way. Not in a positive way. In the most blatantly patronizing and mocking way possible. Be-Nice-To-The-Scrub time. We’ve won the game. We want a few laughs now.

A few more calls for Myron and then … the chant. It started low but built. And built. “We want Myron! We want Myron!” Myron tried not to slouch. He pretended not to hear it, feigning intense concentration on what was happening on the court, hoping his cheeks weren’t reddening. The chant grew louder and faster, eventually disintegrating into one word, repeated over and over, mixed with laughter:

“Myron! Myron! Myron!”

He had to defuse it. There was only one way. He checked the clock. Still three minutes to go. He had to go in. He knew that wouldn’t be the end of it, but it would at least quiet the crowd temporarily. He looked down the bench. The Kipper looked back. Myron nodded. The Kipper leaned over to Coach Walsh and whispered something. Walsh did not stand up. He simply shouted, “Bolitar. In for Cameron.”

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