“All right,” Coach says. “Let’s concentrate on the game plan.”
No one says a word to me in the huddle and I sort of fade into the background.
When the game resumes, Boy21 dominates.
He hits three pointers.
He pulls rebounds.
Runs fast breaks.
Dunks the ball.
It’s like an NBA player decided to show up and play for our high-school team—that’s how good Boy21 is. He’s Andre Iguodala, playing against children. A man among boys. Players fall down like they have broken ankles when they try to guard Russ, because he’s too quick. Boy21 outruns, outshoots, outjumps, and outdribbles everyone on the court.
Soon we’re winning easily—but the second quarter ends with me still on the bench.
While Coach and Mr. Watts argue with the Pennsville coaches, who are demanding that the refs check Boy21’s eligibility—as if Coach is expected to pull out a file containing Boy21’s birth certificate and papers that document his entire life—the team goes into the locker room and peppers Boy21 with questions.
Why were you pretending that you couldn’t play?
How’d you learn to play like that?
What was that you said earlier about having extraterrestrial powers?
Where’d you come from?
What the hell is going on?
Boy21 sits on the locker-room bench listening to all of the questions with a very peaceful expression on his face.
If I didn’t know better, I might say he looks smug.
But I know better.
He has two choices: He can tell everyone about his parents being murdered and his spending so much time in a group home for teens diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, or he can tell them about outer space.
I know what he’ll choose before he even opens his mouth.
“I am called Boy21,” Russ finally says to the team. “I’m a prototype sent to your planet to collect data on what you Earthlings call emotions. I’m not human, as you can clearly see when I play basketball to the best of my ability.”
All jaws drop.
Wes squints like he’s expecting me to put it all into context for him, but what would I say even if I were more of a talker?
“What the hell are you talkin’ ’bout, Russ? Stop playin’, yo!” Hakim says, and then everyone laughs nervously.
“You’re not for real?” Sir says, smiling now, as if what Boy21 said was all a joke. “You’re just messin’ with us, right, Russ?”
Boy21 shakes his head the way a father would at a little boy who doesn’t understand something elementary, something simple that all adults understand—like why lakes freeze in the winter, or where babies come from.
“He’s not playin’,” Terrell says, looking very serious. “He believes it. You can see it in his eyes. This fool’s crazy.”
Boy21 just continues to smile sort of sadly.
Before anyone can say more, Coach strides into the room and launches into an explanation of his game plan for the second half now that Pennsville’s out of the triangle-and-two and will be focusing more on Russ.
It’s hard for me to listen to Coach talk about basketball.
I think about the newspaper photographers and reporters I saw standing at the end of the court—all the many classmates and neighborhood people who’ll now be focusing their attention on the new basketball god in town. It won’t be long before the word spreads and college scouts start coming—maybe even NBA scouts.
This might all sound overly dramatic on my part, but everyone in the room is thinking the same thing on some level after seeing what Boy21 can do.
We’re going to win the state championship, and that’s what matters most—not the fact that Boy21 is claiming to be from outer space.
While Coach talks, the smile on Boy21’s face grows more and more strange, but he doesn’t really seem to be paying attention to Coach, or to any of us—he’s off in his own little world.
When we burst from the locker room and begin our halftime warm-up, I spot Erin staring at me with a very concerned expression on her face. I don’t look up at Pop and Dad. I figure Coach will work me back into the game at some point, but I’m starting to feel pretty humiliated and pathetic sitting here on the bench, especially after all the work I did this past season and what I did to help Boy21 after Coach asked me to do just that.
But Coach doesn’t work me back into the game.
Pennsville focuses on containing Boy21 in the second half, which allows Sir, Hakim, Wes, and Terrell to score a lot of points.
We maintain a ten-point lead throughout, but Coach doesn’t risk subbing in any of the bench—not even when Pennsville calls time-out with only a minute to go.
By the end of the game the finality of my position hits me and my eyes begin to burn. I feel as though I might start crying. As lame as it sounds.
My relegation hurts.
I love basketball more than anything.
I worked harder than anyone on the team.
I spent all that time with Boy21, just like Coach asked me to do.
And yet I rode the bench through one of the most important games of the year.
When we win and it’s time to shake hands, the few reporters in the building rush Boy21 and ask him questions about who he is and where he came from.
“Call me Boy21,” he tells them, and then he points to the ceiling. “I’m from outer space.”
Coach is arguing with the Pennsville coach, who shouts, “The kid couldn’t have just dropped from the sky! Why didn’t anyone know about this Washington if he’s a legit part of your squad? What did you have to hide? I’m protesting this game! This is bullshit!”
The students and parents have rushed onto the floor and my teammates are celebrating like we’ve already won the state championship.
Boy21 is talking about the cosmos with a handful of very confused reporters.
My teammates are high-fiving everyone, yelling taunts, rapping, and even dancing. Parents and students are on the court. It’s like a deliriously happy mob has formed, almost like it’s New Year’s Day or something. I should be celebrating too, but I can’t.
I feel like I might freak out.
I’m not supposed to leave, but I slip out the back door and start running laps on the crappy track.
It’s cold out, especially since I’m only wearing my basketball uniform, and suddenly I’m sprinting, although I’m not sure why.
I’m never going to get any significant minutes at point guard now that Boy21 has emerged as the best damn player in the universe—and I worked so hard. I can’t imagine facing Pop and Dad later, having to tell them that I tried my best, but I’m no longer a starter. And I also know that things with Boy21 and me are going to change as well. No more being left alone, and how can I be his friend when all’s I want to do is beat him out for the point-guard position? It’s not fair.
And so I run harder, trying to stop thinking, turn off my mind, get the endorphins flowing, the heart pounding, and work off what I couldn’t while sitting on the bench.
“Finley—wait up!” Erin sprints to catch up with me. “You need to go back inside or Coach will suspend you for leaving before the team talk.”
“I can’t talk to you,” I say. “It’s basketball season. We broke up.”
“Go back inside before Coach realizes you left.”
“Didn’t you see how good he is?”
“Then why should I go back inside?”
“Because you worked hard. We worked hard. You owe it to me. Coach benched you because you stopped shooting, not because Boy21 is better than you. If you would’ve kept shooting in the first quarter when he told you to shoot, he would’ve worked you back into the game. But you didn’t execute the game plan, Finley. He was disciplining you. And now you’re acting like a baby, running out here all alone in the dark, freezing-cold night.”
Erin says all this while sprinting next to me, and for some reason her words make me pick up the pace until she stops running.
I sprint a lap without her.
I was being disciplined, and I deserved it.
I am acting like a baby.
The sprinting relaxes me.
I want to tell Erin that she was amazing out there on the court tonight, but I’m still upset, so when I reach her I just nod once and pant out warm silver clouds into the cold night.
Erin is shivering and I fight the urge to put an arm around her.
“Get your butt inside!” Erin smiles at me sort of funny. “Hurry!”
I want to touch her. A roof night with Erin would feel fantastic right about now. My toes and fingers start to tingle. I’m glad when she lets me off the hook by raising her hand. I give her a high five and then run back inside, where the team is finally filing into the locker room.
Again, Boy21 sits with what could be mistaken for a very smug look on his face, but no one is asking any questions this time.
When Coach arrives he starts talking about what worked in the game and what we need to improve, just like he always does. He doesn’t say a word about Boy21.
Coach talks some more about what we will be focusing on tomorrow in practice, and then he tells us that he’s proud of the way we played as a team tonight, which is a little ironic because I only played a minute or so and the other twelve nonstarters in the room who don’t think they are from outer space didn’t get into the game.
When the talk is over we put our hands in the middle and yell “Team!”
As we disperse, Coach Watts stands between Boy21 and the rest of the squad, almost like he doesn’t want anyone to speak to Russ.
Coach Wilkins asks me to meet him in his office, and when he shuts the door behind him he says, “Russ is the new point guard, so if you want to get into the game, you had better shoot the ball when you’re open. Understand?”
“You didn’t execute the game plan, Finley. I had to bench you. Would’ve done the same thing to any other player.”
I believe that.
“You have anything to say?” Coach asks.
I think about it, and then say, “I think he’s pretending.”
“Russ. He’s just talking about outer space to keep people at arm’s length.”
“He doesn’t want to play basketball.”
“If he didn’t want to play, I don’t think he would have put on such a show tonight,” Coach says.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Coach.”
“We do the best we can, Finley. We can’t change what happened to the boy’s parents, but we can give him an opportunity to do what he’s best at. He needs to play basketball—just like you do. Trust me.”
Coach has to believe he’s doing the right thing because he doesn’t know what else to do. I once heard someone say that everything looks like a nail to the man with a hammer in his hand. I thought it was just a corny cliché when I first heard that expression, but I think it actually applies to Coach right about now, which makes me sort of sad.
I want to play basketball and win the state championship.