It was loud. I had been around the block a time or two, so I had heard noisy crowds, but it never got dull. It was a force in the air, a bowel loosening, throat tightening physical thing that made your pulse race a little bit more, and your eyes narrow to slits. Coach outlined the play for us, but we all knew what it was. Everybody did- the opponents, the smarter fans, the TV guys. It was no secret. We ran it at the end of practice, Coach making us run it over and over until the shot went in with metronomic precision. It was called "Eagle", but it could be called anything- it had five quick options, A through E, after which the inbounder would just toss the ball in and hope for the best. We were out of time outs, and out of better choices.
I looked at my teammates, their faces set and grim. We didn't need to talk, we all knew what to do. We went to the preset spots, looking into the hostile, angry faces in the stands. It wasn't very often it came down to a single moment like this- do it or don't, win or lose, all in the next few moments. The scoreboard told the story, down 98-97 with 2.5 seconds to play, our ball on the side. I could see people's faces contorted, passionate, their voices combining into one diffuse roaring sound. They wanted to will their side to stop us, to move a little bit faster, to interrupt our play and secure a win. We were focused, our movements precise and calculated, intent on our assignments and our mission.
The arena was playing "Crazy Train" to encourage the fans. They didn't seem to need any help. The PA announcer cut the music off when the referee held the ball up, and the crowd's noise hit a fever pitch. It edged into frightening- if it wasn't in the context of sports, it would feel like someone was about to be killed. All five of us were leaning against an opponent, smelling each other's sweat, feeling the slick of another man's bare skin where we rubbed. It was intimate, uncomfortable, but it was something you were used to, having played this game since we were young. When playing such a physical game, where an inch might make a difference between making a play and not, you had to stand closer to another man than you would at any other time. Almost at the same moment, we moved as one, weeks and months of repetition giving us the ability to move without thinking.
I could feel the small space opening up that meant I was free, I had a step on my man. I was tired- we all were tired- but being a professional meant you dug down and summoned up the energy for one final burst of speed. I saw the gap, knew I would be getting the pass, and the ball was on the way as soon as I could form the thought. I knew, from years of practice, that I had time for one quick step before I put up the shot, 2.5 seconds being a relative eternity in basketball. The plan formed in my head instantly, and I caught it, took one long step and dribble to get space, moving onto a empty spot on the floor, then went up for the shot. The crowd was still making noise, but I was unaware of them. They were a blur of red and black and white as I rose to shoot. It was the same motion, the same process, the same steps I had made tens of thousands of times over the years, in practice and games. The calculations went on blindingly fast, angles and tangents and spin and arc, and the shot was off.
I heard the siren ending the game as I came back down from my jump. I knew the shot had been released in time- the only question now was whether or not it would go in. It sounds arrogant to say that I knew it would go in. I felt like it would, it felt good leaving my hand. But I didn't know that it would go in. I had launched thousands and thousands of shots, in gyms by myself, at practice, and in games, and I knew how it felt when the shot was good. But I also knew you could feel perfect, and you're just wrong- you're not as close as you thought, or you made some tiny adjustment at the last second that threw you off, or the basketball gods just said no. Sometimes it felt just right, and you missed, and there was nothing you could do but just chalk it up to fate. I knew we had done our best. The play had worked just like it was supposed to. I ran my defender through a pair of screens, giving me just enough space to catch, step, set myself and take a good shot. If it didn't go in, it wasn't meant to be. It wouldn't be because of any lack of effort on our part, that was for sure.
As the horn sound faded away, I could hear the crowd again. They never stopped making noise, but it was like hitting the mute button on a TV. Once we broke the huddle, my focus was so intense that, as much noise as they made, I couldn't hear them. I only knew space, and angle, and path, speed, force, and space. The roar was back for a split second, like turning on a faucet, followed by a gasp, and then silence. A sweet, perfect silence accompanied by the sound of chairs snapping back into place as people headed for the exit, back slaps from my teammates and I could hear the TV announcers excitedly describing the shot at courtside. I didn't need to check the scoreboard- their silence told me as loud as words that the shot went in and victory was ours.
This week's Indie Ink Challenge came from Liz Culver, who gave me this prompt: "a quiet moment". I challenged Cedar with the prompt "an offer I couldn't refuse".