The winter wind slammed the gym door closed behind them as, Randy and Wendy, walked into an empty gym at Califon School one cold Saturday morning. They grabbed two basketballs and started practicing. After a minute, “We’re gonna’ lose.” Randy said as his shot caromed off the rim. Wendy didn’t answer. Three more players and the coach of their team, Mr. Michaels arrived. He put his team roster on the scorer’s table and returned to the group.
Wendy said, “Coach Michaels, Randy says we’re going to lose. Are we?” She frowned; Randy just looked down at the floor.
Michaels shook his head. “Randy, let’s take a walk.”
Head down the boy slowly dribbled the ball as the coach took him away from the others. And when they were alone, “Randy, if you think you could lose, you probably will. Do you want to give up and go home?”
Randy looked up, tears in his eyes. “No.”
The Champs had just arrived; the noise level grew much louder. David was their best player. He was tall for his age and his brothers played in high school. Mr. Moore, the Champs’ coach, was very competitive, always urging his players to win. This town basketball league had seven teams of 10 to 11 year old players distributed based on ability; the goal was to create seven equally talented teams.
The Champs had developed three very good players and had won most of their games. Today, they could lock-in first place. The Runts had lost three of their games. Randy and Travis were their best players; the remaining team members players had improved since the season started.
The scoreboard clock counted down to game time. Coach Michaels called his players together; two of his seven team members were missing and the gym was filling up quickly with parents and fans. “Travis you stay close to the net on defense. Randy, you are on the ball; no matter where it goes, okay?” Both boys nodded.
“Wendy, Steven and Stacey keep your hands up on defense. On offense, Travis will pass you the ball. Just like in practice, take the shot.” The team circled around with their hands touching in the middle. “Play hard!” shouted Coach Michaels.
“Go Runts!” The team shouted in unison as the scoreboard buzzer sounded; the Champs in their bright blue shirts were already in center court with the referee as Travis, his yellow shirt tucked neatly into his shorts, moved slowly into the center; David smirked and held out his hand. Travis shook it and the ref tossed the ball straight up.
David was taller and easily tapped the ball to his teammates. The Champs moved quickly to their basket as Randy quickly moved to block the boy with the ball. Why put Randy on the ball? Both Randy’s parents were long distance runners; he practiced with them; Randy never got tired.
As the ball moved around, Randy hawked one player after the other until David took a pass and drove quickly to the basket, jumped and banked his shot off the backboard into the basket. The Champs had scored first; they dropped back into a zone defense.
Randy dribbled up court and passed to Travis. The other Runts scattered into an arc facing the basket. Passing the ball around the outside of the formation, the players were looking for an opening. The loud squeals of sneakers against the gym floor echoed throughout the gym. The parents cheered and shouted encouragement; both coaches moved up the court with their teams. Suddenly, Wendy, was open on the foul line. Randy passed her the ball and she didn’t hesitate. Launching her shot the basketball zipped through the ropes of the basket. The score was tied.
From that point the game went back and forth for two quarters. Players on either side missed shots and made shots and by the end of the third quarter, the score was 21-17, the Champs in the lead. Coach Michaels called timeout and gathered his team near their bench. By that time Trevor had arrived; his parents apologized for his tardiness. Coach Michaels finally had a substitute; his players a needed rest.
“Okay, Trev, give Travis a break for a couple of minutes. Steven or Stacey, you will be next. Hang in there!” The kids, all sweaty and winded, stood in a circle sipping water. So far, they had held the Champs to a four point lead. “Randy, are you getting tired, yet?
“No, Sir!” Randy took another swig of water and wiped the cold bottle across his forehead. “Let’s go guys; we can win this!”
The game buzzer sounded and the Champs in-bounded the ball and a girl dribbled slowly up the back court as Randy ran up to challenge. With the boy blocking her path, the girl moved left and right trying to dribble around him. Randy slapped at the ball as one of the other Champs came back to help.
The girl stopped her dribble, looking to pass, but Randy knocked the ball from her hands and quickly pushed the basketball to the Runts’ basket. He was all alone as he jumped and buried the stolen basketball for a score. The Runts were only down two.
David reacted by taking the inbound pass and driving all the way down the court. He easily put up a score of his own. The action continued for several minutes, but there was little scoring through the rest of the third period and into the final segment.
The ball changes hands back and forth and with the increased intensity, the referees called many fouls on both teams. At this point in the game, each personal foul created a shooting situation; if the player made the first foul shot, he got to take a second shot.
However, many second shots missed the mark. The score was 27-26 as the two teams entered the final minute of the game. Travis came and fought David for the ball; it bounced out of bounds. The possession arrow was with the Champs and they quickly moved down court to increase their score. But, Travis fouled David and he moved to the foul line.
Sweat ran down David’s nose and he wiped it with his shirt sleeve. Bouncing the ball once and a second time, David hefted the ball in the air above his face and launched it toward the basket. His shot clanged off the front of the rim. The silence in the gym disappeared as Travis grabbed the rebound and launched a pass down the court to Randy who was running ahead of everyone else. The ball bounced; Randy scooped it up and dribbled toward the basket. The clock was under a minute as one of the Champs grabbed Randy’s arm before he could take the shot.
The ref’s whistle echoed loudly off the wall of the gym. The fans cheered; each side encouraging their team to play tough. Randy moved to the foul line as the ref tossed him the ball. Another whistle blew as the Champs’ Coach called timeout. Coach Michaels motioned the Runts to their bench.
Michaels looked at each of his players. “Okay, you know who’s going to get the ball, right? What are you going to do Randy?”
Randy nodded. “Coach, I got David.”
Michaels smiled. “Travis, you look for Mark; he’s there other good shooter.” The coach looked at ‘his Runts’; he had named the Runts, because they had always looked small against the other teams. Today was different; his team was tired, sweaty and breathing hard, but in the game. “I’m proud of you guys. You’ve outplayed the best team in the league.”
“It’s not over, yet, Coach” said Wendy, “they’ll be playing to win.”
Michaels put his hand out in the middle of their circle. “Play hard!”
The team leaned in and shouted “Go Runts!” They trotted together onto the court and Randy moved to the foul line; 16 seconds were left in the game. He bowed his head, said a silent prayer and caught the ball from the ref. The gym was totally quiet.
First raising the ball high above his head, Randy bounced it hard against the floor, raised it quickly and launched his one handed shot. The ball arced through the air hit the back of the rim and swished through the net, tying the score at 27-27. The crowd cheered.
“One shot,” the ref bellowed. Total silence enveloped the gym again as the young man took the basketball from the ref.
With the exact same motions, Randy raised, bounced and launched the ball at the basket. However, this time the ball hit the right side of the rim, rolled against the backboard and, for a full second, hung there and ever so slowly, dropped into the net, 28-27 Runts.
The ref’s whistle again stopped the game as the Champs coach called another time out.
Coach Michaels did not call his team off the court, but they looked over to him. They knew what to do. Michaels nodded his head. Randy gave him the thumbs up sign.
But the Champs came out in a different formation. David lined up at half court. The ball went to another player who didn’t usually handle the ball. Randy was covering David, but he was standing still while two other players came quickly up the court. The Champs' coach had guessed Michaels’ defensive strategy; David was a decoy.
Wendy and Travis went to the boys bringing the ball; David moved very slowly up court; the clock moved down to 10 seconds, then 9 seconds.
Randy went for the ball but, as he turned, he noticed the twinkle in David’s eyes as the boy suddenly ran toward his basket. Randy watched David’s back as he moved away. David's teammate launched a one armed “Hail Mary” and David caught the ball three steps from the basket.
Randy was two steps behind straining every muscle to catch up. The fans roared as David launched off the ground with a shot he seldom missed. It was just David and the basket. The ball was in his hand as he stretched his whole body, right hand extending the ball toward the hoop.
Suddenly, out of the corner of one eye, David saw Randy’s hand pass beneath his outstretched arm. It was just a blur, a yellow blur, the color of Randy’s team shirt, moving under him. David’s reflexes took over. There was a split-second flinch, a disruption in the rhythm. He flicked his finger as the ball was about to leave his hand.
Fans cheers filled the air as the basketball hit the rim and the backboard at the same time and dropped aimlessly to the floor. The cheering stopped immediately as the final buzzer sounded, ending the game.
Randy had landed on his belly off the court, got to his knees and spun quickly around to watch the basketball bounce then slowly roll across the court. He threw his arms straight up. “Yes!”
The Runts smothered him then picked him up off the floor; they danced around, suddenly free of any weariness.
Randy shouted. “We won; we beat the Champs”.
They had just beaten the best team in the league. Coach Michaels joined the group, pumping both fists in the air. “You did it!” He shouted.
Randy, smiled. “We did it, Coach.”
"It isn’t the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog.”
― Mark Twain
Based on a true story- RJS 1922 words