Sports Fiction posted August 16, 2010


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
Inspired by True Events

The Assist

by ROBbury

Kirk Woods cringed when he heard "Now playing for the Lambert Lions, Samuel 'Sparky' Ferguson" over the speakers. The Lambert High School fans, bored with the runaway score of the basketball game, came alive: standing and cheering, giving Sparky a momentary standing ovation. But Kirk realized the consequences of the announcement - no Lion was to score until Sparky did.

Kirk's hope of capturing an elusive record would have to wait until the new player scored. No one in the history of Lambert High School had accumulated triple doubles - at least ten points, ten rebounds, and ten assists - in each game for an entire season. No one, that was, until this season. In each of the previous games Kirk, a senior, pulled off this amazing feat. Tonight, one basket separated Kirk from everlasting glory. Somewhere in the gym, a banner would sway from the ceiling, displaying his name and the accomplishment. However, tonight his shooting was cold as the winter weather outside. Some of his shots were too strong, bouncing off the backboard without touching the rim of the basket. Others rimmed in and out of the basket. Those missed shots haunted him. If every shot had counted, he swore he would have netted over thirty points. Now the pressure of the quest, more than the physical wear of the game, fatigued him. Every muscle in his body ached. His unwavering spirit desired one last shot.

Greater than chasing the glory of the banner loomed the underlying ambition of Kirk wearing a college uniform next season. This season he pushed himself to perform at a level where his outstanding performances could be noticed by a college. His first choice was State. He had dreamed of playing for State ever since he scored his first basket back in the third grade. Tonight his wish had a chance to become reality. In attendance a college recruiter from State University sat next to Ricky Jennings' promoter. Ricky bragged during the season how his parents had hired a promoter to land him a scholarship to State University. Kirk approached his parents about hiring a promoter, but his parents told him they could not afford one. Unsure if he could ever earn a basketball scholarship to any college, they encouraged Kirk to earn an academic scholarship. Then if he wished to pursue basketball in college, he could earn a spot as a walk-on. Regardless of their suggestion, Kirk wanted the basketball scholarship. When he heard Ricky brag that a recruiter would be at the game tonight, he hoped to achieve the triple doubles something spectacular to impress the recruiter.

Sparky, a special needs student who possessed a learning disability, donned the black and gold uniform of the Lions for the first and only time tonight. During his freshman year he tried out for the team, but his name did not appear on the roster at the end of tryouts. Sparky had confided his disappointment to Kirk and those who made the team. At the urging of Kirk and others, Sparky did not let this set back dampen his enthusiasm. The freshman coach named Sparky as the student manager for the freshman team. In that role, he became the team's biggest fan. He attended every team meeting, game, and practice. He celebrated each victory and cried after each loss as if he was one of them, only to assure the team the next game would be victorious. Sparky greeted each player with a high five when they came off the court regardless of how well they performed. He waved his towel in the air after each three pointer swished through the net. The entire cheerleading squad could not match his fervor. Some time during the season, the team nicknamed him Sparky after one of the Lions suggested he was the 'sparkplug' of the team. After witnessing Sparky's undying passion, Coach Webster promoted him to student manager of the varsity team the next season. The coach decided Sparky earned the chance to be on the hard wood tonight by being more than the dedicated student manager of the team.

The team loved Sparky. His love for basketball became well known throughout the school. Every season students would stop Sparky between classes to discuss the previous and upcoming games, making him late for many classes. Sparky's charm was the reason the teachers were reluctant to reprimand him. But he never seemed to mind the tardy slips, for the school administration would have the same discussions on basketball as the students had with him.

Each summer Sparky participated in the Special Olympics, playing basketball with the same vigor he displayed as the team's manager. The team he applauded throughout the high school season returned the encouragement. Kirk and his teammates cheered Sparky after each basket he scored and reassured him after each missed shot. During these games Kirk and his teammates met Sparky's parents. His passion for the game seemed to be a family trait. His parents never missed a game. It made no difference to them whether Sparky played in it or retrieved Gatorade for the team as the student manager. Sparky had two older brothers who played basketball at Lambert High School. Kirk never met them until the Special Olympics; they graduated before he was a freshman. Sparky's family treated the team as if they were members of their family.

Excitement ran through the school halls when the coach announced Sparky would play in the last game of the season. During the week the students', the teachers', and even the janitors' faces lit up with smiles every time they encountered Sparky, wishing him the best for Friday night's game. With the attention given to Sparky, Kirk felt he had been forgotten. A small article appeared in the school newspaper about his attempted feat. No student, not even his teammates acknowledged it. All focus centered around Sparky. Kirk grew envious, but could not bring himself to despise Sparky. After all, Sparky was more than the team manager - he was the heart and soul of the team.

Five minutes remained when Sparky made his debut as a Lion. The lopsided score assured the Lions of a victory. Their opponents, the Wolves, had little chance at a come back and their coach knew it. Their reserve players, comprised of sophomores and juniors, were on the court, vying for a starting position next season. Until Sparky had entered the game, the crowd, who at the beginning of the game displayed their usual Friday night frenzy, became almost sedated. By half time the Lions' lead had swelled to twenty points. The crowd's response to each score declined from the rabid fury at the beginning of the game to a polite clap. During half time most of the crowd left the gym, socializing in the outer hall. Once the second half started, the seats remained empty. The few, who did return to their seats, paid little attention to the game despite being in their home gym. Now Sparky's presence on the court renewed their interest. Those who were in the hall hurried back to their seats when his name was announced. Once again the fans became rambunctious.

The Wolves, dressed in their visiting uniforms of red and white, brought the ball down the court. Sloppy play, namely poor passing, allowed Ricky Jennings to steal the ball as an inexperienced sophomore failed to step towards the pass. Ricky stepped in front of him to intercept the pass and drove the ball down the court. Sparky jetted down the court past Ricky and waited under the basket for a pass, which would give him his first high school career points. Surprised by the speed of his chubby teammate, Ricky ignored him and scored using a left-handed lay up. Tonight he followed his own agenda.

Immediately Coach Webster, a stout man who looked more like a football coach rather than a basketball coach, signaled for a time out before the Wolves could in-bound the ball. His piercing eyes glared at Ricky who just scored his twenty-sixth point of the game, by far his best game of the season. Elated with his performance, Ricky tried to hide his smirk as he prepared himself for a tongue lashing.

"Jennings," growled the coach with a ringing tone. "What part of team work don't you understand? I don't care if a recruiter came here to see you play tonight. You're on the bench." He tapped a sophomore, whose skills were considerably less than Ricky's, on the shoulder as the replacement. "For four seasons, Sparky has been supporting you. All I ask for is team play in the last five minutes of the season. Sparky earned this moment. He deserves a chance to score. If no one can understand the concept of team play, he can observe how it is done from the bench."

Again the Wolves had ball possession and brought the ball up the court in a timid manner. When they reached the three point line, they passed the ball around the perimeter without even attempting to take a shot as if they were trying to avoid having the ball stolen again. The defensive pressure of the Lions was minimal since the Wolves were beyond the three point line. Their shot selection was out of range, making the chance of scoring poor. Kirk, the only senior on the court, realized the inexperience of the players from both teams. Finally after a minute, one of Wolves shot the ball and hit the backboard without touching the rim. Kirk jumped to snare the rebound and held the ball, allowing the Wolves to return to defend their basket. He dribbled the ball down the court. When he reached the three point line, he looked at an unguarded Sparky who the Wolves did not consider a threat. Kirk flung the pass to him. Sparky caught the hard pass, forcing him to be off-balanced. Without being in a proper shooting form, he took his first shot in his high school career, hoping the ball would find the net. The shot looked more like a toss, as the ball floated over the basket. Kirk refrained from chastising Sparky. Instead he blamed himself for the poor pass; a better pass would have allowed for a better shot. The ball landed in the hands of a surprised Wolves' player. He pushed the ball up the court and was fouled as he scored a lay up. The fouled player stepped to the free throw line and scored. To the dismay of Kirk, the 'mercy rule' - designed to give teams, losing by more than twenty points, a chance to exit the game sooner - permitted the clock to continue to run during the last two minutes of the game.

Kirk handed the ball to a teammate and yelled to his team as he waved his arms. "No fouls. We have the game won. Let them score. No fouls." Time was his enemy and letting the clock run down without the ball being in his possession was devastating. He needed every remaining second to allow Sparky to score and to give himself one last opportunity having his name immortalized in the school's history.

Kirk brought the ball down the court once again. At mid-court a defender confronted him. He dribbled to his left, taking the defender with him, and with a quick turn he dribbled to his right, eluding the defender. Another defender rushed to stop Kirk, but he sidestepped the defender and passed to Sparky who was left unguarded. Sparky's shot hit the rim and the ball flew straight to into the hands of a tall, lanky defender. Kirk, Sparky, and the rest of the team dashed back to defend their basket.

The Wolves' player also sprinted up the court, weaving through a scattered Lion's defense. The only remaining obstacle in his pursuit of a basket was Kirk. If he tried a lay up, he would have to run into Kirk and draw a foul as he attempted to score. But Kirk stood firm, unflinching. The player knocked Kirk to the floor. The referee blew his whistle and signaled an offensive foul to the protest of the player. As the referee walked over to the scorekeepers to announce the infraction, Kirk thought he would be standing at the foul line with a chance to set the record. The second referee stood outside the line and pointed to where the ball would be thrown in. Kirk drew a deep breath as he remembered there were no free throws for offensive fouls, even though the Lions were in the bonus for foul shots.

Less than a minute remained. Kirk's hope drained as each second escaped from the scoreboard. He studied the opposing team as he dribbled the ball over the mid-court line. The positions of the opponents revealed they switched to a zone defense once more. Their attempts at a man-to-man defense proved useless. Their best success, though limited, utilized the zone defense. Kirk felt confident he could score against this defense. Even if he missed, he was sure he would be fouled and be sent to the free throw line to redeem himself.

The senior glanced at his coach for instructions, hoping for the green light. But there was no signal from the coach to deviate from the original plan. Kirk sighed as every ounce of hope drained from his body. He knew what the coach still expected him to do - pass the ball to Sparky. The thought that this possession might be Kirk's last opportunity to score entered his mind. After all, Sparky had a couple of shots. If Sparky missed again, the Lions may not retain ball possession for the rest of the game.

In the corner of his eye, Kirk caught a glimpse of Sparky's parents, occupying their usual seats a few rows past his bench. Mr. Ferguson sat on the edge of his seat, anticipating another shot from his son. Mrs. Ferguson watched the game with her hands clasped in front of her chin as if she was praying. Kirk recalled the brief conversation he had with Sparky's dad before the game, assuring him Sparky would play. "It's set, Mr. Ferguson. In the last few minutes of the game the coach will put in Sparky. He's been practicing with us all week." Sparky's enthusiasm must have been beaming at home as it had been in school all week for the chance to play a moment at the varsity level. The picture of a proud dad's smiling eyes from that conversation haunted Kirk as he glanced at Sparky standing at the post position, waiting for the opportunity to score for the Lions as he had fantasized every day for the past four years. Kirk decided Sparky deserved another chance at his dream - he earned it.

Kirk bounced the ball between his legs. His body tilted forward as he sprinted to the top of the key. Three defenders rushed to stop him, leaving Sparking unguarded. He bounced the ball through a narrow opening between two defenders. The ball landed into the hands of Sparky, who was set for a shot. The prefect pass allowed Sparky's feet to remain planted in unison and his shoulders squared to the basket. As the ball left his hands for the shot, his shooting hand flopped down, indicating the ideal shooting form.

The crowd quieted, focusing on the ball sailing upward through the air. Kirk watched as he eluded the three who guarded him, who were also watching the shot. He positioned himself for the rebound, standing on the front of his feet with his knees bent. The ball swished through the nylon net without touching the rim. The crowd erupted as the voice over the speakers announced, "Sparky Ferguson for three". Clapping, shouting, whistling, and the stomping of feet against the floor of the bleachers deafened the gym.

Kirk stood on the balls of his feet, ready to steal the ball on an inbound pass, hoping for an opportunity to score one last basket. The crowd counted the final seconds of the game. The Wolves were in no rush to retrieve the ball which rolled away from the basket. Their guard picked up the ball with ten seconds left and held it. The referee failed to count to the limit of five seconds for holding the ball. Kirk's heart sank through his stomach at the sound of the buzzer. The game was over; the season ended. His quest fell short by one basket. His chance for earning a basketball scholarship to play at the collegiate level ended. His eyes never left the scoreboard which displayed zeroes in the time.

Students emptied their seats, bumping Kirk as they rushed onto the floor to surrounded Sparky. Perched on the shoulders of his teammates, Sparky whipped his uniform shirt in the air, twirling with his usual frenzy. Students paid homage to their hero of the moment, holding their hands up, wishing for a returned slap. A beaming Sparky granted their request, reaching out to as many hands as he could. Fists pumped into the air as the repeated chant of "Sparky, Sparky" echoed throughout the gym.

Kirk looked over at his coach who stood clapping his hands. Sparky's dad placed his hand on the coach's shoulder and bent over to his to speak to the coach. The coach turned and nodded, acknowledging Mr. Ferguson. Sparky's mom wiped the streaming tears from her face. A smile overcame Kirk's long face as he walked over to the hero of the moment.

Kirk muscled his way through the crowd to congratulate Sparky, still sitting on his make-shift throne. When Kirk reached Sparky, he raised his hand towards him. Grinning, Sparky grabbed it with both of his hands. His uniform jersey draped over Kirk's arm.

"You're the man, Sparky!" Kirk shouted.

"I am the man!" Sparky yelled with both arms in the air.

The crowd paraded Sparky to the other end of the court. Kirk remained, watching the spectacle. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Surprised, he turned to see the recruiter extending his hand. Kirk shook hands with him as the recruiter screamed over the noise of the jubilant crowd to introduce himself.

"Son," the recruiter shouted. "I would like to talk to you about an opportunity at State."

"I could have done better tonight. This wasn't my best game."

"Coach Jennings wrote to us about your triple doubles all season. That's quite an accomplishment. There are some things more important than scoring points. State wants team players. I know you had a chance to score in the final seconds of the game. Giving up a school record for that assist proved you are the kind of player we are looking for."

"Weren't you here for Ricky?" the senior, still stunned, asked.

The recruiter grinned and winked. "Don't worry about Jennings. We have more than one scholarship available."



Recognized


Sparky and his chance to play in a high school basketball game is based on a true story. His name was changed. The other characters are fictional with the exception of his parents.
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