I looked to my right, through the waterfall of tears clouding my eyesight, and saw Mac. We’d played together since fourth grade and I knew him on the court as well as I knew myself. I knew he almost never missed an open midrange jumper and I knew he was tenacious on the boards. If you were going to get in a fight on the basketball court, Mac was the guy to have by your side. He wasn’t the strongest kid in the world, but he was one of the toughest. I knew he was happy-go-lucky off the court and had a good-natured spirit that contradicted his incredible toughness.
I looked past Mac and saw Matt. Matt was our leader, someone who was always willing to take charge of our team and lead us in the right direction, whether things were good or bad. While some kids were in it for the personal glory, Matt was willing to do all the dirty work to get wins. What he lacked in athletic ability, Matt made up for in spades by knowing his limitations and possessing a very high basketball IQ.
I looked to my left and saw Dan. Dan had been my teammate for years, too. He started off as a whiny kid with a huge temper, but by the time we were seniors he was as mature as anybody else on the team. As a senior he lost playing time to an inferior player but he kept working hard every day, and it paid off when he had a great game for us in the opening round of the playoffs.
I looked across the room at TJ, tears still blurring my vision. I’d never had a better friendship than TJ. Since he started playing for my AAU team in 6th grade, we’d become inseparable. He came over my house every day after school and we’d shoot the shit, play video games, and talk about basketball. We lived, ate, and slept basketball, and my house was our headquarters. TJ was the best player around, a monster on the boards and a weapon offensively. He was too big, powerful and quick for anyone in our area to guard.
They were all crying, and they were all my best friends.
The final game of my high school basketball career still haunts me.
Clank. Clank. Swish.
The third shot went mercifully through the hoop, and I tied the game.
But I’d only tied it. Given three foul shots and down only one point, I should have given us the lead.
25 seconds later, after the other team scored a basket and we missed one at the buzzer, my high school career was over. My teammates were all my best friends, but I’d never play another meaningful game with them. We’d played hundreds of games together and won most of them but our last game shouldn’t have ended like that. Not like that.
I put the loss all on my shoulders. I guess it was unfair, but it’s what you do when you miss crucial shots. I was an eighty percent free throw shooter, and almost never missed clutch ones. Earlier in the season, I’d stepped to the line down one against Sci-Tech, a neighboring high school, and canned both of them to win by one. Time after time I’d made big free throws in the closing moments of games to tie games, put us in the lead or pad the lead we already had.
But nobody, myself included, would ever remember the clutch free throws from my career. I’d be remembered as the guy who missed the big ones, the guy who blew the biggest game of his life with two choke jobs, the guy who kept his best friend TJ, only ten points short of 1,000 for his career, from reaching a milestone, and the guy who kept his high school team from winning its first ever regional title.
Those free throws will always haunt me.
TJ walked out of the locker room, tears dripping down his face like Mom’s spaghetti on her one year old boy. Even after the most devastating loss of our lives, TJ had to go talk to the media about our game.
The loss for TJ was somewhat different. TJ was good enough to play college basketball, and good enough to be one of his college team’s best players. For him, there would be more opportunities to win championships, more chances to band together with his teammates and come out on top.
For the rest of us, the loss was the end of our basketball careers as we knew it. A few of us would go on to play college basketball, but the greener pastures were behind us and we knew it. I played college basketball , but was never able to recapture the joyous feeling of brotherhood nor the spectacular emotion of fierce competition I enjoyed in high school.
TJ would be able to recapture that feeling, yet he still wept that day for our loss. When a team has played together for so long, you become best friends. As a team, we did everything together. We practiced three hours every day during the season and most of us practiced even more in the offseason. We had team lunches every weekend, playing poker and eating pizza as the lunch inevitably turned into dinner and a day-long team bonding session. Tj, like the rest of us, knew that while basketball would continue, he could never replicate our team’s solidarity, nor the brotherhood that had been forged by so many hours in the gym and in the locker room.
Now, we come back once every year to play in our high school’s annual alumni game. The school never had an alumni game until our team begged our coach to implement one so we could lace them up together one more time a year.
So we return and it’s like we’re getting ready for the state playoffs all over again. Most of us have lost contact over the years, yet when we’re together we’re still brothers. We sit in the locker room and tie our shoes, shooting the shit and cherishing every second of being together. We get on the court and move the ball seamlessly, still knowing where each other are going to be on every trip down the floor, as if we’d never stopped practicing together.
After the game (which we always win, by the way), we go out for our lone team lunch of the year and its as if we’re back in high school. We play cards and eat pizza as the lunch inevitably turns into dinner and a day-long team bonding session. We are no longer a team, yet we always will be.
Later in the night, when the night is almost over, someone undoubtedly asks me, “Jay, remember those free throws you missed against Pittsfield?”, and I cringe in remembrance of the day I missed my free throws.
I guess some things will always haunt you.
And other things never change.