Julian Pryce sat on the bench in the gym. His head was bowed. His hands dangled between his knees.
Something bad was about to happen. He alone knew what it was. He’d known it for almost a month, actually. He wished he could do something to stop it. But he couldn’t. It was out of his control.
The coach of the Tornadoes basketball team, Mr. Valenti, strode into the gym. “Good afternoon, boys. Before we begin, I have an announcement.”
Here it comes, Julian thought. His heart started to thrum in his chest.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the coach said, “but this is Julian’s last game with us.”
Julian stared at the floor, listening to his teammates gasp.
“What do you mean, this is his last game? Did he—Julian, are you quitting or something?” The question came from Cal, the second string center.
Julian’s head shot up. “No! I’m not a quitter!”
“Julian’s family is moving on Saturday,” the coach said quietly.
“What?!” Grady Coughlin, one of Julian’s best friends, grabbed him by the arm. “You’re moving? Since when?”
“Since my dad got a promotion last month,” Julian said miserably.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Tell us?” Grady cried.
Julian scrubbed his hands over his face. “I don’t know! Maybe because saying it out loud would make it real. Or because I didn’t want to go through an awkward good-bye. Or maybe because I figured that you all would start treating me differently.”
“Treating you differently?” Grady echoed. “Like how?”
Julian sighed. “Like since I was moving, maybe it didn’t make sense to include me in stuff you were doing. Why bother with me if I was leaving, you know?”
Grady pushed his straight blond hair away from his forehead and gave Julian a long look. Then he nodded solemnly. “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right. I would have totally ignored you.”
Julian blinked. “You—really?”
Grady’s serious look changed into a broad smile. “Uh, no! Sheesh, man, what kind of friend do you think I am?” He kicked Julian lightly in the shin.
Julian barely felt it. He was too busy feeling something else—relief! That feeling grew even greater as his teammates gathered around him, patting him on the back, socking him in the arm, and telling him what an idiot he was for even thinking that way.
Coach Valenti clapped his hands. “All right, now that the bad news is out of the way, what do you say we start with the layup drill? The other team is going to be here soon and we want to be sure we’re warmed up.”
“Yeah, but we’re not going to be warmed up, Coach,” forward Mick Reiss interjected. “We’re going to be red hot!”
The team exploded in shouts of agreement. Then they split into two lines at mid-court and took turns going to the basket for layups and retrieving the shots.
Julian was the third player to shoot. Unlike some taller-than-average thirteen-year-olds, he had a steady, controlled dribble. He also had a great shooting touch. Now, as he neared the basket, he gently guided the ball up to the sweet spot on the backboard. It hit perfectly and fell through the net with a soft swishing sound. Cal nabbed the ball and then he and Julian switched lines.
Julian watched his teammates move through the drill. He marveled at how smoothly they worked together. It hadn’t always been that way. In fact, at the beginning of the season, they’d looked so clumsy that Julian had almost given up hope of winning a single game.
Losing wasn’t something Julian was used to. Last season, he’d been the star center of the undefeated Tornadoes. As the team’s high scorer and top rebounder, he’d been featured in the local newspaper many times. The walls of his bedroom were covered with framed articles and photos. His shelves held several trophies, too, including a big one for winning the tournament championship.
Of course, he hadn’t won all those games or the championship single-handedly. His teammates had contributed just as much.
That’s why he’d gotten such a shock at the start of this season. He’d hurried eagerly into the gym. He expected to see a few familiar faces from the previous year’s starting lineup. Instead, he learned that he was the only starter returning!
Art and Danny were both a year older and had moved up to the next division. Max had moved out of town. And Barry Streeter, an outstanding forward, had been in a terrible car accident just the day before. He was seriously injured, possibly even crippled for life.
Julian had been horrified to hear of the accident. He couldn’t imagine Barry lying in bed unable to move.
But he was also troubled by the fact that his new teammates seemed to expect him to shoulder the role of team leader. Being the team leader would be great if they won games. But if they lost, he’d be blamed. When he saw how poorly the Tornadoes performed that first practice, he knew he didn’t want that responsibility.
That’s when he started showing up late to practice, giving less than 100 percent on the court, and turning away whenever his teammates tried to include him in activities outside of practice.
Then he visited Barry in the hospital. He started to complain about how lousy the team was and how he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of it anymore. Barry listened for a few minutes and then asked him a simple question: “How’d you like to switch places?”
The question humbled Julian. He realized Barry would’ve given anything to be on the court instead of in that hospital cot. From there on out, he had stopped taking basketball, and his teammates, for granted, and started giving his all to the Tornadoes again—even after his father announced that they would be moving.
“Julian, you’re up!”
The call startled Julian back to the present. Cal was already dribbling the ball toward the hoop for his layup. Julian took off at a fast trot. As he leaped to capture the rebound, something suddenly occurred to him.
This is the last time I’ll do this drill with these guys!(Continues...)