On this court, I rule.
Coach Hakeem Kasili divided the basketball team into two squads for today’s scrimmage, black against orange. No way will I let black lose. I race for the far end of the court and the expected pass. The moment the ball reaches my hands I rush the orange-shirted defender positioned between me and my goal. Muscles tighten as I power my way past him and then into the air for the one-handed slam dunk.
The shrink who doubles as a coach blows his whistle and crosses the court toward me. “Don’t go crazy out there, Kaplan, this is a game, not war.”
He’s wrong. Basketball has never been a game. My life is all about war and I’m done losing. People expect Malik Kaplan to deliver. I expect me to be the best. Reaching the top in a school filled with wannabes out to take what belongs to me was damned hard. Fighting my way back to the top again is a full-time job.
I wipe my face with the bottom of my black jersey. “Practice makes victorious. Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“Finesse and intelligence beats brute strength.”
“And nearly injured your teammate doing so.”
“My bad, Coach,” says Cesare Russo, the forward I barreled through. He and I are the only seniors on our team. He’s also one of only two white guys on the squad, if you don’t count the light-skinned Hispanics who snarl if you try calling them white. He plays like he’s part of the ball even though he’s skinny and twitchy. His orange shirt and the red hair falling in his face makes him look like he’s on fire.
“You had position, Russo,” Coach tells him without turning away from me. If Kasili were a little shorter I could exchange him and his dark stare for my dad; I never get a “good job.” from either of them. “ Today’s practice is about improving teamwork. I need you to be an example, Kaplan.”
“You need me, period.”
“The team needs you, but most of all they need unity. Start working together, or we’ll work without you.”
“I do my share. More than my share.”
Kasili starts to say something and then sighs. When he does speak, I know the words are not what he originally intended. “No one manages solo all the time. These guys are your friends, not your enemies.”
He leaves me and goes to talk to his favorite, Julian the showboat Morales, a dumb sophomore who does everything except lick the coach’s shoes trying to get my spot as starting center. Mr. Morales sits up in the stands with a bunch of other parents who like to come and watch practice. Julian is tall, not as tall as me, but then few guys are over six and a half feet. Plus, my shoulders are broader, thanks to three years on varsity and forever in the weight room. The coach pats him on the back as they talk. Julian stares at me over the coach’s head. He pushes back his long hair, trying to hide the way he gloats.
I wipe sweaty palms on my shorts and move closer to Cesare. He’s bent over with his hands on his thighs, breathing heavily. “Don’t apologize for me,” I say. “I charged.”
He lifts his head and shrugs. “It’s not like this is a real game.”
“You should have held the block and stopped me. Don’t go around and end up flaking off when it counts. Do your job or I swear I’ll hurt you.”
Cesare stares as if he sees some creature that doesn’t belong on Earth, not the guy who kept him from being pounded on in third grade, helped him bury his cat in seventh grade and taught him the fine art of landing girls in high school. “Play the asshole with others, Malik, not with me.”
“I’m not playing, and you know exactly what I am.”
“The Badass.” Someone has to be.