How did it get this way? Where did it go so wrong? I was like the other little kids. We’d spill out of the house all summer, gamboling in the soft grass, rambling through the woods, climbing the trees. The change began around the time I was ten. We became interested—no, fanatical—about ball games. Softball, football, basketball. It’s all we wanted to do. No, again; it’s all they wanted to do. I was okay at softball. I was a pretty good pitcher, but just had no passion for the game. I enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of football in the yard, but the structured version was too violent for me.
And basketball. Really? Throwing around an overgrown orange ball? Admittedly, I sucked. I couldn’t shoot worth a damn. And I still don’t know what a double dribble is. The hoop is way too small for that ball to fit through as far as I am concerned. And I don’t care for people violating my personal space anytime I get the ball thrown to me. I guess I’m just not a sporty guy.
I suffer for it at school. If you aren’t a jock, you aren’t cool. I guess you can tell I have never been in danger of being cool. My small rural school offers only three sports: the aforementioned big three, both varsity and junior varsity, boys and girls. Obviously, that takes in a large chunk of the student body. Some guys play all three sports. I can’t even wrap my head around that. Do you people have no lives?
Being a major klutz isn’t my only social sin. I also happen to be smart. While schools are supposed to be institutions of learning, it’s amazing that the smart kid is one who is most despised. What’s up with that?
Other than that, I’m pretty average. I am almost normal-sized. There is one guy in our class shorter than me. I have nearly decent social skills. I have as much experience with girls as any other fourteen-and-a-half-year-old. Which is virtually none. The girls have all gone crazy anyway over some purity ring craze where they get to be professional virgins. You’ll notice you don’t see guys signing up for that club.
Betty Jean Cooper struts all around school, making sure everybody sees her purity ring. But I know for a fact that she’s banging Jason Winter. I saw ’em. Recently I was at the drive-in movies with my buds on a Saturday night. Out with the guys on Saturday night. If that doesn’t say loser, I don’t know what does. Anyway, going for Junior Mints between features, I noticed Betty Jean and Jason in his car going mouth-to-mouth like two succubi dueling for souls. That I know what a succubus is, and that the plural is succubi, are two more examples of the reason for my social nonexistence at school. Later in the second feature, I had to pee. Butch suggested that, rather than go all the way back to the concession building, I could just pee behind the car. We were in the last row; nobody would see. While doing this, I gazed around at all the cars neatly parked in rows facing the giant screen. That’s when I noticed Jason’s blue Malibu. The windows were steamed, and the car was rocking, bouncing up and down in a regular motion. That could only mean one thing. And Betty Jean still wears that ring. I doubt she’s the only one.
Butch, Sri, and me are hanging together to try to survive the ordeal called high school. Sri’s name is actually Hemant Srijalalawarl, so, yeah, Sri. And he’s crazy smart. I guess that’s why he’s my best friend. He’s a little darker than other people, but that’s it. He talks like us, not with a funny accent like you see on TV. Still, people are mean to him. They call him colored boy and sand nigger. That’s for Arabs. People are so stupid. Sri’s taller than me, and slender. On the other hand, Butch is fat. I guess the acceptable term is obese. He’s been carrying this big spare tire around his waist for as long as I’ve known him. The mean guys taunt him and call him lard ass. He’s not as smart as Sri and me, but he keeps up. Plus, he has badass computer equipment and games.
Our little cabal (see, I know too many words) represents the bottom of the social ladder at Bennington Academy, a Christian School, Inc. Yes, that’s the actual legal name. We just call it Back Sink (BAACS Inc.) or just Bax.
In our year, there are two other bottom dwellers along with us. There’s Lee Harris. He’s your basic sissy. He can’t help it, but he minces around like a girl. He says he’s not gay, but I have to wonder. He’s a sweet guy, which is unusual considering the hell he catches. The jocks are merciless. Since we’ve been changing in the locker for Health and PE this year, I’ve seen all the bruises on his body. Just the other day he was standing at his locker in the hall when Jake Hill and a couple other Neanderthals came along. Jake shoved him into his locker so hard that his books flew out of his hands.
“Out of my way, fag,” Jake sneered. Then he kicked Lee’s notebook, scattering its contents down the hall. “Oops, accident. You fucking queer.” Then he sauntered on, kicking and destroying as much of Lee’s items as he could. Lee just stood with his head down until the storm had passed. How does he live with that? Why does he have to live with that? Our school supposedly has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, but Lee is too afraid to say anything. No one will dare support him as a witness if he tells, and we know the school will not expel a star athlete. I guess he realizes it will only get worse if he makes waves.
Then there’s Stan Myles. He’s a religious nut of some variety. He doesn’t say much. He just skulks around in fraying clothes that don’t fit him well. He’s got an older sister two years ahead of us, two sisters in middle school, and a little brother in elementary. His older sister hangs with some rougher kids and acts like she doesn’t know him. But his little sisters look at him like a hero. He sits with them at lunch every day. If it weren’t for that, I’d pick him as most likely to bring a gun to school and kill everybody. He’s just got that weird, intense vibe. It’s something about the eyes. People tend to give him a wide berth.
But all that’s just a preface to the problem facing me today. In the afternoons we have Health and PE. It’s taught by Coach Bull Davis. I’m guessing Bull is not the name on his birth certificate, but here in the South you can never be sure. Coach Davis is not a teacher by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not even sure he’s a coach, considering his win/loss record. But it’s a small school, so to be coach he had to teach something. His classes are always the same. On Monday he says to read the next chapter, hand in answers to the questions at the end of the chapter on Thursday, and a quiz on Friday. That takes ten minutes on Monday, and then we go to the gym to dress for PE. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we just report to the gym. Friday is in class for the test.
After dressing out, we play basketball. Nothing else. At least that’s all it’s been so far. Older students say that’s the way it always is. He plays referee, and his assistant coach runs the scoreboard. He was apparently a big-time basketball hero at some minor-league college in his youth. Still trying to recapture the glory days, I guess. He stops the games sometimes and talks strategy for a few moments. I guess that makes him feel like he’s teaching. Maybe he is. I don’t know enough about basketball to tell.
These games are my daily humiliation. Not just the game. That’s bad enough, but there is more. Coach always starts by yelling out two athletes’ names. “Hill and Miller.” “Jordan and Fowler.” It varies. But always sport team members. Then he’ll say something like, “Hill, you start.” The next five minutes are the worst of my day as the two team captains pick their teams.
There are twenty students total, so ten on a team. I stand there as each captain picks his athlete buddies for the team. We have one varsity player in our class and five JV. They get picked first, of course. They choose the next nine in various orders, depending on the captain’s opinion of their skills.
Then there are us five losers last. We just stand in red-faced embarrassment. Nobody wants us. Butch usually gets the nod then because he can be good for getting in the other team’s way. Then Stan Myles. Several months into the year, he’s still an unknown. Sri and I are a toss-up, but we usually end up on opposing teams. We like that because if we are both in the game at the same time, we can have fun guarding each other. We never get the ball, anyway. Then, with a tired sigh, the second captain will say, “I guess we’re stuck with Harris.” And like broken slaves, as they call our names, we trudge over to our new masters.
I can deal with the game. Coach has some unknown way of substituting players in and out so everyone plays, but the true athletes play more. We run a little, maybe break a sweat. That’s all. But the soul-killing humiliation of choosing teams is miserable. It’s not as if we have delusions we are liked; there’s no need to rub it in. And to do it daily seems akin to child abuse, our daily affirmation in reverse. “Just wanted to remind you we have weighed you in the social balance and we find you wanting.” Of the hundreds of indignities to which they subject us daily, this is the most mean-spirited. I look to it with inevitable dread daily.
Until today. Today Coach walks in and yells, “Hill and Branson. Hill, you start.” WTF?
“What?” I say, before realizing I had spoken. It bounces off the walls because the moment he called my name all conversation ceased.
“I said, Hill and Branson. You got a problem with that, Branson?”
“Uh, no, sir.” No one disagrees with Bull. But what the freaking hell am I supposed to do? I don’t know how to do this.
Jake smirks at me and says, “I’ll take Jordan.” His best friend trots over and they bump fists.
I stand petrified. So, if I pick a jock, will he trot over and bump my fist? Or if I pick Miller, will he elbow me in the ribs like yesterday in the hall? I’m still sore from that. If I pick them, will they like me now? Do I even want them to like me? Everyone’s looking at me expectantly.
“Your pick, Branson,” Coach says.
Then I realize, that on this day, of all days, I won’t experience the spirit-crushing dread of being one of the last picked. I have a new kind of desperation, yes. But not that humiliation. The answer comes to me in a flash.
“I’ll take Sri.” There are awed mutters among most of the students, but the jocks just laugh. Sri comes and stands behind me. Everyone expected me to take Miller, or maybe Fowler.
“Thanks, buddy,” he whispers.
“Miller,” calls Jake.
“Butch,” I respond. Jake’s eyes are gleaming. He has the two best players on his team, and I have handed him another choice.
“Thanks,” Butch also whispers. “You know what you’re doing, Chris? You need to pick some athletes now.”
“Fowler.” Jake can hardly contain his glee. I plan to make it even better for him.
“I’ll take Myles.”
“Huh?” Stan looks up at me. Then he smiles and walks over.
“I’ll take Johnson,” Jake crows. He now has all but one official athlete on his team. He acts so cocky. I just want to smack him.
“I want Harris,” I say. I feel it’s important to use that terminology. Hoots and whistles go up from the other boys.
“Can it!” Coach shouts. “Another outburst like that and you’ll all be running sprints.” I have to give him credit for that. Lee looks at me uncertainly, but I nod, and he comes over. I give him a fist bump. I’d wager it’s the first he ever got. He just beams.
Jake picks the last athlete. The rest of the picks go along the same lines, Jake taking the ones he estimates as best, and I do the opposite. The last five that Jake picks are ecstatic. My last five, not so much. I guess they feel they may be tainted by associating with us.
Coach tosses ten blue jersey tops to Jake and comes over before starting the game. They are the blue team, and we are the white team.
“Boy, you got some strange strategy there. This should be interesting. Who’s starting for your team?” As captain, I am supposed to start in the game and pick my lineup. After that, Coach calls in subs.
“Me, Sri, Jensen,” I say, naming my last pick, most likely the best player on our team. Tommy Jensen was the last person picked, a sensation I’m sure is new to him. Then I call two random names. It doesn’t matter. “Sri will tip off.” I know Sri can jump. We might even get the tip.
Sri surprises the hell out of Fowler by jumping higher than him and tipping the ball out to me. WTF? Not me. I shoot it to Jensen in a panic. He happens to be in position for a nice jumper and scores. That is our high point in the game. We actually have the lead. After that we expect to be massacred. The blue team is willing to accommodate us. They seemingly score at will. At the first substitution, Coach talks to us about getting in their faces and contesting the shots. After that, we surprise the blue team with our tenacity. Our exuberance creates a lot of fouls and Coach calls us on that.
The game seems almost surreal, and I feel myself enjoying it in a way I didn’t think I would. Or could. Jensen is having a whale of a game. Coach gives him more playing time. And Stan Myles seems possessed (and not in a religious way). He picks off three steals, intercepts one bad pass and makes a free throw. Just before halftime, I’m back in the game and pass the ball to Butch.
“Shoot it,” I call. He throws it up, and it strips the net. His touchdown dance with everything jiggling gets everyone laughing so hard Coach has to call time-out.
Aside from Jensen, Sri is our star. He uses his amazing leaps to pull down rebounds and pass it outside to Jensen over and over.
During the halftime break I tell Jensen I’d like everyone on our team to get a chance to score, especially my friends, who rarely ever get the ball. His eyes are shining, and I can see he is loving this game. After he realized I did not understand how to run the team, he assumed the role. We’re losing badly, but he is playing the game of his life.
“You got it, Cap,” he says, making me laugh.
Early in the second half, Jensen passes the ball to Lee, telling him to shoot. Lee looks panicked when he sees Jake Hill barreling down on him. Lee’s courage fails and he cringes as his nemesis rams in and body checks him hard enough to knock him down. Coach whistles a foul.
“Watch the contact, Hill,” he orders. He turns away but remembers something he wants to point out to Hill and turns back around. That’s when he sees it. Lee is just getting up when Jake shoves him so he falls back down. “Fucking faggot,” he mutters.
“HILL!” shouts Coach. Everyone jumps. Coach embodies the bull he is named for as he charges up on Jake and grabs the neck of his jersey.
“How dare you! I will not have that crap on the floor on my watch. Get out of my gym. You can wait for me in Principal Easley’s office.” He shoves Jake toward the bench where our bags are.
“Come on, Coach. I barely touched the fag.”
“Get the hell out or I’ll throw you out. And even if you aren’t expelled, you’re off my team.” He moves toward Jake, who beats a hasty retreat. As he nears the doors, Jake turns and yells, “Bastard.”
Coach turns back to Lee.
“You okay, son? Aw, crap. You’re bleeding.”
“It’s just a nosebleed. It happens when I get knocked around. I’ll be okay.”
“I’m taking you out of the game, anyway. No need taking chances. You want someone else to take your free throws? You got four coming. Two for the personal foul and two for the technical foul.” I guess Coach was trying to save Lee from humiliating himself at the free throw line. Is he only now understanding our humiliation?
Jensen steps up.
“I can take his shots. I’ve got a pretty good average.”
“No. They’re my shots. I’ll take them,” Lee says. The boy has guts. He walks up to the line. Coach hands him the ball, and he bounces it once. Then he tosses it up, and it’s nothing but net. A perfect shot. I gotta say I’m impressed. Then Lee does it three more times in quick succession. He makes four free throws in a row. By the time the fourth one slips through, both teams are cheering. Lee’s face is glowing red with embarrassment and something else too. Pride? He comes and sits on the bench. I raise my hand and he smacks it.
“What the fuck, dude?” I whisper as the Coach resumes the game. “How did you do that?”
“I practice. My dad was a basketball player in high school. He always hoped I’d follow. I’ve been a huge disappointment to him.” Lee falters a little as he says this. “He doesn’t say anything. But I can tell. He doesn’t talk about his glory days on the team like he used to when I was a little kid. And every time he looks at me, I can see it in his face. I’m a failure. Do you know how it feels to know your dad thinks you’re a failure?”
“I’m sorry, dude. It must suck.”
“Yeah, you got that right. So, a couple of years ago I went out and began trying to shoot free throws at the old goal nailed on our garage. I spend an hour a day just shooting free throws. I’ve caught my dad watching me and smiling. In that one instance of the day, I’m not a failure. That’s what’s kept me going. I suck at every other part of the game, but I shoot a mean free throw.”
“A damn mean free throw. I’m glad you’re on my team.” From the look on his face, I can tell that was the right thing to say.
Coach calls me back into the game. It’s almost over. Wow, time flies and all that shit. Our white team is trailing by 40 points. There’s not much time left on the clock, and Jensen is bringing the ball down the court after the blue team’s latest score. They fall back, not guarding us particularly closely. Jensen passes the ball to me shouting, “Shoot!” My eyes go wide. I can’t shoot. I’m terrible. But everyone else on the team has scored. Suddenly, Fowler is bearing down on me. If he gets those long monkey arms in the air, I won’t have a chance. I have to try. I throw the ball up and it bounces off the side of the rim. Hey, that’s as close as I’ve ever come. Can I count that as a victory? Then I see Sri soar above all the other players. He grabs the ball and somehow turns in midair to face me. He slams the ball toward me.
“Shoot, buddy. I know you can do it,” he yells. Wow, Sri believes in me. Fowler is right in front of me. Instead of putting his arms in the air, he holds them out to the sides as if he expects me to pass the ball. He doesn’t, though. I can see it in his face. As I hesitate, he murmurs, “Shoot, dammit.”
So, I throw it up again. It bounces off the front of the rim, straight up. In what seems slow motion, it comes down directly in the center of the basket, hardly disturbing the net. Score! I actually score! I think the buzzer sounds, but nobody can hear it over the cheering from both teams. All eighteen boys converge on me, shouting encouragement and jostling me. The smiles and laughter are contagious, and soon I’m shouting and laughing with the rest. Even Coach is smiling.
“All right, boys. Settle down. We need to talk about this,” he says. We quieten and gather around him.
“Today you saw both sides of sportsmanship. What Mr. Hill did is inexcusable. Sports is my life, and I will not be a party to poor sportsmanship. It cheapens the game I love. We win and lose on our talent and skill, but we should all win or lose with grace. Both teams showed that today. Blue team, it was a blowout in your favor, but you never acted cocky or tried to put down the other team.”
“Dang, Coach. We couldn’t let up. They were scrappy,” Fowler says to laughter from most of the boys.
“Yes, the white team was a scrappy, tenacious team. You hung in there. Even losing by a huge margin, you never gave up. You played with heart. I love a team with heart. No matter whether or not you’re a varsity player, all you boys should take a lesson from this. Give it your all or go home. White team, I’m mighty proud of you. And you should be proud of yourselves. And Jensen, I want to talk to you about a spot on my team. Now all of you get out of here. Branson, a word, please.” The boys head to the locker room chattering with each other. I see Fowler raise a hand and Sri slap it.
After they are gone, Coach looks at me with a smile. He is no longer the fearsome Bull.
“I think I know, but you want to tell me what that was all about today, Branson?”
“Yes sir. You see, my friends and I are not thought of as good players, and every day we stand there as everyone mocks us. Being chosen last like that is totally humiliating, and we have to go through it every day. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“I do know what it’s like, son. I hate to tell you, but this world is a tough, fearsome place. You gotta have a thick skin to make it. Once you’re out of here, people don’t give a damn if they hurt your feelings or not.”
“Maybe not, but we are tired of being hurt, physically and mentally every day. You saw how Lee cowered when Jake came at him. Lee’s scared to death of him.”
“Well, he won’t have to worry anymore. Hill was on probation. I’m sure Ms. Easley will invite him to complete his schooling somewhere else. Of course, I never said that.” He smiles at me.
“Good. But today you gave me the opportunity to make a change. For one day, maybe one day only, but for one day, we did not face the awful mockery and humiliation of being on the back end of that picking ritual. I had the power in my hands to make it go away. I couldn’t let that go by.”
“You know most boys would have done their darnedest to pick the best players to give themselves a chance to win the game. And your friends would have still been picked last.”
“I don’t care about winning the game. Sorry, Coach. I know it’s important to you, but I don’t have the passion. But I do have a passion for what’s right and wrong. And today I could make a difference. I could turn something wrong into something right.”
“Well, you certainly did. And that takes character. I can stand here all day and give you the definition of character, but I can’t teach it. It’s inside you or not. And you got it, kid. Tell you what. I know some of you boys aren’t interested in the games in the gym. I’ll put up a sign-up sheet in the gym tomorrow. Anyone who isn’t interested in playing basketball may walk laps on the track. At least you get fresh air and some exercise.”
“Okay. Head on out. Good game, today.”
My friends are waiting for me in the locker room so we can walk out together. So, what have I accomplished? Will the jocks now be our friends? I doubt it. I imagine that by the time the bruise I got from Miller heals, I’ll have another one somewhere else. Maybe Jensen will be friendly. We seemed to make a connection. And Sri and Fowler looked friendly. Lee got some of the most positive breaks he’s ever experienced at school. I hope it continues, at least in some part. Only time will tell. But as Sri, Butch, Lee, and I walk out of the locker room, I notice we’re all walking with our backs a little straighter, our heads a little higher. I think we all just grew a little. And tomorrow, I’m walking laps.
Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories from the American South. He writes in a variety of genres, such as science fiction, horror, mystery, and young adult. He has had stories published in several online and print journals such as Youth Imagination, Page & Spine, Scarlet Leaf, and a best of 2020 anthology. When not writing, he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his first novel.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Pick Me”:
We love underdog stories where the characters triumph over circumstances that try to push them down. In “Pick Me” author Curtis A. Bass has changed things up a bit. Rather than have the downtrodden characters fighting to make their mark, he adds an unexpected catalyst in the form of the coach, who the main character certainly did not expect to be on his side. In doing so, the author creates the perfect character arc for not only the main character but for his minor characters as well. The result is a nicely rounded story that shows how taking advantage of one small opportunity can make all the difference in our lives by proving our own worth to ourselves.