I wanted to keep playing Kick the Can, but the other girls said they were too hot, and it was getting too dark, and they were tired from running and didn’t want to be surprised like that anymore. We were sweating. So were the boys. It was an almost-summer Sunday night. The grownups were in the house, drinking beer and wine and eating what was left of Maria’s cake, talking like they do at kid birthday parties that start in the afternoon and turn into parent parties that go late—especially when the end of the school year is coming, and everyone stops worrying about bedtimes and homework. It was the kind of night that no one was checking on us.
I heard a few crickets singing in the sticky air, and guessed they were sitting in the bushes near the front porch. They couldn’t compete with our loud voices. Lightening bugs kept flickering around us while we stood on the sidewalk, but nobody wanted to catch them. We didn’t have a Frisbee, and there were too many of us for Running Bases. I was bummed we couldn’t agree about what to do and frustrated because nobody was coming up with good suggestions.
We went down the narrow gangway, single file, arguing the whole time. There was a big window in the kitchen, and suddenly it was bright because of the lights from the house and the alley. We spread out across the backyard. Maria’s parents had moved their car from the parking pad behind her house—she doesn’t have a garage. On one side of the pad was a basketball hoop, the standalone kind with a base full of sand that weighs it down, with a few bricks stacked on top of the base to make extra sure it doesn’t tip over. There were tall bushes on the other side of the pad, the only dark spot out there, rising like a fence between Maria’s yard and her neighbor’s.
I got an idea. Maria pointed to a space underneath her back porch when I asked where I could find the basketball, and, within minutes, we were picking teams.
My mom said that when he was inside crying, Dennis told his parents the game was his idea. Give me a break.
I don’t like waiting or standing still, which is a big reason why I like basketball. My sister, who is 15 now and has been playing since she was my age, got me interested in it. I’ve been helping her practice since she first started learning how to dribble and pass and shoot. Even though she’s so bossy, it makes me crazy, I know she knows what she’s talking about. She was the center on her freshman high school team this winter, and because of her, they won the city championship for the first time in years.
Before the party at Maria’s, we were talking about strategy. She told me I’m getting good at man-to-man defense, and that’s a strong start. She said man-to-man teaches players how to communicate, how to defend themselves and the ball. Then she talked about zone defense. I haven’t learned much about that since I’m only in the fourth grade, but she said it’s important when you get older, especially as your opponents get bigger and better and really start to challenge you. She said it’s easier to understand once you’ve had more experience playing the game for a while.
I’ve also gotten better because of my guy friends, boys like Andrew, that I’ve known since I was little. Andrew lives behind me and has a hoop hanging off his garage that his dad put there for him and his older brothers. Our backyards are small—most in the city are—and we don’t have concrete parking pads like Maria does, so I meet him in the alley when my mom lets me, or when we don’t have much homework, or the weather is good, and we’re bored. Sometimes we play in the rain. We’ve even teamed up with his older brother and his buddies for a few games, although that can get intense.
Most of the girls I know aren’t interested in the running and throwing and blocking and shouting that basketball involves. Sometimes stuff happens during the game that you don’t expect; you have to pay attention the whole time instead of worrying about your hair or checking to see if your nail polish is chipped, even when the ball is downcourt.
None of the other girls at Maria’s wanted to join, so they all moved away from the pad and sat down on the grass in a circle. They started talking about cooking shows I don’t watch and songs I don’t know the words to. I stopped listening as Dennis and I faced each other for the tip-off.
Dennis and I are the same height. He’s heavier; you can just see it. Our gym teacher, who makes us call her Coach even though she spends more time scolding us than teaching us anything, is always putting us together because we’re both tall and coordinated. She makes us demonstrate plays to the kids who don’t understand what’s involved in various games like soccer and touch football and basketball. In gym, Dennis is always arguing with Coach that someone fouled him, or someone went out of bounds, or someone had their feet over the line during the throw-in, or someone started before the whistle. That someone is usually me.
I won the tip-off, and the game got fast quick. I was practically off court when Dennis, who was covering me, elbowed my right shoulder. Hard. When I reached across with my left hand to rub it, he grabbed my left arm and held it against me. He pushed my arm closer against my body, and my left elbow rose to my chin. It hurt. He kept pushing me, and we moved deeper into the darkness of the bushes. I hadn’t realized some of them were prickers, the kind you never want to fall into because they have those little thorns that scratch and scrape your legs like a mean cat that spends most of its life outside.
I should have worn longer socks.
Dennis leaned in close. His breath smelled like the chocolate frosting from Maria’s birthday cake. He whispered, “I could break your arm right now if I wanted to.” He held my arm against me so I couldn’t move it at all. He smiled and kept looking at me like he was making a decision.
Somebody called him. “I’m here!” he yelled into my face. He let go of me with a push, twisted around, and went out to his team. I stumbled backward but didn’t fall, brushed myself off, shook my arms and hands to loosen them up, and ran from the shadows into the game.
My team was losing. We needed one basket to tie it up. I realized Andrew and the other guys hadn’t even noticed that Dennis had pushed me into those bushes. Basketball moves fast, and that’s how it goes with man-to-man defense: you are concerned about yourself and just the one other guy you’re up against.
But I was pissed off, as my sister would say. My right arm hurt from being elbowed, and my left arm hurt from being shoved. My calves stung. When Andrew passed me the ball, I knew I couldn’t make a basket even though I wanted to. My team was yelling at me to shoot, and the girls were cheering; everyone’s echoey voices filled the backyard.
Dennis was near the basket, standing in a patch of light so bright he almost glowed. He was laughing. “Yeah. Shoot! Shoot!” He laughed again like he knew I couldn’t do it- like he was the greatest thing to happen to fourth-grade basketball ever. I focused. I shot. I threw the ball hard. But not at the basket. At Dennis. All that passing practice with my sister paid off. The ball hit him with a “thunk” on the right side of his face, close to his eye, and he covered it with both hands as he bent over. He started to go “Ow Ow Ow Ow Ow OOOOOOOOwww,” and it turned into a howl like my dog makes when the ambulances are driving with their sirens on near our house. I could tell he was crying, and he ran off the court toward the house. He left me there thinking: You’re tough enough to break a girl’s arm out of bounds and in the dark, but you can’t take a ball to the face. It was my turn to laugh a little.
One of the adults opened the back door, and Dennis rushed inside, wailing. I clapped my hands to get Andrew’s attention and yelled at him to pass me the ball again, but he just stood there. “Time,” he called, making the “T” sign with his hands. He dropped the ball and started to walk away. I ran over and picked up the ball before it rolled off the pad. The other boys followed Andrew. The girls stood up too. “Did you do that on purpose?” Maria asked as she passed me. She frowned. “Because it looked like you did that on purpose.” She turned and went up the back steps with everyone else. Through the window, I saw Dennis go to his parents, hands covering his face, shoulders hunched up to his ears. They huddled around him while he shuddered. He lifted his head, said something, and pointed. All the parents and kids at the window turned toward me. I was the only one left outside, and I figured they could see me standing in the circle of light coming from the back of the house. I held the ball in one hand and waved with the other. My arms still hurt.
Everybody started to leave after that. My mom called me in, and we walked through the house, our goodbyes mixed with everyone else’s. She had her hands on my shoulders, guiding me toward the front door, and she kept telling people we had to get back because my sister would be coming home soon from being out with her friends and she wanted to be there when she came in (“Teenage girls, you know.”).
As soon as we pulled away from the sidewalk, she asked me what had happened that made me throw a ball at Dennis and hurt him. I explained how he’d elbowed my one arm and cornered me, and then threatened to break my other arm. She got this weird look on her face. Her jaw jutted out, and her lips got thin, and her eyes narrowed. “I knew it was only a matter of time,” she said. She looked in the rearview mirror at me and smiled. “It’ll be okay.” She glanced at my dad, then nudged him like she wanted him to say something. He shook his head, rolled down the window, and looked out into the night. “You’re tough,” he said. I rubbed my scratched legs and wiped the blood off my hands onto the car seat. The cool breeze coming through my dad’s window dried the sweat on my face.
Today I sat with the guys at our usual table during lunch. We didn’t talk about what happened last night at Maria’s. I was telling them how my sister says man-to-man defense is a good way to develop your ball skills. How zone defense takes longer to understand and how it needs to be coordinated and strong. How it’s “next level” playing and, if you don’t understand it or know how to play it eventually, your team stands to lose a lot of games.
The cafeteria monitor was across the room, helping a kindergartener who had spilled her chocolate milk when Dennis walked up. He told me to give him my cookies “or else.” When I said no, he made a fist with his right hand and shook it at me. He called me a “F—ing B,” except he used the full words. The whole table—and the next one over, where the girls were talking about flavored lip gloss—could hear it.
I sat up straighter, my mouth open. My friends were looking at each other, their eyebrows raised, and their eyes wide. We all watched Dennis walk toward the doors and push them open, yelling, “Whoop! Whoop!” at the front of his class as they headed to the playground for the second half of lunch.
Andrew started to say something. He looked like he was talking to the floor. I leaned in so I could hear him better, and he sat up so quickly he almost knocked my chin with the top of his head.
“Sorry,” he said, not looking me in the eyes. “Back to the subject. I like playing man-to-man. I hope we can play that way for a while. Zone sounds kinda complicated. Don’t you think it sounds complicated?” Now he was staring at me. They were all staring at me.
I nodded. I felt like one of those bobble-head sports figures that you tap once, and the big head keeps moving on a tiny body. My head was going up and down, and I was taking turns looking at my friends sitting around the table. Each of them had the same kind of expression on their faces that Andrew had on his.
I swallowed and hoped my voice sounded normal. “That’s what my sister keeps saying. And that it takes time to get good at it.”
The monitor came over from helping the little kids across the room.
“Everybody good here?” she asked. I bobbled “yes” in her direction. She told us it was our turn to go to the playground, and we could go outside as soon as we cleaned up our table and threw away our trash. She added we had time for a basketball game before we had to go back to class.
“A little training for the months ahead. I expect you’ll all be playing a lot,” she said. She winked at me as the boys raced to the garbage with their wrappers and unfinished food.
They headed to the doors without a look back. Andrew started yelling, “Whoop! Whoop!” He pumped his fist in the air. My tablemates crowded around him. Their voices joined together, getting louder as they left the building, rising toward the kind of noise level that makes our teachers angry because it’s hard to control a group like that, especially at the end of the school year.
I took my time. I hoped the boys would pick teams and start before I got there. I wanted to watch them from the sidelines for a while. I tried to think more about strategy, and about what my sister is trying to teach me. As usual, I have to admit she’s right. Man-to-Man. Zone. Either way, you’ve got to have skills. Because when it comes to playing a game as rough as basketball, you’ve got to understand what you’re up against.