(Junior) Varsity Blues

All my life I have loved the sport of basketball. Ever since I could walk I have been able to dribble a basketball. I guess having a father who played college ball and two older brothers didn’t hurt, but even in gym class all throughout middle school I’d been told I have a talent and I should continue to pursue it throughout high school. On the weekends my dad would take my brothers and me to a local park to shoot hoops for a few hours. The rusty hoop had its net ripped from it way before I had started coming here and no one had bothered to pay to fix it. The plastic backboard was completely scratched up and there was even a small crack on the upper left hand corner where someone must have gotten pretty fed up at some point and chucked the ball at the backboard in frustration. When the courts were first opened, white lines were painted onto the ground but over the years, between the harsh Seattle weather and the screeching of basketball shoes on the pavement, the paint had slowly worn away. Now you could only see a faint line of the three point arc and the foul line. I still loved it and it was perfect for pickup games with my family.

On one particular rainy Saturday afternoon in the late fall of sixth grade, my father, my two brothers, and I were walking down to our court. It had momentarily stopped raining, but the courts were still a little damp and the clouds were threatening. When we got there, we were surprised to see a pretty, Hispanic girl about my age and her brother already there shooting hoops. I was about to go over and ask her if she would mind moving to the next hoop over, but then I saw her take a wicked shot from just outside the three point arc and watched it soar through the hoop without touching the rim at all. I stood there with my mouth open as she retrieved the ball and shot the exact same shot, and the same thing happened. A perfect swish.

I went over to her and asked, “Wow! Do you think you could teach me to make that shot? My name’s Emma by the way.”

“Sure! It’s all in the wrists. My name’s Elena. How old are you?”

“Almost twelve,” I lied. My birthday wasn’t for six months, but I suddenly felt the need to impress this girl.

“Me too! Well, I won’t be twelve until May, but I guess we’re both in the same grade, right? I’m new. I just moved here from Puerto Rico. Does it always rain this much here?”

I laughed and said, “Yeah, it does, sorry. Well, I’m going to work on that shot now. Want to play a pickup game later?”

She said yes and from then on it was history. Elena and I soon became inseparable. We did the normal things that normal teenagers do. We had countless sleepovers gossiping about the cutest boys in our grade. We went shopping all the time. We baked endless batches of brownies. She was there for me when my precious yellow Labrador died and I was there for her when one of my older brothers broke her heart. But at the same time, I felt like there was this invisible attachment that kept us together at all times and that no one could take from us. And that thing was basketball.

Ever since we met that rainy day in the fall in the sixth grade, we spent every lunch period either playing knockout or one on one games. We dominated every game in gym class, and the teachers soon learned not to put us on the same team, because not even the boys stood a chance against us. We were the dynamic duo. On our middle school teams, we were always in the starting five, me as the forward and Elena as the left wing, and quickly became the favorites of the coaches. But we both had the same dream. We both wanted to play on the varsity team in our freshman year of high school. It had never been done before, especially not by two girls. For that reason, Elena and I pushed ourselves at every practice, made it to every game, and put every ounce of our effort into our teams and being the best that we could.

For any other pair of best friends, this might not have worked. The competition could have gotten too intense and a friendship would be destroyed forever. It was a thin line, but somehow, Elena and I made it work. Instead of working against each other, we worked with each other, making each other stronger in the process.

Three years after the day we met, we were in the fall of our freshman year. Volleyball season had just ended and it was finally the day we had been waiting for: try out day. It was an unusually sunny day for Seattle, which I took to be a good omen. Elena and I made our way to the gym and walked in just as the head coach was starting.

“Now I know most of you freshman have played before, but just in case you haven’t, let me make things very clear. You’re not in middle school any more. This is the real deal. These juniors and seniors have been playing basketball much longer than you have, and they are not afraid to take you down. For this reason, the varsity team is usually reserved for juniors and seniors only, but some exceptions might be made.”

At this, the head coach turned his head a little and glanced at Elena and me.

He continued, “The JV team does many of the same drills as the varsity team, but in terms of games, it is a whole different story. Let’s just say this team is not for the light-hearted. Now get into your layup lines and begin. Which team you are placed on is determined by how well you perform these next three days, so make them count! The team lists will be put up by Friday.”

The group dispersed and started their layups. Elena and I exchanged a smile. We knew we had this in the bag.

The next three days flew by. Elena and I went to try outs together every day, and every day it seemed we got better. We were dominating in scrimmages, owning the drills, and I could swear I saw the two varsity coaches smile as they looked at me. Friday couldn’t come soon enough.

Friday morning, I woke up with a lump in my throat. Today was the day. I jumped out of bed, got dressed, and sprinted to school. The day moved at the pace of a snail. None of my classes were interesting, not even English, my favorite subject. Three thirty couldn’t come soon enough. After Geometry, which was my last period, I ran to the gym. My heart was pounding. I checked the bulletin board, and low and behold, the lists were up. I ran my eyes up and down the varsity roster, searching for my name as well as Elena’s. Sure enough, the list stated “Emma Selvala” clear as day. I gasped. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was about to faint. Two senior girls at their lockers glanced over and started looking at me strangely. I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm my beating heart. After a few seconds of self therapy, I turned back to the list to look for Elena’s name, but for some reason, I didn’t see it. Then I caught sight of a moving figure in the corner of my eye. I turned around and saw Elena standing in the corner. She tried to plaster a smile on her face, but I could see her mascara was smudged under her eyes and her cheeks were wet with tears.

“Congratulations, Emma. You really deserve it. You did a great job this week.”

“What?!? What are you talking about?” I screeched. Then I realized what had really happened. Elena hadn’t made it onto varsity. I scanned the JV list and saw Elena’s name printed there along with all of the other freshmen and sophomores who hadn’t made it onto varsity. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Elena and I were supposed to make it onto varsity together! We were supposed to make history together! Suddenly I saw the next four years flash before my eyes and felt like I was going to be sick. I had to get away. I left Elena, confused, standing there as I ran downstairs to the gym office. There must be some mistake. They must have printed her name on the wrong list or something. There was no way this was happening. As I was running down the stairs, I almost tripped and my heart skipped a beat. As I flung open the door to the gym office, all four of the coaches turned to look at me, my hair limp and stringy and sweat rolling down my forehead.

“May we help you?” asked the varsity head coach.

“Why didn’t you put Elena on varsity?” I practically screamed at him. “You know as well as I that she deserved to be varsity more than anyone! How could you do this to her?”

“Well, given that you are not a coach, I don’t feel like you reserve the right to know that, do you? Now go get changed. Practice starts in five minutes.”

“Of course I deserve the right to know why Elena wasn’t put on varsity! I’m her best friend!”

“Really? Because from what I could tell at practice, you were much more focused on getting into varsity by yourself, not with Elena. There’s only room for one MVP, Emma, and you and I both know that. Not everyone can be number one. I saw how far you pushed yourself at practice, and you weren’t afraid to step on a few people on your way to get here, including Elena. And to be honest, we have gotten several calls from parents who are concerned about their daughter playing on the same team as someone like Elena. Now you have two options. You can either stay on varsity and make history, possibly leading to some college scholarships the future, or you can move down a level and play on JV for the next four years. I will never invite you to play on varsity again. The choice is yours. You have the weekend to think it over.”

With that, the head coach turned away from me, collected his roster, and left the office. All I could do was stand there outside of the office. I felt like punching something. I couldn’t believe the shallowness of some of the people here. Parents concerned because they didn’t want their daughters playing on the same team as a Hispanic girl? That was too much for me to handle. I couldn’t believe it. But at the same time, there was a glimmer of truth in what he had said earlier. I had dreamed of making varsity as a freshman my whole life, and no one was going to stop me. But had I really gone so far as to step on the person I cared about the most to get there? The answer was there, but I didn’t want to face it. These past three days, whenever I had the chance to choose between myself and Elena, I had chosen myself every time. All of a sudden, I felt like I was going to be sick. All I wanted to do was go home. My legs carried me home to my bed where I stayed until Monday morning, my decision looming over my head like a stormy cloud.

My classes on Monday seemed to fly by, unlike on Friday when they couldn’t go any slower. At three thirty, I walked as slowly as I possibly could down to the locker room. When I got there, I slowly spun the dial on my locker. 43-17-4. Click. The lock snapped open and while I was changing, lacing up my sneakers, and twisting my blonde hair into a high ponytail, a thousand thoughts were swirling around in my head. I had made my decision and I was about to go through with it. No turning back now.

I walked out of the locker room and trudged up the three flights of stairs. I had walked these stairs so many times before but this time was different somehow. Every other time I had walked down this staircase, I was usually sprinting, hooting, hollering, and shouting, high off of the thrill winning gave me. Now all I wanted to do was cry.

I finally reached the top of the staircase and opened the door to the gym. Not a freshman in sight. I was in the right place. The varsity head coach turned to look at me, gave a little triumphant smile, and then blew his whistle, letting everyone know it was time for our first official practice. Just as he was reading out my name on the attendance list, I saw Elena walk by the gym on her way up to the JV practice. I saw her holding something. It was my lucky sweat band, the one I was wearing when I scored the winning shot at the championships last year. Elena knew that I never practiced without it now and she must have seen it on the bench in the locker room. I was so frazzled that I completely forgot to put it on. A horrible thought came to me. Elena was carrying my sweatband up to the JV practice because that’s where she thought I’d be. I couldn’t breathe when I thought about how she’d feel when she got up there and realized I wasn’t there. Then, as if she could feel me staring at her, she turned her head, glanced through the window in the gym door, and saw me standing with the juniors and seniors. She stood there staring at me, her mouth open and a single tear rolling down her right cheek. Without a word, she dropped my lucky sweatband into the trashcan right outside the door and sprinted away.

I couldn’t believe what I had just done. I had just destroyed three years of friendship for a basketball team. I couldn’t believe this was the person I had turned into. I contemplated running out of the gym right then and there and explaining to Elena that I had made a huge mistake but then I realized it was too late. Elena would never forgive me. And I had no right to be forgiven. I had chosen to get ahead but I stepped on the person I loved the most to get there.

Epilogue:

Elena switched schools not long after that. Her mom found out about the racist comments that were being made about her daughter and transferred her immediately. The JV team ended up losing almost every game while the varsity team dominated and won the championships for the first time ever. I ended up winning MVP and while I was being awarded my trophy and all my teammates were suffocating me with hugs, there was only one face I wanted to see, and unfortunately, that face was nowhere to be found.

Three years later, in the late fall of my senior year, I picked up my basketball and dribbled my way to my old court. When I got there, I was surprised to see someone already at my hoop. The girl with the long brown hair made a perfect swish from the three point arc and as I got closer, she turned her head as she heard my footsteps in the fallen leaves. She retrieved her ball, gave me a little wave and squared up to the hoop.

Ellen Harty
Age 14, Grade 9
Packer Collegiate Institute
Silver Key

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