The chain-link fence was blackened by the sun, and the once blue basketball court was black; the buildings in the background were blacker than black, they rose like beacons where no light offered hope. Broken-out windows of warehouses showed the contempt of the neighborhood for those eyesores planted there by businessmen who once offered jobs, but who had since moved on to third-world countries to make their shoes and murder the labor of the innocent. The Nike swoosh was a dash of death. Now, the neighborhood was third-world, or fourth-world, if that’s a thing, resembling an alien planet where the inhabitants tried to breathe, but slowly suffocated on their dreams, quickly turning into nightmares, fueled by drugs and jealousy and cravings that offered so many possibilities, until their beautiful day burned their soul.
Three scouts stood behind the checkered fence, comparing mental notes in the heat, while keeping what they really thought to themselves.
“He’s got a quick first step, that one,” a tall white man said. His name was Carl. He wore a suit even though it was nearly 100 degrees, even hotter on the blacktop. It gave him inhuman qualities. He didn’t sweat; he never sweat; his bald head didn’t burn. Anyone on the outside of the neighborhood could see his power, his white-collar success; they might think he went to an Ivy League University and played ball, and they would be right. He had an athletic build, and he kept himself in shape, despite eclipsing his mid-forties last year.
“But look at his teammates, they hate him. He might be fast on the court, but he’s not a leader—not someone you want to take point.” The man who made this observation was even taller than Carl; he too, had come from the same neighborhood, but unlike the healthy build of the white man, his skin was pale, despite being black. His veins cut his muscular arms like they were stretching, itching, for the needle. Daryl was a crack addict. He played for the NBA to escape his neighborhood, and would’ve been one of the greats—had he avoided the epidemic of the 1980s. He had the kind of talent that can’t be learned; it was an alien game, foreign to basketball—due to his faster than lightning legs. He was sporting a red and white Converse jersey with black shorts that betrayed his unhealthy bones.
The third scout was not a basketball player in any sense of the word. It was anyone’s guess why he was there. He was half as tall as the players on the court, and did not seem interested in the game. He was Mexican, and constantly the butt of illegal alien jokes, which never offended him; not much could contort his bland demeanor. His black eyes stared into nothing, causing many to wonder if he spoke English or understood the jokes. Jose watched, and occasionally took a drink from his hip flask. Vices were allowed. All three of them smoked, being very careful not to flick their cigarettes anywhere that might burn, which was everywhere.
“Foul, that’s a foul!” Daryl yelled. “Give him the ball!”
“There’s no fouls with street ball,” a black teenager yelled back.
“If you think like that, you’ll never leave the street!” Daryl screamed.
Jose just nodded and smiled.
It was nearly half-time. The thermometer in the shade of the dying oak tree read 105 degrees. It’s a scorcher,” Carl assessed. “Why don’t we let the boys bring it in for lunch and a water break.”
“Are you the weatherman, or something?” Daryl asked. “This is when we see who’s got it. I don’t know about you, but I wish I could turn up the heat. Pressure and time reveal weakness.”
“You’ll have them passing out on the court,” Carl said.
“To the last man standing, then.” Daryl raised a bottle of beer, and Jose did the same with his flask.
“You see, he understands. There’s more to him than we know.”
The Mexican just smiled and nodded.
The game became blisteringly hot; even the sneakers began to melt on the blacktop, and some of the best players walked off.
“You see, I told you! Talent isn’t everything; those boys are quitters!” Daryl said this a bit louder than he needed to, so the whole court could hear. “Quitters!” He yelled.
“Daryl, why don’t you calm down, it’s just a game,” Carl said.
“Just a game? It’s these boys’ ticket out-a here. And they just walked away! Let’s increase the stakes, shall we?” Daryl addressed the bloodshot eyes, the dehydrated faces, the hopeless stares, and the hungry muscles. “Free for all! You know what that is? Anybody can score. First one to 21 points wins the game and has a spot on my Triple A Team—a good chance of making it into the NBA. Now, drop the ball and wait for my mark!”
Arms and legs dove for the ball like a game of twister—one boy emerged, tripped, and regained balance, with the ball through the net in 2 seconds.
“That’s Jamal. Look at the hustle on that kid,” Carl said. “Too bad he doesn’t have any talent.”
The game was a perpetual tie—everybody had a point, and the longer they played, the more Daryl regretted his promise. Maybe there wasn’t anyone who stood out from the rest. The players were like ravenous wolves, wanting success more than their next meal. It was next to impossible to find raw talent like his, and the boys who had it, always hurt their own success, just like the ones who walked off the court at lunch time. It was getting close to 3 PM— that’s four hours of continuous running during the hottest part of the day. They started to drop, one by one, unable to get by on pure desperation.
“Timeout!” Carl shouted. “Daryl, you’ve taken this thing too far. If one of them dies on your watch, it’ll be your fault!”
“What gives you the right to call my game?”
“I’ve invested my time, watching, hoping, that a real player will emerge. And you’ve nearly taken that away from me.”
Carl considered what Daryl was saying. None of them really wanted to be there. Daryl was thinking about his next fix and Carl wanted to soak in a cool bath with his girlfriend. Who knew what Jose was thinking? He didn’t seem to have a care in the world, even though he was wearing a poncho and jeans in 108-degree heat.
“Okay, we’ll give it 30 more minutes then. Deal?” Carl asked.
“Okay, deal,” Daryl said with resignation.
Before they started up again, three players started talking to each other.
“Why don’t you go talk to the scouts? You might be able to get in good with them? Winning is not always winning.”
“What does that mean? You think if one of us sweet-talks the coach, he’ll let us onto his team?”
“They’re scouts and not coaches. One of them is a drug addict. The other looks like a child molester.”
“What about the bald one?”
“He looks mean.”
“Well, it won’t hurt to talk to them.”
Before they could stop him, Jamal ran over to talk to the Mexican.
“Why did he go with the child molester?”
“Are you going to talk to the mean one or the drug addict?”
“I ain’t goin to talk to nobody. I’m going to play the game the way it was meant to be played.”
From a distance, it looked like Jamal had established rapport, and they walked into the woods together.
“What’s he doin with the boy?” Carl asked.
“I don’t want to know,” Daryl said. “Remember, we really don’t know who he is.”
“Who did he say he was?” Carl asked.
“Said he represented one of the Mexican leagues, but who ever heard of Mexicans playing basketball. I guess he thought he might discover talent in the unlikeliest of places,” Daryl said.
“It’s pretty barren out here.”
“I don’t want to wait for him. What’s he up to, anyway?” Daryl asked.
Almost in response, the Mexican and the boy came out of the woods. They were pulling up each other’s pants.
“Oh my god…” Daryl said.
“Just focus on the game. I don’t want to know what happened, if the police start questioning us.”
“Okay boys, tip off!” Daryl shouted.
The game started up again, but there was something different about the chemistry of play. Jamal ran faster. He dunked.
“How tall is he, anyway?” Carl asked.
“He’s only 5′ 8″. Boy has hops though, and look at him go. He went through the post players like they weren’t even there. It’s Kobe Bryant, reincarnate. My god, I’m going to sign him. Jose, what did you do to him back there in the woods?” Daryl asked.
“Um, I don’t know,” the Mexican shrugged.
“I don’t believe you! Tell me now!” Daryl demanded.
“Oh, just gave him a pep talk.”
“With your peppy?”
“You know, your thing?”
“Oh.” Jose’s poncho was shifting like snakes were trying to get out. An alien arm like an octopus shot out and shook hands with both of them.
“I must be on my way,” Jose said. “My protege requires more training.”
“I thought you couldn’t speak English?” Daryl asked.
Jose just smiled and nodded. “Jamal, time to go. We’ve got a game to catch. I’ve signed you to a very exclusive team.”
“Yes; they’re out of this world.”