A Basketball Story, Part 1

As a young boy, I read the Chip Hilton books by Clair Bee. I loved every story and couldn’t wait for the next book in the series. This story is from my book Growing Up In Kinmundy Junction. Since it will soon be time for March Madness, I thought it fit the season.

Basketball season arrived at last. Robert, David, Chuck and Roger were back for their junior years. They were joined in the starting lineup by Kevin Ambuehl, another junior. Roger had grown another inch and added more muscle to his frame. David was six-four and so was Chuck. Robert was now six-two and stronger than ever. Kevin was the shortest member of the bunch at five-ten. Kevin had been a substitute the two previous years and had almost as much experience as the other boys. Coach Anderson had some lofty goals for this year’s squad. The gym was sold out for every game before the season even started. Somehow they managed to shoehorn five hundred people into the small gym. Some of the local townspeople wanted to build a bigger gym, but the school district didn’t have the money. The boys played together as a team, and over the course of the year, each of the starters led the team in scoring in at least one game. Robert set a new school record when he scored forty-four points in a big win against North Clay. The squad went through the whole season undefeated. They were almost defeated at South Warsaw, but Robert made two free throws at the end of the game to send them into overtime. They held South Warsaw scoreless in overtime and won by six points.

In the regional tournament they won their first two games, and once again faced Mount Trenton in the finals.

“Coach, I really think we’re going to beat them this year,” Principal Woods told him.

“This might be our best chance in quite a while. I can’t remember Mount Trenton losing twelve games in a year before. I know the competition they play is much tougher than ours, but still, I truly believe we are a better team.”

This time the Hornets started off the game with a surprise. They pressed Mount Trenton all over the court and kept the pace frenetic. Coach Anderson knew his boys were in the best shape of their lives and could run all night long. The strategy worked to their favor, and at the start of the fourth quarter, Kinmundy Junction had a three point lead. The fourth quarter was the most stressful eight minutes of Coach Anderson’s life. Everybody in the building seemed to be a bundle of nerves. The hometown Mount Trenton fans were restless. Even the referees sensed something special was happening. The only person in the building who seemed calm was Robert Benjamin. He had been dreaming of this for most of his life. Going into the last thirty seconds. Kinmundy Junction was still leading, but only by one point now. Robert tipped a pass and there was a scramble for the loose ball. One of the referees called a foul on Kevin Ambuehl―his fifth foul of the game. Brent Gentry, a sophomore, replaced him. The Mount Trenton player made both free throws to give them a one point lead. Robert brought the ball up court, faked a pass to the left wing, moved to his right and calmly made a jumper from just above the free throw line to give Kinmundy Junction a one point lead. Mount Trenton called their last timeout. Neither team had a timeout left. Mount Trenton worked the ball inside and their big center made a fall-away jumper to give the Wildcats a one point lead. Roger was called for his fifth foul. His younger brother, Randy, replaced him. Only five seconds remained in the game. Mount Trenton missed the free throw, and Robert grabbed the rebound. He looked at the clock. He knew he had plenty of time. He passed the ball up court to Brent Gentry and sprinted for the other end. Brent passed him the ball back, and Robert had time to take his favorite shot. At the top of his jump, a Mount Trenton player hit Robert’s arm and knocked him down. Robert got his shot off just before the final buzzer sounded. Though confident he had made the basket, he waited to hear the referee’s whistle to call the obvious foul. While he lay on the floor, the ball hit the back of the rim, bounced into the air, came down, hung on the rim for a heartbeat, then slipped off to the side. Robert now thought he must make both free throws to win the game, but something was wrong. The Mount Trenton players were celebrating as their fans rushed onto the court. Robert looked at the referee closest to him, but the referee turned his head and scurried away. Robert looked over at Coach Anderson, who appeared totally stunned with both hands raised in the air. Coach knew that both referees saw the obvious foul, but seemed afraid to make the call against the hometown team. The Hornets were heartbroken. Roger felt like punching someone. Randy Stephens and Brent Gentry waited near the free throw line. David and Chuck kept looking for the referees. The other players sat on the bench waiting for instructions. They felt sure the referees would clear the crowd from the floor so Robert could shoot his free throws. But nothing happened. The Mount Trenton team kept celebrating with their fans. Mom and Dad stood up from their seats. They couldn’t believe how their team had been robbed. TyAnn hustled out to the court to console her Bubby. Coach Anderson shook hands with the the Mount Trenton coach.

“I’m sorry about what happened, Bill. It was an obvious foul and should have been called. I’ll write a report, and maybe we can see to it that those referees are dealt with.”

“It’s all part of the game. Good luck the rest of the way.”

Coach Anderson strode onto the court to pick Robert up from the floor.

Robert could only say, “I’m sorry, Uncle Bill. I missed the shot and ruined the season.”

Uncle Bill said, “We never would had made it this far without you. Next year will be different.”

Coach Anderson addressed the team in the locker room, “I want you to keep your heads up and be proud of what you accomplished this year. I don’t want to hear any complaining about referees or bad calls. We lost the game and that’s what happened. We will work even harder next year, and not put ourselves in a position to let one bad call from a referee make any difference in the outcome of a game.”

Later that night, a very quiet and sad group of boys rode the bus back to Kinmundy Junction. It seemed the whole town met the team at the edge of town and used the fire truck to escort them back to the school. The town’s only squad car was in the shop getting fixed after an accident.

Coach addressed the crowd, “I am so proud of these boys and how hard they worked the whole season. The whole town should be proud of them! I know we came up short once again, but next year we will work even harder. I promise you that!”

Coach never once mentioned the non-call that cost them the game. Only his wife knew the pain he felt.

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