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Madness (TGWP 6)

May 7, 2017

Rebel Fireworks for TGWP-IMG_5997.JPG

This is the sixth installment the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “Coach Ax’s Preseason Party” (TGWP 5).

The explosions were just as I remembered them. Players’ eyes shone wide beneath falling sparks, just as they always had. The same milk-and-honey voice boomed over the loudspeaker. If you were a player or a coach or a fan or a little boy who, for this one night, got to sit on the ballplayer’s bench, this was the promised land. There were three firework bursts from the top of each basket and five from center court; columns of white flame rose to the rafters, broke apart just short of the jumbotron, fell in lazy firefly formations toward the blond heads of chanting cheerleaders and died in tiny puffs of smoke just before they could ignite innocent pigtails. Conical beams of light reached down from the arena rim, darting in wild arcs across the crowd, bathing revelers in circles of red and blue and green and ghost-white. As a little boy, I’d pointed up at green-tinted fans as the light circles swung across the stands. There’s the Martians … No, there’s the Martians! Dad would put his hand on my head and muss my yellow Prince Valiant hairdo and smile like a saint at the start of another pilgrimage. Tonight, I had the urge to reach up and dishevel my own moussed head. I had come to my first Midnight Madness when I was six years old and had not missed one until I’d taken my bags and books and jumpshot to the seaside town of San K, where madness came in time to mean a different thing altogether.

And Now…your ZANtrummmm DUSTflames!!!

The cheerleaders unrolled a red carpet with the “University of Zantrum” written along its length in golden lightningbolt script. The players galloped out of the tunnel and over the carpet to center court, upon which was painted the UZ logo, a swirling dustdevil with a flame shooting from the top. Senior point guard Elliott Murphy took a pass from the ballboy and the players began a layup drill in which there were no layups. Murphy, a 6’1” dynamo, made a 360-rotation-two-handed slam and the noise in the place was transformed from an agitated roar to a hysterical scream. Next, Baldwin Pimm, a rangy forward with a smooth jumpshot and a shaved head, took off from the corner of the key and soared in for a tomahawk jam. Eighteen-thousand nightowls, apparently quite successful professionals by day (non-student tix: $55), began slapping each other and howling like wolves and yelling “PIIIIIMeeeee” until their voices went hoarse. Behind the bench, a very old man had brought a great grandchild who appeared to be a few hours old and was holding him aloft like a Pagan battle torch. I was about ready to snatch the poor kid down when Great Grandma, with a great frown, planted some shame in the old coot. Three middle-aged men with John Kennedy haircuts tore off their shirts behind the media table to reveal the words “We Love Ax.” I smiled and closed my eyes and breathed deeply and opened them to wonder anew at these, the assembled people of my native town, who each October 15, at the stroke of midnight, transformed themselves into a Mass Choir of the Insane, something straight out of the old fever dreams of banned Russian writers.

My father had taken a seat on the bench and was wearing the shadow of a frown. He’d never gone in for these ostentatious dunk displays but, by the late ’80s he’d given in to the persistence of fans, boosters, players and marketers and consented, just this one time a year, to the sullying of the sacred layup drill. He was still holding out, a lone figure in an earthen fort, against a formal slam dunk contest. “Let them save their competitive fire for tomorrow’s practice,” he said. “They’ll need it.”

Once the players had completed three circuits of slams, they returned to the bench for introductions. Tonight only, announcer MacDonald Kenney—he of the heavenly octogenarian lungs—would introduce not only the starters and the head coach, but the whole squad, the assistants, the trainer and the manager. The non-regulars, especially the freshmen, were hopping in anticipation on spring-loaded legs, as if they were about to take on Duke before the eyes of God and Dick Vitale himself. Thirty-three games a year they found their way by the light shone upon their superiors. Tonight they could bask, just for a moment, in a glow of their own.

I’d waited my entire childhood to hear my name upon the lips of MacDonald Kenney and then, just when the syllables had seemed imminent, I’d cut a detour to the unenthusiastic arena of a red-brick liberal arts school five hundred miles northwest of Zantrum. I had, for a while, flourished in the small-time. Twice I’d made all-conference as a point guard, I’d set the University of San K assist record, and we’d won a cumulative 61 games by the middle of my aborted junior (and final) season. But I had never heard my name spoken by MacDonald Kenney.

Kenney worked his way down the roster. Players dashed out beneath a tracking spotlight into a golden ring of pom-pom girls with uplifted arms. My insides balled up like a fist with bad intentions. Blum’s hand was on my shoulder. I glanced down at it and it seemed huge and hideous and full of deadly power: A Teddy Bear, I thought, is still a bear. This Blum, full of warm ambitions for the Axelrod heir, would simply flex his paws and pierce the flesh of my shoulder and reach down and squeeze the aorta and the ventricles and the superior vena cava and tinker and sculpt and mold until I had become, from the inside out, what he needed me to be at this very moment: a coach’s son who didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable being the coach’s son; a fine young man growing happily into the shoes of his old man, with neither fear nor ambivalence about filling them.

I looked at my watch for no reason at all. 12:12. I wondered how many times Evan had already woken since bedtime. From across the city, I wished him some sleep, and Priscilla too. I felt like wishing myself some sleep, wishing myself away from this moment I’d dreamed about, away from the roar and the lights and the team and my father. The crowd was producing a ghastly white noise that seemed to come from inside my head. I glanced behind the bench. The only familiar faces in the crowd were those who had known me as a boy, and, I assumed, would never regard me as anything else: Bumbry was sharing a joke with a familiar-faced fat lady wearing what appeared to be a red tent. Simon stood next to my mother, ardently explaining to her things she no doubt already understood. At the end of the bench, sitting with his eyes half closed, as if pondering imponderables in a tall and raftered library, was the old man himself. I felt I should be delivering water to players or cute little quips to boosters. I felt that someone any moment now might approach me and tousle my hair. I felt Blum might hug me. I wanted my wife here; I wanted my son, bedtime be damned. I wanted someone here who knew me as a man.

“Director of Basketball Operations, in his first year with the Dust Flames, TUCKerrrrr AXelrawwwwwd.”

The spotlight swung toward me, surrounded me, fenced me in. I stood dumbly for a second and thought about the movies: Julie Andrews and the Familie von Trapp had had the foresight to bolt before the announcement.

I charged into the circle of high-kicks and pantyflashes and ponytails.

My ears rang with the echo of AXelrawwwwwd!

I couldn’t tell if it was a welcome or a warning.

– Greg Blake Miller

Next: “First Light” (TGWP 7).

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