Wednesday morning it was Ernie who was calling Justin. While he was brushing his teeth he heard the phone ring and his mom pick it up. A moment later she called up the stairs, “Justin, phone for you. It’s Ernie.” Justin quickly spit and wiped his mouth on the inside of his shirt collar as he ran down the steps jumping the last three. “Slow down there. You’re not in the gym yet,” his mom said.
“Sorry, mom. Hey, Ernie, Justin here.”
“Hi, Justin. Just wanted to tell you I’m running a little late. I stayed up late finishing off a book and overslept a bit. So I won’t be ready to go in early, but I’ll be there. Just didn’t want to make you guys late waiting on me.”
“Oh, ok. Thanks for letting me know. So I’ll see you there then?”
“Yeah, see you there.”
Justin hung up the phone, grabbed his gym bag and headed out to walk in with Matt. They arrived first as usual and practiced until others started coming in.
Ernie was one of the last to arrive. As he walked toward the gym doors a light blue car pulled up to the curb and the back door opened. Brandon climbed out of the car as Ernie heard a woman’s voice say, “Now don’t forget to ride home with Todd’s mom, honey.”
“Geez, I won’t already,” came Brandon’s irritated reply. Then shutting the door he turned to see Ernie. “Hey, runt, what are you looking at? You want something?”
“Actually, yes,” said Ernie and the shock this gave Brandon was evident. His mouth actually dropped open a bit as he stopped in mid step.
His recovery was quick, though. “What, geek? You want something from me?”
“Well, just to talk to you a minute, since we’re alone. I wouldn’t want to say anything with others around.”
Brandon sneered. “Oh, what? You want to beg me to lay off you? Well, go ahead. This should be good.”
Ernie didn’t seem to notice. “Actually, I just wanted to tell you that the things you say to me don’t really bother me, not the way you probably think they do. I mean I hate what it does to you, but what really concerns me is that Justin and Matt are being singled out as well because of your unexplained animosity toward me. I thought perhaps if you and I talked about things we could get past the problem.”
Brandon began to look uneasy. “If that’s your idea of begging for mercy you’re even weirder than I thought. Save your psychology for your girlfriends, I gotta run. Whatever you’re here for, some of us are here to play basketball.”
And then Brandon did run, into the gym, almost as if he was glad to get away from Ernie. Ernie continued walking in and calmly took his place next to Justin and Matt.
A few seconds later they were all on the floor going through one of the fast paced group warm up drills. Since it was only a warm up the coaches moved off to one side and began looking over some papers on their clipboards. While they weren’t observing Justin heard a loud sneeze and looked around to find Brandon looking meaningfully across the gym at Todd who nodded back. Justin’s guard went up immediately. The drill was bringing Brandon closer to him. He waited tensely expecting Brandon to try something. But then he heard a noise from across the gym and turned to see Ernie sitting on the floor coughing. The coaches had heard the noise too and were looking to see what had happened as well.
“Are you ok, Ernie?” called one of the assistants.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered as he picked up his glasses and stood up to go after the ball that had rolled into a corner.
What had happened? Justin hadn’t seen. Neither had the coaches. He would just have to wait and ask Ernie on the way home.
Still, he continued to keep a wary eye on Brandon and Todd. He noticed that they were still pulling their bad pass routine when they got the chance. They watched the coaches and trainers carefully and only did it when their eyes were averted. Of course after the bad pass there was a slight break in the drill, which would catch the coaches’ attention, but all they saw then was the victim, who was usually one of the better players, fumbling around trying to recover the ball. After seeing this a few times, just as it had happened to him two days before, and observing the resulting smug satisfaction on the faces of Brandon and Todd, he knew he had been right in his suspicions. The more he thought about it the angrier he became, until when the drill was over he was seething.
There was no time to brood, though; the coaches were moving on to the next skills exercises. The boys were taught four more individual drills that day, and in spite of the fact that each one was more intense or complex than the last. Justin picked them up faster and more proficiently every time. He could only guess that the more of them he learned, the easier they became to learn overall. He tried to check his enthusiasm, but he found himself becoming increasingly confident that the instruction and practice were paying off, and that he really had a good shot at making the team, provided he practiced all summer which was a given. Camp was turning out even better than he’d hoped, except for Brandon and Todd. As the boys practiced the drills the gym was filled with the din of 28 basketballs and 56 feet repeatedly hitting the floor. Even over that noise, however, there suddenly came a burst of loud voices through the doors that lead to the hallway as a group entered the front doors of the school. All the coaches and trainers looked in that direction and then headed for the hall. Justin knew why when he caught a glimpse of the head coach and some of the players of the high school team. Justin immediately broke into a sweat of excitement over his sweat of exertion. He never missed a high school game and, even though the players were only a few years older than him, he idolized some of them, and was probably the biggest fan that the coach had as well. He had taken the school to the state tournaments more than half of the time in his career and four the last five years running. His mind raced, wondering why they were at the middle school. Were they interested in the middle school’s potential team? No, why would they be? Could it be possible that they were going to work with the camp some? His head reeled with exciting possibilities. But the next second Brandon’s laugh shattered Justin’s speculations. He glanced around, annoyed, and then, catching his ball, stopped the exercise his body had mechanically continued while his mind had been busy. Todd had just stolen Ernie’s ball and tossed it to Brandon. “Aw, did you drop your ball?” Brandon said drawing out each word as if he was cooing to a baby. Justin bristled, ready to intervene. But the sound of the coaches turning back toward the gym ended the situation. Immediately, Brandon shot Ernie’s ball in his direction and both the bullies resumed the drill. Justin quickly did the same. Ernie sighed with relief and looked around at the other players, obviously trying to remember how the drill went so that he could continue.
When the coaches came through the door the high school group was not with them, and they ended the day’s practice by running quickly through the drills from the day before. All the boys were sweating hard and beginning to slow down before the coaches called them back to the bleachers to give them their practice instructions for the afternoon and evening. Justin listened carefully, but now that he didn’t have to split his concentration with what his body was doing, he also remembered Ernie’s fall at the beginning of practice. He waited impatiently for them to finish speaking so that he could find out what had happened.
Finally they were dismissed. Justin made a beeline for Ernie to ask him about it. “Hey, Ernie what happened when you fell? Are you really ok?”
“Yeah, I just didn’t catch the pass, and it hit me and I fell down. I’m ok, but I’ll be glad when camp is over and I can forget about basketball.”
Matt had just jogged over to them and hadn’t heard what they’d said. “Wow, Justin. I thought you were imagining things yesterday, but I guess you were right about Todd.”
“What do you mean?” asked Justin.
Matt looked surprised. “You didn’t see it?”
“What are you talking about, see what?”
“Well, ask Ernie. I’m talking about Todd knocking him down with that ball.”
Justin looked at Ernie expectantly. “You said you fell.”
“I did fall.”
“You fell alright,” said Matt, “when Todd knocked you down with the ball.”
“I wasn’t watching,” Ernie maintained. “I didn’t see the pass coming.”
“Well, I was watching,” said Matt, “and you didn’t see the pass coming because Todd waited until you weren’t looking and then fired it at you on purpose.”
“How can you be sure of that?” asked Ernie. “I mean it’s not inconceivable that I might miss a pass, you know.” But even he didn’t sound convinced.
“I’m sure because I saw it happen,” Matt said matter-of-factly, “but if you need proof, I also saw him give Brandon the thumbs up while everyone else was looking at you to see if you were ok.”
“Ok, so I was right about them, and they were doing the bad pass thing again today,” Justin declared. “Now we have to decide how to deal with it.”
Ernie still sounded doubtful. “I don’t know, Justin. I mean it could have been an accident.”
“And what about the sign he gave Brandon,” Justin challenged, “and I heard Brandon sneeze right before it happened. That was probably a signal to do it.”
“I don’t know Justin. People do sneeze, you know. Are you sure you’re not imagining some of this?” Ernie asked, but he was sounding less doubtful and more miserable all the time.
“Hey, guys, do you need something else?” the head coach called across the floor as he picked up a couple of balls and started toward the door to the storage room.
Only then did they realize that they were the only ones left in the gym. They’d been so wrapped up in the new information. Matt was rarely caught without a reply though, and quickly answered in a normal sounding voice. “No, coach, see you tomorrow.”
As they exited the gym any doubts Ernie still had were immediately dispelled and Justin and Matt’s suspicions were confirmed. As soon as the door closed behind them they heard Brandon’s sarcastic voice
“Excuse us for a moment, ladies. Might we have a word with you please?” Todd laughed. Brandon continued, “Have fun today, Ernestine?” As Brandon said this Todd faked a move as if to quickly pass the ball he was spinning in his palms to Ernie.” Ernie flinched and his arms came up. Brandon and Todd laughed.
Matt was the one to speak. Justin was so mad he hadn’t even gotten control of his thoughts, let alone started to form words and Ernie was just waiting. “What’s your problem, Brandon?”
“I don’t got a problem,” Brandon snarled. “It’s you girls who have problems.”
Matt remained calm. “Oh, is that so? And what do you think our problems are?”
“I think, Mr. Honor Roll, that you two think you’re going to make the team and be the big MVP’s. Well, you can forget it, suck ups. We’ll be leading this team. Understand that and you’ll be ok. Don’t understand that and things could get pretty rough for you. So forget kissing up to the coaches with your good grades and your nice manners. Get behind us or get burned. And as for you, Ernie, boy, you don’t even rate our attention. You don’t belong here. We don’t even worry about you really, but you never know what teachers will do. You can’t trust them even if they are coaches. So just stay home from now on. We don’t want them deciding to help you out by putting you on the team out of pity. I mean that could be fun so we’d have you to pick on, especially since it ‘doesn’t bother you’, but we can find someone else for that, and we don’t want a girl like you taking up space in a uniform. There are only so many, you know. Well, I think that about covers it. If there are no questions, you can all skip on home now.”
Justin was boiling now. He had so many things colliding in his head he couldn’t talk for the moment. Ernie looked absolutely miserable. Matt spoke again. “Well, thank you for sharing that, Brandon. I’m sure you don’t pour your heart out like that to just anyone. And though we hate to disappoint you, we’ll see you in the morning, all of us, that is. And we’ll be doing our best to make the team, even start if the coaches think we should, just like we have been the last couple of days. And I don’t think any of us do have anything more to ask or say to you. So we will head home now.” And he turned and calmly started away. Deciding that that was a good enough answer for the moment, Justin nudged the despondent Ernie and they turned to follow Matt.
“Well, let the games begin, then,” Brandon called after them. “One more thing, girls, don’t get any ideas about running tattle tale to the coaches or your mommies. If you do, you’ll really regret it.”
The three walked for a short way in tense silence. Matt and Justin were concentrating on pretending that they weren’t so nervous. Ernie was completely consumed with fighting the desire to turn to see if Brandon and Todd were still behind them. When they got to the edge of the school property he could take it no longer. He peeked quickly over his shoulder and seeing them climbing into a burgundy car, sighed loudly, “There they go. They’re gone. This really reeks. All I wanted to do was survive camp, somehow get through the summer of practice and get cut in the first tryout. That would have satisfied my parents. Now I’ve got this to deal with, and I’m causing trouble for you guys just because you’re my friends. I’ll be honest. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“You’ll do just as you planned, of course,” said Matt simply, but the determination on his face was grim.
“And don’t take all the credit for this, yourself,” added Justin, “We’re on their hit list because they consider us a threat, not because we’re friends with you. But you’re right about one thing. What are we going to do?”
“Well, I think we should just go on doing what we would anyway. We shouldn’t change anything on their account,” Matt answered in his ever-practical way. “But there’s no need to try and cross bridges before we get to them. We can just deal with those guys as the need arises.”
Ernie actually groaned. “I don’t want to have to deal with those guys any time.”
Justin finally exploded letting out the tension of the last few moments. “No way, guys. You don’t want to deal with them, Ernie; and you want to wait it out, Matt. You’re missing the fact that these guys need taken down a few notches. What they’re doing is so wrong. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this. The need is here. No! We’ve got to figure out a way to put them in their places.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?” asked Matt.
“However he suggests we do it, I know I’m not going to like it,” said Ernie.
“Well, I don’t know how anyway, yet,” admitted Justin. “We’re going to have to give this some thought.”
“Well, we can think tonight, but tomorrow we’re going to have to face those guys first thing in the morning,” Ernie acutely observed.
“Yeah right,” mused Justin. “Well, let’s all sleep on it tonight. I’m sure in the morning we’ll have something.”