The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Ten: Roundball

        Alex and some of the Cubans were shooting hoops behind the rec room, as they had been doing regularly the past year. Three of them — Raoul, Ricky and Fidel — were actually pretty good players, which wasn't too surprising since, as it turned out, they had been on the Cuban All-Army team. They probably weren't quite good enough to be even semi-pros in the US, but their athletic status in their Communist homeland had been sufficient to be instrumental in making it possible for Mrs. J to get them and the other dozen or so out of Cuba along with their families.
        All of them, including two of their wives, had been Army regulars and had fought in Angola, where they had run into Mrs. Jachimczek. In some respects, they were evidently still in some kind of Army, disappearing for days at a time on mysterious errands. From what Alex had been able to gather with his limited Spanish, it usually had something to do with the loose network of other former-Soviet retirement villages around the country. He thought of them collectively as 'Evil Empire, Inc.', imagining colorful brochures mailed to aging party functionaries in Moscow.
        "Attention, comrades. Is glorious opportunity for having golden years beink spent in luxury Americanski apartments. Generous pension provided by capitalist running dog enemies of the people. Warm climate, friendly neighbors, easy terms. Call Boris or Natasha at 555-MAFIA."
        He'd been to dinner by now in most of the tutors' apartments, and they bore faint resemblance to his old place. In fact, they had a lot in common with Mrs. J's 'A' and 'B' units, with far better construction (or reconstruction) evident throughout and tasteful, fine furnishings. And lots of books. Whole libraries, in fact. It seems that they hadn't exactly been the penniless refugees they appeared to be to any casual observers.
        Another thing was becoming evident, though. These people weren't getting any younger. The retirement village would eventually become a nursing home. The Cubans' wives already had their hands full as makeshift nurses tending to some of the residents. Alex wondered how long they could keep up the pretense.
        To a great extent, Sara had brought a lot of life and excitement to a bunch of old people who otherwise would be sliding unremarked into the dustbin of history, cut off from former friends and family, abandoned by a motherland to whom they had devoted their lives and energy. They all knew that she would too soon be grown up, with a whole world of her own for her stage. So they cherished the moment.
        For now, Alex sweated and panted with the younger men around a rusting goal with no net. Sara was just inside the rec room, torturing about five of her teachers. Eventually, the Russians started arguing among themselves (an all-too-common occurrence), so she slipped outside for a break.
        She'd played roundball with them before, which was certainly no contest. Unrestrained, she could easily win the NBA championship by herself, but that would be boring. It was a lot more fun to tease the men by making the impossible seem possible, limiting herself to moves that an exceptional, highly trained human might conceivably be able to make (on drugs), never jumping much higher than a world record holder could potentially match on the best day of his life (with a springboard). The trick was to make it look natural. The guys weren't shy about letting her know how she did, razzing her mercilessly when she looked like she'd gotten an assist from 'special effects'.
        There was no point in her shooting for the basket, since she couldn't miss from anywhere in the apartment compound — whether she could see the hoop or not — so she delighted, instead, in making lightning speed, pinpoint passes to players streaking to the hole. Impossible steals were her specialty, especially when she could flick a ball out of someone's passing dribble to another player without even looking. Everyone soon learned to be prepared to suddenly find a ball in their breadbasket if they were on her side. And, boy, could she take a charge. Or set a pick. It was fun.
        In fact, it was so much fun, Alex felt they ought to share it with some real talent.
        "We oughtta take this act on the road, guys. What d'ya think about maybe going up against some real competition?"
        "There is no competition," said Fidel, the tallest of the lot at just over six feet. "Sara and me, we beat anybody just by ourselves."
        "Oh, I don't know," said Alex. "If Sara can play a whole game without giving anything away, it might be interesting."
        "No way, man. Her on the court makes the rest of us look like we should be on a Wheaties box."
        "When's the last time any of you actually played anybody good?" asked Alex. "Besides me, of course." That earned a round of hoots and a barrage of shirts and towels.
        Ricky jeered, "Only way we lose, if Brainiac here plays center."
        "I accept," said Alex. "Us five, think we can beat someone? I mean, someone really good."
        "Who you got in mind? The Houston Rockets?" said Raoul.
        "Yeah, we kick their asses," Ricky said, "but I don't think we can get on their schedule."
        "No," said Alex, "Actually, I was thinking about some tougher competition."
        "What, tougher than the NBA?" said Raoul. "Do they play basketball on Mars?"
        "Probably not. But they play it in the Fourth Ward."
        "Sure," said Fidel, "With knives. You don't mean we're going to play a bunch of street punks on some corner, do you? That's crazy, man."
        "Man," said Ricky, "That's not even funny. I thought you were serious."
        "Have you ever heard," Alex said, "Of the Fondé Recreation Center?"
        That got their attention.
        "Man, you are serious," said Ricky. The Cubans started chattering heatedly among themselves in Spanish. Sara listened while Alex opened another Dr. Pepper.
        Finally, Fidel turned to Alex and told him, "OK, man. Let's do it. But we gotta practice, old dude. You need to learn some plays. And Sara, too, if we're gonna make it look good."

        The Louvre. Carnegie Hall. The Taj Mahal. The Alamo. Fondé Recreation Center. It was the Mecca of Houston street ball, a legendary confluence of talent and circumstance. Only the best, the very best, dared to show their stuff in this sacred shrine of sweat. The level of play was awesome and brutal, motivated by an intense love for the game itself and a passion for excellence and respect among peers. The great and the wannabe greats made their reps there. Houston Rockets and even visiting NBA players made regular appearances to hone their warrior instincts, and didn't always get the best of it. Hakeem Olajuwon lost six weeks in the middle of a championship season to an injury accidentally but aggressively inflicted by some no-name hotshot desperate for a way out of obscurity. There was one golden afternoon when eight Hall-of-Famers led by Calvin Murphy and Elvin Hayes played four-on-four nearly unto death for no money and without a camera in sight. And it wasn't even the best game of the day.
        Alex and Sara arrived first. They wore baggy sweats and clutched towel-wrapped tennies under their arms. The Cubans arrived separately, looking like a Mexican work crew in overalls, orange vests and hard hats, carrying lunch boxes. The two groups studiously avoided looking at each other.
        There were about 60 players lounging on the numbered green benches waiting for games, watching another couple of dozen playing three-on-three under each basket. Alex sized them up and approached the likeliest group.
        "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he said cordially.
        Mostly, they ignored him, but one of the lot finally answered back, "W'sup?"
        "Please allow me to introduce ourselves," Alex said, extending a hand futilely. "My name is Alex Luther and this is Sara Corel."
        "Yeah, tha's nice. Look, I ain't givin' no autographs right now. I'm kinda busy." His buddies seemed to find that amusing.
        "Well, uh, mister…?" he lead, displaying his toothiest phony smile. Getting no response, he continued, "Well, I'm not really looking for an autograph, you see. I'm looking for a game."
        They found that to be very amusing.
        "Shee-it, man. Do you know where you are?"
        "I ain't got no time f'this bu'shit."
        "Yeah, get the hell outta here, man."
        "Muthe'f'kin' playgroun's 'cross the street."
        "I'm prepared to make you an offer," Alex went on, unperturbed. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. "I'd like to pay five of you one hundred dollars each to play a thirty-minute game. Two twelve-minute halves and a six-minute halftime."
        That got their attention. The whole group suddenly sat bolt upright.
        "You some kinda crazy muthe'f'ker or what?"
        "Man, you gotta be shittin' me."
        "Muthe'f'kin' payday!"
        "Gimme some o' that!"
        The leader stood up slowly and looked at the cash. He eyed Alex suspiciously. "Talk," he said.
        "Sara, here, is an exchange student from Russia. She's a very talented basketball player where she comes from, the equivalent of a high school all-star for a state championship team. Say hello, Sara."
        Sara greeted them in Russian.
        "Her English is very good," said Alex.
        "My Eng-lish is beink very good," said Sara in her best Mrs. J imitation. She giggled.
        "She's quite excited about the prospect of having a chance to play with some great American players."
        One of the onlookers began, "Yeah, I'll play wi' you…"
        "Shut up," said the leader, cutting off any further comments.
        "And I understand," Alex went on, "that some of the regulars here are excellent."
        The leader considered this for a while, eyeing the money, and finally said, "You ain't bu'shittin', are you?"
        "Not at all," answered Alex, looking serious now. "You pick four others to make up a team. I've already made all the arrangements for a full court to be made available to us in about thirty minutes."
        "Who we suppose' t' play? Beside' yo' girlfrien', here."
        "I'd like to ask those gentlemen over there," indicating the disinterested-looking Cubans, "To join Sara and I."
        They were incredulous. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
        "You mean you want five of us to play three Mes'kins, a girl and a' ol' white muthe'f'ker? Fo' a hunner' dolla' apiece?"
        "Oh, absolutely. Think of it as a lesson. Or maybe a cultural exchange. An opportunity to bring people from divergent backgrounds together." It was all he could do to keep a straight face.
        Alex lowered his voice, "Actually, you see, the 'Hispanic' gentlemen are acquaintances of mine, and I believe they are quite knowledgeable about the game. I wouldn't want to mislead you or anything. They are prepared to provide a spirited match." He beamed guilelessly.
        By now, everyone in the building was privy to the dealings. They could constrain themselves no longer. Chaos erupted.
        "You heah that?"
        "Hell, I' up that fo' that."
        "Pinch me, momma, I'm dreamin'."
        "Looky heah, tha's my money, honey."
        When the furor died down, Alex asked the man in front of him, "So, do we have a deal, mister…?"
        Finally raising his hand, the man said, "Sherman. Beauregard Sherman." He smiled, "Call me Bo."
        "Just one other thing," Alex cautioned. "I want to make this as authentic an experience as possible. To ensure a high level of play, in order to collect the money, you must defeat us. Fairly and squarely."
        Bo smiled broadly as laughter echoed around the old building. "Don' you worry none 'bout that."
        "Then we have a deal?"
        Alex took his hand and shook it warmly, "Thank you so much, Mr. — uh… Bo."
        They took the money to the registration cage, where the red-haired black lady who ran the place for the city told them sternly, "I ain't 'lowed to take no gamblin' money." Having done her duty, she went on, "But I s'pose Mr. Greenjeans here can look after it." She crammed the wad under a glass terrarium with a large, green turtle in it, who strained his neck so as not to miss anything.
        Bo had his pick of the gym, introducing each selectee formally to Sara.
        "This here's Ike Patton. He play' guard."
        "Am beink very pleased to be meeting you, Mistor Patton."
        "Jus' call me Ike," he said with a wink and a smile.
        "Thank you, Ike. And you must be callink me Sara."
        "Sweet. Watch yo'sef', now, y'heah?" he stepped aside cheerily.
        They went through the ritual with the rest.
        "Lee Grant." At six-seven, their center.
        "Jack Pershing." A forward with an intense look to him.
        "Jethune Arthur. He call' Mack." Another guard. None were under six feet.
        "Well met, gentlemen," said Alex. "For purposes of registration, I've taken the liberty of naming your team after the nearest thoroughfare, Washington Street. So you'll be the Washington Generals if that's agreeable." The name of the team that always played the Harlem Globetrotters. And never won.
        "Fo' five hunner' dolla', you can call us th' Washin'ton Assholes," one of them called out.
        "We shall be known as the Madame Jachimczek International Academy for Young Women." There were catcalls and hoots at this.
        "You've already been introduced to Sara and myself. Allow me to introduce forwards Fidel and Raoul, and our other guard, Ricky."
        The Cubans bowed politely. Then they stripped off their work clothes. Underneath, they were wearing a little surprise — brand new uniforms shining with the colors of their homeland, 'Cuba' proudly emblazoned across the fronts.
        This caused a suspicious stir among the onlookers.
        "Hey, they ain't no muthe'f'kin' Mes'kins."
        "What you tryin' t' pull, man?"
        "They look like muthe'f'kin' Olympic team muthe'f'kers."
        "'Hispanic gentlemen' my ass."
        In a hurt tone, Alex said, "I think I mentioned that these men are experienced. They are certainly not the Cuban Olympic team. They played for the Cuban Army team." Big difference, he seemed to imply.
        "Of course, as I recall, they did actually defeat their own Olympic team. A few times."
        The Cubans had been the only team to fight the American 'Dream Team' Olympians to a standstill. The aficionados in this gym knew it. The laughter and catcalls subsided.
        In the center of the court, Sara unselfconsciously peeled off her street clothes to total, absorbed silence. Underneath, she was wearing a Russian women's basketball uniform that was staggeringly flattering. Dribbling basketballs on the other courts bounced away to unheeded silence as Sara tossed the baggy garments aside and flipped her now unbound hair into its accustomed glory. The only sounds echoing through the cavernous gym were little drops of sweat dripping onto the hardwood. The watching Mr. Greenjeans blinked impassively from his glass prison in the cage.
        Alex's uniform, like the others', had been made for him by Raoul's wife, Maria. With broad stripes and bright stars, it looked like Old Glory. They made quite a sight — the three proud Cubans, the Russian princess and Captain America.
        "Ahem," Alex cleared his throat, breaking the spell. Noises resumed. "Perhaps we should settle on the rules."
        There was grim laughter at that.
        "I got yo' muthe'f'kin' rules."
        "Oh, yeah, they's one rule. Don' bleed."
        "'Cept we always make an exception fo' white boys."
        "An' Cubans!"

        The red-haired black woman in the cage started the clock and the game began, with Bo throwing the ball out of bounds to Sara. She inbounded to Alex who promptly lost it to Ike, who promptly lost it to Sara, who whipped a three-quarter-court bullet to Fidel for a lay-in. There were appreciative whistles from the bench. Mr. Greenjeans nodded his approval.
        Mack ran the ball the length of the court and tossed up a prayer at a goal surrounded by Bo, Jack and Lee. They muscled two offensive rebounds and got two points. It was apparent right away that unless Alex could block out, the Generals would score on every possession by controlling the boards. Alex had known this going in, but needed time to establish position. He looked plaintively at Sara, who nodded. She was going to have to get in Mack's face to slow him down and make him pass off to Ike. They'd practiced this.
        On their own end of the court, it soon settled in to a pattern of Sara controlling the ball until one of the Cubans could get free, with Alex trying to get in the way of the defenders as much as possible to create opportunities. When they collapsed on the basket, Sara launched rainbows that would never miss — except that Lee would unabashedly goaltend, swatting away a sure two points. No rules.
        Sara looked plaintively at Alex, who nodded. She wouldn't shoot again unless he could keep Lee away from the hoop.
        Alex knew he was hopelessly outclassed by everyone in the building, but he was stocky and strong from hauling heavy amps and equipment around for his gigs. He had a much lower center of gravity than the taller, leaner Generals — especially their center, Lee — and could counter their reach and quickness with sheer, stubborn determination. He had no intention of trying to shoot, dribble or rebound. Just block out. If he could neutralize Lee and break up the Generals' rebounding positions, Sara and the Cubans would take care of the others.
        What he hadn't anticipated was the price he would have to pay. These guys threw elbows like it was some advanced kind of martial art. His opponents realized quickly what he was trying to do and began to hammer him mercilessly. Nothing personal. That's how they played down here. No rules.
        The half went quickly, with Sara stealing and dealing, the Cubans breaking on their end and battling for garbage-time rebounds on the other, and Alex throwing his increasingly battered body around like a Saturday night pinball. The Generals, for their part, were individually magnificent, skying for caroms, finessing drives and slamming the ball home with authority. When the buzzer sounded ending the half, the score was tied.
        It was apparent that each team had badly underestimated the other. The homies were just too damned good individually. Their quickness, court savvy and skill were a whole order of magnitude beyond what the Cubans had ever seen, and they were frankly awed.
        But their opponents had never been confronted with the disciplined play the Cubans brought to the game. It wasn't just Sara — she was behaving herself and was merely brilliant. It was the alien concept of total team play — one man giving himself up completely to play a role none of them had ever dreamed of, one slight girl with unnatural quickness and accuracy, and three steady, patient workhorses.
        Grudging mutual admiration did not temper either side's determination, however. The second half would be nuclear war. With, of course, no rules. Mr. Greenjeans strained against his glass walls for a better look.
        The Generals had learned to avoid Sara like she smelled bad — real bad. But this gave Alex the time he needed to set up for his regularly scheduled beating. Blood was seeping from both nostrils, his ears rang constantly, and it usually looked to him like there were at least ten people on the other team. But he kept pushing back, and the Cubans took advantage of the traffic jams he created.
        Jack and Bo took up the slack by crashing the boards with a vengeance. They were getting twice as many shots as the Cubans, who had to pick their chances carefully and just not take a bad look. They didn't. Sara kept the Generals honest by dropping a few from downtown when Alex could get Lee moving backwards. 'No rules' could work both ways, and it was beginning to piss Lee off. Ike and Mack juked and jived with furious abandon, simply running over the Cubans who held their ground, several times losing the ball in the resulting melee.
        But neither side could pull away, trading basket for basket at a breathtaking pace. As the game crawled under thirty seconds, Sara drained a shot that kissed the rafters to come to within two, then Fidel climbed all over Bo's back to steal a board, firing the outlet to a streaking  Ricky, who finished up a two-on-one fast break to tie the game for about the twentieth time.
        The Generals set up to take the final shot. They were determined not to lose this game, no matter what it took. The money didn't matter. It was for far higher stakes than that. It wasn't even for pride or honor or anything easily named. The legend that best describes what they were feeling was John Henry's, that steel-drivin' man who would not go down before a force he could not understand or master, swinging a hammer in each hand in a futile effort to beat the unbeatable, an alien technology that threatened the only way of life he knew. They could sense a force at work beyond their ken, and they would not — by God, they just would not — bow to it.
        As Ike brought the ball across the line, Lee unloaded on Alex with every ounce of pent-up frustration he could muster, sending him sprawling to the floor near mid-court. In short order, the Cubans had been leveled as well. It wasn't pretty, but there were no rules. Lee came to the top of the key, spinning to the left as he snared a pass from Mack. Only Sara stood between him and the basket as time leaked inexorably away. He had no intention of challenging her magical quickness by putting the ball on the floor, though. With the eight long arms of his teammates surrounding the basket unopposed, he lobbed a towering Sky Hook, the unstoppable trademark of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was his shot, the one he'd been waiting his whole life to take, that he'd dreamed about making at the end of some monumental contest. With less than ten seconds left, all he had to be was close. The ball left his hand unerringly, destined to settle softly into the bottom of the net.
        Except that, more than twelve feet above the well-worn hardwood, there was a small hand at the end of an outstretched arm, off which the spinning ball ricocheted in a block that broke their hearts. Sara's graceful form seemed to hang forever at the top of her soaring leap, her pointing toes at eye level.
        She eventually touched down lightly as the normal flow of time resumed with seven seconds left, then streaked past the shattered and disbelieving Lee toward the other end of the court. Alex was ahead of her, catching up to the bouncing ball and lumbering unsteadily for the basket like a crumbling, battered locomotive with its wheels coming off. He could barely see through swollen eyelids, the ringing in his head threatened to engulf him, and his wobbly legs had no spring left — but he was all alone as he went in for the coup de grace.
        He blew the lay-up with two seconds to spare, clanging the ball high into the air off the back of the rim.
        Trailing the play, Sara took off from the free-throw line, grabbed the brick with both hands and slammed a monstrous Gorilla Superjam through the hoop at nearly Mach speed, beating the clock by a microsecond. The ball made a sound like cannon fire as it flattened completely on the floor below where the now-unrecognizable hoop used to be. The shattering backboard nearly drowned out the buzzer, along with the screeching sounds of the collapsing metal supports being torn from the steel I-beam rafters and clattering to the deck, narrowly missing Alex as he crashed insensately into the wall below the scoreboard. Some of the small, high windows on the north wall shattered from the concussion. Ceiling insulation and lights rained down. Mr. Greenjeans ducked into his shell.
        In the stunned aftermath, Sara turned slowly around to face the stupefied crowd, her fingers pressed to her cheeks. "Oops," she said in a small voice.
        " — "
        The Cubans reached out wordlessly to their counterparts, who embraced them like brother warriors. Then they quietly gathered up their stuff and faded away. Alex crawled painfully from behind the wreckage and limped slowly to the exit, Sara supporting him. No one said anything intelligible as they went by (though some tried), all eyes glued wonderingly on Sara. As they passed the cage, the red-haired black woman thrust the cash and Alex's driver's license at him. She would think about the incident report tomorrow. Maybe. After a few drinks.
        As they were about to go out the door, Bo suddenly sprinted after them, the rest of the crowd moving up close behind him into the lobby.
        "I gotta know," he said, "Sara. She ain't no Russian, is she?" His tone was quiet now, and respectful, so that the others had to strain to hear.
        "No, my friend," said Alex, "She's not."
        "She ain't from Kansas, neither."
        "Not of this Earth, I'm afraid."
        Bo nodded. "She ever wear a cape?"
        Alex smiled, "Occasionally."
        "So you had to know. What it would be like," he struggled, "To be a part of somethin'… Somethin' special…"
        "I'm sorry about the subterfuge…"
        "Tha's alright. Even if I wuz t' make the bigs, this' be the baddest game I will ever play." Looking almost shyly at Sara, he said, simply, "Thanks."
        She reached out to him and gave him a big, girlish hug.
        And then, they were gone.

Chapter Eleven: Chicago

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© Patrick Hill, 2000