The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey
Chapter Ten: Roundball
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
Empire, Inc.', imagining colorful brochures mailed to aging party functionaries in
"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
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
"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
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,
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."
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
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.
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
"I ain't got no time f'this
"Yeah, get the hell outta here,
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."
"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
"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
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
"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
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'
"Pinch me, momma, I'm
"Looky heah, tha's
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
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
"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
"Lee Grant." At six-seven, their
"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
"We shall be known as the Madame
Jachimczek International Academy for Young Women." There were catcalls and hoots at
"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,
proudly emblazoned across the fronts.
This caused a suspicious stir among the
"Hey, they ain't no
"What you tryin' t' pull,
"They look like
muthe'f'kin' Olympic team muthe'f'kers."
"'Hispanic gentlemen' my
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.
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'
"Oh, yeah, they's one rule.
"'Cept we always make an
exception fo' white boys."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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 ain't from Kansas,
"Not of this Earth, I'm afraid."
Bo nodded. "She ever wear a
Alex smiled, "Occasionally."
"So you had to know. What it would be
like," he struggled, "To be a part of somethin'… Somethin'
"I'm sorry about the
"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,
And then, they were gone.
Chapter Eleven: Chicago
© Patrick Hill, 2000