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Andi Carillo had been looking forward to this day since early fall.
She’d spent the soccer season proving to her coach and many of her teammates that a sixth-grade girl could not only compete against boys but could thrive. She had gone from getting cut from the team for committing the crime of being born female—and then being virtually nailed to the bench for the same issue—to being one of the leaders in the Merion Middle School Mustangs’ run to the conference championship.
She’d won over her coach and her teammates, but it hadn’t been easy. In fact, it had been an emotional roller coaster for most of two months.
Throughout the soccer season, her mind had often wandered to basketball season for the simple reason that, unlike soccer, Merion Middle had a girls’ basketball team. That meant she’d be competing against and alongside other girls. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been able to hold her own against boys—just the opposite, in fact—but she wouldn’t be dealing with a skeptical coach and a group of teammates who would always see her as an interloper.
“You could have been Megan Rapinoe and some of those guys would never accept you,” her friend and teammate Jeff Michaels had said to her, referencing the world’s greatest female soccer player. “It’s their problem, not yours.”
Andi knew Jeff was right, and it had been gratifying to see many of her teammates—most—come around as the season progressed and she finally got the chance to prove herself as a player. Now, though, she wouldn’t have to deal with any of that. She would actually have teammates to share a locker room with and she wouldn’t be an outsider. She’d be, as Jeff liked to say, “one of the guys.”
Andi was nearly five foot six, which made her tall for an eleven-year-old girl, but not tall for an eleven-year-old basketball player. She knew there would be at least four girls who were taller than her at tryouts. Debbie Lee was close to six feet, not surprising because her father, who had played on the Chinese national team, was six-ten (Andi had looked it up), and her mother, who had played college ball at Villanova, was six-two.
Andi didn’t mind that at all. She liked handling the ball and knew her three-point shot was the strength of her game. With plenty of taller kids on the team, she’d be free to play outside.
Most important, though, today was the first day she would be judged like everybody else—for good or for bad. She couldn’t wait.
* * *
Jeff was just as excited as she was about the first day of basketball season and the start of tryouts for the sixth-grade team.
He’d played very little soccer prior to the fall and had zero experience playing it on an organized level, so he’d wondered if he could make the team. But he had made it, only to spend the early part of the season sitting right next to Andi on the bench. His crime was different: He’d gotten his dad, who worked for NBC Sports–Philadelphia, to do a story about how a misogynist coach named Hal Johnston was refusing to give Andi a spot on the team even though she was clearly one of the best players during tryouts.
The story had embarrassed Principal Arthur Block enough that he had ordered Coach Johnston to reverse himself and add Andi to the team. It had taken a while for both Andi and Jeff to get a fair chance, but when they finally did, both had performed well. Andi had become a star striker, Jeff a solid contributor at midfield.
All along—for different reasons—Jeff had looked forward to basketball because he knew he was good at the sport, having played it a lot as a kid on playgrounds and in gyms. He had always been one of the best players, whether he was playing pickup ball or organized age-group ball.
Which was why he wasn’t nearly as nervous about three days of tryouts in early December as he had been during soccer tryouts in early September. He’d played enough with his competition in gym classes and in after-school pickup games to be confident he was one of the twelve best players in the sixth grade. Truth be told, he was convinced he was one of the two or three best even though he knew he hadn’t seen everybody play.
On top of that, Jason Crist was the sixth-grade basketball coach, and Jeff knew and liked him—both as his history teacher and as the assistant coach during soccer season. For much of the fall, Mr. Crist—Coach C on the soccer field—had been the voice of reason when Coach Johnston had been completely unreasonable. Jeff was looking forward to playing on a team with Coach C as the boss.
Jeff walked from the locker room to the gym with his friend Danny Diskin, who he knew was going to be one of the team’s best players. Danny wasn’t that tall, probably about five foot six or five foot seven, but he was built like a Mack truck, and with his strength and quickness he would be an ideal power forward.
Jeff was a point guard, there was no doubt about that. At five-four, he might not have been the shortest of the kids walking onto the floor, but he was certainly among them. More important, he knew he was as quick as any of them and was willing to bet he could dribble with his off hand—his left—as well as or better than anyone. That was the result of his dad insisting he learn to handle the ball with both hands when they had first started playing on the hoop in their driveway.
It was exactly three fifteen when they all walked to the center jump circle, where Coach C and his assistant coach, Al Benyak—who taught seventh-grade chemistry in real life—were waiting. They had the gym for an hour. The girls would get the court at four fifteen. The two teams would alternate day to day, boys going early one day, girls the next.
Coach C had a big smile on his face as they formed a circle around him and Mr. Benyak.
“I think it’s a promising start to see everyone here on time,” he said. “It’s even more promising I didn’t have to blow the whistle to get you over here.” He smiled again. “Probably helps that there are no basketballs out here yet to distract you.”
He introduced Mr. Benyak, noting that most of them didn’t know him because he taught seventh grade, but that he’d played college ball at nearby Drexel. Both coaches would go by initials: Coach C and Coach B.
“We’ve got nineteen guys here,” Coach C said after he’d finished the introductions. “We’ve only got twelve uniforms. So, unfortunately, we’re going to have to cut seven guys after we finish three days of tryouts. We’re going to give you all plenty of opportunity to show us what you’ve got. Don’t make any judgments on what we think of you based on who you’re playing with. We’re going to mix it up every day.”
He went on to explain that the boys would start out divided into four teams, playing half-court ball, four-on-four. This would leave three players on the sidelines, waiting to be rotated in and for three others to take their places. “And just so you don’t think we’ve made any judgments, the three guys not starting today are the last three guys alphabetically. Tomorrow, it will be the first three in the alphabet. Friday, we’ll take the remaining thirteen names and put ’em in a hat and pick three. In the end, everyone will get the same playing time.”
He began calling out names for each team. Then he gave everyone ten minutes to warm up. Basketballs had magically appeared.
Jeff was pleased to see he and Danny were on the same team, designated Blue One. There would also be Blue Two and White One and Two. Each practice jersey was blue on one side, white on the other.
“Okay,” Coach C said after everyone had warmed up. “Blue One ball at midcourt. Michaels, get your guys started.”
Jeff eagerly grabbed a ball and looked at Tommy Mayer, the other guard on his team. He was so ready for this.
Then he looked and saw who was lining up to guard him for White One.
It was Ron Arlow, who had been his—and Andi’s—nemesis for much of the soccer season. Arlow had seemed to come around by season’s end.
Now, he was in a defensive stance, glaring at Jeff.
“Here we go again,” Jeff murmured, returning Arlow’s glare.
He passed the ball to Diskin and basketball season began. Finally.
Andi had walked into the gym and joined her potential teammates at the baseline nearest the locker rooms while the boys finished. She glanced at the digital clock on the scoreboard and saw it was 4:14.
The boys were huddled around the two coaches at midcourt for a few final words. She saw them all put their hands up with Coach C in the middle and say, “Get better!” That was the slogan of the day.
As the boys came off the court, some jogging, some walking, she spotted Jeff. There was no sign of his usual smile, which was surprising because they had talked about how much they were both looking forward to basketball season getting started.
“How’d it go?” she said as Jeff came into earshot.
“Don’t ask,” he said—and just kept walking.
Andi was confused and wanted to find out what had happened, but at that moment she heard a sharp whistle coming from center court. Amy Josephson, the coach for the girls’ team, was standing there, hands on hips, pointing at the clock, which now read four fifteen.
Everyone hustled to the jump circle.
“Good,” she said, pointing again at the clock, which had just clicked to 4:16. “First thing I want everyone to understand is when the clock hits sixteen, whether we’re practicing first or second, you’re late.”
She smiled. “This is the first time I’ve been a coach, so I’m going to be learning as I go. But I did read up on coaching this summer, and there’s a quote from a famous coach that goes like this: ‘To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late. To be late is to be forgotten.’”
Coach Josephson was in her midforties. She was of medium height, with short brown hair and brown eyes. She was clearly all business about being a coach for the first time.
She looked around for a second, then continued. “You can’t be early when we have the late start time, I get that. But I’d recommend you not be late—because you will be forgotten.”
Andi’s head was already spinning. Coach Josephson sounded a little bit like Coach Johnston had at the start of the soccer season—and that was no compliment. Andi wondered why she had decided to coach now, for the first time in her life.
She introduced her assistant coach, Joan Axelson, who was also a first-time coach but had played college basketball on the West Coast.
“Believe it or not, they play decent basketball out there, too,” Coach Axelson said. “But, like Coach Josephson said, we’re all here to learn together.”
Andi liked her. She was a first-year teacher and taught sixth-grade earth science, or, as the kids called it, “rocks for jocks.” Actually, everyone in the sixth grade had to take it—jock or not—but it was pretty easy. All you had to do was memorize the names of a bunch of rocks. Coach Josephson was a gym teacher. Andi hadn’t been in her class, so she didn’t know her.
Coach Josephson noted that there were twenty girls trying out for twelve spots on the team. They would play three-on-three half-court basketball some of the time and five-on-five full-court some of the time. Before that, though, they would do drills—dribbling, passing, setting, what Coach Josephson called picks.
Andi was pretty certain Coach Josephson had read about the importance of drills in a book. She also knew from her brothers and from watching basketball on TV that a pick was generally called a screen nowadays. She suspected Coach Josephson’s book was a little out-of-date.
Before anyone was allowed to touch a basketball, they went through ten minutes of calisthenics, the kind they were often asked to do in gym class. Andi was beginning to wonder if they would actually play basketball at any point.
After calisthenics, they went through their drills. It was four forty-five by the time they did anything involving a basketball.
“Okay,” Coach Josephson said. “Everyone line up for free throws. I want five of you on each basket.”
Text copyright © 2020 John Feinstein