Sometime after halftime the game had taken on the thrilling yet out of control aspects of a three-ring circus. He was unstoppable, number fifty-four, the ring master of the big top, giving everyone the best show on earth and of his life.
Through the ranks of the enemies he charged, dodging and twisting his way around them. He was driven by a blinding fury, a raging force so powerful that not even he knew the realities of where it was going to lead him. The men he swept passed were only distorted blurs, like reflections in a carnival House of Mirrors. His hands moved, seemingly of their own accord, needing him only for his direction and speed.
He paused, if only for a second, and glanced at the clock. Time was winding down. Soon, very soon, every second would count, and the fate of everyone around him would rest on his shoulders. Failure was not an option.
His mind slowly and meticulously worked on what he was about to do as his eyes stared fixedly at his goal, seeing only it yet taking in everything around him. His nod was imperceptible, the look in his eyes so fierce they slashed into the enemy like shards of ice, cold and sharp.
Time ticked on, the second running out as he stood his ground, concentrating with every fine fiber in his body. The crowd’s cheering clashed like cymbals throughout the gymnasium, and number Fifty-four was oblivious as he took center stage.
His eyes locked on the hoop and suddenly it was almost unbearably still as though there was nothing left in the world but him and the hoop. This was it. This final moment before time ran out and the game was over that was the defining moment of his life. The outcome of this game rested on his shoulders. If they were going to win it was all up to him. It was now or never.
He inhaled deeply trying to shake off some of the pressure. His record for shooting foul shots left something to be desired. The pressure everyone had on him, not excluding him, was in the air and now as time and the whole world seemed to stop around him, he closed his eyes and silently prayed to God, please let it sink, please.
He jumped, his powerful arms reaching high above his head. He was still eight feet from the hoop, the toes of his shoes just a hairline from the foul line. His strong hands gripped the ball tightly as he climbed the air. A second later the ball flew from his hands and nailed the right corner of the bright red square on the backboard. He landed with a thud, the entire gym seemed to go painfully silent as the ball hovered suspended in mid air above the hoop.
Fifty-four unconsciously held his breath as the orange ball began to circle the rim. Fifty-four’s hands curled themselves into white knuckled fists as he closed his eyes unable to look. His ears strained for all they were worth and for a split second he thought he could actually hear the ball circling the rim. Round and round it went until finally it seemed to come to a complete stop. Number Fifty-four opened his eyes and peeked up at the hoop. He watched in agony as the ball seemed to balance itself then gracefully fall off the edge of the hoop.
A stunned crowd as well as a heartbroken number Fifty-four stared dumbly at the hoop. Wrong side. There was no soft swish as the ball fell threw the hoop. Only the lonely deafening sound as the ball bounced astray off the wooden floor, the sound as loud as thunder in the silent gymnasium. Even the enemy seemed stunned for they had not begun celebrating their victory.
Devastated, number Fifty-four dropped to his knees where he stood on the foul line and hung his head. How could this have happened? He’d been so sure he was going to save the game. If only’s started screaming inside his mind. If only he’d practiced that shot a little more. If only he’d worked at it a little harder. If only he’d spent more time watching the other’s when they made the shot. If only he was as good a player as everyone believed him to be. If only . . .
From somewhere far away he heard the buzzer ring and the enemy’s victory cries fill the gym. The other player’s jumped and danced around him as he sat motionless on his knees, the agony, disbelief, and heartbreak clearly written on his face. He sat there for a long time, holding back the tears that threatened to rush forward. Finally, a warm gentle hand clasped his shoulder. Slowly he raised his eyes toward his teammate, his friend, and nodded, a slow smile beginning to creep across his soft face. They may have lost this time, but next time . . .