Sweat loosened the bandages covering the welts on Billy’s buttocks as he dribbled up court. The black road colors of his uniform masked the blood stains. On the sidelines, Coach shouted instructions. Coach had the best players in the city, often the state, sometimes the nation, but didn’t trust them to think for themselves. Billy deked the defender, stepped back, canned the three. Another national high school championship. Coach’s tenth. Billy’s first.
“Play for me,” Coach promised. “There’ll be shoes, basketball camps, cash under the table, one and done in college, NBA millions.” The memorabilia on Coach’s office walls vouchsafed the truth of his boasts. Humiliation was not part of the sales pitch.
It started the third game of the year, a 120-48 rout. As Billy showered, Coach lashed the air with a towel. Disgusted by the way Coach ran up the score, Billy feigned an injury, hobbling to the bench early in the fourth quarter. Coach’s obsession with the USA Today national rankings stripped the fun from winning. Coach snapped Billy’s butt with the towel. His first welt. Coach flicked the towel again. Second welt. “You want a future, you march to my tune.”
Billy heard stories how Coach forced players to have sex. “Coach’s queen,” said a senior. “Picks a new one each season.” Billy didn’t know what he’d do if Coach queened him.
Coach made his players practice five days a week during the off season. At one practice, Coach distributed new shoes, switching brands. “These give more support.” Coach collected the old shoes to donate to the local landfill.
A senior explained. “None of us can be seen wearing the old shoes. Not even on the streets. Violates Coach’s contract.
Billy absent-minded his way through practice, flubbed fast break drills, missed jumpers, didn’t switch on defense. “Laps,” Coach shouted.
“Too much basketball, too little study hall,” Billy replied.
“Play for me or play for no one.”
Billy fell into a rhythm as he ran. He imagined where he’d be after high school if he transferred. A public college. Working two jobs to pay tuition. Living at home to save money. No time for hoops. Watching the NCAA tournament on television.
Coach waited by the door to the locker room, his arms folded across his chest, his stinger bulging inside his sweat pants. Running gave Billy clarity.
A custodian found Coach the next morning. “Blunt force trauma,” ruled the coroner. “Accident. Slipped on wet tiles and hit his head on the floor.”
Billy didn’t attend the funeral.
Liss is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and a nominee for the storySouth Million Writers Award. His short story collections have been finalists for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize sponsored by University of Georgia Press, the St. Lawrence Book Award sponsored by Black Lawrence Press, and the Bakeless Prize sponsored by Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and Middlebury College. He has published 60 short stories in literary and commercial magazines. Please visit his website at www.sfredericliss.com for more information.