For as long as he can remember, Matt has wanted to play basketball. Now, as he tries out for the team at his new middle school, he realizes that the easy days of elementary ball are over and that this is a much more serious game. Dealing with a hard-driving coach, competitive teammates and his own insecurities in a new school, Matt needs to call on all his skills, both on and off the court, to make the team and keep his head above water. When he is involved, albeit unwittingly, in tagging a store with racist graffiti, Matt finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for. And when he fights back against an aggressive teammate and is threatened with suspension from the team, he learns that it is not only game-time decisions that count, but also the choices made after the crowd has gone home and the gym is silent.
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In the Paint
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
Copyright © 2005 Jeff Rud
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data
Rud, Jeff, 1960-In the paint / Jeff Rud.
(South Side sports) ISBN 1-55143-337-0
I. Title. II. Series: Rud, Jeff, 1960- . South Side sports.
PS8635.U32I5 2005 jC813’.6 C2005-901413-X
Summary: Twelve-year-old Matt Hill struggles to make the basketball team in his new school while keeping out of trouble.
First published in the United States, 2005 Library of Congress Control Number: 2005922924
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP), the Canada Council for the Arts, and the British Columbia Arts Council.
Cover design: John van der Woude Cover photography: Getty Images
Orca Book Publishers Box 5626, Stn B.Victoria, BC Canada V8R 6S4
Orca Book Publishers PO Box 468 Custer, WA USA 98240-0468
Printed and bound in Canada
08 07 06 05 • 5 4 3 2 1
For Lana, Maggie and Matt, a terrific home team.
The author would like to thank the following people:
Publisher Bob Tyrrell for believing in this project and agreeing to take a chance on it; and editor Andrew Wooldridge, for his skill and patience in helping a rookie through his first fiction effort.
Matthew Hill cut hard toward the basket, well aware that the taller boy defending him was lunging to keep up. But just two steps into his move, Matt planted his high-top sneakers firmly on the asphalt, quickly reversed direction to the wing and waited for the pass.
There it was, a perfect delivery from his buddy, Jake Piancato. Matt gathered the basketball, and in one smooth motion, leapt and fired it toward the hoop from a dozen feet out. Swish. It was the game-winner and it was a thing of beauty.
“All right!” Jake shouted, rushing over to deliver a high five. “That’s four games in a row. We rule tonight, dude.”
The sweet sweat of a late-August evening was trickling from Matt’s wavy, brown hair, soaking his T-shirt and making the tips of his long fingers the slightest bit slippery, but he couldn’t imagine anything feeling better. Matt and his friends had just won four consecutive three-on-three games on the popular asphalt court of Anderson Park. In these games, you stayed on as long as you kept winning and the line of challengers at the side of the court was growing steadily.
“Who’s next?” asked Phil Wong, his voice booming out in mock bravado as he smiled at Matt and Jake. “Who else are we going to have to send home tonight?”
A tall, dark-haired boy with hard eyes who had been casually bouncing a basketball with his friends on the side of the court stepped forward. He was older and more muscular than Matt and his crew. The two boys standing directly behind him were even bigger. “We got next,” the lead boy said firmly, a confident smirk creasing his angular face.
Matt recognized him instantly. It was Grant Jackson, the starting point guard on the South Side Middle School basketball team. He had never met Jackson, but he had seen him play plenty of times. Jackson was a terrific ball handler, shooter and defender and he was tough. He had been all-city the previous winter as an eighth-grader and he still had one more season of middle school ball to play at South Side.
This would be a difficult match-up, but Matt was thrilled to get the opportunity. He and his friends would be entering grade seven at South Side in less than a week and they had never played against guys this good. Matt was pumped, but he tried to appear cool. “Hey,” he nodded casually at Jackson. “You play for the Stingers, right?”
Jackson ignored him, instead roughly batting the basketball out of Matt’s hands near the top of the key. “We’ll take first ball,” he growled. “You guys aren’t going to touch it again tonight.”
Matt was a little startled at the hostility, but he settled into his defensive crouch, waiting for Jackson to begin the game. It really should have been Matt and his team’s possession to start, since they had won the previous game, but that didn’t seem worth making a big deal about.
The Anderson Park rules were simple and rarely varied no matter who was playing. Half-court games were to eleven points by ones and the format was “make-it-take-it,” which meant the team that scored got to keep the ball until they were stopped by the opposition.
Even though Matt and his friends were younger than their opponents, they had been playing at Anderson Park all summer, and they had been following a rigorous workout schedule provided by South Side Stingers’ Coach Stephens when he had visited Glenview Elementary back in the spring. This pickup game against actual returning Stinger players — grade nines no less — would provide a good indication of just how much Matt and his friends had improved.
Although the older boys were bigger and stronger, Matt’s team was already warm, in rhythm and held a much hotter shooting hand. After an intense fifteen minutes, they were deadlocked at nine points apiece.
That’s when Grant Jackson decided to take matters into his own hands. He dribbled the ball from the top of the circle, faked right and then quickly cut left, leaving Matt a half-step behind. Matt reached his left hand out toward Jackson in an attempt to distract his shot, but it was too late. The older boy had already gone up for a jumper, which he efficiently drained. “That’s ten to nine,” Jackson said. “This one is for the game.”
As he took the ball again from the top of the key, Jackson confidently attempted the same move, certain he could score again. But this time Matt was ready. He flicked out his right hand, deflected the older boy’s dribble and pounced on the loose basketball. Matt dribbled quickly out over the three-point line and fired a pass back to Phil, open in the left-hand corner. Phil wasted little time releasing the shot. It was pure, tying the game at ten to ten.
Grant Jackson’s teammates seemed perturbed. Andrew McTavish, a tall thin boy with an acne-scarred face, had been wide open on the play but completely ignored by Jackson. “Come on, man,” McTavish complained. “Take a look!”
Jackson ignored the criticism. Instead, he jumped out aggressively to play defense, shoulder-bumping Matt before he had begun to dribble. Even though he was surprised by the sudden contact, Matt sensed that Jackson was too close to properly guard him. Instinctively, he drove around Jackson and headed for an open lay-up. Matt banked the ball in neatly off the wooden backboard for the winning bucket, and Jake and Phil immediately rushed over to slap hands. It was just a pickup game, but they had beaten actual South Side varsity players. This was huge.
“Nice, man,” Phil grinned at Matt. “That was so sweet!”
“It was also a travel,” Grant Jackson shot back. “Our ball.”
Matt was stunned. His move had been fine, not even remotely close to traveling. But now Jackson was saying it didn’t count. This was ridiculous.
Jackson had already picked up the ball, and dribbled it back to the outside. Without checking to see whether Matt was ready, he fired up a perimeter shot. The ball bounced once on the front of the hoop before dropping through. “That’s game,” Jackson said, flashing his annoyingly cocky grin. “See you boys later.”
Another group of players had already gathered at the edge of the court, waiting to take on the winners. “Let’s go,” Jackson was calling impatiently to them. “You guys are up; let’s get started. Our ball.”
Uncomfortable, Matt, Jake and Phil looked at one another, silently wondering what they should do. Jackson had clearly cheated. But none of them made a move as the three new players began to take their warm-up shots.
“That’s brutal,” Phil finally said, looking at Matt. “We won that game. He was just mad you showed him up.”
Matt knew his friend was right. He also knew he had to say something. The next game on the court was just about to get started when he cleared his throat and raised his voice.
“Jackson,” Matt said, trying to sound as calm as possible. “That was bogus. You guys should be off. We won that game. That was no travel.”
The dark-haired boy spun around, his hard eyes narrowing as he walked slowly toward Matt. “That might not get called in elementary school,” he hissed. “But it was a travel.”
Matt found himself feeling embarrassed, angry and confused all at the same time. But by now, Jackson’s friends were falling in behind, ready to back him up, and the new team was calling for the next game to begin. Matt realized there was no winning this situation. Besides, he had to be home soon, anyway. “Whatever, man,” he said to Jackson, “but you know that was wrong.”
“The only thing wrong was you three dreaming you could actually beat us,” Jackson said derisively. “Why don’t you and your little buddies go back to Glenview where you belong?”
The older boys all laughed as they turned and began the next game. Matt, Jake and Phil just grabbed their gear from the grassy patch beside the court and started walking home, remaining silent for the first half-block. Jake finally broke the ice. “What a jerk,” he said.
“No doubt,” Phil agreed. “I hope that’s not a sign of what the kids in middle school are going to be like.”
Matt nodded. They were all a little leery about making the transition from Glenview Elementary, where in grade six they had been the oldest kids, to the much larger, slightly intimidating South Side Middle School, where they would be newcomers. Classes were starting in less than a week, basketball practice not long after that, and this incident with Jackson and his buddies wouldn’t make their transition any easier.
“Who would want to play with a kid like that?” the blond, curly-haired Jake Piancato wondered aloud. “It’s amazing he can stay on any team.”
“He’s all-city,” Matt replied. “But you’re right. He’s got a problem.”
As the boys made their way down Anderson Crescent, the huge maples that bordered the park still showed the green of summer. But light yellow patches had begun to form on a few of the leaves, hinting basketball season wasn’t all that far off. Talk soon swung away from the problems with Grant Jackson and back to what had been the summer’s main topic — making the South Side team.
“Those guys weren’t so good,” Jake said. “I mean, we held our own out there, right?”
“We did okay,” nodded Matt. “But they weren’t really warmed up. Then again, we didn’t have Amar here, either.”
Matt was referring to Amar Sunir, the trio’s other close friend who had been away on vacation with his family for the entire month of August. Of the four Glenview Elementary buddies, Matt thought Amar had the best shot at making the South Side squad.
Amar was a little on the skinny side, but he was almost six feet tall and he seemed to be stretching upward by the day. He was already wearing size ten-and-a-half sneakers, his vertical leap was nearly thirty inches, and Matt even wondered if he wasn’t already shaving too.
Amar, whose parents were botany professors at the university, was also a hard working player who had matched Phil and Matt step for step throughout July before he and his family left on a month-long trip to India to visit relatives.
While Matt had a superior jump shot and was a better ball handler, Amar was more athletic and could already touch the ten-foot-high rims in the middle school gym, his mop of unruly black hair flopping wildly every time he leapt. As the coaches always said, height and athletic ability were two things they couldn’t teach. You either had them or you didn’t. Amar had them both, and Matt was certain his friend would be a lock to make the team, even after not touching a basketball for half the summer.
However, he couldn’t say the same for himself, Jake or Phil. None of them were very big. Matt stood about five-foot-seven. He was reasonably quick and athletic and had become an excellent ball handler and steady shooter, especially over an entire summer of practice, but he wasn’t tall and he was pretty skinny compared to the older middle school kids like Jackson.
It was worse for Phil, who was only about five-foot-four and built like a fire hydrant. Phil was a hard worker, a dependable athlete, and already one of the best three-point shooters in the city, especially when he got his feet set. But the size factor was definitely going against him too.
Jake Piancato was a different story. He was nearly as tall as Amar, and he was perhaps the purest athlete of the four. But Jake didn’t take basketball as seriously as the other three. In fact, he didn’t seem to take anything seriously. He had been like that ever since bumping into Matt in the Lego center at preschool. No matter what happened, Jake always seemed to take everything in stride.
“You guys think too much,” Jake grinned, as Matt and Phil seriously debated, for the hundredth time that summer, the odds of them all making the South Side varsity.
“Better than not thinking at all,” Matt shot back. Phil laughed as Jake playfully smacked Matt across the back of the head with his gym bag.
The three boys were already at the top of Matt’s driveway. He felt a slight tinge of sadness as he waved goodbye to his friends. This had likely been the final pickup game of the summer. Everybody was busy on the last long weekend before school started, shopping for supplies and new clothes and getting ready for Tuesday morning.
“See you guys later,” Matt said as he headed down the driveway toward the dark blue two-bedroom house he shared with his mom. “See you in middle school.”
The three friends exchanged smiles that were at once slightly nervous and excited. Each of them knew it was the start of a new era in their lives. School was about to get a whole lot more serious. And so was basketball.
Matt peered into the bathroom mirror and carefully examined his chin. He was straining to detect a sign — any sign — of whiskers breaking out, but no such luck. Underneath his pile of wavy brown hair the same smooth baby face stared right back at him.
It was Monday morning, already the start of his third week of middle school and lately Matt had taken to a little more self-examination than usual. Going from Glenview Elementary to South Side had meant a significant social step. Instead of hanging out in the schoolyard with kids as young as kindergarten, the fresh crop of grade sevens he was a part of were now sharing their environment with teens as old as fifteen.
Matt had found it intimidating so far. The grade nine kids seemed so much older in the way they dressed and acted. Some of the boys were already practically able to grow moustaches.
The last couple of weeks had been like a whirl-wind, as he and his friends were thrown into South Side Middle School, a sprawling, brown brick campus which was about four times the size of Glenview. With five hundred students, it was nearly triple the population of their old school. Four different elementary schools fed into South Side, meaning Matt was meeting new kids and teachers every day.
School life in general seemed much more grown-up than it had at Glenview. For the first time, Matt and his friends had their own lockers in the grade seven hallway in which they could store their books, lunches, skateboards and MP3 players. Instead of one homeroom teacher who taught them everything, at South Side they had a variety of teachers and moved from one classroom to another for each different subject.
Suddenly, school offered choices too, and even the grade sevens had their own personal class timetables. Matt was excited about the “exploratory” periods available in middle school. It was cool to be able to take woodshop, where students would eventually get a chance to make their own furniture. And although he had been skeptical at first, Matt now had to admit that the cooking classes he had taken so far had already added to the repertoire with which he could surprise his mom.
The excitement of a new school had been tempered by the fact that math was proving even more difficult for Matt than it had been in elementary. And despite the many academic choices offered at South Side, opting out of math was unfortunately not one of them.
Helping to ease the transition to middle school, both academically and socially, was Miss Dawson, the advisory room teacher for Matt and Amar and another twenty-five grade sevens. Each school day began with a twenty-minute session in Miss Dawson’s room. It was one of the best parts of the day as far as Matt was concerned. A tall, dark-haired woman with warm hazel eyes, Miss Dawson always seemed to have something interesting to bring up for discussion, and if anyone had questions, she usually had an answer. It seemed like she really cared, which helped Matt feel a little more secure as so many things around him were changing.
Any negatives about the new school were offset by the excitement of sports, in particular basketball. And the excitement had been building for the last two weeks. The team’s first tryout practice was that afternoon.
With tryouts came a nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach and a pressure Matt had never felt before. He had put so much hope into making the basketball team at South Side, into following in the footsteps of his older brother, Mark, that he couldn’t bear to think about not making it.
He and his friends had spent almost every day of the summer working out. Not just playing basketball, as in past vacations, but actually following the “workout schedule” presented by Coach Stephens when he had visited Glenview as part of the graduating grade six students’ middle school orientation program in May. That schedule had included, among other things, two hundred jump shots and one hundred free throws to be practised each day of the summer. It had also included twenty “man-makers” at the end of each workout.
Man-maker was the nickname for a fitness drill that tended to leave most players exhausted and begging for air. It involved a basketball court but no basketball. Players had to run from the baseline, to the near free-throw line, touch that line and then return to the baseline. This was followed by an identical run-and-touch to the centerline, the far free-throw line, and the far baseline. All four trips constituted only one man-maker. And twenty of these at any kind of speed were absolutely draining on a hot summer day.
After two months of this regimen, however, Matt noticed that his body had become firmer and that he seemed to be able to run forever during the evening pickup hoops with the older players in the neighborhood. As the others began to tire in the second or third games, he felt himself getting stronger and faster and was able to push past them on the fast break for the first time ever. The summer shooting practice had improved his range too. He could now consistently hit a pull-up jumper from fifteen feet, and he was making eight of ten free throws on a regular basis. After working on his dribble all summer, he was now almost as good with his left hand as with his right. Matt approached these middle school tryouts knowing he had never been a better basketball player.
Still, was he good enough to make the South Side squad? A voice in his head was telling him not to be so sure. If he had been six feet or taller, like a handful of the boys who would be at tryouts, there wouldn’t be any question. But Matt was only five-foot-seven and he was only in the seventh grade. He entered tryouts as one of the shortest players. Would his skills and his fitness level be enough to earn one of the twelve spots on the varsity team? Could he make a big enough impression on Coach Stephens to secure a place even though most of the team would be older?
Matt was well aware that there were good grade seven players coming up from the other schools that fed into South Side too. Each of them would be going all out for a spot on the varsity. The hard truth was there just weren’t many spots up for grabs.
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