Foul Shots

Lots of practice in the neighborhood park paid off for a player initially rejected from the team.

Line up with the basket. That was the first thing I told myself every time I shot foul shots. I placed my right foot in line with the hoop, represented by a silver screw embedded in the gym floor. My shoes squeaked as I moved my feet around until I was fully comfortable. The floor was so shiny from the reflection of the bright lights that my eyes hurt.

The myriad of fans wearing Maimonides paraphernalia — some sitting on the bleachers while others stood to get a better view of the game — was all a blur to me. My ears rang from the shrill, cacophonous crowd as I heard my nickname “Shaps” and my number “two” chanted. I tried to concentrate.

The smell of hot dogs being sold by the bench next to me made my mouth water. “Focus, focus, focus” I told myself — remembering what my coach had said a plethora of times before this moment. As I lined up perpendicular to the thick blue line, I held my breath. My goal was simple: put the ball into the hoop. I had done it so many times before. I knew I could do it; all I had to do was concentrate.

Basketball is a popular sport at Maimonides school in Boston. Starting with middle school I remember the pep rallies with the ambitious players; the red, white and blue paraphernalia sold; and the game dates posted and announced. I attended all of the boys and girls varsity and junior varsity basketball games after school with my classmates and even teachers. Basketball season was the highlight of the year, anticipated for months.

I wanted to be like the players I so admired; the players I watched at least once a week after school, the players who were respected by students and teachers alike. The gym, this friendly, inviting, open area attracted me and seemed to pull me in. This gym first nurtured my passion.

Seventh grade basketball tryouts took place in the gym. I did not make the team even though I believed I would definitely make the cut; in fact I had no doubt in my mind. I arrived at school the next morning and raced downstairs to the gym. As I approached the roster my throat tightened. I was disappointed with the results. The roster had not included my name while all of my friend’s names were right there, written in red ink. My incredulous face gave away my feelings to all of my friends while they relished their successes.

With much disappointment and shame I decided that I wouldn’t give up. I would pick my head up and work on improving my skills. I wanted to return to tryouts the next year and prove to the coach that I was good enough for this team. I was who he needed to win.

I was determined and started playing basketball for hours on end every day with my friend David (who had not made the boy’s team.) We lived on the same block and would meet at the park that abutted both of our houses to train. He would bring the basketball and I would bring the water bottles. With him there, there was never a dull moment. We practiced our shots together, we played defense on each other and even ran to enhance our endurance. We were resolute that we would make the team next season.  And sure enough, David’s name was written on the basketball rooster. And me? Well, my hard work paid off and in eighth grade not only had I made the team, but I was a starter.

Thanks to all of my dedication and practice I was now standing here, as a proud freshmen, a member of the girl’s junior varsity team. It was the last game of the season and I was ready to shoot for my team. These two shots were only two points of the final score. On the other hand, these were free points, easy to win and put right into my hand. And of course, the opposing team was Gann Academy—our biggest division rivals.

If we won this game it would not only bring our school pride, but also bring a sense of achievement to the coaches, parents, teachers and ourselves. There was no one guarding me, no one else to grab the ball from my hands. This shot was not a team effort; it was all in my hands.  If I couldn’t make these two shots how could I call myself a basketball player?

I was standing at the line, exhausted from the strenuous running. I pushed back my hair, which had become frizzy from the heat and sweat that I now felt dripping down my face and neck. I felt my uniform — white shorts, a white jersey with a distinguished navy “M” outlined in fierce red — sticking to my body and my too-tight white and blue basketball shoes squeezing my feet. But it didn’t matter, I needed to keep pushing myself.

I went back in time to the basket in the park behind my house where I first learned to shoot. I recalled the too high, double rimmed hoop that had no backboard drawn in. There was grass protruding from the crevices in the uneven pavement on the ground. I pictured that hoop and those surroundings as I aligned my feet with the hoop.

Two of my teammate and members of the other team eagerly awaited my shot. They had their hands up, ready to jump for the ball as soon as it hit the rim. 

I took a deep breath and dribbled three times, the cycle I always complete with foul shots. I looked up to the hoop, set in position and elevated my heels off the ground. The ball left my hands and I could see the perfect rotation it was making as my hands stood still in midair.

The first shot went in and the boisterous crowd roared. I spotted my mom smiling from ear to ear telling one of her friends, “That’s my daughter!” I realized I was almost there. Once I made the first shot I knew I could easily make the second. All I needed to do was repeat my exact movements. 

My second shot went straight into the hoop and as I heard the sound of the ball hitting the net I exhaled. My task was complete. I could hold my head up high, knowing I did not let my team or my coach down. My team took home the tournament trophy — winning by a mere two points!

Knowing this, I can call myself a basketball player.

Aliza Shapiro is a senior at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.