From the book The Assist by Neil Swidey. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
George Russell was no star. The stocky, square-faced senior couldn't jump high or run fast or shoot particularly well. But he was tough under the boards, and he was always hustling to get better. Jack O'Brien, the longtime basketball coach at Charlestown High School in Boston, prized George's loyalty and discipline. After using him as a utility player for three years, he'd finally made him a starter. George was enjoying his new status.
But while he was walking to class on a Friday morning in early February, something popped into George's head that stopped him dead in his tracks. The regular season was three-quarters over. Back in December, after the Charlestown guys had been humiliated during their home opener against rival East Boston High School and O'Brien responded by dialing up the duration and intensity of the team practices, George had felt the end of the season couldn't come fast enough. But now that George was finally getting a chance to enjoy the celebrity that came with being a starter on the most famous basketball program in the state, he was wishing he could slow down time.
So much in his life had improved over the last two months -- athletically, academically, and socially -- all that really matters in high school. Following that Eastie loss, Charlestown had gone on a tear, winning 11 games in a row. George knew some of those wins had more to do with the weakness of the opposition than the strength of Charlestown. He also knew the hardest stretch of the schedule was the final one. But for the first time he was operating with the confidence of someone who knew he had a key role to play. With his smothering defense and his willingness to throw some elbows under the boards, George had proved his worth in recent weeks.
He'd even found a way to earn a few extra bucks in the process. When O'Brien had noticed that too few of his players were taking "charges" -- planting their feet under the hoop and bravely drawing an offensive foul from the opponent charging toward them -- he decided to offer his guys $5 every time they did. George liked the extra spending money so much that he kept a running accounting. Anytime he drew the call during a game, he would yell over to the bench as he jogged to the other end of the court, "That's five dollahs, Coach."
George also kept a close eye on another incentive program: the "star chart" hanging in the locker room, which O'Brien used to track player achievements like improving their grades. In a few hours, George would find out whether he'd earned a critical five-star bonus when he learned what his grades were for the second quarter. For the first time in his life, George had a real shot at making the honor roll.
Success on court was also doing wonders for George's social life. During a passing period between classes, he positioned himself in the landing of a crowded stairwell that was painted bright green and began his favorite pastime, something he called "playing the hall." He shouted to a girl who was descending the stairs, "LaToya, I called you last night." He put his hand up to his ear to pantomime a phone. "I wanted some company." She smiled and gave him a warm hug.
Despite the way he loved to socialize in school, outside of school George mostly kept to himself. Like other guys on the team, George had grown up in a dreary housing project and had a father who was in and out of jail. When he was in middle school, his mother sat him down in front of the TV and made him watch the unsparing HBO prison drama Oz, so he'd see where street life got you. "That scared the hell out of me," George once said. "I knew I didn't want that -- taking showers and having guys come up to you."
When it came time to pick a high school, George sought advice from an older friend who lived in his project and had played for Charlestown. "Look at the other high school teams in Boston and see how many of those guys end up in college, and then look at Charlestown," the friend told George. "It ain't even close." The idea that George, who struggled in school and wasn't a natural athlete, would be thinking about how he could use basketball to get to college was pretty remarkable. O'Brien took immediately to the kid's work ethic, but his lack of gifts meant he had to log a lot of time on the bench before gaining his starting spot.
During his first-period class, called Law and Justice, George sat in the back next to Lamar "Spot" Brathwaite, his smooth-talking teammate with the Hollywood smile. George told Spot about a new girl he had just begun "talking to," which meant they were somewhere just shy of dating. Until recently, George had been dating a short, talkative, pony-tailed girl named Shay. But he'd grown frustrated by all the reports he was getting about how Shay was flirting with other guys, including Troy, who was George's 6-foot-5 teammate. George refused to confront her about it, so Spot did it for him. After the team's easy win the night before, Spot went up to Shay and cussed her out for two-timing his buddy George with another baller. Shay denied it.
George told Spot that after that exchange, Shay had confronted him, saying, "I heard from three people that you heard people are talking about me and Troy!" So George pretended he didn't know anything about it.
"Just tell her you did!" Spot said, waving his San Diego Padres cap with the unbent brim to make his point. "Why won't you?"
"I don't need to," George said. "I got another girl."
"What's her name?"
"Chadry, or sumptin' like that," George said. "I didn't know her name. I called her cell phone and some old lady answered. So I said, 'Is you daughter there?'"
Spot burst out laughing. "Man, you got some serious problems! What if she had another daughter?"
"Nah. The other sister is like nine."
The conversation resumed in Pre-Calculus class. When a Chinese kid sitting in front of them tried to join in, Spot closed him down. "What do you want, Tiny?"
"Hey, my girls are satisfied," the Chinese kid shot back, with a nervous smile.
There wasn't much hostility among the Charlestown High's three main minority groups -- blacks, Hispanics, and Asians -- but there wasn't much cross-pollination either. Blacks held a slim majority, but their dominance transcended numbers. The school -- where the white working class made its last stand during Boston's school busing wars in the 1970s -- now had a black culture to it, and the Hispanics, the Chinese, and the few remaining whites had no choice but to accept that. When kids tried to step out of their groupings, racial zingers were the prods used to pen them back in.
The Chinese kid tried his own prod, calling Spot "fried chicken."
Spot laughed and reminded him, "Hey, you guys do chicken wings."
The Chinese kid turned away, but Spot wasn't done, perusing the take-out menu in his mind to keep the buffet of slurs coming. "What's the matter, Crab Rangoon? You got a problem, Beef Teriyaki?"
George had no interest in joining in the racial food fight. He had just been given reason to celebrate. His math teacher had told him he'd be getting an A for the quarter. "My first A in math in my life!" George loudly announced, as though volume would make the achievement seem more real.
During his Environmental Science class, George bummed a piece of loose-leaf paper off the girl behind him and wrote down all the grades he knew he was getting for the second term.
Law and Justice: B+ Chemistry: A- Gym: A English: B- Pre-Calculus: A
Environmental Science was still an unknown. If he earned at least a B-minus, George would make the honor roll. "Hey Mister, what grade I got in this class?" George called to his Environmental Science teacher.
Steve Carroll was a dedicated but tired veteran teacher who had grown up in Charlestown and who was now counting the days until his retirement. He kept a sign in his classroom that read TIME WILL PASS. WILL YOU? He knew this environmental science class wasn't much of a class at all. When he described it as a science class, he bent his fingers to indicate quotation marks around the term. Classified as an independent study, the course required students to read, at their own pace, chapters from a textbook and then take multiple-choice tests, while Carroll sat behind his desk, staring back at them. At times, the pace George chose was the one that saw his head down on his desk and his eyes closed.
"You're the only thing that's standing between me and the honor roll," George told his teacher.
Carroll wouldn't reveal his hand. "If you didn't sleep so much, you'd be all set," he said.
Thinking about how a C would kill his chance of making the honor roll, George began to regret all those naps. But, damn, the class was boring. What was he supposed to do?
Near the end of the day, George bumped into Mr. Carroll, who finally relented and let him know his grade: B. For the first time in his life, George Russell was an honor roll student.
During the week between the end of the regular season and the start of the post-season state tournament came something called the Boston City League Championship. The city title had no significance beyond bragging rights, and no effect on the multi-round state tournament whose winner walked away with the title that mattered. But bragging rights for winning the cities meant a lot to Boston kids. Few Boston fans ever made the journey to western Massachusetts for the state final, but they always packed the stands for the city final.
O'Brien led his team into the big, bright athletic center at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. George and Ridley Johnson, the sharp-shooting senior co-captain, were the only two players wearing their Charlestown team jackets from the previous year, with lettering that boasted, "City League Champions." For four years in a row, O'Brien's Charlestown squad had been able to wear jackets that said "State Champions." When that record-breaking run had ended unexpectedly last year, at least they had the city title to fall back on. No one wanted to think about what the jackets would say at the end of this post-season if, as most people were predicting, Charlestown lost in tonight's city finals and again in the state tournament.
The stakes were particularly high for the other senior co-captain, Jason White, a muscular six-footer with piercing eyes and a penchant for icy stares. O'Brien knew that many adults at the high school looked at the kid's posture, his clothes, and his stare and saw nothing but a thug. The nickname Jason went by -- Hood -- only strengthened the impression. O'Brien liked knowing that his vision was better than theirs.
While the 6-foot-3 Ridley had been heavily recruited, O'Brien had to struggle to get Hood much attention from college coaches. Their shared goal of Hood earning an athletic scholarship would face a critical test during this city final game. An assistant coach from Adelphi University was traveling from New York to watch him play. The head coach at Adelphi, a Division II school on Long Island, was a friend of O'Brien's. He'd be more likely than most to trust O'Brien's word and to take a chance on a kid like Hood whose talents weren't always obvious. Still, Hood had to show Adelphi something.
O'Brien needed him to have a great game, both because Adelphi would be watching closely and because the Charlestown squad's performance often hinged on how well Hood played. If Ridley had an off night, the team could usually find offensive production from other players. But since Hood was more the soul of the team, when he was off, it tended to sap the squad's drive.
In the L-shaped college locker room, the lockers were so wide the guys could sit inside them as they listened to O'Brien give his pre-game talk. Once again, his guys would be facing their perennial rivals from East Boston. "This is like a new season," O'Brien said.
After tip-off, Eastie quickly set the tone for the game, blazing out to a 7-0 lead. O'Brien paced the sidelines, screaming. Then Ridley found his hot hand, scoring Charlestown's first six points. George's job was to shut down Eastie's big man, but he was struggling, his face layered in sweat. Besides Ridley, the rest of the team was flat, especially Hood.
The assistant coach from Adelphi University, a 34-year-old with a goatee, looked puzzled as he sat in the stands, a spiral notebook on his lap, and watched Hood miss shot after shot. Was this the player he had driven four hours to see?
At halftime, Eastie was up by six. It would have been a lot worse if Ridley had been as cold as the rest of the team. Overall, Charlestown had shot 13-for-40. Hood walked into the locker room having scored just six.
In his halftime talk, O'Brien was more measured than usual, speaking in a voice raspy from all his first-half screaming. He exhorted his guys not to be out-hustled, telling them, "It's gonna be a war."
But the second half began like the first, as Eastie widened its lead to 12 points. Ridley, on his way to a game total of 23, couldn't hold them off alone. Then, more than midway through the second half, Hood came alive, driving to the basket with one powerful layup after another. With four minutes to go, he powered up to the basket to tie the game. O'Brien was going crazy on the bench, yelling "Rebound!" and "Rotate!" and flapping his arms. Thirty seconds later, Ridley converted a rebound into a basket that gave Charlestown its first lead of the game.
Fearing a repeat of years past, when promising Eastie starts were snuffed out by powerful Charlestown finishes down the stretch, Eastie head coach David Siggers began howling at his guys to keep it together and not let this one get away.
The lead seesawed for the next few minutes. Then, with 59 seconds left in the game, Charlestown's point guard unleashed a beautiful three-pointer from the baseline, giving Charlestown its biggest lead of the night: 72-69.
Eastie's shooting guard got fouled and nailed both shots from the paint, bringing his team to within one point. With 16 seconds left, Charlestown coughed up the ball. Eastie's sophomore point guard, who hadn't scored the entire game, threw up an off-balance jumper from left of the foul line.
Just then, a heavily jeweled girl walked into the stands, talking on her cell phone, oblivious to her poor timing in obstructing everyone else's view. "KAMESHA!" a friend yelled from a few rows back. "SIT DOWN!" a chorus of fans sitting behind Kamesha yelled. She did, just as the ball, which had been dancing around the rim for an eternity, bounced in. Eastie was up 73-72.
Charlestown pushed the ball up the court. With the final buzzer about to sound, Hood tossed up a jump shot from the foul line. The entire crowd was standing now -- including Kamesha -- watching the ball bounce around the rim. On the sidelines, O'Brien stood frozen, his arms extended in flight, a piece of green spearmint gum resting on the tip of his tongue, dry from lack of attention.
The ball bobbled on the rim, refusing to commit, as though following some movie script designed to tease out all the available drama. Finally, it tumbled out.
Siggers and the entire Eastie squad charged onto the center of the court, hurling into the air the point guard whose basket had put them over the top. The Eastie players screamed and danced and pulled their jerseys from their chests in a center-court explosion of joy.
Hood drifted to the Charlestown bench, but seemed unwilling or unable to move any farther. O'Brien, his collar dampened with sweat, remained frozen, refusing to believe it was over.
A few minutes later, Siggers, who'd always had a distant relationship with O'Brien, made his way over to give the Charlestown coach a bear hug. "That was a great high school game!" Siggers said. O'Brien was polite, but all the color was drained from his face.
When O'Brien walked into the locker room, he was met with silence.
"Hey. Look at me now," he told his players. "Great, great job. Great, great effort getting back into a game we probably had no business being in." O'Brien could be withering in his post-game locker room talks, usually after his guys had coasted to an easy win. But not tonight. He knew how hard the loss would be for his guys. They would hear taunts the moment they stepped onto the subway. So he reminded them to keep their heads high when they walked out the door. "Don't listen to no hate."
After the last player left the locker room, O'Brien leaned against the wall, flipping through the green score book, replaying the final seconds. Eastie's last shot had looked short to him. Hood's had looked promising. He slapped the score book shut. "Damn!"
The next day, a Saturday, O'Brien kept his phone turned off the whole day. He barely got out of bed. On Sunday, he called Hood to see how he was doing. "What'd you do yesterday?" the coach asked.
Hood said, "I stayed in bed all day."
By Monday afternoon, the mourning was over. O'Brien led his team into a cramped storage room off the Charlestown gym. There, determined to pump them up, he told his players something he'd resisted saying to any of his title-grabbing teams in the past. He knew it was a risk, but he did it anyway, convinced it would help convey just how much faith he had in them. "Listen guys," he told them, "we're going to win the state championship."