28 September 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 3

We Were Almost Superstars

It was our first practice of the season, and the gym already smelled like dirty leather and pine sol. The buttery air left over from the day's PE classes gave us no physical separation from our summer vacation. We had been back in a structured classroom environment for one day and our new coach was running late. The circumstances were about to turn us uncoachable.

No one knew who was coming to train us. I had a strange buzzing in my limbs so I had to keep moving around. At the time I didn't know the difference between nerves and excitement. My stomach was either in knots or it wasn't. I was either playing basketball or I was thinking about it. I was either waiting for Jenny or she was there.

That afternoon she wasn't there yet. The rest of us had secured a few balls from junior varsity practice before the greedy gym keeper—glorified janitor Amy had called him—could cage them back up. I dribbled along the baseline practicing my crossover and watched the rest of the girls lying on the ground launching basketballs up into the air. We'd seen another team do this at a tournament last year, and we thought it looked tough. It was more a test of mettle than a skills drill. So I rarely participated.

Amy let one fall on Rachel's face.


Rachel jumped up, ready to kick Amy when the heavy latch of the gym door clanged open. A man in a gray suit stepped in and let the door fall closed. He was holding a red duffle bag and a clipboard. He still had his car keys in his hand. The girls sat up. Basketballs dropped to the ground. I stopped dribbling.

"Ladies, I apologize for being late. Traffic." He coughed and corrected his nervous tone, "Why don't you all get started with some laps. I'll be just a minute."

As soon as he disappeared into the locker room we all looked at each other, stupefied. Amy whispered, "A GUY?!"

Not only was this guy a man or this man a guy but none of us knew him. This was a rarity in our town. We never had traffic problems and we knew everyone that wore suits: principals, vice principals, and bank managers.

We didn't start the laps right away. We lined up and shuffled around half-assedly before making a full circle around the court.

Jenny got there in the middle of our second lap. We were jogging by that point. She still had on half of her street clothes but didn't bother going into the locker room. She changed into her gym shorts near the bleachers. Then she shoved her bag in a corner and fell in line next to me and behind Shelly, our burly forward that always liked to run in front.

"Hey ladies. Sorry, got tied up." Jenny smelled like cigarettes.

Shelly smirked, "I'll bet."

Jenny was the team perv. A teen burnout with a fondness for drunken three-ways who also happened to have a natural gift for shooting three pointers. Shelly liked to tease her. I didn't.

The new coach came out of the boys' locker room and blew a whistle. He was wearing blue sweatpants with elastic bottoms and a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, which I thought was very stupid. Everyone liked the Bulls then.

"Alright, ladies. Gather around."

He walked underneath the basket. We fell in formation around him.

"Alright, I'm Mr. Palmer, and I will be coaching you this season."

He had his hand on his chest to signal that it was indeed himself that he was introducing. He sucked in the gym air and looked down at his notes.

"You'll find that I'm not like the other coaches." Mr. Palmer let his hand fall off his chest and pushed his clipboard into his hip.

"No, he isn't." Jenny made a face like she was looking at a hot fudge sundae. "He's got a great ass."

I stifled my laugh. She hadn't seen his cheesy entrance or his pathetic suit, and I was amazed at her ability to see Mr. Palmer's ass underneath his oversized t-shirt.

"Every thing you guys do, every free throw, every drill, every suicide you run, I will be right alongside of you." Mr. Palmer was already pacing back and forth like other coaches. He alternated his clipboard hand to adjust his sandy brown-feathered hair. Supercuts.

I looked to Jenny. She was the only one that had an un-tucked practice jersey. Our last coach, Ms. Cook, required that we come to practice with our jerseys tucked in and our socks (the tube socks with our green and yellow school colors) pulled up.

Jenny kept her face straight ahead but looked at me through the corner of her eye. "Oh I can think of a few things I would like to be right alongside…"

I loved her because she never disappointed me. She was consistently crass and obsessively competitive. I shared one of those qualities and longed to possess the other. She and I won games. Her shooting style was ridiculous but effective. She had the epitome of the girl shot—she scooped low from her right hip. I had a strong shot from my chest. Ms. Cook had helped me with my shot more than anyone else. I had an 85% free-throw percentage. So did Jenny.

Ms. Cook was let go a week after our last season. It was my first year on varsity and we were two and eighteen. Two and eighteen is a horrible record but Jenny and I thought her dismissal had more to do with her not going on a second date with our athletic director. He was obsessively competitive too. It just couldn't be that someone was caring about girls' basketball all the sudden.

Mr. Palmer blew his whistle, Jenny growled, and I laughed.

"Something funny ladies?"

"No, Mr. Palmer," I said.

"From now on, you guys will call me coach."

"Yes coach." Jenny took the first honor. Coach didn't show any sign of being impressed.

"Line up. Suicides. We'll start with five." Coach Palmer kept his whistle in his mouth as he crouched down and put his arm on the baseline ready to take off with the rest of us. I didn't like his style already. He clearly had an advantage: he knew when to go.

Sure enough he was the first off the line. I wasn't one to ponder unfairness for too long so I just took off hellspeed to the first line.

I never minded running suicides. Most of the team would hack and spit and complain after running one or two. I loved anything that gave me an opportunity to run and run faster than anyone else. All of time suspended and depended on me when I ran. Ms. Cook used to talk about how some ancient cultures believed in physical activity as a way to reach spirits. Jenny laughed really loud at that one. I totally believed her though. I tried to look up more information in our encyclopedia set at home. I didn't find anything but a diagram of some Greeks jumping over cows.

As promised, Coach Palmer ran all five sprints with us. The last three were rough on everyone, except Jenny and me. Amy and Kristina held their guts like they had appendicitis. Shelly flopped her thick leg to the side pretending that she was having trouble with her shoelace. When we crossed the baseline for the fifth and final time, Coach Palmer looked sick to his stomach and our faces looked like a bunch of sweaty beets.

We all ran for the drinking fountains like we were released from a desert prison. We were happy to have the break. Between gulps of air and water we talked about the school day and how much running suicides sucks, until we heard the damn whistle again.

"Alright, gather around."

Cameron and Rachel were still at the drinking fountain. Not everyone had their chance yet. There were 17 of us after all. Coach Palmer looked at his clipboard then at Jenny.

"Who are those two?" He asked.

Jenny didn't answer. She stood there catching her breath. I wanted to tell him, but Jenny's stillness told me to keep my mouth shut.

He blew his whistle again. "Ladies!"

Rachel finished her drink and ran to join us. Cameron gambled and went in for a quick sip. Coach Palmer blew his whistle again. Thank god we had a waterboy at our games. This was cruel.

Coach Palmer paced back and forth hitting his clipboard on his thighs. He stopped when he was certain he had our attention. He pointed at Amy and then at Kristina.

"You two, pack up your stuff. You're the slowest ones on the team and that's how we are going to run things now." Coach Palmer didn't move a muscle.

Jenny punched me in the side. Amy was our starting center last year. She was six-one. Our tallest player. Nobody, including Amy or Kristina, moved.

Coach Palmer continued, "I'm dead serious. Thanks for your time ladies. You can try out next year." Amy and Kristina were seniors. They would not be trying out next year.

"You ever hear of the ten-percent rule ladies? It's how great businesses are run. You cut off your lowest performing ten percent. It keeps your talent fresh and everyone on their toes. You don't want to be next." Coach Palmer seemed pleased with himself.

"I didn't know there were going to be cuts." Kristina said, starting to cry. She did that a lot last year when Ms. Cook yelled at games. We all cried a lot. We were 16. The rest of us tried to hug her but it seemed inappropriate. All of us had been playing sports together for years. There had never been a team tryout; there were rarely enough people. We just played.

Coach Palmer wasn't swayed by the emotion. "The rest of you have three more practices to show me what you've got. I will be posting the final team roster on Friday morning."

Kristina sniffled and it echoed through the beams in the ceiling.

"Coach." Jenny rolled her shoulders back.

"Yes…" He looked down at his clipboard. "Jennifer?"

Jenny lifted her chin. "But two of seventeen isn't really ten percent."

Coach Palmer's face blasted bright red. I thought that could be a problem come game time. Red faces and short tempers equal technical fouls.

"If you would like to discuss my philosophy further I welcome you to come by during my office hours."

We all looked at each other. Office hours? We had been incorporated.

He spoke loudly as if there were parents nearby. "Office hours will be from 4:15 to 4:30 every day after practice."

Jenny glared at me like I should say something. I didn't.

It never took me long to get myself together after practice. I usually just washed my face, fixed my ponytail, and put on the same T-shirt I wore to school. Jenny took a little longer.

I walked to the mirrors where I knew she would be fixing her face. She was in front of the white ceramic sinks with her beauty tools resting on a skinny metal shelf. Her hair hadn't moved. It hadn't lost a curl or a cubic inch of volume. Kristy, a girl in my English Lit class used to wrinkle her nose behind Jenny's hair. "She's not even a real blonde." Kristy had straight, mousy-brown hair. I thought that Jenny's hair not being real was a rather desperate detail and that Kristy should invest in a spiral curling iron.

I could tell that Jenny was especially cranky because she was gripping her eyelash curler so hard that the veins in her hands were bulging.

"You better watch it, you're gonna rip out your lashes." I felt responsible for her mood whenever I was around her.

"He's a dick."

"I thought you liked his ass."

She rifled through her hot pink, plastic make-up bag. "Kimmy, I'm serious. This is war. We can't let him ruin our team."

"Yeah, I kinda got that." I pretended to improve my ponytail. "What are we gonna do?"

"Let me figure something out." She made an O with her mouth to help her eye make-up application. "God dammit I wish my parents gave a shit." She had a stub of Wet and Wild black eyeliner in her hand and was pulling the lower rim of her lashes out to line the very, very inside. It made my eyes water just watching her.

She turned to me. "This is where that type of stuff helps ya know? They could complain. You think your parents could complain?"

"Mine?" I realized that Jenny had never been to my house. "Nah, they don't like to get involved like that."

"Really? I assumed." Jenny looked up at me and sighed. "Hey we'll come up with something, right?" She tossed her eyeliner back in the pink bag and closed it with a zzzzzip.


My parents never picked me up from basketball practice. I always had the option to walk up to the hardware store where my mom worked and wait for her to give me a ride home. I went with her a few times but she never had much to talk about and that made me feel like I was hitchhiking. So when I learned that Jenny walked uptown every day after school to hang at the bridge near the library I decided to start hoofing it. Uptown, as it was then known, was on the way to my house so I'd walk with her all the way to the bridge and then the rest of the way home, which was six miles.

On our walks Jenny and I would stick to her favorite topic: Bill Laimbeer. Jenny loved Bill Laimbeer because he was the most hated basketball player of all time. Everyday she would talk about him and how it felt to be misunderstood. Then we'd get to the wooden bridge where guys hung around their cars, and Jenny would split off.

We never talked about anything other than basketball but I kept hoping that one day she would say something about the boys. I couldn't focus on the conversation as soon as they were within eyeshot. I didn't know if it was because I wanted to talk to the boys or because I knew Jenny was going to leave.

She didn't talk about Bill Laimbeer on the walk that day. In fact I was startled when she finally said something.

"There's Mikey. I gotta run." Jenny dug into her pocket for her lip smacker. "Don't worry Kimmy, I will think of something to do about Mister Coach Businessman."

I made sure to laugh at her made-up name. Then she was off. I walked through town and passed by my mom's work without saying hi. I liked walking home because I could get my thinking done. Ms. Cook told me it was meditative. I usually made it a game to try to get home before it got dark. But I barely made it that night because I walked slowly, thinking about Coach Palmer and the two things I would never be: an NBA superstar and Jenny.

The week of tryouts blended into what seemed like regular practice. It took us barely a day to recover from the loss of Amy and Kristina. I was even growing to like Coach Palmer a little. His attempts to keep up with us during drills made me laugh. He didn't seem to be improving. Shelly and I called him a clodhopper behind his back. I kept my eye on Jenny, wondering if she was starting to like Coach Palmer too. But for the most part, we just played basketball.

Jenny and I tried to spice up our fast break drills. We called each other Isaiah and Bill; sometimes we let Shelly be Vinny. Coach Palmer didn't have a problem with us calling out our shots. Thomas at the top… passes to Laimbeer… back out for three… two… one. They were his heroes too. He had probably spent hours pretending he was Jordan.

I figured the rest of the team didn't think much about how Bill and Isaiah achieved something that would forever be out of our reach. We had a better shot at being astronauts. But the magic of wholehearted exertion and the satisfaction of a well-timed jump shot actually convinced us that maybe the sky would open up and the gods of possibility would make us NBA superstars.

Then there was always something to remind us that we were just teen girls from a mediocre varsity team. Like the yellow-toned lights of an ancient gym, or a faded hand-painted mascot peeling away from the scoreboard, or the reality of a bullcrap list posted on a Friday morning.

I caught a ride with my dad on his way out to the factory. He was in charge of a group of guys that made small plastic parts that fit on big cars. His factory hours were early so I got to school a half hour before everybody else. That Friday morning was quiet because it was game day for the football team. They were taking a rest from weight lifting.

The list was posted on the gym door for everyone, including non-athletes, to see.

It looked like a regular piece of paper to me. Shelly was already there examining it.

"Do you think he got up at like four in the morning to post this?" I asked her. Shelly's hair was covering up of most of the names but I could see mine at the top.

"He probably just posted it after practice yesterday, you know during office hours."

"Yeah I guess." I hadn't thought of that. I liked to think that grown-ups slept over big issues.

"Jenny's not on here." Shelly said.

"What?!" I searched the list. There were 15 names. None of them Jenny's.

"Who is going to tell her?" I asked Shelly.

"She can read." She shrugged and walked off.

I did not like having this information before Jenny. I could have punched myself for not waiting to check the list. I was pell-mell on my escape route when she walked up in her acid-washed jean jacket. Her hair looked exactly like it did at practice the day before.

"Hey." She tilted her head like Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. "What happened? You look like shit."

"You aren't on the list." I blurted.

Jenny laughed and shoved me aside to take a look.

She scanned it twice, the second time using her finger to point at the names. She pushed her finger into the bottom of the page and just stood there. She got so still that I was convinced she was going into rigor mortis. I stepped in to check if she was still breathing and she jerked her head. She forced her face to relax then she shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and walked away without saying a word.

The rest of the day was a new kind of mess. My thoughts mashed together and formed a soupy cloud of fear in my brain. The one thing that had connected me to Jenny had been severed. If I lost her friendship I was going to disappear in this small town. She was my ticket to badness. The thought of being mediocre stiffened my joints and I couldn't sit behind a desk. I got a bathroom pass every class period so I could walk the halls. When the final bell rang it wasn't a relief.

On my way to practice I saw Jenny sitting in our school's carpeted commons area. She was leaning against the glass trophy case, which made her look dangerous.

"I want to talk to you," she said. It was the best thing I had heard all day.

"I'm really sorry Jenny." I felt like I'd let her down.

"Look, I figured it out. I want you to get everyone to walk out of practice." She seemed to believe in my leadership skills. It made me proud for a moment.

"We can all just refuse to play until they get a new coach."

"Well maybe I could have my parents complain," I said, knowing that I would have to get a new set of parents before that happened. "Or maybe we could call up Coach Cook and see what she thinks." I tried not to sound contrary.

"I already decided what the plan is. It's a good one. Who will Palmer coach if no one is there?" Jenny was really working to make her plan sound simple. I knew it wasn't.

Coach Palmer walked in the front door. Jenny stiffened. I braced for her to let it rip.

"Hi Jenny." He said without apology.

"I'm outta here," Jenny told the air and walked past me. I hoped that this canceled my obligations to follow the walkout plan.

"I'll wait outside," she whispered back to me.

"Where?" I was concerned that she would be waiting somewhere she could see me. I didn't want to have to decide with her watching. To my relief she kept walking and didn't look back to answer or check on me.

I dragged my bag on the ground and went inside the gym. The remaining fourteen players were joking around, warming up and shooting baskets. They looked content. They weren't going to be convinced.

There wasn't a door that closed off our locker room—just a long cinderblock hallway that jetted off into an L-shape so it wasn't like you could see all the way in. Coach Palmer was standing at the entrance with his retarded clipboard. "Kimberly, you're going to learn soon enough that the company you keep will determine your future."

I hated adult advice like that. It made me feel vulnerable, like even if I didn't agree with it, the advice would be absorbed through my skin and affect my ability to be my own person.

"Did you cut Jenny?" I asked.

Coach Palmer didn't answer.

"I mean why?"

"The last thing a team needs is a sour attitude." He lifted his t-shirt to pull up his sweatpants. I saw some of his stomach. It made me flinch.

"I'm glad you know so much." I don't remember if it came out sarcastic or genuine but that's what I said right before walking into the girls' locker room, where I knew he couldn't follow me. If it would have been Ms. Cook, she would have followed me in.

I took all of my gear out of my bag. I could already hear the squeaking of basketball shoes on the court. I was missing warm-up. I wondered why Coach Palmer gave up on me so easy and why he didn't send someone for me. Jenny was right: he was the enemy. He was full of advice and percentages. He didn't care at all.

I folded up my practice clothes and put them back in my bag. I took my time, waiting until the sound of the warm-up changed. And that's when I walked out of the gym. I walked right past all of the staring faces and kept looking straight at the door. Shelly tried to get in my way but I stepped around her. I heard Coach Palmer yell at the rest of the girls to stay focused. He didn't say a word to me. He let me walk out like he expected it. I wondered if he would try to call my parents and if he knew that wouldn't mean much. If that information was on his clipboard. I prayed Jenny would still be waiting. I wanted to tell her what he said.

I saw her sitting on top of some guy's black Oldsmobile.

"I walked out," I said as soon as I got close enough.

"Yeah no kidding." She laughed. She seemed cooler. She was surrounded by two older guys. One of them was semi-handsome. Both of them had some sorry excuse for facial hair. I recognized one from the team football pictures in the trophy case. I imagined us taking off somewhere and giving into their peer pressure to do something wrong. I was looking forward to it.

"You should have seen the look on his face."

"Who's face?" Jenny asked. She scratched the back of her giant blonde head of hair and her front bangs moved all in one piece.

"Coach Palmer," I reminded her.

"Oh." She rolled her eyes. Her lashes were chunked with mascara.

"You want a ride home or something?" She asked.

The better-looking guy was pissed. "Don't volunteer my car like it's yours."

"Well you can take her home." Jenny smacked his thigh.

"No I can't—I've got shit to do." He grabbed her hand and pulled her between his legs.

"Sorry, Kimmy, you'll be alright though right? You can go up and wait for your mom to get off work or something." Jenny nestled into the guy sitting on the Olds. I focused on the hood ornament. Her block of hair moved when she looked back at me. "Hey, we should all party this weekend or something. Now that we don't have to go to practice!"

"Yeah, totally." I slung my backpack over my shoulder. An image of a solo Greek athlete jumping over a cow came to my mind.

I squeaked out a casual, see you, and walked off trying to look like I had stuff to do too.

I did hang out with Jenny in the back of that boy's car a week later. We didn't have much to talk about because she didn't want to talk about basketball in front of the boys. We drank Mountain Dew out of a McDonald's cup and SoCo out of a bottle and listened to music too loud to talk over. They drove me home after a while, and we didn't hang out after that. I would see her at school, and she would always say hi and we should party together, but each time I saw her she got less and less impressive. Her mystique diminished, but my longing to be back on the team got worse. It wasn't the first time I had felt regret, but it was the first time I realized I had become old enough to carry the feeling around.

My old team had a 10 – 10 season. Whenever the principal's secretary came on in the morning to announce the previous night's scores, my skin would tingle and my face would get hot. I would discreetly plug my ears and hum while Shelly and Jackie high-fived each other when their stats were announced. They'd look at me and smile with their mouths closed. They weren't mad at me but it didn't matter. As Jenny would have said, It didn't mean shit to a tree.

The only thing I looked forward to after that were my long walks home. I didn't catch a ride from anybody for the rest of the year. My parents never brought up me quitting the team. They thought it was dandy that I was getting home earlier because I could help in the kitchen. I hated kitchen work but it beat sitting in my room letting my muscles atrophy. Since they had extra help, we'd have dinner as a family every once in a while. My dad would talk about plastic parts and how my brother and I could work with him in the summer. Most of the time my mom would just nod and chew. Except one night, the one time she had something to say, she just had to mention that she heard from Mrs. So-and-So at the store that the new coach was finally building a real basketball program.

About the author:

Sara Kaye Larson is an devoted documenter, storyteller, and cross-country driver. She moved from Detroit to Los Angeles a few years ago and is currently using her Midwest sensibilities to write for 80 and Sunny, a daily blog describing the unchanging world of Los Angeles weather.

For further reading:

Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 3, where "We Were Almost Superstars" ran on September 28, 2007. List other work with these same labels: fiction, unpublished writers.

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