Out of Bounds
1 It’s All About Pressure
Reminder: You have basketball practice starting at 3:15, Elle!
The message appeared on my cell phone screen when the last school bell of the day rang. Normally I wouldn’t need a reminder to go to basketball practice. There was no way I could forget that I had practice with my seventh-grade team, the Spring Meadow Nighthawks, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school, plus a game every Sunday. Basketball has been my life ever since third grade.
But the reason why my phone was reminding me
was because my best friend, Avery, had just downloaded a scheduling program for me. She’d just presented it to me a few hours ago during lunch in the cafeteria. And if it sounds strange that my best friend was scheduling my life for me, there’s a pretty good reason.
Recently I almost had a meltdown because of all the things I was busy with: basketball, my new dog, volunteering, homework, helping my family, and hanging with friends. I had been getting bad grades, hurting my friends’ feelings, and psyching myself out on the court because I couldn’t figure out how to prioritize my time.
Avery’s app looked like it was going to fix all that. And I owed my teammates on the Nighthawks a big thanks, too, because they had all offered to take volunteer slots at Camp Cooperation—an after-school program for kids with special needs. I had been volunteering there twice a week, but since my friends were helping out, I could cut down my days to two Tuesdays a month and free up time for the other things in my life.
Today was Monday, and like the app said, I had basketball practice. We practice in the high school gym, which is just a short walk across a field from the middle school. That’s because the school I go to, Spring Meadow School, is a small, private school. It’s a K–12 school and there are three buildings on our campus: one for kids in K–5, one for kids in grades 6–8, and one for the high school.
I’d been wanting to thank my teammates since Avery had told me the news at lunchtime. As we walked across the field together, I had my chance.
“I want to thank you guys for volunteering at Camp Cooperation,” I said.
“I had fun the day we all volunteered as a team,” Natalie said. “Those kids are cute.”
“Especially your brother Pete, Caroline,” Dina remarked.
Caroline’s brother Pete is eight years old and has Down syndrome. She and I recently bonded because I have a special needs sister too. But my sister, Beth, is older than I am, and she has different conditions than Pete does.
“He’s cute if you only have to spend an hour a week with him,” Caroline joked. “But I am really glad that everyone on the team is going to take turns. I know Pete really loves the program—all the kids do.”
Walking in front of me were two of our best players, Bianca and Tiff.
“Yeah, Avery told us you needed help organizing your schedule,” Bianca said snidely. “Now maybe you can concentrate on your game.”
I ignored the comment. Bianca is one of the tallest players on the team, but she’s still six inches shorter than I am (I’m six foot). At the start of the season, Coach Ramirez made me center and that really upset Bianca. She’s been calling me out ever since.
Tiff is Bianca’s best friend, but she’s been a little bit nicer.
“I told Avery that I’d help you study for science,” Tiff said.
“Yeah, she told me,” I replied. “That would be great. Cellular biology is kicking my butt.”
Tiff grinned. “Then we will kick its butt together!”
We had reached the high school gym and headed for the locker room. I changed into my practice uniform and laced up my basketball shoes. I’d had to get new ones after my feet literally grew two sizes over the summer, which was probably the only thing I liked about my growth spurt. I am obsessed with basketball shoes and I would buy a new pair every month if I could afford to.
Then I looked in the mirror and pulled my long blond hair into a ponytail. I took a deep breath. Coach Ramirez started each practice with a video review of our last game. Yesterday we’d had a game against the Patriots, and I had choked. For the first time in my entire basketball career, I hadn’t scored. I’d even missed a lousy free throw shot—usually my specialty! So I was expecting Coach Ramirez to be extra hard on me.
When we entered the gym, Coach was pacing back and forth in front of the bleachers. On a normal day she looks like she means business, without a strand of her short brown hair out of place, and a
Nighthawks T-shirt that always looks freshly ironed. Today she looked even more serious than ever, her mouth set in a thin line.
“Losing is one thing,” she began right off the bat. “Sometimes we lose even though we played our best. But we did not play our best.”
She hit a button on the keyboard and the game began to play from the start. I was in the middle of the court facing the Patriots center, who was almost six foot tall, maybe an inch shorter than I was. We both jumped up for the ball, and she tipped it before I could.
“You could have had that, Elle!” Coach said. “You’re my center. I need you to be hungrier for that ball.”
I nodded. I was getting kind of used to Coach singling me out in the reviews by now, so it didn’t sting quite as bad. But it still hurt.
Coach’s next comment was directed toward Patrice—her daughter, and our starting small forward.
“Patrice, you had a shot there, and you didn’t
take it!” she barked. “You need more confidence out there.”
Patrice nodded and looked down at her shoes.
How can she be confident when her mom is always pointing out her mistakes? I wondered.
Coach fast-forwarded through the video, stopping in a few places. Some of her comments were general—we needed to be blocking more shots; we had to be careful not to travel with the ball. But I felt like she made comments about me more than anyone else (except maybe Patrice). I just kept hearing, “Elle! You lost focus there.” “Elle! That was sloppy footwork.” “Elle! You could have taken a shot there.”
I glanced over at Avery and she gave me a sympathetic look. She knew that I hated Video Mondays.
Finally we finished the review.
“Everyone on this team has problems traveling,” Coach said. “So today we’re going to do some control drills.”
We had never done control drills before, so I was curious to see what Coach had in mind. First she had us all line up on one side of the court.
“All right, now stand with your right foot forward, in shooting position,” she instructed, and we all obeyed. (Natalie, who’s left-handed, stood with her left foot forward.)
“Now we’re going to play a game of Stop and Go,” Coach continued. “When I say ‘go,’ run forward. When I say ‘stop,’ stop and return to shooting position.”
We did this several times back and forth across the gym. It wasn’t always easy to stop with my right foot forward, so I could see why the drill was a good idea. After we did that a few times, Coach changed things up. This time we dribbled while we ran, stopped in shooting position, and then started again. First Coach had us do it slowly, and then faster.
After the control drills, Coach called for a scrimmage.
“Oh great,” I said to Avery. “What if I can’t score again? Maybe I’m cursed and my scoring days are over.”
“Stop psyching yourself out, Elle!” Avery told me. “You’re a great shooter and you know it.”
Coach divided us up into two teams for the
scrimmage: Me, Avery, Dina, Hannah, and Caroline on one team, and Bianca, Tiff, Amanda, Patrice, and Natalie on the other.
Bianca and I faced each other as center, and when Coach threw the ball up, I jumped as high and hard as I could. I was not going to give Bianca the satisfaction of getting it. Not today.
I tipped the ball to Dina, who pivoted and passed it to Hannah. Hannah dribbled forward a few steps and then stopped and made her shot. It bounced off the rim, but I caught the rebound and sank the ball for two points.
I grinned at Avery. Making the shot was a huge relief! I felt energized, and I had fun with the scrimmage. But Bianca was on fire, too, and her team ended up beating us by two points.
“Great scrimmage!” Coach complimented us as we cooled off from the game. “Now let’s go over the Thanksgiving schedule again. Don’t forget that we don’t have a regular practice on Wednesday, the half day. We’ll be meeting outside on the field for a team-building activity. Lunch is on me. Then there’s
no practice on Friday, and no game on Sunday.”
The thought of a break from practice and competition cheered me up—although I was a little afraid of what Coach’s idea of a team-building activity would turn out to be. In elementary school, we’d done stuff like make towers out of marshmallows and toothpicks. I couldn’t imagine Coach Ramirez doing anything that silly.
We all grabbed our duffel bags from the locker room and made our way through the high school halls to the main entrance, where our parents would come to get us. Just about everyone was talking about their Thanksgiving plans.
“There’s a lot of yellow on your U-Plan schedule this weekend,” Avery told me. “I hope I can come over and meet Zobe finally.”
Zobe is my almost-brand-new dog, a Great Dane my family adopted from the local shelter. Avery had been dying to meet him, but I’d kept putting her off because I was so busy.
“Yes, yes, yes!” I said.
“Great! I’ll send you a U-Plan request, and if
you approve, it will automatically upload into your schedule,” she said.
“I have no idea what you just said, but it sounds good,” I replied.
Amanda, who’d just started playing basketball this year, chimed in. “I would love to go on another doggy date with Freckles and Zobe, but we’re going to my grandmother’s this weekend in Pennsylvania.”
Freckles is an English springer spaniel with cute freckles, just like Amanda. I was just starting to get to know Amanda, and we’d had some great walks and talks in the park with our dogs.
“Is Freckles going with you, or do you have to put her in a kennel?” I asked.
“Grandma loves dogs, so Freckles is allowed to come with us,” she replied.
“That’s nice,” I said. “We’ve got our family coming over this Thanksgiving, so we don’t have to travel anywhere. I wonder how Zobe’s going to be with a lot of people in the house, though. He’s a pretty good dog, but we haven’t started his obedience training classes yet.”
“He’ll be fine,” Amanda assured me with a smile. “He’s a big sweetheart.”
Bianca, Tiffany, and Dina were walking behind us, talking with one another, and right at that moment, Bianca’s voice got really loud.
“It’s about time Coach let me play center already,” she was saying.
Normally I would have ignored her. And I might not have argued with her, because I had been a shooting guard in the past and hadn’t even wanted to be center when Coach gave me the position. But now I was the center, whether I liked it or not, and I was tired of Bianca giving me a hard time about it.
I turned around. “Bianca, can’t you just give me a chance, please?” I asked. “The season just started, and the pressure you’re giving me just isn’t helping.”
Bianca rolled her eyes. “If you can’t take the pressure, Elle, then you shouldn’t be center,” she said. “That’s the whole point. It’s all about pressure.”
Then the three of them walked past us.
Avery shook her head. “I do not understand what her problem is.”
“I think she really loves the game more than anything,” Natalie said. “That’s why she works so hard, and why she cares about how everybody else on the team is performing.”
“Good point,” Hannah said. “I’m glad she’s on our team, and not on anybody else’s.”
I didn’t chime in. I was replaying Natalie’s words in my head.
She really loves this game more than anything.
That was sure true about Bianca. But was it true about me? Did I love basketball more than anything?
And if I didn’t . . . well, what did that mean?