Chapter One ONE
Lucas Winston loved basketball the most when it was just him and Gramps in the park.
He also loved being on the seventh-grade town team in Claremont. He loved playing in the Twin Lakes League season, against all the other town teams in their area. He loved the fact that his sixth-grade team had won the Twin Lakes championship last year. And he sure didn’t hate that his best friend, Ryan Moretti, was the most gifted big man in the league, and a player who knew what to do with the ball when Lucas passed it to him.
“No two boys your age ever ran the pick-and-roll better,” Gramps said to Lucas one time.
Gramps had a way of making almost anything into the best he’d ever seen or known, starting with the French toast he’d had for breakfast that morning at the Claremont Diner.
“Trust me,” Gramps said. “You know how they say, ‘Ball don’t lie’? When it comes to analyzing basketball, I don’t either.”
“I know,” Lucas said. “Nobody knows more about basketball than you do.”
Last year Sam Winston had been the only grandfather coaching in the Twin Lakes League, and the Claremont Wolves had won their first title since before Lucas was even born. The parents on the board of directors were so happy with the job he’d done, they asked him to come back and coach the seventh graders this season, even though he’d announced he was retiring.
Lucas never believed Gramps’s heart was really in retiring. He knew he’d never stop loving basketball the way he did, and would always want to teach it. So Lucas had been the one to talk him out of it.
At the time he said to his grandfather, “You and I are the best team in town. And I’m not letting you break up that team.”
Lucas believed it too. He knew Gramps had taught him as much about being a good teammate as he had about being a good point guard. Persuading Gramps to come back was just one more way of being the best teammate he could be.
Lucas’s grandfather was really the only father Lucas had ever known. His real father had died of cancer right after Lucas was born. So they had always been a team, and not just in basketball. Sam Winston had never been too busy for Lucas, even before he’d retired from driving a USPS truck and delivering the mail.
It wasn’t too cold tonight under the lights at Westley Park. Tryouts were over for this year’s Wolves. The roster had been set. Their first game, against Homestead, was scheduled for next Saturday morning, in the new gym at Claremont Middle School.
Lucas and Gramps were working on what his grandfather called “old-school stuff.”
“Which some people would probably call ‘old-man stuff,’?” Sam Winston said.
“But you always tell me that the fundamentals never get old,” Lucas said.
“You just have to adapt them to the times,” Gramps said. He smiled. With his white hair and white beard, when he smiled he always reminded Lucas a little bit of Santa Claus. “You know I didn’t like the three-point shot when they first shoved it down my throat. And I can’t say as I love it even now. But I’m smart enough to know that if all you do is look back, you’re going to get left behind, no matter how much you love the game.”
They were both dressed in hoodies and sweatpants. Gramps was wearing one with USPS on the front. Lucas was wearing the purple Lakers hoodie that Gramps had bought him to replace the one from the Cavs he’d given Lucas when LeBron James was still playing in Cleveland. LeBron, even though he was the one getting older now, was Gramps’s favorite out of all the modern NBA players. He’d become one of Lucas’s favorites too.
Gramps said it wasn’t LeBron’s size or his strength that made him love LeBron’s game so much. It was his unselfishness. It hadn’t helped the Lakers very much in his first season in Los Angeles. But the point Gramps kept hitting with Lucas was that the best player in the NBA was also the best teammate.
“He never takes a shot if his teammate has a better one,” Gramps said.
“My coach always tells me that’s the first rule of offensive basketball,” Lucas said, knowing he was about to quote Gramps to Gramps. “If you’re open, shoot the darn ball. If you’ve got a teammate more open than you, pass it and let him shoot the darn ball. Or her.”
Gramps smiled again.
“And who said that first,” Gramps said, “even if nobody but me remembers?”
“Coach Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics,” Lucas said, feeling as if he were answering a question in class.
“And who was Red Auerbach?” Gramps said.
“The greatest NBA coach of all time,” Lucas said. Now he smiled. “Even if Phil Jackson came along later to win more championships.”
That was another thing Gramps was big on: having Lucas understand the history of the game. Looking back, he told Lucas, would help him understand how basketball had changed.
“I know people act as if those old Boston Celtics that Red coached played their home games at Jurassic Park,” Gramps said. “But I’m going to tell you something right now: Red Auerbach loved Michael Jordan and he would have loved LeBron.”
Lucas didn’t care if his friends didn’t love basketball history the way he did. Gramps cared; that’s what mattered to him. And if he did, Lucas did.
Tonight at Westley Park the two of them had spent a fair amount of time working on the high pick-and-roll, which was so old school, Gramps joked he wasn’t even sure they had schools when teams started using the play. Lucas and Ryan had run it all last season, and Gramps said they were going to wear teams out running it again this season.
Gramps said the truth was that if you started your offense that way and ran it right, it didn’t matter whether the other team knew it was coming or not.
Gramps was playing the part of Ryan tonight. Over and over he’d limp up to the top of the key on his aching knees, wincing as he did. Those knees, Lucas knew, were the oldest things about his grandfather. Not his mind. Not his attitude. Not even his heart. Just the knees. He never begged off playing. He never complained about his knees, even though Lucas could see the pain on his face when he’d move around a lot like this.
As soon as Gramps called for the ball, Lucas tossed it to him.
“Switch!” Gramps yelled, passing the ball to Lucas as he moved to his right.
It meant the imaginary player guarding him was jumping out to guard Lucas.
Lucas didn’t hesitate as Gramps spun away from him and hobbled down the left side of the lane toward the basket. He lofted a pass over the smaller imaginary player who would have switched over to guard Gramps, hit Gramps perfectly in stride—if you could even call what his grandfather did striding—and Gramps put a left-handed layup off the backboard and gently through the net.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Sam Winston said.
“Did I get the pass away quickly enough?” Lucas asked.
Gramps hated it when you were late exploiting an opening the defense had presented to you. He who hesitates, Gramps liked to say, loses an easy bucket.
“Can’t even remember the ball touching your hands,” Gramps said.
Lucas ran and collected the ball so Gramps didn’t have to, dribbled back to the top of the key himself, giving his grandfather a low-five as he passed him.
“Let’s do it again,” Gramps said.
This time Gramps held the ball high over his head and told Lucas to make a sharp cut so close he could brush hips with Gramps on the way by. Lucas did that, streaking for the basket down the right side of the lane. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his grandfather turn, pivot to his right, and then hit Lucas with a perfect chest pass before Lucas laid the ball in.
“All night long,” Sam Winston said.
Fine with me, Lucas thought.
The night air was starting to get much colder. Lucas barely noticed. By now he’d worked up a good sweat. He was as into the drills they were running as if this were an official practice, and his teammates were out here with him.
But it was better than that.
It was basketball and it was Gramps.
Lucas loved his mom, totally and completely. He knew how difficult it had been for her without a partner, trying to be two parents at once. He knew how hard she had tried to tell him about his father, trying to tell the story of his life through old photographs and old home videos. Gramps had done the same. Lucas understood they were trying to explain the person and the father he’d lost. He could see how much they both had loved his dad. He sometimes imagined how awesome it would have been to have both his parents and his grandfather around.
But as hard as he tried, he couldn’t feel a sense of loss about someone—and something—he’d never had.
It was why he loved Gramps as much as he did. Lucas knew he was trying to be grandfather and father the way his mom was trying to be father and mother to Lucas. And that was all right. Sometimes he would get sad when he’d look at the pictures of his dad holding him when he was a baby. Or looking at a video of his dad holding him on his first Christmas.
But he was still happier with what he had than sad about what he’d never had. He’d read one time that sometimes you didn’t have to go looking for heroes, because they found you. He had his mom. He had his grandfather. He had a lot.
When they were finished working on the pick-and-roll, Gramps kept feeding Lucas the ball so he could work on his outside shot, which was getting better all the time. Even at the age of twelve, Lucas knew he was a pass-first point guard. He liked making a great pass more than a good shot. But as many assists as he’d gotten last season, and Gramps swore Lucas had led the league, and even though he’d been named to the Twin Lakes All-Star Team, he could see guys playing off him, daring him to shoot from the outside, making it harder for him to drive to the basket, and create opportunities for himself and the Wolves when he did.
He had vowed that this season would be different.
His free throws were still the worst part of his game, the one area where he wasn’t confident, where his nerves would often get the best of him. Lucas loved being in motion, whether he had the ball or not. Then he’d get to the line and be standing still, and it was like he felt frozen. But Gramps told him that the more confident he got with his outside shot, the more that would translate to his free throws. If you could do one, he said, you could do the other.
It had to get better, or he couldn’t have the ball in his hands at the end of a close game. He would be worrying about getting fouled and going to the line and maybe having to decide the game there.
Tonight he felt good from the line, hot on the cold night, making eight of his last ten.
But they weren’t quite finished.
“Okay,” Gramps said. “Down one. You just got fouled trying to make a layup. Ended up on your butt. Two shots to win the game.”
Lucas took the ball, stepped to the line, and went through the new pre-shot routine they were trying this season: ball on his left hip to start. Three dribbles, looking at the basket the whole time. Breathe in, breathe out. Bend the knees. Let it go.
“Tie game,” Gramps said, grabbing the ball after it went through the net. He bounce-passed it back to Lucas, smiling the Santa Claus smile again. “Did I mention that it’s the championship game and there’s only one second showing on the clock?”
Lucas smiled back.
“I felt as if that was one of your implied-type things,” he said.
Put the ball on his hip. Three dribbles. Breathe. Bend. Shoot.
Gramps came over and put his arm around him.
“Ball don’t lie,” he said.
Others in Lucas Winston’s life would lie before the season was over. He just didn’t know that at Westley Park. Not yet.