"Thanks, man." Ronde Barber exchanged an elaborate handshake with one of his many fans at Hidden Valley Junior High School.
"Yeah, dude, thanks a lot," said Ronde's identical twin, Tiki, slapping the boy on the back.
"No, thank you guys. For everything."
Ronde didn't even know the kid's name. He didn't know him, and he was pretty sure Tiki didn't either.
It happened a lot like that. These days, in the second term of their last year at Hidden Valley Junior High, the Barber twins were "Big Men on Campus"--stars of the school's history-making football team. The Eagles had been State Champions two years running and, this past season, owners of a perfect record.
Everyone knew their names all right, even at a big school like Hidden Valley. But there were plenty of kids whose names Tiki and Ronde didn't know, or had forgotten.
It wasn't that they were stuck up about their superhero status. Not at all. But it was hard to remember everyone's name who knew yours, when yours had been plastered all over the school paper, the local TV news, the Roanoke Reporter, and even newspapers as far away as Richmond.
Remembering names wasn't a big problem by any means. It was great being popular. The only real problem was, their football career at Hidden Valley was over. Ever since the final celebrations had ended, Ronde's and Tiki's lives had become more and more . . . well, boring. Oh, school was okay, and it was fun catching up on their favorite TV shows--but it was winter, and it was cold, and there was nothing really important going on in their lives anymore!
No practices to get their blood pumping. No video strategy sessions with the team to get their minds racing. No big games to look forward to every week.
It was only the end of January, but to Ronde, it felt like winter had been dragging on for months! And here they were, on a Thursday afternoon that had already turned dark by four o'clock, waiting to get into the gym so they could sit in the bleachers, crammed in with all their friends and those other kids whose names they didn't even know or couldn't remember . . . just to watch a basketball game!
Watching was not the same as playing, Ronde thought sadly. And basketball, while it was fun, was only the Barbers' second-favorite sport. Besides, while Hidden Valley Junior High had always been a powerhouse in football, it had never done well in basketball. The team hadn't won a league championship in forty years, and for five straight seasons, they'd fallen short of making the play-offs.
This year's team was better than most, but their record was only about .500 at this point, midway through the season. And the only reason it wasn't worse was the team's all-star point guard, Sean Morton.
Sean was only in eighth grade, but he was already a league all-star, and was being talked about for the All-Virginia team. Sean--or "Sugar," as everyone called him for his sweet jump shot--was averaging twenty points a game, and his brilliant ball-handling was reason enough to come see an Eagles game.
So the bleachers were packed. And most of them were here not so much to root for the team, as to see "Sugar" put up some serious numbers.
"I can't believe this is the first game we've been to this year," Tiki said as they climbed up into the bleachers and found two seats together, way back near the top row.
"I know," Ronde said, sitting down. "It's weird being in the stands, watching the game."
"Tell me about it." Tiki reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a bag of peanuts. "Want some?"
Ronde cupped his palm and caught the peanuts just as the game began. Sugar, wearing number 1 on the back of his uniform, with EAGLES on the front in capital letters, caught the tip-off and dribbled upcourt. His ball-handling was impressive--fancy moves, a through-the-knees fake, then a no-look pass to the shooting guard, Brian Reynolds. Reynolds, with a clear look at the basket, put up a shot--and missed.
Sugar groaned out loud, shook his head, and made a face before retreating back upcourt.
Reynolds was slow getting back, and the player he was supposed to be guarding sank an easy running layup to start the scoring.
"Come on!" Sugar shouted, gesturing for Reynolds to kick it into gear.
Ronde looked at Tiki, who returned his gaze. Like many sets of identical twins, they often found that they were thinking the same thing at the same time. Right now was one of those times. Ronde knew Tiki was also thinking about Cody Hansen, their quarterback on the Eagles when they were in eighth grade.
Cody used to yell at his teammates like that. And it never worked, either.
Sure enough, these basketball Eagles soon found themselves trailing badly. And the more they fell behind, the more Sugar Morton held on to his dribble, taking most of the shots himself, and not including his teammates much. The rest of the Eagles seemed to be moving a step slower than Sugar. Slower than their opponents, the Colts of Martinsville Junior High, as well.
By halftime, Sugar had scored twenty-two points, but the rest of the Eagles had managed a paltry five. That made the score 36-27, Patriots. Thirty-six was a lot of points for one half, showing that the Eagles were barely bothering to play defense.
"Sure glad we're not in that locker room," Tiki said as they waited for the second half to start.
"Yeah. We were lucky. At least we were always in the hunt for a play-off spot," Ronde said.
"These guys'll never make it, the way they're going. They'll be lucky to finish over .500."
"Yeah, and they should be much better, with a guy like Sugar chuckin' it up there like that."
"Oh, well," Tiki said, shrugging. "Not much we can do about it from up here."
The second half began with Sugar on the bench, steaming about something. Probably the way his teammates are playing, thought Ronde.
When Sugar finally got back in the game, the Eagles were trailing by fifteen points. He proceeded to put on a one-man show, sinking shot after shot, even though the Colts were constantly double-teaming him.
"He's got an open man!" Tiki shouted more than once. But Sugar never seemed to want to let go of the ball unless he was launching it toward the basket.
In the end, he made the score fairly close--67-63--but the Eagles still wound up on the short end of the stick.
Tiki and Ronde left the gym along with the rest of the crowd. They crossed the parking lot and kept walking, headed for the public bus stop a block farther down James Street. It wasn't the time of year to be riding bikes--too cold for that--and there were no school buses this late in the day.
Riding home, the brothers didn't say much at first. Each was absorbed in his own private thoughts. Finally, Tiki muttered, "Man, this really rots, you know?"
Ronde knew what he meant. "Not being part of the team anymore? Yeah. I know."
"Life's just not the same. It's like something's missing."
"Well, we've still got classes," Ronde said. "And you're gonna be writing your advice column for the school newspaper."
"Ugh, don't remind me," Tiki said, making a face. "I wish I'd never promised Laura I'd do that after the season ended." Laura Sommer was the editor and publisher of the Hidden Valley Gazette, which she had turned from a one-page handout to a real, twice-monthly newspaper that the whole school looked forward to reading.
"Point is, you promised her you'd do it," Ronde said. "And while you're at it, who knows, you might wind up helping somebody out there."
"Yeah, right," Tiki said, dismissing the thought.
But Ronde could tell he'd made his point. "Besides, there's also the job at Mr. Landzberg's warehouse," he said. "He offered us twenty hours a week, and said we could split the job between us if we wanted. That could end up being a lot of money."
Justin Landzberg had been a teammate of theirs on the Eagles, and his dad owned a local department store with its own warehouse. "They always need stockboys," Justin told them when they informed him that they were fourteen now, and able to get working papers.
Tiki and Ronde's mom worked two jobs. Times were tough in Roanoke, and it was hard for a single mom to make enough money to bring the boys up and pay all the bills. The twins had always wanted to help by contributing to the family budget, but until now, they'd been too young.
"I guess you're right," Tiki said, still thinking about their days of glory on the football field. "I mean, all things come to an end, right? Even the best things."
"It was the best, wasn't it?" Ronde remembered with a smile. "They can never take those championships away from us."
"Or that perfect season."
"Or all those great plays . . ."
"All the comebacks . . ."
They both sighed, and fell silent again.
"I'm never gonna forget it," Tiki finally said. "Even if we make it to the NFL."
Ronde gave him a playful shove. "What do you mean, ‘if'?"
"Still," Tiki said as their stop approached. "I wish we had something fun to do between now and next fall."
"You never know," Ronde said as they got off the bus. "Something might turn up tomorrow morning."
Little did he know how right he was.
• • •
Ronde turned from his locker to see Mr. Jackson coming toward him. Mr. Jackson was his science teacher, and immediately Ronde thought he must have messed up on the latest quiz or homework assignment. But the smile on Mr. Jackson's face told a different story.
"What'd I do?" Ronde blurted out.
"Nothing! What are you worried about?" Mr. Jackson said with a chuckle. "Last I looked, you were running an A minus."
Ronde beamed. He was good at science, and proud of it too.
Mr. Jackson's smile faded. "Look, Ronde, you got a minute? I need to talk to you about something. Or you could come to my office fourth period. You have lunch fourth period, right?"
"We can talk now," Ronde said. "I've got study hall."
"Good, good," said Mr. Jackson. "Let's sit on that bench over there in the lobby. It'll quiet down soon as passing's over."
Two minutes later, the halls had emptied, and they could hear themselves think. "Here's the thing," Mr. Jackson began. "It's about the team, basically. I've got a problem I'm hoping you or your brother can help me with."
In his panic about his science grades, Ronde had forgotten that in addition to being his science teacher, Mr. Jackson was also Hidden Valley's basketball coach.
"The team is in trouble," Mr. Jackson said. "And now I come to find out that Brian Reynolds is transferring out; going to military school, starting Monday."
"Whoa. That's too bad," Ronde said. Brian was the team's starting shooting guard. He scored more points than anyone on the squad except Sugar. "But--"
"But how can you help? That's what I was about to ask you!" Mr. Jackson's smile returned. "I can move Rory Mathis up to starter. But now I've got an opening on my bench, with no obvious candidates to fill it. So I'm asking myself, ‘Who at this school might be good at basketball, but didn't try out for the team, for whatever reason. . . .'?"
In the silence, Ronde realized what Mr. Jackson was offering. "You mean us?"
Mr. Jackson put both hands out, palms up. "I didn't call you aside just to chat."
Ronde swallowed hard. His heart was suddenly racing with excitement, but he tried not to show just how eager he was.
"You know, I'm sure we'd be interested, Mr. J. We're always playing one-on-one in the driveway, you know, and we can handle the ball pretty well. Although neither of us is a great shooter," he warned, not wanting the coach to get too hopeful. After all, Mr. Jackson was asking them to fill in for a shooting guard, wasn't he?
"Well, I understand why you both never came out for tryouts," Jackson said. "I know Coach Wheeler didn't want either of you getting hurt doing any other sports."
Ronde nodded. It was true. Football had always been the most important thing to him and Tiki. It was true that they often played hoops in their driveway, although not "always," as he'd told Mr. Jackson. They'd played some pick-up baseball too, in summer, and run races against each other for fun, just like any two athletic brothers on planet Earth.
But joining the basketball team was another step up, for sure. Why shouldn't they try their hand at other sports, now that they didn't have to worry about football until high school? In fact, Ronde made a mental note, right then and there, to try out for the baseball team in early March.
"Don't misunderstand me," Mr. Jackson said, holding up a hand. "I've only got one spot on the roster. I'll leave it up to you and Tiki which of you wants to give it a try."
Ronde froze, with his jaw wide open. He'd been about to say something else, but now, for the life of him, he couldn't remember what it was.
Only one of them was going to be on the basketball team?