Champion

“Listen to me,” Coach Horner said. “This is the third round. Even I didn’t think you’d make it this far. But here you are.”

“You mean here we are,” Lily said with a wink.

The crowd broke wild as they stamped their feet in the bleachers. Their deafening applause filled every drum in the auditorium. The sound wave echoed out into the still night air.  Seller High celebrated every year, after homecoming, with a talent show. But this year was different. Claude, the precocious and obnoxious junior, decided to demonstrate his abilities in shooting baskets.

He went on with his act for over fifteen minutes, before people began to boo.

Then came Lily.

Lily transferred from New Jersey to Brookhaven High. She was skinny, shy and didn’t have any friends in the grueling two months she had been there. She didn’t make the basketball team when she went to tryouts. A series of bad events led to a stomach bug and an embarrassing incident that graced the center court with her…

It wasn’t pretty.

She accepted it for what it was and Coach Horner chatted with her during the lunch break to see how she was after her tryouts were overpowered by her weak stomach. They spoke on their favorite sports and athletes. One day, she arrived early to gym and she took a ten minutes, shooting the basketball from all angles. Coach Horner entered in and was amazed. She had talent.

Tonight, before Claude was booed off, Lily picked her face buried deep in her palm and decided to entertain herself. She picked up the ball and pranced to the foul line and shot it.

Claude spun around with pressed lips and picked up his next ball and shot it in.

The crowd oohed. Lily grabbed another basketball and hopped with spaghetti arms to shoot it in.

Swish.

“What do you think you’re doing,” Claude growled.

“Saving your act,” Lily said. “Come on. Shoot it.”

Claude gave her an icy glare and picked up another ball and did a hook shot. Lily spun around with a basketball in her hand and mimicked him.

The crowd clapped and laughed.

“You’re trying to challenge me,” Claude yelled so the whole auditorium could hear. Lily answered, but her voice drowned in the applause. Suddenly, the gymnasium transformed its floor seating plan to accommodate the shoot-off between Claude and Lily. They made twenty-one baskets varying from eyes closed, back-handed, under the leg and somersaults.

After the first seven shots, the challenge evolved and gained a referee and a break. The second round gained an announcer and some school cameras as well as equipment. The other acts gladly bowed out because they all wanted to see the outcome of the challenge. The seventh shot of the third round involved a long, elaborate game of Simon Says and a trick shot. Lily passed with flying colors.

Claude was none too happy. His chin lowered and he stared at Lily as the referee entered the makeshift arena. The announcer, who was wearing khakis and a muscle tee, somehow acquired a suit and sunglasses. Lily had witnessed what her school had transformed into. Her heart was beating rapidly.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer, Willy Perlotti, howled long and loudly. “Brookhaven High has never in its years seen anything like this before. We, the student body, want to take this time to formally thank the Principal Cates and the entire administration body for their adaptability in this venue.

Principal Cates, nodded with his arms folded in the corner of the gym, giving a tiny wave.

“Coach, this is crazy. I certainly don’t deserve any of th-”

“Hey,” Coach snapped. “Pay attention! New rules!”

“Brookhaven, as you know, every round introduces new rules and now we have our honorary referee, senior heartthrob Tavin Devereux!” Willy gave the mic to Tavin and clapped enthusiastically, while the girls screamed with joy. Tavin nodded and smiled, waiting for the crowd to subside.

“Hey guys,” Tavin said with a grin. “Isn’t this something? That’s Brookhaven High for you!” Lily stared on, beginning to sweat. “I must call out Brookhaven’s spirit as well as tonight’s contenders.” Lily stayed still and watched Claude from the corner of her eyes. Still as a rock.

“In this corner, winner of last year’s championship, junior varsity league, Claude Drummond!”

Lily’s heart became a congo drum as the beat intensified in her chest. “And in this corner, a transfer all the way from New Jersey, Lily Tomlin!”

The sound around Lily became quiet. She knew the crowd was clapping louder for her. She knew the most popular senior called her by name. What was happening?

“You think you can handle that, Tomlinson,” Coach barked. “Hey, you with me?”

“Yeah,” Lilly blinked back to reality.

“He said there’s a time limit now. Can you do it,” Coach asked.

“Yeah. Of course,” Lily said with a nod.

“Look,” Coach said as Lily stood up slowly. “You have to focus on your opponent. Not the shot clock.” The shot clock flickered on and the red lights showed twenty-one for the home and away team. Which one was she, Lily wondered. Home or away?

“You and I both know Claude’s fuming right now,” Coach continued. “We just have to bide time until he loses form.”

“Yeah.”

“Hey. Stick to the plan.”

“Got it.”

Billy took to the center court again and swirled around like a hurricane, pointing at the crowd, riling them up. “Are you ready, Brookhaven?” The crowd roar grew even louder. “I said are you ready, Brookhaven?” The roar enveloped the space. “Round four? Go!”

Claude took a step forward and bounced it, then a dribble. Each bounce got louder  and each time the ball got higher, until Claude slammed it on the floor and the watched the ball sail into the air and swish into the net. The buzzer flared. The crowd whistled and cheered as Claude sauntered about with his arms extended wide.

“You’re still in this,” Coach said. 

“I know,” Lily said. The crowd changed their tune as she prepared to move. “What are they saying?”

“They are saying your name,” Coach said with a smile.

Lily’s face lit up. She could hear her name across all of their tongues. People she never knew, unified in her name her mother gave her.

“Hey, don’t get soft on me now,” Coach said.

“Hard as nails,” she said with a smirk. “It is beautiful though.”

“It is,” Coach said.

“LADIES AND GENTS,” Billy announced. “The competition here is fierce. Can Lily from Jersey do it?”

“Lily,” Coach said before she began. “You got this.”

Lily took a step forward and mimicked Claude’s movements just as before. She bounced hard, then slammed the ball down and watched in sail towards the basket. The gym watched in silence as the shot clock wound down. The hairs on every one’s neck stood on end. Lily closed her eyes and whispered, ‘thank you.’

The ball bounced against the rim. The students fell out of their seats. The ball returned to the floor and missed it target.

Lily lost. The crowd threw their hands up in dismay. Lily fell to her knees… but she smiled. She clapped. She got the crowd to clap along.

Claude punched the air victoriously, congratulating himself. A monstrous trophy emerged from the coach’s office. Coach Horner, pinched the bridge of his nose. Claude yanked it out of their hands, underestimating how heavy it was. It fell to the ground.

Lily stood upright with a smile and marched over to Claude and extended her hand for a congratulatory shake, but Claude swatted her hand out of the way and raised the trophy up with both hands above his head.

The boos came rolling in over Claude. Some plastic bottles were lobbed in his direction. Claude’s victorious smile melted away as Lily exited the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Brookhaven High,” Billy said over the mega speakers. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Claude wins the challenge, yes, but tonight, Brookhaven High celebrates the MVP of the evening, the week, the month, the year, for life… Lily Tomlinson!

Lily turned around and saw her classmates rushing to her with giant smiles and soon she was hoisted in the air from her knees. Tavin hoisted her up on his shoulder as the crowd cheered for her.

The football team grabbed the end of Claude’s trophy and attached a padlock to it and a two hundred pound medicine ball. Claude pulled on it, but the added weight wouldn’t budge.

Brookhaven High had seen many wins and losses, but never had anticipated celebrating a loss as a win. Lily from New Jersey was their champion.

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