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Small Ball

written by: Lorenzo Berardi

 

At the end of the first round, the team stands at the bottom of the Amateur Basketball League (ABL) with 2 wins and 11 losses. They have conceded an average of 89 points per game and scored an average of 52. One of the two wins has come by forfeit as the opponents failed to show up. This is their best beginning of a season to date. Locomotive Saint Francis have been improving, but are still a long way to the top of British basketball.

Founded in the early noughties by four friends, Ewan, Kyle, Paul, and Ross, the team owes its name to odd circumstances. The 'Locomotive' bit comes from the background and political ideology shared by its founders who are all sons of railway men and socialists with a keen distaste for the Labours. As for the 'Saint Francis' part, the explanation is simple. The first home matches of the Locomotives were played at the St. Francis of Assisi Girls' Catholic School. As a sine qua non to use the institute's gym, Sister Madeline – the headmaster – required that the team bore the Italian bird tamer name. The four friends obliged. When Sister Madeline asked Kyle what the 'L' in the 'LSF' crimson jerseys stood for, he promptly replied: “It stands for love.” It took the nun an entire season to figure the truth out. As soon as she did, the Locomotives were left without a home ground. The founders chose to keep the name of their team for continuity's sake. Besides, they all liked it.

Fourteen years later, LSF train and play their home games at the Community Hall in Turn Again Lane. It is a makeshift court they have to share with a badminton club, hot yoga classes, and birthday parties. Once the team had to cancel a match due to the hall being rented out for Diwali.
The Community Hall court has pros and cons. Once a former parochial cinema turned bingo hall in the 1980s, today it keeps its original structure almost unchanged. This peculiar layout translates into very limited room to throw the ball in from both the long sides. Also, both teams benches stand behind one of the two baskets, where rows of seats used to be. The walls around the court are painted canary-yellow and padded with ripped up yoga mats. It's a spartan court for tough men and the Locomotives fit in. The lack of hot water in the changing rooms adds to their epic.

It's now the fourth year in a row LSF are coached by one of their founders, Ewan Mills, co-owner of a kitchen design studio. He used to play at a higher level and even represented England at under 17 level. Ewan was an energetic point guard dishing out assists, with a deadly layup and natural leadership skills. Today age and a knee injury have paid their toll. At thirty-nine years old Ewan is also the backup for the first choice point guard, Dane Gilmore. “Mister Mills,” as his teammates half seriously half mockingly call him, believes in the run and gun. He's for fast transitions, counterattacks, full court zone press. Unfortunately, he and his players aren't fit enough to play this way.
The only one who seems to enjoy it is 19 years old Dane, but he does it for his own stats. Not for nothing he wears jersey #1. Dane is a former 'difficult boy' who grew up in the wrong neighbourhood and left school to join a street gang in postcode wars. Now he works in a trainers shop and deals in stolen smartphones; through basketball he seeks social revenge.

The rest of the roster is a microcosm of South West England. Angelo Lozano plays shooting guard, wears jersey number 7 and holds a double passport: Ecuadorian and British. He was born and bred in the barrios of Quito, but has been living in the UK for about ten years. Now in his late twenties, Angelo works as a courier and has two young daughters whose names are inked onto his forearms in an atlas of tattoos. His backup in the squad is Blake Trout (#8), a red-haired and pathologically shy Canadian student of Biotechnology. Even though he comes from the same country of James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, Blake doesn't excel in the game. He joined the Locomotives because his shrink in Winnipeg told him to “open up a bit.”

The small forward spot belongs to thirty-six years old Ross Grant; Professor Ross Grant. Son of a train driver from Jamaica, Ross reads Medieval History at the University of Hertfordshire. He was one of the four buddies who founded Locomotive Saint Francis and has been playing there since its inception. He chose jersey number 54 as a homage to the former NBA legend Horace Grant (no relation) and wears the same elastic band strap glasses on the court. Ross never shoots, but he's good at all those little things making a great team player: defence, rebounds, steals.
His replacement from the bench is the sharpshooter of the squad. Adonis Pappas hails from Greece and works as a sales agent. Due to “bad metabolism,” as he claims, Adonis barely fits in his number 9 XL jersey. The coach sends him in when Ross is injured or when the team needs a buzzer beater to win a game. It was Adonis's last second three-pointer that made the Locomotives beat the Eastmarsh Stings 61-60 this season.

Abbas Rezai is a tall, thin as a rake Iranian guy who studies Hydraulic Engineering at uni and volunteers for Oxfam. He plays power forward and always knows the right thing to do on the court, but is often too slow in execution. Abbas is the proud holder of jersey #15, the number worn by Hamed Haddadi, the first Persian guy to play in the NBA. The second power forward in the roster is Lee Butland, a thickly-built Liverpudlian in his early thirties who moved south “for love.” He's rarely seen around the Community Hall and never shows up for training sessions. Coach Mills knows that Lee doesn't give a fig about basketball and only cares about “hot chicks” and Everton Football Club, but let it go. The Locomotives have been trying to find new players launching free practice events on Facebook, but to no avail.

Luke Wheeler is one of the elders in the team and plays centre, donning jersey number 33. He joined LSF ten seasons earlier and has been playing there ever since. Son of a railway man and great fan of Bertrand Russell, Luke is a charismatic player. Married, one son, he teaches English to foreigners in a language school and is always up for a pint. As for his basketball skills, they have seen better days.
Twelve years Luke's junior, Jake O'Shea is the tallest guy in the squad stretching up to six feet six, but is often off due to a chronic hernia. He works in a pub and always complains of his standing up for hours to draft dirty cheap ale. Together with Lozano, Jake is one of the two catholic players in the team and the only one who attends church. To him it's an honour playing with Saint Francis' name written on his #3 jersey, a number he chose “for the Holy Trinity.”

***

Amateur Basketball League 2017-2018 – Half Season Standings

1.  Radley Jolly Rogers
2.  Kennington Kings
3.  Upper Slaughter Chainsaws
4.  Whitebury Wolves
5.  Guildham Hoops
6.  Dunford Owls
7.  Foxton Red Foxes
8.  Overton Chaps
9.  Lower Slaughter Bulls
10. Tinseltown Trainspotters
11. Great Westmouth Mariners
12. Hencaster Hornets
13. Eastmarsh Stings
14. Locomotive Saint Francis 

13 – 0
11 – 2
10 – 3
9 – 4
8 – 5
7 – 6
6 – 7
6 – 7
5 – 8
4 – 9
4 – 9
3 – 10
3 – 10
2 – 11

Tonight Locomotive Saint Francis face the Radley Jolly Rogers, leaders of the league. They defeated LSF by a 62 points margin in the first match of the season. Since then, the Jolly Rogers got better with a Serbian guy six feet eight tall joining their mighty squad. Coach Mills knows that his team can't bring this match home: his tallest player, Luke, can barely reach six feet four. Lee and Jake, the power forward and centre substitutes, didn't show up. Ewan can only count on seven players plus himself.

“Guys, have you...seen that...mountain? He must weigh at least twenty stones,” Blake says during the warm-up.
“Make it twenty-two,” Ross adds.
“Man, I don't give a damn. The fellow can be thirty stones, but I bet his pork sword is shorter than me willy, innit?”
“Sure, Dane. But we ain't gonna measure our thirsty ferrets. We're gonna play. And he's gonna dunk onto our heads,” Angelo remarks.

One minute before the beginning of the match, Ewan summons his players: “Ok lads. Starting five: Gilmore, Lozano, Grant, Rezai, Wheeler. Dane remember what I told you about the chaser in the 1-3-1. Luke watch out to moving picks.”
“Aw, come on mister! Let us be. Oldboy Puke ain't gonna move that fuckin' giant of an inch, innit?” Dane comments.
“We'll see about that,” Luke replies.

The first quarter is a carnage: Locomotive Saint Francis 9, Radley 28. The Serbian moloch scores eleven points and delivers four blocks; Luke commits three fouls trying to stop him. It's only thanks to an offhand three-pointer by Dane that the Locomotives break the ice upon spending half of the first quarter without scoring. The black Jolly Rogers' jerseys are everywhere. It's not only the Serbian guy who dunks around; their small forward easily makes it all the way up to the rim. A Rasta shooting guard hits fadeaway jump shots non-stop. All the players coming in from the visitors' bench would be good enough to be in the LSF starting five.
The half time score is Locomotive Saint Francis 22, Radley 56. The only crimson jersey who made more than two shots is Dane who hit 10 points. Ewan played only the final four minutes and collected one assist and two turnovers. The Jolly Rogers run too fast for him.

“Lads, what are we going to do with this match?” Coach Mills asks his players in the changing room. They all look exhausted.
“Lose it?” Ross suggests.
“Lose it with dignity?” Abbas adds.
“I've got a better plan, fellas: let's smash the fuckin' giant's nose and see what happens, innit?” Dane says with a smirk.
“And how are you going to reach it?” Adonis asks him “Do you have a ladder?”
“Shut your trap, Big Fat Geek Wedding!”
“Mαλάκας!”
“You betta not call me wanker! You Private Py...”
Ewan has to intervene: “Lads, come on! Are you what? A bunch of kids?”
Dane and Adonis cut it off. They hate being scolded.
“We can't win this game,” Luke reckons after long deliberation: “Not without an intervention from the high skies. We need a deus ex machina.”
“Let's pray, then!” Dane cries out.
“Hm...what?”
“Yeah, Mister. Let's worship all together Saint Francis, holy protector of our team,” Angelo says, crossing himself and kneeling down theatrically.
“We can do it in Latin,” hints Ross who has a PhD in Romance Languages.
Ewan shakes his head in disbelief: “Lads, if Jake were here he...”
“But he's not,” Angelo points out: “Is there anyone in this room who's against asking for Saint Francis' help?”
“I don't mind,” Abbas says, unlacing his shoes.
“I'm...an atheist,” Blake murmurs.
“You're a what, maple syrup?”
“He doesn't believe in God, Dane,” Ross explains.
“Funny that. I thought ginger was a Mormon.”

When the Locomotives return on the court, fifteen minutes later, their opponents look pissed.
“Where have you been?” The young referee asks Ewan: “You want to lose the game by forfeit?”
“Most certainly not,” he answers: “Sorry about that.”

The third quarter begins where the second has stopped, with the Jolly Rogers grabbing rebounds, stealing balls and scoring open shots. The Locomotives, led by Dane and Abbas, hit some three pointers and limit the damage. At the end of the period, the visitors lead 80 – 41.

“Well done, lads!” Ewan says, welcoming his players on the bench: “This is how we play.”
“Yeah, one step closer to bring it home,” Angelo jokes: “They clearly have no energies left.”
“Ok, maybe we won't bring it home. But we ain't gonna lose it by 60 points, innit?” Dane says, his head under a crimson towel.
“That's the right spirit!” Ewan gloats. “Let's show them who we are. Lo! Co! Mo! Ti! Ve!”
“Saint Francis!” All the players shout out.

The LSF start the final period playing small ball with Mills, Gilmore, Pappas, Grant, and Rezai on the court.
“It...worked against the Stings,” Blake says.
“Man, against the Stinks even my lil' bro would score,” Angelo replies.
The Jolly Rogers line up four benchwarmers plus the Serbian. However, Ross and Abbas do a great job in defence and the big guy struggles. The Locomotives get a partial of 11 – 4 forcing the visitors' coach to call timeout. From this moment on, it's game over. The match ends 63 – 97.

***

The Locomotives have done it again. Despite winning three matches on their own merits in the second half of the season, they have finished bottom of the barrel. It's the thirteenth year in a row that it happens: Ewan believes it might be a record, but isn't keen to find out. And yet, the team had never snatched five wins in a season before. Also, they had never won an away game, but their trashing of the Mariners in the final match broke the spell. That night the Locomotives hit the 'King's Head and Eels' pub of Great Westmouth, celebrating their victory with rivers of beer and rowdy songs. That their opponents had lined up only five players (losing one for a sprained ankle before the interval) wasn't relevant.

Unfortunately, the victorious Great Westmouth campaign was frustrated the very next evening by the final result of Guildham Hoops – Eastmarsh Stings. Against all odds, the Stinks had won the match, reaching a 5-21 record, the same of Locomotive Saint Francis. However, Eastmarsh were ahead in the ranks because they had defeated LSF 47-45 in the second round, hence snatching a one point difference in their favour. Pity for that, but ending the season in 13th or 14th position doesn't matter. There aren't relegations in the Amateur Basketball League as there's nothing below it.

Ewan knows that next year Abbas and Blake will leave the UK as they both won scholarships across the pond. On top of this, there are little chances that Lee and Jake will join LSF again. As for Dane, he has been shifting to Djing. “Mister, babes here don't give a shit about balling,” he told him once: “If I was better than Lebron, they wouldn't get wet about me. You know that Layla – I told ya about her, innit? – Layla thinks Steph Curry is a comedian? A fuckin' comedian!” Ewan understands this. Dane needs to shine, to show off, to impress. Social revenge can't be sought playing for the worst team of the dismal ABL.

Coach Mills is aware it won't be easy finding new players for the next season. Young people don't do much sport these days. Men in their thirties go for five-a-side football or opt to run on treadmills in fancy gyms. Ewan believes playing basketball in England is like being a cricketer in France: people may have a vague knowledge of what you do, but can't fathom why you do it. And the crimson apparel of LSF has never been hip.
Sometimes he stares at his number 5 jersey with its futurist steam locomotive drawn by Kyle before he left for New Zealand. The logo looks as beautiful and meaningful to him as it did the first time he saw it, after Sister Madeline banned the team from her school. He must find a solution to keep the team going. He can’t give up losing matches that easily.

The evening Ewan gets an email from 'ABL – Amateur Basketball League' he's still at work, editing a rendering for a finicky customer. Season 2017-2018 has finished one month earlier and the new one won't kick in before two so the timing is unusual. The league is run by two retired gentlemen who take care of the little administrative work it requires. Ewan hears from them only when they remind him he needs to pay registration fees. That's why curiosity starts gnawing at him the moment he spots the incoming mail icon popping up on his screen. He takes a break from the hipster kitchen project he's sweating on and opens the message.

 

Dear Mr. Mills,

We hereby notify you that:

a.   The match Locomotive Saint Francis (LSF) vs Radley Jolly Rogers (RJR), played on 11th February 2018 in the Community Hall, Bridgeford, and ending 63-97 for the visiting team has not been registered.

b.   The ABL was informed that the RJR player 'Branko Nikolic,' a Serbian citizen, was not entitled to play.

c.   Upon investigation, we established that Mr. Nikolic held an expired working visa when the match took place, hence he was illegally staying in the UK.

d.   RJR failed to meet the roster requirements set by ABL and did not notify this Board accordingly.

e.   RJR will receive 18 points against and the loss; LSF will receive the win with 18 points for.

Many thanks and best regards,
The ABL Board. Hatfield, 25th June 2018

 

Ewan would have never guessed that Saint Francis had become so ruthless a bureaucrat.

Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi is a thirty something fellow hailing from Italy and living in Poland. He works as a freelance journalist and as a copywriter. His English written poems and short stories have been published in American, British, Canadian, and Polish print and online magazines.
Lorenzo Berardi

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