The frenzy on the court, underneath the student-side hoop, comes to a standstill following a gut-wrenching thud. Almost as though someone’s flipped a switch, the crowd—players and spectators alike—falls silent, save for confused and concerned whispers that float through the air.
Keith cranes his neck, trying to peer through the circle of students and teachers on the court, and the people rising to their feet in the seats in front of him. Lance is the one who figures things out first, with his height advantage. He sits back down with a grimace, and tugs Keith down next to him.
“Kid busted his knee,” Lance whispers.
Keith winces and steals a glance at the scoreboard. There’s one minute left in overtime, and the teachers’ team is up by a point, 75-74. The boys’ basketball team was supposed to win this thing when they went into the fourth quarter with a three-point lead, a lead they blew by the end of it when they tied, 68-68. Overtime was meant for them to break the tie.
Not for one of the players to bust a knee.
Worse yet, only five members of the boys’ team showed up. They’ve no player to sub in—not an experienced player, anyway.
“Is there an athletic trainer here?” one of the teachers finally raises their head and calls. There’s movement from the teachers’ side of the bleachers, and a short teacher wearing the gold Dream Team uniform jogs out to the court. Within a matter of minutes, they’ve got the kid moved to the side, off of the court, while they probe his knee.
“We need a player,” the student team coach says quietly, drawing the attention of everyone sitting nearby.
The boys look amongst themselves, all of them apprehensive. Most of them haven’t touched a basketball in their life—or at least, not since elementary school, and then this game. Lance nudges Keith’s knee with his own.
“You need to get in there,” he says.
Keith played basketball up through eighth grade. Honestly, he meant to try out for the team in freshman year. Other things, like theatre, and crippling social anxiety, just...sort of got in the way. Before he knew it, he made it to senior year without ever playing one high school sport.
Keith considers this, and then nods, and gets to his feet and calls down, “I’ll go in.”
“Go get ‘em, Mullet,” Lance says, and slaps Keith on the back on his way down. Keith sends a quick smile at him over his shoulder and descends the stairs, to the sideline of the court, where the rest of the team has gathered, all wearing looks of concern as they watch their teammate get tended to.
Keith’s hesitant at first, to join their circle when he’s got no ties to them, except for being a player in this game. But then one of them drags him into a huddle, and Keith’s tensions melt away in favor of focus on the game.
They just need a basket, but a lot can happen in one minute.
The ref whistles, and one of the boys looks up, looks at the teachers, looks back at the little team of five gathered on the side of the court. He brings the collar of his shirt up to wipe at the sweat on his face.
“Play man,” the boy says. “Keep that ball away from the basket. Kolivan doesn’t even touch it. If you’ve got your shot, take it, and then we run the clock.”
The other boys nod, and they break. The crowd becomes uproarious again in a matter of seconds, shrieking and cheering on their side—most are cheering for the students. Above the noise, Keith picks out Pidge and Hunk, sitting with the fans. Picks out Shay and Lance, sitting with the student team, screaming his name.
Alright, Kogane. Focus.
Keith’s short. Not just in comparison to the boys he’s playing alongside, but to the male population in general. Or at least, that’s what his friends like to say when they tease him, while Keith is perfectly content claiming to be of average height. Either way, he’s small. He’d play man on the point guard, if he’d been on the basketball team, but one of the more experienced members takes that role, and Keith ends up out on the wing against a teacher from the math department with nearly a foot on him.
Once the ref blows the whistle, and the ball is inbounded, the game gets going.
This teacher must know Keith’s reputation, even if Keith’s never had this teacher. He zigzags around his end of the court, jumping high to catch balls that sail over Keith’s head, while Keith grits his teeth and does his damnedest to keep up and block a three-pointer.
His fingers graze the ball, and tip it just enough to send it off-course. Down below, another teacher grabs the rebound and sends it back up, in a failed layup that one of the students grabs.
Keith tears down the court like a rocket.
Another boy on the basketball team does the same on the opposite end of the court, and that’s who the rebounder passes it to. Keith goes underneath the hoop with him, and aims to rebound the missed layup when one of the teachers practically body-slams him out of the way—a foul the ref either missed or doesn’t call, just as he’s failed to call multiple fouls on the teachers tonight.
A growl makes its way out of the back of Keith’s throat as the teachers regain possession and head right back down the court. Distantly, he can hear the students screaming for a foul call—Lance, especially—but the moment is over. It’s too late for that. All Keith can do is recover and charge after the teacher sprinting back for the teachers’ hoop.
“Twenty seconds!” one of the other boys on the court yells.
The teacher with the ball goes in for a layup, and Keith throws himself into the melee breaking out underneath the hoop. The shot misses, and the ball comes down. Keith gets hands on it, and then a teacher is on him, trying to rip it away.
I can’t let this go to a jump ball.
Keith’s not sure who would gain possession, but the way the refs have been making calls this whole game, he’s fairly certain the odds aren’t in the students’ favor. He grits his teeth and uses every bit of strength he has in him to rip the ball away, while his hair comes out of its stubby ponytail and falls into his face. Another teacher bats at him, trying to seize the split second of Keith’s blindness, but it’s too late.
Keith’s got it.
He dribbles down the court, the screams of everyone in the stands swelling to a deafening crescendo as his hair whips out behind him.
“TAKE THE SHOT!” someone shrieks, while others count down the three seconds remaining.
In that split second, Keith decides he’s too far from the hoop to make it down low in time for a layup.
“Fuck it,” Keith mutters, and hurls the ball at the hoop from just outside of the three-point line.
The ball smashes against the backboard, the edge of the rim, and falls through the net just as the buzzer rings.
The student section explodes as players and spectators sitting with the players leap up and spill onto the court, attacking Keith at once. Someone calls for a dogpile that Keith dodges away from, while hands slap his back, pull him in for hugs.
A certain someone in particular shoves his way to Keith delivers the most crushing hug, before calling for help so they can hoist Keith into the air.
Keith doesn’t even have time to protest before he ends up on the shoulders of Lance and another boy roughly Lance’s height. They begin jumping up and down, along with the rest of the students, while Keith laughs incredulously at the whole situation. He hasn’t experienced a celebration like this since his last game in eighth grade—the adrenaline rush, the euphoria of a narrow victory, the sweat rolling down his face and the back of his neck.
He doesn’t realize how much he’s missed it until now.
The players around him chant his name, and for a moment Keith shuts his eyes and lets himself believe he’s at the end of some teen movie, beyond all the drama and over-exaggerated angst. He’s at the end of the movie, just before the credits, on top of the damn world.
The feeling doesn’t fade even when he opens his eyes again, and when the team finally lets him get down. Lance, as always, has other ideas in mind, and he ends up holding Keith up, hands braced beneath his thighs, while Keith wraps his arms and legs around him. They’re both laughing, and laugh harder when Lance stumbles.
“That was amazing,” Lance says as he regains his footing. He glances at the crowd in the gym, and realizes they’ve got a minute or two before the others can worm their way over. He tilts his chin up, and Keith tilts down and indulges him.
Keith’s still breathless from the game, and breaks the kiss every few seconds for air. Lance is grinning, trying not to laugh at him, and it makes kissing all the harder, until they finally give up just as Hunk, Pidge, and Shay finally shove their way to them.
Lance sets Keith down, and the group collapses on Keith in another hug, everyone shouting over each other about the last ten seconds of the game, while Keith’s heart swells.