They say every champion boxer has one great fight left in his bones. They say every writer has one great story to tell. If both of these things are true, and I would wager they are, then one more thing would seem to be true as well: Every basketball player has a game that got away.
Every player has a game he could have won. They should have won. Every player has had victory in his hands, pure and sweet and perfect, only to have it vanish at the last moment. It is the cruelest kind of loss, a failure that returns to haunt. The pain can be so great that some figure out how to turn it into motivation. It fuels them. Shapes them. It becomes a part of them, an uneasy abscess that remains tender to the touch.
You don’t ever forget the one that got away. You stare at those hands, opening and squeezing them shut in the darkness, trying to figure out how victory could have slipped through the fingers you thought you could trust. In the darkness there aren’t any answers, and eventually you fall asleep. You move on. You grow.
But you don’t ever forget.
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Sometimes I think about playing the game again. I’ve seen those shows on television where they track down fat guys and have them replay a game that happened 20 years ago. I’m sure Ben Martin and Justin Petersen are out there somewhere.
It happened during my senior year of high school. In 1999, the Saint Louis Metro Christian Athletic Association (SLMCAA) held their conference tournament at a school called Tower Grove in the downtown area of the city. In our classification, the conferences functioned somewhat independently of the state tournament, which operated more like an invitational. The conference tournament was looked at as the more important of the two.
In the SLMCAA there were eight teams. Half of the schools were from the suburbs, spread out across the outlying areas of St. Louis and beyond. The other half were metro teams from the city. Christian High, my school, was one of the suburban teams. We were a small private school that finished in the middle of the conference race. The regular season champion that year was somewhat inexplicable; it was not a powerhouse, but a tiny rural school, far from the metro area. The Christian Outreach Lions blitzed through the regular season without losing a single conference game. They were a church school, the kind of quaint operation where a group of kindergartners could remain in the same classes together for 12 years and graduate as brothers and sisters.