Table of Contents
Also by Rich Wallace
Restless: A Ghost’s Story
Losing Is Not an Option
Playing Without the Ball
Shots on Goal
Winning Season Series
The Roar of the Crowd
Published by Penguin Group
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First published in 2006 by Viking, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group
Copyright © Rich Wallace, 2006
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Dunk under pressure / Rich Wallace.
p. cm.—(Winning season ; #7)
Summary: Free throw specialist Cornell “Dunk” Duncan joins the YMCA summer
basketball league all-star team, but after losing his confidence in an important game
the seventh-grader makes some decisions about becoming an all-around player.
eISBN : 978-1-101-11855-9
[1. Basketball—Fiction. 2. Self-confidence—Fiction. 3. Aunts—Fiction.] I. Title.
S.A. Set in Caslon 224 Book
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ornell Duncan. The guys call him Dunk, but he couldn’t dunk from a six-foot ladder. He’s flat-footed and slow and jumps about two inches. But he knows the game and is a good defender.
And, man, can he shoot.
Free throws, that is. Put him at the foul line and he doesn’t miss.
He made thirty-two in a row one time in practice. Twenty straight is routine.
He makes it look easy.
He’ll tell you. Last winter he got cut from the sixth-grade team. Didn’t come close to making it. Walked out of the gym blinking back tears and didn’t look at a basketball for nearly a week.
Then he read about a college player at Georgetown who led the nation in free-throw percentage. “Easiest shot in the game,” the guy said. “Or at least it should be. No one guarding you. Just up, over, and in.”
Dunk thought about that and decided that the college player was right. He could shoot free throws. He could make some of them. With a little practice (or a lot), Dunk could become a free-throw magician.
He found a video at the library that demonstrated the perfect technique. Watched it seven times. Then he went to work at it.
He started with a hundred in his narrow driveway every afternoon for a few weeks. When the weather turned icy, he started finding off-moments at the Hudson City YMCA—early in the morning before school, for example, or during the fifteen-minute interval between the evening aerobics classes that his aunt taught.
He could take about sixty shots in those fifteen minutes if his aunt rebounded for him. If she was busy talking to a student, then he’d only shoot thirty. When the second class ended, he’d shoot at least eighty more.
A hundred or more shots a day all winter and spring and into the summer is nearly 25,000 free throws. You shoot that many, you have to get good.
Dunk got real good. So good that he led the YMCA Summer League in free-throw percentage, hitting thirty-five of forty-two shots during the eight-game season. That’s eighty-three percent.
Still, he was surprised when he got a call the day after the season ended, inviting him to try out for the league’s all-star team. That team would be spending several days at the Shore, competing in the New Jersey YMCA state tournament.
Of course, Dunk still was slow and flat-footed and could barely jump over a worm on the sidewalk. But he definitely caught the coaches’ eyes at the tryouts when he hit twenty-three out of twenty-five free throws during warm-ups.
“That kid can shoot,” one coach said to another.
“Nice stroke,” said the other. “Consistent. He makes the same motion every time. That’s the key.”
Guys like Spencer Lewis and Jared Owen and Jason Fiorelli—the stars of the middle school’s championship team—stopped what they were doing to marvel at Dunk’s ability as he worked on his next set of twenty-five. They tried razzing him with whoops and burps and stamping their feet, but Dunk kept his eyes focused on the rim and kept swishing the shots.
“He’s like a robot or something,” said Fiorelli.
Dunk smiled and sank another one. “Robots got nothing on me,” he said, never looking away from the basket.
Still, shooting free throws is only part of the game, so Dunk was not a lock to make the all-star team. His weaknesses were obvious—stronger guys out-muscled him for rebounds, quicker guys darted past him for layups, and springier guys lofted their jump shots over his outstretched arms for buckets.
He had his good moments, too. A rebound and a put-back with Jared all over him; a sweet pass to Miguel Rivera on a give-and-go; a fade-away jumper from fifteen feet (well, maybe it wasn’t quite a
, but a decent shot anyway).
So the coaches figured they might as well keep him. He wouldn’t play much, but in the right situation he’d definitely be an asset. They’d seen many close games decided by which team could shoot better from the line.
“Say we’re protecting a lead in the final minute and the opposition has to foul somebody to get the ball back,” Assistant Coach Red Creighton said in making his case. “You get the ball to Dunk and let ’em foul him. That’s two points guaranteed.”
“I could see it,” said Head Coach Larry Temple, rubbing his jaw. “A free-throw specialist.”
So that’s why Dunk found his name on the all-star roster after three days of tryouts. He’d made more than eighty-five percent of his free throws over those three days. The best pro and college players only make a little more than ninety percent. Of course that’s in the heat of a game, with the heart pounding and the crowd screaming and the intense pressure of competition. Even so, eighty-five percent in practice isn’t bad, either. Especially for a kid who’s not yet thirteen.
So Dunk was on the twelve-man squad, mostly a practice player, a body to give the first-stringers some competition during workouts. He might get a few minutes of game-time at the tail end of a blowout.
And in the right situation, at the end of a tight game, he just might surprise a few people.
Sweaty as a Pig
idn’t you already practice today?” Aunt Krystal asked a few nights later as Dunk walked onto the YMCA gym floor, dribbling a basketball. “Twice?”
Dunk grinned. With his index finger he straightened his glasses, which had slid down his nose. “The tournament starts tomorrow,” he said. “Gotta be sharp.” He set the basketball down at the free-throw line and helped his aunt stack some gym mats on the side of the court.
Krystal was dressed in blue running shorts and a white tank top, and she was sweating from leading the aerobics classes. She was only eight years older than her nephew and was a junior at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. She seemed more like an older sister to Dunk than an aunt.
“Oh yeah, the big-time trip to the Shore,” she said. “You guys better win a couple of games; I’m driving down for the semifinals if you get that far.”
Dunk shrugged. “The coaches say there’ll be some outrageously good teams there. I don’t know how we’ll stack up.”
“You’ll do great if you play hard.”
“A lot of those teams have been playing together all summer. We’ve only been a team for a few days. We might get toasted.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Krystal said. “You don’t need that kind of pressure at least until high school. You guys are young; you’re still little.”
Dunk raised his eyebrows and gave his aunt an amused stare, arching his neck so he was looking down at her. At five-foot-nine, he was three inches taller than she was.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Just have fun.”
Krystal knew what she was talking about. She’d been a star athlete in high school, excelling in basketball and track, but had turned down athletic scholarships from Seton Hall and Rutgers. She was well aware of the line between enjoying a sport and making it a job.
“Let me ask you something, Cornell,” she said. “How many hours have you spent on basketball today?”
Dunk shrugged. “Three or four,” he said.
Krystal raised her eyebrows. “Oh, yeah?”
“Okay, maybe seven.” He’d had a team practice session from ten A.M. until noon, then played pickup games on the Y’s outside court for most of the afternoon with Spencer and Miguel and a rotating crowd of others. He’d gone through two quarts of water and a bottle of Gatorade playing under that bright, hot sun.
“Do anything else?” Krystal asked.
“Ate a couple of hot dogs,” he said with a grin.
“What do you think would happen if you spent maybe
of those hours doing something else that you like?”
“I’d be bored?”
“If seven hours of basketball doesn’t get boring, then I don’t know what else would,” Krystal said. “Tell you what you
do. Take one of my classes sometime.”
“You’re kidding, right? Bounce around the gym with a bunch of ladies? To
, no less? I don’t think so.”
The thing was, Dunk couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing. As his basketball skills were slowly improving, so was his devotion to the game. Making that all-star team had given his confidence a big boost. He was sure he’d make the school team this winter, but he’d be taking advantage of every opportunity to get better, just in case.