The Foul Shot

THE girls tangle under the basket - red uniforms swarming blue. Above their heads, the ball floats on fingertips. Swatted left, swatted right, grabbed. She holds on. She's swarmed. The swarm blocks my view of the pass. I don't see the foul, but I do see the ball rising toward the basket, falling short. I hear the whistle. The broad-shouldered referee in the gray sweatsuit strides toward center court, whistle bouncing just above the soft curve of belly. "One five red. On the arm." He grabs his forearm. "T wo shots." He holds up two fingers.

The girls line up along the key hole - red blue red blue. Flamingos in bright shorts: all legs, knees knobbed with gauze and elastic wrappings.

One girl steps to the foul line for the shot. This girl, six weeks ago, had to be coerced into trying out for the middle-school team. This girl, six weeks ago, couldn't dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off her foot. This girl, when she played her first illustrious 14 seconds, ran flat-footed down the court and stood under the basket until the referee was forced to call three seconds - though it was clear he didn't really want to: She looked so confused.

Now she's a starter - and star rebounder, a contender for "most improved." All 5 feet 7 1/2 inches of her. Since nursery school, the tallest in her class; at 10 years old as tall as her mother; and now, at 12, the height that has so long embarrassed her begins to pay off.

She stands at the foul line in her new white sneakers. Their thick soles add an inch. She's not slouching now - she's straight-backed and square shouldered in her make-do uniform. The turquoise beach shorts mismatch the shirt, a leftover from the boys' team, the number 20 turned into 28 with white fabric paint. She bounces the ball with conviction, then holds it steady in her two hands. Five years of piano lessons in those long dextrous fingers. She studies the hoop, measuring the distance between this b all in her hands and the rim, oblivious to the time because for this foul shot the clock has stopped. She flexes slightly, steady on those stilt legs, planted in those size-7 men's sneakers.

And I think: She's paralyzed. The pressure has paralyzed her. Look how red her face is. Flushed. Her cheeks are flushed. The coach has left her in too long. She's exhausted. How can she bear this silence? How can she bear any of it?

Someone yells: "Take your time." Someone yells: "Easy."

I study her profile. Short hair, damp with sweat, pushed back from her forehead. The innocent curve of her forehead. The bump on her nose. Hers was a long straight nose until, at age five, she got smacked by the tire swing in the front yard.

I study the set of her jaw, the pleasing extension of that chin. Her face is determined, calm. She seems determined, calm. Mine is the heart about to leap. The mother who never made the team lives this moment through the daughter who did.

Her toes snug the black line. She bends her knees. Then, in a beautiful, fluid motion, she pushes the ball out and up. It glides off her fingertips, up and up, and the arch is unmistakably perfect.

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