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Thirteen-year-old Nikki Doyle’s dreams of becoming a basketball great feel within reach when she’s selected to play on an elite-level club team. But in a league with taller, stronger, and faster girls, Nikki suddenly isn’t the best point guard. In fact, she’s no longer a point guard at all, which leaves her struggling to figure out who she is and how she fits in.
The stress piles on as Nikki’s best friend spends more and more time with another girl on the team, and when her science teacher assigns a family tree project that will be impossible to complete unless Nikki reveals her most embarrassing secret. As if that’s not enough to deal with, to cover the costs of her new team, Nikki has agreed to take care of her annoying younger brother after school to save money on childcare.
As the stakes rise on the basketball court, at school, and at home, Nikki’s confidence plummets. Can she learn to compete at this new, higher level? And how hard is she willing to work to find out?
You know how you can tell you’re in trouble?
You can tell you’re in trouble when you’re standing in a long line of girls in a basketball gym, getting ready to try out for an eighth-grade club team—an elite-level team, the kind of team you haven’t played on before, the kind of team you really want to play on—and you all of a sudden realize you’re staring straight-on, eye-level at the shoulder blades of the girl in front of you. Which means, as far as you can tell, the girl attached to those shoulder blades is a good nine or ten inches taller than you.
And that’s right where I was.
And since I knew I was somewhere around five foot four, that meant the girl in front of me had to be over six feet.
In eighth grade.
I turned to Adria behind me and nodded toward the shoulder-blade girl.
“Maybe she’s in the wrong gym,” Adria said, her voice barely a whisper.
We moved forward with the line.
Girls who’d already gotten their tryout numbers shuffled over to the side of the gym to drop their bags, lace up their shoes, and stretch. Parents were over there, too, setting up folding chairs or camp stools because the bleachers had all been pushed back flat against the walls. With the bleachers pushed in like that, the big gym seemed even bigger than it was, and it felt cold and hollow, every sound bouncing off the walls. Nothing like the cozy little middle school gyms where Adria and I had played county-league games. It still smelled like a regular gym, though, kind of musty, with the leathery scent of the balls and the bite of floor cleaner all mixed together.
A few girls trotted onto the court to put up shots. Not particularly good-looking shots, I was happy to see. One girl snapped her hand sideways instead of holding her follow-through with her fingers pointing at the basket. Another flipped her hand backward, launching the ball toward the hoop with no arc and no spin.
Maybe I wasn’t in such deep trouble after all.
“I wonder who taught them to shoot,” Adria said.
“Not your dad.”
Adria grinned. “Lucky for us.”
A few more girls joined the shooters on the floor. One of them stood behind the three-point line and shot with plenty of arc and plenty of spin, and her first two shots dropped straight through the net.
Okay, I was still in trouble.
The registration line kept moving, and the shoulder-blade girl in front of me stepped up to the man handing out tryout numbers—squares of paper with big numbers printed on them.
“Name?” the man said.
“Oh, Kate!” the man said. “Coach Duval told me he invited you to try out, but we didn’t expect to see you. Your father said you always play with older girls.”
The girl shifted her weight. “He’s letting me play with girls my age this spring.”
“Fantastic,” the man said. “Love to have you play for the Action.”
The girl took her number, mumbled “Thank you,” and walked away.
I stepped to the front of the line, looked up at the tryout-number man, and waited for him to ask my name.
His gaze stayed pinned on Kate-the-giant.
I waited, waited, then finally stretched up on my tiptoes. “I’m Nikki Doyle.”
“Hmm? Oh, right.” The man still didn’t look at me. He shoved a number at me, found my name on his clipboard, and wrote my number down, then looked over my head at Adria. “Name?”
“Adria Lawson.” She took her number.
We joined the big clump of girls and parents by the side of the gym and dropped our gym bags.
“Am I wearing an invisibility cloak?” I said.
“We’re all invisible next to that girl.” Adria handed me her number and turned so I could pin it to the back of her shirt. “You think a lot of these girls have played on club teams before?”
“You think a lot of them were invited to try out?”
Adria held up her hands, fingers crossed. “Please don’t let that be true.”
Parents were talking to one another now, saying stuff like, “Played on a Nike-sponsored team last year” or “Duke coach watching her,” and saying stuff to their daughters like, “Good luck” or “Try hard” or “Do your best,” except one mom, who, honestly, looked kind of like a bulldog. She was bending down, her face about three inches from the face of her bulldog-looking daughter, growling, “Don’t let anybody get in your way.”
My mom wasn’t there to say “Good luck” or anything else. She worked some Saturday mornings, so I’d come with Adria and her dad. And since he’d coached our county-league teams ever since we were in second grade, he hadn’t said something dumb like, “Try hard” (Really?); he’d said, “Be aggressive. Attack the hoop. Move your feet and keep your backsides down and your hands up on defense.” And to Adria he’d said, “And stand up straight. Don’t slouch.”
I turned so Adria could pin my number to the back of my shirt, then scanned the gym, doing a quick count of the girls. Thirty or so. All different skin colors—brown and tan and white. Skinny and stocky. Loud and quiet. But all with one thing in common, it seemed—tall. Making me feel like an ant in a field of giraffes.
I rubbed my hands along the sides of my shorts, scrunching up the shiny fabric with my fingertips. I’d never felt short before. Not in county league. And anyway, I was a point guard, and point guards don’t need to be tall. They need to be good ball-handlers and make accurate passes and call the right plays, and I was good at all that stuff. They also need to get the ball to the girl who can score, which on our county-league teams was usually Adria. And I was great at getting the ball to Adria when she was open.
But some of these tall girls had to be point guards, and all other things being equal, taller is better in basketball. I knew that. Everybody knew that.
I took a long, slow breath, blowing it back out long and slow, the way you’re supposed to before you shoot a free throw, then stood up extra straight and squared my shoulders. So what if these girls were all big? So what if I’d never played on a team like this before? I’d been the best point guard in all of county league. Adria’s dad always said so. A lot of people said so.
I could be better than these girls, too.
I could be one of the best.
I had to be.
A whistle blew.
The tallest man I’d ever seen stood in the middle of the floor, waving us over.
I sprinted onto the court, beating out the giraffes to plant myself directly in front of the man, which was maybe not the best idea, since looking up at him from that angle was pretty much like looking straight up a tree.
“Ladies,” the man said, “I’m Coach Duval, and this is the Northern Virginia Action. I’ll take ten girls on this team. We’ll play fast, up-tempo ball, but it’ll be team ball.” He paused and looked around at us. “Let me say that again. Basketball is a team sport and the Action plays team ball. If you want to be the only star of the show, this isn’t the team for you.” He paused again, as if giving girls a chance to leave, but no one did. “Okay, how many of you want to play varsity ball in high school?”
I raised my hand. So did all the other girls.
Coach Duval nodded. “So let me tell you something. I’ve coached eighth-grade club teams for twenty years. Some girls who play on my teams decide it’s too much work. Decide they’d rather be shopping or hanging out doing nothing. But the girls who stick with it, every single one has made her high school varsity team. Quite a few played in college. What do you think got them there?”
“Talent,” a girl said.
“Yup. What else?”
“Size and speed,” another girl said.
“Well, yeah. What else?”
There was a long pause, then Kate-the-giant said, “Hard work.”
“Bingo.” Coach Duval pointed at her. “You want to play at the next level, you have to work hard. Doesn’t matter how much talent you have, how big you are, how high you can jump. So hear me now. On the Action, we work hard. We have a lot of fun, but we work hard. Every practice. Every game. You don’t like to work, you need to find another team. You got me?”
He picked up a basketball from the rack beside him, palming it in one hand, his fingers, dark brown against the orange ball, reaching way around—about like me holding a softball. Then he looked straight down at me. “You ready to show me what you got?”
I stood frozen for a moment, until I realized he expected me to answer, and managed to squeak out, “Yes.”
“Then let’s warm up.” He handed the ball to me and tossed a few more to other girls. “Line up single file, dribble the length of the court, make a layup. Right hand first. Go.”
Balls boomed off the floor, sneakers screeched, the basket rims rattled and clanked, all the noise multiplying, echoing off the walls.
When my turn came, I sprinted down the court, my dribble low and crisp, my eyes up, the way Adria’s dad had taught me. I jumped to make a layup, and the ball rolled around the rim once, twice before dropping through. I got back in line just as Kate-the-giant started up the court. She didn’t look like she was running very fast, but her long legs gobbled up the floor in a few strides and she had to slow down to keep from plowing into the girl in front of her. She barely had to jump to get her hand up near the rim, and her ball rolled across the lip of the basket and fell straight through.
I was having a hard time not hating her.
Our layup line kept going. Most of the girls looked okay but nothing special, which wasn’t surprising since there aren’t a lot of ways to look special doing layups.
Unless you were Kate, of course.
Or Adria. She stood out on the basketball court no matter what she was doing. Her long, long arms and legs made her look like she was flying over the court instead of running. Like maybe gravity didn’t apply to her. Even my mom, who was clueless about sports, said Adria made basketball beautiful.
I was glad she was my best friend. Otherwise I’d have to hate her, too.
“Kate,” a man’s voice said, sharp and loud, cutting through the noise in the gym.
She stepped out of line and walked over to a man who had to be her father—same thick blond hair, same stilts for legs. They had a short conversation, during which Kate shook her head several times. The only thing I heard was her dad say, “Reverse.”
The girl behind me tapped my shoulder. “Go.”
“Sorry.” I sprinted down the court for another layup, caught my ball after it dropped through the net, and turned to watch Kate.
Her big strides ate up the court again, but when she got near the basket, she jumped sideways beneath it and swung the ball up backward over her shoulder. It tapped the backboard and fell through the hoop.
“Whoa!” the girl behind me said.
Coach Duval blew his whistle. “Okay, move your line to the other side of the hoop. Left-handed dribble. Left-handed layups. And we don’t need anything fancy. Just regular layups.”
Kate stared down at the court, her face suddenly splotchy red. She brushed past me as we moved our line, and even though I was still hating her, I couldn’t help saying, “That was sweet.”
She looked up. “Thanks,” she said, so quietly I barely heard her.
Her dad leaned against the side of the gym now, frowning, arms crossed. Not very happy his daughter wasn’t allowed to do reverse layups, I guess.
A lot of the other parents didn’t look super happy right then, either, especially the bulldog mom, who stomped back and forth along the sideline, looking like she wanted to bite Kate on the leg. “JJ can do a reverse layup,” she barked to the woman next to her. Then she whipped around and shouted, “Intense, JJ. Get intense.”
I turned back to the court. A couple of the girls out on the floor fumbled with their left-handed dribbles. One completely lost her ball, and another jumped off the wrong foot to shoot her supposed-to-be-left-handed layup with her right hand.
And, okay, I know it was mean, but that made me happy.
Because I’m left-handed.
And just like every other lefty in the world, I’d spent my entire life learning to do things right-handed, because, duh, that’s how the world works. So when it came to handling a basketball with my right hand, it was no big deal.
But, double-duh, right-handers never have to do anything left-handed.
Unless they play basketball.
And that’s why some of the girls on the court were looking as clumsy as actual giraffes trying to dribble and shoot with their left hands.
We finished the layups, then dribbled around cones and ran catch-and-shoot drills and stuff like that. Then finally, it was time to scrimmage, to actually play basketball. The best part of any tryout.
Coach Duval put me on a team with Kate and three other girls I didn’t know. One of them kept dropping the ball or throwing it out of bounds, but the other two were good, and Kate was fantastic. Also unselfish, which I hadn’t expected from a girl as good as her. On the first play of our first game, I had the ball at the top of the key, and Kate set a pick, motioning me around. I dribbled in close, crashed my defender into Kate, and popped out on her other side. No one stepped between me and the hoop, so I drove straight in for a layup. Left-handed, of course.
“Sweet, Nikki!” Adria called. “Keep—”
“For crying out loud, Kate,” her dad’s voice boomed, drowning out Adria. “Call for the ball and take the shot.”
But Kate just smiled a shy smile and slapped my hand. And I had a hard time hating her after that.
We ran down the court to play defense, but as soon as a girl put up a shot, Kate blocked it and swatted the ball out to me. I drove up the court, spotted one of our teammates sprinting ahead, and fired the ball up to her. The girl jumped for a layup, which she missed, but Kate came blasting up behind her, caught the rebound, and tipped it back in.
Everything else fell away—my worries about the giraffes, the parents yelling, every thought about anything other than what was happening out on that golden wood floor, with the ball in my hands, directing my teammates to cut across the court, then Kate setting another hard pick, motioning me around, then rolling to the hoop with her hand in the air, and my high lob over all the other outstretched hands to find Kate’s, and her pretty pivot around her defender to put the ball up and in.
I was in the zone. Flowing with the game, feeling where my teammates were moving like there were strings between us, seeing the whole floor, all the girls, like a pattern, like a dance. The ball falling from my hand, booming off the floor, rising back up to skim my fingertips, boom, shh, boom, shh, boom, sure and steady as a pulse. The swish and rattle of the hoop. The shouts, the hands raised high for a pass. The grins, the fist-bumps. The joy.
I could have played like that forever.
And as it turned out, our team got to play a long time, because the first team to three baskets stayed on the floor, and another team came on to replace the losers. We won three games before we all got tired and Adria’s team beat us.
The next time we got on the floor, things didn’t go quite so well. All the other teams had seen us play, for one thing, so they didn’t bother to guard our girl-who-couldn’t-catch and instead double-teamed Kate. Plus, in one game JJ-the-bulldog-girl guarded me, and her mom kept yelling, “Intense, JJ. Get intense,” and JJ must have been listening to her, because she plowed into me, whacked at my arms, and even grabbed my T-shirt to pull me off balance. And then, just as I was about to throw the ball in from the sideline, she picked that exact second to lean up in my face and say, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
I jerked and threw the ball straight to one of JJ’s teammates.
My team still won that game, because we had Kate. But in the next game, a girl on the other team with tight cornrow braids hit two quick midrange jumpers before we even took a shot.
Kate grabbed the ball and took it out under the basket.
“Let’s press,” the girl with the cornrows said, and her team closed in.
I took the ball from Kate. “Go long,” I whispered. “I’ll hit you.”
Kate looked at me kind of sideways. “Really?”
“Yeah. Start at half-court, cut back toward me, then run for the other end.”
Coach Duval blew his whistle. “Let’s go, ladies.”
Kate sprinted to half-court, took a stutter-step, and kept running. I faked a pass to our girl-who-couldn’t-catch, then zinged a long pass up the court. Kate caught the ball on the run, turned, and jumped for an easy layup. She jogged back downcourt, pointing at me, and if I had even one teeny, tiny, little scrap of still-hating-her left inside me, it disappeared right then.
Kate’s layup wasn’t enough to win that game, though. In the next play, the girl with the cornrows slid around her defender and pulled up for another short jumper, and that made three, and we were done.
I walked off the court, breathing hard, looking for my water bottle.
I looked up, expecting to see Adria’s dad calling me, because he always called me Lefty. But it wasn’t him. It was Coach Duval. He waved me over.
“You set up that play?” he said. “That long pass?”
It was hard to tell from his expression if he liked the pass, or if he was about to tell me it was dumb because it was the kind of pass that was easy to intercept if you didn’t throw it hard and fast enough.
But I nodded because, well, because I’d set it up.
“Okay,” he said. Then he looked back at the court.
I stood there for a minute, not sure if the conversation was over, but finally it felt weirder standing there than it did walking away without saying anything else, so I went and stood next to Kate and watched the other girls play.
And started to count.
Ten girls would make the team. Kate was one. So was Adria. And probably a girl I recognized from county league, Kim-Ly Tran, who flew up and down the court, darting between players, stealing the ball, streaking ahead of everyone else. What coach wouldn’t want a girl as fast as her? That made three. There were two other really good guards who also happened to be tall. Taller than me, anyway. One was the girl with the cornrows who was such a good shooter, and the other was this goofy girl with wild red hair who called everybody “Dude” and jumped around slapping hands with her teammates. But goofy or not, she could whip the ball around behind her back and between her legs and spin away from defenders, moves I could barely do at half speed in my driveway, let alone on the run with a defender on me. That made five. Then, besides Adria and Kate, there were two more really tall girls who were good rebounders and pretty good shooters. That made seven.
Which left three spots.
And twenty girls to fill them.
In any tryout for any sport I’d ever played—basketball, softball, soccer, even lacrosse—I’d always known I’d be one of those three girls. But this time… this time I didn’t know.
Sure, I’d made good passes, I’d been fine in the drills, I hadn’t made terrible mistakes.
But had I stood out? Apart from being left-handed, apart from being a left-handed point guard, had I looked special?
Was I one of the best?
For the first time ever, I didn’t know.
Some Kind of Heterozygote Advantage
It was only a fifteen-minute car ride from the gym to my house, but my muscles had already stiffened up by the time I got out of Mr. Lawson’s car and thanked him for the ride.
“Come over later. We can shoot around,” Adria said, pulling the elastic band from her hair and fluffing out her dark curls. She waved as they drove away.
I hitched my gym bag up higher on my shoulder and started up the steps to our side porch—three little steps that suddenly looked like Mount Everest. I grabbed the handrail, hauled myself up, and after about ten hours, made it onto the porch.
The door crashed open.
I jumped sideways, but not quick enough, because my brother exploded out of the house like an eight-year-old rocket, hurtling straight into me. We went down in a heap.
“Sam! Can’t you watch where you’re going?” I untangled my legs from his.
“Sorry, Nikki.” He jumped up. “Sorry. Sorry. You okay?”
“Yeah.” I rubbed at my legs, which were now even sorer than they’d been a minute ago.
“Did you make the team?” Sam was already off the porch, sprinting into the garage. Two seconds later he sprang onto the driveway on his pogo stick, his hair flapping around his head. He looked like a giant bouncing mushroom.
“No,” I hollered back.
“Nikki?” Mom stood in the doorway, still wearing what she called her librarian uniform—dark dress slacks, bright-colored blouse, dark jacket. And a hideous pair of clogs. Weird, shiny, plasticky-looking clogs. Weird, swirly green plastic. They hurt your eyes to look at, which I’d told her a hundred times but she just shrugged and said she was happy to look professional from the knees up, but had to be comfortable from the ankles down.
Like that made it okay to walk around looking so embarrassing.
“What are you doing down there?” Mom said.
I pushed myself up. “Run-in with Sam.”
“She didn’t make the team!” Sam bellowed, bouncing in a big circle.
“Oh no. I’m so sorry.” Mom reached toward me, but I was already bending down to retrieve my gym bag from where it had landed, underneath the old rocking chair.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “Nobody made it yet. There’s another tryout next Saturday.”
“Oh. Did I know that already?”
I sighed. “Remember, when I signed up, I told you there’d be two days of tryouts?”
“Well, I don’t remember, but I suspect you told me.” She put her arm around my shoulders, even though I was pretty sure my T-shirt was totally sweaty and gross. “Come and get something to drink.”
“Look!” Sam let go of his pogo stick and held his arms straight out, still bouncing. “No hands!” He bounced two more times, then the bottom of the pogo stick hit the edge of the driveway, and he flew off onto the lawn.
I guess a lot of moms would have run over to pick him up and coo and stuff, but our mom was so used to Sam bashing into things she just folded her arms. “Any blood?”
Sam looked at his knees and twisted his arms around to look at his elbows. “No.”
“Put your bike helmet on, please.”
“Do I have to?”
Mom just looked at him.
“Okay, okay.” He ran into the garage.
“And stay on the driveway.” Mom went back inside.
I followed her, hung my gym bag on a hook in the laundry room, kicked off my shoes, and washed my hands at the kitchen sink. I tugged gently at the middle finger of my left hand, which I’d jammed a little in one of the scrimmages. I always seemed to jam that finger—probably because I reached for the ball first with my left hand.
“Mom,” I said. “Why am I left-handed?”
“It’s genetic.” Mom took a pitcher of lemonade out of the refrigerator, poured some into a glass, and handed it to me. “As a matter of fact, I read something the other day about left-handedness. Researchers think it might be linked to some kind of heterozygote advantage.”
You know, sometimes having a mom who’s a university research librarian is a good thing, like when she helps you figure out how to find information for school projects and stuff. Sometimes it’s beyond annoying.
“Thanks for clearing that up,” I said.
“You’re welcome. And what that means, in case you’re wondering, is that they think left-handedness, or some trait it’s linked to, might have provided an evolutionary advantage.”
I wiped lemonade off my chin with the back of my hand. “I hope it’s linked to a trait that’ll make me tall. I could use that advantage.”
Mom smiled. “Don’t worry, Nikki. You’ll grow more.” She leaned against the counter. “So how did the tryout go? Did you have fun?”
I gulped down more lemonade. “Tryouts are never really fun.”
“No, I guess not. More like a job interview, I suppose. Stressful.”
Mom smoothed some stray hairs away from my face. “I’m sure you played well. You always do.”
“I hope so.” I leaned against her, letting my head drop onto her shoulder. “You wouldn’t believe how good some of the girls were.”
She looped her arm around me and we stood like that for a minute or two. “Tired?” she said.
I nodded into her shoulder.
Mom turned her arm and looked at her watch. “Oh dear, I have to go.”
“I have a haircut appointment and I need to go to the grocery store. Please make sure Sam keeps his helmet on when he’s on his pogo stick.”
“Wait, what? I have to watch Sam?”
“Just for a few hours.”
“But I told Adria I’d come over to shoot with her.”
“I’m afraid that’ll have to wait.”
“Can’t you just do the haircut and not the grocery store?”
Mom picked up her purse and keys. “If I don’t go to the grocery store, you and Sam won’t have anything to pack for lunches this week.”
“We could buy lunch in our cafeterias.”
Mom raised an eyebrow. “Nikki, you know we run on a tight budget. If you buy lunch all week, we’ll have to give up something else. Like a movie. Or dinner at a restaurant. It won’t kill you to watch Sam for a little while.”
I slumped into a chair. “It might.”
Mom gave my shoulder a quick squeeze and headed out the door.
She stuck her head back inside. “What?”
“You cannot wear those clogs to the hair salon.”
Praise for Nikki on the Line:A Spring 2019 Indies Introduce pick
- On Sale
- Mar 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers