By Raymond Obstfeld
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From a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and New York Times bestselling author, this coming-of-age story follows Chris Richards after a basketball game goes wrong and leaves him searching for answers about his brother’s strange behavior.Chris Richards has always looked up to Jax, his older brother and his parents' "golden child." Lately, though, Jax has been full of surprises. First he dropped out of law school; then he started hanging out with some shifty-looking friends. One day Jax asks Chris to recruit his best middle school teammates for a pick-up basketball game in the park. Chris doesn't think much of it until the wrong team wins and Jax goes ballistic. It turns out that Jax bet on the game, hoping to earn enough money to repay a debt to someone who doesn't forgive easily. While Chris tries to walk a thin tightrope between helping his brother and staying out of trouble, his friend Theo does some behind-the-scenes detective work to learn what Jax has been up to. The day Chris is roped into a police investigation is the day he realizes he made the wrong play.
ALSO BY KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR
AND RAYMOND OBSTFELD
Streetball Crew Book One: Sasquatch in the Paint
Text copyright © 2015 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Evan Hughes
Cover art © 2015 by Evan Hughes
Cover design by Tanya Ross-Hughes
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
This book is dedicated to the game
and all of us who love it.
To my own Street Crew: Loretta, Max, and Harper.
The best team ever.
THE police officer entered my eighth-grade algebra class, without looking at any of us, and whispered into Ms. Kaiser’s ear. She was standing at the whiteboard, her back to the class, halfway through an equation that I didn’t understand and probably still wouldn’t understand when I took tomorrow’s quiz. Ms. Kaiser looked surprised at whatever the officer had said.
Then she turned slowly toward the class and pointed at me.
My heart banged against my ribs and my swollen nose ached even more.
The officer glared at me. He was tall and thin and his uniform looked a little too big, like he’d recently lost a lot of weight. Maybe he hadn’t gotten a new uniform yet because he was afraid he’d gain the weight back. Maybe he couldn’t afford a new uniform because he was putting his kids through college. I couldn’t believe I was even thinking about all that at a time like this.
The officer crooked his finger for me to follow him.
As I stood up, Clay Yothers in the desk behind me whispered excitedly, “Dude, what’s the cop want?”
“Is this about what happened to your face?” Simon Zuckerman asked. His eyes were big as softballs. “Is this an arrest?”
I shrugged as if I didn’t know.
But I did know.
“He’s got pepper spray,” Tina Yu said, pointing at the officer’s belt full of crime-fighting goodies.
“Forget the pepper spray,” Clay said, “he’s packing a gun! Dude, what did you do?”
Tina was trying to sneak her phone out of her purse so she could take a photo. If she did, it would be posted on Facebook by the time I reached the door. I gave her a sharp look and she slid her hand away from her phone.
Ms. Kaiser looked flustered, her cheeks bright red. She started tugging on her blouse and skirt as if the officer had come in here accusing her of being sloppily dressed. This was only her second year of teaching, and I guess this was the first time she’d had the cops haul one of her students out of class. It was probably the first time this had ever happened at Orangetree Middle School. This was the kind of school with banners for excellence and PTA mothers who planned fund-raisers for new computers and students who belonged to several clubs and teams at once. All the walls were painted in sunshine yellow, I guess to remind us of our bright futures.
As I walked toward the door, I could hear my classmates whispering, but my blood was pounding so loudly in my ears their words just sounded like boiling water.
When the officer and I left the classroom, Ms. Kaiser’s dry marker squeaked against the whiteboard. “Okay, friends, let’s examine the variable y….”
She’d never called us friends before. This whole thing must have shaken Ms. Kaiser, made her think she was back teaching elementary school.
Friends. Like we were all best buds. Maybe teachers figured that if they said it enough times, we’d all think it was true. All five hundred of us, linking arms and skipping down Main Street to a Katy Perry song.
“Chris Richards,” the officer said with a sour face, like my name tasted bad. “What happened to your face?”
I touched my swollen nose, which was still tender. I knew the purple bruising under my eyes gave me a haunted look.
“Do you know why I’m here?” he said accusingly.
His question made me think of the last thing Ms. Kaiser had said. Let’s examine the variable y. Only in my head it came out: Let’s examine the variable why.
Why I’m here.
FOUR DAYS EARLIER…
“THEY LOOK LIKE CRIMINALS”
“YOU guys cheated!” Zach Fallon accused, angrily kicking the basketball off the court.
“Hey, don’t kick it,” Eric Trebeck said. “You’ll break the valve.”
“I’m just sick of them cheating!” Zach said.
“We don’t have to cheat to beat you,” Roger said with a snort. “All we got to do is show up.”
Weston, Roger’s teammate, chuckled and high-fived him.
“You stacked the teams,” Zach persisted. He looked for support from his defeated teammates, Eric and Daniel Hood. “Right, guys?”
Daniel was hunched over, hands on his knees, wheezing like a ball pump, trying to catch his breath.
Eric nodded. “You guys do have all the shooters, Roger.”
Daniel, unable to talk while sucking in air, raised a thumbs-up to show he agreed.
Zach added, “And you all play on the school team. We just play here.”
Here was Palisades Park, the perfectly groomed park surrounded by perfectly groomed homes. The park had tennis courts, three baseball fields, soccer fields, and a playground covered with a giant orange tarp to keep the sun off the little kiddies. The neighborhoods were so perfect that they attracted families of all nationalities. We had a large Asian population—mostly Vietnamese—and lots of Latinos. On weekends, the soccer field had cricket players from the numerous Indian and Pakistani families in the area.
“Fine.” Roger sighed. “Let’s mix up the teams. What do you think, Chris?”
I agreed with Zach that Roger had deliberately stacked the teams. We’d crushed them 15–2 in less than ten minutes. It would be even worse if we played them again. Daniel would need an oxygen mask and a team of paramedics on standby.
“I’ll swap with Daniel,” I said. I walked over and stood next to Zach and Eric.
Zach smiled triumphantly. “Yeah, I’m good with that.”
Daniel shrugged and went to stand with Roger and Weston. He was six inches shorter than them and twenty pounds heavier. He looked like half a vending machine. He probably shouldn’t even be playing, but his dad had promised him a hundred bucks if he lost ten pounds in six weeks, so here he was.
Roger frowned, clearly unhappy with the decision. “Why don’t we just shoot for teams? That’s fair.”
Of course it wasn’t fair. Because Roger, Weston, and I were the better shooters, the three of us would probably end up on the same team again. But Roger didn’t care about fair or even having good games. He wanted to win. That was fine when we were playing for the school, but when playing pickup games at Palisades Park, it was ridiculous.
I retrieved the basketball from where it had landed on the grass. When I looked up, I saw two guys in their early twenties sitting on one of the stone benches in the distance, near the snack stand. They were munching on popcorn and drinking blue Icees, staring right at us, like they were in a movie theater and we were the show. I couldn’t make out their faces, but one had his short blond hair combed straight up into a fauxhawk. The other wore a black hoodie with the hood up, and dark wraparound sunglasses.
But what struck me was that the guy in the hood had a rolling suitcase standing next to him. Who walks around the park with a suitcase?
“Stranger danger,” Weston said, nodding at the two guys. He grinned. “Maybe we should call the cops.”
“And tell them what?” Zach asked.
“I dunno. They look like criminals. Who wears a hood when it’s eighty degrees out? And what’s up with the suitcase?”
“Maybe he’s selling stolen iPhones or something,” Daniel said.
I handed the ball to Roger. “Your outs.”
Usually we’d shoot from the three-point line for possession, but I knew this would stop Roger’s complaining about the teams. Instead, he’d take it as a direct challenge.
He grabbed the ball from me with a glare. “Ball in,” he growled, and he fired a pass to Weston. Weston quickly spun and banked a five-footer off the backboard.
“I wasn’t ready,” Zach whined. “I thought we were still talking about those guys.”
I couldn’t help but look up the slope at the two guys on the bench. Blond Fauxhawk was laughing and throwing popcorn at Hoodie, who seemed to be scowling down at us.
“One to zip,” I said. “Let’s play ball.”
“KA-CHING!” Weston crowed as he sank another bank shot over Zach’s head. He raised two fists high in the air. “Kneel and worship your basketball king, puny mortals!”
“Big deal,” Zach said. “Your arms are like a foot longer than mine. You’ve got ape arms.”
“Yeah, but I’m an ape who can score. I’m money, baby!” Weston’s nickname on the team was Money Man, because he could hit the bank shot so often. Whenever he scored, someone would yell, “Money Man just made another bank deposit!” Or the short version: “Ka-ching!”
Daniel, who was already breathing hard only five minutes into the game, stood with the ball at the top of the key, panting. “What’s—” Deep breath. “What’s the score?”
“Ten to four,” Roger said, grinning at me. “Guess we didn’t need you after all, Chris.”
“Guess not,” I said.
Even though he was acting like a jerk, Roger wasn’t a bad guy. He was big in every way: six feet tall and a hundred and eighty pounds. He wasn’t quick on the court—his nickname was Slo-Mo—but there was no one better at setting a pick-and-roll. When players banged into his brick-wall pick, they were dazed just long enough for him to roll toward the basket for the pass. By the time the groggy kid remembered his name and what century it was, Slo-Mo was already steamrolling into his layup. And no one near the basket wanted to take a charge from Roger, no matter how many free throws they got.
“Ball in,” Daniel said, and he tossed the ball to Weston. Zach, determined not to be humiliated again (Weston had already hit six bank shots over him), was doing some sort of crazy defense dance that involved jumping around and waving his arms like someone on a desert island trying to flag down a passing ship.
“Are you in training for the rodeo?” Weston joked. “’Cuz you’re riding me like I’m a bull.”
“It’s called defense, dude,” Zach said, still jumping and waving. It might have looked weird, but it was effective. Weston tried to find an opening to turn and shoot his bank shot, but Zach was hopping around like he was on a pogo stick.
“Get off me, Zach,” Weston said in frustration.
“I’m not touching you,” Zach said. I could hear the delight in his voice at knowing he’d rattled Money Man.
Weston passed the ball to Roger, who tried to use his fifty-pound advantage to back me toward the basket. But I’d been guarding Roger in practice for a couple years now, and I knew how to handle him. The secret wasn’t in holding my ground. He was too big for that to work. Instead, I’d keep jabbing a hand around him, to swat at the ball. Left, then right, then left, then left again. This scared him, because I’d stolen the ball from him so often before. Usually, he’d just stop dribbling and hug the ball to his chest until he could pass it.
That’s what he did now.
Except Zach was still doing jumping jacks all around Weston, making it impossible for Roger to pass the ball to him. And, just as Weston cut around Zach for the pass, I slid between Roger and Weston with my arms up, making it impossible for Roger to pass to Weston. So Roger did exactly what I’d wanted him to do.
He passed to Daniel.
Daniel was surprised, because Roger and Weston had pretty much cut him out of all the plays, just passing to each other and shooting. They let him bring the ball in just to keep him from complaining.
Daniel held the ball, confused about what to do next. So he shot it from the three-point line. The ball fell short of the basket by a foot. I dashed around Roger, snagged the ball out of the air, and fired it to Eric, who was waiting on the three-point line as I’d told him to. Daniel, still stunned by his wild missed shot, finally ran over to guard Eric. But I’d also cut to the three-point line far ahead of Slo-Mo. Eric threw me the ball and I quickly shot the three. The ball rattled against the rim a couple times before dropping through for two points. (Yeah, I know it’s weird that we call the shot a three when you only get two points, but we like to use the same terms as the pros.)
“Six to ten,” I said.
We ran variations of that play two more times, with me shooting the three and scoring twice. That put us tied at tens.
Roger was getting a little tired from my full press on him. And Weston’s frustration at Zach’s crazy defense made him force a couple of shots that bounced off the backboard and then off the rim.
We were able to take advantage of that lapse for me to score a reverse layup and for Eric to beat Daniel to the hoop for another layup. Then, when Weston left Zach to double-team me so I couldn’t take another three-pointer, I bounce-passed to Zach, who sank a baby jumper. The score: 13–10.
Like the good players they were, Roger and Weston adjusted. Roger didn’t get flustered anymore when I tried to steal the ball. Weston directed Daniel to just stand in one spot about eight feet to the side of the basket, then used the stationary Daniel as a screen to fire off his bank shot. He did this three times in a row, tying the score.
“Thirteen all,” Roger announced loudly, trying to intimidate us. But I could hear the nervousness in his voice. He’d never expected the score to be this close.
In the neighboring court I saw Tad arrive. That’s not his real name, just what I call him. It stands for Tiny Asian Dude. Tad was really old and skinny and shuffled when he walked. He neatly folded his jacket and laid it on the grass. He was bald except for a couple scribbles of white hair on top of his head. He wore beige pants and a white shirt with black suspenders. He also wore old man sandals that had more leather than open space, like the ribs of a whale. He carried (he never dribbled) his ancient, beat-up basketball to the free throw line and began shooting.
He was terrible. When I first saw him about a year ago, I thought he was going to be some b-ball Zen master, making every basket blindfolded. Instead, he hardly ever made a basket. And even though he was out here nearly as often as me, he never got any better.
“Hey, Mr. Miyagi!” Weston hollered, and waved.
Weston called him that because he looked a little like the teacher in the original Karate Kid movie. And also because Weston was the jokester of our team and had to say or do something funny every fifteen minutes or he’d probably faint.
Tad turned, smiled, and waved back.
“C’mon, let’s play,” I said, before Weston felt the need to say anything else.
Thing is, sometimes I felt like I had more in common with Tad than with these guys I was playing with, a few of whom I’d known most of my life. Tad comes down here every day to shoot baskets. He has to know that the kids who watch him are making fun of him. But he keeps coming and shooting and smiling. He’s not thinking about winning, or about playing high school varsity so he can get a scholarship, or anything except tossing the ball toward the hoop. He just loves doing it. That’s how I feel most of the time. Or want to, anyway.
“What’s the score?” Daniel asked again, standing at the top of the key with the ball.
“Thirteen all,” Roger snapped. “If you’re not going to make any points, at least remember the score.”
“Shut up, Roger,” Daniel said. “Me and Zach and Eric were here first. You didn’t have to play with us.”
Roger started to say something, then stopped. I could tell he knew that he’d pushed Daniel too far and was regretting it. Like I said, Roger wasn’t a bad guy, just an intense player.
“Just pass the ball in already,” Zach said.
Daniel bounced a lazy pass toward Roger. It was pretty much the same pass he’d made the last four times. Anticipating it, I darted out, intercepted the pass, and cut to the basket. Unfortunately, Roger was waiting for me, his intensity turned up to Volcanic Eruption. He slid his bulk between me and the basket. I tried to dribble around him, but he stayed with me with unusual speed. He wanted to win. More important, he wanted me to lose.
Eric saw my dilemma and ran behind me, Daniel staggering after him. Facing Roger, I bounce-passed the ball backward between my legs to Eric. Using me as a screen, Eric shot the eight-footer for a point, putting us ahead.
Up the slope, I heard Hoodie shout, “Yeah!” and saw him pump his fist in the air. Fauxhawk slumped angrily. Why did they care so much about our little pickup game? I wondered.
“Fourteen to thirteen,” I said, checking the ball to Roger. He tossed it back and immediately got in my face, flapping like a Tasered chicken so I had trouble seeing my teammates.
I faked a pass to the left, then found Eric to the right. He dribbled toward the basket, but Daniel kept with him, determined not to be the cause of the loss. Eric shot the same eight-footer he’d shot before, but this one bounced off the rim. Weston spun inside Zach’s defense and tossed an easy layup.
“Fourteens,” Roger said. “Next basket wins.”
“Win by two,” Zach protested.
“Straight up,” Roger said.
“We always play win by two,” Zach said. “Right, guys?”
“Mostly,” Eric said.
“Mostly ain’t always,” Weston said.
“When did you join the debate team?” Zach said sarcastically.
“Next point wins,” I said, and that ended the discussion. I don’t know why kids listen to me. It’s not that I’m particularly smart; my grades are mostly B’s and C’s. And I’m not funny like Weston or clever like Theo, another guy on our school team. I don’t threaten or bully like Roger. I don’t make fun of other kids and I don’t hang with the popular kids at school. In fact, I hardly talk at all. I guess others see my silence as strength, but mostly it’s because I’m afraid to say something stupid.
Roger passed the ball to Weston, but Zach was jumping and swatting like he had angry bees in his pants. Weston and Roger kept passing the ball back and forth, trying to get an open shot. They knew if they missed and didn’t get the rebound, they might lose.
Finally, too frustrated to wait, Weston forced his way in for a finger roll. But the ball nicked the rim and ricocheted to the side. I was about to grab it when I saw Daniel huffing and puffing toward the ball, his eyes wide with excitement, realizing that this was his chance to do one thing right. I don’t why I suddenly thought of Tad, whose missed shots we could hear like the steady patter of rainfall. Whatever the reason, I didn’t grab the ball. I let Daniel pick it up. He seemed so surprised to find it in his hands, I thought he might just run off the court with it and be halfway home before he remembered the game.
Weston shouted, “Pass it! Pass it!”
Daniel looked up at the basket, squinting at it as if it were a football field away.
“Dribble in,” I said.
He didn’t know who said it. Probably thought it was his inner basketball coach. But he did dribble in. Instead of cutting him off and blocking his shot, I stood still and let him go around me. He was right under the basket for an easy layup. He just stood there, staring up.
Zach launched toward him to defend the shot, but I slid into his way, blocking him.
“Dude!” Zach said, trying to squirm around me. I wouldn’t let him.
“Shoot!” Roger said. “Shoot, Dan.”
And Daniel shot.
HOT TEMPERS AND COLD ICEES
ROGER pulled Daniel into a headlock and twisted his knuckle against Daniel’s scalp.
“Ow!” Daniel said, but he was laughing.
“Victory noogie!” Weston announced, pulling Daniel from Roger and delivering his own quick noogie. He released Daniel, who rubbed his head, but had the biggest smile on his face.
“Let’s run it back,” Zach said. “That was close.” He glared at me.
“I gotta go,” Weston said. “I haven’t finished my algebra homework. If I don’t get at least a B on the next quiz, I’ve got to spend the weekend cleaning the garage.”
“I’ve got a piano lesson,” Daniel said, climbing on his bicycle. “Next time, dudes.” He waved happily as he rode off.
That was it. Game over.
Zach and Eric also took off, and I could hear Zach grumbling about me as they walked.
Roger sniffed the air and frowned at Weston. “You do smell like an ape, bro.”
“Actually,” Weston said, “my little sister got a new hamster to replace her dead one and I had to clean the cage this morning.”
Weston and Roger picked up their jackets from the grass. Roger turned, looked at me, and smiled. “You’re too soft, Chris. Letting Dan have the winning shot.”
I didn’t say anything.
“See ya tomorrow,” Weston said as they walked off together. They lived in the same neighborhood.
In the court next to us, Tad continued to shoot free throws. And continued to miss.
I heard some shouting and looked over at the stone bench where those two twentysomething guys had been sitting. They were on their feet now, hollering at each other. Fauxhawk seemed really upset, repeatedly poking his finger in Hoodie’s chest. When Hoodie finally brushed the poking finger away, Fauxhawk threw the remains of his blue Icee in Hoodie’s face.
I expected Hoodie to punch him, but he didn’t. He just brushed the chunks of blue ice from his face and the front of his hoodie while Fauxhawk yelled a couple more things and then stomped off.
That was entertaining, I thought as I picked up my keys and basketball from the grass. I started walking home, nodding at Tad, who smiled and nodded back. He shot, missed, shuffled after the ball, and carried it back to the free throw line.
“Chris! Hey, Chris!”
I looked around to see who was calling my name.
Hoodie was jogging toward me, his beat-up black suitcase rolling across the grass beside him. When he was only twenty feet away he pulled down his hood and whipped off his sunglasses.
It was my brother, Jax.
THE RETURN OF GOLDEN BOY
“YOU ready to take me on?” Jax asked with a grin. He snatched the ball from under my arm and dribbled onto the court. “Let’s go, superstar. Show me what you’ve got since I’ve been gone.”
I stared at him. He hadn’t been home in a year, probably longer. These days our relationship consisted of a Skype call about once a month. The last time he had carried his laptop around his bedroom so I could see what the life of a law student looked like. It looked like every other dorm, but with thicker books.
“You’re not scared, are you?” he taunted now. “I’m like a hundred years older than you and haven’t played since the last time I was home. Oh yeah, that’s when I slaughtered you fifteen to eight.”
I dropped my keys on the ground and walked onto the court.
“Man, Chris, you must have grown four inches since last time I was here. You’re nearly as tall as me.”
“What’s going on, Jax? What are you doing here? And who’s that guy you were fighting with?”
“We weren’t fighting. It was just a friendly disagreement.”
“I’ve met your friends, Jax. I don’t know him.”
PRAISE FOR SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT"The depth and realism Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld bring to the novel keep it from being a run-of-the-mill sports story...Readers will feel a kinship with Theo as he maneuvers through tough but realistic choices."—-Publishers Weekly
PRAISE FOR SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT"This funny and inspirational novel based on Kareem's sudden growth spurt as a middle-schooler captures the excitement of playing basketball and the anxiety of growing up--while growing tall, which I know a little something about. Kids will learn about the wonderful world of basketball and the importance of friendship and following your dreams."—Magic Johnson
PRAISE FOR SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT"This smart, sensitive novel is full of simple truths that extend far beyond the court."—-Booklist
PRAISE FOR SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT"A crisp tale of sports, smarts and what it means to be your own man or woman-or boy or girl, if you happen to be 13...It seems to be an embarrassment of riches to be, say, one of the best basketball players in history and also write tightly entertaining novels for kids, but there you have Abdul-Jabbar. Fearless, caring sports fiction." —-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
PRAISE FOR SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT"A humorous novel that delivers a heartwarming story about growing up, facing down bullies, and learning what true friendship is all about."—-School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Feb 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers