Bouncing Back

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By Scott Ostler

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Packed with humor and thrilling sports action, this “wonderful story of friendship and the unique ability of kids to overcome a challenge” (#1 New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom) “will get in your heart and won’t get out” (#1 New York Times bestselling author Mike Lupica).

Back in his old basketball league, before the car accident, thirteen-year-old Carlos Cooper owned the court, sprinting and jumping and lighting up the scoreboard as his opponents (and teammates) watched in amazement. But now, Carlos feels completely out of his league on his new wheelchair basketball team, the Rollin’ Rats. After all, how can he make a layup when he’s still struggling to learn how to dribble?

But when the city’s crooked mayor threatens to tear down the Rollin’ Rats’ gym, Carlos realizes that he can’t stay on the sidelines forever. Because without a gym, the team can’t practice, and if they can’t practice, they can kiss their state tournament dreams goodbye. If Carlos is going to learn what it truly means to be part of a team and help his new friends save their season, he’ll have to either go all-in . . . or get out.

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WELCOME TO THE PALACE

AUNT ROSIE HADN’T EVEN PARKED THE VAN YET, AND I already wanted her to turn around and take us home. This was a bad idea. I could feel it.

Bay City is a pretty small town, but in the year I’d lived here, I had never been to this part of it, down by the railroad tracks. No reason to go. Nothing here but some abandoned shops and warehouses, a few dumpy homes overrun with weeds, and a junky car here and there.

And the gym. If you could call it that.

It looked like a gigantic soup can cut in half the long way and dropped into the middle of a playground. Above the double front doors was an old neon sign that said THE PALACE. There was a bird’s nest inside the P and it looked like the sign hadn’t been lit in, like, fifty years. The heavy morning fog made the ugly old building look even gloomier.

“Not much of a palace,” my aunt said jokingly. I’m pretty sure she could tell I wasn’t thrilled to be here.

Maybe it wasn’t too late for us to just start the car, drive back up the hill, and go meet Uncle Augie for breakfast at the Stack Shack. But I couldn’t do that to Aunt Rosie. I didn’t have much hope that this was going to work out, but I knew she did.

Inside, the gym wasn’t as bad as I expected—it was worse. It was cold outside, but it was colder inside. I saw what looked like a big heater in the corner, but one hose was disconnected, and there were cobwebs all over it. There was a funky, musty smell. The lights were on, but it still seemed kind of dark.

And it was noisy. Along with bouncing balls and kids talking, music was booming out of a speaker by the little set of bleachers—some awful, whiny song about Kansas City. Six kids were already out on the court. One girl looked familiar—she might have been in one of my classes, although she didn’t use a wheelchair at school.

When I played basketball before, our bright, new gym had been like home. I was with my best friends. That seemed like a million years ago, not just one.

Now it was me and a bunch of kids I didn’t know. In wheelchairs.

A man in a wheelchair rolled over to us. “Hi, Rosie. Hi, Carlos,” he said. “Welcome back to basketball.”

“Thanks, Coach,” Aunt Rosie replied for me, flashing an encouraging smile my way. Trooper Bennett had called Aunt Rosie a month earlier and told her he coached a thirteen-and-under wheelchair basketball team, and they would like to invite me to check it out. He called back a couple more times to talk about the program, and about me.

Rosie and Augie didn’t insist, but they asked that I give it a try.

No thanks, I’d rather just sit home, watch TV, and mope—that wasn’t going to cut it.

So here we were. Sitting around the house watching TV seemed like a much better plan.

I knew I could probably talk Rosie into leaving right then. But her excitement and hope kept me rooted to the spot. Maybe I could just watch the practice. Then at least I could say, “Hey, I gave it a shot.”

“Let’s get you into a basketball chair, Carlos,” Trooper said.

I gritted my teeth as Coach and one of the dads transferred me to a basketball wheelchair, a stripped-down chair designed for speed and movement. The seat was low and the wheels angled in at the top, “To make it faster and more stable,” the dad explained. “It will feel a little strange at first, because it’s so light. Your regular chair is like a passenger plane, and this chair is like a fighter jet. We strap you in with this lap belt because that makes the chair more responsive to your body movements.”

He was right about it feeling strange. For one thing, since the seat was lower, the basket seemed even higher. I couldn’t imagine playing basketball in this thing.

“Whaddaya do best, Carlos?” Trooper asked. “What’s your game? Shooting? Rebounding? Passing?”

I shrugged. “Shooting, I guess.”

Then I felt dumb. I used to be a good shooter, best in the league. But that was back when I could jump and touch the bottom of the net. Now the rim looked like it was fifty feet high instead of ten.

Trooper tossed me a ball and said, “Go ahead and shoot around, Carlos, get warm. Once we start practice, feel free to just watch if you want, check it out. When you’re ready, we’ll put you out there. Don’t expect to feel comfortable right away, but I know you’ve played a lot of basketball, you’ll catch on quicker than you think. It’s the same game.”

Right. Just like everything in my life is the same as it was before.

I put the ball on my lap and pushed slowly out onto the court, looking for an empty basket. Maybe I could get through the whole practice without anyone really noticing me. Then go home and do something more fun, like algebra homework.

Nope.

A kid rolled up to me, looking way too peppy. “Hey, I’m James,” he said. “What’s your name?”

I think I cringed. “Carlos.”

“Welcome to the Palace, Carlos,” he said. “Wanna shoot?”

I shrugged.

“Go ahead and take some shots, I’ll rebound for a while. That’ll help me get warmed up.”

I took a shot. Holy cow. Airball! Then another. My shots weren’t coming within three feet of the rim.

Every shot was crazy short. That guy was supposed to be rebounding for me, but what he was doing instead was scrambling after my airballs as they bounced across the floor. It was like when you’re at the carnival and you try to win a stuffed animal by throwing baseballs at the metal bottles, but the bottles are super heavy and they don’t fall, and the harder you try, the madder and more embarrassed you get.

I was glad my old teammates weren’t here to see this. Cooper the Hooper, they used to call me. I took all the shots—or most of them. I was what they call a gunner, but my teammates didn’t mind, because nobody in the league could shoot like I could.

That seemed like a million years ago. When you’re new to life in a wheelchair, you run into situations that are frustrating and embarrassing. I was getting better at shrugging off that kind of stuff. But Cooper the Hooper not being able to reach the hoop? My face was burning.

I fired up another three or four pathetic misses. James laughed, then quickly said, “Sorry, Carlos.” He rolled over by me, spinning the ball on his index finger. I saw that he was a double amputee, both lower legs gone from just below the knees.

“I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing at me,” he said. “I was just remembering my very first shot,” he said. “I shot an airball, of course. Trooper was sitting right over there. The ball took one big bounce and knocked the cup of coffee out of his hand and it splashed all over him.”

James laughed again, but my eyes got wide. Embarrassing yourself like that didn’t seem funny to me, and neither did messing with a coach. I glanced over at Trooper. With his buzz cut and serious expression, he looked like an army drill sergeant. I remembered he told Rosie that this wasn’t just recreation; it was competitive basketball.

“Was he mad?” I asked.

“Oh, man,” James said. “When that coffee went flying, I froze, and everyone in the gym stopped what they were doing and stared. Trooper looked at me, looked at his shirt and pants, soaked. He looked back at me and started laughing his butt off. He laughed so hard he got tears in his eyes. Then he said, ‘Son, I think your shot needs a little work. Let me show you a couple things.’”

James tossed me the ball and said, “So let me show you a couple of the things. If that’s cool?”

I kind of nodded.

“The shooting motion is different from what you’re used to,” he said. “All arm and wrist.”

He motioned for me to shoot.

“Try keeping your right elbow closer to your side. It might seem easier to shoot with two hands, but you’ll be a much better shooter in the long run with one.”

I shot another airball, and he nodded.

“Good. Nice wrist flip.”

“Really?” I said. “That looked terrible!”

James just smiled.

I huffed. “How long did it take you?”

“To do what? Make a shot?”

I nodded.

“I went oh-for-two,” he said.

“You missed your first two shots? I’ve already missed more than that.”

“No, dude, I missed every shot my first two practices. Then I quit. I could see that basketball was not my sport. I was already pretty good at wheelchair track-and-field, why do something I was bad at?” He put up a shot from the free-throw line. Swish.

“Yep,” James said. “I went home and cried. Told my parents I was done with basketball. They said, ‘Just go to one more practice, give it one more try. If you still hate it, you can quit.’ That’s all I wanted to do, make it through that one more practice, so I could quit.”

He rolled out to the top of the key, spun his chair, and tossed up a twenty-footer. It looked so easy. Long arc. Another swish. “That was four years ago,” he said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Something clicked. I realized I loved basketball. Everything about it. Even the stuff I couldn’t do. Especially the stuff I couldn’t do.”

That seemed weird. I used to be good at one thing, shooting, and that’s all I ever practiced.

“How did you finally…”

“Make a basket?” he said. “Well, that third practice, we scrimmaged and I had a couple wide-open layups, but I passed off. Trooper blew his whistle. He said, ‘James, I like the way you get to the hoop. Next time you have an open shot and don’t take it, you owe me five laps around the court.”

He tossed me the ball.

“So I shot. And missed. Easy shots. Every miss, Trooper said, ‘Beautiful, keep shooting, unless you want to do laps.’ My teammates kept passing me the ball and saying, ‘Shoot, James!’ It got to be like a joke, a fun thing. That felt good.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a ball coming at me. I turned and caught it just before it smacked me in the side of the head. I tossed it back to that girl from my school. “Sorry!” she said. “Hot Rod got a little crazy with his passing.”

“I can tell you’ve played a lot of ball,” James said, nodding. “Most guys, that pass hits ’em in the head. I bet you’d be good with pick-and-rolls, like where you have to see stuff and work the ball around, get open shots for everyone on the team. You’ll catch on to the shooting, but shooting’s just one part of the game, right?”

Wrong. For Cooper the Hooper, shooting was 100 percent of the game. I passed only when necessary. It’s not like I was a selfish player. My old teammates wanted me to shoot.

The coach’s whistle cut through the air.

“Circle up, guys and gals,” Trooper said, and the six other players formed a half circle at midcourt. “Quick introduction before we get started. This is Carlos Cooper. He’s played a lot of basketball, but this is his first look at wheelchair ball. James, while I go get the clock ready, would you please give Carlos a rundown on our scroungy cast of characters?”

Awkward. Why spend time on big introductions when I was just visiting?

“All right, Carlos, you know me. James Douglas. I’m the old man on this team, I’ve been playing four years now. This is Hayley O’Brien. We call her Nails, because of her nails”—she held up her hands to show her fingernails, painted in bright, curving patterns—“and because she’s our toughest rebounder. You know, like, tough as nails?”

Hayley didn’t look tough. Not very big, with pale skin and long, dark red hair. She smiled and nodded at me.

Next was a kid with really light blond hair, spiky on top and maybe bleached. He was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

“That’s Ronnie Barnes. Ronnie plays our music before and after practices on his speakers, so we call him DJ. That’s the shorter version. Full nickname: DJ Gluten Free, because of his diet. No donuts for DJ.”

“Next, Mia Brooks.” The girl from my school. “She uses a chair only part-time. The rules say you can play if you have a disability that prevents you from playing able-bodied basketball, so we lucked out on that. I should warn you now about Mia’s screens.”

“We call her the Reject,” DJ said. “You’ll learn all our secrets eventually.”

She smiled like she was proud of that nickname, and said, “Hi, Carlos. I’m in your math class.”

“Oh, right,” I said, which came out sounding kind of dumb, but she smiled anyway.

James continued. “Then there’s Hot Rod Henderson. His real name is Harold, but he prefers Hot Rod, and who can blame him? Hot Rod is our intellectual.”

Hot Rod wore dark-rim glasses, like a super serious student, and his dark black hair came down almost to his shoulders.

“Yeah,” Hot Rod said, “Trooper calls me ‘the English Poet.’ Be careful around here, Carlos. If you read a book, these people think you’re like a rocket scientist.”

“Yeah,” Mia said, “but one of those books you read is the encyclopedia.”

The next kid blurted, “And Hot Rod’s the only one on our team who even knows what IQ stands for.”

James said, “That’s Joe Borowski. Joe doesn’t even know how to spell IQ. We call him Jellybean. Or just Beans. Guess what his favorite snack is?”

“Ding Dongs,” Jellybean said sarcastically.

James clapped his hands. “Well, that’s our crew, Carlos. By the way, Coach has two rules: play hard and have fun. So, here we go. Ready, guys?”

Everyone reached out and held hands around the circle. I hesitated, but James grabbed one hand and DJ—was it DJ?—grabbed the other.

James said, “One—two—three…”

Everyone shouted, “Buccaneers!”

I felt like I was being initiated into a club I didn’t ask to join. I looked up at the clock on the wall. It said 9:20, which meant it was broken, and I wouldn’t be able to see how much closer I was to getting out of this jail. It was going to be a long four hours.




NO PLACE TO HIDE

TROOPER BLEW HIS WHISTLE AND SAID, “LET THE FUN begin! Two lines for layups.”

I headed off the court, figuring I would watch for a while, but James grabbed my chair and gently spun it around toward the court, smiling and motioning with his head, like, C’mon!

Of course I airballed every layup. But thanks to a couple things James had showed me, I was getting a bit more height on the shots. Still a mile from the rim, though.

We ran some passing drills. I didn’t mess up too bad there. Then Trooper said, “Let’s scrimmage.”

One of the parents ran the clock and scoreboard. Since there were seven kids, counting me, Trooper scrimmaged with us, along with one of the dads and Hayley’s big sister. They were in chairs, too. They were able-bodied, but I guess because they did this a lot, they could really maneuver, much better than I could.

I flashed back to playground games. When we chose up sides, I was always a captain, or the first guy picked. There was always the kid who got picked last, some uncoordinated dweeb.

Now that kid was me.

I had no clue why, but I was expecting everyone to kind of take it easy, because we were all wheelchair kids. I was so wrong. These kids got after it, crashing and pushing. Lots of contact, chairs colliding.

I tried to stay as far away from the action as I could, but I wasn’t even good at doing that.

On one play, Hot Rod stole a pass. He took off downcourt, dribbling, picking up speed. He was almost to the hoop, about to shoot, when Mia cut in front of him at an angle. They crashed, their chairs went over, and Hot Rod and Mia wound up on the floor.

I froze. What now? Is there a doctor?

“Foul on Mia,” Trooper said. “Good hustle, Mia, but you didn’t establish position. If you don’t have time to get in front of Hot Rod, you have to either contest his shot from the side or try to ride him away from the basket. You can’t just cut directly in front of him. That’s a blocking foul. And Hot Rod, if you see you’re going to get fouled, put up a shot, make it a shooting foul, get yourself two free throws.”

Mia climbed back into her chair, and she and James helped Hot Rod back into his. Like it was no big deal. It was a big deal to me. Now I had something else to worry about: falling.

Trooper must have noticed the look on my face.

“Carlos,” he said, “in a game, if a player falls, the refs do not stop play unless the player is in a position to get hurt, like if he’s in the middle of the action. Otherwise, play continues. You get back into your chair on your own, or with the help of teammates.”

I didn’t have to wait long to find out about falling. A few minutes later, Hot Rod in-bounded the ball to James, who drove around Jellybean and headed to the hoop. All I had to do was spin away from the guy I was guarding, James’s dad, and pick up James. I’d never been much for playing defense, saving my energy for shooting, but I knew the basics.

I spun my chair around and started to push over a couple feet to cut off James, but he was coming too fast. I tried to bail out, back off, but it was too late. James crashed into my chair and knocked it over.

Ever since the accident, people had kind of treated me like I was fragile, and you get used to that. Now here I was crashing to the floor. I wasn’t hurt, and I tried to kind of smile like it was no big deal, but I was shaken up.

“Good idea, Carlos,” Trooper said. “Just a little late, but good idea helping out.”

James and Hot Rod reached down to help me back into my chair. I looked over at the bleachers where the parents were sitting. None of them were paying much attention to the scrimmage; they were all talking—except for my aunt. She was on her feet, her mouth and eyes wide open.

I tried to wave at her, like, I’m fine, but she started onto the court.

One of the moms touched Rosie’s arm and said something to her. The two of them walked out of the gym, Rosie glancing over her shoulder all the way.

James saw me watching my aunt leave.

“Coffee, Carlos,” he said. “My mom’s taking your mom out for a coffee.”

“My, uh, aunt doesn’t drink coffee,” I said.

James said, “When a kid is new here, their parents worry about them getting hurt. The other parents just need to explain the deal—that a few bruises are part of the game.”

I thought, Maybe somebody should take me out for coffee.

We kept scrimmaging. I was getting tired. And confused. Basketball had always been easy. But this? This was hard. It was a lot of work pumping the chair up and down the court. I had always hated to sit on the bench, and hardly ever did, but now all I wanted to do was get off the court and be invisible. Like I was at my new school.

I looked at the clock. The hands still hadn’t moved. Time was standing still.

“Coach,” I said. “Can I go out for a quick rest?”

It sounded weird to hear myself say that. I’d never asked to come out of a game in my life.

“Okay, Carlos,” Trooper said. “Let me know when you’re ready to go back in. The more scrimmage time you get, the better.” And he called in one of the parents to take my spot.

Whew, I was safe. But during the next stop in action, Mia rolled over to me with a big smile and said, “Hey, Carlos, I need to get a bandage on this scratch on my arm. Jump in and take my place, okay?”

“Uh, I’m just k-kind of watching,” I stuttered. And I never stutter.

“Then kinda watch James,” she said, still smiling. “He’s right-handed, but he likes to go to his left.”

Mia pushed past me, then looked back and said, “Carlos? Welcome to the team!”

She turned back around before I could say something stupid about how I’m not really on the team.

The only thing more embarrassing than hiding on the sideline? Backing down from a challenge. So because of Mia, there I was, back on the court—exactly where I didn’t want to be. Every time someone threw me a pass, I got rid of it as fast as I could, even when I was near the hoop and the coach and the kids on my team were yelling, “Shoot! Shoot!”

A minute later, Mia rolled back onto the court. I didn’t see a bandage on her arm. Before I could head for the sidelines, the extra parent rolled off the court. I was stuck.

Mia passed me the ball. I was open from five feet, but I threw it back to her. Hot Rod intercepted the pass and took off for an easy fast-break layup. Dang, that kid is really quick.

We took a water break. Mia rolled up next to me. “Carlos, when you have an open shot, you should shoot.”

“I’m not a very good shooter,” I mumbled.

“If you don’t shoot, the other team will stop guarding you. They’ll double-team one of us, and that will jam us up.”

She rolled away. What was her constant smile all about? And why was I suddenly taking basketball lessons from a girl I barely knew?

Trooper huddled us up and said, “You know what time it is, right?”

Time for practice to be over, please, I thought, looking up at the broken clock.

“Lecture time!” Jellybean said, and everyone jokingly groaned.

Trooper laughed and nodded.

“A friendly reminder about my unfriendly side. For most of you, grading periods are coming up. Whether or not that’s the case, you will get good grades, Cs or better, with zero unexcused absences, or you won’t play.”

The coach looked from face to face.

“You’ve heard this speech before—except for you, Carlos—but please do not tune me out. For kids with disabilities, many teachers will cut you slack for poor performance in the classroom, or for missing school. Many people will do that kind of thing out of sympathy for a disabled youngster. I am not one of those people.”

He looked around the circle.

“If you have any problems, your parents are smarter than you think, and I have a twenty-four-hour hotline. I care, but I don’t coddle. You’ll get more than enough of that. Am I clear on the school thing?”

Everyone nodded.

“Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourselves. And for your teammates. We now return to regularly scheduled programming. Let’s play some more basketball.”

I knew I couldn’t ask Coach for any more breaks. Too embarrassing. Also embarrassing: staying in. I was inventing new ways to screw up—fumbling the ball, losing my man on defense, forgetting to dribble. I could not get the hang of the dribble.

The rule is, you dribble the ball one time, put it on your lap, and take two cranks on your wheels, then you have to dribble again before you can crank again. Bounce-push-push, bounce-push-push. Simple.

Unless you’ve never done it.

One time I tried to bounce twice in a row, and James stole the second dribble. The next time I dribbled, then swerved left to avoid Jellybean coming to guard me. I went one way and the ball went the other. Then I pounded a dribble and leaned over the side of my chair so far that the ball bounced up and clanged off my forehead.

Time was running out on our scrimmage game. My team was down by a point. Mia got a defensive rebound; I was out above the top of the key, trying not to be involved, but my old basketball instincts kicked in: a scoring opportunity.

I spun my chair and sprinted toward the other end of the court. Mia saw me all alone, ahead of everyone, and threw a long, high pass that bounced once before I caught it over my left shoulder. I was concentrating hard. Bounce-push-push. Bounce-push-push.

As I got to our free-throw line, I saw James on my right, sprinting toward me at an angle, going twice as fast as me.

I was toast.

I took one more dribble and gave my wheels a hard crank, but James caught up with me. Just before our chairs collided, I flipped the ball back over my head without looking. I wasn’t showing off, I just didn’t have time to look. Luckily for me, Mia was there, and she made the easy five-footer.

Whistle.

“That’s it,” Trooper said. “Blue wins. Nice pass, Carlos. Nice shot, Mia.”

James rolled over to me, nodding. His team lost, so they had to do five laps, but he still held up his hand for a high five.

Mia rolled over and put out her fist for a bump.

“Great pass, Carlos. Next time I’ll pass to you. And you’d better shoot.”

She was smiling. I think.

My aunt had returned from her coffee trip, and she came right over to me.

“You’re still in one piece, mijo,” she said, looking me over to make sure. “Let’s go get something to eat.”




PANCAKES

THE WAITRESS PUT THE PLATE OF PANCAKES DOWN in front of me. On the top pancake was a happy face—strawberry eyes, banana-slice nose, whipped-cream smile. I was already in a bad mood; now I was getting pancakes for a six-year-old?

Rosie laughed and said, “Look, Carlos, it’s a mirror!”

“Here, I’ll fix that,” Uncle Augie said, reaching over and using his knife to make the whipped-cream smile into a frown. Then he speared one of the strawberry eyes with his fork and popped it into his mouth. “Now your pancake is winking.”

I didn’t want to laugh, but I couldn’t help it.

Genre:

  • Praise for Bouncing Back:

"A wonderful story of friendship and the unique ability of kids to overcome a challenge. Inspiring for young athletes and non-athletes alike."—Mitch Albom, #1 New York Times bestselling author; Sports Columnist, Detroit Free Press; panelist, ESPN's The Sports Reporters
  • "My old friend Scott Ostler has always written a sports column informed by humor and heart. Now he gives us a novel about a boy, and his teammates, who will get into your heart and won't get out."—Mike Lupica, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Heat and Travel Team
  • * "The multi-tiered plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging, and the wheelchair basketball is a unique premise, but the real draw in this debut novel from sportswriter Ostler are the vivid descriptions of basketball action. Of equal interest to boys and girls, this strikes just the right notes about teamwork, friendship, and acceptance."—Booklist, starred review
  • "Enjoyable.... Perfect for middle grade fans of Mike Lupica."—School Library Journal
  • "A sports story that's as heartwarming as it is action-packed."—Kirkus Reviews
  • On Sale
    Oct 13, 2020
    Page Count
    304 pages
    ISBN-13
    9780316524766

    Scott Ostler

    About the Author

    Scott Ostler is a sports columnist forthe San Francisco Chronicle, and previously for the Los Angeles Times. He has been voted California Sportswriter of the Year fourteen times. Ostler has covered major sports all over the world, and his writing has been published in national publications from Sports Illustrated to Parenting. Scott is the author of five nonfiction books for adults; Bouncing Back is his debut novel.

    Learn more about this author