Rasheed’s sweatband dripped as he ran back down the court. Though he and AJ were outnumbered three to two, they still held their own against Dwight, Jerome, and PeEll. The NBA season was over and this was the first of several pick-up basketball games the five stars planned to enjoy over the summer. The sixth man, Josh, was unable to make it, but that was fine with Rasheed. It gave him that many more touches and forced him to work harder than he normally would for a non-league game.
The three men on the opposing team spread across the floor. AJ took the left side, Rasheed the right. Jerome, at point, faked to the left, then whipped the ball to PeEll in the right corner. Rasheed groaned as he again felt like a clumsy fool, having shifted with the fake and being way out of position to stop the three-pointer. The cocky smile on Jerome’s face didn’t help much.
“Time for a break,” AJ called as he walked over to retrieve the ball.
Jerome stopped backing down court. “I’m for that.” He came alongside Rasheed and tapped him on the arm. “Still too good for ya, huh?”
Rasheed smiled at his friend. “No one else in the NBA can stop that fake and pass of yours either, but someday I’ll figure you out.”
“You guard me as well as most, so don’t get too down on yourself.”
“Yeah, but if you’d just be more consistent. Sometimes you fake, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you fake twice and shoot. I can never tell if it’s a fake or not until I’m committed.”
“You want me to yell it out next time?”
“It would help,” Rasheed chuckled, throwing his sweatband under the bench and bending to retrieve a fresh one from his bag. That’s when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up.
Ugly shoes, long skinny legs, shorts that looked as if they would fall off if not for the belt holding them up, a forty-something FedEx delivery man with a clipboard stood at the edge of the court watching him. Funny, Rasheed hadn’t seen him before. He nodded and reached back for his bag.
“Say,” the man inquired, “aren’t you Rasheed Walker?”
Great, Rasheed thought, another groupie wanting an autograph. He smiled, however, as he stood with his clean sweatband and turned to face the man. “Yep, that’s me.”
“I thought so. I’ve seen you play. You’re pretty good, but that other guy sure faked you out on that pass.”
Rasheed still smarted from the memory, and this didn’t help. “You think you could do any better?” he blurted out.
“I could do better than you did.”
Mouth open, Rasheed stared at him. This man was a nothing, driving a delivery truck around town for a living. Maybe in his dreams he could play basketball, but even then not in the same class as he and his friends.
“You’re one man short,” the man continued. “I’ve got about ten minutes more on my break.” He looked expectantly at Rasheed, fingers on the top button of his shirt, eyebrows raised, crooked smile on his face.
Not knowing what else to do, Rasheed finally shrugged. “It’s your funeral,” he muttered as he turned to break the news to the other guys.
“You did what?” Jerome asked in shock, glaring over his shoulder as the FedEx man tossed his shirt across the bench.
“I don’t know,” Rasheed replied sheepishly. “When he said he could guard you better than me, I kinda lost my head. Look, let’s humor the guy, run his tail off, and send him on his way a much wiser and humbler man. He said he only has ten minutes, anyway.”
“Fine, but if he has a heart attack or breaks a leg out there, it’s all your fault.”
Rasheed hadn’t thought of that. Maybe they’d better take it easy on the guy.
“Hey, I’m ready,” the FedEx man called out as he reached for the ball and took a couple of tentative dribbles with it. “I sure appreciate you guys letting me play.”
“No problem,” Rasheed said, walking onto the floor. “You guard Jerome there since you think you can do a better job than me. Do you know what man-to-man coverage is?”
“Sure. That’s all we ever played back in the neighborhood.”
Oh, good, Rasheed thought, he’s never played organized basketball. “Do the best you can with him. If you get tired, just let him go and wait for the ball to come back.”
“I’ll remember that.” Stepping behind the line, the man fired an inbound pass to Rasheed.
A little surprised by the speed of the pass, Rasheed dribbled the ball down the court. “What do we call you?” he asked as the man ran past him toward the left corner.
“Just call me FedEx.”
Jerome ignored the man and came out to double team Rasheed. Without thinking, Rasheed reached out and bounce-passed the ball to FedEx. Both teams stopped to watch the fun.
FedEx caught the ball. In one fluid motion, with no hesitation that Rasheed could see, he turned and buried a three-pointer from the corner.
“Your ball,” he said as he ran back past Jerome, standing motionless, watching in disbelief as the ball bounced beneath the basket.
“Way to go!” AJ yelled as he ran down court to join FedEx. “Now watch out for Jerome’s fake and pass.”
“Will do,” he yelled back, concentrating on Jerome dribbling the ball toward him.
It was obvious that after FedEx’s basket, Jerome wasn’t going to give this man much slack. Sure enough, Jerome faked a pass to PeEll, then whipped the ball toward Dwight.
Out of nowhere, FedEx leapt into the passing lane and batted the ball away. No one moved as he picked it up and dribbled back down court for a perfect lay-in.
Jerome once again jogged down court to retrieve the ball bouncing under the basket. “You got lucky that time,” he muttered to FedEx as they passed.
Jerome returned with the ball, moving toward the middle where FedEx waited just inside the arc, arms and feet widespread. This time Jerome faked to Dwight, faked to PeEll, then in one continuous motion, fired a bullet pass toward PeEll. Again, FedEx was there to intercept the pass and charge down the court, this time stopping just past mid-court and swishing another three-pointer.
“How’d you do that?” Jerome yelled in frustration as he once again went to retrieve the ball.
“I’d like to know that, too,” Rasheed said as FedEx reached him.
“Easy. Just watch his shoulders. Most people, you want to watch their eyes, but not Jerome. That’s why he’s so good at it; people watch his eyes. His eyes deceive you, but not his shoulders. He always swings ‘em toward his target just before he passes.”
Jerome was back down the court, but before reaching FedEx, he lobbed a high pass to PeEll streaking toward the basket for an easy dunk.
“Nice pass,” FedEx said as he stepped aside to take the inbound pass from Rasheed. “Mind if I take it down?”
Rasheed hustled past. “Be my guest. You can take point against Jerome.”
FedEx smiled. Jerome grunted.
Almost to Jerome, FedEx exploded into action. He took a quick behind-the-back dribble to the left, then spun and dribbled back to the right and around a flabbergasted Jerome for an easy lay-in.
Jerome never hesitated. He took the inbound pass from PeEll and charged down the court. Dwight was in the corner, PeEll streaking down the sideline, FedEx waiting as before. No fake this time. Just before he would have run FedEx down, Jerome whipped the ball behind his back toward PeEll. It never reached him.
FedEx again had the ball, but instead of dribbling it back down court, he spun in the air and whizzed a cross-court pass to Dwight who, once the surprise wore off, shot and made the basket.
Everyone was laughing except Jerome as FedEx again brought the ball down court.
“I think I saw that shoulder thing,” Rasheed called as he took his position on the left side of the arc. Everyone ignored him as they watched to see what FedEx would do next.
This time he dribbled the ball between his legs to the left, then spun back to the right. Jerome was ready and shifted with him. PeEll came over to help out, forcing Dwight to move toward the middle to cover AJ. Rasheed found himself a spectator watching the action as it moved away from him.
Suddenly the ball was flying straight toward him. He had seen little more than a blur behind the back of FedEx as Jerome and PeEll closed in on him. Yet, somehow, he now had the ball with no other player within twenty feet. Judging by the looks on the faces of his friends, they were as surprised as he was.
With no one around him, Rasheed took his time to refocus. He bounced the ball once, squared his shoulders, took a breath, and swished a three pointer.
Rasheed’s smile was as broad as Jerome’s frown. “Hey, let me take Jerome this time,” he called out to FedEx. “I want to try that shoulder thing.”
“Think you can handle him? It’ll take some practice.”
“I’m ready to try.”
“Great, because I have to get back to work. Can’t be late delivering my packages, you know.”
The five NBA stars watched as FedEx jogged over and grabbed his shirt and clipboard. “Thanks for letting me play,” he called over his shoulder as he hurried toward the door.
“Who was that guy?” Jerome asked no one in particular, a look of bewilderment still on his face as he stared after the man.
“Let’s ask him.” Rasheed responded, starting after FedEx.
“Wait!” he called out, but the man just raised his hand and continued through the door to the parking lot outside.
They ran after him, charging through the door not five seconds after it closed behind the man. “Wait,” Rasheed called again, “we want…”
The parking lot was empty. There was no sign of the man who had just left. There was no FedEx truck. There was nothing to be seen but a small whirlwind of dust drifting across the pavement.
“But…” Jerome muttered, now looking more confused than ever.
The men stepped out into the parking lot, looking around for any other doorways he could have disappeared into. Nothing.
“But…” Jerome started again.
“Impossible,” AJ replied.
“Were we dreaming?” PeEll asked.
Rasheed smiled at Jerome. “Maybe he was an angel sent by God to show me how to stop your pass.”
“That wouldn’t be fair.”
“Well, there’s one way to find out. Let’s go play basketball.”