Not Backing Down
Jerry Riley truly lived the good life. So big in the dope game that he hadn’t laid eyes on the product in forever. He did all this while fronting as a businessman.
Believe it or not, he was even a deacon at his local church. The man was so good at fooling people guess he thought he could fool God too.
There were lots of men like J.R. out there counting blood money with clean hands while others were hunted down like animals for doing the same things on a smaller level. With his every move covered, J.R. had a lot of time and money to do whatever he wanted. The man would have been on a street corner betting on a dice game between hustlers. Instead, he traveled all over NC attending high school basketball games.
In 2017 and 2018, J.R. lost over seventy thousand on a couple of State Championship games. Was it Karma? Around that same time, his used car dealership was exposed for selling lemons. Plus the criminals he hired to work at his plumbing company were stupid and did a lot of half-ass work driving customers away.
Even the dope game was causing him to take losses. J.R. could have fixed that part. Instead, he was a coward, afraid to meet with the right people. Next thing you know the poor guy’s wife files for divorce citing infidelity.
Behind closed doors, he made jokes about paying someone a lot of money to make her death look like an accident. Everyone around him witnessed his mind unraveling.
The 2019 State Championship game was coming up and this season J.R. decided he’d take a more hands-on approach to win. Instead of betting on the two time defending champions, Western Harnett Eagles, J.R. decided to bet on the underdogs again, being his home team, the North Mecklenburg Vikings.
The Eagles won their first State Championship against the Vikings. J.R. lost fifty thousand on that game.
The next year another team played Western Harnett in the Championship game. J.R, still holding a grudge, was quick to throw down twenty thousand against the Eagles and lost again.
That year, with his Vikings getting a rematch, J.R. figured he’d leave Charlotte and visit Harnett County. The plan was to meet with a very athletic and talented young man from Shaw Town, NC.
For Harris Woods to attend Western Harnett, his mother got up and drove him to school every day. She never thought much of Harris’ dreams of playing pro basketball. But damned if the boy wasn’t doing his thing so far.
Two State Championships in a row, Harris was the second-best player as underclassman during the first title run. The following season, he won MVP of the tournament.
Harris looked up to Kobe Bryant, mimicked his jump-shot plus had that natural Mamba mentality.
More than his success on the court, his mother admired who he was as a person. She had another son who decided to live a fast life. Jamal was out there feeling out-shined by his more athletic little brother. He was always on some outlaw shit but never absent from his mother’s prayers.
Harris never tried living that life. He was good-hearted and compassionate. Not once did he look down on his teammates. But he didn’t want the teachers fixing his grades so he could play basketball. No, he actually wanted to study and learn. Harris knew nothing was promised on the court, not with so many talented players to never see the spotlight.
Whatever happened, Harris would make it in life and never fall into the trap his brother fell into. He definitely never looked down on Jamal. Watching Lakers games with his bro is how he got interested in basketball in the first place. Needless to say, Jamal was never absent from his little brother’s prayers either.
With the 3rd State Championship game in a row coming up, Harris’s mind was on basketball a lot. It threw him off when one of his neighbors approached him asking if he’d gotten in any kind of trouble. Squinting his eyes, Harris asked, “Ole no, but why do you ask?”
The word was that a white man was at the store. A square who looked like the police asking everyone how to find Harris Woods.
Thinking it over, Harris said, “If it was the police they’d gladly come up in the school to get me, so I don’t think it’s them.” Joking around, he said, “Besides, I haven’t done anything wrong, unless they’re gonna charge me with larceny for all those steals I’ve been getting on the court this year.” Harris was humble, laughing, and tapping his neighbor on the shoulder.
Instead of meeting with Harris, that piece of shit J.R. found out where his mother worked. He approached her outside a factory during her break. Saying he was a major fan of her son and wanted to meet him. Straightening the tie he wore, J.R. said, “My name is Jerry Riley, by the way, and I didn’t want to bother Harris at school.
Confused, his mother asked, “Are you a college recruiter? Because you know my son’s only a junior right?”
Being totally honest for once in his life, he said, “Ma’am, I’m not a college recruiter. I’m just someone willing to give your family a lot of money if Harris throws the game coming up against the North Mecklenburg Vikings.”
Laughing out loud, Vivian Woods said, “First of all, I’m sure you’ll make more money on it than us. Second, I know my son and he would look at that like selling his soul. So, you just get outta here and place your bet on the Western Harnett Eagles, baby.”
J.R. said, “Mrs. Woods, I was trying to help you. My other ideas, well I don’t think you’ll like those very much.”
Vivian asked him, “Are you threatening me?”
With a shit-eating grin, J.R. said, “You can contact the authorities about this matter. But even behind bars I’ve got people paid off with full knowledge of your family’s whereabouts.”
Nobody was willing to kill an ant for Jerry Riley, but he put on a big act and actually managed to intimidate the woman. Yet, if they’d thrown hands, bet your money on Vivian because she would have whooped his skinny little twerp ass.
When Harris found out what happened he was devastated. Yet, glad to figure out what was up with the white guy looking for him. Faced with this crisis the first thing Harris did was contact Coach C.
Mitch Carson was deep and kind, he actually cared about his players. He was a History teacher who idolized Coach K from Duke the same way Harris looked up to Kobe Bryant.
Coach C claimed that meant being honorable both on and off the court. Always brutally honest, C admitted that his program was no longer honorable. Not with the guys playing because their grades were fixed. He reached out to each of them, explained to them how important it was to get their education. Coach C even offered to tutor them in his spare time.
When Harris called him about the threats against his family’s lives, he made sure to tell Coach C that going to the cops was out of the question. Immediately C put his player first, saying, “If we have to, we’ll just throw the game.”
That touched Harris’s heart, but really he was just calling the coach to talk with him about it. Tell him he’d already spoken with his teammates and that the Western Harnett Eagles weren’t throwing anything but sharp, crisp, on-point passes in the State Championship game.
C asked if he was sure. Harris said, “Yes.”
Coach C said, “Alright, so let’s make this happen again.”
Despite them winning back to back championships, C made sure to keep them thinking they were the underdogs. The team to beat gets everyone’s best shot. So if they didn’t stay hungry, someone else would eat off the plate they wanted.
The night before the game, Vivian had a talk with her son. She said, “We didn’t take the money so now they’re gonna have to kill us, right?”
Grabbing Harris’s hands, she squeezed them tight and said, “Either way you’re gonna go out a champion baby.”
Letting his hands go, she was out of character going for a high five and saying, “Three-peat bitch!”
Harris said, “Momma, you crazy,” and gave her a huge hug.
The family tried to keep quiet about everything but it was impossible. And the day of the Championship game everyone could sense the black clouds hovering over that high school gymnasium despite the bright sun they saw.
The game took place in Raleigh, so neither team would have a home-court advantage. While warming up during shootarounds, Harris had his heart touched again when his big brother showed up out of no where with close to thirty Folk goons with him. Of course, security called the police, and half of them couldn’t get in. Jamal told them to leave peacefully.
The whole thing was his way of showing those fucking crackers what would happen if anyone harmed his mother or his little brother. He and his Folk superior all sat with his mother. It was the closest Vivian had ever been to a gang.
She spotted J.R. when he walked in wearing his North Mecklenburg High t-shirt and hat with sunglasses. Vivian didn’t tell Jamal, knowing he was a live wire and might ruin the whole game. She was wrong because as long as everyone stayed in line, Jamal was only eager to see his little bro do his thing and get his third championship. True, he used to feel a little outshined but he was still proud, telling everyone his little brother was a star basketball player.
Showing more trust in Harris, Vivian pointed out J.R. to him.
Right before tip-off, a couple of Viking players tried to check Harris at half court. One of them pushed him and right away his teammates came to his aid.
When the ball went up in the air, Harris grabbed the tip-off. Going straight to the rim, he rocked it with a thunderous reverse dunk then looked at the man sitting in the bleachers wearing sunglasses and flexed his muscles with both arms, just to let him know the Eagles weren’t backing down.
Coach C normally would have yelled at him saying, “Don’t showboat!” But he knew the heart Harris brought to this game and couldn’t fault him.
Harris played like a man possessed, stealing the ball, and blocking shots. He even stepped in and took charges.
Scoring wise, he was on fire, knocking down all four threes he took, plus three more dunks during fast breaks.
At half time, Western was up by fifteen. Jerry Riley, dear old JR, removed his sunglasses. Staring across the court, he made eye contact with Vivian. He dragged his finger slowly across his throat, as a way of further intimidating her. Yet, he got up and walked out, knowing he’d blown another fifty thousand betting against Western and there really wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
Harris started the second half picking up where he left off. Steals, dunks, and threes. Before you knew it, Western was up by 29 points. No backing down, no looking back, they built a 36 point lead before Coach C put in his second and third-string players.
The first two championships were tight, nail biters. Going down to the wire. This time it felt good to pull a blowout.
Walking off the court when the game was over, Harris hugged his mother then Jamal. After that, he found Coach C and thanked him for offering to throw the game if they needed to.
C said, “This is just a game and I would have done the same thing for any of you.”
Harris grabbed Coach and gave him this huge almost bear hug and said, “I know you would.”
Once Harris let him go, he reminded C that they have to win this thing again, at least one more time in 2020.
They bump fists together and C said, “We’ll be ready when the time comes.”
Harris didn’t know tragedy was coming and that he’d be dedicating the next one to the memory of the Mamba, Kobe Bryant. R.I.P.
Robert Ragan, from Lillington North Carolina, has had short fiction published online at Vext Magazine, Punk Noir Magazine, Yellow Mama Webzine, Synchronized Chaos, and Terror House Magazine. In January 2020, he had his second short story collection, It’s Only Art, published by Alien Buddha Press.