Phil DeMartano and his son, Mark, scraped ice off the windshield as the truck warmed. The shrillness invaded the quiet neighborhood. Phil never got used to the profound loneliness of 4:30 in the morning; he imagined everyone else in the world sleeping, and waking with the sun. Having Mark with him helped, especially since his wife, Sue, passed last year. Phil was still squeezing sleep from his eyes as they drove out of Chittenango, onto the thruway toward Syracuse. Mark, however, was fidgety and alert. Phil figured it had to do with the pills Mark and the other young guys at the factory took to endure the long hours. Phil considered Mark a man now, bearded and hardened, unrecognizable from his childhood. Phil let him alone about the pills, and everything else.
“Still can’t believe we’re going to the game tonight,” Mark said, digging the fingers into the scruff of his beard. “Syracuse usually plays well in the tournament.”
“They’ll blow it. They always do.” Phil noted his cynicism, but was too tired to add something upbeat.
“At least we can watch them blow it courtside,” Mark said. “Uncle Sal’s got to have good seats.”
Phil’s brother-in-law Sal was a successful lawyer in Syracuse, and a good guy, despite his opinions on how to finance Sue’s medical bills. Yesterday, Sal had called Phil and told him he couldn’t make the Big East tournament game, and offered them the tickets.
“Listen,” Phil said. “Try not to tell anyone at work that we’re going. If Fleming gets wind of it, we could be in trouble.”
Mark breathed deeply through his nose at mention of Fleming, their manager. “What?” he seethed. “So now we can’t do shit on our own time without that motherfucker getting involved?”
Mark got angry at the smallest things lately. Or maybe it was longer than lately.
“Look,” Phil said steadily. “The drive to Manhattan is about four hours from here, and the game’ll probably end at midnight. We don’t want him to know we’ve been driving all night to get back for our shift tomorrow.”
The downtown Syracuse skyline soon came into view, halflit and dreamy against the purple sky.
Salt-rusted trucks and screeching, rattling cars filed into the parking lot at Mohawk for the 5 AM shift. Many employees traveled from as far West as Rochester, or as far East as Albany. No one dared be late, not with Mohawk looking for more people to lay off. A wave of a hundred had gotten the ax just before Christmas.
Mark saw some of the younger guys at the plant entrance and went off to join them. They called him D-Mart, just as the boys on his high school basketball team had. Every time he heard the nickname, Phil thought of watching Mark play. He’d been good, maybe the second-best player on the team. He was long and lean, and a good three-point shooter. Phil took special pride in what Mark’s coach had said about him: Mark was the hardest working player on the team.
Luke and Grant, old dogs who’d been there as long as Phil, caught up with him, carrying similar coolers. They hardly acknowledged each other, but their tired bodies gathered together, and they proceeded in a soulful cadence.
The line of men and women punched in, and soon the factory hummed and clattered. Phil assumed his position between Luke and Grant, and then his body took over, feeding sheets of aluminum into the machine, yanking the lever to punch the sheet, pulling out the tray and pushing it down the line. These were the motions his muscles enacted; Phil himself wasn’t needed. He could drift elsewhere, talk politics and sports with Luke and Grant. He often joked with them that if he was knocked in the head and suffered brain damage, they could just wheel his old ass up to this machine and his body would know what to do.
This morning, Mr. Fleming, the floor manager, made his rounds more regularly. It took effort to hate Fleming. His two sons had been abducted about fifteen years ago. The youngest never made it back, and the one that survived had become a townie and a menace. Still, it was mostly Fleming’s decision whom to lay off, and he did it without compassion.
“You and Fleming got a date tonight?” Grant asked Phil.
Grant confirmed Phil’s suspicion: Fleming kept making eye contact with him.
“Hell if I know.”
The ten AM lunch break arrived and everyone shuffled into the cafeteria. The old guys twisted the cricks out of their backs and necks. Phil passed Fleming’s office, and Fleming leaned his long body out the door.
“Hey Phil,” he said, his Adam’s apple bouncing under his small chin. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
Phil’s palms became slick with sweat, and he tightened his grip on the cooler. He nodded and squeezed past Fleming. Phil hadn’t been in Fleming’s cluttered, closet-sized office since last year. It was then that he’d asked for a week off so that he and Mark could attend to Sue’s death. Later he’d asked if they could work overtime to pay the hospital bills that their insurance didn’t cover. Fleming had said yes to the former instantly—the company had even sent flowers to the house. Fleming had dragged his feet on the latter, but eventually, and grudgingly, gave them both another shift.
“This’ll just be a minute,” Fleming said. He picked up a paperclip and tapped it end-over-end on the desk. “Want to talk to you about your son. We did a random locker search this morning, and no surprise, found some interesting stuff. Interesting to say the least. A lot of jack-off magazines, for one. Who the hell’s jacking off at work? Why not do your business at home? Disgusting.”
Phil wanted to reach across the desk and rap Fleming’s bulbous throat for dragging this out. Phil asked, “What’d you find in Mark’s locker?”
“Four bottles of speed. He’s not the only one, either. The others I’m going to talk to the end of the day, tell them not to let the door hit’m in the ass on the way out.”
Phil looked down at his lap, the worn threads of his jeans.
“I’d can Mark too, if not for you and your… situation. You guys need this job, and I guess I don’t have the heart to deprive you.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I can talk to him if you don’t want to. I’ll haul him in here and read’m the riot act. Tell him get his nose clean, and his locker. I just thought…” Fleming sat back, pinching the paperclip into his thumbnail. “You’re his father, you know how to get through to him.”
“Yeah, no, I’ll do that.” Phil sat up in the plastic chair. “I can do that.”
“Make sure you tell’m if I catch him again—If I even suspect him….”
“I will. I appreciate it.”
Phil ate his lunch alone on a crate next to his machine. He wasn’t going to tell his friends the truth, and wasn’t much of a liar. When Luke and Grant returned from lunch, Phil told them that Fleming had wanted to discuss scheduling, and said nothing more for the rest of the shift. His head was busy thinking about how he’d bring this up with Mark. If he would.
The first shift ended at one o’clock. Grant and Luke, and most everyone else, left as the second shifters replaced them. Phil remained at the same station, and as part of their overtime agreement, Mark worked alongside Phil. Phil typically enjoyed working with Mark, even if he was careless. Today, however, Fleming came by more often, hovering behind their backs and scribbling into his clipboard. The moments alone with Mark were equally torturous, as Phil continuously searched himself for the courage to say something. He missed a good opportunity when Mark reached in too eagerly for the aluminum sheet as the machine was about to thrust, and Phil had to pull his hand away. “What’s gotten into you, lately?” he could have easily asked. But he didn’t. Mark was probably just distracted by the basketball game. He kept smiling at Phil, his eyes sparkling excitement.
At five PM, Mark and Phil punched out. Mark sprinted into the parking lot, then ran back to Phil and jumped all over him like a kid. Phil squealed the tires out of the parking lot. He filled up the tank on the way out of town, and picked up a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale and a box of Ring Dings. They listened to the pre-game coverage on the radio, drank beer—Phil limited himself to two—and made their way down the Thruway to New York City.
The long drive muted their excitement. Negotiating city traffic, finding parking, and paying for it—twice the cost of a fish basket and pitcher at the Ten Pin—ruined Phil’s mood. The cold energy of the city, however, rejuvenated them. Phil had been to New York years ago, but this was Mark’s first. Both he and his son kept their hands jammed in their pockets and chests puffed to ward off pickpockets preying on tourists. Phil, though, couldn’t contain his wonder as they neared the looming, blue-lit Garden. He drifted wide-eyed through the bright, expansive lobby toward the arena. The swarming din of the crowd thundered in Phil’s chest as he held out his ticket at the gate. Mark thumbed at the concession and shouted that he’d get some beers and hotdogs, so Phil wandered in to get a peek at the game. He stood between the balustrades at the top of the stairs and gazed at the crowd, a dizzying collage of faces and colors and movement. The basketball court glimmered bright yellow. The players’ sneakers squeaked the polished wood; the ball thumped like drumbeat. Phil looked at the massive jumbotron suspended over the players. It was nearly the size of the entire court, and a sudden fear struck him that it could fall and crush everyone underneath.
Mark arrived with a tray of beers and hotdogs. They hurried along the vacant outer corridor and found their section. Mark was excited that they didn’t have to go up any levels. “Shit, we might have good seats,” he said. Sure enough, they walked down the steps into the crowd, Mark leading the way, stepping faster the closer they got to the court. At their row, some ten yards from the action, Mark looked up at Phil, mouthing Holy Shit! Phil laughed and shook his head. They apologized as they shuffled past the others seated in their row, and sat in their seats—not aluminum benches, but actual chairs.
“This is amazing,” Mark said, chomping his hotdog.
Syracuse scored a basket and a third of the stadium roared. Most of the fans seated in their section were high class business types: men with crisp haircuts and mole-hair blazers with clean, dark jeans. The women dressed like models or actresses. Maybe they were. Phil felt eyes on his grimy Carhartt jacket and boots—they probably thought he and Mark were taking other people’s seats. Mark shouted at the refs, a bit louder than anyone else. Phil handed Mark his beer and hotdog as he took off his jacket and stuffed it under the chair; Mark did the same. Phil nodded hello to a young, black Wall Street type, wearing suit-pants and a white-collar shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. He gave Phil a curt nod, then continued texting on his phone. Phil bit into his soggy hotdog, sipped his watery beer, and focused on the court.
Phil was surprised to find that Syracuse—ranked eighth in the country—was beating third-ranked UConn by two. The Orange scored another bucket and Phil and Mark cheered. Phil was awash with a familiar anxiety. Lifelong SU fans faced years of disappointment and stress. Sure, Syracuse won games. They were often highly ranked, and sometimes, though rarely, ranked best in the country. Still, Phil recalled the countless times he’d sat on the sofa with Mark, watching SU blow a lead and lose at the last second. Phil would be crushed for the rest of the night, and not even Sue—who thought sports was pure nonsense—could console him.
SU basketball was one of the few joys for most Central New Yorkers, Phil believed. It got you through the bitter, relentless winters, and helped to distract from the scarcity of good jobs. You knew when the Orange were playing, if they were on national television, if they were at home. Sometimes you’d shell out a few extra bucks to watch them in the Carrier Dome, braving the biting cold as you trotted through the Syracuse campus. And you remembered 2003, when Carmelo Anthony took the Orange to the national championship, and won. That young freshman couldn’t have known whom he had carried on his shoulders, how high he had lifted Phil and Mark. The elation of a desperate city, the pride of those surrounding, forgotten villages. How quickly it had ended, though. When Anthony left for the NBA, the Orange went back to their frustrating play: losing the easy games, blowing the big ones, but winning enough to get to the NCAA tournament—and then getting knocked off in the first or second round. This was the time Phil and Mark needed the wins, when they found out Sue was sick, and would continue to be for years. She fought as hard as she could, and still, she lost.
Phil had since learned a lesson, though it took him long enough: he’d go into a big game expecting his team to lose, and trying not to care.
Mark smacked Phil’s arm, pulling him back into the action. He pointed to Syracuse’s small point guard dribbling the ball up the court.
“Watch Flynn,” Mark told Phil. “I bet he’s going to take it to the hole.”
Johnny Flynn advanced the ball casually until he neared his defender. He then lowered his shoulders and dribbled so low to the floor the ball hardly bounced. Phil watched him closely. He knew Flynn was capable of it, but sitting so close to the court, he had never appreciated just how small he was, especially compared to UConn’s 7-foot-3 giant of a center. Everyone on the Huskies was the epitome of agility, strength, or size. They might trail by a few points early in the game, but they would out-muscle and out-play a scrappy team like Syracuse. Still, there was Flynn, dribbling before his defender, head up, searching for his opportunity.
“Here it comes,” said Mark.
Flynn pushed the ball past his man and darted into the paint. UConn’s giant was waiting. Flynn threw his body into the big man, stunning him, making space to score. The collision sent Flynn crashing to the hardwood. The crowd went quiet. He scrambled to his feet, smiling.
The Syracuse fans erupted. Mark called at Phil, “I told you!” Phil swelled with pride that this smaller man would so fearlessly challenge someone so much larger, and best him.
Flynn played as Mark had in high school, going as fast and hard as possible until the whistle blew. He had been a favorite of his teammates and fans, who’d chant D-Mart! D-Mart! whenever Mark threw himself on the floor for a loose ball. At the end of one particular game, Mark’s teammates had to carry him off the court. Even when the bleachers were cleared, Phil had to help his son off the bench, out of the gym, and into the truck. Halfway home, Mark’s first words had been Who won? Phil didn’t have the heart to tell him it was the other team. Mark had had dreams of playing for Syracuse, just like all the other Chittenango boys with basketball hoops in their driveways. But Mark’s poor grades and Sue’s illness had beaten any drive from him.
As Phil suspected, UConn fought back to take the lead. Syracuse’s head coach, Jim Boeheim, tossed his squeeze bottle under his chair and stood to yell at his guys. He raised his hands and lifted his eyebrows to crinkle his large forehead, as if that were enough for his team to understand his disappointment. Halftime came quickly, and the Huskies were beating Syracuse 37-34.
“They’re hanging in there.” Mark stood and stretched his arms over his head.
“We’ll see.” Phil stood with him.
They watched as people walked up the stairs to the bathroom or concession. Mark pointed out a young, attractive blonde approaching. Mark shook his head when she walked past, and blew out his lips. Mark watched the crowd and pantomimed shooting a basketball—dribbling and pulling up for a jumpshot. Phil hadn’t seen his son lit up this way in a long time, and it wasn’t the pills. The two of them didn’t get out much Sundays; they went to mass in the morning, then hung out the rest of the day, sneaking cat-naps while watching TV. Occasionally Mark went out with friends, but he didn’t have a girlfriend as far as Phil knew.
As they stood watching college girls in tight shirts, Phil’s heart pounded. Here was another perfect moment when father and son were united by sports and pretty women. Phil said suddenly, “Look.” His tone was harsher than he intended, causing Mark to freeze. The smile on his face slacked, gone to his scraggly beard.
“Got to use the boy’s room,” Phil said quickly. “I’ll get more beer.”
On the way to the bathroom, Phil stopped at a booth selling souvenirs and studied the Syracuse shirts. They were expensive, but the one Mark wore had to be ten years old. Phil thumbed the cash in his wallet, then left and stood in line for the urinal. He stood in another line to buy beers and popcorn, and then stopped again at the booth.
“I’ll take a T-shirt. Medium.” He wanted Mark to have something new. It had been too long since he’d bought him anything. Phil hoped Mark could handle the pills, that they were just a phase. Mark was an adult now; he didn’t need his daddy lecturing him.
He balanced everything on his way back, and gave Mark the shirt.
“Hey, thanks Dad.” Mark held it up. On the back it said ‘Anthony’ in white, with the number 15 on the front and back. “Fucking A, Carmello.”
Mark took off his hat and shirt, flashing his hairy stomach and ribs at everyone, and put on the new one. He looked down at himself, pleased. He sniffed the fabric and smiled. Phil laughed and sipped his beer.
The players were back on the floor. A horn sounded the beginning of the second half. It started well for Syracuse. Their two big-men—Jackson and Onuaku—scored layups, then UConn pulled ahead by six points. It went back and forth, Syracuse always behind, until little Johnny Flynn got the fire in him. Phil could see it happening and it tickled him.
Flynn dared take the ball to the hoop, dense with towering defenders. Instead of shooting, however, he passed it outside to Syracuse’s best three-point shooter, Andy Rautins, who sunk a beautifully arching shot. Suddenly, the Orange were ahead 54-51. The Syracuse fans in the stadium, and those neutral spectators won over by the underdogs, exploded in frenzied cheers. Mark gave Phil an awkward, enthusiastic high-five; even the Wall Streeter slapped Phil’s hand.
Phil felt the fluttering charge of victory. He should have known better.
UConn quieted the fans with a three-pointer. The two relentless teams exchanged points for the remaining seven minutes. With 1.1 seconds left in the game, the score was tied.
Phil looked at his watch. It was a little after 11:30. To get back in time for work, they had to leave by midnight. If the game went into overtime, a five-minute period, which in basketball time meant closer to fifteen, they’d be cutting it close.
Syracuse in-bounded the ball from the far end of the court, a hurling, desperate pass. Devendorf, Syracuse’s other guard, snatched it up with .3 seconds left, and heaved an off-balanced shot. Phil felt his heart suspend interminably in the air with the ball. It came down through the hoop. The stadium roared and the Syracuse players on the bench swarmed the court. Phil leapt off the ground and hollered. He felt silly for this public display of joy, but he couldn’t believe SU had won.
“Wait a minute,” the guy next to Phil said. The refs were waving their arms. All eyes were on the jumbotron replay. The ball was just on the fingertips when time expired. Phil’s heart sank as the scoreboard removed the points. The game was still tied at 71.
“Overtime,” Wall Street said.
“Fuck,” Mark yelled, still smiling from the excitement.
Phil realized he had picked up his jacket, ready to leave. He put it back, lingering near the littered floor for a moment. Pain fired through his hamstrings and pulsed in his knees, reminding him of the factory. When he came up, he checked his watch. It was quarter to midnight.
“Typical Syracuse basketball,” Wall Street said to Phil.
“That’s what I keep telling my son.” Phil took off his hat. “I used to have a full head of hair before I started watching them play.”
Mark leaned over. “Game’s not over, fellas.”
“See what I mean?”
Phil, however, was hiding his disappointment—not with the team, but himself. He was a fool to think this would end in any way other than a loss. This wasn’t about Syracuse. Loss was part of his blood. It was what everyone must have said about his family behind his back: the DeMartanos were cursed. They’d had a good life once, before Sue died, before Mark began working with his old man, before they were in so much debt that it sickened Phil to consider the sum. To root for a win, to hold out for one, was pointless.
The players came back onto the floor.
Mark called out, “Come on SU!”
UConn took the lead. Syracuse trailed but fought hard to keep the score close. The time went by quickly, both teams taking turns scoring until, with fourteen seconds left, Syracuse was down two. Johnny Flynn had the ball. Boeheim was standing, arms crossed, leaning ever so slightly to the left. Mark was biting the rim of his hat. Phil chewed the inside corner of his mouth, trying to convince himself he didn’t care. Flynn drove the ball inside. Just as the opponents swarmed him, he snuck the ball to an open man who slammed it hard, tying the game. UConn failed to score on their next possession and time ran out.
“Another overtime!” Mark grabbed Phil’s shirt and laughed.
It was midnight. The hotdogs in Phil’s stomach roiled when he thought about getting on the road. He did the math again in hopes of finding more time: four and a half hours to get back, leaving at 12:15. He could speed. There’d be no traffic that late. They could just go straight to Mohawk, without stopping home to shower or change. Mark was chanting Let’s go Orange! with the crowd. The horn sounding the second overtime made up Phil’s mind.
Phil watched the game, wishing someone would win. It didn’t matter who. He just wanted it to end so they could leave. UConn was up two, and Phil now silently pleaded for them to stay ahead. It was a familiar betrayal, so much that he hardly registered it. Syracuse was not backing down. UConn kept scoring; Syracuse kept tying. The final seconds ticked off the clock, UConn heaved up a wild shot and missed. The score was still tied. A third overtime.
“I can’t believe this,” Wall Street said, but Phil didn’t respond. It was 12:15 and they had to go. Phil looked at his watch until Mark noticed.
“Oh shit, what time is it?”
“I think we need to hit the road.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” Mark said, grabbing for his jacket, eyes sobered with concern. “Where you guys going?” said Wall Street.
“We got to get back to Syracuse for work in the morning.” Phil hated his words, and hated Wall Street for making him say them.
They climbed the steps, and Phil noticed everyone eying them, incredulous. He focused on Mark, who was leaning heavily on the dividing rail. Mark looked over his shoulder at the court every few steps. Phil’s chest tightened. He became furious and sad. He’d never, not once, felt sorry for himself—knew of it but didn’t allow it. He’d resigned himself to misfortune, but maybe he’d resigned Mark to it too.
Phil had gotten Mark the job at the factory right out of high school, so he could pay his own way through college. He wanted to teach him discipline and responsibility. That, and Mark didn’t have the grades or drive for college. Sue was right, though: Mark would get stuck at Mohawk. That’s what happens there, she’d told Phil one night in the kitchen. She never insisted, never pressed, like his friends’ wives. She would say something just once, and leave it up to Phil, who hated making decisions. He’d never had to decide Mark’s future, though, because right around that time, Sue got lymphoma.
She was sick for so long. Death dragged itself out to the point that Phil just wished it would come. Sue had quietly—almost apologetically—endured chemotherapy, a bone-marrow transplant, blood transfusions, and a bevy of medications. The lymphoma had gone into remission, but a year later it returned. Sue had inquired about the bills, but Phil patted her bruised hand and convinced her that the insurance was covering it all. Her survival was the sole thing he considered, and so he blindly agreed to every treatment and medication the doctor recommended, never really checking to see if his insurance would pay. Perhaps Sue knew this about Phil—that he could be hard-headed and foolish about certain things, and was thus prone to making poor decisions. On the night they learned her cancer had returned, Sue had told him that this time around they should skip the treatments. She had looked so healthy, Phil remembered. She was putting on weight again; her thick, brown hair was coming in. She had touched her fingertips to his, eyes bright and confident, and said, “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.” Maybe she had been looking into Mohawk’s lousy insurance coverage to discover that there were significant things it wouldn’t cover. Or maybe she had found the bills that Phil had tried to hide in the truck’s glove compartment. Maybe, too, she was tired of fighting. Phil tossed a kitchen chair and yelled that he would not give up on her. Mostly he was angry at her for giving up on him. She agreed to undergo the treatments again. Six months later, she was gone.
As if waking from a dream, her death brought Phil back to reality. His son was grieving, and Phil had no idea how to console him. There was $75,000 in expenses, which Phil couldn’t handle alone. The latter seemed the easier fix: he volunteered Mark to work the extra hours with him. The former he had spinelessly left to time to assuage. Now, however, Phil couldn’t help but see that he was standing between Mark and the first genuine excitement his son had experienced in a long time. That was where Phil had always stood.
They reached the landing and Phil called Mark to stop.
“We’re staying,” Phil said.
“We’re not leaving before the game’s over.”
Mark moved closer and put on his jacket. “Dad, come on. You know better than I do what’ll happen if we’re late. Now let’s go.” He turned.
“Mark!” He shouted louder than he’d intended. His son looked startled. The horn sounded in the court below, and the ball pounded on the wood. He was about to assure Mark that he’d speak to Fleming in the morning, that all would be fine. Instead, he repeated, “We’re staying.”
Mark’s eyes took on pleading. “This is crazy. We can’t afford to lose our jobs for a game.”
The crowd roared and Phil glanced at the scoreboard. UConn was up six. It all might be over soon anyway. He looked down at his stained boots. He’d had these three years now, a Christmas gift from Sue and Mark. Mark wore Phil’s old ones, God knows how old. The T-shirt Phil had just bought Mark still had its creases.
“Listen to me.” Phil got ready to say it, and felt his voice failing. It took him two attempts to get it out. “I got nothing to give you. Your mother—” He put his fist over his mouth. When he continued, his voice still rattled. “Your mother knew how to be generous. She knew what you needed, when there was nothing. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I want you to have this, at least.”
Another eruption from the crowd, near deafening. Phil grabbed Mark by the shirt to pull him closer. “You hear me, you stubborn bastard?” He pushed Mark away, then laughed and wiped the tears. “We’re staying until it’s over, and we’re not going to think about anything other than this game.”
The fight in Mark vanished and he laughed nervously, but Phil could see he wasn’t totally convinced. “Dad, we can listen to it on the radio.”
“The radio?” Phil walked down the steps jingling the car keys over his shoulder. “Can’t go anywhere without me.” Halfway down, Phil looked back to make sure Mark was following. He was, and grinning.
The game was in a time-out when they made their way back through the row to their seats.
“Well, look who it is,” Wall Street said, happy to see them. “Forget something?”
Phil turned to look at the man, studied his eyes for a solid moment. Then he said, “I still got a little hair left to lose.”
Wall Street laughed and patted Phil’s back. There were only 21 seconds left to play in the third overtime and Syracuse was down by three.
“Whose ball is it?” Phil asked.
“Syracuse’s. They won’t give up.”
Everyone was standing and cheering. Mark was rigid, quietly watching.
“Let’s go Orange!” Phil called loudly, and kept at it until Mark loosened up and began cheering along.
Flynn dribbled up the floor, confident and calm. He crossed half court and immediately passed to their sharp-shooter, Rautins, coming off a screen. He lifted into the air and took the shot despite the four hands in his face. He made it, and tied the game. Phil and Mark jumped up and down like fools. Eleven seconds left, UConn hurried to get a shot off, but missed, and sent the game into its fourth overtime.
Exhausted and incredulous, the UConn players folded their arms over their heads, and looked skyward for explanation. Those wearing orange found the game’s endlessness funny. Flynn was leaning on a teammate, hobbling, but laughing back to the bench. Coach Boeheim rubbed his forehead, a cockeyed smile dimpling his cheek. Phil laughed at the absurdity of so many overtimes, as though they were targeted at him.
The burn in his legs, and now his back, clipped Phil’s smile. He’d been standing since the end of the game, and all day at work, a total of thirteen-fourteen hours. He took the opportunity to sit and rest. He squeezed his calves to massage the cramps.
“You gonna make it?” Mark asked, his hand on Phil’s back.
Phil stuck his arm under the seat, pretending to search for something in his coat pocket. “Thought I might have some gum. Guess not.”
The next overtime began, and Phil stood, fighting hard not to grunt or wince. The pain reminded him of Mohawk, and the repercussions of his decision. He shook it off. He was here; he would have a good time. Syracuse scored and Phil clapped. It was too late to change his mind anyway. Besides, this was for Mark, whose voice was now frayed to a growl. He was pumping his fist at the players. Incredibly, time ran out again and the game was still tied.
A fifth overtime.
This was not only for Mark. It couldn’t be. Phil watched the players on the court, waiting for the next period of play. The players’ eyes were glazed as they glanced at the jumbotron as if attempting to puzzle out another way to get ahead. And what if they lost, they must have been thinking. What if they went through all this and still came up short? That fear had to keep their legs strong. Otherwise, they would have all collapsed, and stayed down. Maybe it wasn’t fear, but a will to win. What did that feel like, Phil wondered, to fight for a win and get it? Or just to fight?
A sudden pain jolted up Phil’s back, causing him to yelp. To cover it up, he cupped his hands around his mouth and called at the court. He focused once again on the heart of his team. Flynn was pouring sweat, eyes squinting pain as he sucked air, but he was still charging the ball at the hoop, making shots.
At 1:04 AM, the game was going into a sixth overtime. It might go on like this all night. Wall Street looked something up on his phone and informed Phil and Mark that this was now the second longest game in college basketball history. A UConn player was laid out on the court, exhausted in disbelief. Other players’ legs wobbled as they shuffled to the bench. Phil wanted to sit, could have, but resisted. His feet were numb in his boots, but his knees and hips throbbed. And if he moved his back even slightly, turning to one side or the other, the pain would be there to bite him back.
Phil stuck his thumb and finger into his mouth for the piercing whistle he’d perfected as a teenager. He accomplished little more than air and spittle, and Mark laughed at his failure. Phil demonstrated the mechanics and Mark tried the whistle. He got it the first try, the strength of the noise surprising him, and he whistled again.
The horn sounded the beginning of the sixth overtime. Flynn high-dribbled as he orchestrated his teammates with his free hand. Rautins reacted, dashing to the top of the key to free himself; Flynn threw him the ball and he sunk a three-pointer. Syracuse was ahead, the first time since overtime, 113-110. After UConn turned the ball over, another SU player had it near the basket, butt in his defender’s stomach, backing him toward the hoop. Suddenly, he spun free, leaving his man to watch as he put the ball in the basket. They were up five. Then they were up eight.
Phil and Mark leapt and shouted, high-fiving anyone they could reach. It was easy for Phil to yell, to almost howl.
1:22 AM. Ten seconds remaining. Flynn had the ball once more, a shaky hand in the air all he could do to celebrate. His teammates clapped for themselves feebly, then hugged each other in near-collapse. The seconds now on their side simply fell away.
Phil was doubled-over, holding his knees, horn echoing in him. His eyes were squeezed shut and he tapped his forehead with his fist. His entire lower half seemed amputated, completely numb. He suddenly called out as loud as he could, flung himself upright, jabbed his fists skyward, and tossed his head back to scream. Mark grabbed him and hugged, and they jumped up and down, hollering stupidly into each other’s face.
Mark slept against the window. He’d balled his jacket into a pillow, and Phil’s jacket was draped over his shoulder. Phil’s ears rang and his voice was gone. His hands were raw on the steering wheel, but he was still riled with the thrilling memory of the game. The pain was roaring in his legs and back. He hadn’t been able to walk out of the arena on his own. Mark had tracked down a lady wearing a yellow vest who brought a wheelchair for Phil.
Phil felt a vibration in his pocket and wedged his hand in to look at his cell. It was Fleming. Phil slipped the phone back into his jeans. It was well after six AM, over an hour late for their shift. Phil passed the exit for Mohawk, and instead turned onto the ramp toward Chittenango.
Just then, a blazing, white flash snuck up behind the truck. It blinded Phil for a moment until he adjusted the rearview mirror. He squinted his vision clear and saw that the road ahead of them was washed in sun except for the long shadow of the truck. Phil cranked the window and put his arm into the morning air, watching his skin take the light. He put his hand on Mark’s leg and gave him a gentle shake. His son needed to see this.
Photo By: Matthijs