Friday, August 29, 2014

Fiction Friday: Free Throw

Back in March, I heard a piece on NPR's Morning Edition about The Black Fives, an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society about the early days of African-American basketball teams.

It never occurred to me that basketball was a white sport when it was invented in 1891 - black players weren't integrated into professional leagues until 1950. This really struck me, considering how prevalent basketball is in black culture in America now.

Upon learning more, I was inspired to write this humble piece of flash fiction. Hope you enjoy it.

Photo / Black Fives Foundation
Slam. Slam. Slam. Slam.

The sound of the basketball on the gym floor. Rhythmic. Powerful.

Slam. Slam. Slam. Slam.


Nothing but net.

Jackson didn’t smile. He wouldn’t allow a celebration in his spirit until he hit his goal. Ten baskets in a row. He’d gotten close that morning. Seven. Eight. Then he missed a shot and started over. No celebration until he got ten in a row. That was his rule.

Jackson retrieved the ball, his slick black limbs aching with well-earned fatigue. He glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes of colored time left before it became a white court again. He could easily make three more shots in that time. Three more and he’d be done.

He returned to the free throw line and centered himself.

Slam slam slam slam.

His mother’s voice came into his head.

Slam slam slam slam.

“Why you wastin’ time on that basketball?”

Slam slam slam slam.

“Whitey ain’t never gonna let you play, boy. Don’t you know who you are?”

Slam slam slam slam.


That was eight in a row. Two more to go.

The ball bounced to the far right corner toward the benches. Jackson ran to fetch the ball, indulging in a moment to wipe the sweat off his brow. The towel he had brought was already soaked through, but it still felt good to get some of the moisture off his face and neck. He stared at the white towel, thinking to himself, “See? It doesn’t rub off.”

He took a lap around the court, dribbling as he went. He was determined to develop his skills – that’s what these early mornings were for. Time for him to get better. To become the best negro basketball player in town. Undeniable talent.

He’d heard about colored basketball leagues starting in New York. Real professional leagues with uniforms and a championship bracket. Thinking about playing basketball gave him a feeling of hope he’d never known before. He could be somebody. A basketball player.

His father had given him his basketball before he died. His mother had screamed, “Where did you get that thing? You know they been lynching black folk who steal!”

His father had held the ball out with pride. “I bought it for my son.”

Jackson’s father had taught him how to be a man. How to stand tall in his truth, look people in the eye, and hide his fear behind his dignity. He wore a crisp black suit every day to drive rich white folk around town and never complained when he came home at night. Jackson wanted to be just like him.

And a basketball player. He had learned how to dream from his mother. When he was younger, she was always spinning tales of the places they would visit and the people they would meet. Dinners with movie stars and walks through the White House were surely coming soon.

But Jackson’s dreams were different. They made her scared and upset. The older he got, the more she tried to stuff them down and shut them up. “We live in a white man’s world, Jackson. You ain’t never gonna be anything but black.”

It got worse after Jackson’s father was murdered. He had watched from the bench in the police station as his mother broke down in tears and screamed hysterically at the same time. The cops didn’t care. A rich white woman had tripped coming out of his car and Jackson’s father had caught her from falling and breaking her nose, but he had grabbed her breast in the process. He deserved to die.

Now Jackson drove the car. He never liked school anyway. Working a regular schedule meant he had more time for basketball. The dream his mother hated.

He’d worked out a deal with the gym owner. One hour, three mornings a week, in exchange for a free ride for his sick mother to the doctor every day. Jackson was thrilled.

He found his spot in front of the basket again.

Slam slam...

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a group of white boys walk into the gym side door.

...slam slam.


That was nine. Only one more to go.

“Hey!” one of them shouted. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

Jackson glanced at the poster on the wall that the gym owner had made, listing his colored time. He looked at the clock. He still had eleven minutes.

He returned to his spot.

Slam slam slam slam.

One more free throw. One more to hit his goal. One more.

A basketball slammed into the back of his head, sending him reeling forward onto his knees. He heard the laughter approach.

“This fucking ‘coon wants to play basketball!” The boys laughed heartily.

Jackson wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to slam his ball into their faces and see what happened next. But then he heard his father’s voice. “The only one who can take away your dream is you.”

So Jackson mumbled, “Sorry,” tucked his ball under his arm, and trotted away. Another basketball struck the back of his leg, tripping him for a second, but he never looked back. He picked up his towel, wiping as he went for the door.

“Hey!” another boy shouted, “He’s stealing a ball!”

“Those balls belong to the gym, boy.”

Jackson stopped and turned. He looked the pale white boys in the eye, rolling his shoulders back, and said, “This is my ball.” He felt his father standing behind him, hand on his shoulder.

The main boy shrugged. “Whatever. We don’t want your filthy ball anyway.” And they turned away.

Jackson walked out of the gym, his father’s ball tucked under his arm. He took a deep breath, feeling the air fill his broad, healthy lungs. He’d be back on Wednesday morning.

Ten free throws in a row. That was his goal.


To learn more about the pre-1950 history of African Americans in basketball, visit the Black Fives Foundation at

1 comment:

  1. We appreciate what you've done here, which is to acknowledge and appreciate this important once forgotten history through the use of your imagination. Very creative and a step forward! Thank you for that!

    Claude Johnson
    The Black Fives Foundation