Sure Thing

That summer, Tom Moss rented a paint striper from the hardware store and made a court right there in the cul-de-sac. We admired the way he set it up: the hoop—a nice one with padding and a Plexiglas backboard—installed near the edge of the street, and the lines, measured out to Indiana High School Athletics specifications. Tom knew what he was doing. He’d played in college, he told anyone who would listen, two years at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, but he’d quit over a playing time dispute. Now, in his mid-forties, his height and his jump shot were all he had left. But his son Zac, a junior at Dunn Falls High, had inherited all of his father’s talent and then some.

At first it was just the two of them. They played one on one, HORSE, around the world, any kind of competition they could think up. Sometimes I stopped to watch from my driveway when taking out the trash or getting the mail. Passing cars slowed down and watched, or people walking their dogs. The mailman always pulled over to take a couple shots, or pretend he was announcing their games. “And it’s Moss vs. Moss again folks,” he’d say, “holy-moly look at that move by the young gun. That boy’s got game. Dad better watch out.” Soon, though, word spread and kids from neighboring streets came to play. By late June, not a day went by that didn’t feature 3 on 3 games in our cul-de-sac. Tom, who did graphic design from home for Hamilton Communications, was always there to keep things organized.

All the players were young. A few were Zac’s teammates, others were aspiring teammates, and others still were little brothers, cousins, or friends visiting from out of town. But there were always the regulars, the faces we saw every day. Tom established the rules: games to eleven, call your own, winners stay, losers walk. They kept things civil and they played hard. They put on a show for us.

There were five of us: me, Ron, Al, Theo, and Kevin, and we watched a lot of basketball that summer. We got to know the usual players, their strengths and weaknesses, their attitudes, who played well together and who didn’t mesh. Take Devin Sanderson, who could shoot lights out from three, but couldn’t defend to save his life. Or Mike Ramos, who was short but had a tighter handle and a quicker first step than anyone else. Marcus Johnson stood 6’6” and had a soft touch around the rim, but couldn’t shoot outside the paint. The more they played, the more we studied them. We noticed the way they looked at their teammates after a nice pass or a turnover, the words they exchanged, the body language. Even guys like Kevin and Al, who didn’t know basketball, got into the dynamics, the mini dramas that unfolded during each game.

A week after we started watching, Ron Carter placed the first bet. “I got a buck on Tom’s team,” he said to Theo. Theo agreed. And just like that, it started. It was organic, a natural step in the progression, a simple, harmless way to make the games more exciting. We kept it small, a dollar here on which team would win, two dollars there on which player would score the most points. Odds didn’t matter much to us then; we did it for the sport. Every day at five, when we got home from work, we loosened our ties and met in Ron’s garage, throwing down singles on our picks. The boys playing took notice, not of the betting, but of the watching, and scheduled their games for the late afternoon when they would have an audience.

Tom knew what we were doing. He even gave us a nod or wink now and then after he’d hit a shot. But he never joined the betting. “That,” he told us, “would be a conflict of interest.” When we egged him on, he relayed a story about an NBA referee who got into deep shit for fixing games. “It’s basically the same thing,” he said. Instead, he’d ask who bet for or against his team, and then throw a look our way each time he scored.

This was when the bets were still small: one, two, five dollars. Soon, though, our scheme got more intricate. Sure, we bet on the winners, but we also had side-bets on who would have the most assists, how many three-pointers they’d make, how many fouls Tom would call. We calculated odds and payouts in little notebooks and on calculators. Ron set up a card table in the garage so we could keep track more accurately. We sat around that table every day, kicked back, sipped beers, and rifled through our wallets. We bet on how many steals, who would make the last shot, how long each game would last. We kept notebooks full of results, stats, percentages, over/unders, and probabilities.

“Be careful,” Tom told us one day. “You’re playing a dangerous game.”

Tom was a cautious man. He didn’t smoke. He applied sunscreen before playing ball. He salted his own driveway when it snowed. He took his wife Valerie’s car in every couple months for maintenance. He asked visitors to remove their shoes after he’d mopped in the house. He set a timer on his phone and waited an hour to drive after having a beer. It wasn’t hard to imagine him as a young player going through a meticulous shooting routine: baseline, elbows, free throws, bank shots, twenty makes at each spot, moving further and further back until he was well beyond the three point line. He’d worked the same modest job for twelve years. And he certainly didn’t gamble. We’d heard a rumor that he used to gamble around the time Zac was born, but quit after a couple big losses on Boilermaker games. This, however, was more speculation than anything, idle talk from our barbecues, our wives’ book clubs, our block parties.

“Something had to happen to make a man that cautious,” Theo’s wife Jodie once said at a barbecue. “I’ll bet Val made him stop.” Then she turned to Theo. “I’d do the same to you.”

Valerie taught Health part time at Dunn Falls High. That summer, she’d taken up gardening with the same rigorous discipline her husband applied to everything else. Neat rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and lettuce sprouted up in their back yard. When he wasn’t working or playing ball, Tom often helped Val weed or pick. Early mornings, as we left for work, we’d see him kneeling in the dirt, gathering vegetables in a plastic grocery bag.

Theo laughed. “Definitely,” he said.

“I think he just likes safety,” I said. “Nothing wrong with that.”

Ron turned from his grill. “Sure, yeah, if you’re a pussy.” He laughed.

Jodie elbowed him, “C’mon. Val says he’s great around the house: cooking, cleaning, the whole deal. You could learn a thing or two from him, Ron. You could too.” She pointed at Theo, who pretended like someone had called him from across the yard.

Ron snorted. “Kidding, kidding. Jeez. He’s a good guy. We like him.”

It was true. We did like Tom. It was hard not to. He was a good neighbor, courteous and respectful. He was a good father and a good husband, almost too good. Some part of each of us knew it couldn’t be all true, the housekeeping and thoughtfulness and tender family relationships, the things our wives usually nagged us about when we got home from work and laid down with whiskey and chips, the things we tried to avoid hearing by going straight to Ron’s each afternoon. We thought him unsustainable, or fake, or both, and we watched each day not just to gamble, but also to catch a glimpse of the man who supposedly quit his college team over a petty disagreement or who gambled away his family’s savings.

“You guys need to stop,” he told us one day in late June. He’d wandered over to our table after a series of games in which Al had cleaned up by betting on Zac. The boy had scored nine of his team’s eleven points while recording eight rebounds, six steals, and three blocks. Plus, he spent longer with the ball than anyone else, a new stat we’d started tracking. We kept it all in our notebooks, marked by frantic tallies and stopwatches around our necks. Al stacked his bills neatly on the table “It was fun at first, I get it. But they’re just boys. At least take it somewhere else, somewhere we can’t see it.”

We respected Tom. He was someone who looked you in the eye and said what he meant; he had an open face that made you want to really squeeze his hand when you shook it.

“It’s just, you know,” he wiped the sweat from his forehead, “the boys. They don’t need to see it.” His sleeveless shirt revealed thin, lanky arms. He wound it around his index finger.

“Sure, Tommy, we get it. They’re kids,” said Ron. “But you’re not. You wanna place a bet? Dollar or two?”

Tom shook his head. “Nah, thanks though.”

“Go ahead. Bet on your boy. He’s pretty much a sure thing.”

“Like I said before: conflict of interest.”

Ron stood up and lifted his chair. “Alrighty, we’ll move the table back a bit.”

Tom grinned. “Thanks fellas. Again, though, be careful. This kind of thing,” he circled the table with his finger, “isn’t all that innocent.”

We nodded.

We continued, with restrained celebrations. Somehow, the secrecy of it all made it more exciting, and the wagers grew. Twenty dollars, fifty, one hundred. We studied the players fiercely to discover their subtle weaknesses. Marcus Johnson always turned right when he made a post move. Mike Ramos often dragged his foot when he crossed over. Devin Sanderson shot a higher percentage coming off ball screens than any other time. Zac Moss favored his right foot after, we discovered, he’d sprained his left ankle last season. Theo, who liked to document everything—daily temperatures, calorie intake, gas prices—even recorded a few of the games on his phone to study the film. “You chumps’ll be sorry you didn’t do that same,” he told us.

With more knowledge came more confidence, and with more confidence came even larger bets. Two hundred, three hundred, four, five. We stopped at ATMs on the way home to pull out cash. We fed our wives elaborate excuses. Al said he was investing in the stock market, even put together a fake portfolio. Kevin said he was putting it into a retirement fund. Theo said he needed it for several unpaid parking tickets. Ron, who was three years divorced, poked fun when he heard us on our phones. We all explained that we needed the “guy time” after work, and that, besides, Ron was having a hard time after losing weekend visits with his sons from what he called “manipulative lawyer bullshit.”

Thousands of dollars changed hands over the course of a single game, hundreds on a single shot. Some days, one person raked it in; others, we broke even.

Marcus made a shot; Theo won four hundred.

Mike turned it over; Al lost two hundred.

Tom got an assist; Ron won five hundred.

Zac made a shot; I won three hundred.

Zac got a rebound; Kevin won one hundred.

We could hardly restrain our emotion anymore, especially when a player lost money, our money, by making a dumb pass or dribbling off his foot. Ron always muttered under his breath, “Mike you moron,” or “dammit Devin you’re killing me here,” or “dear God, Tom, make a shot.” We could go from loving to hating a particular player in one game, singing their praises to cursing their names. Our money, after all, rode on the hands and feet of seventeen-year-olds.

Zac was a popular bet. He scored more consistently and played smarter than anyone else on the court. Tom beamed when his son made a good play, even when Zac was on the other team. He watched in admiration as Zac spun his way to the hoop or drained a turnaround jumper. He gave high fives and nods of approval as Zac’s shots snapped the net. Tom seemed more excited to see his son win a game than we did collecting our winnings. After every game, Tom pulled him aside for a post mortem. He put an arm around the boy’s waist and pointed to spots on the court, explaining certain plays from the previous action, showing Zac where he did well, where he could improve. They analyzed the games with fierce imagination, recreating the plays in their minds and thinking of all the possible outcomes. It was like they could see themselves there on the court. Meanwhile, we furiously reviewed our tallies and stats, our hard data, in order to distribute the pot.

Around the same time that Ron played the first four-figure bet, early August, we found out that Tom had been laid off from his job. His company had to make massive cuts and Tom, who was one of the older designers there, didn’t make it. He hadn’t told anyone, but we knew within a couple weeks anyway. Things like that circulated fast. Valerie told Jodie, who told Theo, who told us. And Tom’s play reflected it. He seemed less active on the court; he lacked a certain fire that used to fuel his game. Ron lost six hundred betting on him.

To recompense, Ron put $1000 on Zac to score eight or more points in the next game. Kevin took him up. Zac scored eight and Ron collected his bounty with a cheer. Tom came over and put his hands on the table. “How much?” he asked.

“How much what?” Ron said.

“How much did you win?”

“Tommy, c’mon, it was just—”

“How much, Ron?”

“A thousand. On Zac.”

Tom stepped back and rubbed his head, then paced a couple times.

“Okay, I want in.”

We looked to one another, then back to Tom.

“Just one bet,” he said. He turned to watch the boys shooting and sipping water bottles. Zac swished a three. We studied the intensity in his face. It wasn’t the face of a man who washed dishes and weeded gardens and greeted with wife with a peck on the cheek. It was upset, desperate. We looked around the table, acknowledging the tension and our shameful excitement.

I stood up. “Tommy, no. Go play. You’re not thinking clearly.”

Tom laughed. Then he nodded and walked back to the court.

We didn’t want to tempt him. I think we all felt for him, in one way or another. We imagined how we’d feel not being able to provide for our families. Embarrassed, ashamed. For all Tom’s dishwashing and housecleaning, soon he wouldn’t be able to put food on the table, and that, we thought, would be humiliating. But we couldn’t give up betting, not with only two weeks left of summer. The start of the school year meant the end of the games and the end of the games meant the end of our precious after-work escape, a return to our typical evening activities: sitting on the couch, dodging questions from our wives, helping our kids with math homework. We had to chase that thrill while we still could. For Tom’s sake, we hid our bets, held our notebooks under the table and kept records on our phones. We didn’t want him to see the cash in thick wads on the table. We didn’t want to remind him of what we had and he didn’t. You don’t rub money in a man’s face like that.

At Al’s pool party that weekend, we discussed Tom’s layoff with our wives. “I’m sure he’ll find something soon,” I said.

“I don’t know,” said Ron. “In this market? It’s tough.”

Jodie linked arms with Theo. “But someone that hard working and smart? Someone will want him.”

Tom and Val joined the circle and we changed the subject.

The following week, we heard from Jodie that Tom hadn’t had any luck with the job search, that he’d been applying for a few weeks but hadn’t even received a call. “Val’s worried,” she told us. “They don’t have much saved up, you know? And she’s not sure he’ll be able to find something soon.” His worry manifested on the court. He got frustrated with himself, shook his head and cursed when he missed shots. Once he kicked the base of the hoop after turning the ball over. Once he threw a lawn chair.

“I don’t know, guys,” Theo said one day. “I could see them moving.”

Ron spit. “Shit, Theo, don’t talk like that.”

We couldn’t stop watching him. He looked our direction with increasing frequency and his game grew more frantic. He travelled and lost his man and missed layups. In between games, he sat with his head between his knees, barely talking to anyone, even Zac. We placed big bets against Tom’s teams, knowing his play would drag them down. After Theo won $1,500 by betting that Tom would miss every shot he took, he flashed a sheepish grin and looked down. We all did.

On a humid day later that week, Tom came to us with bills in hand. “What are the odds on me and Zac’s team winning this one?”

“Go play, Tom. Stop it, we’re not betting anymore,” I lied. Tom was still out of work and we all knew it.

He thrust the bills into Ron’s hand. “I want in. What are the odds?”

“Tom—”

“Guys, I need this. My job…well, you know.”

We began to protest again, but Tom clenched his jaw and we could see that he wasn’t going to let it go this time.

Ron patted Tom’s back. “Aw what the hell? Al, give him the odds.”

Al pulled out his notebook and flipped through it. “Well, you guys are pretty good, and you’ve got Zac, so two to one.”

“Take my bet.” He put a stack of hundreds on the table. “Take it.”

“Fine, Tom,” Ron said. “I’ll take you up.”

We shot him dirty looks, but he shook them off.

Tom walked away. He, Zac, and Mike jumped out to an early lead, with Tom hitting four shots in a row. Tom played aggressive defense and hacked anyone driving the lane. “No easy buckets,” he said each time. He shook his head in disappointment when Zac missed a shot. He yelled at Mike for throwing an errant pass. At one point, he called a questionable foul and argued with Marcus until Zac talked him down. Before long the game was tied at ten; next point would win. Zac caught the ball on the wing, eyed a shot, jab stepped, jabbed again, and took two hard dribbles right. Tom’s defender came to double-team, leaving Tom wide open on the baseline. “Zac! Zac!” He called. He clapped his hands, demanding the ball. Zac dribbled again. “Zac! C’mon!” he clapped his hands even harder. His face bulged red.

But Zac didn’t pass. Zac pulled up for a contested shot, which rimmed out. The other team rebounded and hit a quick shot. Game over.

“What the fuck was that?” Tom yelled at his son. “What are you doing? You… You… You…” He was so angry the words wouldn’t come out. Veins popped from his neck. The boys watched as Tom looked like he might explode. “Pass the ball dammit!”

We looked at Ron. He looked down.

The rant continued. “What was that shit? You got a brain up there?”

Zac stood in disbelief, tears welling, trying to mutter an apology, but Tom kept cutting him off. The other boys stood silently. They avoided looking at each other and instead searched for somewhere to go, somewhere away from Tom. They wandered toward home or the park or the river, anywhere but there. The boys who’d spent their summer on that court now sought to escape it. Mike Ramos quietly gathered his ball and water bottle and walked to his car. Devin Sanderson started toward Tom, but thought better of it and joined Mike. Marcus Johnson, the biggest player on the court, looked like he might cry.

We stood up and folded the table. We stacked our chairs against the garage wall and shuffled down the driveway. Even from down the street, across the cul-de-sac, we could hear Tom shouting, words now indecipherable. With our heads hung, we parted and went to our own houses. We closed the doors behind us and sat in our easy chairs or at our kitchen tables. We stared out windows into our yards, where evening sunlight fell on short-cropped grass. Soon our wives and kids would ask questions, and we would have to talk, maybe to explain. That night, seated around separate tables in separate houses, we ignored questions or responded with nods, we pushed food around on our plates until it all swirled together and made something new, something unfamiliar, something we would never want to eat.

By Randy Magnuson

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