Editor's note: Marcus is a star basketball player on his school team, but he's terrible at foul shots. His sister Bree drives him to practice at night in the school gym where his father is principal. Despite his efforts, Marcus isn't getting any better... until Mr. Dunn the custodian steps in.
"Hi, Mr. Dunn," Marcus said as the tall, thin man pulled open the heavy metal door.
Mr. Dunn smiled. "You two come in quick," he said. "Your dad doesn't want me heating the outside."
Marcus and Bree stepped into the dark hallway. Marcus dribbled into the bright light of the gym and began to warm up, taking shots and darting around the floor. Bree read a book. Mr. Dunn went back to work, silently pushing the wide broom across the floor.
After a few minutes, Marcus stepped to the foul line. This is it, Marcus told himself. If I don't get any better, I'm going to give up and stop all this nighttime practice stuff.
Suddenly, the gym seemed different to Marcus. It didn't feel empty. It felt as though it were filled with people and all their eyes were fixed on him. Marcus bounced the ball three times. Each bounce seemed louder than the one before. He grabbed the ball firmly with both hands, took aim for the basket, and let the ball go.
The ball hit the rim and bounced right back to Marcus.
"I stink at foul shots!" he shouted as he slammed the ball against the floor. The ball bounced in a high arc toward the basket.
Swish. Nothing but net.
Marcus's mouth fell open, and his sister laughed out loud. "Maybe you should shoot it that way," Bree teased as she got up and ran after the ball.
"I couldn't do much worse," Marcus growled.
"Take it easy," Bree said as she tossed him the ball. "It's your first foul shot of the night."
Marcus could no longer hide his frustration. He hurled the ball wildly at the basket, smacking it over and over against the backboard. "First shot ... second shot ... third shot. ... What does it matter?" he yelled. "I miss all of them!"
"If you're not going to practice your foul shots, we might as well go home!" Bree yelled right back.
Mr. Dunn put his broom aside and walked slowly toward Marcus. "Mind if I show you something?" he asked calmly.
Marcus looked Mr. Dunn up and down. The custodian stood just a few feet from Marcus with his hands out for the ball. His pants had a hole in the right knee and his blue workshirt was faded and the pocket was torn. His straggly hair was tucked behind his ears and hung limply on his shoulders. What can this old guy show me? Marcus thought.
"Come on," Mr. Dunn urged, motioning with his hands for the ball.
Marcus tossed him the ball. "Sure, go ahead," he said.
Mr. Dunn dribbled to the foul line and spread his feet along the line. He held the ball below his waist and in front of him. He eyed the basket, then dipped slightly at the knees and sent an underhand shot spinning to the basket just as Marcus had seen him do on the night of his first practice. The ball floated over the front rim and through the net.
"Why don't you try it that way?" Mr. Dunn suggested.
"Underhand?" Marcus blurted out.
"Sure, why not?" Mr. Dunn said. "You're big enough, strong enough. It should be an easy shot for you."
"Yeah ... but ... but ... it's a girl's shot!" Marcus stammered.
"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?" Bree protested.
"Well, nobody shoots foul shots like that," Marcus said.
"Rick Barry did," Mr. Dunn said.
"Who's he?" Bree asked.
"Only one of the best players ever to play in the NBA," Mr. Dunn answered.
Epilogue: In 1966, real-life Rick Barry was named one of the greatest players ever to play in the National Basketball Association. He threw underhanded foul shots and made them 90 percent of the time.
Excerpted from ON THE LINE. Text copyright c 1999 by Fred Bowen. Illustrations copyright c 1999 by Ann G. Barrow. Reprinted by permission of Peachtree Publishers, Ltd. All rights reserved.