Danny Walker said to his parents, "You know that growth spurt you guys have been promising me my whole life? When does that kick in, exactly?"
They were all sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast: Danny, his mom, his dad. Richie and Ali Walker were finally back together, after having been apart for way too much of Danny's life, for reasons he always said he understood but didn't.
None of that mattered to Danny now. The three of them having breakfast like this had become strictly regulation, instead of something that felt like it ought to be a family holiday.
Richie Walker put down his newspaper and said to his wife, "Which growth spurt do you think he's talking about?"
Ali Walker, chin in her hand, frowning at the question, a real Mom pose if there ever was one, said, "It can only be the big one."
"Oh," Richie said, "the big one."
"Not to be hurtful," Danny's mom said to his dad, "but it's the growth spurt you never really had, dear. Whatever the nice people listing your height in the programs always had to say about you."
"Came close," he said.
Ali grinned. "Missed it by that much."
Now Richie looked at his son. "And despite being the size that I am, I still managed to be All-State at Middletown High, get a scholarship out of here to Syracuse, get to be All-America there and become a lottery pick in the NBA."
"Blah, blah, blah," Danny said.
"Excuse me?" his dad said.
There was no stopping his dad on this one. It was like he was driving to the basket. You just got out of the way.
"And," Richie Walker said, "though my memory gets pretty fuzzy sometimes, I believe before I did all that, I was the point guard on the Middletown team that won the nationals in travel ball when I was twelve. Like another twelve-year-old I know."
"I get it, Dad," Danny said. "Seriously. I get it, okay? I know this act you and Mom like to do the way I know my Boy Meets World reruns."
His best bud, Will Stoddard, had gotten Danny hooked on the show. Will knew more about television shows, old and new, than about any school subject he had ever taken in any grade with any teacher. Danny thought Will secretly wanted to be an actor someday; he might as well get paid for performing, since -he'd been doing it his whole life.
Ali said, "I thought Saved by the Bell was your fave."
"I go back and forth." Now Danny was the one grinning. He didn't know if other kids liked just sitting around with their parents this way. But he never got tired of it.
"Hello?" Richie said. "I wasn't quite finished."
"Sorry, dear," Ali said.
"Missing my own big growth spurt and never actually growing to the five-ten they always listed me at in those programs also didn't prevent me from getting the girl."
It was the absolute, total, last thing on earth he wanted to talk about today. Or think about. Today or ever again, maybe.
One girl in particular, anyway.
"I'm happy for both of you," Danny said. "But, Dad, I know you weren't the smallest kid in every game you ever played. And I am. Sometimes it gets kind of old."
"Yeah, like you're getting old. You just finished the eighth grade, after all. And will be fourteen years old before you know it."
"And just had a losing record for the first time in my life," he said to his dad.
"Horrors!" Ali Walker said. "Six wins and seven losses. Shouldn't we have grounded him for that?"
"I -don't suppose it matters that you were an eighth -grader basically playing on a ninth-grade team, and going up against teams that had all ninth graders," his dad said.
"You know what your man Coach Parcells always said," Danny said, loving it when he could turn one of his father's sayings around on him. "You are what your record says you are."
"You did fine."
"And we wouldn't have won as many games as we did if Ty hadn't transferred," Danny said.
Ty Ross was his other best bud. Meaning a guy bud. And Ty was a lot more than that. In Danny's opinion, he was the best basketball player in town. Of any age. There were a bunch of people who said Ty and Danny were co-best, even though Ty was already a foot taller, but Danny wasn't buying it. He also didn't care what people said-he was just happy to have Ty playing Karl (the Mailman) Malone to his John Stockton, all the way through high school.
Ty had switched from his own travel team to Danny's the year before, mostly so he could play with Danny, and then their team, the Warriors, won the same travel championship Richie Walker's team had once won. At the time, Ty was still going to the Springs School, the public school in town. But he had talked his parents into letting him move over to St. Patrick's, just for one year, so he and Danny didn't have to wait until they got to ninth grade at Middletown High to start playing freshman ball together.
Or maybe they'd even skip freshman ball, now that the new varsity coach at Middletown High, starting next season, was going to be Richie Walker himself. Sometimes Richie hinted that he might have them both go straight to varsity, since most of this year's team had just graduated.
When his dad would drop those hints, Danny would just go along, try to act excited, even though he wondered how he would be able to go up against high school seniors in a few months after nearly getting swallowed whole by the taller ninth-graders this past season.
"Wait till you and Ty are playing for Coach Walker," Richie said now.
"Yeah, Dad," Danny said. "It'll be sick."
He knew he'd made a mistake the minute he said it. The way he knew when -he'd thrown a dumb pass the instant the ball left his hands.
He knew because his mom immediately went into one of her fake coughing fits, saying in a weak voice, "So, so sick."
"Sorry, Mrs. Walker," Danny said in a whiny student's voice.
"You can talk MTV with your friends," she said. "But in here, we sort of try to keep a lid on sick, right?"
Danny sighed an I-get-it sigh.
"I gotta grow!" he shouted.
"You will!" his parents shouted back.
"When?" A voice so quiet it seemed to be at the bottom of his bowl.
His parents looked at each other, smiling, and shouted again. "Soon!"
"I'm gonna be smaller than ever when I get up to Maine for the stupid camp," Danny said. "Seriously, Dad. If I'm as small as I am around Middletown, what's going to happen up there?"
"What's happened your whole life," Richie Walker said. "Every single time you've been challenged or gotten knocked down or had to prove yourself all over again, you are sick."
"I give up," Ali Walker said.
It was the second Saturday after school had let out. The breakfast plates and bowls had been cleared by the men in the family, a Saturday rule. Danny and his dad were outside now, on the small court at the end of the driveway at 422 Earl Avenue, Richie feeding him the ball as Danny moved around on the outside and shot what passed for his jump shot.
Every time Danny put the ball on his shoulder and launched it the way he had when he was even littler than now, when it was the only way for him to get the ball to the hoop, Richie would yell "stop!" and make him shoot with the proper motion from the same spot, hands in front of him.
"This is the perfect time for you to go to a big-time camp," Richie said. "We've gone over this."
Danny, quoting his dad, said, "You gotta keep taking it to the next level, or you never leave the one you're at."
"I'm not sure that's the way your mom would put it in a sentence," Richie said. "But you know it's true, guy."
"I didn't do so hot at the level I was just at," Danny said. "And we weren't even playing all the best schools around here."
"You're being too hard on yourself," Richie said, then threw him a perfect bounce pass. Danny caught it, did the little step-back move he'd been using since he first started playing, the one that created the space he needed between him and taller defenders, the one that kept him from getting a mouthful of rubber every time he tried to get a shot airborne.
This one he swished, then he kept his right hand in the air, holding the pose.
"In the driveway you can show off," his dad said. "Never on the court."
"Gee, I don't think I've ever heard that one before."
"Let's take a break for a second," Richie said.
All he'd been doing was standing there feeding the ball, yet he looked more tired than Danny. His dad never mentioned it, but he couldn't stand for long periods of time anymore. He'd had two real bad car accidents in his life-the first one ending his NBA career, the second one on an icy road during the travel season last year-and joked that his body now had more spare parts in it than some old pickup truck built from scratch at the junkyard.
His knees were completely shot, he said, swelling up with new sprains all the time. Ali had made him go get an X-ray the day before, wanting to see if there was something more serious going on.
Now his dad groaned and rubbed the side of his right knee and said, "X-ray perfect, knee horrible."
The two of them sat down on the folding chairs they kept on the side of the court, like it was the Walkers' team bench, for one coach and one player.
"Dave DeBusschere told me something once that explains why you need to go to this camp better than I ever could," Richie said. "You know who he was, right?"
"Old Knick," Danny said. "He played on that Knicks team you said played ball as right as any team ever."
"Smartest team ever, even though they're like ancient history now," he said. "Clyde Frazier, Earl (the Pearl) Monroe, Willis Reed, Senator Bill Bradley. They were smarter even than Bird's Celtics or Magic's Lakers. Best passing team ever. All the stuff we think is cool about basketball."
"Soooooo cool," Danny said.
"Anyway, he told me something before a game at Madison Square Garden one night I never forgot. He was running the Knicks then. He said that we all start out just wanting to be the best kid on our block, and some of us get to be that. But as soon as we do, almost like the minute we do, you know what happens, right?"
Somehow Danny just knew. "You find out about a kid on the next block."
He and his dad bumped fists.
"So you find out how you can handle yourself against him. Prove to yourself you can play with him. Only, as soon as you do that, you hear about this kid on the other side of town. Then in the next town, somebody hears about you and thinks he can absolutely kick your butt. Now you gotta go play him. Because you just gotta know."
"It sounds like it never ends."
Richie Walker smiled, put his arm around his son.
"Not if you're good enough, it doesn't," he said.
"The first day up there," Danny said, "they're gonna think I'm ten."
"Only until you start dribbling that ball."
His dad left, needing a rest now. Danny stayed out there. It didn't matter where he was or who he was playing with, he was always the last one on the court.
Out there alone, as he had been about a thousand other times in his life. Not shooting now, just keeping the ball on a low dribble, right hand, left hand, through his legs, behind his back, never looking at it, doing his double-crossover, imagining himself as some kind of basketball wizard.
Danny Walker, alone with a basketball, and a secret.
The secret being this:
He was scared.
He was scared even though he'd never come out and admit that to his parents, even though there was a time not very long ago when he and his teammates had felt like the most famous twelve-year-olds in America. Not just scared about going off to basketball camp. Scared that the seventh-grade travel championship that he and the Warriors had won might be the best it ever would be for him in basketball.
Oh, sure, they had gone up against the other best seventh--graders in the country. But even though Danny was the smallest one out there, they were all the same age. Pretty soon, basketball -wouldn't work that way. Danny Walkerwho -wasn't just smart about basketball, who was smart, periodknew that.
Basketball at camp was going to be like real ball. His age group wouldn't just be thirteen-year-olds. It went from thirteen through fifteen. If he couldn't handle some of the ninth-grade guards he'd gone up against this year, what was going to happen when he went up against some guy who was getting ready to be a junior in high school?
That was part of Danny's secret.
Here was another:
He wasn't going because he couldn't wait to take on the kid from the next block over, couldn't wait to get to the next level, oh yeah, bring it on. That was the way his dad looked at things. No, Danny was going because he had to find out for himself if he could cut it once he got in with the real big boys.
When he'd gotten cut from travel that time, he knew in his heart that it was because a bunch of adults thought he was too small. And then he'd shown them they were wrong.
Now Danny, as brave as he tried to act in front of his parents and his buds, wasn't sure he could keep showing everybody forever.
This wasn't just about size anymore. It was about his talent and, if he really thought about it, his dreams. Especially the big dream, the one about him someday doing more in basketball than even his dad.
Danny had to know.