Dunk Force Returns (Part 4)

    Ray came home past midnight. He tread softly upstairs and checked on his wife, Grace. She was in bed, snoring softly. Ray went back downstairs and opened the refrigerator. On the top shelf was a plate of overcooked chicken and potatoes. He took a beer instead. Opening the door to the basement, he stood at the top of the stairs a moment, before descending into the silent darkness. He set his beer on the small wooden workbench and flicked on the lamp beside it. With his hands on his hips, he turned and gave a long, thoughtful sigh to the tall set of shelves in a dim corner of the room. The shelves were home to a variety of dusty boxes containing books, photo albums, basketball trophies, Grace’s tennis rackets, Ray’s record collection and other old belongings. It was a strange purgatory of family possessions—things almost forgotten, but never abandoned. Ray crouched and shifted some boxes on the bottom shelf, then retrieved a wide blue shoebox, half-crumpled in the middle. He took the box to the workbench and set it down. He sat on his stool, opened his beer and stared at the box. The lid was dusty, the corners worn, and on the side was a faded picture of the basketball shoes they originally held—size fourteen, custom made, stars and stripes design. He took a drink, then removed the lid from the box. The contents of that box had not seen daylight—or even basement lamp light—for ten years. On top was a basketball net, a souvenir from the 1996 nail-biter in St Petersburg, the last game he coached. Then there was a crusty old sweatband, the one he had worn as a player. Folded neatly was the lucky bald eagle necktie he wore every game of the 1990 three-game series. In an upset, the Iraqis had forced a third game. It went into double overtime. Three of his players were stabbed. There were faded photographs of the team. You could see them through the years, so young and lean in the early days, but by the end there were signs of decay. A photograph of Ray with the team’s unflappable centre, Zdunowski, with arms around each other and smiles a mile wide. It was taken in 1988, after an eight-point victory in Berlin. The only time he ever saw Zdunowski smile was after a win. Beneath the photographs were some newspaper clippings, then a letter signed by Ronald Reagan, a glossy photograph of Wesley Snipes with a personal message from the actor (Ray had consulted on the film White Men Can’t Jump), and finally a faded yellow envelope. Ray took out the envelope and laid it on the bench in front of him. He took a long drink, then opened the envelope and took out the letter it contained. As he unfolded the paper, the imprint of the pen on the underside of the page sent chills through his fingers. Ray began to read, forcing himself to absorb each word. After a silent minute his trembling hand set the letter down. The letter was short, only two thirds of a page, written by an unsteady hand. With welling eyes, Ray stared down at the final line: You did this to me.

    A creak behind him startled him, and he turned around to see Grace coming down the stairs, bleary eyed and wrapped in a dressing gown. “What are you doing up?” said Ray, wiping his eyes. “You need to rest.”

 “I’m fine,” said Grace. “It’s late. Come to bed.”

 “I’ll be up soon. I’m just, uh… just looking through some old stuff.”

 Grace came and stood next to Ray, sliding her hand around his shoulder. She saw the letter on the bench and sighed. “Why do you keep that letter?”

 Ray rubbed his hand over the scar on his cheek. “I had a visit from Larry Telfer tonight.”

 “Larry? What did he want?”

 Ray looked at the mementos spread on the bench before him. “He wants to bring back Dunk Force.”

 Grace’s hand dropped from Ray’s shoulder. He stood up and gave his chair to her, then paced the room as he explained everything. Grace listened thoughtfully as Ray shared the details of his exchange with Larry, and his misgivings about the proposed mission to rescue the American prisoners in Iran. When he finished speaking, he turned to Grace. She nodded, then folded the letter on the bench and slid it back into its envelope. “You’re retired, Ray,” she said. “You did your time, you played your part. You gave more than most men do. You don’t owe anything to anyone. Not Larry, not the Agency, and not Dunk Force.”

 Ray nodded, looking at the floor. After a long silence, he whispered, “It was my fault.”

 “It was no one’s fault,” said Grace. “No one knew what would happen. And every one of those men volunteered.”

 “But I recruited them,” said Ray. “I convinced them. I told them it was the best thing they could do.”

 Grace stood up. “And you told them there were no guarantees. You told them from day one they were not entering a career in basketball, but they were entering the service of their country. You told them not to join unless they were willing to sacrifice.” She stood in front of Ray and lovingly held his face in her hands. “Yes, it turned out awful for those men, but what they did—and what you did—saved more lives than we will know. You have to stop torturing yourself, Ray.”

 A tear raced down Ray’s cheek.

 “If you want to go see the new team, then go,” said Grace. “But do it because you want to. Don’t make it some mission of atonement.” She stretched her neck up and kissed him on the lips. “Come to bed.”

 Ray watched Grace walk back up the stairs, thankful to have such a woman. He noticed how thin she was now, even in that fleecy robe. She had lost so much weight since the diagnosis. He sat on the stool and glanced at the memories on the bench in front of him. He placed them back in the shoebox, switched off the lamp and went upstairs.

© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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