The next morning, Ray phoned Larry to tell him he would like to see the new Dunk Force squad. It seemed Larry had expected the call. Twenty-six minutes later a black sedan pulled up in front of Ray’s house. Ray got in, and the car took him to a large property outside town, where a sleek white helicopter was waiting for him. It was with a hint of trepidation that Ray stepped up into the chopper. It had been a long time since he had flown in one. He fastened his harness and asked the pilot if there would be any other passengers. “No sir. Just you,” answered the pilot.
As the helicopter rose into the air, Ray’s muscles tensed, and his skin felt suddenly hot. Memories of the 1986 Damascus game, his first as coach, stirred in his mind…
Blinding sun, sweltering heat, on an outdoor court whose surface was just smoother than a gravel parking lot. Eight thousand spectators yelled and bayed, closing in—officials and security were barely able to keep them off the court. The Syrians had come up with a plan—it was probably the only reason they had accepted the match. Using wigs, fake moustaches, prosthetic noses, thick sweatbands around the forehead and some heavy-duty makeup, they created easily replicable disguises for their ten-man roster. From the first quarter it became obvious what was happening. The Syrians made constant rapid-fire substitutions, and the subbed players ran in and out of the locker room. Individual players altered slightly with each trip to the room—an inch or two taller, a few pounds lighter, a narrower chin, a birthmark vanished—and despite the game’s intensity, they barely broke a sweat. It was later confirmed that the Syrians had hidden fifty players in their locker room, all disguised as certain members of the roster, so that they were able to substitute fresh players every couple of minutes. The idea was to run the Americans off their feet, sprinting up and down the court with unfailing energy and burning them out by halftime. But Dunk Force kept pace, even with the Syrians’ continual injection of fresh players in disguise. The Syrian coach threw accusatory glares at Ray as the game wore on, while Ray, as if to rub salt into his counterpart’s wounds, made as few substitutions as possible. His centre, Peter Zdunowski, and point guard, Leon Hayes, played the full forty-eight minutes. With five minutes to go in the last quarter, and the seemingly superhuman Americans up by eleven points, tensions boiled over. Syrian shooting guard, Anwar Qasim (or one of his lookalikes), grabbed Hayes in a headlock, and a vicious brawl ensued. Eventually security from both sides managed to break up the fight, and the game continued. The Americans were bloodied and bruised; small forward August Malone had a broken cheekbone. The Syrians fared better, apart from one unidentifiable player whose plastic nose and real one beneath it had been smashed to a bloody mess by a right cross from Dunk Force’s power forward, Joe Griffin. The unconscious player was dragged off court and left to recover under the Syrian bench. The game’s final minutes were spiteful and dangerous, with too many fouls to call. Chanting erupted in the stands—the crowd suspected the Americans had somehow cheated, and they began to hurl rocks at the players. As soon as the final buzzer sounded, American soldiers escorted Dunk Force to their locker room and straight through to an emergency tunnel leading outside the arena. Ray and the team ran for their lives across a barren field to where a military chopper was making a hurried landing. They boarded and the chopper took off, but before it could even turn around it lurched to the side to evade a rocket fired from the ground. The soldiers opened fire from the helicopter and scared off the attackers. After they were clear of Syrian airspace and the players had regathered their wits, the pilot told them the rocket had passed within six feet of the helicopter.
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