Ray took a cup and held it beneath the cooler spout. As he continued to watch the players, he poured himself some of what he assumed was an energy drink. He raised it to his lips and took a long sip, then dropped his cup and bent forward, choking and spluttering. As his chest convulsed and he gasped for breath, he looked down at the thick greenish-yellow fluid oozing from the spilled cup. Heavy footsteps rushed toward him, and a giant hand thudded between his shoulder blades. “Are you okay, sir?” asked a gentle voice.
Ray stood upright and stepped back, sucking in a deep breath. The giant Native American stood before him with a look of concern. Ray held his hand up. “I’m okay,” he wheezed. “Just went down the wrong pipe.”
The young Native American man smiled. “Yeah, that stuff takes some getting used to. If you’re going to hang around here, you might want to bring a water bottle next time.”
Ray composed himself and nodded. “I’ll make sure I do that. What is this stuff anyway?”
“Wheatgrass juice mostly,” said the Native American, “with some whey protein.”
Ray peered suspiciously at the green goo. “Is that all?”
The Native American nodded. Behind him, his teammates had abandoned their passing exercise, and were now practicing lay-ups. Ray reached out his hand to the young man. “My name’s Ray Elwin,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” said the young man, shaking his hand. “I’m Marcus.”
“Marcus, have you played much basketball before?”
Marcus shook his head. “No sir. I’m not much of an athlete.”
“I see,” said Ray. “Do you mind me asking how you came to be a player on this team?”
“I was just walking to class one day, and Carl stepped in front of me and asked if I was Native American. When I told him I was, he asked me to join the team.”
“He just came up to you, huh?”
“Yes sir. Well, I think he was there to watch Troy play. Troy and I go to the same college.”
“And so you joined Dunk Force, just like that?”
Marcus shrugged. “Carl said he would pay for my tuition. I told him if he paid for my sister’s tuition as well, I’d play.”
Ray smiled. “Your sister goes to the same college?”
Marcus nodded. “She’s studying law.”
A great thump boomed and echoed through the open arena as Tiffany hammered down a two-handed slam dunk, almost tearing the hoop from its backboard.
“And what do you study?” Ray asked Marcus.
“Accounting,” he said.
Ray nodded. “Well, I’ll let you get back to practice.”
Marcus jogged back on court, fumbled a bounce pass from Tiffany, then dribbled toward the hoop. He bounced the ball too high and lost it every time he looked up to see where he was going. When he finally made it to the hoop, he stopped, made a tiny leap and dropped the ball in the basket. His teammates clapped as though he done something far more impressive.
Ray watched for a few minutes. Aside from Marcus, the players had plenty of skill, but Ray knew skill only got a team so far.
He left the sideline and walked over to the corner of the room where the long rainbow flag wall began. The final player in the team sat there on a beach towel, with his back to the court. As Ray stepped around beside him, the young man opened his eyes and glanced at Ray, then closed his eyes again and breathed deeply. Ray leaned down and picked up a thick black book that lay on the very front of the towel. It was the Koran, a crisp, shiny copy. Ray cracked it open to a random place and flicked through a few pristine pages. He cleared his throat. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said.
The man sitting on the towel straightened his back and wriggled his hips, adjusting his sitting position. Without opening his eyes, he answered, “Yes… Peace, brother.”
“I’m Ray Elwin.”
“Tim,” said the young man.
“Why aren’t you training, Tim?” said Ray.
Tim opened his eyes and looked at Ray. “It’s my prayer time. I have to pray.”
“You’re a Muslim?”
Tim glanced down. “No doubt, brother.”
Ray nodded. “What is the title of the second surah?”
“Yes. In the Koran.”
“Oh, right,” said Tim. He closed his eyes. His eyebrows quivered. He scratched his knee. “It’s um… Well, it’s difficult to translate… but probably… The Good Samaritan.”
“That’s a parable from the Bible,” said Ray.
Tim shook his head and furrowed his brow. “Yeah, well, I’m a new convert, so I don’t know everything yet, okay?”
Ray crouched and peered at the young man. “What are you doing?”
Tim opened his eyes and looked at Ray. His shoulders slumped. “Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
Ray stared at him.
“I’m not really Muslim, all right?” said Tim. “I just… Well, when Carl came to my school to scout players, he saw me wearing this hat, and he thought it was a religious thing. His eyes lit up, and he asked me if I was Muslim, and… I just went with it. I wasn’t going to make it onto the team otherwise.”
“But you can play?” asked Ray.
“Yeah, I can play. Shooting guard. I mean, I’m not going pro or anything—I realise that—but I do okay.”
Ray peered at Tim for a moment, then nodded. “All right,” he said. He placed the book back on the towel and stood up. “You’re facing north, by the way.”
Ray pointed toward the far end of the court. “Mecca is roughly in that direction.”
“Oh,” said Tim, shifting his position. “Thanks.”
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