Swish by J. D. Strunk

Monday, April 15, 2024
Jeremy Astor becomes obsessed with making the high school basketball team, but at what cost?

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Jeremy "Automatic" Astor stood at the free throw line. Two shots were forthcoming; two points would win the game. Even so, it was not the orange lip of the rim that was the focus of his attention. Nor was it the 400 chanting fans. Rather, Jeremy was attempting to calculate the odds of a game ending on a technical foul; and then the further odds that the resulting foul shots should determine the outcome of that game; and then the odds that the game in question should determine whether Jeremy's team, the Lincoln High Terrapins, would advance to the state tournament for the first time in the school's history. Whatever the probability, it seemed infinitesimally small. And yet, here he was.

The nickname was a burden he'd gifted himself. For as long as he could recall, Jeremy had wanted to play varsity basketball. He'd had two cousins - twins - who had started for Lincoln High varsity ten years earlier, and for three years Jeremy had stared in slack-jawed awe from the bleachers as they ran out of locker rooms and into gymnasiums, high fiving rows of students before settling into their pregame routine. Jeremy had imagined what it must feel like to hear a chant, hundreds of voices strong, and to know it was all for you.

But his cousins had hit 5'11" in eighth grade. Entering his junior year, Jeremy was a mere 5'5". Given his lack of verticality, he knew that any playtime would be dependent on what else he could offer the team. Post positions were out, as was point guard; Terry Skoda had been blessed with hand/eye coordination that no amount of practice could replicate. But shooting! That held some possibility. Shooting was something he could refine on his own. Moreover, it was something he was already good at. As a sixth grader, he had won an award at the Terrapin Summer League for being the only player to never miss a free throw. (Granted, seven for seven was not a huge dataset. But perfection is perfection.)

And so it was decided: Jeremy would become the best shooting guard in the history of Lincoln High.

The summer before his junior year, Jeremy made himself a schedule. The schedule consisted of seven hours of basketball a day - three hours in the morning, two in the afternoon, and two in the evening. Hour after hour, Jeremy could be seen in his driveway, shooting baskets. By mid-summer it had become a good-natured joke amongst his neighbors to link their acts of domesticity to Jeremy's shooting routine:

"Get out of bed! Jeremy's been shooting for an hour already!"

"Honey, please mow the yard before Jeremy begins his afternoon baskets."

"If you haven't cleaned your room by the time Jeremy leaves his driveway tonight, we are going to have some real issues, Mister!"

By August, Jeremy could consistently make 95/100 free throws. Neighborhood kids would sometimes come to watch, and a handful even began placing bets on his astounding constancy, at least until their parents found out and put a stop to it.

At basketball tryouts that fall, Jeremy's shot was unshakable. Anything he threw up seemed destined to drop into the hoop. It was a display of marksmanship unknown in the annals of Lincoln High sportsdom. As consequence, and despite his height disadvantage and lackluster ball-handling skills, Jeremy made varsity. Last off the bench, but varsity nonetheless.

Jeremy was elated.

The elation lasted about a month.

Come October, practices consumed Jeremy's life - every weekday after school for two hours, plus another three hours on Saturday. But unlike during the summer, where Jeremy had been the Sun of his own solar system, at practice Jeremy was an unnamed asteroid plodding through the Oort Cloud. (Jeremy was taking Intro to Astronomy this term.) When combined with his daily dose of schoolwork, it meant that Jeremy's life had no room for frivolity. Over the past year, his stack of "Books to Read for Fun" had grown from three to 12. Moreover, he still hadn't learned a single chord for the guitar his parents had bought him for his 16th birthday last April. And without the guitar, how would he ever win over Lauren, the only girl in high school seemingly unimpressed by varsity jackets?

In truth, Jeremy barely knew Lauren, but she was Blake's friend, and Blake had been Jeremy's best friend since kindergarten - as well as his nemesis. All through childhood, Jeremy had compared his achievements to Blake's. Academically, Jeremy was a solid 'B' student, whereas Blake maintained a 4.0 with distressing ease. Whereas Jeremy's musical tastes leaned toward the mainstream, Blake's were eclectic. Jeremy quoted Friends; Blake quoted Seinfeld. So when Jeremy showed aptitude for basketball in the fifth grade, he savored the moment, recess being the only time in Jeremy's life that Blake sat beneath him in the social hierarchy. Soon thereafter, Blake abandoned basketball altogether, opting instead to read guitar magazines beneath the slide.

Sophomore year, Lauren Sanchez had moved to town, and instantly bonded with Blake over obscure indie bands. The first time Jeremy had seen Lauren, he had stared at her for so long that he'd walked directly into a senior. Later that same week, when Blake introduced them, Jeremy couldn't stop staring at her lips, imagining their glossy sheen to taste of strawberry, despite having no cause to believe her lip gloss was flavored.

Improbably, Blake did not seem to be crushing on Lauren, despite the pair meeting up outside of school regularly to jam. Like Blake, Lauren played the guitar (of course she did). And so, when Jeremy's mother had asked him what he'd like for his 16th birthday, a nonchalant Jeremy may have mentioned that guitars "seem kinda interesting." Blake had been excited to learn that Jeremy had been gifted a Les Paul for his birthday, and had approached him shortly before summer break.

"Lauren and I are looking to start a band," said Blake. "Learn three chords and you can join."

And Jeremy had wanted to - really. But his summer was already booked.

For the first three games of his inaugural varsity season, Jeremy never left the bench. His only contribution consisted of standing up every time the Terrapins made a good play. In this way, his station closely mirrored that of the other 399 spectators in the gymnasium, just with a better seat.

In the fourth game, things changed. The team was down by three points with five seconds to go in the game. It was the consensus among the coaching staff that the Springfield Bears would attempt to foul the Terrapins, thereby removing any chance for Lincoln High to take the three-pointer that might force overtime.

Coach Vinson looked down the bench. "Astor!" he called. At first Jeremy was sure he'd misheard: How could he be called into a varsity game, for the first time, with so much on the line? But Coach had repeated his name - "Astor, get up here! And bring that magic arm of yours!" - and Jeremy had rushed to remove his warm-up jersey. The play was called. The buzzer sounded.

Jogging onto the court felt surreal. The faces of the crowd seemed disembodied, free-floating. As if from outside himself, Jeremy observed his body taking its place on the hardwood, but he felt he had no control over it. Jeremy watched his feet run the specified route, dipping below the basket and popping out again at the wing. He watched as Terry Skoda passed him the ball from the baseline, watched as his hands caught it, watched as his elbow snapped and the ball arced over the Springfield player's outstretched arm in a perfect parabola.


In overtime, the Terrapins had claimed victory. All because of Jeremy.

The thrill was indescribable. Never in his life had Jeremy felt so appreciated. It was every Christmas, every birthday, every A-plus, all coalesced into a singular moment. But perhaps the biggest shock came the following week, when he was publicly pursued by no other than Molly Moncini. Yes, that Molly Moncini - Homecoming Queen and head cheerleader. But Jeremy did not pine after Molly Moncini in her pink polos and UGG boots. He pined after Lauren Sanchez in her frayed blue-jeans and Led Zeppelin tees. He wondered why Blake had not yet pursued Lauren romantically - they'd now been friends for well over a year - but figured it was only a matter of time before they were an item.

Meanwhile, a stack of fantasy novels sat untouched in Jeremy's bedroom, next to a guitar that was gathering dust.

The referee held up a peace sign. "Two shots," he said, before bouncing the ball to Jeremy. The technical was the result of a shove from the opposing team, which was once again the Springfield Bears. Jeremy sank the first shot without thinking about it, as was his custom. The game was now tied. A trip to the state tournament was one point away.

The crowd was so loud that the noise had become its own form of silence, solid and static. Jeremy thought back to watching his cousins, and how he had wanted so badly to hear a crowd chant that way for him. But today, when the deafening thunder of alternating yells and footfalls rolled through the Terrapin bleachers, it felt less like praise and more like an ocean of iron pressing down on his back.


(Feet pounding bleachers.)


(Feet pounding bleachers.)

Jeremy couldn't help but wonder why his dream, playing out before him in real time, did not instill in him more contentment. Amazingly, it was only then that he considered that maybe his dream wasn't his dream. It was a dream, cultivated as a young boy and nourished by the impressionability of youth. Because how much joy - beyond those brief moments of veneration - had basketball really brought him?

Jeremy swallowed with difficulty. A lump had formed in his throat, and it had nothing to do with nerves.

Suddenly, and with a blinding flash of light that would have humbled Saul of Tarsus, Jeremy saw a way out. (Jeremy had been confirmed in the Methodist church at the age of 14.) The boy eyed the rim with new understanding. It was all so simple!

The referee held up his index finger, then bounced the ball to Jeremy. Jeremy dribbled twice, eyeing the hoop with derision. With the calm competence of a master craftsman, he cradled the ball in the pocket of his right palm, just as he had ten thousand times before. But this time, he turned his elbow an imperceptible but meaningful degree to the left. The position felt wrong - it felt off. Inwardly, Jeremy smiled. Here he was taking the biggest shot of his life, but his thoughts were not on basketball. He was picturing afternoons playing guitar with Blake and Lauren. He was picturing Saturdays spent reading fantasy novels by the creek in Marshall Park. He was picturing the carefree life of a teenager as he had never known it before.

Jeremy raised the ball, hesitated, then extended his arm with the crisp fluidity of a dancer. To the gathered crowd, the movement looked no different to that which he had performed in service to the Terrapins so many times before; only Jeremy knew the trajectory to be wrong. As the ball rose, so too rose the ocean of iron from Jeremy's weary shoulders. A new future was arcing through the sweat-scented air. And that future would begin with a tragic -


The crowd erupted. Within seconds, Jeremy was lifted onto his teammate's shoulders. Cheerleaders hugged him - or rather, hugged his legs where they dangled four feet above the ground. One cheerleader even kissed him on the calf. No one seemed to notice that Jeremy's face was registering not joy, but shock, confusion, even despair. In an instant, the guitar was back in its stand; the stack of books was growing taller; Lauren's strawberry lips remained unspoiled.

As he was carried around the court, faces appeared and disappeared from Jeremy's field of view. "You couldn't miss if you tried, kid!" said Assistant Coach Jenkins, shaking Jeremy's knees with enthusiasm.

"Such poise!" said Assistant Coach Wilks. "There may be a starter in you, yet!"

Soon the crowd had rushed the floor, and a swell of humanity enveloped Jeremy. He was the Sun once more.

Above the chaos of the celebration, the raspy voice of Coach Vinson could be heard telling the players to arrive at the gym tomorrow morning at 8am. "NEVER TOO EARLY TO GET BETTER!" he yelled. "WE'RE GOING TO STATE, BOYS!"

From his lofty perch, Jeremy noticed Blake and Lauren leaving the gymnasium. The sight drained the color from Jeremy's face. Locking eyes, Lauren gave a friendly wave, and Blake shot Jeremy a double thumbs-up. Jeremy wanted to wave back, but his arms remained buttressed against the shoulders of his teammates. To wave would be to fall.


  1. This story captures the difficulties young people have making decisions about what brings them happy. There are extrinsic pressures which often lead at first, followed N.Y. intrinsic motives…all part of growing up.The suspense was fantastic.Loved it!

    1. Thanks June! And thanks for reading.

  2. Jeremy confuses the veneration of his peers - the positive attention from others due to his special skills - for love. But he grows to realize it’s a trap - it’s not real love - and it’s also become a diminishing return - too little reward for the time required. Kudo’s to Jeremy for sorting this out!

    (I do have concerns over his early childhood and family of origin. Why would he need so much external validation? Was there some trauma? I suspect he has insecure attachment issues and associated challenges due to inadequate affection from his parents.)

    (Also, for better or worse, in most US high schools, athletes sit far far above the 4.0 students in the social hierarchy. They are the pinnacle of dating power and girls swoon and compete for their affections. Jeremy, Lauren and Blake must go to a fancy magnet school or a high school in a very wealthy community… (which tracks as aren’t Les Paul guitars expensive?))

    The pacing of the story was great and I *loved* the ending!

    1. Great observations Adam! Thanks for reading.

  3. Right about athletics trumping academics in terms of high school prestige.

  4. Rozanne CharbonneauApril 15, 2024 at 8:53 PM

    Thank God there is life after high school. This is a great story about the skewed priorities of youth. I loved the ending. "Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it." Adam is right. The parents seem negligent. They needed to intervene and help him reduce his obsession. Well done, J.D.!

  5. Jeremy is saddled with the expectations of the other high school kids, to perform at basketball. During his young life he has nurtured a talent which he feels will gain him acceptance and self-esteem. In reality, he wants to be just a kid, and enjoy playing guitar, reading books and crushing on a girl that strikes his fancy. I hope that Jeremy finds his way to the girl in the Led Zeppelin t-shirt; he would be so much happier there.

  6. Very well written with such a compelling style and I felt so much sympathy for Jeremy. I've seldom read something where I wanted someone to fail at something, but of course his Jeremy's desire for failure would have been his success, so that's a very interesting twist. The fact that he failed at 'failing' gave the story a really unusual, but highly effective ending - great work!

  7. "To wave would be to fall." Wow! What a great line!

  8. Interesting. "You couldn't miss if you tried" I liked that line. The story leaves a reader with plenty to think about. I thought that perhaps of his own will he could have intended to make the last shot along with deciding to quit basketball for music perhaps after the season was over. That would have shown strength of character but may not have been as dramatic. So, in this story, at least at the end, for me, FATE seems to be stronger than character.

  9. This story definitely made me think of youth and wanting to do all the things, cultivate all the interests, and in Jeremy's case even ride the hard work to excellence only to feel ... unfulfilled. Of course, we grow into making clearer choices, but damned if I don't have a much taller TBR pile than Jeremy that I wish life would allow me more time to attack! Great pace, great detail, especially loved the little bit on how the entire neighborhood used him to gauge time, but didn't think there was a wasted word.

  10. Great piece. Every word carries the story forward to a surprising (but not too surprising) ending.