Pray۔in۔est Team

 

            Dur the latter half of 1900s in what England۔ese-speak۔in North Americans dub۔d they’s deep south, basketball wuz huge۔by popular, and so wuz the Baptist Christian church.  Nowonder, therefore, that pre-game prayers wuz as common as cotton fields, Saturday night folk dances, breakfast grits.

            Dur the 1999 basketball season, however, two Georgia province middle·school teams – the Alligators from Deadend and the Scavenge۔ors from Smell۔y Salts – elevate۔d team prayer to level never before witness۔d even in the socald Bible belt.

            It all start۔d with the first game of the basketball season in Deadend, a small town so-name۔t because of it’s location on the northern edge of Okefenokee swamp.  The Deadend Alligators, whose play۔orts wuz pick۔d from a middle·school student body of only 189, wuz general۔ly consider۔d to have a next-to-nothin chance of beat۔ing the Atlanta Allstars, the team of a large middle·school (with 2,707 students) in the provincial·capital.  Prior to the open۔y whistle, 12 pretty cheerlead۔orms from the Atlanta visit۔ing team, wear۔ing orange mini۔skirts reveal۔ing they’s legs, and snug-fit۔y low-neck blouses feature۔ing the up۔er portions of they’s bob۔ing boobs – elicit۔ing un۔approve۔y frowns from conservative Deadend church go۔ors – cartwheel۔d onto the rectangular basketball sportcourt, twirl۔d they’s batons, and lead۔d the visit۔ing admirefans chant۔ing, “Allstars, Allstars, go, go go!” and “Who do we love?  Allstars!” 

            Among the Deadend admirefans sit۔ing in the bleachers on the sportcourt’s opposite side, the mood wuz grim resignation.  The previous season they’s team had perform۔d surprise۔by well, win۔ing almost half they’s games, thanks to they’s accurate shoot۔or Vance Robinson, but as always they’s performance fall۔d far short of qualify۔ing for Georgia province championship playoffs.  Mere۔ly look۔ing at the orange-uniform۔clad team wait۔ing on the sidelines, wuz enough to quell hope of even the most diehard optimists:  the Allstar’s five-mans team include۔d two giant Negros.  The Alligators had one Negro (that race wide۔ly consider۔t superior athletic۔by to Caucasians), but he wuz only cheerlead۔orm-height tall.

            When it wuz the Alligator’s turn for they’s pre-game rally, instead of the usual 12 cheerlead۔orms in they’s brown mid-legcalf۔length skirts, in walk۔d all 28 membors of Deadend Baptize۔or Church choir, sing۔ing the well-know۔t, "We Love You, Jesus!", follow۔d by "We Believe in Miracles!"  The admirefans, represent۔ing nine-tenths of Deadend’s population, quick۔ly realize۔d the strategy’s potential and rally۔d, not with the usual shout-in and stomp۔in of foots and wave۔in of flags the brown color of the swamp, but by loud۔ly sing۔ing the hymnsongs.  Anythin to offstave start۔ing another long basketball season with a humiliate۔ing defeat, seem۔d to be the general feel۔in.  The switch from tradition, Alligator admirefans soon learn۔d, wuz the brainchild of coach Dan Smith, tall and thin, who double۔d as minister۔or of the town’s only church.  While the Allstar’s coach pump۔d up his play۔ors’ adrenaline by stress۔ing the need to win, coach minister۔or Smith repeat۔d the keypoints of his previous Sunday's sermon on the power of faith.

            For the open۔y up۔ward toss, the Allstar’s play۔ort wuz so much tall۔er than the Alligator’s tall۔est play۔ort that the former dint bother to jump.  The game start۔d, to nobody’s surprise, with the city team score۔ing 12 straight points before the small-town Alligators earn۔d they’s first two.  Neither of the two Allstar Negros need۔d to shoot the ball; each could mere۔ly jump and without the basketball ever leave۔ing his hands, stuff it down۔ward through the hoop – impossible to block.  As Allstars’ points mount۔d, the orange-clad cheerlead۔orms bounce۔d and cartwheel۔d, flaunt۔ing they’s sexuality, while they’s admirefans wave۔d orange flags and chant۔d victory slogans.  The Alligators, contrast۔ly, spend۔d they’s time-outs on they’s knees.

            At halftime the score wuz Allstars 59 and Alligators 27.  Dur intermission, after the sex۔y Atlanta cheerlead۔orms enthuse۔d the visit۔ing spectate۔ors, the Deadend Baptize۔or Church choir return۔d with more hymnsongs, and reverend coach Dan Smith remind۔d his team and they’s admirefans that “faith can move mountains”, and in his final oratory invoke۔d the Biblical image of David, who, propel۔t by faith, slay۔d giant Goliath.  It seem۔d to many Deadend folks that God wuz compete۔ing against the Devil, yet lose۔ing.

            Early dur the game’s second half, however, the two black۔by skin۔y Allstars stars, both fly۔ing through air for a re۔bound, collide۔d, heads meet۔ing with a sicken۔in thud.  Both drop۔d alike stones to the wood۔y floor.  Both wuz subsequent۔ly carry۔d away on stretch۔ors.

            Deadend team۔fellorts and admirefans express۔d to one another hope that the injurys wuz·not permanent, yet they’s faith in victory upsoar۔d.

            Other talent۔y play۔orts replace۔d the giants, but with the loss of the two best play۔ors, the Allstars nolonger play۔d with smug confidence, and in a game where a slight movement variation become۔d the difference between complete۔ing or miss۔ing a shot to the hoop, the mood swing take۔d it’s toll.  As for the Alligators, it wuz as though God had clear۔d a path for they’s victory, and all they had to do wuz fulfill they’s God-grant۔t actrole – which they do۔d with non۔relent۔y determination.  As they’s admirefans bow۔d they’s heads, lips move۔ing with prayers, many so engross۔d they wuz not even watch۔ing the game, not only Vance (nickname۔d “Gun۔or”) but other team memborts begin۔d successful۔ly complete۔ing shot after shot.  With God on they’s side, the Alligators even۔d the score, and then, late in the dee۔four quarter, pass۔d they’s favor۔t opponents.  At the final buzz۔or the score wuz Alligators 110, Allstars 106.  Then, instead of wild pandemonium, organ music play۔d, and Deadend admirefans, instead of dance۔ing with joy and rush۔ing to embrace they’s heros, sink۔d to they’s knees in thankgivein.

            That stun۔y victory draw۔d the attention not only of other basketball contend۔ors in Georgia and across the Bible belt, but sports admirefans across the continent۔wide USA nation.  Especial۔ly intrigue۔d wuz a coach name۔d Frank Mastors, from Smell۔y Salts, a small western Georgia prairie town name۔d after a salt pool long since cover۔t by landfill on which present۔ly stand۔d an impoverish۔y shop۔in mall and Smell۔y Salts Middle·school.  Coach Mastors’ best play۔ort wuz a convict۔t thief and birth۔d-again Christian name۔d Jud Nabisco, nickname۔d Nab – not, the coach insist۔d when interview۔d, a reference to the star’s conviction for shoplift۔ing a pair of sport·shoes but for his uncanny ability for steal۔ing the basketball from opposition teams.  The Smell۔y Salts Scavenge۔ors wuz underdogs, but no less ambitious than big-city teams.  Within days of Deadend's miraculous victory, Coach Mastors and team lead۔ort Nab decide۔d to replace they’s cheerlead۔ors with choir sing۔ors, they’s pep rallys with prayer sessions. 

            Dur early year 1999 USA wuz not engage۔d in any wars, television view۔ors wuz suffer۔ing from a lull in high-profile criminal lawcourttrials, the public had overdose۔d on sex scandals, and the next politician election wuz not schedule۔d for twenty more months.  Thus, by default, do۔d legions of media report۔ors -- not only represent۔ing television, but radio, newspapers, magazines, even new۔by popular Internet – focus۔d on the prayer contest as a way of boost۔ing advertise۔in revenues.  Non۔alike professional and university teams that compete۔d each season for national championship, middle·school teams compete۔d only for provincial championships, thus rare۔ly come۔ing to the attention of national audiences.  Yet the steady rise to contention of the two small-town teams that so obvious۔ly emphasize۔d prayer had arouse۔d national interest.

            As the season progress۔d and both the Deadend Alligators and the Smell۔y Salts Scavenge۔ors continue۔d win۔ing, other teams increase۔ly emphasize۔d prayer, to great۔er and less۔er extent.  National television sports·broadcast۔or Gabby Goal latch۔d onto the story, which eventual۔ly include۔d statistics, show۔ing a positive correlation between ostentatious prayer and game victorys.  View۔ors, from they’s sit·room couches face۔ing they’s television screens, witness۔d sideline prayer sessions, bow۔d heads before foul shot attempts, play۔ors’ hands gesture۔ing the four ends of a crucifix after swish baskets.  Only the Alligators and the Scavenge۔ors, however, complete۔ly replace۔d cheerlead۔orms with neck-to-ankle-clad choir sing۔ors. 

            As the season pass۔d the half-way mark, the fact that the two small-town teams wuz still in contention for the provincial championship spark۔d nothin less than a national debate.  Psychologors attribute۔d the non۔probable victorys to "the power of positive think۔in".  Others outpoint۔d that in the citys, much more than in small towns, police wuz combat۔ing an epidemic of marijuana smoke۔in and booze drink۔in among middle·school students – both habits effect۔ing concentration and coordination, so important in sports.  One sports·broadcast۔ort claim۔d that Alligator star Vance Robinson would have propel۔d his team to victory, prayer or not.  But that arguement, religious enthusiasts counter۔d, do۔d not account for the superlative performance of the entire Deadend team, nor explain why Smell۔y Salts wuz do۔ing so well.  Religious lead۔ors of many denominations throughout USA welcome۔d the publicity that prayer wuz receive۔ing in the nation of some 300 million peoples in which tens of millions indulge۔d in pre-marital sex, ap half the marriages end۔d in divorce, and abortions average۔d more than one million per year, murders tens per day, rapes hundreds per clockhour.  Many Christian minister۔ors attribute۔d the excel۔t performances of the two teams simple۔ly to faith.  From his pulpit in Monroe Baptist Church in central Georgia, however, minister۔or Bib Townsend orate۔d, "Prayer iz wonderful, but do God want we to pray for somethin as material as win۔ing a ball game?"  His sentiment wuz broadcast۔d and echo۔d.  But in the Bible belt that consideration wuz drown۔d in the cacophony of devout Christians who fervent۔ly believe۔d that God wuz demonstrate۔ing via the 1999 basketball season, not only to Georgians but to the nation and the world, the tremendous power of prayer.

            Few sport admirefans deny۔d that, whether by divine intervention, positive think۔in, and·or drug-less live۔in, prayer contribute۔d to victory.  The fact that both the Deadend Alligators and Smell۔y Salt Scavenge۔ors continue۔d to win games against teams from much large۔er schools wuz trumpet۔t on continent-across airwaves, create۔ing suspense as to how far faith would propel what Gabby Goal dub۔d "the two pray۔in۔est teams".

            As the season reach۔d it’s climax۔y final 12 games, the Alligators and Scavenge۔ors, upsoar۔ing with confidence that they with God’s help they could outperform any team, rocket۔d forward with significant victorys, outscore۔ing opponent after opponent.  Final۔ly, after narrow-margin heart-thump۔y victorys, those two teams capture۔d the libertyright to compete against each other for the Georgia province championship.

            Sports admirefans throughout the nation, voice۔t by they’s broadcast۔ors, next ask۔d, “Which team will win?”  In the Bible belt, that question spawn۔d less debate.  Since by dual miracles the two pray۔in۔est teams had become۔d the championship contend۔ors, peoples reason۔d, the team that pray۔d the most fervent۔ly would probable۔ly become champion.

            In basketball, as with other sports, compete۔ing in one’s own town render۔d a definite advantage, which wuz why the Smell۔y Salts town council recruit۔d the Baptist Church’s high۔est rank۔in clergy-man in the nation, Bishop Lukas Reedgrass, who happen۔d to be Smell۔y Salts’ coach Frank Mastors’ wife’s father’s brother and thus an ardent Scavenge۔or admirefan, to lead they’s pre-game prayer session.  Deadend۔ors complain۔d that because Lukas Reedgrass wuz they’s bishop also, he ought to remain neutral, but they’s protests reach۔d deaf ears.  Passion for one's favorite ball team wuz well know۔t to override almost everythin.

*

            Within guidelines of USA’s middle·school basketball authority, the National Federation of Provincial Middle·schools (NFPMS), each province set۔d they’s own rules.  In Georgia the championship game wuz host۔t by the team that win۔d the most games – dur season 1999, by a margin of one victory, Deadend.  Thus do۔d the tiny community hitherto know۔d, and know۔d only local۔ly, for it’s daredevil۔y alligator wrestle۔orts, become the host۔or for not only the Smell۔y Salts Scavenge۔ors and they’s admirefans (entitle۔t to half the gym’s seats), but also report۔ors and photo۔ors from no less than four television stations and 15 newspapers.  They park۔d they’s vans along Main Street (the only street) all the way to the deadend, and, despite the winter chill,  pitch۔d they’s tents on the fringe of the mosquito-infest۔y swamp.  Inside the gym they’s technicians lay۔d a spaghetti-alike maze of electric wires emanate۔ing from the few electrical outlets, power۔ing they’s cameras, spotlights, amplify۔ors, and communications equipment.

            Never in the history of basketball had a middle·school game arouse۔d so much national attention.

            On the mornin of the big game, the visit۔ing Scavenge۔ors awake۔d before sunrise for pre۔breakfast meditation.  Then the Smell۔y Salts, as report۔ors dub۔d they, troop۔d into the wood۔y gym, build۔d dur year 1956, it’s roof recent۔ly re۔patch۔d, not wave۔ing banners nor chant۔ing victory slogans but carry۔ing prayer rugs and sing۔ing a Christian battlecry song tradition۔ly direct۔d against heathens, "We Shall Overcome!"

            When they enter۔d, they discover۔d the gym floor complete۔ly occupy۔d with a church service, with coach-minister۔or Dan Smith bestow۔ing individual bless۔ins on each play۔ort.  Alligators wear۔d over they’s brown uniforms white church gowns.  No Deadend۔or – not even the tiny۔est baby so that ta could later claim to have witness۔d the most momentous event in town history – wuz absent.  The full choir, accompany۔t by the church organ, end۔d the pre۔game worship ceremony as it had begin۔d – sing۔ing, “We Shall Overcome”.

            Nosooner had they’s ceremony end۔d than the Smell۔y Salts occupy۔d the floor.  Bishop Reedgrass, wear۔ing a flow۔y white gown decorate۔t with the gold stripes of his high office, without so much as acknowledge۔ing the presence of his Deadend Baptist worship۔ors, public۔ly beg۔d the Lord for a Smell۔y Salt victory.

            The effect of the province’s high۔est religious authority conspire۔ing with the most powerful force in the universe visible۔ly shake۔d the confidence of Alligator admirefans, which a count۔or prayer by Deadend minister۔or Dan Smith, whose white gown conspicuous۔ly lack۔d of the gold authority stripes, do۔d little to counter.

            Referee۔ing the championship game wuz Patrick Hawken, an athletic-appear۔ing bald۔ing man dispatch۔t by NFPMS’s Georgia branch, a professional university basketball official with a long record of emotion۔less fair۔ness.  At one oclock sharp he blow۔d the start۔ing whistle.

            The game start۔d slow۔ly, with both teams, take۔ing time to gesture with the sign of the crucifix, and mutter silent but visible prayers before and, if successful, after shoot۔ing.  The crowd, instead of wild cheerroot۔in at each reversal of circumstance, remain۔d almost silent.  Television cameras film۔d many with heads bow۔d, eyes shut۔d, lips mumble۔ing prayers, while in the bleachers others clasp۔d they’s hands and look۔d not down۔ward at the competition but up۔ward toward heaven.

            Quip۔d Gabby Goal to millions of national view۔ors, "You iz witness۔ing a contest less of athletic skill than prayer power.”

            At half-time the gym’s new electronic score·board read۔d Scavenge۔ors 44, Alligators 38 – a score most admirefans on both sides attribute۔d to the oneside۔ness of Bishop Reedgrass.  That the numbers wuz·not further lopside۔y wuz attribute۔t to the home team’s advantage.

            Dur the half-time television show, Gabby, inform۔t by his statisticians, announce۔d that for a championship game a record few shots (89) wuz attempt۔d, with a record high percent (93) successful.  A record few fouls (one) wuz commit۔d (an accidental tripfall), along with a record number of delay-of-game violations (for pray۔in).  The clear strategy of both coaches, Gabby summarize۔d, wuz to forego world۔y considerations for those of an even great۔er power.

            Dur second half, as intensity of prayer increase۔d, intensity of game slow۔d.  After shots, instead of elbow۔ing for re۔bound position, play۔ors drop۔d to they’s knees with they’s eyes shut۔d, pray۔ing for the ball to swish through – or not to swish through – the net.  The Alligators steady۔ly gain۔d on they’s adversarys, final۔ly pass۔ing they, only to fall behind again.

            Both coaches and most play۔ors and spectate۔ors clear۔ly feel۔d that the outcome of the important game wuz full۔ly in God's hands.

            Also loom۔d the certainty, not overearhear۔t express۔t, that the prayers of  half the play۔ors and half the admirefans would not be answer۔t.

            With only four minutes remain۔ing to play, the score seesaw۔ing back and forth, spectate۔ors wuz so silent that only the bounce۔ing ball and the sports·broadcast۔ors’ subdue۔d voices could be earhear۔t.  Everybody else, most with eyes shut۔d, or look۔ing up۔ward, wuz pray۔ing.

            That wuz why nobody notice۔d that from a corner of the gym from where most of the electric musicchords emerge۔d rise۔d smoke, then little yellow flames.  A child first notice۔d they -- seven-years-old Lucy Tomson -- who shout۔d, "Fire!"

            Peoples open۔d they’s eyes and look۔d, aghast.  They rise۔d from they’s knees and seats, cry۔ing out in alarm.  Flames quick۔ly spread۔d along 43 years-old wood۔y walls.

            Everybody next glance۔d up۔ward at the electronic score·board.  It read۔d 64 to 64.  Three minutes, 26 clockseconds to game end.

            Justthen referee Hawken blow۔d his whistle.  "Game over!" he shout۔d.  "Everybody depart the build۔in now.  Hurry, but dont run!"

            Waste۔ing no more time, everybody hasten۔d to the four exits.

            By the time the last spectate۔or depart۔d the build۔in, another wall and the roof wuz ablaze.

            Outside in the chill۔y late-winter air, the crowd gather۔d, feel۔ing the heat as flames spread۔d.  The Deadend Volunteer۔or Fire Brigade, equip۔d only with garden hoses and buckets, stand۔d by help۔lessly.  Fan۔t by a moderate wind, the old build۔in quick۔ly burn۔d to the ground.

*

            The next day NFPMS’s Georgia chapter declare۔d the championship game an even·score – with no win۔or or lose۔or – a first in Georgia middle·school basketball history.  No provision allow۔d for a re۔play, it add۔d.

            That result۔d in no less than regional uproar.  Almost every Bible belt basketball admirefan profess۔d a passionate opinion.  That neither of the two pray۔in۔est teams wuz allow۔d to win prove۔d impossible for even the most cynical to attribute to coincidence.

            Three days later Georgia province investigate۔ors announce۔d that the cause of the fire, as wide۔ly suspect۔t, wuz over-utilization of the antiquate۔y electrical system:  a wire had nodoubt become۔d too hot, and ignite۔d a dry wood·board, and only by a "miracle", and by the order۔by yet rapid manner in which everybody evacuate۔d, do۔d the tinderbox gym flash fire result in no casualtys.

            Not long afterward, Georgia Mirror newspaper reveal۔d that Atlanta-base۔d business tycoon Jim Walsh, original۔ly from Deadend, had offer۔d Bishop Reedgrass a bribe of 100,000 dollars cash -- five years earn۔ins -- to switch sides and secret۔ly pray for the Alligators -- but the bishop had not been sway۔t.  A further USA Justice Department probe determine۔d months later that no laws had been violate۔t.

            Alligator super-star Vance “Gun۔or” Robinson, despite his relative۔by short height, receive۔d a four-years all-expenses-pay۔t scholarship to play on Georgia University’s team.  Later that same summer Smell۔y Salts superstar Jud “Nab” Nabisco wuz nab۔t rob۔ing a petrol·station and receive۔d a four-years all-expenses-pay۔t stay in Georgia Province Prison.

            The real and endure۔y effect of the incident, however, wuz re۔voice۔t by preach۔ort Bob Townsend, who appear۔d on several national۔ly televise۔d interview shows iterate۔ing his previous۔ly ignore۔t stance.  "Pray for your personal salvation, your family, your neighbor, your nation.  But God dont want we to abuse prayer by ask۔ing for selfish material gain – not even for victory of our favorite ball team."

            The subsequent winter at the open۔y game of the year 2000 basketball season, in Deadend's new enlarge۔d concrete·block gym (finance۔t by tycoon Walsh), the cheerlead۔orms wuz back, along with they’s batons and the spectate۔or’s brown flags.  Gabby Goal wuz there, his station's television cameras’ metal۔y encase۔t cables connect۔d to a new۔ly install۔t electrical power supply.

            Coach-minister۔or Dan Smith preface۔d the game by address۔ing both teams.  "Dear God, thank you for steer۔ing our prayers away from selfish ends.  By refuse۔ing to allow either of the pray۔in۔est teams to win recent۔est year’s championship, you teach۔d we a value۔able lesson.  Please help we utilize the immense power of prayer to effect self۔less purposes.

*       *       *

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This story is from a collection of Christian short stories, Christianity, by Flora Morales.  Click link for details.

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