Not First, Not Last
“Heads up, Lucky Charm!”
A basketball came hurling at TJ Young’s head. Too slow to get his hands up, the ball smacked against his cheek and out of bounds. Lamar, one of his opponents, howled like a damned hyena—and considering his sharp jaw was contoured like a snout, that was a fair comparison.
TJ avoided Lamar’s squinting eyes as the boy’s laughter grew stronger with each passing moment, his teammates following suit with their own guffaws. One of them stomped their foot against the schoolyard asphalt for added effect.
“This dude really tried to catch it with his face, though!” he bawled.
“Some lucky charm he is,” the stout Christian whispered to Jordan, the tallest girl in eighth grade.
TJ was sure they were regretting choosing him over Andy Wilkins. Andy was probably the worst fourteen-year-old dribbler in Los Angeles, but he could at least catch the ball. He must’ve looked much better than the flimsy “lucky charm” superstition bestowed upon TJ.
His nickname was sort of the worst.
The label never helped him charm the ladies or talk his way out of homework. It only helped him not get chosen last at pick-up basketball during lunch. But in recent weeks, it seemed like whichever team picked him won, despite his novice skill, so… the nickname stuck.
In short, his position on the team was more mascot than star player.
“Don’t just stand there,” Jordan snapped as her freckles scrunched up in a scowl. “Go get the ball, bro.” She thumbed to the basketball, which then lay against the chain-link fence surrounding the school blacktop.
TJ gave her a nod and jogged off, embarrassed. He hadn’t expected the ball to come to him in the fast break. Most of the time, Jordan and Christian passed the ball between the two of them while the rest of the team watched them in astonishment. The best any of them could hope to do was cheer them on with a slap on the back or an obligatory chant of “let’s go!”
A group of pretty girls leaning back on the fence quieted their giggling as TJ approached. A red heat rose to his cheeks. He just hoped he didn’t look like a clown—that’s all he needed. Avoiding their judging side-eyes, he knelt to grab the ball, shielding his eyes with one hand from the hot, glistening blacktop.
When his fingers met the orange, pimpled rubber, a subtle sensation ran up his arm. It buzzed like a tiny static shock, as though touching a metal surface after rubbing your fingers together. It often happened while he played basketball.
The tingle meant that good things were to come.
His mother would’ve called it his Ashe at work: the force to make things happen and produce change. TJ just called it all a bunch of hocus pocus. He could never do anything with his own Ashe—if he had any at all. But his family were powerful diviners with the ability to produce magic on a whim.
Commune with your pet goldfish? Yup. Predicting the weather with cowries? Easy. Manifest fire out of nowhere? Without breaking a sweat—well, maybe a little sweat.
It all came easy to TJ’s family, but in fourteen years, the only magic he could manifest was a belch after a good meal of chicken and jollof rice.
Despite all of that, TJ juggled the ball between his hands. He might not have believed he possessed magic, but luck? He could work with luck. He and luck were like peanut butter and jelly, after all. Heck, the kids named him after luck!
With a grin and a confident bounce in his step, he passed the ball to Lamar, whose face was still red from laughter.
Enjoy it now, TJ thought happily. We got this in the bag.
“Yeah, yeah, get your laughs in now.” Christian guarded Lamar close, waving his stubby fingers in front of the boy’s thin face. “We finna win it on the next possession.”
Lamar spun around Christian with one fluid motion. “We’re playing to eleven, fool.”
“And we got nine, homie,” Christian retorted, dashing after Lamar.
“I know you got held back, but damn, bro. Where you gonna pull out two points from? I know your silly butt ain’t shootin’ from distance.”
They were playing with streetball rules. The first team to eleven would win, with each basket worth a single point and outside shots counting for double. But teams had to win by two in streetball. Christian must’ve thought they’d score a two-pointer on their next possession.
The kid never lacked in confidence, that was for sure. TJ smirked at that.
“Wipe that goofy-ass smile off your face,” Jordan said to TJ as she defended another boy. “Get your head in the game!”
TJ shook the expression from his mouth as the boy he was supposed to be defending blew by him. Lamar passed the ball over TJ’s head, and his teammate caught it with one hand… then took a jump shot way, way out. His shot was pretty, that same quick follow-through Steph Curry had but… without the range. The basketball thunked against the front of the double rim and flew high in the air.
“Shit! Box out, box out!” Christian shouted.
But the ball was too high, which left the perimeter open for an easy long rebound for the opposing team. And, of course, TJ totally forgot to block his opponent from the rebound.
“Damnit, TJ,” Christian bellowed, his loose curls bouncing atop his head as he defended close against another player.
TJ’s ears went hot as he got back on his man. He put one hand on the boy’s sweaty school uniform, using his other to block any incoming pass. But it didn’t matter.
Somehow Lamar got the ball again and was dancing around Jordan. He dribbled the ball between his lanky legs and behind his narrow back. It was like he was hypnotizing Jordan with his moves, lulling her into indecision until he was ready for his final ploy.
TJ had seen Lamar play enough to know he wouldn’t take an outside shot; he had no jumper. All the dribbling he was doing was for show, and Jordan was falling for it.
Just as Lamar committed to his final crossover, he drove by Jordan, nearly making the girl trip over her own feet. The boy had a clear path to the basket, so TJ curled away from his man and stood his ground before Lamar’s bull rush.
That was a mistake.
The kid was at least twice TJ’s size, but TJ had to make up for recent mistakes.
He closed his eyes and clenched his body for the impact. He watched the NBA enough to know that guys got pummeled like this all the time, but at least he could draw the foul.
TJ’s thin forearms braced against Lamar’s ripped body as he fell back into the hard asphalt. Lamar laid the ball in with a thud against the backboard and a swish through the net, tying the game nine to nine.
“Nah, nah, that’s an offensive foul!” Christian called out as he waved his hands animatedly across his face.
TJ’s brain kept spinning without end. Christian’s meaty arms looked like they doubled through TJ’s blurry vision as TJ rubbed at the knot welling between the naps of his small Afro. When he pulled his hand away, it was wet with blood between his middle and index fingers.
“Hell nah, bruh.” Lamar sucked at his teeth. “There’s no offensive fouls in pick-up; this ain’t no NBA.”
The boys argued as TJ waited for his head to get off its carousel. Lamar started pushing at Christian, and Jordan pushed back in retaliation.
“Guys…” TJ trailed off, lightheaded and unbalanced as he struggled to his feet.
The boys and girl didn’t listen, clenching their fists and getting into each other’s faces.
“Guys!” TJ shouted too loudly as the throbbing in his head rang violently against his skull.
They stopped their jawing and turned to TJ, who took a breath before he said, “Give ’em the point. We’ll win it on the next one.” He didn’t want any easy calls coming his way. Lamar would just call him soft or something.
“See, even Lucky Charm knows that call was bull,” Lamar said.
TJ, blood still dotting his fingers, snatched the ball from Lamar’s hand. “It’s our ball either way.”
Lamar shrugged and strutted down the court with his team, ready to defend. Before TJ could take the ball out, Jordan slapped him across the chest. “Good lookin’ out back there, Lucky Charm,” she said. “He had me beat.”
“Don’t mention it.” TJ craned his neck up to Jordan, whose braided head silhouetted against the high noon sun. “If I can’t score, the least I can do is be a wall, right?”
TJ threw the ball to her.
“Nah, you take it up the court.” She threw the ball back. “If you see a shot, take it.”
TJ almost fumbled the ball in his shaking hands. Jordan didn’t actually think he could win it for them, did she? The last time TJ scored a basket in a game was last year in the seventh grade—and it was his own team’s hoop.
Sweat dripping down his hand and onto the ball, TJ did his best to dribble up the court. A group of other students who must’ve finished eating their lunch early huddled around, and the cute girls leaning on the fence drifted closer for a better look.
It seemed like everyone knew the game was coming to a close.
“Great,” TJ groaned to himself.
TJ drew in a long breath, looking for that same tingle he felt before. If one thing was true, whenever he really wanted his team to win, they did. The outcome shouldn’t have been any different now that the ball was in his hands. Didn’t his dad always say TJ had great court vision despite not having the best jumper?
He could do this.
Dribbling down the court, that faint sensation returned to him. He couldn’t explain it even in his own head, but something about his focus changed. It was like his teammates had sharpened in focus, like some prism was filtering out all the noise. When he got like this, TJ felt like a puppet on a string. Something deep within him made the play call before he could even figure out what that call should be.
They weren’t going to win this if he took the shot. The win would have to come through Jordan. It seemed like Lamar knew that too, who was already double-teaming the girl near the baseline.
TJ turned his attention to his other teammates. It was like a puzzle. He just needed to find a way to get Jordan open again. And unlike Lamar’s team, she could actually hit her outside shots.
So TJ called for a screen at the top of the key, waving Christian over. The boy’s eyes went wide with disbelief. It wasn’t often that TJ called plays, let alone a pick and roll. Christian didn’t even move until Jordan shouted, “Get over there and set ’im a screen!”
Christian did as he was told and rushed over to plant his body behind TJ’s defender. The boy glimmered like a prism in TJ’s vision, and a new crack in the path splintered for TJ to follow.
He lowered his dribble defensively and curled tight around Christian’s screen—the boy’s protruding belly coming in handy for that. Then TJ drove to the basket with an awkward burst of speed, putting his long legs to use. He had no intention of taking the layup—he knew he’d only miss it—but his commitment drew the attention of the other players who met him under the hoop to block his shot. TJ passed the ball back up top to Christian, who wasn’t their best player but was at least a decent shooter.
Just as Christian caught the ball, a clarity seemed to drift across the boy’s face. TJ’s heart fluttered. He had set up the play perfectly; he just needed his teammate to finish it off. Scoring a long one-pointer, where Christian stood, would only continue the game—streetball rules required winning by two, after all. That meant getting the ball to Jordan on the outside corner.
With a pump fake, Christian forced Lamar to leave his double-team on Jordan. And the moment Lamar leaped into the air to block, Christian dished it out to Jordan at the corner. TJ clenched his fist, wanting nothing more than for Jordan to shoot and make the shot.
Please, please, please…
Jordan squared up, jumped, and followed through with a beautiful flick of her wrist. TJ bit his lip as the ball spun in a perfect revolution. It was over. He knew it would go in.
After all, he was the team’s lucky charm.
TJ’s team went wild, throwing their fists in the air, jumping high in jubilation, and rushing Jordan with bear hug after bear hug.
“Hand down, man down!”
“Was homie sleepin’, or what?”
Everyone piled onto Jordan—the students who were watching, even the girls who were usually too cool to cheer. TJ couldn’t help but smile. Were it not for his initial drive and his dish to Christian, Jordan might never have been open for such a good look.
“We call those hockey assists,” Dad would always say. “One of the most undervalued plays in basketball.”
“Good lookin’ out, Christian,” Jordan hollered through the crowd.
“Christian droppin’ dimes like King James,” another student said gleefully.
TJ frowned. No one turned to congratulate him, not even Jordan. He couldn’t say that surprised him; he hardly ever got credit. Even so, no matter how used to it he was, it still stung. And there was no use making a case for himself. It would’ve just looked like he was stealing Christian and Jordan’s thunder.
The other boys—Lamar chief among them—asked to run it back, but the bell rang, ending the lunch period. The sea of students broke up, each boy and girl grabbing their backpacks and lunch bags before heading off to their respective classes.
TJ joined none of them. Just the way he liked it.
He used to be friends with Christian, but they had grown apart. The boy decided who he wanted to be last year—an after-school juvie with the high schoolers: smoking, getting with girls, that sort of thing. TJ preferred after-school tabletop games, drinking slushies, and… well, he’d like to get with girls too if one would have him.
If it hadn’t been for their shared interest in basketball, TJ would’ve never seen Christian anymore. It didn’t matter, though. Friendships were overrated anyway, and not everyone was cut out for them—TJ included. Either TJ disappointed them, or they disappointed him. It was better just to be the lone wolf. Well, maybe not a lone wolf. No one would ever describe TJ as a wolf. Maybe a quiet puppy or modest fox, at best.
His parents just brushed off his reclusion at family reunions and birthday parties as being shy, but TJ figured he was just an introvert, which—according to the internet—meant he did better alone. He wasn’t shy, exactly; he just didn’t seek out attention.
There was only one person he may have considered a real friend, and as lame as it may have sounded, that person was his sister, Ifedayo Young—though TJ called her “Dayo.”
She had been gone for three years now, though. She was too busy playing Wonder Woman in the streets of Abuja, or Old Oyo, or Lagos, or wherever in Nigeria she was at this point. No, not a cosplayer or one of those costumed people on Hollywood Boulevard, but an actual hero. At least that’s what Mom and everyone else in the family always said.
TJ sighed and picked up his tattered backpack. It ripped at the bottom and barfed out a pile of folders and books. Grunting, TJ collected his supplies, hoping no one saw him.
“Uh… Tomori Jomiloju Young?” a gruff voice said from behind.
Great, of course someone saw him.
It was Principal Garcia. The stout man stood akimbo against the bright blue sky. His voice always sounded like something was caught in his throat, and he pronounced TJ’s full name better than most—though it was still wrong.
“Just… TJ,” he corrected him.
“TJ…” Garcia stopped, frowning. “What’s that on your shirt?”
TJ looked down to find a few spots of blood. “Oh, nothing. Just wanted to see if red went well with the blue in my uniform. Answer: it doesn’t.”
Garcia sighed but didn’t press the issue. “Listen, son.” He cleared his throat, his eyes dropping briefly to the ground before glancing back to TJ. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
TJ rolled his eyes. “Was it Tunde again?”
His brother Tunde always got himself in some sort of trouble. TJ told him he was too smart for his own good, always talking back to the teachers about their facts not being straight or riling up the wrong bullies, whose intelligence he often challenged. Granted, the kid was a little genius, already skipping two grades—one below TJ. He could almost hear his little brother’s voice in his head saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll skip another two so you won’t embarrass me in the same classes.”
“I think it’s best you come with me, son,” Mr. Garcia said sadly.
An uncomfortable sensation trembled across TJ’s body; Mr. Garcia wasn’t one for the soft-handed approach.
“Sir, is Tunde all right?”
Garcia took in a deep inhale. “Tunde is fine, this…” Garcia’s bushy brows were free of any humor. “This is about your sister.”
TJ’s stomach went empty. What did Dayo have to do with his principal? TJ gulped before asking, “W-what about her?”
Garcia drew a hand around TJ’s shoulder. The gentleness in his touch only made TJ’s unease worse. “Come with me, son. Your family is waiting for us in my office.”