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Authors: Regina Hart

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BOOK: Fast Break
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He hooked his hands on his hips and asked the first question on his mind. “What the hell happened out there?”
“We lost.” Team captain Barron “Bling” Douglas didn't bother to turn from his locker to respond. The tattoos across his brown back flexed with his muscles as he shrugged off his shirt.
DeMarcus glared at Barron. “Is that OK with you?”
Jamal scowled up at him from his seat in front of his locker. The number twenty-three was tattooed on his pale brown skin right above his heart. “We wouldn't have lost if I'd gotten more playing time. I told you before, I'm not a sixth man. I can't come off the bench.”
DeMarcus gritted his teeth. He was fed up with the broken-record complaints from the overeager rookie. “And I've told you, you have to earn the start.”
Anthony Chambers pulled a wide-tooth comb through his throwback natural. “Have mercy, Coach. We just want to get out of here.”
DeMarcus's eyes widened. Had he heard the power forward correctly? “You want to go home? Is it past your bedtime? This isn't summer camp. It's the NBA.”
Warrick Evans sat at the bench in front of his locker. His forearms rested on his thighs. “We know where we are, Coach. We also know we were outplayed.” The shooting guard dragged a hand over his cleanshaven, brown head. “The Heat was faster and didn't make any mistakes.”
Jamal turned on Warrick. “Gramps, you're the one who should be coming off the bench. I could keep up with the Heat.”
Warrick gave the brash shooting guard a tight smile. “You heard Coach. If you want my spot, earn it.”
Jamal jabbed a finger toward the veteran player. “Keep playing like you're playing and you'll lose it. At least you'll have the best seat in the house when I take us to the championship.”
DeMarcus watched Warrick's eyes ice over at the rookie's challenge. The veteran stood. DeMarcus braced himself to stop a locker room brawl. Instead Warrick striped off his sweat-laden jersey. DeMarcus relaxed tense muscles.
“Maybe we were outcoached.” Serge Gateau's theory was delivered with a heavy French accent and plenty of spite.
DeMarcus faced him. “How could I have better prepared you?”
Serge's gaze wavered. The Frenchman scanned the room. Not finding the assistance he searched for, he returned his attention to DeMarcus. “I want to be traded.”
Another broken record.
DeMarcus scanned the faces in the room. The bench players looked bored. Barron was sullen. Jamal acted offended. Serge seemed irritated. Anthony appeared to have put the game behind him. Warrick seemed depressed, and Vincent Jardine, the center, appeared distracted.
DeMarcus pushed to the front of the room, commanding their attention. “We're done with losing. I don't care what it takes. This season, we're making it to the play-offs.”
Barron snorted. “You think just because you said it, it's going to happen?”
DeMarcus shot the team captain a hard glare. Barron looked away. “Friday, we're going to Atlanta to play the Hawks. We have two days to prepare. They're going to play us as hard as the Heat did tonight. They won't let up. And, tomorrow at practice, neither will I.”
DeMarcus stormed from the locker room. He was still angry, embarrassed and disgusted. And he had a press conference to get through.
A hand grabbed his arm, stopping him mid-stride. DeMarcus looked around to find Gerald Bimm invading his personal space.
The owner gave him a smug look. “Can we talk privately?”
DeMarcus wanted to say no. He didn't have the stomach for the other man's subterfuge. But Gerald was one of the franchise owners. DeMarcus stepped out of the heavy pedestrian traffic and followed his boss a short distance from the Monarchs' locker room.
Gerald stopped to face him. “It seems odd to say good job after a losing effort, but there you have it. Good job.”
Anger took supremacy over embarrassment. “Good job? We lost by thirty points on our home court.”
Gerald chuckled. “That's the goal, Marc. We need a losing seasoning. Or have you forgotten our conversation?”
DeMarcus blinked to clear the red haze from his vision. It didn't work. “I haven't forgotten, but you must have. I told you I'm not a stooge.”
“Then tonight was a happy accident.”
“Don't expect a repeat of it.”
“On the contrary, Marc. I suggest that you repeat yourself often. I want to see empty seats. A lot of empty seats. The arena was too full tonight.”
DeMarcus narrowed his eyes. “Why do you want to destroy the team? What's in it for you?”
Gerald's smile dimmed. “I'm not trying to destroy it. I'm trying to make it more profitable.”
DeMarcus's jaw tightened. He hated when people lied to him. “Try again, Gerry. You don't make a team profitable by chucking it into the league's basement.”
“I'm willing to accept short-term loses for long-term gains.”
“And I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.” DeMarcus turned away.
Gerald caught his arm again. “If you want to keep your job, remember our conversation. Jackie didn't want to hire you in the first place. If you don't cooperate, it would be easy to convince her to fire you.”
DeMarcus stared at his boss's thin, light-skinned hand on the arm of his black suit jacket until the other man released him. “I quit once before, and it was Jack who convinced me to come back.”
“I could get her to change her mind about you.”
Under other circumstances, DeMarcus would laugh in Gerald's face. Tonight, the older man annoyed him. “You couldn't convince her to come in out of the rain.”
Gerald's lip curled. “If you aren't worried about job security, maybe you'll care about your reputation.”
“Meaning?”
“What would the public think about your drug addiction?”
DeMarcus frowned. “I've never used drugs.”
“And you can explain that to the media once the story breaks.”
The image of what such a story circulating their community would do to his father threatened to drop DeMarcus to his knees. “If the Monarchs don't have a losing season, you'll lie to the public, claiming I'm addicted to drugs. That's how you intend to get me to cooperate?”
Gerald slipped his hands into the pockets of his navy suit pants. “The press will jump all over the story, don't you think? I can see the angles now. The Mighty Guinn a drug abuser. Is that why he retired early? Did his coaches and trainers know? How will it effect his Hall of Fame induction?”
Blood rushed through DeMarcus's veins, burning his skin. “No one would believe you.”
The franchise partner's smile shone with malice. “Are you sure?”
DeMarcus spun from Gerald before he gave in to the desire to remove his boss's smile, taking several teeth with it.
No one would believe Gerald's lies that DeMarcus had a drug addiction. He may have lived in Miami the past fifteen years, but he'd grown up in Brooklyn. People in the community knew him. They knew his character. They'd never believe Gerald.
Would they?
Could he risk it?
10
“How's your back?” Jaclyn was a little breathless as she ran beside Warrick Evans on the boardwalk behind the Empire, which tracked the marina. She'd picked up her pace to keep up with him, but she was fairly certain the six-foot-seven-inch shooting guard had slowed to accommodate her.
“The spasms come and go. Some days are better than others.” The shooting guard sounded distracted. He'd been that way for a while.
“Was yesterday a good day or a bad day?” The home game against the Utah Jazz Monday night had been the team's eighth straight loss.
“I was off my game yesterday. I know that and so does everyone else.” Warrick's terse tone was out of character.
It was eight o'clock Tuesday morning. The November sun had risen late, and the lamps crowning the slender black posts along the marina fence had long since gone out. The fall air blew crisp off the water. She was comfortable this morning, but soon it would be too cool to run here.
“Why were you off your game? Was it because of your back?” Jaclyn's gaze dropped to Warrick's legs. Had he sped up? Probably. He usually ran faster when he was agitated, as though he was running away from something. What was it?
“Are you asking as a franchise owner or as a friend?”
That hurt. Jaclyn lengthened her stride to match his pace. “After twelve years, you should know the answer to that.”
“You've never been my boss before.”
Jaclyn stared hard at him until Warrick's eyes met hers. “I'm the granddaughter of one of the founding owners. I've always been your boss.”
Warrick looked away. “Point taken.”
She heard his contrition. “For the record, if I'd wanted to have a conversation with you as your boss, I'd have had it in my office wearing a business suit. I wouldn't race after you in a T-shirt and shorts, sweating like a pig.”
His surprised chuckle drew the tension from their run. Jaclyn breathed easier as Warrick slowed his speed. She brushed the sweat from her brow.
“I'm sorry.” Warrick was subdued.
“You should be.” Jaclyn glimpsed Warrick's smile in her peripheral vision.
“Thanks for running with me this morning. I wanted to try a couple of miles out here to test my knees and back.”
Jaclyn gazed around the marina. Winter blue waves bounced the scattering of yachts still on the waters. Chatty seagulls danced on the chilly breeze. “Don't worry about it. I'm glad to be on hand in case your back locks up and you have to be carried back to the Empire.”
“You're a pal.”
Jaclyn tossed him a look. He still seemed preoccupied. “So, what's bothering you? You've been sullen and distracted for weeks. And now we can add paranoid.”
“Paranoid? How's that?”
“You said everyone knew you were off your game yesterday. That sounds paranoid to me.”
“I'm not paranoid.” Masculine irritation tightened his voice.
“By everyone you mean Jamal, don't you?”
Warrick was silent for several strides. They were following the path of an incline about halfway through their workout. Jaclyn felt the strain in her hamstrings. She shortened her strides and leaned into the hill. They finally crested the incline, then circled back to the Empire.
Warrick swiped the sweat from his brows. “Jamal wants my spot.”
“Why do you allow him to get to you?” Jaclyn's blood started a slow boil. Right now, Jamal Ward wasn't one of her favorite people.
“Maybe he has a point.”
Jaclyn tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “You're one of the most consistent players in the league.”
“Then why don't I have a ring?”
Strain. That's what she heard in her friend's voice. It made her worry about him even more. “A lot of NBA players don't have rings. Some of them are even in the Hall of Fame.”
Warrick looked at her. “I don't have many more opportunities to get to the Finals.”
With his chronic injuries both to his back and his knees, Jaclyn could understand Warrick's concern. “I want to make it to the postseason, too. But it takes a team to win a championship.”
His voice was reflective. “We don't play like a team. And each season, it gets worse.”
The Empire came into sight. Jaclyn glanced toward the practice facility on the left. Was DeMarcus in his office? She'd noticed the head coach usually started his day early.
She glanced at Warrick. “Why didn't you take more shots last night? You had several sweet looks, but instead of shooting, you passed the ball. Why?”
He picked up the pace. “I thought someone else had a better shot.”
“Why have you started second-guessing yourself? Sometimes, Rick, you can't pass the ball. You have to take the shot. You know that.”
“And if I miss?”
“When did you lose your nerve?”
Warrick was silent for a distance. “Your grandfather tried to build the team around me. Twelve years later, we still don't have a ring. The front office brought in Bling for energy and Jamal for excitement. I'm no longer team captain and a rookie's after my spot. I have good reason to wonder whether I have what it takes to contribute to the team.”
“I disagree.” Jaclyn wiped the sweat from her stinging eyes. “If you don't even try, you have no one but yourself to blame if you fail.”
The truth of her words applied to her just as well as they applied to Warrick. But had she waited too long to save the Monarchs? Gerald and Albert had devastated the team and divided the loyalty of the front office. They'd crippled sales and rendered the Monarchs virtually invisible in their own community. Was there anything left to save?
 
 
DeMarcus strode into Oscar Clemente's office and dropped a sheaf of papers on the assistant coach's cluttered desk. “Why did you change the game plan for Atlanta?”
Oscar sprawled back in his chair. Either he hadn't noticed or didn't care about DeMarcus's anger. “Your plan didn't give Rick enough touches.”
Warrick Evans. DeMarcus's nostrils flared at the thought of the other man. “According to whom?”
“According to everyone who's ever watched his game footage.” Oscar swung his black leather chair side to side. The motion was easy and unconcerned. “It takes him a little longer to warm up. But once he's warm, he's our best weapon on the court.”
DeMarcus stepped back from the paper-strewn desk, drawing his gaze across the disheveled office. News clippings of every play-off win, conference final and community commendation the team earned during the almost twenty years since Oscar had been with the team lined his office walls.
A Monarchs mug and stress ball sat on Oscar's desk. A Monarchs mouse pad lay beside his keyboard, and the franchise logo decorated his computer desktop.
DeMarcus noticed the Monarchs pin on Oscar's jersey, similar to the one Jaclyn always wore. How many of those did the man own? Should he be reassured by or concerned about the assistant coach's obsession with the team?
DeMarcus rubbed his eyes with his right fingers. “And while he's warming up, Atlanta will build a huge lead over us. Rick needs to be warm as soon as he steps onto the court.”
“Rick is a great ballplayer and an important member of our team. His game gives us another dimension.”
DeMarcus removed stacks of papers from one of the guest chairs before settling into it. The resentment boiling inside him had nothing to do with his seeing Warrick and Jaclyn jogging together this morning. “Rick hesitates to take the shot, even when he has the look. I need a bold player to fire up the team.”
Displeasure pinched Oscar's face. He sat forward, leaning into his desk. “You mean Jamal.”
“He's not afraid to shoot.”
“Even when he shouldn't.”
“He's an aggressive competitor.”
“Who gets into foul trouble five minutes into the game.”
“That's an exaggeration.”
Oscar returned his gaze with a silent, steady stare.
How much aggravation was he going to have to deal with to make it through the season? He'd challenged a franchise owner who wanted to move the team from Brooklyn. He was fighting players who'd accepted the idea of not making it to the play-offs before the season had even started. Now he was butting heads with one of his assistants who still acted like the interim head coach.
DeMarcus propped his right ankle on his left knee. “If you didn't agree with my plan, why didn't you talk to me instead of substituting your own?”
Oscar folded his hands on top of the stack of papers on his desk. “You wouldn't listen.”
A weak excuse. “I'm listening now.”
“Then change the plan.”
“ No.”
“Why not?”
“I don't agree with you.”
Oscar sat back again. “We're oh-and-eight. Your plans don't work.”
The muscles in his shoulders knotted even as DeMarcus tried not to react to the criticism. “Is it the plan or the players?”
Oscar shook his head. “You don't know these players like I do.”
“If you know them and what they're capable of, why didn't you apply for the head coach position?”
Oscar glared at him. “Didn't want it.”
He'd hit a nerve. “Didn't want or weren't offered?”
Oscar clenched his fist. “That butt wipe, Gerry, offered me the position. And I knew why. I'm a good assistant. A damn good one. But I'm not head coach material. I know that and he knows it, too. That's why he wanted me for the position. Like you, he wanted me so the team would lose.”
DeMarcus took a deep breath. Oscar had hit back. Hard. “The team won't lose because of me. But it will if we don't work together.”
“Rick needs more touches.”
DeMarcus shook his head at the other man's stubbornness. “You've routinely given Rick's thirty percent of the touches. But for the past four seasons, you've been losing.”
“He didn't have the right players around him.”
“He's lost his nerve.”
“He needs new players.”
“The franchise doesn't have the money for quality trades.” DeMarcus sighed. “We have to build the team around another player.”
Oscar's expression tightened. “I've been with Rick his whole career. He's the leader of this team.”
DeMarcus pushed himself to his feet. “He
was
the leader of this team.”
Oscar lifted his head to maintain DeMarcus's eye contact. “We can win with Rick on the court.”
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The team needs a change.” DeMarcus took the copy of Oscar's game plan from the assistant coach's desk and tore it in half. “If you disagree with me in the future, talk to me. Don't go behind my back.”
DeMarcus gripped the pieces of the plan in his fist and strode from Oscar's office.
 
 
Jaclyn stood with her back to the kitchen door of the Morning Glory Chapel. She pinned her curls up and tucked them under a hairnet. The sound of the door opening preceded the brisk clicking of stiletto heels.
She glanced over her shoulder and froze. A grin stretched her lips. “Welcome back, Violet Ebanks O'Neal.”
Violet strutted across the room clothed in skinny navy jeans and a tight lavender cashmere sweater. Her makeup emphasized her violet eyes and high cheekbones. She drew her fingers through her salon-styled, auburn hair and grinned back. “I feel like my old self. You were right.”
“Of course I was. What about?”
Violet secured her hair under a net. “That I needed some time on my own to figure out what I was missing in my life. That's what I've been doing these past two weeks.”
Jaclyn hefted a pot of mixed vegetables and waited while Violet lifted a pan of ground turkey. “Did you figure it out?”
Jaclyn nudged the kitchen door open with her right hip and held it while Violet walked through. The dining area buzzed with the energy and chatter of other volunteers preparing dinner for the food bank's customers, the community's homeless and working poor.
“I want to go back to work.” Violet's voice preceded Jaclyn to the staging area where the volunteers and food bank employees arranged pots and pans of food as well as disposable plates and utensils.
Jaclyn set down her pot of vegetables and glanced over at Violet. “What do you want to do?”
BOOK: Fast Break
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