Story:Empty Spaces

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Empty Spaces
Written by Akkarri and Wendingo

The lights, the glamour, the excitement - the streets of San Jose were filled with anticipation as thousands of eager fans descended to watch the FBA’s greatest and latest perform for the 2015 All-Star Weekend. Tonight, a pair of exhibition games pitting the league's best veterans against one another, and this year's most talented rookies showcasing the future of the game.

The crowd was restless, as it near impossible to avoid the chaotic murmur of noise and conversation as eager fans began to enter the stadium. Their sounds pitched and combined in unison, like a hunger roar converging from sea of countless faces.

But for one young rookie, all he had to do was close his eyes and try to put the sound out of his mind. After all, they weren't here to see him.

Ben Durby had received considerable recognition for a formidable first half of the season. Yet defensive players rarely gathered the attention or acclaim that flashy, offensive scorers often obtained. Although Ben was not invited to the annual rookie showcase exhibition, he was fortunate enough to be drafted by the San Jose Thrust - the very team that was hosting this year’s event, and he was provided a seat in the owner’s box with the rest of his team. Naturally, there was a sense of regret - a part of him longed to compete and play to prove to the world what he could do. But for once, or maybe just for tonight, he would be content with a moment to relax and reflect - to not have to keep up with the grueling demands of a typical FBA schedule.

As Ben moved through the inner workings of the stadium, he passed by several young rookies warming up and getting ready. There was Iver Drake, tonight’s starting point guard for the West; Adam Tevela, the spiky young surfer, making a triumphant return to the west coast; and Rebecca McCloud, a gigantic vixen that made even Ben feel a bit less gigantic.

But most importantly, there was an old friend.

“Hey Jake.. Jake!”

A blond fox lifted his ears. He stood up straight from a crowd of well wishing fans and autograph seeking collectors as a familiar sound triggered recognition. Twin handpaws reached up to flag the speaker down.

“Would you care for a bit of fresh air, old friend? There’s a free practice court out on the east wing. You want to play a little ‘old school’ one on one, just like old times?”

The blond kit nodded and addressed the sea of faces, much to their disappointing applause. Ben figured Jake needed a moment to break away from all the added media attention and pressure from the upcoming exhibition. After all, everyone wanted to talk to this year’s break-out rookie phenom.

“Just like old times, huh?” Ben asked as they arrived at a private practice court that the Thrust’s owner Anjij Qimmiq had put in to woo potential clients. Long ago, this was just another conference room or director’s office, a room of talk between 3 enclosing walls. But it had been recently reconverted for the All-Star game into a half-court reserved for millionaires and make-a-wish volunteers. The paint so fresh, you could still see patterns and cracks in the walls. Ben could only wonder at the deals and development that took place in empty spaces like these.

Jake snagged one of the nearby balls and started dribbling it, making a face as he found it hardly bounced, deflated and low.

Ben paid no notice, taking off his bag and fetching something from inside.

“Remember back in England, when we had a few games together on the national youth squad?”

Jake nodded, looking unsure at why Ben would bring up that particular day. Ben only stood back up and held up a ball sky-high. It was worn with consistent game day use, littered with scars and cracks from years of service, and yet, it was marked with a number of fresh and familiar looking signatures on its surface.

“I kept that ball we used that day, and got your U-21 team to sign it over the past year. Figured that this would be as good of a time as any to give it to you, for your eventual trophy case,” Ben said with a bit of an awkward chuckle.

“There are quite a few good memories in that old basketball… Do you remember when we first met?”

“So you’re the one Slade recommended?”

It was plain for her to see why. While not having reached adulthood, the young deer stood with a physique beyond his years; at 108 kilos and 2.2 meters tall with the curved muscular of an elite FBA defender, he was a modern day hunter in the form of an ungulate. What’s more, he was barely older than her own son, and the narrow age difference mattered. He was precisely what Vicki Turned wanted.

“Y-yes… I’m the one,” the ungulate stammered. His nerves were on edge - after all, it wasn’t every day a future FBA Hall of Famer directly asked for your presence.

Vicki grinned wryly, as it never failed to amuse her how people were stunned to meet her. Her years as an FBA All-Star and gaining country-wide fame as United Kingdom’s commentator for the London basketball teams (the Jets and Bantams) had left quite the impression with an entire generation of European youth, aptly dubbed a ‘Miracle Generation.’

“I’ll be blunt about this, Ben. I have a favor to ask. I have this... pupil. He has all the potential in the world, but he has some poor habits.”

“What kind of poor habits?” The deer asked curiously.

“He’s a teenager...”

Ben made a face. While he was approaching the end of his adolescence, he knew too well about the age-honored tradition of looking back and down on one’s own more regrettable, youthful decisions.

“I see… And you’re looking to challenge him?”

“Frankly? I am.”

Benjamin paused, remaining silent for a moment as he processed the FBA legend’s answer.

“He’s taller, faster, and more driven than many of his peers, but he’s reached an age where he thinks he’s the next Summers. I’m seeing bad habits. I could go and get Murillo or Chavel to prove my point… they owe me a favor but… it’ll be better if it were someone in his own age group.”

“I believe I could be persuaded,” the deer said smoothly. “It’ll be better for my class schedule to arrange for a time on the weekends. Studies are starting to pick up during the week, and… between studies, basketball, and football practice…”

Vicki’s lips curled at the ends, grinning whites like only a fox could. “Oh, how I wish my son had such dedication to his studies, but he’s obsessed. Stubborn as his father. So does that mean you’ll do it?”

Benjamin Durby raised a brow. “Your son? You mean --”

The red vixen winked. “See you next week.”

Vicki had given Ben nothing more than a time and a place. The time was over the weekend, as Ben had requested, but the place was nothing what Ben expected. Vicki had managed to call in a few favors and get the London Bantams (now since relocated and better known as the Bangor Tides) to loan out their training facilities in Chalfont for a private practice session.

Ben arrived with little formalities from security, a stout badger minding the gates took one look at his height and simply waved him in.

Ben took his time to marvel along his way to the locker room, eyeing framed photos of FBA legends and awards from the community. In the locker room, he slipped out of his old track suit he wore and unzipped his gym bag to grab his practice gear when he uncovered his basketball. It showed its age and wear marks from its years of service. But in Ben’s mind, it gave the old basketball “character.”

The walk from the locker room to the court was short, but felt longer with each step. This was an opportunity for Ben to show up and perform in front of someone with connections. A good showing against Vicki’s star pupil would mean a lot, in terms of bragging rights and what future scouts would think.

Upon arrival to the sacred hardwood, Ben found the trio. Vicki Turner in the stands, a stout Siamese cat to her right - an assistant, no doubt, as he plugged away on her mobile phone - and Vicki’s pupil: a lanky vulpine with an uncanny resemblance, blond with fiery red fur. The fox moved back and forth with unnatural speed and agility, shifting from one position to the next as if playing a single player game of Around The World. Ben did not see the fox miss once. His hackles raised - Ben wasn’t just playing against Vicki’s star pupil, he was going up against her own fur and blood.

The blond fox went to collect his own rebound, nailing the shot from the corner with a satisfying ‘swish’, when he finally caught sight of the tall deer...

“So this is the ‘tutor’ you’ve been arranging for me?”

“You’re Jake, huh? Ben Durby. Charmed.” Ben offered a hand to the younger vulpine. Jake paused, looking at it for a moment.

Typically, Jake Turner stood head and shoulders above his peers, just a hair under seven feet tall. The blond fox was built long and lanky, as if the rest of his body had yet to catch up to his rapid and continuous growth. Ben, meanwhile, had a couple years on him, was slightly taller, and with added time and conditioning, looked less like a stick in the wind when he moved.

The fox was civil and polite, but Ben noticed he was being intentionally short-winded. With the customary greetings done, Ben thought it would be better to break the ice on the court.

“So your mother has asked me to see about giving you a bit of a challenge? To see what we can bring out of you?”

“What are you on about...You say that like there’s something wrong with me...” Jake fired back without pause. “I dropped 40 on those rats last month. You want to give me a challenge? Put me up against some REAL FBA players.”

Vicki made a face as Jake turned his eyes up to the stands, gauging her reaction. A mother’s gaze often times can say more than a room full of swears. And when Vicki’s reaction was less than what the young firefox expected, he turned back to the taller ungulate.

“Let’s try some one on one for starters?” Ben asked, trying to break the ice. The deer set his bag off to the side of the court and moved into position, taking his time to stretch his arms and legs to get the blood flowing, just as he would to prepare for a normal game.

Being older added experience in playing against the upperclassmen - not to mention, relying on his experience as a soccer goalie. While the “deer tower” was best known for his dominating presence in the post and lightning quick reflexes when he needed to simply react, the similarities between blocking a basketball and a football were fundamentally similar: react fast, and don’t let the ball get by you.

Ben intended to go slowly with their first few exchanges to work on fundamentals and see where this fox was making the most common mistakes. Ben had always been good at reading another player’s intent: the way they moved, how their paws set on the ground just before they rushed, and how their body language often tipped their hand. While Ben may not have been the fastest or strongest player on the court, assessing a competitor’s strengths, approaches, and style often gave him a serious edge.

Jake gave Ben none of that.

From his first touch of the ball, the firefox streaked, moving like a snapshot and leaving just a memory. Jake used his superior speed and top flight agility to dash past Ben’s weak side and drive in for an easy lay-up.

Vicki coughed as Jake returned to the top of the paint, dribbling the ball back and forth between his legs with a nimbleness often reserved for guards and small forwards.

“You’re supposed to be learning.” The vixen chimed.

“Teachers typically are be better than their students, Mum… For example…”

Jake tried the same move again, streaking past Ben weak side with the intent of making yet another an easy layup. But this time Ben was ready for him. The deer tower moved quickly, making a fast shuffle-step to the side and positioned himself like a “Brick” wall. Jake tried to compensate, but ended up crashing muzzle-first into the buck, sending the lighter fox aside.

Ben offered a paw but the blond vulpine turned away, getting up on his own power.

“How did I block you...?” Ben asked as Vicki walked down from the rafters, collecting the ball from out of bounds and tossing it back to the deer.

“You rock on your heels ever so slightly before you dash. Plus, you really telegraphed the whole thing with your little speech…”

There was a feminine giggle, followed by Jake shooting a glare at his mother. All in all, the younger Turner was not pleased with the wall she had put up for him.

“One more,” the kit growled in frustration.

Throughout the afternoon, they played several rounds, trading between offense and defense, trading shots and rebounds against each other. Vicki continued to analyze their game as her years in both the FBA and in the commentator’s booth had trained her. But as they went on, the pair eventually had to pause their game to stop and crack open their water bottles and to catch their breath.

Vicki started to approach to speak to the pair. Especially as Ben nearly shut Jake down with a devastating block, inside the key. A place where little mistakes could mean HUGE consequences.

“Not bad, but you’re inefficient,” Vicki chimed in.

“What do you mean? I scored, right?” Jake said after wiping his brow and taking a refreshing swig from his water bottle.

“What I mean is, like I’ve been telling you, you are rushing your shots. You don’t wait for the apex of your jump and you missed the best time to release the ball against Ben. You’re relying on your size and speed to compensate for your errors.”

“She is right on that count, Jake.” Ben added.” When you rush a shot, I have a better target and chance to get in the way of your shot and block or rebound the ball. That’s part of my job on defense - to pressure you into making mistakes, to make you rush. If you had waited, you may have gotten a little height over me, narrowed the corridor, and may have had a better chance at your shot. Besides, that also means you would have more time to line up your shot,”

“Really? You’re taking her side?”

“No, I’m giving you advice. You have the energy, skills, and potential to do better - much better. Rushing only helps you make mistakes and helps make my job easier. Do you see many Juniors and Seniors rushing their shots, except maybe when trying to beat the buzzer? It’s an easy mistake, but it can mean the difference between giving someone a block or a rebound and nicely adding two points to your team’s score. Worse, it’s the difference between winning and losing.”

“It’s just something to work on,” Vicki instructed. “Wait for the apex, lean back, work on the fade away. Practice, practice, practice. Even in the FBA, we did endless drills to make sure the basics became second-nature and the coaches drive you to practice even harder and longer to drive the point home.”

“Even with practice, it takes time,” Ben added. “You’re not going to be the next Vicki Turner overnight.”

Jake’s muzzle crinkled up, as if he had just taken a whiff of something foul. Ben’s ears perked as he heard the young kit whisper something under his breath. The fox turned to the side, staring at nothing in particular, just watching the wall. Then, without another word, Jake stood up and started back to the court.

Ben raised a brow. He was still soaked in sweat and trying to catch his breath - he couldn’t have imagined that Jake recovered so fast.

With his muzzle still furrowed, Jake took a few steps around the top of the key and began working on his jump shot, purposefully timing his release at the very apex of his jump. Unlike earlier, where the vulpine couldn’t miss, some shots went in, but many did not. Jake barely noticed.

The British kit continued relentlessly, jumping and releasing the ball at the very top of his jump. Finally, completely soaked in sweat, Jake’s will gave out. His hands fell to his knees and he began to pant, swallowing great volumes of air trying to catch his breath. His throat was as dry as a funeral’s drum.

Ben motioned to the fox, staying silent at first, but then smiling once the younger Turner lifted his gaze to match the deer’s.

“You’re an obstinate one, Jake. But there might be hope for you yet,” Ben smiled and gave the fox a pat.

Jake raised a brow, then shook his head “Come on Ben, this isn’t a stage drama. Don’t need to get campy on me. Lets go for round two.”

After a few moments of silence and reflection. Jake lifted his muzzle, his smile picking up like steam on a kettle. Good memories, or, at the very least, crucial ones.

“I was hoping to get it to you earlier, but it took a while to track down most of your old team so they could sign it. Some are no longer playing, some have moved onto other things since then. But they all jumped at the chance to send one last message to you... Boy, some included notes of their well wishes and congrats along with it. You have an entire country rooting for you!” Ben said, indicating an envelope in his free hand.

Jake looked down at the ball, at a loss for words. His shoulders slumping, Jake’s silence was all the Thank You the deer needed.

“I figured you could use something before your game. A little bit of perspective for how far you’ve come,” Ben said with that smile he had whenever he got a touch nostalgic.

“Now that you’ve gotten some of those jitters in check, I want to see you playing your best out there, Jake.”

Ben waved his arm out a bit to indicate the world outside the court. “Do it for them, your team, your mother…”

His paw moved back and clasped Jake’s shoulder, and in a slightly more somber tone: “...But most of all, for yourself.”

After letting the pause punctuate the moment, Ben picked up a different ball from the rack, rolling it around in his broad hands.

“Now then. What do you say? Time to make new memories and mementos? Show those old blokes back home what a Brit can do.”

Jake smiled. “What do I say...? You’re as campy as ever Ben, but you’re still a friend. Let’s rock, one more time.”

Featured Characters

Jake Turner Benjamin Durby Vicki Turner

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