"I try my hardest to win games," Noah said. "I'll dive on any court for a ball except the one at our school—it's just too hard. I don't like losing. I think about what I could've done better."
"And how about that championship game against Charleston Catholic, the double-overtime loss?"
"That bothered me awhile. I pretended it was that game a couple of days later when I was playing alone, and I made all kinds of baskets, and we killed 'em, and the announcer kept saying, 'Look at Noah Smith! He's going wild!' I didn't think about it much more after that. That's only one game. If I make the pros, I kinda think I won't remember that."
We rode back to Summerville with the Green Wave, another half hour of silence, after its 21-0 loss. Coach McKissick said his boys had looked confused out there, and that maybe events had made them lose focus. Ryan Snipes said his game face had sure gone to pieces during that pregame prayer and tribute. Coach McCurry exploded, stepping over bodies and shoulder pads in the bus to scream, "Nothing's damn funny!" at a couple of players who'd pulled down a window and exchanged giggles with a girl.
We left the bus and got into our car to head home. Now that it was over, I told him what I really thought: that there was nothing terrible, or even remotely disrespectful, about playing a game or watching one. That most of the fans out there seemed to enjoy the chance to come together and show that they cared about their kids, their country and the families who'd lost so much. And that, God knows, no matter the individual price down the road, we needed folks now who didn't dwell, who turned anguish into action, lickety-split.
However, something, I said, was still off about that game. I'd played in and watched too many games not to know it. Because when games are right, they're like pulling a blanket over your head when you're a kid—suddenly the world goes away and nothing outside that little space even exists; it's delicious.
Yep, it's like playing a trick on yourself, and for it all to work right, it has to start with the players believing that the outcome really matters, then spread out over the crowd and the viewers at home and cover them too, get them screaming and jumping and throwing pillows at the screen. Only a few athletes, or maybe a handful of fans, not losing themselves in the game can start lifting the edge of the blanket, start making everyone see that the game doesn't mean a thing. So how can we possibly expect the pretense to hold up three days after a mass murder, and why would we even ask it to? But, I said, when it does work, it's a thing of such beauty that I want him always to treasure the trick, on one condition: that some part of him, when he isn't playing in a game, knows it's just that—a trick. O.K., Noah? Noah?
I took my eyes off the road and sneaked a look in the backseat. It was nearly midnight on the national day of mourning, and the kid was fast asleep.