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Finn assumed Keller was kidding. "What does Violet think about that?" he said, expecting Keller to laugh at him for taking the bait.
"She's O.K. with it. She knows that even though I won't be there, she's still my Number 1 priority."
Tom Stengel, an assistant coach and the father of another Inland Stars guard, lectured Keller sternly: "Joe, this is something you can't get back. You are going to miss your daughter's birth—your daughter's birth!—to coach in a tournament."
It wasn't just any tournament, Keller insisted. "No one else can coach the team," he said. "If I'm not there, we don't have a chance."
Stengel knew better. The Inland Stars would breeze through their three games in pool play. They wouldn't face a real challenge until the second round of bracket play, which wasn't until Wednesday. With minimal planning Keller could witness his daughter's birth on Tuesday night, catch a red-eye to Washington, D.C., and be in Newport News for the late-morning tip-off on Wednesday. "The team will be fine without you until then," Stengel said. "There isn't a parent who thinks you shouldn't be home with Violet. And if the kids don't understand now, they will someday."
Demetrius was the only player Keller had told about the C-section, and Demetrius informed none of his teammates. But he did tell his mother, Kisha, and she rushed to Violet for an explanation.
As Violet described it to Kisha, a victory at nationals would move the Kellers one step closer to getting out of their dinky apartment and into Violet's dream home; it would enable them to buy a nicer car and to live more comfortably. "Of course I am mad," Violet admitted, "but Joe told me how important it is."
On Thursday, July 10, Keller boarded a plane with the rest of the team at LAX. On the flight he barely mentioned Violet or the coming baby. All his talk was focused on basketball. By Monday, the eve of Violet's C-section, the Inland Stars had won all three of their games in pool play at the Nationals by an average of 20 points, and the following day they would open elimination play against the Potomac Valley Capital Players, one of the weakest teams left in the field. Demetrius looked unstoppable, and several coaches had approached Keller between games to congratulate him on Demetrius's being ranked No. 1 in his age by The Hoop Scoop.
Up to that point Keller's commitment to his wife could not have been questioned. He doted on her publicly and privately. He didn't say that he loved her only when they were alone; he declared it when the most people could hear. "Am I the luckiest guy or what?" he would say. "Violet puts up with all my s---. All she does is love me. She is the best thing that ever happened to me." She put up with this rocky life of his choosing, believing unequivocally in his master plan. Her tolerance of his mood swings, his outbursts, his incessant talk of basketball, was remarkable. Without Violet, Demetrius said, "Coach Joe would probably forget where he lived."
Keller's intensity, his drive, came mostly from a belief that everyone questioned his ability to succeed. But Violet was not one of those people; she always had faith in him. That Joe regretted his decision to miss the C-section was undeniable. On Monday afternoon he called Stengel and said, "Please help me. I've got to get home. I don't care how much it costs, and I don't care if I have to fly with the luggage." Stengel worked into Monday evening, calling airlines and travel agents, coming up with a single option that was neither cheap (more than $1,500) nor convenient. Keller would have to rent a car, drive to Washington Dulles and catch a 6 a.m. flight that made one stop before landing at LAX around 4 p.m. Factoring in potential flight delays and rush-hour traffic on the 59-mile drive from LAX to Riverside Community Hospital, Keller's chances of making the scheduled 7 p.m. C-section were 50-50 at best.