Three Seconds

violations_3“Three seconds!”

The words rang off the hard walls of the small, musty gym and into Jerry’s ears. Several folks on the home-side bleachers had passionately demanded that he make a call for that particular violation most of the night. So had many fans of the visiting team, who were sitting on the opposite side of the gym. In fact, Jerry and his two officiating partners had been peppered with such “requests” and “suggestions” about quite a few other rules of basketball for last 31 minutes of the game. Travelling…blocking…charging…over the back…gouging of the eyes…et cetera…et cetera. By the amount of angry voices challenging their knowledge of the game, the crew had apparently let multiple egregious fouls and violations go unpunished. Conversely, when they had blown their whistles, at least half the crowd vehemently disagreed at those times as well.

With under a minute to go in a game in which the home team was losing by 20 points, the fans of the visitors had quit complaining, for the most part, and some had started getting up to put on their coats. But the fans on the home side were not content yet.

“Three seconds! 54 has been standing in the lane all night!” another angry spectator shouted. As Jerry handed the ball to a short, eager young man just into the game for the first time, he noticed the boy who was wearing number 54 sitting on the visitors’ bench with his sweats on, talking and laughing with a couple of teammates. He remembered charging him with his fifth foul—the one that sent him to the bench—about four minutes ago, and how an older gentleman on the visitors’ side stood up, shook his fist at him and shouted, “That was a clean block! All ball! All ball!”

“You guys are killing us!” someone else from the home side said as play resumed. Jerry thought about that for a moment as the clocked ticked down a little closer to zero. Too many turnovers, poor shooting, and a general lack of hustle had probably done the team in; but the gentleman in the stands was entitled to his opinion.

The buzzer sounded to the end the game and Jerry made his way around the line of players forming for handshakes and met Shirley and Joe outside the door that lead to their locker room. One more fan got in an epithet as they opened it and headed in.
“I hope you guys can sleep good tonight!”

Jerry looked up and saw the man’s twisted, angry face; just one in a sea of twisted, angry faces all staring at him.

“Well, I tell you what,” said Shirley, laughing a little as he moved slowly down the stairs with the aid of the handrail, “I will sleep good tonight. My feet are killing me!”

“Perhaps that gentleman in the stands meant ‘sleep well,’ don’t you think, Shirl? said Joe.

“Yeah! The English usage in this town ain’t so good, huh? Or maybe, it’s ‘ain’t so well!’” Shirley said, and both he and Joe laughed hard.

Shirley was the only man named “Shirley” that Jerry had ever known. When he and Joe teased him about it for the first time when they were just getting to know him many years prior, Shirley snapped back, “Haven’t you ever heard of Shirley Povich, you morons! The sportswriter. Shirley was a popular boy’s name back then.”

“Yeah, well, gas was 23 cents a gallon when you were born, too!” Joe joked.

Joe and Jerry loved to get Shirley going with the jokes about his age and his name, but they both had to take their turn as the butt of sometimes merciless jokes. Joe’s prodigious belly and Jerry’s bum knee and bad back, and even the fact that he had only one kidney, were frequent topics of the good-natured but pointed mockery. But it was all in fun; and it was the fun that the three had shared over the years—on and off the court—that kept them together for so long.

Shirley sat on a bench across from his locker and leaned over to untie his shoes with his right hand while he smoothed his comb-over with his left hand, then took off his glasses and set them next to him. Joe stood in front of his locker and struggled a little to remove his striped shirt—originally purchased several years ago when an ‘XL’ still fit. Jerry sat quietly on the bench down a few lockers from Shirley and Joe and guzzled what was left of the drink he had opened at halftime. After letting out a deep but nearly silent belch, he sighed loud and long enough for his partners to hear.

“What’s the matter, Jerry? Sciatica acting up again?” Shirley asked. “Hope it’s not your kidney.”

Jerry shook his head and said, “No. I just didn’t enjoy the game much tonight.”

“Well, don’t sweat it,” Joe said. “You missed just as many calls for the home team as you did the visitors.” He and Shirley laughed. When they the joke got no reaction from Jerry, Joe and Shirley looked at each other and shrugged.

Jerry’s subdued mood continued through the first round of drinks. A couple of beers at Spanky’s Pub after their Friday games had been a tradition since the crew had gotten together. Conversation sometimes revolved around the game that night, but generally veered toward anything but basketball. This night, though, Jerry didn’t seem to want to talk about anything.

“OK, Jer, what’s up?” Joe asked.

“Yeah. You’ve been quiet all night,” Shirley added. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Oh…yeah, I’m fine,” Jerry said, and then he downed what was left of his first beer. He waived at their waitress and made the signal for another round. Joe and Shirley gave each other puzzled looks—Jerry was never the first one finished with his beer. “I’m just a little down. Man, that stupid crowd just got to me a little tonight, I guess.”

“Really? Why?” asked Shirley. “They didn’t seem any worse than any other night—in any other gym.” He looked at Joe for his opinion and he gave it by merely shrugging and shaking his head.

“No, I guess they weren’t,” said Jerry. “Maybe I’m just getting old. All the whining and yelling…I mean, it just never stops.”

Joe said, “Yeah, I hear you. But I guess I’m just used to people hating me.”

“On the court, maybe,” Shirley said. “Everybody loves you off the court, Joe.”

“Well, I know that!” Joe said, and he and Shirley laughed.

Jerry even managed a smile and said, “None of us got into this for fame and fortune—or to be praised every night. I get it. I’m not sensitive. It comes with the territory. I’d just like to make one trip down the floor without someone screaming in my ear how blind I am.”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “Every other trip down the floor would be fine with me!” Everybody laughed as the waitress set three fresh bottles on the table.

Shirley leaned forward and said, smiling, “Imagine, if you will, if they handed out whistles at the door. To everybody in the stands. And anybody could blow their whistle any time they thought there was a foul. What do you think that would be like?”

“Everybody with a whistle?” said Joe. “It would be 32 minutes of constant shrilling. That’s what Hell is probably like for evil officials.”

“Or even if they could only call three-second violations,” Shirley continued. “Geez, if I had a nickel for every time someone yelled, ‘Three seconds!’; I’d be a rich man! I mean, I can count to three! I don’t need help.”

“Forget giving whistles to the crowd,” said Joe. “What if, just for fun, we called something every time somebody complained in the crowd? Man, it would be hard to even blow the whistle that many times!”

Joe and Shirley laughed, but Jerry went completely stone-faced and said, “Yeah, what if we did.”

“Did what?” Shirley asked.

“Did what Joe said. Every time somebody yells something from the crowd, we blow our whistles.”

“Well, we’d be blowing our whistles all night!” Joe and Shirley laughed.

“Yeah, I know. That’s what I’m saying.”

Joe and Shirley glanced at each other again, and then Joe said, “You’re serious?”

“Sure I’m serious. Let’s give them what they want. Let’s call everything.”

“What…why?” Shirley said.

“Why not?”

Nobody was laughing anymore or even smiling—the seriousness of their faces matched the intensity of their conviction. After a brief silence, the three made their plan.

The following Tuesday, the small, hot gym in Ackerville was jammed and noisy during the warm-up for the boys’ game. Ackerville was hosting their long-time rival Fillmore, a town just 15 miles away. Neither team was very good this season, which wasn’t unusual for this rivalry. No one in either town could quite remember the last time their teams had a winning season. Still, the towns and schools had built up a slightly unhealthy aversion for each other over the years and their annual basketball game in mid-winter was always a highlight—or a disappointment, depending on the outcome—for players, students and fans.

Jerry and his crew had been working games in Ackerville for years and were accustomed to contests that usually ended up in blow-out losses for the home team and weren’t offended by the parents and fans that took out their frustrations on them. The last time they were here, someone shouted, “You’re the worst crew ever!” late in a game. Jerry figured the folks in this town felt this way about every crew that came through and surmised that they weren’t inherently evil. Just like fans in almost every town they went to, they merely saw the game with their hearts more than their eyes. So when someone in the stands said, somewhat playfully, “Oh, no. Not these guys again,” Jerry—who normally would have just ignored the comment—locked eyes with the gentleman, winked, and creased a sly grin.

Ackerville controlled the jump ball, their point guard corralled it, rushed into the front court, and tossed up a long, ill-advised jumper. A Fillmore forward jumped high for the rebound while an Ackerville player contested from behind. While the Fillmore player mishandled the ball and it fell out of bounds, someone from the visitors’ side shouted, “Over the back!” Shirley was standing in front of the bleachers filled with Fillmore fans and quickly blew his whistle. He had a good view of the play and knew there was no foul committed; but tonight, he was going to call it. He walked over to the scorer’s table and said while he signaled, “Foul. Number 44. White. On the back.” The visitors’ side cheered while the Ackerville fans disapproved in unison with loud jeers.

“What?!” “That was clean!” “He never touched him!”

Fillmore inbounded the ball and their point guard dribbled the ball up the floor under slight pressure from an Ackerville defender. He mishandled the ball and stumbled slightly as he brought it over the half-court line, but managed to bat the ball over to his teammate on the wing. The wing man eyed the defense momentarily, then made a strong dribble move around his defender and headed toward the basket.
Someone from the home side shouted, “Travelling! He lifted his pivot foot!” Joe, positioned near the home bleachers, saw that the move was completely legal. But he blew his whistle anyway, rolled his arms around each other and shouted, “Travelling! White ball.”

The home side clapped and voiced their approval, while the visitors’ side—content with the previous call—now erupted in displeasure.

“You gotta be kidding me?!” “Travelling? Are you crazy?!”

Ackerville’s point guard brought the ball into the front court and looked over the Fillmore defense, a 2-3 zone, for a moment before passing the ball to the right wing. The ball went to a player in the corner, back to the wing, back to the point guard and then over to the other wing and then the corner on that side. Fillmore’s zone was very passive and packed into the lane. As Ackerville cycled the ball around one more time, two Fillmore fans shouted simultaneously, “Three seconds!” while another added, “Four, five! He’s standing in the lane!”

Jerry, working the baseline, had been watching the lane carefully and was sure the Ackerville center had not been in the lane for more than a couple seconds at any time, but whistled the play dead.

“Three seconds. 54 white. Red ball.”

More cheers from one side; more jeers from the other.

Ackerville was playing a somewhat lazy man-to-man defense, but Fillmore was still having trouble getting a good look at the basket for a shot. They moved the ball around the perimeter; made two passes to their center, who quickly and clumsily passed the ball back out of the lane both times, and then their point guard dribbled aimlessly into the corner and then back out to the point.

“Hey! Three seconds!” a fan in the home stands bellowed. “Call it both ways!”

Jerry blew his whistle. “Three seconds. Number 41. White ball.”

The crowd on both sides buzzed once again with opposite, ever rising emotions.

The teams made two more trips down the floor and they were whistled for two more violations—as suggested by people in the crowd; a five-second count and another three seconds. After the latest whistle, the Fillmore coach stood up, took a half step onto the floor and calmly asked Jerry as he passed by the bench, “You guys calling it a little tight, tonight?”

A man in the Ackerville stands witnessed the exchange and yelled, “He’s on the floor! T him up!”

Jerry blew his whistle and said, “Technical foul” and made a T with his hands as he faced the official scorer.

The Fillmore coach screamed, “What?!” among a shower of boos from the irate visiting fans, while it was the Ackerville fans’ turn to cheer wildly again. A Fillmore assistant coach jumped up and ushered the furious head coach back to the bench before he could say anything else.

The Ackerville player missed both technical foul shots and was subsequently whistled for travelling, on a suggestion from the Fillmore side, after the ball was put back in play.

The first quarter continued to be a flood of violations and fouls; some legitimate and others not; but all whistled because of demands from the folks in the stands. Toward the end of the quarter, the Fillmore point guard tripped as he was bringing the ball up the floor and it went right into the hands of the defender. The Ackerville player grabbed it, went to the basket, missed the wide open layup, got the rebound, and was fouled (maybe) when he attempted another shot. He made one of the two free throws and the first quarter ended shortly thereafter (after a couple more whistles) with the home team leading 1-0.

The second quarter resembled the first. The teams would come down and try to run a play, someone in the crowd from either side would point out to Shirley, Jerry and Joe some real or perceived rule violation perpetrated by the other team, and a whistle would follow. The crowd got steadily more unruly every time calls went against them and more pleased when calls went their way. With each blow of the whistle, there were equal waves of taunts and cheering, cat-calls and claps, and boos and affirmations. Both coaches and all the players had gotten thoroughly frustrated, but seeing how quick Jerry was to call that first technical, they managed to keep their emotions under control. Several of the players on both sides were in foul trouble.

In the middle of the second quarter, Fillmore managed to get a basket on a breakaway layup after an Ackerville turnover. An Ackerville player made one more free throw late in the quarter and at halftime the score was tied at 2.
Both coaches carefully approached the crew as everyone started off the court and into their respective locker rooms, but the Fillmore coach spoke first.

“Umm. Fellas. I’m not complaining or anything, but that seemed to be a lot of whistles in the first half.”

“Yeah,” the Ackerville coach said. “We can’t get anything going with this many whistles.”

Shirley said, “We’re just calling what we hear…I mean, what we see, guys.” Then he said to Jerry and Joe, “C’mon, fellas,” and the three jogged away to the door that led to their locker room amidst a cascade of boos and jeers from both sides of the gym. The two aggravated coaches looked at each other in disbelief momentarily before joining their teams.

“Well how do you like that?” said Shirley as he grabbed a drink out of the cooler on the floor. “We’ve called everything the crowd has asked for and they still hate us.”

Joe nearly choked on his drink when he laughed in the middle of a swallow and he walked over to a sink and spit it out, and then he managed to say, “That’s gratitude for you. What the heck do they want? Damned if we do…damned if we don’t, I guess.”

“That was one heckuva half of basketball,” said Shirley.

“One for the record books, that’s for sure,” said Joe.

“It was fun; it was fun. Quite a statement indeed,” Shirley said. “But maybe we should just call the second half straight up.”

“Yeah, that’s probably right,” said Joe. “I think everyone has learned their lesson. Jerry, this was your idea. What say you?”

Jerry was content with their efforts in the first half but he wasn’t as jovial as the other two. He was shaking his head before Joe’s question was even completely out of his mouth. “They’re going to keep yelling at us no matter what we call; or don’t call. Let’s just stay the course and see what happens.”

Shirley and Joe sat silently pondering for a few seconds while Jerry finished his bottle in one long drink.

“Okay then,” Shirley finally said. “We started this thing; let’s finish it.” Jerry nodded.

Shirley, Jerry and Joe walked out onto the court right after the Ackerville and Fillmore boys had run out, so the wild cheers quickly turned to boos when the fans on both sides noticed them. Business as usual. They took their positions for the rest of the warm-ups and then for the initial inbounding of the ball to start the second half.

Ackerville inbounded the ball and may not have even had possession for three seconds when someone from the Fillmore crowd shouted, “Three seconds!” Jerry whistled the play dead. Fillmore ball.

“Fellas! We just talked about this!” the Ackerville coach yelled. “Stay out of the lane! They’re calling it close tonight!”

The Fillmore point guard dribbled the ball into the front court, guarded lightly. A teammate came up the lane and set a pick on the defender and barely nudged him as the point guard made a dribble drive to the basket.

“Illegal screen!” came the call from one of the Ackerville faithful. Joe diligently blew his whistle.

“Omygosh! The second half, too?” the Fillmore coach indirectly asked Shirley as he passed the bench.

Another trip down the floor—another foul called. And the rest of the third quarter went similarly. There were 14 total fouls called—seven on each side, and each by the behest of someone in the stands. Jerry and the boys also whistled several non-contact violations: more travelling, more double dribbles, and, of course, three seconds. Both teams only managed a couple of shot attempts, none of which went in. The score was still 2-2.

The crowd was exasperated and even a little worn out, but during the break between the quarters, they still managed to pepper the officials with insults and beseeched them to call the game correctly. They still didn’t realize that the game had been called exactly to their specifications.

Joe stood near the Ackerville bench and overheard their coach instructing his players.

“Okay. Okay. No more fouls. Don’t touch anybody! No matter what! Play way off your man. And on offense, set up Carolina. Spread the floor. We’re going to hold the ball for one shot.” When his players all looked at him strangely, he shrugged and responded, “I know! I know! But it’s the only thing that’s going to work tonight.”

Shirley was near the Fillmore bench and he overheard a similar conversation. Both teams were going to play passive defense and an even more passive offense in hopes that the officials couldn’t blow their whistles.

Ackerville inbounded the ball and set up with a player in each of the four corners of the front court and one near the top of the key. The guards tossed the ball back and forth near the half court line a few times, and then down to the players in the corners only when they were challenged somewhat by wary defenders. Pass—hold the ball—pass—pass—hold the ball. Pass—hold the ball—stay out of the lane. Ackerville cycled the ball around again and again and Fillmore was content to play only enough defense to prevent a layup. Seconds ticked and minutes clicked monotonously by.

Despite the lack of action on the court, the crescendo from the crowd grew. Their displeasure was not limited to the officials anymore, but spilled over to the coaches and players. Both sides were equally annoyed, borderline apoplectic and bewildered at what was going on, and they shouted for their teams to do something other than what they were doing. There was nothing, apparently, that would make them happy this night.

With about two minutes left in the game, the Ackerville forward in the corner closest to the home stands lost his concentration, mishandled a pass, and the ball went out of bounds. Mortified, he dropped his head and looked at his hands, while the home crowd moaned in unison and the visitors celebrated wildly.

Fillmore inbounded the ball with no challenge from Ackerville. The opposing coaches shouted simultaneously, “No fouls! No fouls!” “Hold it for one shot!”

Fillmore set up an offense similar to what Ackerville was running and began passing the ball around slowly and carefully. Ackerville offered only token defense as the clock ticked down. Pass, pass—hold. Pass—hold. Jerry and his crewmates had officiated dozens of tight games and buzzer beaters so they were cool, calm and focused, but the thought went through Jerry’s mind that he may not have ever worked in a gym that was this loud with a crowd so close to the edge of insanity. Especially for a game as ugly as this one.

With ten seconds left, the Ackerville coach yelled and motioned for his players to come out and defend more tightly, but warned, “Careful! Careful!”

Fillmore cycled the ball out to their point guard, who was about 35 feet away from the basket. He made a strong dribble move toward the lane but was cut off by his Ackerville counterpart near the elbow of the lane. He stopped, picked up his dribble and passed the ball back toward a teammate about two feet behind the three-point line. Another Ackerville defender dashed out and deflected the pass. He and the intended receiver raced after the loose ball and one of the two batted it out to the mid-court line. Several other players from both sides had joined the chase and, as the clocked ticked down— 3, 2, 1—everyone dove into a huge pile that spilled over to the other side of the floor; the ball somewhere under the mass of bodies. Just as the buzzer sounded, barely audible amidst the roars of the crowd, Shirley, Jerry and Joe all blew their whistles at the same time. With the sound of the whistles, the crowd went completely quiet, everyone anxious to see what the call was. The officials all looked at each other briefly, then gathered together as far away from the players and coaches as possible. The coaches pleaded, “What is it” “What’s the call?” Jerry looked in their direction and held up an open hand to tell them without words, wait a second.

Jerry asked his partners, “Well what did you guys see? Or, hear? Well, both, I guess.”

“I’m not sure what I just saw,” Joe said, snickering, but trying not to laugh.

“Yeah. That was a whole bunch of everything,” said Shirley. “I blew my whistle, but I’m not really sure why. Any number of things!”
“I know,” said Jerry. “In keeping with the spirit of the evening, we should let the crowd decide. I could barely hear anything, but I did pick out a few things from the crowd.”

“Me, too,” said Joe. “But I have conflicting opinions on my side.”

“Same here,” said Shirley.

“Like what?” Jerry asked.

Joe said, “Well, over-and-back; double dribble; foul, of course. Those were the most popular suggestions.”

“Yeah. Foul, for sure,” said Shirley. “Travelling. Somebody even shouted three seconds again.”

“Geez! We can’t call that again,” said Jerry as he laughed. “Well, there had to be a foul or two in there somewhere. How about this…let’s call a double foul. We’ll call it on the two kids that were chasing the ball first—they ended up on the bottom of the pile. That should make both sides happy…I mean, mad.” Shirley and Joe nodded in agreement.

With the crowd still silent, Joe went to the scorer’s table. When he announced the decision, fans on both sides erupted with equal parts displeasure and celebration, while many didn’t know how to feel or react and just stood in dumfounded silence. Jerry gathered with the frazzled coaches and they reluctantly accepted his explanation and decision. Number 10 would shoot a 1-and-1 for Ackerville, and number 13 would do the same for Fillmore.

With no time remaining, the floor was cleared for the shooters. Jerry wasn’t sure who, by rule, should go first, but he sent the young man from Fillmore out and nobody complained. As obnoxious as the fans had been throughout the game to the officials, at least they demonstrated some decorum for the first shooter. The Fillmore side went completely quiet, and besides a few random cat calls from the student section while number 13 toed the line, the Ackerville fans were courteous. He was just a freshman, and he looked very tense as he wiped his hands on his shorts and took the ball when Shirley handed it to him. Three dribbles, deep breath. He held the ball in cocked position at his shoulder for a moment, bent his knees, and let it go. It was short and hit with a thump on the front of the rim, bounced straight up once—not very high—hit the front of rim again, and then fell to the floor. The Fillmore fans groaned in unison while the Ackerville side celebrated.

Devastated, number 13 covered his face with his hands and bent over at the waist. Three of his teammates jogged on the floor to console him and led him off as number 10 for Ackerville strode to the other side. He was a confident senior who was their leading scorer and team captain. The Ackerville fans rose up and started cheering wildly, feeling secure that the game would soon be theirs. The cheerleaders and several in the student section started “sshhing” the crowd as Shirley was handing him the ball and everyone on that side went quiet. The Fillmore fans, devoid of energy and not feeling good at their chances of surviving, stood and watched silently. One Fillmore student, however, taunted, “Don’t mess it up,” very matter-of-factly, and just loud enough for the shooter to hear. Number 10 seemed to scoff at the suggestion as he bounced the ball hard five times. But as he brought the ball to his waist, eyed the hoop and exhaled deeply, the ball inexplicably slipped out of his hands, bounced off his left foot and rolled straight to Joe at the baseline.
“Lane violation,” Shirley said quietly, and almost apologetically, to number 10, and he went up to him and patted him on the back twice.
The crowd murmured, not sure what was happening, and somebody finally shouted, “What is it?” Both coaches already knew, and they were gathering their players.

“Lane violation,” Shirley repeated, this time loud enough for everyone to hear. “Overtime.”

The stunned fans didn’t react much on either side. The Ackerville fans felt terrible for number 10 and that the victory had slipped away. The Fillmore fans could hardly celebrate the terrible misfortune of the Ackerville shooter. Neither side was eager to watch anymore of the basketball that they had witnessed for four quarters.

Then…the lights went out. Except for a few exit signs over doors and some emergency lighting bleeding in from adjoining hallways, the gym was completely dark. The murmuring in the crowd grew to a louder hum as folks tried to figure out was happening. After a few minutes of general confusion, a voice boomed from one end of the gym.

“It’s alright! It’s alright folks.” It was Dutch, the custodian that had worked at the Ackerville school for 42 years. “The main fuse for the gym blew. No harm done.”

Dutch walked over to the scorer’s table, where the coaches and officials were talking. The Ackerville coach asked Dutch, “Can you fix it?”

“Nope. Not tonight. It’s fried. I’ll have to call the electrician tomorrow.”

“Well, I guess we’re done here,” said the Fillmore coach.

“Yeah. Not a moment too soon,” the depleted Ackerville coach said.

“So what’s going to happen with this game?” the Fillmore coach asked Jerry.

Jerry said, “Well, the rule book says it has to be resumed at some point—starting with the overtime period.”

Both coaches groaned a little.

“Oh, man. It’s getting kind of late in the season for that,” said the Ackerville coach.

“Yeah. District play starts next week,” the Fillmore coach concurred.

“It’s up to you guys. And your ADs,” Jerry said. “It’s out of our hands. You can call it a tie if you want to. Makes no difference to us.”

“Well, I’m not a big fan of ties,” said the Ackerville coach, addressing the Fillmore coach. “But in this case, I’m willing to accept one.”

“Yeah. A tie it is,” said the Fillmore coach. “Let’s just move on with our seasons.” The two shook hands and went to their respective benches to tell their players. None of them cared about the tie, either. One of the Fillmore players even said, “Good. Let’s get out of here.”

While Dutch led Shirley, Jerry and Joe with a flashlight toward their locker room, the Ackerville coach announced to the crowd what was happening. The murmuring among the fans intensified only slightly upon hearing the news. Some grumbled, some approved with sarcastic cheering; but most just started filing out quietly, not sure what to think of what they had just witnessed.

Dutch shined the beam into the locker room and then flipped a switch near the door that illuminated the whole room.

“Ahh, let there be light. Thanks,” said Shirley. “So it was just the gym lights that blew?”

Dutch scratched his head and turned off the flashlight. “Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret fellas,” he said. “But you have to promise not tell a soul.”

The boys all looked at each other, and then Joe shrugged and said, “Cross our hearts.”

“Okay. I trust you guys. Thing is, there was no problem with the fuse box. I through the breaker for the gym myself. I couldn’t watch anymore of that, so I just shut off the lights. I had to end it.”

The officials all looked at each other again, no one knowing quite what to say. Finally, Jerry said, “Yeah, that wasn’t a very good game, was it?”

“No, not at all!” Dutch laughed, and then said, “Listen, I figured out what you guys were doing. It took me a while, but I caught on about the second quarter.”

More glances between the boys. “What? What are you talking about?” said Shirley.

“Listen, I don’t blame you a bit,” said Dutch. “I’ve been watching you guys for years. You’re a pretty good crew. Not the best that comes through here, mind you, but pretty good.”

Joe laughed a nervous laugh while Shirley and Jerry quietly started to undress.

“I get pretty tired of all the parents and fans and students yelling and screaming about everything all the time, too,” Dutch continued. “When you started calling everything, I thought, ‘Well, they’re just calling it close tonight.’ But then I figured out that you were calling everything that somebody yelled from the stands. Pretty funny; and funny how nobody picked up on it.”

“Umm, yeah,” said Jerry as he gave pensive looks to Shirley and Joe. “I guess you got us.”

“Oh, I don’t got nothing on you,” Dutch said as he smiled broadly and waved his hand at Jerry. “You’re secret’s safe with me. You gave them just what they asked for. Funny how they didn’t ever figure it out and just shut up.” Dutch laughed and the boys joined in.

“We’re not thin-skinned or anything,” Joe explained, “but we get kind of tired of being yelled at every night, you know?”

“I know. I know,” said Dutch. “You don’t have to explain it to me.”

“Yeah. Hard to believe that we do this for fun,” said Jerry, and everyone laughed again. “And it is fun for us…most of the time. But sometimes…well, tonight we just wanted to—I don’t know…”

“Teach everybody lesson?” Dutch suggested.

“Yeah, I guess,” said Jerry.

Dutch shook his head and said, “It was a good try, but I’m sure it didn’t work. They don’t get it. I’ve been around for…phew, longer than I really want to remember. I’ve seen more football games, baseball games, basketball games—you name it—than anybody in the state, I would guess. Most folks in the stands don’t want to believe that the kids are fault. It’s your fault when things go wrong. You’re an easy target.”

The boys looked at each other in a brief silence again, and Joe said, “I guess I never really thought of it that way before.”

“Well, that’s what I think anyway. It’s hard to change things,” Dutch said, and then laughed. “You guys played one heckuva joke on everyone tonight and they were the butt of it. But they don’t even know it.” Everyone laughed. “That’s the best kind of joke, I think. You guys got them good, boy.” Dutch picked up an empty juice bottle from the floor, threw it in the trash can and said, “Well, I’ll let you guys get dressed and get out of here. See you next time.”

The boys gave Dutch simultaneous farewells and after he walked out, Shirley laughed and said, “Next time. Do you think they’ll invite us back here again?”

“Of course,” said Jerry. “Who else are they going to get to do this job?”

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