Disclaimer: As usual, the characters in Slam Dunk do not belong to me and belong to their respective owner(s). Aside from the characters I create, I do not mean to infringe on any current copyrights on the series and this fan fiction is merely a means of promoting Slam Dunk and to serve as a creative outlet for my writing. Thank you.
Author's Note: I'd just like to thank all the readers and writers on FanFiction. Also, thanks to Inoue Takehiko for creating this wonderful series and I hope he knows we are all still expecting that sequel someday.
Sorry for the delay, there were huge Internet problems where I live and I got swamped at work.
Chapter 79 – Mitsui Hisashi
The young man has no idea when people stopped calling him by his name.
It used to always be "MVP." Then "shooter." "Man of Fire" (he still has no idea where that had come from). Now it's just "that guy on Shohoku that makes threes." Sometimes, between teammates, he's called "vice-captain" out of respect. "Old man" when there is none.
Even his own father doesn't call him by his name anymore. Maybe his father is equally confused as to who the young man really is.
It's an unsettling feeling, to not be known. The young man used to thrive on that disquieting emotion when he first came into the sport of basketball: of being just another jersey running around the courts until he burned into others' minds who he was through skill alone. But as his career goes on, too many times the young man has to ask himself who he really is. On the court and off.
Is he still an all-round player, capable of rising to the title of ace? Maybe he's just a shooter, a gunner, a "guy on Shohoku that makes threes?" Or has he been reduced even further: a nameless, faceless player with unimpressive abilities that could be found on any team? The same sort of indistinguishable being that his parents likely see him as?
Sometimes the young man doesn't know just who he is. Or what to call himself. What his name is.
But there is one way for all of it to come rushing back, for him to understand who all these meaningless titles are attributed to. It's a simple memory tool, a lesson he's vowed to never forget.
All he needs is a basketball in his hands. And when he lifts into the air and grants the ball flight, the sound of basket through net that follows affirms all that he is.
The swish of the ball through the net is the most beautiful sound the child has ever heard.
The child is six when he first hears it. It isn't the first sound he hears from the sport of basketball—it's actually the second—but it's the one that will follow him forever. It begins, strangely, on a day the child slips outside his mother's office at the university to use the restroom.
The mother doesn't glance up from her work when the child says he has to go and doesn't question that the child would know where the bathrooms are, only because the child is a "good boy" that doesn't get into trouble. However, the child does not know the layout of the university as well as he thinks, and nowhere close to what his mother believes. She assumes, though with good reason, that the increasingly frequent visits to the university with the child is enough for him to have learned where to find things, and if he cannot find them, to not wander too far away. The child has never outwardly thought much for himself, and though his parents believe he is a "good boy" because of that unquestioning obedience, the child is compliant for a different reason.
That reason is his understanding of hard work. And the child has no doubts that his mother is working harder than anybody, and therefore must not bother her.
The child scampers down the hallways of the school, full of motion but empty in thought. It's only a few moments before the child gets lost in the university, big as it is. His elementary school is nothing compared to the areas where the grown-ups study. Everything is bigger, and it's not just the people. Across each unfamiliar corner he turns, the corridors seem to stretch ever farther, the ceiling looming ever taller. It's deep into the university's afternoon classes and the foot traffic is sparse, so each step the child makes rings hollow down the ways. But this is not something that deters him. He scurries across the clean university floors, eyes bright but directionless. The maze of a school will not scare him into giving up.
And though the child does not give up, he is rewarded for his efforts by becoming so thoroughly lost that he eventually winds up outside, into the late afternoon sun that dyes the campus and its surroundings a dull, fiery orange. It takes the sight of the setting summer sun for doubt, then realization, to creep into the child.
He pauses below a nearby tree, unsure. The child has never been lost this late, when there are so few people to help. And it finally registers with him that he will, in fact, need help—not just to go to find the restrooms, but also to guide him back.
The prideful glow fades from his eyes. He wonders how mad his mother will be, if he interrupts her hard work somehow.
The child remains next to the tree, helpless, feeling it's his only connection between the world he knows and the great unknown around him. He doesn't even try to backtrack. Contrary to his own beliefs he has given up, and given up far more easily than he would have expected. The minutes stretch on, seemingly unending.
But amongst the quiet there eventually grows the sound of an approaching drum; the deep, resounding thumps of leather to cement. The child sees, from a distance, a young man tapping a ball towards the ground over and over, eyes up and unfocused.
This is the first sound of basketball.
Thought leaves the child, even his need to use the restroom. He wants help, needs help—but that understanding suddenly gives way, unable to stand against the urge to find out what that… thing is. That orange ball, one he has never seen on his own school playgrounds.
He wanders away from the university's social studies building into the unknown that he had been fearful of, away from the safety net his mother told him to never abandon. And it's easy.
It's the first time, but not the last, that he'll do something against his parents' wishes.
The young man is far enough away that the child is unable to catch up with his short legs. The two leave the main campus, approaching another enormous building that seemed even larger than the one the child had left behind. Once there, the young man slips into the university gym without a thought. But the child finally hesitates when he sees his target swallowed up by the unfamiliar structure.
The child hesitatingly looks over his shoulder, back towards the building where his mother is. It's visible still, even from where he is now. It's not too late to turn back. To go back to the world he's familiar with.
But as the child ponders this, there is the sound of the ball through the closed doors. It's similar to the one had had heard previously, but a bit different from before—a resonant, fuller ringing, with more life, like the throbbing of a heart.
The uncertainty falls away and the child's mind is instead filled with that sound, one that grows ever louder as he pushes through the gym doors that the young man had walked through.
What's waiting for him is a sight he never forgets.
There is nothing but gleaming hardwood floors, as far as the eye can see. Carefully painted lines, geometric and angled and perfect, dividing all the courts and the areas within and around them. Bright orange rims that roost high above in the air, pristine. There is not a single shadow, a single bit of darkness—just a colosseum of light and space and sound. A haven for those that love the sport, whether to spectate or play.
Then, as the child takes all this in, there is the second sound of basketball:
There are no words to describe what the sound is, especially not within the vocabulary of the child. Even years later, the child will fail to describe what it is that makes the sound of a swish so unique, so special. Maybe it's the transience of the sound and human nature to pursue what is impossible to capture, or maybe it's psychological conditioning because the sound always matches the satisfaction of a made basket. Or maybe it's that the swish sounds as alive as the basketball's dribble, that if the dribble is the thumping of a heart then the swish is the ball's breath, its voice, gossamer and tenuous and beautiful.
There are no words. Only the sound again, sighing into the child's ears, feathery soft. And the child is drawn to its source: the young man he had pursued, shooting at the cornermost basket of the entire gym. Alone and as far from the entrance as can be. The child can see the sound is coming from the ball that the young man had been hitting against the ground earlier, except now the ball is going through the rim, brushing against the net over and over and over.
The young man is at least a staff member, but more likely a player—he's a tall man, far taller than anyone the child has seen before. The child doesn't remember the man's name and never sees him again. Even the details of the older man's face grow hazy as the years pass by. But the child will always remember the ball hitting nothing but the net and thinking that sound was unlike anything that had existed in his world.
The young man doesn't notice the newcomer, not even when the child makes his way to the sidelines. There's a distracted tautness drawn across the young man's face, as if he doesn't enjoy the sound the ball is making, which the child thinks is impossible. But that doesn't really matter because as long as the ball keeps going through the net in just that way, the young man can look as unhappy as he does and the child can remain as still as need be.
The child doesn't remember how long he stands there, absorbing the ball's voice. Each time the ball sounded just the slightest bit different; like it had different timbres, different volumes, moods and songs. But it's long enough that at some point, mid-shot, the young man notices the child out of the corner of his eye and does a double-take.
"Whoa!" The young man stops his shot and slams the ball against the court, directing the shock through the orange sphere and away from him. The ball makes a thundering palpitation before it's caught. It takes a few seconds for the young man to calm from the scare and to collect himself. The entire while the child stares expectantly at the man.
"Uh, are you somebody's kid?" the young man finally asks and glances around the gym, looking for a familiar face or a potential guardian figure. There's none to be found.
The child loses interest in the man and refocuses his attention on the ball, now no longer soaring through the air but caged between the man's hands. The man follows the child's fascinated gaze, to the orange sphere that brought the two together. Something knowing transverses the man's expression, and there is youth there that resembles that of the child. The hesitation and puzzlement is momentarily forgotten, as is the fact that they are strangers, and the man crouches. He is so tall that reaching anything close to eye-level with the child is impossible, and it's the genuine smile on his face that makes him more approachable rather than his diminished size. He holds the ball out with one hand, in offering.
"You want to try?"
Try? Try what? the child thinks in confusion. The man doesn't move from his position and instead waits, as if expecting that a sudden movement will distract and scare off the child. Curiosity eventually prevails; the child very much wants to hold the ball, to feel its contours under his own fingers.
With slow, cautious steps, the child crosses the border that separates the sidelines from the court. For some reason the lights seem just a bit brighter, the wood more solid under his feet. He approaches the man, and once he is close, he forgets the man is even there and gently lifts the ball up and away, like he is plucking a great treasure from its enshrinement. The ball is not smooth: it feels odd, even a bit inflexible, and is a great deal lighter than the child had expected.
"Go on," the man encourages, tilting his eyes up to the rim above them. "Take a shot."
Take a shot, the child repeats silently, trying to piece together what that phrase means. The man mimes a shooting motion and points to the rim, and suddenly the child remembers that the sound had come from the ball going through the net, over and over and over.
In his haste to recreate the sound, the child flings the ball wildly upwards. It's a shot typical of any young, inexperienced player: heaving the ball with the entirety of his body like a shot-putter. The basketball comes up about 3 feet short of even touching the net, much less going through it. Yet it's not the man that chases the ball down, but the child, who had sensed that it wouldn't make it through the rim and was desperate for one more chance. Completely believing that he could make the shot.
This action is not missed by the man, who had previously only been observing with half-hearted amusement. Now he watches intently as the child shoots again and again, with no improvement… but no signs of discouragement, either. The child is tenacious, remarkably focused on the task for someone that is not versed in the sport of basketball. Failure is not enough to make the child give up.
That, the man thinks, is a rare trait.
"Hey," the man calls abruptly, before the child can heave another reckless, uncoordinated shot. The child looks over at the man questioningly.
"What you need to do is use your legs." The man, still in his crouching position, begins to purposefully, slowly, straighten upwards. Even though the movement is for demonstration and thus halting enough to be unnatural, the child sees the familiar motion with new wonderment. The strength of the lower body, the coils of muscles that unwound under the skin with profound force—it's as if the child sees these traits for the first time.
"Most of the strength comes from the legs. It helps you push the ball up. That… it took me a long time to figure that out," the man says matter-of-factly, without a hint of shame in his voice.
The child doesn't acknowledge the advice: not because he has forgotten his manners, but because he wants to use this newly acquired information immediately. He turns and looks up again, to the metal rim that might as well have been attached to a skyscraper.
It's still absurdly high up. Impossibly distant.
But the child still believes. Never for a second has he doubted.
He crouches. He braces the ball with both hands. He pushes up. He hoists the ball to the sky at the apex of his jump.
And everything in his body feels… right.
The ball manages to clear the rim but doesn't go cleanly through. Instead it teeters on the edge, hanging on for a long, agonizing second before it decides to be merciful and roll through. And though it's not really a snappy, defined swish, the net rustles quietly all the same.
"Look at that. I think it was a swish." The young man says the white lie with a smile and distantly the child hears something complex, enough to be indecipherable, in his tone. It's a grown-up emotion, one that the child doesn't understand. And even if he could comprehend nostalgia, the child would have been too distracted to comment on it.
Too distracted by this new bit of knowledge. The knowledge of what makes that sound (swish, the child repeats in his mind).
The man had done that. All those times before. It wasn't the ball. He had done that. He had willed it through the basket.
And now, the child knows:
I can do it too.
The man strides over to the child, who is numb from this revelation. He rests a large hand on the child's shoulder and gives a gentle, friendly shake.
"What's your name?"
The child looks up to the towering man, who looks almost as lofty and distant as the rim.
"Um. I… Mitsui."
"Mitsui, eh? I'll remember it. You'll be famous someday, I bet. Just don't give up, all right?" The man gives the child's shoulder a light, almost brotherly pat before he collects the loose ball.
The words are a platitude to a wide-eyed child. Mitsui believes them anyway.
The gym doors open again, and two more young men step in, loud and rambunctious. The intimate atmosphere is shattered, but too late to interrupt the lesson.
"You're here early, Yazawa!" one of them shouts in greeting as he heads for the lockers, a duffel bag over his shoulder. The child notices, for the first time, that these newcomers are wearing similar colored clothes to that of the other man.
"Hey, do you know whose kid this is? He said his name is Mitsui," Yazawa calls back, pointing to the person in question.
Both of the newcomers shake their heads, unfamiliar with the child.
Everyone turns to see the child fidgeting. He presses a hand to his stomach with an uncomfortable expression.
"Social studies building… bathroom."
When Mitsui is finally left alone outside his mother's classroom by one of the basketball players, he strides in fearlessly and with purpose. He ignores his mother's worried questions about whether he had gotten sick and instead grabs at his mother's hand before saying he wants a basketball, needs one. He promises her he'll work hard at the sport, just like how hard she works, and he won't ever give up until he can swish every single shot.
His mother will take his small hand in hers and laugh it off in disbelief, uncertain what has brought about this change in her son. She'll never buy him a basketball. Instead Mitsui will find his first basketball abandoned in the city streets almost a full year later—a dusty, dull thing with no grip—and treat it like a sphere of gold rather than leather.
But that is all irrelevant.
Mitsui Hisashi is born anew. Into the world of basketball.
Before Anzai, Mitsui has only one coach, one teacher. This teacher never leaves his side. It is an omnipresent thing, there to always remind him to never get too full of himself in believing he is the best. It would be a surprise to many that this teacher that had taught him to have a shooting form so beautiful and so fundamentally sound could never physically meet anyone.
Of course that teacher couldn't. Mitsui's only teacher until middle-school dwells within him: his own disappointment when there is no swish of the basketball through the net.
It is a harsh teacher. A teacher that stays with him, forever, reminding him of that there is still much more to achieve.
His warm-up shooting routine is unchanging. He always starts from the bottom of the basket, as close as he can be, and only when he feels comfortable does he move outwards. Part of it is habit, born from trying to use his tiny body to heave that humungous basketball towards the sky, through the rim so high above. His shooting is awful for the longest time, out of stubbornness—the tiny basketball hoops designed for children of his age weren't of interest to him and so he shot on the full-sized, "adult" baskets, the ones with those skyscraper-high rims. Their nets were actually crisp when the ball went through it, and Mitsui knows that when he is older and his body is like those of the basketball players he's seen in magazines and on television, he'll be shooting on a court with regulation baskets. It only made sense (at least to him) that he trained under the right conditions.
He starts each shooting session just below the rim. Then his legs push him up, just like he was taught. Time locks when he's in the air, and all that lays before his eyes is a singular target, his muscles moving on their own, performing calculations and comprehending physics in ways his mind cannot.
And he keeps shooting.
He shoots until he makes it. Then he shoots until he makes it again, just to be sure.
Then he shoots until he doesn't miss.
That doesn't happen, of course. But it's the only goal in his mind—forcing his body to remember what it is that makes the ball go in from that one spot on the court. Beating the formulas and equations into his body. He shoots from one spot over and over until it's the misses, and not how many shots he's made in a row, that surprise him.
Then he does it somewhere else on the court. A foot away. A foot to his side. Half-a-step diagonal. A slow, steady dance across the gravel, the cement, and when he finally enters middle-school, the polished wooden floors of the gym, the same type of floors where he had made his first basket. It's where he belongs.
The philosophy behind the perfect shot is not something he just thinks about. It defines him. Consumes him. Makes him work and work until he goes to bed with his dirty, battered ball that smells of concrete and dust and he still worries that someone out there is shooting more shots than he is.
Hard work is the last thing he's afraid of.
And when he hears people say he can only shoot and do nothing else, he trains even harder.
Even at his young age he knows what it means to earn the title of "ace." He would have to do more than shoot. All his skills would have to be honed to a level where no matter his opponent, he would have a way to make his presence known. It's not as hard for him to fill out the rest of his game as he thinks it will be. All he has to do is think of shooting from different perspectives.
The defense: if I were shooting, what would make it hardest for me to score?
The passing: if I were shooting, where and when would I most like the ball to score?
The rebounding: if I were shooting, at which angle would the ball most likely bounce off the rim if it wasn't a score?
The offense: a question he's always asking himself. A question his silent teacher always reminds him of when he hears the clang of the rim and a loose ball flying away from the net instead of through it:
How do I shoot so that I never miss?
Because he knows one harsh reality. One demand asked of every player that wants to be great.
There will be days when he has to shoot a shot that must not miss.
The scorer's tables are overturned, there's a dull rumble from the crowd, and Mitsui is oblivious to all of it because he's lying on the sidelines and filled with panic that he has to find a way to shoot a shot that must not miss.
The score is 53-52. There's less than 12 seconds left before Takeishi Middle School is crowned the champions or they're just another forgotten second-place finisher. And this outcome is dependent on a single person: Mitsui Hisashi.
If he decides to get up at all.
He doesn't want to face the final few seconds of the match. The pressure is unlike anything he had anticipated. Like any young player, he had imagined what it would be like to be trusted with the final shot, the game-winning shot. Countless times at the end of his shooting practices he had imitated those moments, envisioning the bright lights above him, the audience delirious with expectation as he took those few dribbles to shake his defender before rising into the air and swishing the final dagger. Countless times.
But reality is different. The lights above him are nauseating, so brilliant that they leave him nowhere to hide. The crowd is roaring, but they're not cheering him on; it's just noise, conversation, static. And if he misses (you will miss, his old teacher tells him, rising from his subconscious), there would be no second chance. No do-overs. Only regret and sleepless nights blending into one another where he recounted the game-winner he couldn't make.
This singular moment could break him if he were to miss the shot. Break him.
So, the voice in his head concludes, it's time to give up.
No, Mitsui answers silently. I won't give up. I'll just pass the ball to a teammate.
That's right, the voice agrees quickly. Pass the ball off. Pass it off even if you're open.
Even if he's open? Maybe. Yes. He could just pass it off. Even if he's open. But… no. He wouldn't be open. He's the ace. And if he passed up an open shot, a shot that he's practiced over and over, a motion ingrained into his very bones…
Don't let your pride get in the way. Think of what would happen if you were to miss. And you will miss. So just give up. You've done everything for this team. Everything.
Just don't chase after the ball after the inbounds. You see where you lie now? It will be the same result if you were to attempt another steal, except there won't be 12 seconds on the clock but zero, and you'll cry not into your mother's arms or your teammate's shoulders but into this wood that will accept your tears like so much sweat, unknowing of your plight.
No one can blame you, not after this game you've had today.
It will break you, if you miss. Break you. Break—
"Do not give up until the very end."
A voice outside of him, away from his overactive mind. Mitsui raises his head to see an older man, hair white with age. The stranger's figure is comically rotund, almost as spherical as the ball in his left hand. Normally Mitsui wouldn't give such a stranger the time of day; unsolicited advice should only be from those stronger than he.
But this is a fellow basketball player. Mitsui can tell. It's more than just the way the man delivers his words: calm, polished with experience. It's also the way the stranger grips the ball, steady in his hands like he's palming a delicate bird that he at once does not want to hurt but does not want to leave. Treating the basketball with the respect it deserves.
Mitsui stares up at this stout man as if he's a mountain, and the words that follow, though serene, weigh heavy when they tumble down onto the young player:
"If you give up now, the game will be over."
The man gives the ball back to Mitsui, entrusting him with it. It feels like a boulder in Mitsui's hands. Yet as the stranger turns away, chuckling merrily to himself, Mitsui realizes that this is a weight he can carry. A burden he can shoulder.
The words left by the man, simple as they are, are a reminder. A testament to what Mitsui fights for, every single time he steps into the empty gym and tries to hone the perfect jumper.
It didn't matter whether he won or lost the game. Today's match is just that, in the end: a game. Only a small part of the struggle, the one that Mitsui battles each and every practice. The struggle to determine whether or not he could beat himself, surpass his own limits.
I told my teammates there's still time. I told them we'll win. I promised them. I promised them that as long as I was here, we'd be victorious. I must get the ball. Once I have the ball, I'll make the best basketball decision available. I won't hide, if I can make the shot.
That's what an ace does.
That's what I'll do.
Mitsui picks himself up from the floor.
Less than a minute later, Mitsui is mobbed by his teammates after an improbable steal and scoring a miraculous jumper in the final seconds of the middle-school championship game.
Everyone forgets Mitsui Hisashi that day. Instead he is bequeathed as Most Valuable Player. It will bring him fame beyond his imagination, praise from even his most vicious critics. His parents would recognize him for once, and more importantly, recognize the sport that Mitsui has loved for so long.
He doesn't know that he will learn to hate the title. To despise it.
But at the moment the championship trophy is presented to Takeishi Middle School and he's honored as MVP, Mitsui is filled with so many emotions that push and pull and his body and heart are just tired with happiness, so much happiness, all for the sport that he loves, and knowing for once the sport loves him back.
The morning after conquering the nation, the MVP is back in the gym shooting.
Naturally, no one is there to join him. The season is over. His teammates that pass by the gym during the course of the day, none of them dressed to play, have no idea why he's there.
You've done it, they say. You won MVP. You've conquered the nation. Every middle school basketball team knows you. You've even been called the most dominant scorer Japanese middle school basketball has seen in the last five years. The best high schools will be lining up at your door, recruitment pitches at the ready.
Why are you still here, as if nothing has changed? Why are you still starting your shooting from right under the basket? Are you still a little kid?
He gives them all a smoldering glare and returns to shooting. He hears them mumbling behind his back, confused, but he doesn't grace them with an answer. They would never understand.
Basketball is not about looking pretty. It's more than that. The MVP has seen players with shooting forms far worse than his make three-pointers time and time again, with swishes just as distinctive and interesting as any other. The end-result was the same for every basketball player when it came to shooting; what mattered is consistency.
And to achieve consistency, the kind of consistency that the MVP is now expected to deliver, he must work even harder.
Fortunately, that fire still burns in the MVP: the desire to keep working, to reach for perfection. Always being prepared. Never giving up. He's learned it, now. And he knows someone out there—a coach named Anzai—shares that belief with him. So it makes little difference to him that he started his shooting from under the basket to warm up, as he has done since he was a child. As long as he's making the shots that he must not miss, the MVP would do whatever it takes.
But that work ethic alienates him from the others. His newfound popularity is transient. People think he's strange, unapproachable. Only those that don't know him well, that don't know how consumed he is with basketball, still converse with him. And they don't call him by his name anymore.
The MVP title is something he still relishes. But the crown feels lonely, more than he ever imagined it could be.
The day he announces that he'll go to Shohoku High to his parents is the day that they stop seeing him as the MVP. He's downgraded to just being their son again: their ordinary, idiotic teenage son with no vision of the future.
But the MVP knows the future he wants. And it wasn't with Kainan High or Ryonan High or anywhere else. It had to be at a school with Anzai-sensei.
The first time the matter is brought up, it's only an argument. Nothing more. The second time, still an argument, but more intense. By the fifth time the family has this discussion, it's so vicious that even as the MVP slams the front door behind him and stalks away from home, his parents' yells still resounding in his head, he can't help but feel confused about the enormous disconnect he shares with his parents, the same ones that had shown him the value of hard work. It's not anger that drives him away, but a bewildered anxiety, unsettling in the pits of his stomach.
It just didn't make sense. His parents had not been vested in the MVP's basketball life. No, they hadn't given a damn about the MVP until he had been granted his title. Any real interest his parents had in basketball had faded away long before that time, around elementary school, when he had started to pester them relentlessly about his progress. When he had started to list each accomplishment, like when he had made his first half-court shot, when he learned to shoot from behind the backboard, when he had made his first free-throws with his eyes closed. When he had shared anything that was related to the sport that had possessed his entire being until his parents had grown sick of it.
And it makes no sense to the MVP, that even now, his parents didn't really care. Not really. Why couldn't they see how hard he had worked for this? How hard it had been for him to get to where he's at in the basketball world? To finally find people that had the same goals that he did?
He had believed, naively, that the MVP title would bring his parents into this world. Legitimize his craft in their eyes. And they would see what he has learned, somewhere, maybe from Anzai or maybe a bit before, that it isn't "winning" that's most important, but how someone gets to that place.
Instead his parents had given him the customary and blatantly superficial "Kainan High has a history of winning" argument, one that sounded as if it was lifted straight out of a club member's opening pitch to a wandering freshman on campus.
The knot in the MVP's stomach fails to disappear, not until he walks and walks and walks to the place where Anzai will be. The school the MVP will drag into relevancy, as he has done before.
The MVP stands outside the gates leading to Shohoku High and imagines not his first day of practice, or seeing Anzai again, or the teammates that would be the supporting cast of his team. All that fills his head are visions of standing at the top of Japanese basketball, the championship trophy over his head, and conquering the nation one more time.
That's what he's known as now. Sometimes he's called worse. It doesn't matter, really.
The identity change this time is the hardest he's ever had to endure—it is the first time he's ever felt so unlike himself, so completely out of his element. After one month without a ball in his hands he snaps and gets into the most ferocious fight he's ever been in. He's lucky it falls on the same day that Tetsuo is there, to judge his fighting prowess and determine his worth.
He had no idea the sport had such deep roots in him. He had always believed that basketball did not define who he was. But he knows now, thankfully. He had been led astray by the sport, believing that he was the one to push the ball into the sky. He didn't have any control over it. Really, it was that tiger-striped balloon that had been floating away from his grasp all along. It explains why he had constantly felt isolated and alone and wanting something more when there wasn't a ball in his hands. Even now he wants to throw a basketball around, to feel his muscles settle into a meditative shooting rhythm.
Basketball is (was, he tells himself) a parasite. A disease eating at him, chewing on his bones, gnawing his frayed nerves. It would be for the best that he forgets about it, of the days when he felt in the zone and he knew each shot was going to go in—
He gives the stranger, a no-name first year that had messed with the wrong gang, a violent shove. For some reason he can only remember doing the same when he was against those giant forwards and centers in the post, fighting for the rebound, trying his best to make up what he lacked in height with the size of his heart.
He takes an elbow into the ribs and feels little: he's had so many of those subtle blows pushing past screens that his core muscles barely responded to grazes like that.
He punches the stranger with all his might and can only think that this impact of bone against bone was so familiar, like the days when he used to charge straight for the basket and mow over his defender, drawing an and-one and having the bruises afterwards to show for it.
The fight is over quickly, though the delinquent isn't sure if it's just his own perception of time. At the end of it all, when there are only bloodied, unconscious teenagers left in his wake Hotta drapes an arm around his shoulders, celebratory. It's oddly comforting. It reminds him of the long basketball practices in middle-school and when he had done something praiseworthy his seniors had treated him much the same way.
Pleased with the delinquent's performance, Tetsuo gives him a hearty handshake in congratulations. The delinquent knows this part too. It means it's over, the game's finished. He's done it so many times, shaking the hands of those he's beaten at mid-court, watching their hearts break and their dreams crumble because of him. It's strange to see Tetsuo's savage grin and realize that this time he's on the receiving end of it.
That night he returns home, bloodied and grimy. His parents ask what he has been up to, not knowing yet that the person that stands before them is not their son anymore. The delinquent almost lies and says it was from a tough basketball street game, as if they would believe it. Instead he brushes past them without a word.
He showers and gets into bed. He's ginger with his injured knee for no reason. It wasn't like he would be jumping around the court, practicing lay-ups and jumpers and three-pointers anymore. The condition of his knee doesn't matter. He can put as much weight on it as he wants.
He settles into his sheets. Everything hurts, but not in a pleasant way. The fight has left him with no real happiness. It's funny; the stings and pains from basketball practice had been something he used to relish. Now the delinquent just feels empty.
Still, his knuckles throb. His finger joints ache.
He wonders, from buried habit, whether that will affect his shot when he goes practicing tomorrow.
He covers his face and weeps quietly and is six all over again.
Those days are over, he knows. He's cut all ties. This sport (this disease, he reminds himself) will eat at him for much longer. But he can bear it, he must bear it. No matter how much his mind and body would reject this new identity, it's the one for him.
Shohoku doesn't need him anymore. Anzai doesn't need him anymore. They knew the MVP but they didn't know Mitsui Hisashi, and no one would want him, after all. It must be why Anzai has never bothered to check on him, not even once, since he left everything behind. No, they had wanted the MVP, the one who could score over any opponent. The child that fumbled with a ball nearly his size, who thought the sport loved him as much as he loved it—he doesn't exist. Not to anyone.
Soon, he believes, I won't remember him anymore either.
The not-delinquent tosses and turns for hours. The tears dry but the aches remain, dull throbbing reminders of his new path. When he finally falls into a restless, nightmare-filled sleep, the last sound he hears is the rustling of the wind through leaves outside his window. It sounds like the whisper of ball brushing through net, so faint and so gentle and so painful.
Youhei Mito demands that the delinquent make a promise. A promise that he will never set foot on a basketball court again.
Even though he should have no place there anymore, even with his vow to forget all that he used to be, and even with all eyes on him to affirm the new identity he's taken years to grow into…
Out of the corner of his eye, the delinquent sees the ball that he used to treat with deference, and remembers a swish, and…
…the words cannot leave Mitsui Hisashi's lips.
The shooter returns.
His knee is stiff sometimes and he knows he's lost more than a step. A lot of his skills are rusty—the dribbling, the court awareness. Knowing exactly how to move without the ball, where he should be on defense. He has to remind himself that he'll have to play with a team again, one made up of cocksure troublemakers with egos even bigger than his. Until he can make the team his own like in middle-school, and like he had imagined when he had joined Shohoku, he'll have to find his niche.
That part is the easiest, though. There is one skill that has not fully degraded, even with time.
No one really remembers the shooter. It's to be expected. Sometimes he hears some mutterings in the crowd, recognizing him as "MVP." But he knows that's not him anymore. He's no MVP. The MVP didn't have a knee that felt like it was going to give out when he put too much weight on it. The MVP didn't get left open by the defense, ignored for a freakishly athletic star rookie that moved across the court as if he owned it. The MVP didn't give the ball up during important moments to a gorilla-faced beast of a center that had carried the team on his broad shoulders for three long years.
It's hard. So hard to not have the ball in his hands when it mattered most.
But that's fine. Basketball has not changed. The sport is still there for him. He knows, as soon as he feels the contours of the first basketball he's picked up in years, that his body would remember the routine again. Of making that ball a part of him, bringing it through him, willing it into a basket.
He's heard the doubts. The naysayers. He wants to prove them all wrong. But things have changed—the teams are better, the players stronger, the competition harsher. He realizes this when he plays his first official high school game and watches how the opponents dash across the court, crossing basket-to-basket in the blink of an eye. The weak ones have been weeded out between middle school and high school. Only those that believed in themselves, and in winning it all, could dream of leaving the bench.
And he knows he no longer has any advantage over any of them. He starts gasping for air before the end of drills. He's never smoked but his lungs burn all the same. He has to move in an all-out sprint just to match others in transition.
He no longer has all of the advantages. The naïve, early days when he proclaimed he could play any position were over.
So he'll train. Outwork them, like he always has done. He'll shoot and shoot and shoot until the net, and not his screaming muscles, tells him "no more."
He'll shoot. Until the ball leaving his fingertips is second nature again.
He'll shoot until he's regained the time he's lost.
The shooter will hone his craft, and when Shohoku needs him the most, he'll do what he does best.
Mitsui Hisashi is born again, long enough to conquer another seemingly impossible obstacle in the form of the legendary Sannoh. He doesn't remember most of what is probably the best game of his life.
It is unfortunate that he doesn't. Because the very next day, he plays one of the worst games of his life. When it matters the most, his shooting touch abandons him against Aiwa High. It happens to all shooters at some point or another—no one is accurate all the time—but for that game, it's not any problem with his shooting mechanics; he would have figured it out, at some point during or after. His shooting is off because there's absolutely no energy left in his body. He had spent every bit of his being against Sannoh, as had all the others. They're all shadows of their true selves, trying desperately to summon what little willpower they have left. It's not enough to keep Aiwa High from demolishing them before half-time, and though Kogure and all four of the original starters play the entire game, it's for naught. They don't even come close to threatening a win.
When it's all over and the final buzzer screeches angrily, waking all the Shohoku members from their championship dreams and back into harsh reality, Mitsui stands alone and watches the rafters high above. Doubt creeps into his being—not sadness—and he is unsure if he'll ever get another chance to stand in this spot again, battling to conquer all of high school basketball.
This could be his last year. This could be his last Nationals appearance. He could struggle for the Winter Cup, but what if he failed then? What if Shohoku never wins a championship with him on the team?
They line up to shake hands with the Aiwa High members. To make the loss official.
Rukawa carries an emotionless look as they head for center court, though Mitsui knows better than anyone just how much the loss will occupy the freshman star's mind for the weeks to come. Miyagi is stony-faced, all exuberance gone. And Akagi, his immovable, unchanging captain, is stoic and distant, professional to the end.
That's what Akagi conveys. But Mitsui knows Akagi, the oaf that he is. Akagi can't fool Mitsui for a second. He's seen the giant roar and scream and thump his chest and cry and all these emotions, all those emotions that each of them carries in some way or another, for years. Akagi still has those feelings, but they're lost, buried under shock. Shock that this dream could end, so anticlimactically, where the results were more or less known before even half-time. Where the players had almost 20 minutes to watch their aspirations crumble as the second half began, each diminishing second counting down their time remaining on the Nationals stage.
Akagi had thought, incorrectly, that Sannoh was their final adversary. The greatest obstacle, one that when defeated, would open a path to the championship. It was not to say that Akagi had taken Aiwa High lightly; on the contrary, Akagi had bounced back to play an astounding game after his embarrassing performance against Kawata Masashi. No, it's a singular realization that looms behind Akagi's distracted gaze: that sometimes, even after giving your best, no matter what you had accomplished previously, you could still lose.
The Sannoh game had made Akagi forget a lesson he had endured for three long years: in basketball, only the strongest would rise to the top.
Mitsui couldn't blame his captain, his old rival. Mitsui had, for a second, dreamed too. Just like all of them.
But that had been before the game. Before he had gotten to the arena that morning and didn't see a loud-mouthed redhead showboating and trying to get under the other team's skin.
And though Sakuragi is not here, having already been sent off to some hospital or other, Mitsui could imagine that idiotic redhead resting on a medical cot and suddenly feeling a strange, unexplainable sadness. As stupid as it sounds, Mitsui believes that it wouldn't be impossible for their other freshman to sense that the Shohoku team he had known is now no more.
There is something between the five Shohoku starters. Something more than simple basketball chemistry. A weird, unbreakable bond that unites them, makes them unstoppable on the court. And he knows all too well now, that "something" is infinitely fragile and short-lived if even one of the five isn't there.
It's an end of an era. One of the most miraculous eras of Mitsui's basketball career.
And that it would end like this—so abruptly, with so little fanfare—feels inappropriate. Each time he had entered a game that he couldn't lose, or attempted a shot that he couldn't miss, there had been expectations. But for Shohoku, there had never been any. Only those on the team had believed. Mitsui is still an unknown, at the end of it all. It's not like the past, the past that feels so far away now, the days when people had seen him on the courts and both feared and respected him. When the opponents knew that he was an ace, an unstoppable offensive juggernaut that would light up any defender if there was even a crack of daylight in the defense.
What would it take for them to remember his name again?
Mitsui doesn't ponder this very long. Because as he thinks of these what-ifs, and whether or not he's really played his retirement match for Shohoku, he sees Kogure lining up next to Akagi.
He sees that other third year, a person that remembers his name. One of the few that had faith in him for so very long. Someone he thought, like Akagi, would never break.
And he sees that same Kogure lifting his glasses up just enough to wipe away tears.
"Do not give up until the very end."
He remembers he promised Kogure a championship.
"If you give up now, the game will be over."
He remembers he promised Anzai a championship.
The doubt leaves and Mitsui knows that he still has unfinished work.
"Are shooters born, or are they made?"
It is an age-old question. One that Mitsui has heard before. His game-winning jump-shot in middle school, the one that conquered the nation, forced him to endure those words over and over again.
"Are shooters born, or are they made?"
He would laugh and dodge the question, because no one would like his answer. And without an answer from him, people made up their own.
It's magic, most say. He's born with it. Just came out of his mom with a basketball in his hands. Or something along those lines. Mitsui thinks the notion is ridiculous.
He has a secret training routine, others say. That must be it. He's shooting weighted balls, adjusting the height of the basket, practicing one-handed jumpers. Something. Mitsui finds that ridiculous, too.
"Are shooters born, or are they made?"
It's a question that Mitsui has heard before, but never wondered about. Because he knows the answer. He knew as soon as he shot his first basketball, that day in the gym, the rim as high as the bright lights above.
Shooters are born.
Shooting is made.
No, that would be too easy.
Shooting is built.
The work behind his shot is tremendous. It's an art, what he does. He is sure of this.
He breaks down his shot every single day and rebuilds it from scratch. He has to. His shot changes as his body changes; he's still growing and that adds a whole other level of complexity to his shot. Each day he has to adjust his form to his mental state, to how his body feels. Some days he feels like he's a bit lighter on his feet, jumping a little higher. Even if he isn't—and he knows he isn't—he has to account for this. It's the same on days when his shooting arm aches and his calf muscles are like lead weights holding him to the court. The only constant is the ball—and it going through the net. He has to find every single thing preventing him from accomplishing this goal and bend it to his will.
That is his innate shooter speaking. The obsessive need to hone his jumper into the most effortless, consistent, perfect thing. But the only way to appease the demands of that voice is to go out onto the courts and practice. Day, after day, after day.
There is no secret routine. No in-born talent. There is only hard work. To suggest that he had been able to shoot through genetics or some otherworldly force alone was disrespecting the countless hours he had spent with just a rim in front and a ball in his hands, retooling his shooting mechanics until they could never fail him. Reconfiguring his muscle memory until the shot was unconscious, a movement more natural to his mind than even breathing.
There are only two simple things to his shot:
Taking the shot. And doing it seriously.
His middle-school teammates during practice could only do the former. They would walk around and take jumpers from wherever it pleased them. Their movements were slow, their limbs relaxed. There was no pressure, no fear, no urgency. They thought that was shooting. They thought that was the type of shots they would be offered by the defense during actual matches. Mitsui played along, taking their trash-talking and claims of black magic when he made yet another three in stride.
But after practice is over and each dribble Mitsui makes is a lonely echo in the empty gym, he starts shooting. Seriously.
That has never changed, not even since he joined Shohoku.
It's nothing special, what he does. All it takes is a little imagination. Imagining each defensive scenario he would face—and how he would beat them all. All his shots are in rhythm, in motion, done with the same urgency he would as if he was being triple-teamed and being depended on to make the final shot for a win. The same urgency he would have if one of the bigs was leaving the paint, roaming out to guard him and he would have to adjust his shot as if he was shooting over a pagoda. The same urgency he would have if a frightening defensive specialist from the opposing team clung to him like a second shadow, mirroring each movement and he only had this one second to get a good look at the basket.
He shoots each shot as if it is the last shot he will ever take. These days, he knows what would it would be like if it was.
So there is no secret to his accurate shooting. The only secret is hard work.
But no one believes that, of course.
Mitsui has heard somewhere, in hushed whispers, that Jin shoots 500 three-pointers everyday. At the time, Mitsui had laughed and no one understood why.
Of course they wouldn't. To them, to people that didn't take shooting seriously, the number seemed otherworldly. To Mitsui, there had been no point in bragging about routine.
After all, Mitsui's been shooting that many three-pointers everyday before even middle school.
Kogure and Akagi meet Mitsui outside of the gym after Shohoku's very first practice under newly minted Captain Miyagi.
Mitsui at first guesses that his two colleagues are there to lambaste him for losing to Miyagi's team during the scrimmage. But instead the atmosphere is strangely heavy, suffocating. It was like the day they had all sat in the lockers after their loss to Aiwa High, the senior members trying to think of something to say but no one daring to give voice and confirm the reality of their loss.
The meeting today is happenstance. A coincidence. Yet Mitsui can't shake a funny feeling that it's fated for the three of them, the original Shohoku members, to gather just one more time before their paths split.
"You're really not going to prepare for the university exams?" Kogure asks Mitsui, for what was at least the tenth time.
"No." Mitsui's answer is the same as always. And likewise, neither Kogure nor Akagi press the issue any further. Sure, Akagi's brow furrows like he's seeing a freshman slacking in practice and he's trying to decide the right punishment… but his former captain asks no questions. For all the distrust Akagi and Mitsui have shared in the past, they know to respect each other's decisions.
A gust of autumn wind flaps their school uniforms. Mitsui is the only one wearing his Shohoku High warm-ups. And it finally hits Mitsui at that moment: he won't be playing alongside Akagi and Kogure. Not anymore.
The two players that had built Shohoku from the ground up, the comrades he had gone into battle with every single game of his high school basketball career… they would be gone. And Mitsui would be left behind. Chasing a dream, like a child that didn't want to grow up. Like a six-year old that thought he could shoot on adult-sized baskets.
Mitsui suddenly feels compelled to at least tell them why. They deserve that much.
"Kogure. You and Miyagi… you guys were right." Mitsui looks off to the distance, towards the school campus.
The entrance to Shohoku is not far. Emotion gnaws at his heart, something like nostalgia but more painful. Only a few years ago he had stood at those school gates and believed, foolishly, that standing at the top of Japanese basketball again would be a matter of course. That turning Shohoku's awful basketball team around would come in due time, if they all just worked hard.
But naïve as he might have been, next to Mitsui stood two equally foolish young men that had believed right along with him.
None of them had given up. It's just that some of them had to move on.
"I'm still in the past," Mitsui mumbles, loud enough for the others to hear but spoken as if the words were for himself. "I haven't changed. I actually… haven't changed at all."
Though Kogure's face expresses bewilderment towards Mitsui's thoughts, Akagi is stoic as ever. Unimpressed, even.
Mitsui meets the waiting stare of his longtime teammate and rival, startled by the succinct verdict Akagi had dispensed. Akagi heaves a throaty sigh, though there's the hint of a smile tugging at his lips.
"It would be best for you to stay behind, after all."
"Akagi…?" Kogure sputters, equally confused by his friend's conclusion. Akagi deliberately looks towards Mitsui's sports duffel bag before turning his gaze upwards.
"It was three years. For me and Kogure." Akagi tilts his head high, vision locked onto something behind Mitsui. There is no clear focus in Akagi's resolute expression, despite the familiar competitive fire still burning behind it. He is looking at something that none of his comrades can see: memories, no doubt.
"I'm not satisfied either, with things ending this way. But we played our three years. We went through it all." Akagi pauses, as if savoring the bittersweet taste of what he had endured throughout his basketball career. "We had the same chance as everyone else."
The old lucidity returns to Akagi's eyes. He lingers for a moment, uncertain about returning to his current reality—one where he would struggle over math formulas instead of a position in the post. But he levels his calm stare at Mitsui, and in it Mitsui sees an acceptance that had never been there before. It's like Akagi had aged, matured even further. For the better.
"You get one more year to make up. That's all the time I'll let you have."
The prospect of a deadline had never occurred to Mitsui. Until that moment Mitsui's head had only refocused on the goal of conquering the nation. There had been no "what-ifs." He would have tried, again and again until the feeling burned out of his body or Anzai retired. But when Akagi phrases the situation in this manner, he can't even summon a clear retaliation to argue his case.
"I… you can't tell—"
"I need you to keep Miyagi in line," Akagi booms sternly, interrupting him. "You're the veteran of the team now. If you let Miyagi know you'll stay even past the winter qualifications, he'll make you vice-captain over Yasuda."
Mitsui's jaw works, trying to force something out. Akagi nods once and turns on his heel, leaving his two former teammates behind as he strides away from the Shohoku gym.
"Akagi!" Mitsui shouts with conviction, as if he has words left to say. Mitsui doesn't. He just knows he can't let it end like this, with so much unsaid. So much unresolved between the two.
"One more year," Akagi reminds him, his words carried by the wind. Mitsui and Kogure stare at Akagi's departing form, the broad back that had carried all of Shohoku's championship dreams for three grueling years still stiff and upright. Still unbreakable.
Time passes in silence. Another breeze blows past the last two original Shohoku members.
"That gorilla. That damn gorilla," Mitsui finally spits.
Kogure turns to see Mitsui with a strange expression on his face. Conflicting emotions, tugging and pulling and breaking apart what poise Mitsui has left.
"That damn gorilla. Still telling me what to do," Mitsui manages, teeth gritted. His body is shaking, oscillating. Kogure raises a comforting hand, meaning to console before Mitsui abruptly slams a closed fist against the outside wall of the Shohoku gym. The flat, pathetic slap of skin and bone to concrete dies in an anticlimactic instant.
With his fist still pressed against the concrete, Mitsui buries his face into the inner nook of his arm, his other hand in a white-knuckled grip around the strap of his duffel bag. His shooting hand is bleeding.
This revelation is too much for him. It had always been lurking in his mind: that his absence from Shohoku had, indirectly, wasted Akagi and Kogure's best years. But the two of them had accepted Mitsui back with open arms, never begrudging the different ways he had hurt the Shohoku basketball club. Never bringing up the fact that if he had been patient and took his time to recover from his injury, developed alongside them under Anzai's tutelage… their years of high school basketball, no matter how tough they might have been, would have left the three with no regrets.
"How could he—talk to me—like I—" Mitsui tries to gather what little composure that remains, tries to morph it into anger so he can lie to himself for a moment longer, but it doesn't work. His halting gasps soon turn into sobs: pitiful, honest.
"You damn gorilla… if I had just stayed… why didn't I just stay? I never thought… that… all that time..."
Mitsui had not given Akagi and Kogure all three of his years. He hadn't even given them a single full one. But those two had never mentioned it. They had only made Mitsui feel like he had always been there fighting right along with them; that their lost time had simply started from when he had abandoned the team.
Things don't work that way. All three of them had known it. But they had pretended, all the same. And even now, Akagi, in his usual clumsy way, had offered his forgiveness. His blessings.
It's too much. It's too much.
It's too much.
"Damn gorilla talking to me like that… I would have been your captain, you know…"
Tomorrow he will reenter the gym and play in Shohoku's practice as the vice-captain, the veteran. No one would be able to identify where Mitsui had gone; his identity change will be seamless, natural.
But today Mitsui cries the tears he couldn't shed when Shohoku had lost in the Nationals. Tears that burn as they course down his cheeks. Tears full of lament, that he had not given Akagi and Kogure the championship they so deserved.
Mitsui cries away the last tears of his youth, in front of one of the few that knows just who Mitsui Hisashi really is.
The veteran keeps shooting.
The qualifications for the Winter Cup comes and goes. Shohoku underperforms and doesn't earn the sole berth to compete on the national stage. The Kanagawa media writes the team off as being disappointing, a team so disjointed and talentless that even the skills of All-Japan Rukawa couldn't keep their sorry asses afloat. But the veteran knows better, now. It's not that Shohoku is weak, but that the other teams are too good. Shohoku is lacking something—but even the veteran's not sure what. A heart, maybe. One as big as what Akagi had left behind. Miyagi is passionate, fiery; but it's not enough to fill the void.
He keeps shooting.
He grows older. He hears nothing from any of the universities, not even after playing what he considers to be outstanding basketball during the winter season. He's wise enough now to know that winning was the only thing that mattered to those people. If Shohoku didn't win, the team and its members were not even worthy of looking at.
And the admissions committee for those universities were idiots, all of them. The veteran truly believed that, after having numerous sleepless nights before games wondering if he would be able to play well enough to be noticed. He believes it because he could finally understand what Akagi must have went through, to not get his deserved scholarship after Shohoku took down Sannoh. For all their disagreements, he knows that Akagi was the best damn center he's ever seen. The admissions committee were looking for anything that gleamed, false diamonds, ignoring those that had endured far more, those that had been broken over and over by loss but could be counted on to work from the bottom back up again. Ignoring flounders that hid in the mud.
But is that all the veteran is now? Just... something like that?
He keeps shooting.
He watches Rukawa become even better, grow into his role as an ace. Rukawa's otherworldly skill keeps Shohoku competitive, but no more than that. The veteran no longer feels any sense of jealousy towards Rukawa's ridiculous athleticism, of being blessed with gifts that made the game so much easier. No, the veteran had those tools in middle school, back when the competition was a bunch of developing punks who thought they knew what basketball was. In time Rukawa would learn what the veteran has finally realized: physical tools will only take you so far. There will always be someone bigger, faster, stronger. The world of basketball has all types. Your body will degrade, in some way or fashion.
But your mind. All your experiences. That will never disappear.
The veteran exploits that knowledge as much as he can. Each game he starts to see how often he's capable of out-thinking everyone. How often he can create his own space on offense, or funnel his opponent into the shotblocker on defense. He has to find a way to battle against the monsters of the basketball world.
So he keeps shooting.
Freshmen come and go through the basketball club, none of them managing to stick around for long. The veteran imagines that Akagi and Kogure had been forced through these dry spells during the early years of Shohoku. Always wishing for another Mitsui to come walking through the gym doors, a player whose talents was only matched by his competitive fire. The veteran couldn't count on a miracle like that, not when he only had one year left.
But by the time summer comes around again, the veteran's last one on the team, a promising freshman finally appears. Hiroshi is not the heart that Shohoku is lacking, nor does he have the talents to be a savior, but when the veteran sees the first-year move across the courts he can't help but think of Kogure sometimes. A calm cerebral intensity and an undying work ethic; a player that truly believed in being part of a team. A real flounder in the mud. It's not enough, but it's a piece of the puzzle nevertheless.
He keeps shooting.
And one day, on a windy summer afternoon, Sakuragi Hanamichi reappears.
The veteran watches the redhead fit seamlessly back onto the team, and inexplicably every player seems a bit more invigorated, a bit sharper in their movements. Rukawa suddenly doesn't look like he's sleepwalking through every practice and instead starts to pay attention to his new teammates, as if sensing that it might be Shohoku's time once again. Miyagi grows and grows and grows, and though the veteran heeds Akagi's final words and keeps the point guard in line, he doesn't have to micromanage anywhere near as often as he thinks he would have to. Shohoku's heart is beating again, a different rhythm than before but someday, maybe just as strong.
The veteran ponders his own role on this new Shohoku. Wonders just where he fits, if he has to be more than just the shooter he was a year ago.
And without an answer, he can only keep shooting.
It's the day that the veteran leaves for his second and final trip to the Nationals, and appropriately, the house is silent.
His parents speak nothing of his impending departure that morning. The family sits together at the dining table for breakfast and though they're respectful, there is only a silence like the barrier between sky and space, where acoustics are bent and lost no matter the intention.
The veteran hunches in his chair, brooding over his breakfast. He's in full basketball gear and the duffel bag with the rest of his clothes is to the side of feet. He's not hungry but he does his best to half-heartedly eat a fourth of what's in front of him, just to tide over his mother. Food in the household has tasted bland for about three years now—ever since that time he had stopped playing basketball. Maybe there's something still wrong with him, or perhaps his mother's cooking is off because she still remembers the night he had come home after she had waited up and instead of being grateful he had flung the re-heated dinner at the wall and his dad had hit him for the first time in over a decade and he hadn't fought back because somewhere he had known he had shattered more than just dishware.
Sometimes things break that can't be fixed, and sometimes those things are people.
The veteran takes an absent-minded sip of miso soup. It tastes like salty bathwater.
"Excuse me," the veteran says as he gently sets the bowl down and pushes away from the table. He might as well have been speaking to himself; neither of his parents acknowledges him. His father doesn't even spare a glance at the veteran, instead hiding behind the morning paper like the sight of his son is more despicable than reading about global tragedy.
The veteran hefts the strap of his sports bag onto his shoulder and slinks away from the kitchen, to the corridor leading out of the house. He tugs on his shoes (the right one first, mostly out of routine but a bit out of superstition) carefully and laces them. But instead of immediately leaving, as he always has done, he stares at the closed door and finds himself wholly uncertain as to what he will feel when he steps through it.
This is his last time. His last chance.
Each moment before this—before he had departed for the middle-school championship game, before his first Nationals in high school—there had been nervousness, excitement. But today those emotions are buried under detachment, felt but not registered. The veteran is calm more than anything else, even a bit depressed.
There is no anticipation. Only uncertainty towards his fate.
And: it's his last chance.
The veteran adjusts his duffel bag and takes another soft breath.
"I'm off," he announces quietly.
"Good luck," a voice answers.
The veteran stiffens. He's not sure whether he had heard the words or just imagined them, not until he glances over his shoulder and sees his mother at the other side of the hallway.
They stare wordlessly at one another, as if the two are strangers trying conversation and one had spoken out of turn. Emotion doesn't betray itself on the veteran's face though he senses his heart is racing, trying to gallop out of his chest. How could he be this anxious, all of a sudden? Had he actually been this anxious, even just seconds ago, and convinced himself he wasn't?
When had he started to do that, exactly—pretend to be someone he wasn't?
When had everyone else noticed?
She gives him a motherly smile, and shaky as it is, it's heartfelt.
"Do your best," she encourages, and that her voice quavers somewhat doesn't matter. She had seen. She knows what this means to him. She knows how hard he's worked for this moment.
The not-veteran swallows the lump in his throat.
"Ah," Mitsui breathes an affirmative, then turns away and rests his hand on the doorknob. It turns easily and the cold morning air hits him even before he quickly steps out and closes the door behind, trying to trap his unresolved feelings in the house that had felt empty for years.
Some things do break. Some things can't be fixed.
But as Mitsui breathes the cold morning air, filling his lungs with home to steady the thump of his heart, for the first time in so long, he feels when he next comes walking back down this road he would have something real to say, something that will connect all three of them together again.
Minutes before a match against the team that had destroyed Shohoku's dreams of conquering the nation, the not-veteran hears a strange comment from Anzai.
"Mitsui-kun, can I be honest with you?"
Anzai still calls him that name.
Anzai has never done otherwise.
The not-veteran will realize, soon enough, that Anzai has never believed otherwise.
"You're better than you think. Far better."
That doesn't make any sense, the not-veteran thinks. He ponders this, even as the game starts. Even when he finds himself with the ball on the very first possession, unguarded and forgotten by the opposition.
He's older now, has more experience with the game. He knows his limitations better than anyone. It's what he has to do, to be a good teammate. That's his role now. He doesn't need encouragement, not like the others. He's (not) the veteran, after all. He advises them, rather than the other way around.
The words that Anzai had given him should have been given to middle-school Mitsui, the prideful all-rounder that relied on his talent more than his wits. The brash MVP, who had believed that no one was better than him, who had a swagger to his game and a love for the sport that pushed him through any obstacle. That had been the peak of the not-veteran's career, before he had become a delinquent, a thug, a no-name. He hasn't been able to recapture that magic since; he's been just a shooter, a vice-captain, a... a veteran.
"Do not give up until the very end."
…a veteran would know...
"You're better than you think. Far better."
And that's when it dawns on him.
He's no veteran. Not if he's still struggling to find out who he is with regret in the back of his mind, even after all these years. Not if he's still chasing a ghost, a memory, a picture of a boy that was scared to shoot a shot that couldn't miss, but had done so anyway.
The middle school years are over. The Mitsui of that time is gone. There's only nostalgia there because since then, he's shot many more shots, tougher shots than even that one in middle-school. Shots that the old Mitsui would have had nervous breakdowns before taking. Shots that had affirmed who he was, where he stood. Shots that had toppled ace defenders, dreamers, legends.
He's surpassed the old Mitsui. Long ago.
Because he still hasn't given up.
The ball is in his hands now. Then it's not. It flies into the air, through the sky. And just as before, that's all it takes for his mind to clear.
Time has begun to move again.
He knows. He's always known. It makes him feel stupid, that he had nearly forgotten that there is no magic in basketball. They had accused his shooting of being magic, that his threes were miracles. Nothing in basketball is magic. It's hard work and sweat and tears and muscle memory and heart, all heart. He has things the middle-school Mitsui never had. The harsh experiences, the bitter losses, the cruel realities… but also the wisdom, the knowledge of how to win. And more importantly, what it's like to fail, something he had never had before. Periods of being at the top, of being the MVP. Periods of being a nobody, street-trash. Periods of being injured, of being old, of being forgotten, of starting all over again and relishing each second of it, of showing everyone that he doesn't give up because that's all that he is.
He had forgotten to be the Mitsui Hisashi of now.
His first-three pointer as Mitsui Hisashi is good. As it should be. His shooting mechanics are perfect. He's worked on them for years, after all. There's no need to mourn the old Mitsui, or chase that period, or think of his past. They're a part of him. They're still in him, with all the memories. Except now he's shot three hundred thousand more shots since then, and he's still adding onto it. Still getting better. Still not giving up.
When he hears the familiar swish through the basket, he settles back into his own skin, his own identity, and everything is different. He's definitely not a veteran. Or a former MVP. Or even Shohoku's vice-captain.
He's a basketball player, a basketball lover— and he loves the sport still, now and always.
He is Mitsui Hisashi.
The ball is a part of him. It moves through him, past him, just like it has so many times before. His muscles know. It tells him that the shot is nothing but net, nothing but.
He raises a finger in the air as soon as the ball leaves his hand. One more.
They might have forgotten him. They might not know who he is. That's fine; he's forgotten before, too. But they'll know his name soon enough. They all learn, at some point. From the opposing middle school coach at the championship game so many years ago, to each of Sannoh's players just last summer—all of his opponents learned. They'll be yelling "somebody stop that guy! Stop him!
They won't be able to.
Because when the basket looks as wide as it does now, when his muscles and his heart are burning red hot, when his mind is empty but for the knowledge that nothing exists in his world but a single orange ball going through a basket, no one stands any chance.
In the end, they will learn.
They will learn that he is Mitsui Hisashi.
Someone who, truly, will never give up.
Swish. Cue "Sekai ga Owaru Made Wa."
Oh, and new drinking game: take a shot every time the word "shooting" or anything resembling that comes up in this chapter. Including that one, to get you started.
I love all the Slam Dunk characters: ones that Inoue made and even those I made, as arrogant as that sounds. But just like everyone I've talked to about Slam Dunk, there's a special place in my heart for Mitsui. I really wanted to do justice to a backstory for him and I wasn't sure I could. Each time I re-read this chapter, I always felt I didn't capture all that Mitsui is; but because I'm not a good enough writer to really do it and I recognize that, you're reading the best I could do at this point in my life. At the least it was definitely a labor of love (and research. And the drafts. And oh god, the research) that spanned many months. A great deal of it was completed for a while now.
All that aside, I want to take this opportunity to thank my favorite author in Slam Dunk fandom and one of my favorite authors period, Laziness Incarnate, for inspiring me. I don't think anyone knows this, but she is a major reason I even dared to write this continuation of Slam Dunk. If I ever get around to finishing this fic. (increasingly I wonder if I ever will) I'll write up a more genuine and extended commentary about my thoughts and what inspired me and things like that just so I can get it out of my system (including more gushing about her which I can only hope she takes gracefully). But for now I'll just mention that I'll never forget reading her "Three Points" and "Coming Home Tomorrow" in what seems like ages ago, back when I was still a stupid punk ass kid in high school, and having my breath taken away. They were the first SD fics. I read ever and she was the one to make me fall in love with the fandom all over again so many years ago... and eventually led me to writing this beast. I'm a writer, and hopefully an improving one, in no small part due to her influence. It's weird to know your creator; feels like I'm talking to a deity regularly.
So though I write mostly for myself and of course in many ways for all of you (and for fame and obscene amounts of money), this chapter in particular is just a bit more for the Mitsui-lovers. And for Laziness Incarnate, one of the biggest Mitsui-lovers I know, as thanks. For being a reader, an inspiration, and a friend.