"Sakurai-kun!"
Shuji Sakurai turned around, basketball in hand. "Kuwata-kun?"
Yasuhiko Kuwata's face was split with a huge smile. "It is you! Wow, what are you doing back here? I thought you'd gone off to college!"
"Spring break. I missed 3-Slam, so I thought I'd swing by and see if anyone was here. Maybe play a little." Sakurai tossed the ball to his old rival. "Wanna play?"
"Sure!" Kuwata dropped his bag, stripped his jacket off, and nearly flew onto the court. "Have you been back to Johnan? Naruse-kun would kill to see you. And you'd be shocked, Sakurai-kun. He's gotten to be an incredible player, and damn has he grown up! And you're still his hero. He's kept this place alive just being here."
"That's one hell of a compliment. Narucho's hero." Sakurai blushed. "Please, Kuwata-kun. Syu. Call me Syu."
It was Kuwata's turn to blush. "I- I... couldn't."
"Why not? Everyone does."
"Syu," Kuwata said very quietly, his face still red, a shy smile on his lips. "Let's play."
Sakurai grinned and took off his sweater. "You've got the ball."
With a laugh Kuwata ran for the beat-up hoop with the words "House of Three-Slam freshly painted on it, and Sakurai went after him.
They laughed and played and shot and dribbled for a while until Sakurai, showing off, went for a reverse lay-up. Kuwata leaped up and forward to block- and the two collided.
"Oof!" The breath whooshed out of Sakurai's body as he hit the concrete on his back with Kuwata's +172 pounds on top of him. He gasped it back and fumbled for his askew glasses. "Ku- Kuwata-kun. Are you all right?" He pushed his glasses up.
Kuwata's face became clear and Sakurai stared at the shock in the younger man's face. No- not just shock in those dark eyes.
Hunger.
"Kuwata-kun. Are you hurt?"
"Sakurai-kun," Kuwata whispered. His eyes widened and he got up quickly. "I- I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
Sakurai sat up and watched the usually cool and laid-back Kuwata almost run over to the ball and pick it up, back to him. "Kuwata-kun? What happened?"
"I pushed off too hard. Please forgive me, Sakurai-kun!"
"It's street ball. Nothing. A foul at most." Sakurai stood and went over to Kuwata, who still stared at the ball. "Don't sweat it." He clapped a hand on Kuwata's shoulder. "Syu, Kuwata-kun."
Kuwata looked at the hand, then up at Sakurai, and smiled a little. "I thought maybe... after you left for so long... it would go away. But it hasn't."
"What hasn't?"
A long pause.
"Syu-sensei!"
The two players turned around and Sakurai's jaw dropped. "Naruse?!"
Toru Naruse tackled Sakurai and hugged him enthusiastically. "Syu-sensei! When did you come back?! I've come to 3-Slam every day hoping to see you! I knew you came back the minute I woke up, three days ago! What took you so long?"
"Narucho- give me a breath!" Sakurai laughed. "Let me look at you! You've grown up!"
Naruse let go and stood back obligingly. His blue eyes were sparkling and full of joy. "I'm a senior, Syu. You've been gone a long time." He was taller, stronger, than the boy he had been, but there was more. He noticed Sakurai's scrutiny and laughed. "Confidence, Syu-sensei! I didn't fall to pieces! No stuttering, no bowing a thousand times! I'm just happy you're back. Everyone missed you! Even Masa admitted it once! And Mizz, I thought she'd pine away! She was so heartbroken!"
"Mizz?" Sakurai reddened. "I- uh, I didn't know she-"
"Syu, come on. She paid Kiriko-san hundreds of yen for your pictures! I know you're smarter than that." Naruse winked. "She still has them. They're taped up in her locker at school. But don't tell Oz."
"Ah... so how's 3-Slam?" Sakurai quickly changed the subject.
"Scratch is the new team to beat, I guess. Has been since 3-Slam walked away. But if Kuwata-kun had a team, then we'd have some real fun!" The senior leaped onto Kuwata's shoulders. "C'mon, Kuwata-kun! Come play street ball in Mixxhoopz. It'll be great! First Syu, then Masa, then you- legends of 3-Slam!"
"What about you? Aren't you a legend?"
"Well... I guess so." Naruse looked embarrassed. "I mean, they all want one-on-one with me, they talk about me. Everyone remembers my very first shot, Syu. Remember? That was so long ago. One minute left, after Mizz chewed me out for a quitter..."
Sakurai smiled fondly. "You ducked my steal, aired... and made it on 3-Slam's Syu. And never looked back."
"The best time of my life. Thanks to you, Sakurai-sensei."
"Hey, now. Everyone made it the best, Narucho."
"You gave me the will." Naruse jumped down. "And then you, Kuwata-kun, you gave me spirit! 'The hoop's almost twice the size of the ball'! Damn, those were good days. But I can't look back. Johnan isn't for the little boy anymore. It's for me."
Sakurai could only stand there, gazing at the strong, confident man the quitter, then the street-ball star, then the surprise of Johnan school ball, had become. Naruse, whose Invincible Lay-up, whose air, whose heart, had given seasoned b-ball players the strength and desire to play against unbeatable odds and win.
"Ah! It's 5:30! I gotta fly, guys!" Naruse gave Sakurai a friendly punch in the arm. "Come back tomorrow! Scratch'll be practicing. I wanna see Mizz's reaction. You too, Kuwata. We'll play, okay? Bye!" He sprinted off.
"God, he's incredible," Sakurai said.
"Yeah." Kuwata smiled. "I told you."
"You didn't say he was so much... so... he gives off a light, Kuwata. I was so excited just being near him. He shines."
"You were like that once, Sakurai-kun. Just like him, you pulled everyone up with you. Even me, when I didn't care."
"You cared, Kuwata-kun. Always."
"Nah." Kuwata spun the ball on his finger. "I cared when you made me. After you dusted me for 40 minutes straight. A lesson well taught and well learned."
"As long as you loved it. That's all that matters. You have to love it." Sakurai felt his heart swell. So many memories. So much heart. "What I would have given for one more year like Narucho, Kuwata-kun. If only I could have been a sophomore with that dream instead of a junior. Three whole years of that light."
"If you had, Narucho wouldn't have had for inspiration."
"Yeah, you're right. Maybe it was worth it."
Kuwata looked up at him adoringly. "That's what I've always admired about you, Sakurai-kun. Even when I hated you. As long as it helped out, you took it with a smile."
Sakurai looked surprised. "I played ball for me. Not for the team. Not for Johnan. Not even for Narucho or 3-Slam or you. It was all for me."
"But not selfishly. You know? You might have played for yourself, but it was always with everyone. But I didn't. I played by myself, and it was for you. And then Naruse. And now... I'm kinda lost, Syu."
"Easy. Play street. Play Mixxhoopz and Scratch. Who won last year, Kuwata? Hara or Johnan? You or Naruse?"
"Uh..." Kuwata ran one hand through his spiky hair sheepishly. "Actually, well, I couldn't play in the finals, Syu."
Sakurai's jaw dropped.
"I was on the bench the whole game, watching him. Number 15. Watching him air. Watching him fly. And all I could do was try to convince my teammates that they could catch him if they just..." Kuwata looked at the ground. "Hishida-sensei... he wouldn't let me go out there. He said he wouldn't let me ruin any chance of a career for one high school game. I tried to convince him. I begged. I wasn't in it for a career. I just wanted that game. That game, against Naruse."
"What happened?"
Kuwata unbuttoned his shirtsleeve and pushed it up past his elbow. "Compound fracture. Right through my forearm. You can see the scar." A long scar trailed up his forearm. "They needed to do surgery. And then therapy. But if they'd wrapped it really well I could have played."
"But you might have damaged it permanently."
"Worth it. My last game, my last year, my last rival. It was all I wanted. And I couldn't."
Silence for a moment. Then finally, "That's why you should play at 3-Slam. You'll play Narucho. Get three players, practice here a little. Scratch is Narucho, Sawamura, Ozaki Kohsuke, and Kusada Mizuki. Oz and Mizz are two of the crew that cheer Narucho on at every game. They still do, don't they?"
"Always."
"Good. But you see? Three more players. Scratch will be in Mixxhoopz no matter what."
"You mean I couldn't get you on my team?"
"I'd never do that to Narucho. He wouldn't play me and you."
"He and Sawamura versus you and I, Syu? That's pretty even. Sawamura's gotten stronger too."
Sakurai sighed. "Okay. You dragged it out of me."
Kuwata glanced up.
"I can't play with you, Kuwata-kun." At Kuwata's shocked expression, Sakurai continued. "I was thinking about it when we were playing. I can fight against you. It feels right. But just the thought of trying to play with you, a man who was my greatest rival, makes my heart rebel. I know I wouldn't be able to do it. I'd love to. You're a great player. But you're an even better opponent."
A pause. "I think I understand." Kuwata smiled. "It's the same feeling I have for Naruse. But didn't you have it for him, too? When he went from street to school?"
"Nah. It was almost all to teach him. Except at the end of Mixxhoopz- at least, the end of Mixxhoopz for 3-Slam. Then he was the enemy. But only then. You've always been on the other side of the court for me."
"I'm your enemy?"
"Oh, no. On the courts you're an opponent. Off, well, since our rivalry is over, why not be friends?" Sakurai held out a hand, smiling.
Kuwata beamed and grabbed it. "Yes!"