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(Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash)

Vernon Williams pulled up at the three point line, to the right of the top of the key. He pump-faked. But the defender was too experienced to take the bait. The guy stayed planted, doing exactly what his coach had instructed. Closing off the passing lane with his body, the defender waved one hand wildly in Vernon’s face. With the other, he cheekily checked and flicked at the ball. Frederick Siyachitema (“Sludge”) was posted up under the basket. He had successfully pinned his man behind him. But there was no way Vernon could thread the needle and make the pass without it being intercepted. The angles were just too tight, and there were hands everywhere. Gus was meanwhile in motion, taking his defender to the left. He planned to set a pick for Chenjerai Tanyongana (“Chenj”). ‘

In the design of the play, Chenj was to flash out and then swing in toward the basket looking for a dish from Vernon. If the lane was open, there would be a layup on the right hand side of the hoop in front of the human shield that Sludge had become. But Chenj’s man slipped under Gus’ screen, fronted him, and frustrated the prospect of any feed from Vernon. Gus continued down to the baseline to set a second pick for Tendai Tabvuma. Tendai planned to roll to the free throw line for a possible line-drive jump shot after Chenj had cleared the lane. But Tendai’s defender read the play, rode the screen, and Sumo-wrestled him out of position. As he did, he kept himself between Tendai’s potential offense and the ball, nullifying that option too.

The referee had his hand in the air counting for a five-second penalty call. Vernon held onto the ball patiently. He was looking for possible ways to take advantage of the overzealous defense they were facing. But he found no clear daylight.

Finally, Vernon faked a bounce-pass. The defender reacted and shifted weight momentarily from his toes to his heels. His movement created a tiny half-second window. It was all the time Vernon needed to get off a good shot. Before the defender started to rock forward again and lift up for a block, Vernon went into the smooth motion of his release. He pulled the ball back into his shot pocket low in his lap. He cushioned it between his bent knees and strained stomach. Then, he dipped his right elbow into position. From three o’clock angle to the six, where it needed to be. The fingers of his right hand instinctively found the seams of the ball. With his left hand situated to guide it, Vernon raised up the rock. He followed the fluid flow that had become formulaic in the well-practiced routine of his tried and tested jump shot.

He let it fly, along with the hopes of the full assembly of St. George’s boys. They were huddled and cheering raucously as this momentous matchup moved rapidly into the climax of the final minutes. The ball, barely escaping the grasping digits of his late-to-react defender, rotated with a sharp backspin off the edge of Vernon’s index finger as he released it. The crowd watched anxiously as it spiraled in a perfect high-arching trajectory. Upwards it went, out from the hollow of his hands, and then downwards again, in toward the heart of the hoop.

“Nothing but net!” yelled one of the boys from the sidelines preempting the outcome of the shot. He was sadly wrong though because it did not go in. Instead the ball teased wickedly the heart of red-blazer nation. It at first dipped in and then cruelly circled out of the basket. It ricocheted off the backboard and fell into the rebounding hands of the first-team power forward from Prince Edward School (“P.E.”).

“Come on you reds! Come on you reds!”

The outlet pass came to T. Mawema, P.E. captain, team superstar, and purple-blazer hero. In one seamless maneuver, he caught the ball, shifted around into offense, and put it to work on the floor. He pushed it forward with his right hand and dribbled it swiftly along the sideline. He moved as if accelerating downhill. He blurred past half court and soon turned toward the key. By then it was busily becoming populated by retreating Saints players. They were hustling back in a frenzy to protect the hoop and halt this fierce one-man fastbreak.

T began his countdown. Five: he crossed the ball over, right to left, between his legs, sending Tendai the wrong way. Four: he spun the ball behind his back, left to right, evading Gus’ attempt at a steal. Three: he raised his bounce, and then stutter-stepped, before dropping sharply into an ankle-breaking sequence of crossover dribbles. It left Vernon flatfooted. Two: he gathered himself, picked up the ball and took two solid steps, first right, and then left, toward the basket. One: he elevated. As he did, everything fell into a sudden silent sequence of slow motion. It was interrupted only by the interspersed oohs and aahs of the spellbound spectators.

To call the competitiveness between Saints and P.E. a rivalry would be like labeling the animosity between Captain James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a disagreement. Officially, St. George’s boys lived and worked to the greater glory of God. Unofficially, we applied our every breath and every bead of sweat toward the utter annihilation of P.E.

At St. George’s, a season was not successful unless it included at least one victory over P.E. The trouble was, P.E. boys were not the type to lay down and just accept defeat. They would always give back a heck of a fight – a fight they usually won. P.E.’s prowess in sports frustrated everyone. So schools countrywide conspired to sustain a whisper campaign of uncharitable accusations. The prevailing rumor had it that P.E. was being run, not as a school, but as a sports academy. Not just any sports academy, but one whose leadership and culture would go to any and all extremes to secure a win. Including the recruitment of over-age athletes.

Much like the genetically modified Khan in the movie, P.E.’s abilities were too advanced to be natural. Their talents did not fall within the ordinary range of expectations for boys our age. Nothing was ever proven during my time at school. Yet, the rumors became justification for ongoing pejorative statements. Among these, the war cries of red-blazer supporters harbored some of the best insults.

“I don’t know but I’ve been told,

P.E. boys are far too old.

But that’s alright and that’s okay,

We’re gonna beat them anyway.

Sound off – one, two.

Sound off – three, four.

Break it on down,

Break it on down,

One, two, three, four, one, two . . . three, four!”

In basketball, St. George’s had suffered a prolonged drought against P.E. In fact, that is what made the 1988 matchup between the two teams so very significant. Saints finally had a team capable of dethroning P.E. It was a squad that had grown from strength to strength since 1986.

In Zimbabwe, most secondary schools operate on a three-term schedule, with about a month’s break between each term. The first term runs from the beginning of January through to the end of March. The second term starts in early May and ends in early August. The third term commences in early September and continues until the beginning of December. Basketball is played during the first and third terms. Minor tourneys happen in both terms. However, the most important competition, the Major Layland tournament, takes place during third term. There, teams from across the country challenge each other for the national championship title and the prized award of the coveted Layland Shield.

The first-term leg of the basketball season was the most difficult. Schools had to work very hard to rebuild their teams after losing the previous year’s senior-most players to university and to employment. One significant challenge was the time it took for O’Level (national tenth grade assessment) results to be posted. The delay meant that some players were not eligible to join their teams until their results were confirmed and they were approved to proceed to the next grade. Teams would have no option but to wade into the new basketball season without some of their best returning players. This was the case for Saints in 1986. Then team captain, LeRoy Williams (Vernon’s older brother), wrote about it in that year’s publication of the St. George’s College Chronicle:

“The first team was initially hindered by the absence of several key players who were awaiting their O’Level results before being accepted into Lower Sixth form. This resulted in a considerably weakened team. Members of the previous year’s U15 team were given a temporary berth in the first team and they performed admirably even when under pressure facing teams of far greater experience. A commendable aspect of their game was their spirit and determination. Frederick Siyachitema quickly proved invaluable in these cases notching a total of 57 points in three games before the establishment of a full team midway through the term.

The return of vice-captain, Lester Pingyin, shooting guards, José Dureaes and Walter Hickey, lifted the experience of the first team, but with only three remaining games, they were unable to rise to full capabilities.”

Overall, the 1986 team had a losing record. They played sixteen games in the regular season and won only five. With such a lackluster performance, Saints failed to qualify for the Major Layland tournament. The team did however play in a tourney hosted by Churchill School, making it to the semifinals. The boys faced and were sadly overcome by P.E. It was an agonizing one point defeat, the third consecutive loss Saints endured that season at the hands of this nemesis. In the first term, the school was beaten 34-40, and in the third term, before the games at Churchill, the squad fell by two points, 53-55.

Despite the failed season, 1986 was a turning point in the history and trajectory of Saints basketball. It heralded the rise of Sludge as an elite national player. It marked the dawn of a three-year era during which his dominance and leadership would reshape the hopes and expectations of red-blazer nation.