By Za Raapini
Legendary. That was the only word to describe this place. Mareson Square Garden, home of the New Yoke Bucks. Generations of players had entered the league from this very building, this hallowed ground of steel and concrete. It was in this building that Trot Chamberlain had scored one hundred points in a single game. It was in this building that Losino Bird had made his legendary steal to propel the Celtics to the EBL Finals. History and era-defining moments were made here, and Slam Dunk knew every single one by heart.
It was the most famous arena in the world’s most famous city. From the imposing welcome sign above all the doors that loudly proclaimed, Welcome to Mareson Square Garden, to the statues of the athletes that had made their living playing in fronts of the crowds of ponies here, to the impressive size of the place, it was a building that forced its way into the memories of everypony who saw it.
It was the building where careers began, and it was time for Dunk to start his. This was the first step for his dream, to follow in his father's footsteps. To become legendary. To carry on the legacy built by Air Jam.
He could see it now. Thousands of ponies cheering his name, chanting when he made big plays, giving him thunderous ovations when he drove the lane for a powerful jam. That was his goal.
The white coated, red-maned stallion calmly entered the building, his eyes aglow with the moment, his mind lost in his dreams of glory, his normally unkempt mane smoothed out. Beside him, looking classy as ever, was his best friend, Foul Line. The bulky black stallion sidled up alongside Dunk as they walked through the double doors into the arena.
As he walked through, he looked at all the reporters and journalists in the area, ponies whose livelihoods were based off others' athletic abilities. He heard all the arguments going on, where which pony would go in the draft and why. He heard shouts being made and jokes being told. He saw ponies pulling out their notepads and readying their cameras.
He stopped to breathe in the history in the making, then smiled to himself. This was the deepest draft in years. Almost half of the players that had declared came from Elite Eight teams. Dunk had played for the winners.
“You know, it’s funny Foul. In twenty years, they’ll mark this as the day when the league changed. They might end up having to change the rules because of me, make it harder to score,” Dunk said with a grin.
“Man, you ain’t even been drafted yet!” Foul said.
“Oh come on man! Who wouldn't draft a power forward with a mean three-pointer?” Dunk asked.
“‘Mean three-pointer.’ Yeah, when you getting open looks! Even I can sink a three when I got an open look!” Foul Line said.
“Just because a pony doesn't want to challenge me outside the arc doesn't mean you get to rag on my shot Foul,” Dunk said.
“Man, I’ll rag on whatever I want to, whenever I want to,” Foul said.
“How’s your perimeter shot by the way?” Dunk asked as they squeezed through the crowd.
“Man, you know I don’t like to talk about that. We can’t all just do a fadeaway or fall down and watch the shot go in. I like to pull in boards. Something that you can’t seem to bring yourself to do,” Foul said.
“Hey man, you try shoving ponies out of the way, trying to grab them. I’m not above effort, but they’re all built like you! You could’ve put shipping companies out of business with how strong you are!” Dunk said.
“Ain’t that hard man, you just gotta worm your way in there. You a power forward though dude! Use that ‘power’ and you’ll be fine!” Foul said.
“I do emphasize that ‘power’. When I throw down in a pony’s face after driving the lane, that is,” Dunk said.
“That’s just it man! There’s more to basketball than three’s or jams! They’re fun, and they score points, but you gotta pull in the boards dude! You gotta play hard defense! That’s what makes you a complete player,” Foul said as they found their seats in the waiting area.
“All that comes in time man. ‘Sides, as long as other ponies do their jobs, I can let it slide occasionally, you know?” Dunk said as he sat down next to Foul.
“Nah, bro. You don’t know. You gotta figure it out. Other ponies been pulling your weight for way too long,” Foul said.
“Yeah, and it was me pulling their weight on the other end of the court,” Dunk said.
“That can only get you so far man. Yo, commish is heading up. Let’s can it,” Foul said.
Silence suddenly overtook the room as the EBL Commissioner, Stern Gaze, walked up to the podium, and the crowd hushed. A few boos echoed here and there. Stern Gaze merely smirked. He cleared his throat and began talking.
“Welcome, mares and gentlecolts, to the Equestrian Basketball League's 2032 Entry Draft! The winner of this year’s lottery was the Coltcago Bulls, so they will select first.” There was a wave of cheers throughout the audience, with many side conversations erupting as to who the lucky pony might be to be the first pick in the draft.
Dunk let the wave of noise wash over him, soaked it in, and then turned his attention to representatives at the table. He was waiting on two words, nothing more: ‘Slam Dunk’.
Finally the Bulls indicated their selection to Gaze, and he walked back up to the podium. Dunk wondered what he should say when the commissioner announced his name. He had prepared a quick speech of course, but it never hurt to go over it again.
“And with the first overall pick in the 2032 EBL Draft, the Coltcago Bulls select… Alley-Oop out of Cloudsdale University!” Gaze announced to the crowd.
Dunk listened to the whoops and hollers of the audience, and took it all in. He wasn't first, but he shrugged it off and kept watching. Alley-Oop was phenomenal on the fast break, and the Bulls had been needing that for ages. He could deal with that.
Dunk waited for the next name to be called. He would be selected. He was sure of it.
“And with the thirty first selection of this year’s draft, the Marelina Bobcats select Foul Line out of the University of North Marelina!”
Hold up. Hold up. Even Foul Line got drafted ahead of me? Foul Line can’t score! Sure, he pulls in boards really well. But he’s been a sub-par shooter ever since he started playing! Dunk thought.
He was beginning to panic, but managed to right himself with the knowledge that the draft wasn't over yet. He would be selected, he was sure of it.
"And with the forty-seventh selection of this year's draft, the Basuton Celtics select Easy Bucket out of Stableford University!"
That just about sealed it. Dunk knew that most teams were just guessing by this point. He began to feel his resolve crumble in the almost certain knowledge that he wasn't getting drafted.
“And with the final selection of this year’s draft, the Los Anduleses Lakers select Quick Shot, out of Salt Lick City College!”
That was it. His career was finished before it had even started. Nobody paid attention to undrafted players. Ever. How could this have happened? Dunk was wondering whether he would even play at all. What had gone wrong? He had played the way he had always played at the Rookie Showcase; he thought he had said all the right things.
Why had nobody selected him?
Quietly sobbing, Dunk began walking out of the building, wondering what he was going to do with his life. He had pinned everything on being selected in the first round of the draft. He felt it was only befitting a player of his stature. Now, undrafted, his future was uncertain.
He saw Foul Line waiting outside for him, and Dunk walked up to meet his friend. Dunk hadn't seen Foul in a few hours, not since the Bobcats announced that they had picked him. Foul looked like he was happy, which Dunk guessed was a good thing. At least one of them was. They began walking back towards their hotel.
"So, I'm sorry to hear what happened today man," Foul started. Guess there was no letting this one just get brushed under the rug.
“Yo, it is what it is man. At least one of us made the bigs,” Dunk said.
“You ain’t out of it yet bro! You heard about Jinzhou Lin, same as everyone! Undrafted, out of Hayvard University, lit Equestria on fire man! You just gotta shape up a bit,” Foul said.
“Dude, I know,” Dunk said as they walked along the streets of New Yoke. The bars were beginning to fill, and Dunk could have swore he heard his name more than a few times.
“To be real, you are a little lax on defense. Like I was saying earlier, you gotta play tough ‘D’. Force them to make the shot. Nobody can be mad if you did everything you could to contest a dude and he still makes it. But you gotta contest. That’s the big thing here,” Foul said.
“So just because my defense needs some work, that’s why I got passed over by everyone? Twice? Man, that’s bullshit and you know it,” Dunk said.
“Could just be they didn’t want you ‘cause you’re ugly,” Foul said.
“Yeah, and you definitely a catch compared to me then,” Dunk said.
The two friends laughed and continued walking back to their hotel. Dunk’s thoughts were bouncing around his head as he went back through all the games he could remember. His entire life had been built around the idea of scoring. Occasionally, he would have to grab a board or two to set up a play the coach was trying to run. Other than that, it was all about how many points he could pile up on the other end of the court.
The time spent reflecting on what had happened that day hadn't helped, and Dunk was now faced with the daunting prospect of calling his father to talk about what had happened.
Arriving at the hotel, Dunk went up to his room and shut the door. Trembling, he picked up his room’s phone to make a phone call he thought would never happen.
“Dad, hey, it’s me. Don’t know if you were watching today… yeah, um… I didn’t get drafted.”
There was no response for a while. Dunk was beginning to wonder if his father was even there when he suddenly started talking.
"Well, you at least know why, right?" Air said.
"Not really. Closest thing I heard all day was Foul Line telling me I needed to play more defense," Dunk said.
“He’s right. Look son, I’ve been trying to tell you this for years now. You’re a great scorer–hell, you’re probably better than me. But you gotta play both sides of the ball. You can’t just try to put up points and then expect everyone else to do the work. I tried telling you this. But this is what we’ve got going on now,” Air said.
“So what do we got going on then Pops? You talk to Top Dollar?” Dunk said.
“You know, it really should be you talking to him, not me. He’s your agent, not mine. But yes, I have been talking to him. We’re sending you out to Californiegha. The Kickers are interested in having you come down soon for a tryout,” Air said.
The Kickers? The same Kickers that hadn’t made the playoffs in almost fifteen years?
“The Kickers? Dad, they’ve been bad since you entered though!” Dunk said.
“Look Slam, sometimes, we don’t get an opportunity to pick and choose. Like right now. Your game needed shoring up, teams didn’t like what they saw, so they didn’t draft you. You go to LA, impress the right people, grind it out, take your chances as they come, you’ll come out of this. But you gotta be willing to put the work in,” Air said.
Dunk didn’t respond for a minute. He thought about all the work his father had done to get to where he was at. Dunk thought about all the times when he was growing up when his father wasn’t ever around, when his father was busy practicing or going through his workouts. He thought about all that his father had sacrificed to become the best he could be.
“We’ll get through this, together. Just listen to Top, don’t give him lip, and work hard. Stay positive. Basketball isn’t a Celestia-given gift,” Air said.
“I know Dad… I’m tired, it’s been a long day. I think I’m gonna go to sleep,” Dunk said.
“Stay strong,” Air said.
With that the conversation was over.
Dunk felt a sudden ache in his body as the events of the day caught up with him. He had spent hours waiting on the floor, waiting for his name to be called, waiting to show the world that he was ready for the big time. All of it was for nothing.
He laid in his bed and stared blankly at the ceiling. Hopefully tomorrow would be better.
By Za Raapini
Dunk awoke to a piercing sound rattling his eardrums. While his sleep-addled brain struggled to figure out the source of the noise, he tossed and turned in his bed, fumbling around, when he suddenly felt very light.
As he lay there on the floor, his brain struggling to fully wake up and the same piercing sound driving him nuts, he wondered what his day was going to be like. If the first minute or so of the morning was any indication, he was betting it wouldn’t be good. Wait. Morning.
He scrambled to his hooves and threw his pillow at his alarm clock. The feather-filled missile struck the clock, the lamp, and the hotel room’s phone, and all three went to the ground in a terrible cluster of racket.
It wouldn’t be a good day at all.
As he went through his morning routine, Dunk thought back to his conversation with his dad from the night before. About how he needed to put in the work necessary to become a star. His entire life, Dunk thought he had been working hard, when apparently it just wasn’t enough.
Maybe start hitting the gym even more? I don’t know what to do, apart from that or maybe practice more with ponies. Guess I just need to stop having a life if I want to be the best. It’s what Dad did, Dunk thought.
Dunk was shaken from his thoughts by a loud knock at the door. As he went to open it he wondered who could possibly be visiting him here. Maybe… oh no, anypony but him, please anypony but him.
It was him. It was his agent. Top Dollar. Dunk looked at brown stains on Top’s yellow coat and wondered how much coffee he had consumed that morning.
“Heya Dunk, how ya doing today? Not too good I bet, and I feel bad for what happened the other day. I got some coffee, you want some coffee, no, no coffee? Alright fantastic, so let me break down what’s going to happen with you,” Top said.
“It’s nice to see you too, Top,” Dunk said as he closed the door behind Top. The agent appeared to not hear him, as he continued talking.
“So anyways, as I was saying, here’s what’s going on–you’re going to try out for the Kickers, since they’re the only team in the league that might actually kinda sorta want you on their team. Tracking? Okay good, so here’s what we’re going to do…” Top’s voice trailed off as Dunk began studying the agent’s tie. It was rumpled with the ever-present brown stains all over it. Top really needed to learn how to control his coffee cups while he was drinking.
“And so you’ll be flying out later tonight for the tryout which starts in three days, they want you to get to know some of the players and the coaching staff and get you ready for what the tryout will entail nothing too serious just some basic drills on offense and some basic drills on defense some team building exercises some actual practice workouts free throw shooting three point shooting things like that,” Top said.
“So what you’re telling me is it that it’s basically a normal practice. Okay, no sweat,” Dunk said.
“Right except this practice will be watched by people who may or may not want to give you a job depending on how you perform and please for the love of Celestia, Dunk don’t screw this up! Look kid this is my first shot at getting someone into the league, it really is and I’m just trying to help you out as much as I can so please work with me on this,” Top finished, his blue eyes darting around the room.
Dunk stopped to look at his agent. Top’s mane was a mess, and his eyes were bloodshot. Anxious didn’t even begin to describe him it seemed; the slightest noise made him jump. He was holding a Big Gulp cup with steam rising from the top of it, taking drinks of it every few seconds.
“You ever stop drinking coffee man? Everything you say just comes out as a blur, and it’s hard to keep up. I think I get what you’re saying though. Just show up, and work hard, right? Things will be fine,” Dunk said.
“Look kid, it’s my job to assume things won’t be fine. Things are never fine in my line of work, not until the contract is signed, and let’s face it, right now? You have no contract to sign,” Top said.
“That comes in time Top, that comes in time. Obviously, I wasn’t good enough yesterday. So I’m going to somehow prove I’m good enough at the tryouts. Can’t be that hard,” Dunk said.
“Just like it wasn’t hard being drafted? Dunk, that’s all you talked about for two months leading into yesterday. How you thought you were a top five pick, maybe even number one. Teams are smart Dunk,” Top said.
“Well then, I’ll guess between the two of us we’ll have to make them stupid again, huh?” Dunk said.
Top laughed at the comment and took a swig of coffee.
“It’s not that easy kid, I’m telling you. Look, my brother knows Scott Boer, high powered agent, all that jazz. It’s hard for his players to get good contracts, and he’s the best in the league. You gotta dazzle them, you gotta make them see that not drafting you was a mistake. You gotta make them see that you can give them the spark they need on both sides of the ball, which, let’s face it, is going to be a struggle. But that’s what you have to do. Sell yourself,” Top said.
“So what’s the plan after I sell myself? Keep selling myself until I become a free agent?” Dunk said.
“Uh, yeah pretty much. You constantly have to sell yourself, you have to constantly remind the team you play for why you play for them. You’re thinking too far ahead though kid. We gotta get you to LA, get you to those tryouts, get you a contract, Celestia willing,” Top said.
“Right, right. Focus on the now, focus on the now,” Dunk said.
“There ya go kid. Alright, so get your things packed up, I need another coffee, and let’s get going! We got a gym to go conquer!” Top said.
Despite himself, Dunk smiled. His agent’s nervous enthusiasm was infectious, but his pep talks left a little bit to be desired. I mean seriously, he tells me it’s not easy, then he says let’s go conquer a gym! I’m down for it though. Right now I just wanna play some ball, Dunk thought.
He heard Top leave his room, and got out his suitcase. Thinking of something, he stopped what he was doing and walked out into the hallway.
“Hey Top, do I got time for a workout?” he said.
“Yeah kid, yeah. We don’t have to be there until later tonight! Come find me in the hotel lobby when you’re done! I figured we could grab lunch!” Top said.
“You got it!” he said as he walked back into his room. If he ever was going to improve, he needed to start taking every opportunity he could to better himself. His game needed to be built on fire, not flash. He pulled out his sweatbands and headed to the hotel gym. Time to stoke the embers.
By Za Raapini
LA was impressive, Dunk had to admit. The city just seemed to stretch on forever, and everywhere you looked you were reminded of the sheer amount of ponies that made their homes here. He heard the chatter of a dozen different languages as he walked the streets, the smell of foods from the same number of cultures; everything about this city shouted as to its status as a melting pot of ponykind.
However, there were a few things that could unite them. Adoration for Celestia and Luna was one. Sports was another; whatever culture you came from, everypony appreciated watching the best athletes in the world strut their stuff in the sport they were good at.
Granted, most of the ponies in this city were Lakers fans. Had been for years; it was just the way things worked here. The Kickers were like the ugly little brother of the Lakers, never really catching anyone’s imagination. Not surprising, given a disturbing tendency for Kickers players to become horrifically injured.
There was the highly touted prospect Set Screen, who blew out three of his legs in his first game as a Kicker. There was the pony they signed to a lavish contract who ended up having a potentially fatal heart condition. There was another Kicker who got fouled on a shot, and his left foreleg ended up being paralyzed. The list went on. It seemed anyone with even mediocre talent on the Kickers was at risk for a terrible, potentially career-ending injury.
It was this team that Dunk now found himself trying to play for, after every other one had shut the door on him. Dunk could only hope that his career here would be short-lived and injury free; he hoped to ask for a trade to somewhere else as soon as he was recognized again.
“You okay Dunk? You want some coffee? Coffee always helps calm me down a little bit when I’m nervous. Are you nervous? I wouldn’t be. This is a great opportunity. You could turn this franchise around kid! What a comeback that would be huh? From undrafted to franchise player! Think of the legacy that would be, huh?” Top Dollar said as he walked alongside Dunk. The agent had not stopped talking since the flight landed three hours ago.
“I’m alright Top. Just thinking about the team. All those injuries… I just don’t want it to happen to me, too,” Dunk said. As much as he wanted to play for an EBL team, he didn’t want to have something serious happen to him. He didn’t want to be just another statistic.
“Look kid, you’ll be fine. All that stuff? In the past. Doctors have gotten better. Medicine has advanced. Matter of fact, I think there was a royal decree made after the last major ligament injury, that the Kickers would have no less than three surgeons on retainer,” Top joked.
“It’s just… basketball is really the only thing I’m good at. And apparently I’m not that good at it, or so twenty nine teams think. My name, my cutie mark, everything in my life, it revolves around basketball. What happens if I can’t do that anymore?” Dunk said.
“And you don’t think any other pony who plays sports, and had something serious happen to them, thought that? My brother was the agent for a pitcher; he was supposed to be the next Big Unit. His throwing leg tore a muscle, and he had to get major surgery. He never had the same control over his pitches again. He stopped playing the next year, broken and forgotten in a Triple-A club. These things happen in sports,” Top said.
“What did the player end up doing?” Dunk asked.
“He finished up his degree, started working in advertising. I get it, your special talent is basketball. But if things don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the opening to a new chapter in your life,” Top said.
Dunk didn’t respond to the last one. For him to even think of a life that didn’t revolve around basketball was simply ludicrous to him. It was the thing that made him who he was.
They finished the walk to the Bridles Center in silence. As they approached the building, Dunk saw the statue of former Lakers great Magic Jutland outside. He had been one of the most legendary players of all time, even going hoof-to-hoof with his father on numerous occasions. He had helped shape the league into what it was today.
Now there was a statue of him outside of his old arena, reminding everypony who walked by of the greatness that had once resided here.
Dunk wondered if there would ever be a Kickers player immortalized out here. He sincerely doubted it.
“You see him kid? That’s what you need to be like. He was a complete player. He could score, he could pull in rebounds, he could dish the rock. He played however he needed to to help his team win the game. It was never about stats with him. If all you care about is stats, let me know and we’ll just cancel right now,” Top said. Dunk wondered what had gotten into his agent recently.
“What’s wrong with stats? That’s the best way of judging how good a pony is at basketball,” Dunk said.
“Everything is wrong with stats kid, because they don’t show the full story. You didn’t get drafted because you focused on offensive stats. You put up a lot of points. But something they don’t keep stats on is blown coverage. They don’t keep stats on shoddy shot defense. They don’t keep stats on a lot of things that impact the way the game is played,” Top said.
The two stood there in silence for a moment, each digesting the other’s words.
“We’re wasting time. Let’s get you inside you can get all the details on the tryout, meet some of the ponies that will have a big influence on you if you make the team,” Top said. The two walked into the back of the Bridles Center and looked for the pony they were told to meet—a Mr. Comet. He was supposed to be running the tryouts.
As they walked through the halls, Dunk saw a few other ponies that were here for the tryouts. As much as he wanted to make fun of them, he was in the same boat as them. Guess I’d better just go out there and rock their muzzles off, Dunk thought to himself. It was key that he went out there and played his best; he didn’t want to end up not playing after all this time.
As they stood around waiting, Dunk wondered what was taking so long. Surely whoever was going to run the tryouts was here. Suddenly a door slammed and a surly looking unicorn walked up to the group.
“Everypony here? Good. I’m Mr. Comet and I’m running this little shindig. You call me anything other than ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. Comet’ and you’re gone. No questions asked. You’re all here for a variety of reasons. Maybe all the teams thought your game had promise but needed some polish before you signed with a team. Maybe you had a skillset that they already have filled by a solid veteran.
“Could be any number of reasons. Point is, you’re here for a tryout, to see if maybe we can’t fill a slot for you. You work hard, show us what you’re made of, you’ve got a good chance of signing. I’mma tell you all right now, there’s only three open slots, and there’s ten of you. Who makes it, believe it or not, is up to you,” Comet said.
They all stood there, unmoving, letting his words sink in. Everyone let it hit them in a different way. Dunk was focusing on the fact that now that he was here, his destiny was in his hooves, and his alone. He couldn’t let this one slip by him. Not after everything he had built towards.
“Alright, if there are no questions, let’s get you all on the court so we can start the party,” Comet said. Everyone grabbed their bags and headed through the double doors to the court floor.
As they walked through, Dunk felt himself gasp a little. The arena was huge! He had played in a couple professional arenas during the college tournament, but none of them were as big as this. He saw an endless stack of seats reaching up towards the roof, and envisioned a crowd of ponies filling it, chanting his name.
That was what the goal was. Now he had to seize this chance and make the team.
The ponies set their bags down by the bench and put on their headbands. Dunk put his on, then pulled out his sleeve. He had worn it for years now. He wasn’t sure if it made him better, but it was comforting to feel it on his shooting leg. Like he was whole with it on.
“Alright gents, let’s get you at the baseline, we’re gonna do some suicides, get you loosened up, then we’re gonna run you through some drills. Just do what you normally do, give a hundred and ten percent, all that crap,” Comet said.
Dunk jogged over to the baseline, resolute to be the first one there. It was time to start showing ponies that he actually cared about making this team. The more effort he showed now, the better.
“First round of suicides will be on all four hooves, second round of suicides will be on your back hooves. Three sets of each. Same thing you guys have been doing for ages. Three-point line back, half court back, far three-point line back, far baseline back,” Comet said.
Good mixture right there, Dunk thought. While ponies rarely played an entire quarter on their hind legs, it was good to strengthen those muscles as much as possible so their legs didn’t give out on them when they were handling the ball.
With the tweet of the whistle, the drill started, and all ten ponies charged off the line. Dunk had long ago come up with a trick to help him get through running drills, and he started to put it into effect.
They’re playing basketball, we love that basketball, Dunk thought to himself, matching the words with every second step. He was able to find his rhythm quickly, and charged through the first suicide. One down, two to go.
As he galloped back upcourt for his second one, he could see that there were a couple ponies on the same pace as him, and a few lagging just behind. He wasn’t that surprised though; running was such a huge part of the game, and Dunk would have been shocked if he had a noticeable lead already. He kept grinding it out, three-line, back, half-court, back, far three-line, back, far baseline, back.
He had run thousands of these during his life, and by starting with a running drill, Dunk was able to relax even further. This was just like a normal practice. He finished his second suicide and turned around for his third.
The same two ponies were still keeping up right along with him, matching him pace-for-pace. Dunk smiled inwardly, glad for the competition. He cranked it up a little bit, hoping to finish first by a good margin.
I like the pick and roll, I like the give and go, Dunk thought as he charged down the court. Having that song in his head was doing wonders, as he didn’t even feel anything yet. He was turning at the far baseline when he noticed that one pony had managed to pull ahead by a step.
I don’t think so, Dunk thought. Summoning all his energy, he exploded off the line, determined to beat this pony. As he passed half court he caught up to the other pony and began to pass him. His mystery competitor, having the same plan as Dunk, began to run even faster.
They were neck and neck past the three-line and as they ran through the baseline, Dunk wasn’t sure who had won. He caught his breath and went back up to the line for the next set of suicides.
“Good speed Dunk, Touch,” he heard Comet say.
Touch… Soft Touch? From Seaddle? Dunk could have sworn that Touch had been drafted.
Guess I didn’t really pay too much attention, Dunk thought. He decided to walk up to Touch, introduce himself. Dunk had found that practices were always a bit easier to handle when you had someone to talk to.
“What’s up? That was some good speed dude, I’m impressed,” Dunk said as he held out his hoof. Touch responded with a light tap, a small grin on his face.
“Yeah, that was fun. I think I had you by a hair there though,” Touch said with a grin.
“What? No way! I definitely had that one,” Dunk said.
“Yeah, you had one good view of my ass coming off the baseline!” Touch said and the two players laughed.
“Tell you what Touch. Let’s make a bet. Loser of this next round has to buy the other dinner tonight,” Dunk said.
“You’re on man. I like dumplings,” Touch said.
“Well isn’t that a shame, because I like pasta,” Dunk said.
“It is a shame. I don’t see you eating much of it tonight,” Touch said, and with a laugh they separated and took their places for the next drill.
Well that wasn’t so hard, Dunk thought. He had always been able to quickly make friends, and it appeared here was no exception. Hopefully we’re able to push each other to our highest levels this week, Dunk thought. He was shaken out of his thoughts by the blow of the whistle.
Hind leg suicides. These were extraordinarily difficult, but essential to becoming a basketball player. If a pony couldn’t maintain his balance on his back legs while running, he wouldn’t ever be able to play the game today, since so much of it depended on mastering that ability.
These runs were noticeably slower than the ones on all four legs, but they were no less intense. Dunk found his rhythm and started grinding these ones out, keeping a careful eye on where Touch was with his.
He had polished off two suicides and was again rounding the baseline on his third when he saw Touch just in front of him.
Not letting him beat me. No way, Dunk thought. He took off from the baseline in a dead heat, wanting more than anything to beat Touch back to the other end. As he flew past him, he could see that Touch had a shocked expression on his face, and that was enough for Dunk. He redoubled his efforts and finished up the run, beating Touch by at least two lengths.
“Good speed Dunk, Touch. Now we’re going to go over some layups, then some perimeter shooting, then some three-line stuff, and that’ll be it for today. Line up at half court,” Comet said.
Dunk trotted up to half court and made sure he was first in line. He wanted to keep this whole good impression thing going. He smiled as he saw a cart full of basketballs being wheeled out. This was his element. Handling the rock, making plays, draining shots. It’s what he was best at.
“Alright gents, pretty simple here. Take the pass, use your dribble, sink the layup. We’re looking for economy of movement here as well as ball protection on the way to the basket. Sink your shots. These are supposed to be an automatic two points,” Comet said.
As they started handling the basketballs, Dunk felt himself sink into a familiar mood while he took his shots. Swish after swish, no wasted effort on the shots, no haphazardly exposing the ball to a steal. Dunk had sunk thousands of layups since he was just a foal. This was an even easier drill than the running.
He wondered if there was a reason behind all of this. Certainly they couldn’t be having them tryout on things they could’ve talked to coaches for, or watched tape on. No, something was up here. Dunk was going to find out what.
As they finished up the shooting drills, Dunk could see Comet talking to a few other ponies in hushed tones. Confused, Dunk sat and watched for a minute. A couple ponies seemed to be quite flustered, and Dunk noticed a splint for a cutie mark on one of the ponies. Team trainer maybe?
As Dunk sat there observing them, he noticed Comet look at him, and delivered a gaze which shook Dunk to his very core. Dunk began to realize that he had just done something very wrong.
“Alright! Since one of you wants to watch me talk to the training staff, I guess you’re all done shooting, right? Everyone on the line! Suicides until I say stop!” Comet shouted, his voice echoing throughout the arena.
As they jogged to the line, Dunk noticed everyone giving him surly looks. Everyone except Touch. He still had the same goofy smile on his face, like this was all some sort of game.
“Go!” Comet shouted, and the ponies took off running.
Up and down the court they went, everyone charging hard, everyone giving it their all, determined not to show weakness in front of the staff. As they rounded the near baseline, they all got a glimpse of the terrible scowl showing on Comet’s face.
Reminding them who owned them.
After what felt like hours, Comet finally blew the whistle.
“Stop! Everyone, gather ‘round! Pack it in nice and tight!” he shouted, and all the players scrambled to get near him. They had been run ragged, and Dunk wondered if he would be able to hear Comet over the sound of everyone breathing.
“You listen up, and you listen up good. While you’re here at these tryouts, you do not stop moving! You got downtime between drills? Pushups. Situps. Build that core. Build up your strength. If we’re running plays? You talk about the plays! If you’ve got a chance, draw it out on the court floor! Celestia knows you’ll be sweating enough for it!” Comet said, driving each sentence home with a hoof gesture.
“When you’re in my gym, your fucking ass belongs to me. You do what I tell you to, when I tell you to. Does everypony understand that?” Comet asked.
“Yes, sir!” the players responded.
“Alright, that’s it for today. Put away the basketballs, put away the equipment, shower up, clean the locker room, and get the hell out of here. Be here tomorrow bright and early at seven o’clock. That means ready to practice at six forty-five. Not six fifty, not seven. Six forty-five. Go,” Comet said.
As the players broke, Dunk started gathering up the basketballs. He wanted to leave one out to work on post-up moves. It was the one area of his game where he didn’t feel confident at all, and he wanted to change that.
The ponies cleaned up the area and started filtering in towards the locker room. All except for Dunk. He grabbed the basketball he had saved and posted up, pretending there was somepony guarding him. Dribble, guard the ball, keep pressing towards the basket, Dunk thought.
Suddenly Dunk felt a very real ‘bump’ on his back. He turned to see Soft Touch looking at him, still with the same goofy smile on his face. It was like nothing ever bothered this guy.
“Sup? Guess you thought you could just work on stuff and not invite me, right?” Touch asked while pressing hard into Dunk’s back.
“Don’t remember giving you an invitation!” Dunk shouted as he spun and put up a shot. He expected to hear a swish, but instead heard a loud slap as Touch swatted the ball away downcourt.
“You’re telegraphing your move, and you ain’t got the height to launch the hook, not from right here, not while I’m guarding you that close. That’s contesting a shot,” Touch said as he started jogging down court to grab the ball.
Did he… did he just coach me? Dunk thought. Sure, he was no stranger to getting advice from a team mate. But that sounded entirely like something a coach would say. Dunk took off, hoping to catch up with Touch.
“Yo, what was that about back there?” Dunk asked.
“What?” Touch replied.
“That, back there! What you said!” Dunk said.
“Oh, I was just telling what was what dude. Your low-post stuff might have worked in college, but we’re gonna be facing a different level man. We facing the pros! The ponies we grew up watching! We gotta be ready. That includes elevating our game,” Touch said matter-of-factly as they turned back up court.
“How do you know what it’s going to be like to play against them?” Dunk asked, both miffed and genuinely curious.
“Dude, did you forget? My brother plays for the Bucks. He would come home every offseason and play one-on-one with me. They’re good, dude. Freaky good,” Touch said as they arrived back at half court.
“So here’s the deal, since I think our bet shouldn’t be decided by a hoof race. One on one, make-it take-it after five, first to eleven wins, win by two, inside is worth one, outside is worth two. Got it?” Touch said.
“Yeah man, I got it. Check it,” Dunk said, waiting for Touch to bounce the ball to him.
“Oh yeah, one last thing—no jams,” Touch said with a devious smile.
“Oh, so that’s how it is, huh? Okay, okay. Guess you like being embarrassed from beyond the arc, then,” Dunk said as he checked the ball with Touch. With that the ponies were at it, fully enthralled in their pick-up game. Touch played a far more physical game than Dunk was used to, and Dunk found himself being thrown for a loop several times with how hard Touch was driving the lane.
Back and forth they went, and the more they played, the more Dunk realized just how lacking he really was. Touch was hotly contesting every single shot Dunk tried to jack up, and Dunk simply couldn’t create anything off the dribble.
When Dunk didn’t have the ball, he was quickly learning what the real meaning of defense was, as he and Touch kept banging bodies, with Dunk more often than not making desperation moves, and even resorting to fouling, to prevent Touch from scoring easy buckets.
Eventually the score was ten-all, and Dunk found himself with an opportunity for a win. After he checked the ball with Touch, he started his dribble, trying to appear cautious and hesitant. In fact, he was anything but. His goal was to beat Touch off the dribble, swoop to the open wing, and nail the open three. Simple. It was the same play that Dunk had used to win a college title this year. Dunk started to make his move.
Soft Touch apparently had different plans, because as soon as Dunk exposed the ball, he felt a cold emptiness in his hooves, like a part of him got ripped out.
He heard a sound over his head, and looked up to see the ball on a perfect arc. Swish.
“Looks like you’re buying dinner. Come on. I know a good place not too far from here. Let’s get cleaned up and put this stuff up,” Touch said, his voice holding no small amount of triumph.
The two ponies put up the equipment and headed to the showers, not once noticing the two ponies that had been watching them in the stands.
"Told you he turned a new leaf,” Top Dollar said.
“We’ll see. This is just the first day. He keeps this up? Odds are in his favor. He’s gotta keep working hard. I got ten ponies working their asses off for three roster spots. I’m not making any decisions until the end of the week. He walks the line, keeps improving? Odds are in his favor,” Comet said.
As Dunk lay down in his hotel bed, he thought about the day. He appeared to have made a solid friend in Soft Touch, and the two had agreed to make a one-on-one game part of their post-practice routine. It could only help them improve.
Looking back on it, Dunk noticed how even though it had been a struggle, and that he was out fifty bits for the dinner, it had been fun. There’s no reason I can’t enjoy myself while I’m making myself better, Dunk reasoned.
He closed his eyes and dreamed of better days. He dreamed of playing in front of a crowd for a championship.
Slam! Dunk! Slam! Dunk! Slam! Dunk!
That was what he wanted to hear more than anything in his life. He let those thoughts comfort him as sleep washed over him.
As Dunk came to the Bridles Center the next morning, he was greeted with glares from the rest of the players. He supposed that most of them were still mad about the seemingly endless amount of suicides they had run the other day. Nothing I can do about that. Just gotta keep going for mine, Dunk thought.
As he approached his locker however, he did find one thing that he was regretting. Pasta would have tasted so much better last night.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Grind these out! We got a lot to do today! I don’t wanna spend all of it watching you run up and down my court!” Comet shouted. They had wasted no time getting right back into it, and Dunk thought about what they might work on after the warm-ups were complete. Surely there would be more to this tryout than basic drills.
“Gather round! Gather round! Alright, today we’re gonna have you guys run some offensive and defensive drills. Play hard defense, but don’t try to hurt a pony. Just work hard and keep focus. Five of you on the offense to start, five of you on the defense to start. I’ll have you switch out in a bit. Start off with two-on-two, looking for pick-and-rolls and slash-and-kick threes. If you’re not up, work on ball control,” Comet said as a trainer wheeled out the basketballs.
Clearly Dunk had been mistaken. More mindless drills… this is the same stuff I’ve been doing for the last ten years, Dunk thought. He lined up for offense and started handling the ball. Years of playing made his movements on his hind legs fluid, movements that his defender just didn’t have a chance of picking up.
Dunk beat his pony on a crossover, then drove the lane for an easy layup. A good start he thought.
Thought apparently being the key word here.
“Dunk, what the hell was that?” Comet yelled as he walked over to Dunk. The entire gym froze as ponies stopped and stared at what was transpiring.
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” Dunk said, choosing his words carefully. He didn’t want to lose his shot due to not following Comet’s bizarre standards.
“Looks to me like you just beat your pony off the dribble and scored a layup. I’m going to ask you a really simple question, maybe a couple of questions. See if you can keep up,” Comet said.
“Here’s the first question. Is beating your pony off the dribble and then scoring a layup what I asked the ball-carrier to do?” Comet asked.
“No sir,” Dunk replied, shifting awkwardly. He didn’t like where this was going.
“No? Then what did I ask you to do? Pretend I don’t play basketball and that you’re better than me, because clearly you are, given how my instructions were basically ignored,” Comet said.
“You asked me to set a pick or to penetrate and kick the ball outside,” Dunk said.
“Now, do we set a pick as a ball carrier? Seems counter-productive doesn’t it. You there! Up Tempo, why wouldn’t the ball carrier set a pick?” Comet said.
“Because he has the ball?” Tempo responded.
“Exactly! You already have the ball, why would you be the one setting the pick Dunk? Is this some new strategy that I’m not aware of? Did you graduate with a major in jams and a minor in basketball offense? Please, enlighten me as a to why an undrafted rookie thinks he’s so much goddamn better than the pony running the tryout for the team he’s trying to make. Fucking enlighten me,” Comet said.
Dunk stood there for a moment, unsure of what to say or do. Comet obviously expected some type of response, but what could possibly be said?
“Nothing, huh? You got nothing? All the trash you talk, the way you carry yourself, you ain’t got nothing to say for yourself? Laps. Hind leg. Now. The rest of you keep doing your drills,” Comet said as he turned and walked away.
As Dunk started his laps, and the rest of the ponies started back up with the drills, he could feel everyone’s eyes boring a hole into him, silently judging him. He shrugged it off and kept going. He would show that he was better than this.
Once again he notice Soft Touch looking at him with the same goofy look on his face, like all of this was supposed to happen. Dunk didn’t like it and made a mental note to talk to him about it after the tryout session.
Basketball has always been my thing, I like Magic, Bird, and Bernard King, went the song in Dunk’s head. His legs were killing him, even with his patented workout song going in his head. But he knew he had to keep going. I’m not going to show them weakness, Dunk thought. He couldn’t.
After what felt like hours, Dunk was running on fumes. He glanced over at the drills being run as he continued his laps. They were still doing pick-and-rolls. Still! As much as Dunk hated being singled out, a small part of him was glad he wasn’t doing the drills. He’d never been a fan of the pick-and-roll. Nopony he had ever played with had set a good screen for him.
Eventually, he’d abandoned it in favor of beating his pony off the dribble. It was faster, and it was more fun, at least in Dunk’s opinion.
Dunk immediately stopped and looked to where the call had come from. Comet was staring at him with a rather vague look on his face.
“What the fuck are you doing still running laps? Get your flank in line, run some damn drills!” he shouted.
What does this dude want from me? I’ve been running laps for forever, my hooves are swollen, my joints are aching. This asshole… Dunk thought.
As Dunk jogged over to get in line, he stole a glance over at Comet and the rest of the staff. Something was up, and Dunk was determined to find out what it was.
“Making all sorts of friends, aren’t we?” Touch said to Dunk as he got in line.
“Shove it. I’m not in the mood,” Dunk replied.
“Aw, and I thought we had something special going on. You’re breaking my heart, Dunk. How were the laps?” Touch said.
“Exhausting. I don’t know how he expects me to be able to handle the ball on these drills,” Dunk said.
“Here’s an idea. A shocking one, but an idea. How about this? I handle the ball, you set the pick for me?” Touch said.
As tired as Dunk was, he couldn’t quite fathom not setting up the offense. It was what he was good at. He looked at Touch with a quizzical expression.
“You’re suggesting that me, one of the most dynamic scorers in college, high school, and the prep leagues before all of that, not handle the ball and set up a screen for you?” Dunk said.
“Yeah! It’ll be fun. Think of it as something new to master and add to your game, because spoilers you’re not always going to run the plays at this level. Especially not as a rookie,” Touch said.
“Whatever. Let’s give it a shot I guess. Doubt I can even handle the ball right now. My hooves are killing me,” Dunk said.
As they finished talking, their turn in the drill came up. They took their spots on the court, and waited for the whistle to start the drill.
“Let’s see if you can manage this without screwing up, Dunk!” Comet shouted.
Manage this you pompous prick, Dunk thought.
As Touch started his dribble, Dunk began moving. Touch was starting near half-court, taking his movements as slow as he could manage. Dunk looked at the defense and realized what he was doing almost immediately. He was baiting the defense, trying to get them to rise up and commit to something.
Dunk looked at Touch and got a barely perceptible nod from him. Dunk took this as the moment the drive was happening.
As Touch charged the lane, Dunk moved in to set the screen. Beautiful.
Dunk moved around his pony and saw Touch feeding him the ball.
Time to give them a little something special Dunk thought. Dunk stood, caught the pass, and took his leap.
As he flew towards the rim, he stole a quick glance at his defender. Sorry buddy. You were just too slow. Dunk drove the bucket home with force and dropped down, feeling better right then and there than he had in weeks.
He ran over to Touch and give him a bump.
“Nice feed man! That was pretty good right there,” Dunk said.
“Imagine that, you didn’t even run the play and you still got to score some points. We keep working on that, ain’t a defense in the league that’ll stop that,” Touch said.
Dunk smiled, caught up in the moment. Maybe Touch was the player he’d been waiting for his whole life. They had only had the one day together, but there was already a great chemistry going. Something that just couldn’t be taught or drilled in.
Dunk was looking forward to playing alongside Touch. He was really looking forward to it.
It was finally over. One of the most grueling weeks Dunk had ever been experienced was coming to a close. Six days of endless amounts of running, pick and rolls, fast breaks, low post plays, and the weirdest zone defense Dunk had ever seen was done. It was time to see who made the cut.
He looked at the gathering of players in the locker room. Seven of them would be going home today, watching the season from their couch instead of playing it on the court. Dunk could only hope that his work during the tryouts had been impressive enough to earn a roster spot.
The tension in the room was thick, and Dunk saw more than a few angry glances come his way, but there was a small amount of nervous conversation as well. Dunk spotted Soft Touch and walked over to him.
“Sup dude,” Touch said as Dunk came up.
“Not much. Couldn’t sleep worth anything last night. I was too nervous over this,” Dunk said.
Touch laughed, and Dunk found himself getting angry at him. How could he laugh at something as big as this?
“Dude, you worry too much. If your break doesn’t come this year, it’ll come soon enough. You just gotta roll with this stuff man. Basketball is what we do. It’s not who we are,” Touch said.
Dunk snorted and rolled his eyes. As good as Touch was, he was just too lax about this stuff. He needs to apply himself more… he could dominate the league if he just took things the way they were meant to be taken, Dunk thought.
All the talking instantly stopped, and that could only mean one thing. Comet was here.
“Alright, listen up. I’m proud of all of you for all the effort you put in this week. No matter whose names I call off, know that you guys all gave it your all, and it wasn’t easy to come up with the three we need. Whatever happens, you are all great basketball players. This doesn’t change that,” Comet started.
“Slam Dunk, welcome to the Kickers. You’ve still got a long way to go, but the improvements we saw this week are enough to have you on the roster for at least training camp. Good job,” Comet said.
Yes! Yes! Yes! Dunk thought. All the effort had been worth it, and he was one step closer to claiming his legacy.
Won’t mean as much if Touch doesn’t make it on too. He did kinda help me find my stride these past few days, Dunk thought.
“Cross Over, welcome to the Kickers. I’ve never seen a pony with the moves you’ve got, but you still need to work on your passing and rebounding skills. Still, same thing as Dunk. You’re on the roster for at least training camp. Good job,” Comet said.
Cross Over is good and all, but his moves? Man, I’ve seen better stuff in prep school, Dunk thought.
Dunk was just waiting on one last name. He hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed. With Dunk setting the screens for Touch they had been unstoppable in practice —not a single pony had managed to prevent them from scoring, and they had even incorporated a ridiculous amount of passes out to the corners for easy buckets.
“Last, but not least, Soft Touch, welcome to the Kickers. Your passing is some of the most incredible stuff I’ve ever seen, it’s like watching Losino Bird again. Just work on your shot and you’ll be alright,” Comet said.
All right! Dunk thought. The gang is all here then.
“You three, go home, get some sleep. Seven am Tuesday, buses are leaving for training camp. You’ll need to be there early to load all the gear. Rest of you, once again, thanks for coming out. Keep in shape, keep working at it. The EBL season is long and unpredictable. You never know if a team will need to sign you to an emergency contract,” Comet said.
With that, it was done. It had taken a bit longer than expected, but Dunk was on a team. For the time being at least. He thought back to what Top Dollar had said to him when they first got to LA, about having to constantly sell yourself.
Shouldn’t be too hard, not with Touch rocking it with me. EBL won’t know what hit ‘em, Dunk thought.
“Yo, Dunk! Looks like we made it,” Touch said as ponies began shuffling out of the locker room.
“Yeah! You ready for this training camp?” Dunk asked.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet, dude. When this next two weeks is over, you’re gonna be wishing you was back here running laps for doing a layup,” Touch said.
“I ain’t seen nothing yet? Dude, they ain’t seen nothing yet. We got this,” Dunk said.
Touch merely smiled and walked away. Dunk thought about asking him if he wanted to work on some things, or hang out, but decided against it. Touch needed some time to let this hit him, and Dunk needed some sleep.
I think I’ll give Pops a call tomorrow. I don’t even think I’d be able to stay awake long enough for him to pick up, Dunk thought as he entered his hotel room. Truth be told, Dunk hadn’t even talked to anyone on his way back from the arena. He had been hit with a curious mixture of excitement and exhaustion. Sleep was definitely the drill he was about to run.
As he lay down and closed his eyes, his thoughts turned once again to training camp. Thus far, all of his competition had been rookies, ponies in the same boat as him. He was excited to test himself against veterans and earn a permanent spot on the roster.
He was excited to be one step closer to achieving his dream.
As those thoughts washed over him, he drifted off into blissful sleep.