Ichikawa Kenji’s funeral services finally concluded with his burial. His wife Hiroko and son Kobayashi had cried throughout the wake, cremation, and burial. Their confreres stayed with them, trying to lessen their grief and provide company to the Ichikawa family in their time of deepest sorrow. The kind and emphatic nature of Japanese people was very noticeable in the scene that unfolded. They comforted the widowed Ichikawa Hiroko with everything they had.
Kobayashi finally got his act together and stopped crying. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel devastated by the loss. He was only putting on a brave farce for the sake of his mother. Everyone who attended the funeral really admired the display of sheer courage and maturity from the young boy. They prayed in their hearts intensely for his good fortune.
Kenji’s fiendish boss had been arrested and accused of the abhorrent act of causing his employee’s death. Everyone who heard the story was shocked to the core. They felt that the nefarious man got what he deserved.
But nobody outside the Ichikawa family was more saddened, or upset, than Kobayashi’s coach, Shiro Oujiro.
He abandoned his plans of leaving for the national tournament with the rest of his team, leaving the team advisor and team manager in charge. He rushed over to meet Kobayashi, driving like a maniac and ruining many poor drivers’ days.
Kobayashi was surprised to see his coach at his front gate, motioning over to him. “Hey, kid. I’m so, so, sorry! I never knew that so much was happening! I wish I could help!”
“Sir? What about the nationals? Are we still going? Is everyone okay?”
Coach Shiro raised his hand, signaling Kobayashi to stop talking. “Your teammates just took the bus to the national tournament. They’re all a little worried. Without you, I mean.”
Kobayashi started tearing up. “I really want to come, coach! But…but…”
“But what?” came a voice.
Kobayashi turned around to see his mother standing behind him.
“Mrs. Ichikawa,” started Coach Shiro. “I am so sorry for your loss. Nobody should go through this.”
“Thank you, Shiro-san,” said Hiroko. She turned to her son. “But what, Kobayashi? You intend not to go? At this juncture?”
“Remember what you promised your dad?”
Kobayashi remembered it like it was yesterday. “Don’t ever stop playing basketball! Go out there, and make your dream come true! Win yourself an NBA title!” his father had told him.
“Do you intending on breaking your promise because your father didn’t take you to the Izakaya restaurant?”
“Do you think your father would be happy if you sat here crying and missed your biggest opportunity in the nationals?”
“But mom, you…”
“I’ll be fine,” said Hiroko. “I’ve got all these wonderful people with me! But I’d be less fine if you sat here wasting your big opportunity. You packed your bags days ago. Pick them up now, and leave!”
Kobayashi stared at her in disbelief.
“Shiro-san, I leave him to you!”
As they drove towards the gymnasium where the nationals would be played, Kobayashi couldn’t stop crying. He sorely missed his dad and the loss stung like a raging wound. His coach, sensing his emotions, tried to calm him down slowly.
“Look here, kid. Life can hit you with terrible losses and extreme tragedy. But it’s times like these that test your resilience. I know that the loss of a parent can be hard, but you can’t allow yourself to drown. You have to swim towards your goal! This is a dream you and your father envisioned together! You can’t afford to give up now!”
“That’s right,” said Kobayashi, swallowing his tears. “Dad wanted this. I cannot betray him now!”
Shiro Oujiro nodded, satisfied with his efforts. He stamped the gas pedal harder and sped towards the arena.
The first match would be Shibuya High School against Kumamoto Dai-ichi High School. Kumamoto Dai-ichi was considered a powerhouse school. They were even the runners up of last year’s tournament.
Kobayashi knew he would have his hands full.
“I dedicate this game to my dad!” he thought to himself.
He stepped onto the court along with his teammates. All the negativity and depressing thoughts left him. He was back in his safe zone, ready to play. The opponent team, however, couldn’t believe that they were seeing such a tiny player on a basketball court. They looked at him scathingly, trying to intimidate him.
Kobayashi knew the situation all too well. It happened almost every game.
“Well, what’s new here?” he thought.
Twenty minutes into the game, it was absurdly clear that none of their elite players could even keep up with Kobayashi. His ball-handling, shiftiness, and agility made it nearly impossible for even the most athletic defenders to stay on him. In addition to these annoying features, he was also a deadly 3-point shooter. It was like he could never miss!
The first half of the game ended with Shibuya up 49-40 against Kumamoto.
In the second half, Kumamoto High’s coach made an adjustment. He put an extremely pressurizing defender on Kobayashi. This guy wasn’t the tallest. But was equally shifty and cunning. He could see through all of Kobayashi’s moves. Soon, Kumamoto started to catch up, and eventually took the lead.
The third quarter ended at 78-70 in Kumamoto’s favor.
In the dying minute of the fourth quarter, Kobayashi was really starting to feel the pressure. He had shaken off the annoying defender and scored two timely shots. However, they were still down by two points. The score was now 97-95 with Kumamoto having the advantage.
They even had possession of the ball in the last 10 seconds of the game.
Kobayashi was smart enough to know not to foul or shoot a three-pointer after stealing the ball, owing to the high chances of missing. “It’s time!” he thought.
It was time for his new special move, which he had been developing for days now.
The opponent player tried to dribble out the game-clock and win the game. Kobayashi noticed that his dribbling was lethargic and unhurried. This was his chance!
As the player pushed the ball down and waiting for it to bounce back up into his hands, Kobayashi crouched down with such speed that the opponent player couldn’t even process what had happened. Extending his arm forward, Kobayashi swiped it backwards. As the ball bounced off the ground and towards the opponent player’s hand, Kobayashi’s arm swiped it out from under him mid-dribble. Everyone in the gymnasium was astounded by the move, the likes of which they had never seen before.
In the game of giants, a shorter player had used his low height to his advantage!
He had been slipping away from defenders using his low height as an advantage and using his taller teammates to distract the opponent team. Now he had come up with an epic move which relied on his low height and high game IQ. His height had made the crouching much faster.
As the stolen ball zipped towards the other end of the court, his teammates set off in hot pursuit, hoping to grab the ball and score, tying the game. One boy got all the way to the ball and reached out with his outstretched arm, trying to get hold of the ball.
But, the ball slipped past his fingertips and out of the court.
The final buzzer rang, signaling Kumamoto’s victory.
Kobayashi still sat down, crouched at his position. “No…” he thought. “Please let this be a bad dream.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a bad dream.
The ball he had stolen was too fast for anyone to receive. And he now knew it.
What he didn’t know, however, was that an eager pair of eyes were watching him.
As the depressed team and a devastated Kobayashi packed their belongings after being eliminated in the first round, someone approached Coach Shiro, asking for permission to speak to his player.
“I’m sorry, dad,” thought Kobayashi. “I dedicated this game to you, and lost!”
“Hey, Ichikawa-kun,” said Coach Shiro suddenly. “Someone wants to talk to you.”
Kobayashi jumped. In front of him was a white man, clearly foreign. Probably from Europe or America. He was of average height and wore a western-style suit.
“Konnichiwa, Ichikawa Kobayashi-san. O-genki desuka?” he asked in broken, heavily accented Japanese. “Hello, Mr. Kobayashi Ichikawa. Are you doing well?”
“I’m doing fine, sir. You can speak to me in English,” Kobayashi replied in perfect English. “How may I help you?”
The man was clearly taken aback. “Well, that’s great! My name is Christopher Stevenson. I love your game!” he said in an American accent.
“Thank you, sir,” replied Kobayashi.
“I mean seriously, wow! I’ve never seen shooting, handles, and game IQ like yours! I’m amazed how you used your short height to your advantage all game! I don’t think anyone in the history of basketball has ever used their inferior height to their advantage! I honestly didn’t want to come to a first round game, considering that some bad teams can play in the first few rounds. But thank heavens I decided to come today!”
Kobayashi sensed something strange about this man. “Thank you again, sir. But, you came down all the way from the stands to tell me this?”
Christopher was surprised again. “He’s smart!”
“I’m sorry for the off-topic talk! Allow me to reintroduce myself! I’m Christopher Stevenson and I’m a scout for Galveston Institute of Technology in Houston, and I want to make you an offer!”
Kobayashi stood there like a statue, stunned.
“I would like to talk to you about Galveston Tech’s amazing basketball program, and how you can be a part!”