IF YOU could unbreak the bones and erase the scars, recall the bullets and sever the chains, recap the bottles and catch all the smoke, if you could swim 16 years up the river of time and find a town called Stevenson, you just might see something glorious.
Stevenson lies between two ridges in north Alabama, by the Tennessee River, a dark blue vein on the earth. There, on Valentine's Day 1992, the North Jackson Chiefs hosted the Fort Payne Wildcats in high school basketball. It was not a playoff game, not even a conference game, and neither team was especially good. But in the 117-year history of organized basketball, it was one of the few times a team with only two remaining players beat a team that still had five.
If this were a movie, the story would end at the final buzzer. The winners would always be winners, fists in the air and black jerseys glistening, and the losers would always hang their heads. This is not a movie. Morning came and they all woke up.
These officials can be blamed for this. They let this thing get out of hand completely.
That's the voice of George Guess, apothecary and Chiefs radio announcer, with 2:53 left in the fourth quarter. He's perched on a stage at the end of the court, next to a colossal painting of an American Indian with a headdress of blood-red feathers.
Until a few days before the game, North Jackson had 10 players. Then the leading scorer quit because the coach wouldn't let him play every minute. Now, as the game winds down, the Chiefs' best all-around player, point guard Chris Stewart, has fouled out. Eight Chiefs standing. Already the referees have called about 70 fouls.
The Chiefs lead 58--55. Their best remaining player has the ball, facing the basket.
Robert Collier pulls up from fifteeeeen—
Robert is the largest Chief, 6'1", 245 pounds, the only true post player on a roster full of guards. He has been playing with four fouls since the first half. He lives in the projects. He can't afford a varsity jacket or a class ring. He owns one pair of pants, which his mother washes every night and dries on the heater because she has no clothes dryer. On warm days he wears his mother's shorts to school and hopes no one can tell.
Tonight Robert's mother is in the bleachers, as always, and his father is on Death Row.