Though Junior almost doesn’t go to basketball tryouts because he’s afraid of being humiliated, his dad convinces him to go, saying with uncharacteristic optimism, “You have to dream big to get big.”
Junior’s dad reinforces the message, voiced by Mr. P and by Junior himself, that Junior must take real, concrete steps—and risks—to succeed.
When Junior arrives at the gym for the first day of practice, he feels short, skinny, and slow, and like all the white boys are better than him. When Coach announces that he can only take twenty-four players out of the forty boys who have showed up, Junior is sure that he will be cut, but Coach asks everyone to do their best: if they play with dignity and respect, he will treat them with dignity and respect no matter what.
Though Junior, as always, feels like he doesn’t belong—and that he’s been placed at a disadvantage—Coach’s commitment to treat all the candidates with equal “dignity and respect” reassures him. Metaphorically, this also applies on a much broader social level. Junior is constantly disadvantaged by poverty and racism, but basketball is now one place where he’s literally on a level playing field with everyone else.
Coach begins by ordering one hundred laps around the gym—with four players quitting by the end of the drill—and then assigns random pairs for full-court one-on-one. Junior plays against Roger, who easily gets the ball away from him, and then runs him over when Junior tries to block him. Coach asks Junior if he needs a break, but Junior, knowing that he won’t make the team if he stops, says he’ll take Roger on again.
Junior’s persistence in basketball—choosing not to quit when other players do, and going up against Roger even after he’s been knocked down—is one of his key character traits, and arguably the one that’s most important for achieving his dreams.
Though Junior is intimidated by Roger, he figures out how to keep him from stealing the ball, and scores with a jump shot to cheers from everyone in the gym. When their time is up, Roger congratulates Junior with a fist bump, and Junior knows he will make the team. In fact, he makes varsity, and Coach says he’s the best shooter who’s ever played for him.
Contrary to the expectations he had when he arrived at tryouts, Junior now not only belongs to the team, but excels—and excels on his own, without Rowdy. It’s a kind of success he’s never seen before, and it’s important to developing his individual self-worth. Basketball offers a kind of pure merit-based opportunity that Junior has never experienced before.
Two weeks later, the team travels to Wellpinit for their first game, which happens to be against Junior’s old classmates. When the Reardan team arrives outside the gym, they can hear the Indian fans chanting, “Ar-nold sucks!” Coach tells Junior that he doesn’t have to play, but Junior says he does. Seeing his mom, dad, and grandmother at the door of the gym and knowing that they have supported him in spite of the tribe’s disapproval gives Junior the strength to walk inside.
The game against Wellpinit puts Junior’s two worlds into conflict. He’s especially affected by hearing his tribe chant his Reardan name, which shows they now see him as an outsider and not a boy who grew up among them. He realizes again what he’s lost in leaving the reservation.
As soon as the team walks in, the gym falls completely silent. The entire tribe turns its back on Junior—all except for Rowdy, who simply looks like he wants to kill him. Both angered and impressed by the show of contempt, Junior thinks that he might not have left if his tribe was this organized in other respects, a thought that makes him laugh.
The tribe turning their backs against Junior is a powerful visual metaphor. The display is revenge for his figuratively turning his back on them. As he often does in difficult situations, Junior sees the ridiculous side of the tribe’s show of contempt, and his laughter helps to get him through the moment. Meanwhile, as angry as Rowdy looks, his refusal to turn away shows that he still cares too much about Junior to just ignore him.
Junior’s new teammates laugh with him as they make their way to the locker room. Once there, though, Junior starts crying. Coach tells him and the rest of the team that it’s natural to cry when you care deeply about something. He tells Junior to turn his pain into anger and use it to help his play.
Junior’s conflicted feelings continue, and he reacts by crying, something he’s often been ashamed of in the past. Coach gives him an important lesson in how he can not only accept this emotional part of his personality, but also channel it toward his goals—that is, a more adult way of handling his feelings.
As soon as Coach sends Junior into the game, someone in the crowd throws a quarter at him, cutting his forehead and drawing blood so that he can’t play. Eugene, who is an EMT for the tribal clinic, comes to take a look. Eugene mentions that he wrecked his motorcycle and regrets that Junior couldn’t play that night. Eugene was once a legendary basketball player; rumor has it that he was good enough to play on a college team, but couldn’t because he couldn’t read. Perhaps thinking of Eugene’s lost opportunities, Junior asks Eugene to stitch up his cut so that he can rejoin the game. Eugene protests that this might scar Junior’s face but agrees in time for the second half.
From the loss of the would-be basketball scholarship that could have gotten him off the rez, to the wreck of the motorcycle that once made the Reardan students respect him and Junior, Eugene’s life story illustrates the vicious cycle of lost opportunities on the rez. Though Junior doesn’t say that Eugene wrecked the motorcycle while drunk, it’s a reasonable assumption given his alcoholism. Junior’s intense commitment to all his endeavors, including basketball, is motivated by his desire to escape this cycle.
As soon as Junior rejoins the game, however, Rowdy goes after him. He elbows Junior in the head as he jumps to shoot, giving him a concussion. While Junior, unconscious, is driven to the hospital in Eugene’s ambulance, the Reardan players get into a shoving match with the Wellpinit players—and fans—and the white referees, afraid of the Indians, begin calling fouls in Wellpinit’s favor. Wellpinit ends up winning by thirty points, most of them scored by Rowdy.
Rowdy’s attack on Junior is significant, given that he’s always made a point not to hurt Junior in the past. For Junior, who until now has only wanted to restore his friendship with Rowdy, the concussion—and the humiliating loss, for which Junior feels responsible—incites a desire for revenge against Rowdy. Meanwhile, even though the game works out in the Indians’ favor, the referees’ racial prejudice prevents it from being fair.
Late that night, Coach visits Junior in the hospital, apologizing for the way the game turned out and applauding Junior’s commitment with a Vince Lombardi quote. Since Junior needs to stay awake to monitor his concussion, they stay up all night talking, but Junior doesn’t retell any of the stories; that night, he says, belongs just to him and his coach.
As Coach points out, Junior’s commitment to his goals is one of his defining character traits. The omission of Coach’s stories is a reminder that Junior is “writing” or mediating the narrative, and his choice to keep them private suggests a confessional element. Of all the moments in the novel when characters build trust by sharing their secrets, this may be the most important, since the secrets remain completely preserved.