As basketball season continues, Junior’s shooting makes him an unexpected star on Reardan’s basketball team. The high expectations and encouragement he gets from Coach and from his teammates drive him to become even better, and though he’s still too much of an outsider to be compared to great Reardan players of the past like his teammates sometimes are, he starts to wonder whether he could build his own legacy.
Junior’s status in Reardan is different from anything he’s experienced as a “freak” in Wellpinit. He learns that here not only do others’ expectations help define what a person can accomplish, but they also help define what he can hope for.
Meanwhile, Rowdy has led his own team to an undefeated record, and as the rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan (this time in the Reardan gym) approaches, he and Junior are the players to watch—Rowdy because of his skill, and Junior because he will be playing against his hometown.
Despite their opposite personalities, Junior and Rowdy have been on parallel paths since birth, and their basketball success is no different. The rematch will pit them against one another, providing another opportunity for revenge and forcing their parallel paths to collide at last.
A local news crew interviews Junior, who finds it difficult to say he feels anything other than “weird” until he admits that Rowdy used to be his best friend and that he, Junior, wants to use this game to get revenge. He tells the news crew that he needs to prove to Reardan, Wellpinit, and himself that he is stronger than everyone else and will never give up, in basketball or in life.
Interestingly, besides expressing his dedication to his dreams and his desire for revenge, Junior describes a need to be not just strong, but stronger than everyone else—singling himself out from the group. Junior might want to be part of a community, but he doesn’t want to just blend in.
Coach assigns Junior—the team’s “secret weapon”—to guard Rowdy throughout the game. Junior isn’t sure he can do it, but Coach tells him he can—which reminds Junior of Eugene, a happy drunk who used to shout “Junior, you can do it!” from the stands during any game Junior ever played. Though Junior feels haunted by the ghosts of his loved ones, when Coach repeats the phrase “you can do it”—“the four hugest words in the world”—Junior feels empowered.
Eugene had such a tragic, hopeless life that his optimism is painfully ironic. Still, his words are powerful, especially when repeated by Coach. With Eugene’s ghostly voice in his head and Coach’s hopeful one in his ear, it’s as if Junior’s past and his future converge at this climactic moment, spurring him on to act.
When the two teams take the court, the Reardan crowd boos Wellpinit. Rowdy and Junior send each other “serious hate signals” across the gym, Junior noting that “you have to love somebody that much to also hate them that much, too.” As they face off, Rowdy tells Junior he can’t stop him—Rowdy has been kicking his ass for fourteen years. Junior replies that tonight is his night.
For Junior and Rowdy, love and hate are similar things because both show mean an intense kind of caring. Their strong bond also includes a rigid power dynamic, however, which Junior has to break in order to grow up and define himself separately from Rowdy. Even when Rowdy loved and protected Junior, he insisted on keeping him down.
When Rowdy goes to dunk the ball and humiliate Reardan on the opening play, Junior jumps just ahead of him, rises above him, and steals the ball out of his hands. He then runs across the court for a three-pointer, humiliating Rowdy and deciding the fate of the game. The crowd is amazed—Junior’s mom faints, and his dad hugs and kisses the white guy next to him even though they don’t know each other.
Junior breaks the lifelong hold that Rowdy has had over him by literally rising above him on the basketball court. Not only does Junior’s amazing play give him the respect and admiration he’s hardly dared to dream of, it also brings the crowd together in a way that transcends class and race—whites and Indians alike are equally awestruck.
Ultimately, Reardan beats Wellpinit by forty points, with Junior holding Rowdy to only four. But Junior’s joy at the victory immediately turns to shame when he realizes that even though Wellpinit’s team was recognized as the more talented, Reardan had huge advantages; Junior’s former Wellpinit classmates were playing with alcoholic parents, no food in the house, and no chance at a college education. Junior feels that he needs to apologize to his tribe and has broken his best friend’s heart.
In some ways, Junior has been seeing basketball as a true meritocracy, separate from the unfair outside world—the one place where he can hold his own against the white kids and excel on just his own strength and talent. Now that he’s on top, however, his perspective suddenly changes, and he realizes that basketball doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He also sees that his quest for revenge against Rowdy has led him to grow so far apart from his tribe that he’s become one of the powerful people trying to beat them when they’re down—a total transformation from his formerly bullied character, and not a good one.
The Wellpinit team never recovers from the crushing loss. The Reardan team wins all the way to the playoffs, but ultimately gets what Junior sees as cosmic comeuppance in a loss that leaves them all crying for hours in the locker room. Junior speculates that this may be the only time when men and boys can cry without getting punched in the face.
In accordance with the theme of complementary opposites—laughter and tears, love and hate—Junior believes very strongly in balance, which is also a more positive way of saying revenge. Much as he hates to lose, he thinks his team deserves it for what they did to Rowdy’s team. The locker-room tears, which Junior deems okay because they are related to a sport, are another small addition to Junior’s developing understanding of masculinity.