Big congratulations to FBA contributor :icondakotabailey: on receiving her diploma today! :veryhappy:
LOR @ STA: L #4 Firestorm (53-27) 94, W #2 Thrust (62-18) 104 (STA wins in 7)
Serhan Tevetoğlu (Turkish Angora Cat, F/C, LOR) - Broken jaw, Out for rest of season
LOR | 28 24 21 21 | L 94
@STA | 26 26 26 26 | W 104
Buck Hopper (Rabbit, PG) had been here before.
It was the 2009 FBA Finals. The Thrust had home advantage over the Huntsville Mayors, yet couldn't stop the series from going 1-3. Despite the odds, they fought back to tie it up, forcing a final Game 7 in the last game ever played in the Bull Palace. I was there for that match. In a battle of titans, B-Hop and Xavier Knutten (Squirrel, G/F, HNT) tore up the court, going at each other with the kind of focus and ferocity that makes me fall in love with this sport all over again. In the closest Game 7 Finals in league history-- and the most cruel loss I've ever witnessed-- Zip-Nut hit the game winning buzzer beater in a midrange jumper right over B-Hop's paw.
I still have a photo of B-Hop after that play, kneeling on the floor with his head down, his hands on the back of his head, looking so small and defeated.
I couldn't help but wonder if I would see that again.
Rabbit Valley Pavilion was completely off the hook. Every seat was packed and the fans were wild, cheering all the way to tipoff. I felt extremely lucky to have my seat comped by the FBA-- reports were that the cheapest seats sold for $100 that night. And down in the lower bowl, it was like a who's-who of fame. Furrywood actress Dixie Barker (Pit Bull) was there with her boyfriend Klaus Korber (Doberman, G, TAL). Other FBA players were there including Shane Rufus (Red Wolf, G, MON) who looked like he was already on his fourth beer as he chatted up the unlucky young border collie sitting next to him. 2011 FBA Rookie of the Year Paul Shepherd (German Shepherd, G, MON) was on the other side, looking considerably more sober. Hopper had family support with tennis star Donna Hopper (Rabbit) in the crowd, sadly without her tennis partner. But she was with B-Hop's brother Jack Hopper (Rabbit), who plays as a goalie in the FHL.
The list continued, including Paul Teronura (Otter, C, TEN) with his boyfriend, Moonshiners photographer Farallon (Otter); Dakota Bailey (Wolf), president of the Biloxi Mudpuppies fan club; Sam Gwosdz (Red Fox), general manager of the Williamsburg Minutemen; 2010 FBA Rookie of the Year JTigerclaw (Tiger, G, GAL); William Badd (Black Leopard, G, BGR) of the newly relocated Bangor Bantam; Kenny Henderson (Raccoon, F, DES) and Tazel Tawner (Vixen, G, DES) of the Des Moines Blanks; John Stoat (Stoat, G, SPO); N'duk Hunter (Mongoose, G, SAS); Krystal Bunny (Bunny, G, IDA); B-Hop's old rival and best friend Cheeto Wolfote (Wolfote, G, PLY); general manger of the Spokane Rapids, Nightfire Kitsura (Squnx); and Carter Clausen (Grey Wolf), head coach and general manager of the Tallahassee Typhoons.
And, of course, I noticed B-Hop's girlfriend Valencia Zeraus (Lioness, G, NWK) sitting on the floor across from the Thrust bench. Seriously. Everyone was there.
Including a small group of Lorain fans who had taken over a chunk of the lower bowl seating. Just as I noticed them, the lights went dark save for a spotlight on-- to my surprise-- the visitor's entrance. Bagpipe music was pumped into the PA system while the crowd became confused save for those Lorain fans who cheered all the louder. And their team gave them something to cheer about as the Lorain Police Department came marching out in lockstep and full Scottish regalia, escorting the Firestorm with them to the court. With the bagpipe, fife and drum sounding out "Amazing Grace", the Firestorm players strode out in red and orange kilts, which certainly got a bit of laughter from the crowd. Still, it was striking to watch the team very seriously, very purposefully come out to the court with swords held to their sides that they drew and held out pointing across the court. And then the lights came up again with the crowd booing and confused-- as was I. But the Firestorm fans loved what they saw and cheered for it.
I honestly don't know why Rabbit Valley Pavilion management allowed for the visitors to celebrate like that. But I have to admit-- I'm glad they did. This was a series full of emotion and contention, and there was something refreshing about the reminder that all of this is for the fans-- even the ones who traveled all the way from Ohio to come see this game.
But then it was the Thrust's turn.
The lights went dark again, and lasers shone from the rafters. The Jumbotron lit up as the voice of FBA commissioner Sterne Davids boomed (hah, yeah, I know...) through the speakers. "For the 1995-1996 season, the FBA extends its fifth and final expansion to Stanislaus County in California." A video montage showing the team's humble beginnings in the Bull Palace played, peppered with highlights from the team's earliest stars, including a season with FBA legend Lewis Lachler (Spotted Hyena, F, retired) and the returning Lance Cheval (Stallion, C, SAS). I could hear older fans cheering at seeing some of the old greats, but then when things got quiet and Davids' voice returned...
"With the 4th pick of the 2004 FBA Draft, the Stanislaus Thrust select Buck Hopper of Lapine State University..."
The crowd went wild. Video from B-Hop's draft night and his earliest games, including his ankle breaker on Leo Tang (Lion, C, IDA) were shown. Then more modern highlights like The Shot, when he hit a 3-point buzzer beater to steal Game 5 of the 2009 FBA Finals... The Hop Back play when he beat the one-on-one fast break by hop stepping to the cup then jumping backwards for a wide open fade under the hoop... his jumper over the back of Svenia von Thomassen (Chakat Lioness, C, SFW) to hit the buzzer beater from behind the baseline-- and to my surprise, the steal off Aisha Melbourne (Mink, PF) that sent the game into OT and kept the Thrust alive in this series. After the team was introduced and the lights came back up, my eyes darted to Aisha to see if there would be a response. There was. She held on to her sword from her team's introduction and aimed it toward Hopper, then lowered the tip the draw a line across the floor. Quiet-- but classy, I thought. Certainly classier than Ian Histon (Leopard, G) who bent over, hiked up his skirt and mooned toward the Thrust. That drew a lot of boos from the crowd-- and I figure a fine before tip-off.
As the teams began to get into position, I noticed that Hopper didn't have his armband on yet. He first drank his carrot juice, then made a show of putting it on, taking more time with it than I'd seen in the past. For those who don't know, he never wore the armband in college. He started wearing it at the beginning of his professional career when his beloved uncle died before his first FBA game. He's said in the past he would take it off when he won the Finals-- and along with the thousands of others watching, I wondered if we'd see it come off today.
The truth of the matter is, as a series gets more and more desperate, the opening minutes become more and more boring. Teams start to fall into conservative habits, knowing they can't mess up. It's good ball, just no one is willing to take any risks on a flashy play. And the game opened just that way. The 'Storm kept working their height advantage, keeping the ball high, using short, hopping passes from mink to mink to get the ball inside and make easy, unstoppable baskets. No flash at all, but highly dependable. The Thrust kept to their new playbook of heavy motion and quick shots off the pass. B-Hop again showed his determination to do what his team needed by being a pass-first point guard rather than the scoring machine he usually is. While the bunny was fantastic moving across the floor, showing off his outstanding handles, play after play he kicked out to open shooters or passed inside to well-positioned teammates. Nobody was better positioned than Peter Conner (Cougar, PF) who was electric in the first half. Despite his height disadvantage against the towering Melbourne, St. Peter used his tireless speed and energy to keep catching the mink with stutter steps and shot fakes. I was close enough to the floor that during a timeout, I could hear assistant coach Manuel Katz (Tabby cat) tell head coach Don Von Wasser (Dolphin, C) "That's what Pedro did to me."
The second half was much like the first with the two teams swapping baskets with slow, conservative play. In all honesty, the game had been quite boring as halftime arrived. Both clubs were scoring efficiently, but with the score tied up, a part of me wondered if it would come down to a final buzzer beater-- just like the one that cruelly stole the win from B-Hop in 2009.
I don't normally mention halftime shows, but there was something that struck me in this one. Part of the show involved a band from San Francisco's Chinatown playing traditional instruments, and while the music itself did not terribly impress me, there was a simple message to the performance. A poster was raised reminding the crowd that this was the Chinese Year of the Rabbit and that this was Hopper's seventh year in the FBA.
That resonated with me. And it must have with the Thrust as well.
When the third quarter started, the first minute seemed to roll into the same slow, conservative play of the first half. But just when I was about to declare this the most boring Game 7 I'd ever seen, something happened. Something happened big. Hopper has been passing the ball so much, he only had 6 points going into the third-- something unheard of from one of the league's top scorers. It was almost as if Hopper was scared to go inside-- which no doubt Erich Haber (Mink, C) and Melbourne were thinking as the game dragged. But then out of the blue, B-Hop got around Bill Bent (Armadillo, PG) and charged the paint. Expecting a kickout, Cross guarded the elbow giving B-Hop room to pass. When it suddenly came clear the bunny was going for the basket, Haber moved to block but got screened by Cletus Swinton (Pig, C). That's when Melbourne was forced to stretch for the block, but the bunny got so much lift, he put a hand right on Aisha's muzzle, pushing her back and throwing the rock down hard over her arm.
The foul whistle stopped the clock as the crowd went from sleeping to an eruption of cheers. Melbourne protested the call with the official, but he let the blocking foul stand and a pumped up Hopper walked right up to the seats-- and brought Val to her feet, giving her a kiss. He said something to her that I couldn't hear. That left me wondering what was spoken as Hopper finished the 3-point play.
But now, the game was different. I saw the strategy clearly now-- the Thrust had lolled the Firestorm into an easy game. They had let Lorain keep using their indefensible tactic, getting them in a groove of depending on their height. But now Hopper's team changed the rules as everyone on the club did a 180 and turned the game back to the physical flash they're known for. What would have previously been a Mary Wooten (Sheep, F) jumper from midrange suddenly became a shoulder-checked slam from Swinton. What would have been a pick-and-roll to Conner became a pick-and-pop from Blythe Nacht (Red Fox [silver phase], G) who went white-hot in the third. The sharpshooting rookie drilled home 4 3-balls in the third quarter alone, totally stunning the Firestorm, who found it hard to get a 3-pointer groove going after depending on their height for all their buckets. What had been a tied back-and-forth match became a small lead for the Thrust, who went up by 5 going into the fourth.
Lorain had to regroup and get their mojo back. Now with the pace of the game changed, the shots weren't going down. As it turned out, Haber's, Melbourne's, and Cross' arms were tired from holding the ball so high, and without Serhan Tevetoğlu (Turkish Angora Cat, F+) the team didn't have any more towering options left. Melbourne looked especially upset, not just on having been dunked on, but with hir team falling behind. As the fourth got underway, B-Hop's instructions to his team was clear. Keep up the pressure. Keep hitting hard. Don't be afraid to make fouls.
The fourth quarter was the kind of play everyone had been waiting for. Needing a new scoring outlet, the Firestorm turned to their underused guards. Bent moved the ball around, getting it to Leonardo De Hugo's (Lion, SG) paws, but with Doral (Gecko, SG) in the 2 guard spot and having under exerted hirself in the first half, the lizard had bounding energy and locked up the shots. Shi got three mid-air tongue blocks including a tail steal from Ian Histon, who managed a brief scoring one hitting 3 shots in a row, but failed to connect on all his other attempts. Nacht kept firing off daggers, including one phenomenal highlight when Carlos Syevens-Quiles (Calico Cat, SF) jumped from behind the free-throw for a dunk. When Haber and Melbourne stepped in to block, the feline reached around Haber's body to pass behind the skinny mink's back to Nacht at the shoulder-- who then snapped silk from the woods.
When the Thrust broke into a 14 point lead, the Firestorm panicked. During a time out, Melbourne was seen shaking and yelling to hir teammates, looking terrified of what could be a huge loss. When shi got back onto the court, shi demonstrated that determination by colliding with Michael Porter (Mallard, F) on a play, bowling over the duck as she finished a slam dunk with the foul. She may have been too tense, though, as she missed the free throw bad. The rebound came into Hopper's paws who raced up court for the fast break. Cross was there to follow him for the one-on-one and to the delight of the crowd, B-Hop performed once again his Hop Back play, jumping toward the basket, then bouncing backwards off his feet. Cross was so thrown by the redirection, he tripped on his own feet and slammed into the pads as Hopper banked the fade off the glass.
As B-Hop jogged up court, he was pushed by Melbourne. While shi didn't get a technical (shi should have) B-Hop stumbled and ignored hir, jogging into position-- though he couldn't hide the little smirk I could see on his face. The bunny knew he was messing with them-- and as he always has, he was enjoying it.
He kept messing with them into the last minutes of the game as the situation grew more and more desperate for the Firestorm. Flashed of hope appeared when Ian Histon drilled home a 3-ball just before the shot clock buzzed, giving the Storm critical points they needed to stay alive. But then Blythe Nacht put one down from the woods himself to even the score back up. Bill Bent managed to strip Douglas Smith (Coyote, G), but the armadillo lost control of the ball as he tried to rush up court, giving Smith a chance to take it back, move it back the other way, and set up Doral for an alley-oop dunk with the Lorain D totally caught off guard. Through it all, Melbourne got more and more furious, snapping at the officials, yelling at her teammates, going at the cup harder. She ran inside and bowled over Chrys Brachy (Maned Wolf, C) on one vicious dunk-- but the points were waived when a charging call was made. That made Melbourne scream and was only spared a technical because Haber quickly pulled her away.
There's a moment in basketball games when the winner is known. The game isn't over, the timer's not done, but there's no chance for the victory to go any other way. With the timer just past the last minute of the game and the Thrust up by 10, that moment happened. The crowd rose to their feet and cheered their ears off, knowing this was it. The Stanislaus Thrust was going to have their first ever championship. Hopper brought the ball up and held it, dribbling away as Ian Histon faced him, but did not go after him, holding back, letting the bunny dribble. Melbourne looked to be in tears as she begged with her teammates and coach to keep playing, which just made head coach Delenna Dresden (Ferret) call a timeout at the start of their last possession to sit down the sobbing mink. Monty Silverthorn (Pine Marten, G) tired another 3 pointer-- missed, the ball went back to the Thrust, and with less then 24 seconds left on the clock, the shot clock was turned off.
The crowd screamed all around. Everyone watched as the clock ticked down to destiny and as B-Hop calmly dribbled the ball up court and stood just past the halfcourt line, standing on the team logo. Histon stayed back, hands on his hips, head down and frowning waiting for the buzzer to call. The rest of the team stood around, relaxed, moving slowly, allowing the clock to expire. But my attention was at the middle of the court as Hopper and Histon looked at each other. It struck me that the two had both lost family members in their first years, Buck before he started, Ian during his rookie season. Only one of them could win tonight, and it was going to be Buck. Though I did think to myself, Buck had been waiting longer.
When the buzzer sounds to end the game, often the last ballhandler will throw the ball straight up in celebration. But Buck did something different.
He stopped dribbling before the timer went out and tucked the ball under his arm. With his eyes big and wet, tears starting to well up, he reaches across his body to his other arm and began to pull the band from around his bicep. He watched the clock above the basket as he did it and when that buzzer finally did sound followed by the deafening cheers of the fans, B-Hop gave gave the ball to the official, stepped up to Histon and hugged his opponent. He then gave Ian the armband.
As the balloons and streamers fell from the ceiling, a stage was wheeled onto the floor. FBA Commissioner Sterne Davids came out to present the Healey Davis Trophy and announced that Buck Hopper was declared 2011 FBA Finals MVP. As the Stanislaus Thrust team crowded onto the stage,jumping and cheering, pumping their fists into the streamer-filled air, Hopper took the trophy from Davids and held it up for everyone to see.
As part of the media, I was allowed to come onto the stage and speak with the team. I congratulated assistant coach Manuel Katz for winning his first ring, something well deserved after his 23 years as a player. He smiled to me and showed me his paw, in which he held two rings.
"Why do you have two?" I yelled, trying to be heard over the cheering.
"The conejo gave me his!" he yelled back. I know that I looked stunned by that, not expecting that kind of generosity from Hopper. Katz smiled knowingly, reading my face like a book. "He'll probably ask for it back in the morning!"
That made sense. It was clear B-Hop wasn't thinking about the ring just then as I saw him holding the trophy. He was hugging it, resting his head against it, tears down his face. I could see he was saying something, but I couldn't hear in the noise, but I held out my recorder to try to pick it up.
It wasn't until I got back to my studio that I played it back. And it made my eyes well up, too, listening to Hopper say over and over, "We did it, uncle. We did it. We did it." After everything in his career-- betrayed by his teammate, clawed open on the court, losing everything by a single bucket, after all the pain, the suffering, the controversy and tragedy-- finally B-Hop had won it all. In his seventh year. In the Year of the Rabbit. And the thing on his lips was a message to his uncle.
"We did it, uncle. You can rest now."