The Zone of Indifference

Joel Hartzinger gets his shot at NCAA tournament glory. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Joel Hartzinger gets his shot at NCAA tournament glory. (Monte Dutton sketch)

His teammates were battling for their lives, and their school, and underdogs everywhere, and Joel Hartzinger was sitting on the bench, doing math.

              They got seven thousand students. We got just over a thousand if you count the grad school. Twenty five percent of ours play a sport. Most of them don’t win much.

              In basketball, though, you just need five at a time.

By Monte Dutton
By Monte Dutton

Melvin Savage was the coach, and, in a way, he was a savage. The man hated to lose, and sometimes he just burned too hot. It had taken Joel two years to get Savage out of his head. Joel could shoot, and shooting was all confidence, and it was hard to stay confident with a hard-ass as head coach. Joel would bring the call upcourt, run the offense, and take a shot. When the shot left his hands, Savage would stand up. If it went in, Savage would sit down. If it didn’t, Savage would take Joel out. Occasionally, just once in a while, it would have been nice for his coach not to be so direct and predictable.

Joel learned not to care. Shooting the ball was his gift. The trick was just to block everything out, particularly Coach Savage, and do what he was born to do, and, yet, not to block out everything so much that he wasn’t paying attention. He had to focus. And relax. He couldn’t do that if he let Savage get to him. Savage wanted to get to him. He thought it would work. He was wrong. Joel just did his job, almost incommunicado, and Savage had to respect it, albeit grudgingly.

Calmly, Joel realized his moment was out there. His team could do something great. Joel was going to play a role, if only Savage would put him back in the game. He had nine points, two threes and a fifteen-footer, one where he was fouled, and he hit the free throw. He also had two assists, a steal, and a rebound. He hadn’t made a single mistake, but he hadn’t had a lot of opportunities.

Lemasters College was the fourteenth seed in the South Regional, and the University of New York State was correspondingly third. The climb to fourteenth had been harder for the Legislators than third for the Teddies, who were named for a Roosevelt instead of a bear. It was fitting that the team was matched up against a school with an equally absurd nickname, Joel thought. This was typical of Joel’s thoughts. He’d been lured to Lemasters by a chance to play in Division I. Savage, who had been an assistant at Creighton, had been hired to do the upgrade, and the former coach, who had won more than five hundred games, had been forced into retirement after he had balked at the severity of his next assigned task.

During Joel’s freshman year, the team had popularly been known as the Lemasters Disasters. Their legislation had been vetoed by Duke by a margin of ninety-seven to forty-four. They’d put a relative scare into Mississippi State, sixty-eight to fifty-five. At season’s end, they’d lost in the conference tournament’s first round to Coastal Dominion, and the record had been seven and twenty-four. This was Joel’s fifth year. He had a second major, sociology, and a reconstructed knee, left. He wanted one more thing. He wanted to hit a jump shot to defeat New York State and advance in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. He was calm. He was confident. He felt a sense of destiny.

Unfortunately, destiny didn’t seem to have occurred to Melvin Savage.

Joel sat there, emotionless. If anyone had been paying attention, they’d have thought him on the verge of catatonic. Joel watched Savage, who was on the verge of apoplexy, but that wasn’t unusual. Coach was too intense. He couldn’t see the forest because he was staring down the trees. He needed someone to keep him calm. He didn’t know where he was. Joel knew. It was the Greensboro Coliseum, a flagship venue of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Duke Blue Devils, who had drubbed the Fighting Legislators again in November, were standing around in the entrance way, getting ready to warm up. Their fans were filing in. A minute was left. The Fighting Teddies were up by four, looking ready to storm San Juan Hill.

Ja’Quan Kingsberry ran the Lemasters offense. The Legislators were two possessions down, as announcers were wont to say. They didn’t need a three-pointer. They needed a quick two-pointer, and then a stop, and then, what they really would need was a three-pointer at the buzzer to win, not a two to tie and force overtime. The longer this went, the greater the Teddies’ chances. Lemasters didn’t have the depth. Gerry Hardeway was already gone. All Joel’s teammates were tired.

Joel wasn’t. It didn’t seem to matter.

Bray Ferrey got fouled. It was nuts. New York State didn’t need to be fouling. He had a one-and-one with thirty-nine seconds and change on the clock. He missed the front end. The Teddies’ six-foot-ten big man cleared the rebound. New York State worked the ball, with five seconds’ difference in the shot and game clocks. The Teddies were good. They were also stupid. The point guard bounced it inside, and the big man whiffed it with his hands, the ball hit him right in the forehead, and Ja’Quan was there to swipe it away, dribble up near mid-court, and call timeout with nine-point-seven seconds to go.

Ferrey was lying on the floor, though, and a trainer was slapping his right calf. He had another cramp. He was writhing and whimpering. Savage stopped screaming long enough to peer for a moment at Ferrey, who looked incapable of playing for at least nine-point-seven seconds.

“Hartzinger!” he barked. “Get in there.” Then he drew up a play on which Joel would have little to do.

They broke the huddle. Joel ran to Ja’Quan, as good a friend as he had.

“Forget Savage,” Joel said. “Just ‘cause we don’t need a three don’t mean we can’t use one. They’re going to be trying to stop penetration. Drive down the lane. When they collapse, pitch it out to me. As soon as it swishes, Savage won’t mind. Just do it quick. I’ll give you a pick, then sneak out to the far side.”

“You better hit it.”

“I will. Besides, we’re both seniors. He can’t kick us off. All he can do is kill us.”

Salveon Zabonis, the token foreigner, inbounded, which was what he did best. He lofted it to Ja’Quan just high enough for him to get it, and the New York State point guard took himself out of the play by going for the steal. Ja’Quan broke for the basket. Seven. Six. Five. Three men converged on him. He zipped the ball between the legs of one of them, and, somehow, it bounced right into Joel Hartzinger’s hands. Three seconds left.

Joel knew it was going in. Never had a doubt. The announcers might say he “willed it.”


The final buzzer went off, but the ball was already dead. At least a second remained. It had to.

Thirty-second timeout, Lemasters!

Unfortunately, the Legislators still trailed by one. Sixty-six to sixty-five. Fortunately, after watching video, the officials put one-point-two seconds on the clock. Joel was lucky. Destiny was his biggest fan. All the Teddies had to do was get the ball in bounds. He matched up with one player, then switched on a pick to someone taller than him who was breaking toward the basket. Joel saw the inbounds pass coming. He cut in front, got it in his hands, and then it squirted out of bounds as Joel got run over by someone he could only conclude was J.J. Watt, or, at the very least, some bruiser of a New York State football player who doubled as the Teddies’ enforcer.

The Coliseum went silent for what seemed like a minute but was less than a second.

The referee underneath called a foul. Joel Hartzinger was going to the line for a one-and-one. One would tie. Two would win. And he was okay. Soreness would wait until in the morning. New York State called timeout. Joel didn’t care. They could take two. He knew he was going to hit them. In the huddle, he didn’t hear a word Savage said. The coach could have been in a fishbowl. He could have been on TV, with the sound muted. Nothing he could do was going to bother Joel.

A few New York State students jumped up and down. Joel thought one of the girls was hot. He relaxed, went through his check-offs. Shoot it with your legs. Bend them. Point the elbow at the basket. Nice smooth flick of the wrist. Now take a deep breath. Dribble the ball twice. Pick it up. Pump it.


Now one more time. No pressure. All it means is a silly little win.


Piece of cake. Let’s go party.

The fans were ready now. The brute who had fouled Joel winged it the length of the court. No one touched it. The horn went off again. Fans streamed onto the floor. It had to be cleared. When Salveon in-bounded to Ja’Quan, the Fighting Teddies didn’t even contest it.

While the Duke Blue Devils and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers warmed up, Lemasters College head basketball coach Melvin Savage held court with a pert personality from CBS, who, the whole time Savage was speaking, stared into Joel Hartzinger’s eyes as if she wanted to take him to bed.

Finally, before they broke for commercials, or went back to the studio in New York, or wherever it was, she stuck her microphone in front of America’s newest hero, Joel Hartzinger of Muncie, Indiana. She asked him how he managed the composure it took to knock off the sixteenth-ranked Teddies of New York State.

Joel stared her right in the eyes.

“I hit the basket,” he said, “because I just didn’t care.”

A one-take short story. Lately I’ve been bucking for novellas. This one was short and sweet. I hope it will whet your appetite for my books, most of which may be purchased here:



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