*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination.
“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”
– Elbert Hubbard
“Imagine having an old wooden boat. After having repaired it countless times, you realize not one piece of material from the original remains. Isn’t it still your boat though?” The Jefferson City High freshman clad in a skin-tight Oceanic Airlines T-shirt was orating in an unmistakable English accent. He had prepared a pseudo-philosophical presentation for a class project regarding a fundamental and wildly complex question – What makes you you? The teacher had set the time limit to five minutes, yet the youngster doubled it.
“So what makes you you isn’t really a thing, rather it’s a story, a progression, a theme of a person,” He finished to the intermittent sound of uncertain applause.
The facial expressions around the room ranged from utter confusion to complete boredom. “Thank you, Ogugua,” Mrs. Robinson declared, appearing no less perplexed than her students.
Looking around, the well-built youth solemnly made his way back to his desk, an awkward silence following in his wake. He sat down, visibly embarrassed and discouraged, as he waited for the next name to be called.
When class was over and the students filed out, OG was held back. It was Mrs. Robinson. “Sit down, Ogugua,” she suggested. “You know, I can tell you’re a very bright young man,” her kind eyes betrayed a vast wealth of experience. “I’d like to hand you a piece of advice, words spoken by one of the founding fathers: ‘The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do,’” she said, awaiting his acknowledgement. All she got was a raised eyebrow.
“I’m… I’m late for tryouts, mam,” he said cautiously.
“Ogugua, I’m trying to say that… you talk too much!” she reiterated sharply, as though finally releasing a sentiment held in far too long. “I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. You need to learn the power of silence and brevity, Ogugua. Just think about it,” she smiled weakly.
“Ok, Mrs. R,” his eyebrow still raised, OG hastily left the room. He did not spend too long reflecting on her words, as the school’s basketball team tryouts dominated his mind. And he was late.
A host of hopeful faces passed him by as he entered the locker room. Most were already shooting at the adjacent gym. He rushed to his locker, putting on a worn and overused red jersey, ‘Deng’ engraved on its back. His shorts were bright yellow, their length normal only to those playing and watching basketball half a century ago. Lacing his plain black sneakers, OG paused to take a deep breath, and jogged toward the gym, high-fiving the plain white cement walls overtop the entrance casually.
A pair of amused expressions greeted him inside, quickly turning to pointing and laughing from every corner of the gym. His shorts had become the center of attention, and for the second time that day, the painful pangs of embarrassment tugged at every part of him. He had only emigrated to the States from Britain two months prior, and the continued adjustment was wearing on him.
“Form up, boys. We’re starting with a full court suicide, eight push-ups at every line. After that, it’s the 3-man weave. Let’s go,” Coach Teller said coolly, his voice ringing across the gym.
Unable to look at anything except the hardwood underneath his feet, OG stepped up to the line. As they sprinted, the familiarity of the increased heart rate and the first beads of sweat embraced him, and recent embarrassments began to fade from thought. OG was inching into his comfort zone.
By the time the weave drill had started, he was observing the other players executing it. Some put an extra touch on their finishes, performing a tear drop or reverse layup, one guy in a Ginobili jersey managed a one handed dunk to the oohs and ahhs of the others, but most finished with a basic layup.
When his turn came, OG ignored the giggling around him and sprinted up the court, his two partners struggling to keep pace. When the final pass came to him just to the right of the key, OG took off with breathtaking lightness, finishing easily with both hands. When he landed and grabbed the ball, all sound around him had ceased. Looking up, he saw one open mouth after another, disbelief in their eyes.
“Did I say you can stop?! Go on!” coach Teller exclaimed, mostly failing to hide his smile. ‘Ginobili’’s arm was extended as OG returned to the lineup, and the freshman slapped it audibly.
The honeymoon did not last long. The young Anunoby was hard to take off the floor, his mix of graceful athleticism and high basketball IQ evident with every touch of the ball. His insistence on long-winded lectures to his teammates on the floor and a never-ending list of suggestions in the huddles during timeouts were less welcome, however.
One play in particular pushed coach Teller over the edge. Jefferson High’s center was attempting a pair of free throws in the second half of a tight game, while Ogugua took hold of his point guards’ slim shoulders, pointing out some perceived defensive mistake. As the second free throw missed, the guard attempted to turn around, only for OG to hold firm, continuing his line of thought. When the resulting fast break ended in easy points, Coach Teller had no choice but to pull OG, his face redder than the surface of Mars.
After the contest was over, everyone and their parents gone home, Ogugua sat solemnly in the coach’s office.
“What, nothing to say now?” Teller questioned. “Listen, I pulled some strings and got you into a week-long training camp at Jacks Valley.”
“Isn’t that… a military academy?”
“You betcha. I talked to your parents as well. Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow morning.”
And that was that.
The training complex was massive, but appeared scarcely populated when Anunoby arrived in the dark of night. He was ushered to a private room that looked more like a holding cell, and told to rest up, for the next day would start early. When questioned about the oversized plain-black hooded cloak spread over his sleeping mat, the young soldier gave no response. A note left on the cloak demanded that it be worn in the morning.
OG found the hood covered almost his entire face, the robe’s long sleeves extending past his hands, as he entered the indicated classroom the next morning. Inside were five others, dressed in the same black robes, just as he was. Spying a pair of unused chairs, he sauntered towards them. To his right sat a man whose only distinguishing feature was a half-wrapped Snickers bar protruding from underneath his hood. It fell to the floor as Anunoby extended his hand in greeting.
“I’m Ogugua, but they call me OG.”
The man’s hand reached up hesitantly, “Cory, but they call me Cojo,” a soft voice replied, accompanied by a nervous chuckle.
“Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing here?” OG asked. Before Cory could answer, a man in a dark green velvet hooded robe entered the room, the edges of a short white beard visible beneath the head cover.
The newcomer walked calmly to the front of the class, and began: “Your entire lives, you were the center of attention of every athletic activity,” his voice boomed. “Your entire lives, every coach and teammate catered to your needs, tried to please you, as though you were young princes ordained by God. That is about to change. You are here to forget about you, and to instead dedicate yourselves to the We. And you will do it without uttering a single word. You will learn the value of action exceeds that of a thousand words. You will collaborate, or you will fail.”
In that moment, another man cloaked in black burst into the classroom, rushing to the only available seat left. His face, too, was hidden underneath a massive hood. But amazingly, two hands that were larger than any man’s had a right to be jutted out of the sleeves defiantly.
The green-robed man’s hood moved to mimic a disapproving shake of the head. “You will all be judged as a single unit. This is not a great start,” he paused as though to give more weight to his next words.
“You are all about to embark on long careers in the media spotlight. They will be there before and after every single game, every single practice. They will ask you the same questions with the same wording day in and day out. And in doing so, they’ll wait for a slip up, to turn it into a headline. For that reason, and for the sanity of your teammates, your coaches – keep it short, keep it to the point. From now on for the rest of this week, you will not see each other’s faces, and you will not speak to each other. You will only act for each other. And in acting, you will learn.” With that, he walked out of the room, and a red-faced stern-looking drill sergeant took his place, setting into motion the first of many loud order-barking sessions.
Throughout that week, the initiates went through a host of activities and competitions, all without uttering a single word. From the reflex-testing ‘pulse’ game, to enacting silent improvisational scenes, to the mirror game.
They ate in silence, worked out in silence, learning to spot each other as needed without the need for asking, and they even got to put up some shots in the outdoor basketball court. Those activities were made much more difficult by the oversized robes, but that was all part of the challenge.
OG got pretty close to Cojo and Big Hands, who after it was over, had told him that the camp was created by the San Antonio Spurs to mentally prepare its latest batch of rookies. “So the guy in the green robe was…?”
“Yeah,” Cojo nodded, unwrapping a fresh Snickers bar.
The lessons were internalized by all of them, and when OG returned to Jefferson City, his teammates and coaches barely recognized him. Through his actions, not his words, OG led the way. And when the team defeated the state’s top seeded school in a televised game, he was pulled aside by the local TV crew postgame.
“OG, that was a masterful performance. What did you guys focus on to get the win?” a young woman standing nearly a foot shorter than Anunoby, his face a mask of indifference, asked eagerly.
Looking at the hopeful reporter directly, OG did not hesitate: “Scoring more points than them.”
She paused, glancing at the camera awkwardly for a brief moment. “How is the feeling in the locker room? Do you guys think you can beat these guys in the State Championship when the time comes?”
Without an ounce of emotion, the answer was never in doubt: “Yes.”
And so, basketball’s newest silent assassin was born.