The Unwinnable Race

Pascal’s frustrating quest for recognition.

*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination.

“Alright, he should be on his way now,” Pascal Siakam said to his Austrian brother, Jakob Poeltl, pressing ‘send’ on his smartphone. “He won’t have a choice after this.” Yak nodded agreeably.

“We almost ready, or what? I got a ‘team’ video group chat I gotta be at in a bit,” a man, dressed impeccably, large sunglasses covering his eyes, complained.

“You trying to back out or something, Johnny?” Another interjected, a massive hole in the middle of his jean jacket exposing well defined pectorals. John snorted in response.

“You sure you wanna do this? I mean, these guys are fast.” Yak offered quietly.

“I’m good,” Pascal responded confidently. “I wanna make sure he’s got no more reasons to doubt. He will admit his mistake.”

The Californian mid-morning sun had begun to warm the open-air track facility in Los Angeles, when local-born All-Star DeMar DeRozan walked through its gates. “John, Russ! What’s good, boys?” he embraced each in turn, before coming over to his two young teammates.

Pascal’s face was a mask of stark determination, far from his general demeanour. He regarded DeMar coldly as he made for the starting blocks, encouraging his two competitors to do the same.

“You not taking your glasses off?” he asked John, who simply snorted. Separated by a single lane between each of them, Pascal, John and Russ took their positions ahead of the hundred-meter sprint. In the distance, Siakam spotted DeMar telling Yak something before the two burst out laughing. ‘He won’t be laughing after this, that’s for sure.’

“Alright, ya’ll gonna go at 3.” DeMar shouted from a distance. “One, two, three!”

Pascal leaped off the blocks, his technique superb, slowly straightening out his posture over the first forty meters, one stride at a time. The cool air brushed against his face, making his eyes water ever so slightly.

Halfway through, he inched his gaze to the right to check on the other two sprinters. He saw only Russ, running at apparently the same speed as himself. Finding his second wind, Pascal pushed harder. Every muscle in his body was engaged, and there was only one possible end result. As he lowered his upper body into the red ribbon he and Yak set up earlier, he knew he had gotten there first.

“Skills gets the W!” Siakam exclaimed, seeing the angry look on Russ’ face a few feet away. Back near the starting blocks, John Wall lay on the ground, clutching his left knee. As the entire group rushed to help Wall up, Skills stared at DeRozan expectantly. “So?”

“So what?” DeMar replied nonchalantly.

“I won! I beat the fastest players in the league, so then that makes me the fastest, right?!”

DeRozan seemed unimpressed. “Man, Russ ain’t that fast. He like you, runs real hard all the time. You ran harder, that’s good. Now Johnny here, he’s fast, but he’s just back from knee surgery, so that ain’t fair. Honestly, what you even doing sprinting out here, John?”

“Your guy said he’s faster than me, I wasn’t gonna take that.” Wall replied, grimacing.

“We gotta get you to the hospital,” DeMar and Russ helped their fellow All-Star out of the training grounds.

Pascal was far from pleased, his brows furrowed. He received only a shrug from Yak. “This isn’t over,” he muttered.

The following day, Yak and Skills were back at the track facility, the latter pacing anxiously around the long-jump pit. “They’ll show up, don’t worry,” the Austrian reassured his friend.

First through the gates arrived DeRozan, sheer annoyance plastered upon his face. “Listen, I got places to be,” the four-time All-Star said. “I gotta be teaching some grade 1 kids math with Kyle in less than an hour.”

“We’ll be done real quick, just as soon as—there he is!” Pascal pointed to the newcomer excitedly.

“Damn! Usain Bolt!” DeMar’s voice took on a boyish pitch as he opened his arms wide to embrace the world’s fastest man. “Man, how you know Usain?!”

“My agent had to pull some strings, I owe some people courtside tickets, but it’s all good. You ready?” Skills questioned.

“Let’s do this.” The Jamaican phenom was not dressed to race, wearing skin-fitting blue jeans and a bright orange tee. As they settled onto the starting blocks, Bolt was visibly struggling to get into the proper position. Pascal, clothed in a sleeveless top, athletic shorts, and the Nike Kobe “Compton” kicks, had no such trouble.

As the countdown began, seeds of doubt unsettled Siakam. ‘Did I go too far? This is Usain goddamned Bolt!’ Before he could explore the feeling any further, they were off. Yet again, every fiber of his body worked to its maximum capacity, nothing but victory on his mind. Halfway through, he snuck a look to his side, only to catch a grinning wink from his competitor as he gained ground on him rapidly. Had Usain, in his arrogance, given him a head start? It mattered not. Pascal pushed on all the way to the win by a razor-thin margin, to an elated scream from Jakob.

“Nice run!” Bolt congratulated the panting Siakam, showing no sign of being out of breath himself.

Sauntering over to DeMar, jumping into a hip-bump with Yak on the way, Pascal’s arms reached outward. “How about now?”

DeRozan shook his head. “You serious? This guy over here didn’t break a sweat, and has just ripped a hole in his jeans getting off the blocks. On the other hand, you sweating like you’re straight out of a sauna. You ran hard, own it.” He said calmly, as Pascal clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. “Usain, you got some time? I gotta introduce you to my boy Kyle,” DeMar said enthusiastically, putting his arm around Bolt’s shoulder, as the two made their way out.

Pascal looked over at Jakob, his body tight with anger. Yak could only shrug.

It was their final day in L.A. when Pascal implemented the plan for his final attempt to convince his club’s star that he was in fact, fast. He shook his head unhappily watching DeRozan ply his slow, methodical style of play at the All-Star game. ‘What does this guy even know about being fast?!’ Still, he refused to rest until he was properly recognized.

It was late morning, a couple hours before they would all begin to file out to the airport and their separate sunny destinations. Pascal and Yak were standing atop a raised and extended wooden ledge at the Los Angeles Zoo, overlooking a specially designed race course separated by a 10-foot-tall barrier.

Two white lines marked the ends of each race track, 50 meters apart. Pascal saw his opponent in a cage at the other end of the track – a trained cheetah flown in from Tampa.

“Umm, I think you may have gone too far this time, bro.” Jakob said uncertainly.

Pascal would have none of it. “I’ve seen someone do this before – we’re gonna race to one end, then turn and sprint back the way we came for a full hundred.”

DeMar joined them then, though he did not appear his usual self. He seemed distracted. When he spied the animal and realized what was about to take place, it was all he could do not to burst into laughter. “Well, what you waiting for? Watch that it doesn’t jump that little fence.” DeRozan snickered.

Pascal nodded defiantly and made his way down to the track. He arrived at the starting line, straight across from the elevated platform and his two teammates. DeMar was saying something to Yak, who was grinning guiltily. Shaking it off, he awaited the zookeeper’s signal. After two deep breaths, it came.

Siakam exploded into the sprint, knowing full well the cheetah was gaining pace twice as fast as him. But he couldn’t see the cat through the barrier, so he focused solely on himself. He broke hard as he reached the 50-meter line on the sandy surface, understanding that a successful sharp turn is the key to any chance of winning. He heard the cheetah sliding violently in the adjacent track, as it struggled with the pivot. Pascal shifted into top gear seamlessly, and dashed all the way to the other end.

Breathing heavily and clutching his knees after he crossed the finish line, Skills had no idea who got there first. He glanced over at the platform, where Yak’s mouth was agape. More importantly, even DeMar was wide-eyed, though he quickly changed his expression to one of indifference. Did he actually win?

Pascal climbed the wooden steps eagerly. “I won? I won, right?!” he exclaimed, as Jakob nodded enthusiastically.

“That was… incredible.” The Austrian said in a monotonous tone. But Pascal’s hopeful gaze had shifted onto DeRozan.

DeMar looked around innocently. “You looking at me? I don’t know what you want me to say. This poor cheetah looked jet lagged as hell, you saw how slow it turned? And you design the track to help you out like that. Still, you ran hard, I respect that. It’s been a good few days, rook. I see ya’ll in TO soon.” He bumped fists with the two youngsters, though Pascal was none too pleased.

“I ain’t a rook no more…” Pascal muttered to the grinning Austrian when it was just the two of them again. “What you smiling about, anyway?”

“Nothing, I’m not, it’s nothing.”

“Yak, if you don’t tell me right now, I ain’t never playing Fortnite with you again.” he was in no mood for jokes, and that really seemed to get Jakob’s attention, his face petrified.

“I mean, I’m sure you know already,” Poeltl said hesitantly. “He knows you’re fast. ‘Super-fast,’ were his words. He’s just trying to keep you motivated, dedicated to getting better, faster. Plus, he thinks it’s pretty funny.”

Pascal thought it over, his demeanour relaxing in the process. “I wish you told me sooner. I could’ve spent this week putting up threes instead of flying cheetahs in from across the country. Still, I guess I can’t get too mad, considering Kyle’s been pulling that same thing on him with SI the last two years.”

“Exactly,” Jakob chuckled. “He even got them to rank Crowder ahead of him!” they both giggled. “But, umm,” Jakob began again with genuine concern in his voice as they were making their way out of the zoo, “you weren’t serious about Fortnite, right?”

“Nah, of course not.”

If you enjoyed this one, here are the other episodes in the Alternate Basketball Histories series: P.J. Tucker’s originsOG Anunoby’s origins, Jonas Valanciunas’ trials in IndianaNorman Powell’s instrumental contemplationthe dark secret behind Freddy’s rise, and DeMar DeRozan’s mysterious experience in L.A.