“Look how that guy handles the ball! I can’t believe they let him play,” George Fayne said, running a hand through her short brown hair. “My grandmother can dribble better than that.”
Nancy Drew grinned as she glanced over at her friend. George’s face was flushed with excitement, and her brown eyes gleamed. Only one thing would have made George happier than watching the game — to be playing the game herself.
It had been George’s idea to go to Chicago to surprise Ned Nickerson, Nancy’s boyfriend, at the annual Emerson College — Chicago University tournament. Right at the start of second semester each year, Ned’s team, the Emerson Wildcats, played a best-of-three tournament with the Chicago University Eagles. The two teams were in different leagues and didn’t meet during the regular season. This tournament was a grudge series, which had been played for years.
It was six-fifteen on Friday night, and the first game was about to start. The Chicago University gym was jam-packed, but busloads of Emerson College fans were still pouring in. They came in shivering but quickly peeled off layers of down and leather jackets, stuffing scarves and hats into their pockets. The cold snap didn’t seem to have kept anyone away. They all knew that the heat of the game and the energy of the crowd would keep them warm.
The festive feeling in the gym was contagious, and Nancy felt a tingle of anticipation. Ned had been talking about this series for weeks. To some people, the games of this tournament, even though they didn’t count for league play, were the most important ones of the year.
The rivalry had begun with a simple challenge between two coaches twenty years earlier. Over time the competition had become so fierce that the police now attended, just to make sure the crowd didn’t get out of hand.
Nancy and George were high up in the bleachers, along with most of the Emerson students. Nancy scanned the seats below. “There must be four thousand people in here,” she said. She could feel butterflies in her stomach. “If I’m nervous, I wonder how Ned must be feeling.”
“Well, we could yell down and ask, but he probably wouldn’t hear us,” George said. “Besides, that would ruin the surprise.”
Nancy smiled. The two teams were still warming up with lay-up drills and foul-shot practice. Her boyfriend, Ned, looked tiny from all the way up in the bleachers. In fact, even though he was six feet two, he was one of the shorter players.
He doesn’t even look nervous, she marveled to herself. She watched him as he gracefully made a lay-up and then said something over his shoulder to his cocaptain, Dave Spector.
“Here, Nan,” George said, handing her a pocket-size pair of binoculars. “I know it’s been a while since you saw Ned, so get a good look.”
Nancy peered through the binoculars till she found her favorite pair of brown eyes. The distance had definitely deceived her. Up close she could see that Ned’s square jaw was tight with tension and he had begun to sweat.
“Take it nice and easy, Nickerson,” she murmured.
Suddenly the crowd broke out into cheers and laughter. Nancy swiveled her head to see what the commotion was all about. It was the team mascot. Dressed in a Wildcat suit complete with a large cat’s head, she had run up the aisle to encourage a little cheering from the Emerson fans.
“It must get really hot in there, even in February.” George giggled. “I think I’d rather wear the Eagle suit.”
“George, where’s your team spirit?” Nancy asked, shaking a finger at her friend.
“It’s down there on the court,” retorted George.
An announcer welcomed the crowd, and everybody stood for the national anthem.
“Sometimes ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is painful to listen to,” whispered George, “but this woman is a famous blues singer, so it should be good.”
The woman had a beautiful voice, and Nancy marveled at how she was able to fill the huge gym with sound, even without the aid of a microphone. As the last note echoed and died, the crowd broke into wild cheers, and the two teams positioned themselves for the tip-off. The Eagles got possession of the ball first.
“Defense!” cried George.
“Go, Wildcaaaaats!” roared the crowd. Nancy could feel her heart pounding as she watched the Wildcats scrambling to cover the Eagles’ players.
Suddenly Ned made a fast break and got the ball. He moved forward like a truck and drove down the lane, finishing with a monster dunk.
George and Nancy shot up like a pair of rockets out of their seats. “Two points! Yes!” cried Nancy. “All right, Ned!”
It had been at least three weeks since Nancy had last seen Ned. Now here she was, cheering for him along with four thousand other spectators. He has no idea I’m here, she thought, smiling to herself. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when she surprised him.
The Eagles took the ball in and had possession, but only for a minute. Andy Hall, the Wildcats’ point guard, stole it and passed to Dave Spector, the shooting guard. Dave shot from behind the three-point line. The ball, as if it had wings, sailed in a high arc and then whooshed directly through the net.
“Now, that guy can play,” George announced. The crowd whistled, cheered, and pounded the bleachers with their feet.
“Yeah, especially with the help of that perfect pass from Andy,” Nancy said.
“Especially with all that curly blond hair and blue eyes,” George shot back. “He’s really cute! What’s his name, Nan?”
“Uh-oh, this sounds serious,” Nancy said. “His name’s Dave Spector. But, George, we’re here to watch the game, not check out guys!”
The two teams were well matched, which made the game fiercely competitive. The Wildcats were ahead, but that only made the Eagles push harder. They scored the next three baskets in a row.
“I knew they’d go on a run after Dave’s three-pointer,” muttered George.
It quickly evened out again. Every time the Eagles scored, the Wildcats would answer with a basket of their own.
“He makes hook shots look so easy,” George marveled as she watched Dave through the binoculars.
Nancy knew enough about basketball to follow the action, but sometimes she just enjoyed turning her mind off and watching the players move, without really thinking about the game.
She reached into the pocket of her black jeans to make sure her present for Ned was safe. It was a heart-shaped rock that she had found the summer before. She had been saving it to give to him on a special occasion, and she couldn’t think of a better one than this.
At halftime the Emerson College cheerleaders did a special cheer for cocaptains Ned and Dave. They performed like acrobats — the guys holding the girls on their shoulders so the girls could vault into flips.
One cheerleader really seemed to love the crowd’s attention. Her finale was a graceful and complicated series of cartwheels and walkovers, which she finished with a toss of her long reddish blond hair and a dazzling smile.
“Hey, Nan, that cheerleader has the same color hair you do,” said George, digging her hand into the bottom of the popcorn bag. “Please take some of this popcorn before I eat all of it,” she added.
Nancy reached out for the nearly empty bag of popcorn. But before she had time to comment, the players trotted back onto the court, and the crowd broke out into hoots and cheers for their favorite players.
At the tip-off the Eagles got possession of the ball. It was passed to a short, wiry player, who took off quickly down the court.
“Go, Tim, go!” The Chicago fans suddenly exploded.
“That guy is incredible,” said George. “He’s moving so fast — but you can tell he knows exactly where every one of his teammates is and who to pass to.”
Ned was covering him, one on one, when suddenly a whistle blew, the action stopped, and Tim began strenuously arguing with the referee. His face was red with anger, and he was pointing over his shoulder at Ned.
“What’s he so mad about?” Nancy asked George, puzzled.
“I think he’s saying that Ned fouled him when he went in for his shot. The ref is saying that he didn’t see it,” said George, leaning forward to try to catch more of the conversation.
“He fouled him, Ref. Put your glasses on!” shouted a Chicago fan.
Frustrated with the referee’s call, the Eagles’ player jammed the ball down on the court.
“Whoops,” said George under her breath.
“The ref will give him a technical foul for that.” George was right. The ref announced the penalty and awarded a free throw to the Wildcats. They also got possession of the ball.
“Two more penalties and he could get himself thrown out of the game.” George sounded hopeful. “That sure would give our team an advantage. That guy is scoring way too many points.”
Nancy looked at the board to check the score. The Eagles were ahead by eight points. She watched as Tim stalked back into position on the court.
George was right about Tim. He was an incredibly good player. He was faster than almost anyone on the court.
Nancy hunched her shoulders. She was nervous for the Wildcats. Three of their best players had graduated the year before. Also, Mike O’Shea, their power forward and Ned’s old cocaptain, was out with an injury. That meant that Ned, Dave, and Howie Little, the “Tower of Power” center, had a lot of pressure on them.
Lately it seemed that Ned was always under a lot of pressure, Nancy thought. At least, that’s what he said on the phone whenever she asked him what was wrong or why he was so quiet.
“Nan, did you see that shot?” asked an incredulous George. “Tim is good enough to play for the NBA.”
Nancy took the binoculars from George and focused her attention back on the court. The Wildcats’ fans began to scream and pound the bleachers in rhythm. Dave and Ned were double teaming Tim, trying to keep him from scoring.
But Tim seemed to have as much temper as talent. Dave fouled him just as he was going up for an alley. Angrily Tim turned on Dave and shoved him. Nancy, seeing the whole thing through the binoculars, watched as Ned moved quickly between Dave and Tim. He was talking fast, arguing with Tim. But Tim’s temper was out of control. Suddenly both teams converged in a free-for-all, and the refs had to get in the middle, blowing whistles and separating players.
They gave Tim his foul shot but also penalized him for yelling at one of the refs. Furious at the ref’s decision, Tim heaved the ball directly at the ref’s head.
“That’s it for Tim,” George said. “He just got himself thrown out of the game.”
“I feel sorry for him,” said Nancy. “He looks like he’s going to cry.”
“Nan, you’re only supposed to feel sorry for the other team if they’re being creamed by our team,” George scolded. “Which they’re not — yet.”
With Tim gone, the Wildcats quickly took the lead from the Eagles. As the minutes passed, both coaches called for several time-outs. But the Eagles had lost their edge. At the final buzzer the score was 114 to 111. The Wildcats had won!
Nancy quickly pulled out her pocket mirror and gave her face a lightning check. Blue eyes smiled back at her, framed by thick shoulder-length reddish blond hair.
“You look perfect, Nancy,” George said impatiently. “Come on!”
Nancy and George grabbed their coats and dashed down the bleachers, weaving between Emerson fans. Ned would be in high spirits from the game, and Nancy wanted to share it with him. Fans had streamed onto the court, and Nancy couldn’t get to Ned, who was surrounded.
“There’s Mike O’Shea and his girlfriend. I’m going over to say hello,” George told her.
“Okay, say hi for me, too,” Nancy said over her shoulder. Her heart was pounding again. It felt like centuries since Ned had held her in his arms. She wished that she could move, but she was stuck behind a tall man in a blue suit who was handing out cigars.
Finally she saw an opening in the crowd in front of her. There was Ned, smiling. He still hadn’t seen her. Then the opening closed up again. Nancy had to squeeze her way through, but when she was almost up to Ned, something stopped her in her tracks.
Ned was holding a cheerleader in his arms and hugging her — tightly. It was the girl who had done the dazzling routine earlier. She was laughing, her arms thrown around his neck. Then she was kissing him — on the lips.
Nancy felt the bottom of her stomach drop. She realized just then she had made a big mistake coming to the game. So that was why Ned had been sounding so distant on the phone, she thought numbly.
He had a new girlfriend!