Gu Fei promised Old Xu that he would play in this basketball match, and Jiang Cheng felt that Old Xu was as excited as Gu Fei getting into Beijing University. Right after school in the afternoon, he called the five players he had picked out to his office.
Jiang Cheng took a quick look at the few of them, and finally matched up Guo Xu and Lu Xiaobin with their names.
"No substitutes?" Wang Xu asked. "Just these five playing the whole game?"
"You guys can look for suitable classmates as substitutes," Old Xu said. "As for the captain..."
As Old Xu spoke, his eyes glanced over at Gu Fei. Gu Fei held up a finger, then pointed at Wang Xu: "Him."
Wang Xu immediately raised his chin, with a very reluctant expression: "Hey, I'm no good, I don't want to be the captain, isn't it too annoying."
Watching his performance, Jiang Cheng almost wanted to laugh. Bad acting!
"Then Wang Xu it is. Starting tomorrow, you guys practice first," Old Xu took the basketball on the desk and handed it to Wang Xu. "This is a good ball. I went to check our gym equipment room and the balls there were no good, so I bought this one for you guys. The competition will definitely use new good balls too, so we should practice with good ones to get used to it."
"Thanks, Head Teacher Xu." Guo Xu took the ball from Wang Xu's hands and dribbled it on the floor a couple times.
Watching his movements, Jiang Cheng thought, not bad, he doesn't seem too skilled but at least knows how to play.
Wang Xu looked quite arrogant, he probably also thought he played pretty well. The other one, Lu Xiaobin, hadn't said anything yet, but he was the tallest, looked to be about 1.9 meters, and quite muscular, standing there like a door panel, pretty good.
Substitutes were easy to find. Although it was a liberal arts class, there were still quite a few boys. When team captain Wang Xu called the few 1.8 meter guys from the back row, they were set.
Many wanted to participate, after all they could skip self-study and go play ball instead.
Old Xu had already reserved a court for them. Seeing how enthusiastic he was, Jiang Cheng felt tired for him. It was just a lousy class in a lousy school, grades were poor, the physical education class was a mess, yet Old Xu was still full of vigor.
"Let me see your skill levels first." Wang Xu held the ball, standing in the middle of the court with an air of captain.
"We've played together so many times already," someone said. "What's there to check on skill levels?"
"We still need to get a feel for each other!" Wang Xu kept a stern face, and looked again at Jiang Cheng squatting at the sidelines. "Or Jiang Cheng, you try first. You just transferred here, I'm not clear on your actual skill level either."
"Okay," Jiang Cheng stood up and took off his coat. "How do we do this?"
"You dribble past me," Wang Xu threw the ball over. Then he took on a blocking stance.
"Alright." Jiang Cheng caught the ball, bounced it a couple times to get a feel for the elasticity, then rushed at Wang Xu dribbling the ball.
Wang Xu stood in place without moving. When he reached out to block, Jiang Cheng had already slipped past his left side. In three steps he did a layup and scored.
"Nice!" Guo Xu called out.
"Wait," Wang Xu's face couldn't keep pretending anymore. "I didn't say start yet, you attacked without warning."
"Oh." Jiang Cheng went back to stand in front of him with the ball.
Wang Xu posed dramatically for a while again, then lifted his chin: "Go!"
As soon as Jiang Cheng moved, he rushed forward, waving his arms to block while trying to steal the ball. Jiang Cheng hesitated for a moment, then holding the ball went straight up for a jump shot. The ball went in again.
"Three pointer." Gu Fei said from the bench at the side.
"Awesome! We have a chance this time!" Someone shouted excitedly.
Wang Xu's expression didn't look too happy. Just as he was about to speak, Gu Fei cut in: "Hurry up, it's cold."
The heating in the gym wasn't good. Everyone had taken off their coats by now and were just wearing single layers. Wang Xu could only nod: "Let's split into two teams and play half court to get a feel first?"
Old Xu had been watching at the side. He came over and said: "Gu Fei and Jiang Cheng on opposite teams."
"Why?" Wang Xu asked. "They're both good, better if they cooperate together."
"If those two are together, we don't even need to play," Lu Xiaobin said. "Split between both teams so we can all practice."
"Alright then." This time Wang Xu didn't put on airs as captain, and split the players on both sides evenly.
Lu Xiaobin, Guo Xu plus two others Jiang Cheng didn't recognize were on one side, while Jiang Cheng's side had Wang Xu and three others he didn't know either.
By this time Jiang Cheng had gained new awareness on just how bad his recent emotional state was, that after so long he still couldn't recognize everyone in class.
Ten on court, five he didn't recognize, had to go by their clothes, and there were two he had just managed to tell apart today...
Old Xu took a whistle and went to the sideline: "I'll be the referee."
"It's just half court, what for." Gu Fei said.
"Even for half court, we'll do proper rules," Old Xu stood with one hand on his hip and the other holding the whistle. "Starting from the jump ball, just shorter time, everything else is regulation."
"Okay," Wang Xu called his side together. "Man-to-man defense, shut Gu Fei down. Once you get the ball, pass to Jiang Cheng, don't dribble yourself. If Gu Fei comes close, pass immediately, he's too good at stealing."
"Got it." Everyone nodded.
"We'll rely on you for scoring," Wang Xu lifted his hand, about to pat Jiang Cheng's shoulder, then pulled it back. "Forgot you hate being touched."
Jiang Cheng sighed.
No surprises with the jump ball, it was between Jiang Cheng and Gu Fei.
Old Xu held up the ball between them: "Focus. I'm throwing it up."
"What referee says this stuff." Gu Fei said.
"Pay attention!" Old Xu glared at him.
Jiang Cheng looked at Wang Xu standing behind him, wondering how his reflexes were.
He had always played guard, never did jump balls in real games. This ball would likely get snatched by Gu Fei's team.
Old Xu tossed the ball up.
Jiang Cheng watched the ball, calculating its drop point, then jumped.
As he jumped up, he felt his timing wasn't too bad. But when he reached to touch the ball, Gu Fei's hand had already batted it away.
When Jiang Cheng landed and turned around, Guo Xu had already gotten the ball and was dribbling to the basket.
And Wang Xu was following him. With one look, Jiang Cheng felt speechless. They had just discussed man-to-man defense before the game started, yet when the ball went out, not only did Wang Xu go chase it, two others went along too, leaving only one in the blue shirt marking Gu Fei.
Meanwhile he got smothered by Lu Xiaobin.
Guo Xu was decent, dribbling very steady, just lacked speed. By the time Jiang Cheng caught up, he had just reached inside the three point line, ready to pass.
Their plan was probably the same as Wang Xu's, once you get the ball, pass to Gu Fei.
Jiang Cheng glanced at Gu Fei's position, then sharply faked right. Lu Xiaobin and the other guy marking him both fell for it and shifted along with his fake. Seizing the opening, Jiang Cheng charged through forcefully between them.
His timing was good, Guo Xu saw him just as the ball left his hands.
Jiang Cheng reached out and blocked the pass down.
"Get back, get back!" Wang Xu reacted very quickly, immediately running back.
Jiang Cheng turned and dribbled back, but Lu Xiaobin blocked him right away.
This guy was so huge, as soon as he got close Jiang Cheng felt a little blinded. After two dribbles he passed to Wang Xu the moment he saw an opening.
But that idiot Wang Xu was actually just charging forward with his head down, completely missed the pass.
"Wang Xu!" Jiang Cheng had to call out.
Only then did Wang Xu hurry to turn his head and chase after the ball, managing to get it before it went out of bounds.
While Lu Xiaobin was turning to look at the ball, Jiang Cheng spun and shook him off. Then he ran to the basket. Wang Xu had no one on him now, if he could bring the ball over, Jiang Cheng could look for a chance to score.
But after just a few steps, with Gu Fei coming up to block him, Wang Xu passed the ball back and even yelled: "Jiang Cheng!"
What the hell! Was he planning to pass to Gu Fei!
Jiang Cheng really had no words. As soon as he caught the ball, Gu Fei's hand was already reaching over, speed astonishing.
He quickly protected the ball and pivoted, shaking left and right to adjust. Then he lowered his stance wanting to go around the side.
But Gu Fei gave him no chance. He moved along with Jiang Cheng at the same time. He didn't even waver when Jiang Cheng faked a jump.
Luckily they had shitty teammates on both sides, not just his.
The guy in blue didn't have anyone covering him this time, and easily got behind Gu Fei. Jiang Cheng passed the ball from between Gu Fei's □□.
*T/N: Got censored out. Pretty self-explanatory.
"Fuck," Gu Fei looked back to see Blue Shirt with the ball already under the basket, probably pretty speechless too.
Blue Shirt hesitated with the ball, with one glance Jiang Cheng could see he still wanted to pass instead of shooting.
"Just shoot!" Jiang Cheng yelled.
Only then did Blue Shirt jump up and toss the ball.
It didn't go in.
Jiang Cheng knew it wouldn't go in, just getting the ball over the baseline with that form was asking too much.
The ball bounced off the backboard far from the hoop.
The bunch under the basket jumped up scrambling for the rebound, some fast some slow, batting at the ball fiercely. Jiang Cheng grabbed it from between them and brought it to the sidelines.
But now three opponents had him surrounded in a semicircle. He needed a teammate who was open.
"Pass the ball," someone said on the right.
Jiang Cheng quickly passed down the sideline.
Only when the ball was in the air did he realize with a jolt - that was Gu Fei's voice!
Sure enough, he looked over to see Gu Fei smoothly catch it.
"F*ck!" Jiang Cheng couldn't help but curse.
This bastard was so devious!
Gu Fei smirked.
"Jiang Cheng what are you doing!" Wang Xu yelled.
"Guard him tight!" Jiang Cheng was also annoyed. "He's running all over alone, why aren't you on him!"
But it was too late to mark Gu Fei now. He moved fast with the ball, while Jiang Cheng was tangled up by two here and couldn't get free. By the time his useless teammates tried to block Gu Fei, he was already at the free throw line.
Jiang Cheng watched as he jumped up, passed the ball, lightly tossing it in.
He had passed the ball right to Gu Fei himself. Jiang Cheng felt like grabbing Gu Fei's collar, how could he be so sly!
"Jiang Cheng pay attention to who's who," teammate Yellow Sneakers said. "Having trouble telling us apart?"
"Yeah, sorry about that," Jiang Cheng said.
"Pass to your teammates," Captain Wang looked at him. "Not your deskmate!"
"You'd best stand where I can pass to you," Jiang Cheng glanced at him. "All the openings were their guys, if I don't pass to my deskmate the only option is out of bounds."
Wang Xu's brows rose, clearly very unhappy, just as he was about to speak the ball bounced over.
"Hurry up," Gu Fei said.
Jiang Cheng caught it and passed to Wang Xu. "You send it in, I'll bring it over. Stay on him, don't let Gu Fei get close to me. Tangle him up, grab his arms, step on his feet, foul him if you have to, just don't let him get free."
"Got it," Wang Xu glared at him.
Lu Xiaobin was probably the most diligent at his role, sticking right by Jiang Cheng as Wang Xu was throwing the ball. Wang Xu held the ball for ages before finally passing it.
In the end Jiang Cheng had to rush forward in front of Wang Xu before he'd pass it over.
Wang Xu wasn't bad at ball handling though, staying along the side protecting Jiang Cheng as he brought it up, squeezing against Lu Xiaobin until it looked like they might start fighting soon.
Gu Fei didn't come up to block him this time. Blue Shirt and Yellow Sneakers sandwiched him from front and back, just short of hugging him. But after crossing half court Jiang Cheng saw Gu Fei still managed to shake free of them.
No time for a slow layup now. Still fuming over Gu Fei's sly craftiness, Jiang Cheng drove the ball straight to the three point line without stopping to adjust. Right as Gu Fei jumped to block, he launched the ball upwards.
It traveled in a high arc before dropping cleanly into the basket.
"Great shot, damn!" Wang Xu yelled loudly.
Jiang Cheng breathed out in relief, and looked at Gu Fei.
"Nice." Gu Fei said.
Playing half court didn't feel like much at all, especially with the chaotic running around and zero teamwork. It looked intense, but the scoring was pitifully low.
After Old Xu blew the whistle, he clapped and said: "Not bad, not bad!"
Jiang Cheng especially wanted to ask, what was not bad?
"We now have a team with two strong players," Old Xu said. "But you guys played half a game without committing a single foul. That won't do! You have to foul, be more daring! Bolder! Gu Fei, how did you feel about the play?"
"A mess." Gu Fei said.
Old Xu wasn't too satisfied with his answer, so he turned to ask Jiang Cheng: "What do you think, Jiang Cheng?"
"Same assessment." Jiang Cheng said.
"It's only the first day of practice," Old Xu could only continue on his own. "There's still huge room for improvement! Have confidence in yourselves! Come on!"
No one spoke.
"Come on!" Old Xu waved his arms. "Answer loudly!"
Still no one said anything.
After playing half court, Jiang Cheng also had a good sense of things. Other than him and Gu Fei, these people normally didn't even play basketball. The few who could play were quite mediocre.
"Come o..." Old Xu kept trying to pump them up.
"Yes." Unable to bear watching Old Xu's futile efforts, Jiang Cheng answered.
"Yes." Wang Xu also responded.
Everyone else lifelessly murmured "yes" together.
"That's it! That's the spirit!" Old Xu immediately smiled happily. "Our goal this time is to make the semi-finals! Do you have confidence?"
Everyone continued with the lifeless "yes", and Old Xu nodded satisfactorily: "There's still half a month until the games. There's enough time. Aside from PE class, you guys can also practice during self-study in the afternoons."
The special privilege was still quite attractive. The group immediately showed enthusiasm, saying they would practice hard.
After that, Captain Wang didn't let them continue playing a real game, but switched to 3-on-3, scoring wins, losers sub out.
Gu Fei hadn't gone back in, just sitting on the bench watching.
Although these people weren't skilled, it had been so long since Jiang Cheng last relaxed this way that he found the game quite enjoyable.
"Stop blocking, okay?" Guo Xu said helplessly hugging the ball. "Jiang Cheng, don't you want to take a break?"
"Jiang Cheng, take a break," Wang Xu said. "With you in there we don't even need to sub."
"Alright." Jiang Cheng smiled and switched out with Lu Xiaobin, sitting next to Old Xu to watch.
"How is it?" Old Xu asked.
"How's what?" Jiang Cheng looked at him.
"This team." Old Xu said.
Jiang Cheng didn't speak. He could feel Old Xu's intense anticipation.
"Try cooperating tomorrow to see the effect?" Old Xu asked again.
"Okay." Jiang Cheng nodded.
"Making the semi-finals will be hard, don't get your hopes up too high," Gu Fei said from the side. "Depends on which class we draw in the elimination round. If it's Class 2, just go home."
"Stay positive!" Old Xu said.
"Yeah," Gu Fei looked at Old Xu. "Ha, ha."
When the after school bell rang, a lot of people came into the gym.
"Let's go," Wang Xu said. "They're all here to practice, we need to keep things secret."
"Keep what secret?" Jiang Cheng asked.
"Keep our skills secret, maintain the image of us as a rookie team in other classes' eyes," Wang Xu said seriously. "Also can't let others know Gu Fei is playing this time, or that Jiang Cheng is great. "
"Right, we have two secret weapons now." Everyone nodded enthusiastically, with the excitement of bearing hardship on their faces.
"Everyone who just came in saw me here." Gu Fei said.
"Don't be afraid," Wang Xu said, "let's put on a show."
Gu Fei sighed and got up to put on his coat. He turned around and walked straight to the door.
"Fuck!" Wang Xu shouted, scaring Jiang Cheng who was next to him. He glared at Gu Fei's back, "Can you have some collective sense of honor?!"
Gu Fei didn't look back, just flipped the middle finger over his shoulder.
"Wang Xu," the person who had just come in said with a laugh while taking off his coat, "that's progress, at least Da Fei came by this time."
"Let's go." Wang Xu got up and led the way out of the gym.
Jiang Cheng almost wanted to applaud Wang Xu. This act was so in character, his skills had improved tremendously compared to when he had previously pretended to decline the captain position.
"Gu Miao didn't come to wait for you today?" Jiang Cheng didn't see Gu Miao with her skateboard at the school gate.
"She doesn't come every day. Sometimes she just goes off on her own," Gu Fei said. "Are you still walking home?"
"Yeah," Jiang Cheng replied.
"Should I give you a ride?" Gu Fei asked.
Jiang Cheng hesitated for a moment: "Okay."
As Gu Fei went to get his bike, Jiang Cheng was reminded of the "pass the ball" during the game earlier, and he got a little angry again: "Hey, I realised you're too devious."
"I just said it casually," Gu Fei straddled the bike and pushed off, "How would I know you'd actually pass it over?"
"Why say something like that casually?!" Jiang Cheng also straddled the bike, "You're insane."
"It works during games. What if one of the other team's idiots really passed the ball over?" Gu Fei said.
"Fuck!" Jiang Cheng cursed.
"I'll ask some people to come practice with us tomorrow," Gu Fei said. "It's no fun like this."
"Who are you asking?" Jiang Cheng thought of the "no-good birds" Gu Fei had brought to play basketball last time, so he asked, "Those no-good birds combo again?"
"What?" Gu Fei was confused for a moment.
"Uh... nothing," Jiang Cheng quickly said, "Those guys who played ball with you last time?"
"Who are the no-good birds?" Gu Fei laughed. "Are you including me too?"
Jiang Cheng didn't say anything.
"Yeah, it's them," Gu Fei didn't press him further, "the no-good birds."
Jiang Cheng sighed.
The two of them didn't speak again for the rest of the ride. Jiang Cheng stared blankly at the small snow piles on the roadside, lost in thought. Lately he had been doing that a lot, zoning out as soon as he quieted down, thinking all sorts of random things. He didn't use to be like this before. Zoning out was just zoning out, he wouldn't even know where his mind had wandered off to.
He wondered when he would be able to get out of this current emotional haze.
Gu Fei rode pretty fast. Soon they arrived at the street corner. As the bike slowed down, Jiang Cheng jumped off: "Thanks."
Gu Fei didn't say anything, just looking down the street.
At the same time, Jiang Cheng heard shouting and screaming coming from Li Baoguo's street. He looked back to see several people surrounding and kicking someone lying on the ground.
"Damn," Jiang Cheng frowned. There was always endless chaos on this street. "What's going on now..."
Gu Fei got off his bike and locked it to a roadside tree, looking at him: "The one on the ground is Li Baoguo."