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Ben Watkins has a standard answer that he gives to the press about when he first decided that he wanted to play basketball. He always shrugs his shoulders a little, gives a sheepish smile and says “Watching Team USA clinch the gold in the summer 2012 Olympics.” Everyone nods, thinking of the close game between Spain and the US—a hard fought battle from two teams that had played each other in the championship game four years before. It’s an easy answer and within thirty seconds, Ben is fielding the next question.

If Ben feels especially gracious, he might say that it was actually the semi-championship game, or maybe Carmelo Anthony’s performance in that game. But, he’s learned over the years that if he tries to explain that moment, the moment that changed his life, his words start tripping over themselves. No matter how he lays the moment out, he can’t do it justice. And every time, Ben leaves feeling like he’s just played his heart out for a coach only to be told he’s been cut from the team.

Two minutes and thirty five seconds left in the second period of the semi-championship game of the 2012 Olympics, Argentina against USA. Chris Paul brings it down the court after Argentina misses a three point shot. Eighteen seconds left on the shot clock. Paul passes it to Kobe Bryant, who manages to shake his guard on the three point line. Fifteen seconds. Kobe fakes a three pointer and goes around the player guarding him to shoot but drops back at the last minute, unable to get a clear shot.

He goes up for the shot again, but his man jumps up for the block so Kobe quickly passes back to Lebron James, rushing in through the center. Eight seconds. Lebron brings the ball around, looking for the pass. Five seconds left on the shot clock. Lebron drives towards the basket, drawing another Argentinean player with him, leaving just barely enough space for him to pass it through the middle to Carmelo Anthony.

Two seconds. When Ben remembers the game, he always imagines that a deathly silence overtakes the arena at this point—that the entire crowd is holding their breath, everyone tense with anticipation. The ball reaches Carmelo and without hesitating, without even thinking, he leaps into the air and slams the ball into the net just as the buzzer sounds.

As Carmelo dunks the ball, something connects so deeply inside of Ben. Something about Carmelo’s confidence, his utter belief in his abilities and the game, resonates inside Ben. He can’t even turn away from the TV, wanting just another glimpse of the play. When he finally tears himself away from the TV to high five his older brother, Ben finds himself grinning so hard, that his brother elbows him in the side.

“You like that?” Rob asks. “You think Carmelo’s cool?”

And five year-old Ben, unable to quite find the words for what he thinks, turns back to the TV and says confidently the only thing he can say, “I want to do that. One day that’s going to be me.”

For years, Ben’s memory of that moment has driven him, pushed him to be the best, forced him to make the sacrifices needed. Carmelo’s dunk has always been his and his alone.

So of course, on the day of the 2029 draft, Meng Ling comes along and says in his interviews that Carmelo’s dunk inspires him, pushes him forward, and is a constant reminder of what he wants to be. Because apparently, Meng Ling hasn’t ruined enough things in Ben’s life.

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Ben met Meng at the Bell-Fielding Invitational. The Bell-Fielding Invitational is an annual international basketball tournament consisting of four divisions: U14, U16, U17 and U18. Ben’s club team, the Lone Texas Rangers (real original, he knows), played last year at this tournament, coming in second place. But this year, he could feel that they were going to win it all. Most of the players from the year before had returned as they moved up a division. The team had worked hard throughout the season, Ben putting in extra long hours of training. This would be their year.

The team is checking in at the tournament on Friday morning when Ben first hears the name Meng Ling. The team has been waiting in line forever and the assistant coach is trying to corral some of the boys back to the group. Ben has his headphones in and is listening to music to get himself into the game. It’s not going to be easy, however Ben knows that the team can do it. But, it all starts with him.

The people in the line next to Ben are talking loudly and Ben futilely turns up the volume in an attempt to block them out when he finally gives up and starts eavesdropping.

“I hear that Meng Ling’s team is at this tournament.” A tall man, clearly a coach with a clipboard tucked into his bag and a whistle around his neck, says to a shorter man next to him.

The short man snorts. “That’s ridiculous. Why do they allow teams like that into the tournament? Talk about uneven playing fields.”

The coach makes a hmm-ing noise. “It’s true. They’re easily going to be the top-seeded team here. But I’m a little curious to watch him play in person. See if all the things they say about him are true.”

The short man says something else, but it’s lost in the noise as Ben’s coach finally gets up to the front of the line and starts going through the roster and checking in each of the twelve boys.

“Ben!” Coach David yells. “Ben Watkins. Get over here!” Ben throws a look back at the two men from the other line, but hurries towards his coach.

“Meng Ling.” Ben says to himself. He tells himself to remember the name and ask his coach about it later, but as soon as they finish checking in, the team is being hurried to drop their bags off and change so that they can warm up before their first game.

The Lone Texas Rangers are seeded 7th out of 32 teams, with their first set of games being round robin style. Their first match up is against the 15th seeded team, the Pirates. Playing against the Pirates isn’t exactly a walk in the park, but the Rangers firmly control the game. Coach David takes the opportunity to give more playing time to a few of the non-starters so that Ben and the rest of the starting squad can save some energy for the rest of the weekend.

The final score is 50-38 and when the final buzzer sounds, the Rangers all whoop and huddle together in a small celebration. Ben gives everyone fist bumps, but it’s anti-climatic. He’s happy to win but the real prize is still days away.

The two team line up to shake hands. Ben’s shaking hands with the other team captain when a bunch of hushed whispers fill the gym and everyone else turns to face the entrance to the gym. Ben stretches his neck to get a glimpse at what everyone’s looking at. Finally he realizes that everyone’s staring at a team walking in through the doors. The team’s Chinese and while it’s a little unusual for a team to travel this far for a tournament, it’s not unheard of. Ben doesn’t get what the big deal is so he turns back to the line and keeps going, consciously ignoring the other team taking the court.

“What’s the deal?” Ben asks Jamie once they finish. Jamie gives him a look that says he thinks Ben is a complete dumbass. Ben frowns back. “Stop that. What’s going on?”

“Are you completely stupid?” Jamie responds. “That’s that kid, Meng Ling’s, team.”

“Who’s Meng Ling? Someone else said something about him earlier.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously, or I’ll kick your ass.” Ben says, starting to feel frustrated. Jamie rolls his eyes, clearly unimpressed with Ben’s threat.

“You seriously need to catch up with the times. He’s that kid with all the youtube videos of him, some basketball prodigy or something.”

Ben stops where he is and looks back.”Him? He’s a basketball prodigy?”

Jamie throws his hands up in the air. “No, I’m lying to you. Check out his youtube videos if you don’t believe me.” He continues walking out of the gym, following the rest of the team. When he realizes that Ben hasn’t moved, he calls back. “Hurry up.”

Ben makes a shooing motion. “I’m going to stay here for a bit, catch a glimpse of the competition. You go on ahead—I’ll meet you back at the rooms.”

Jamie shrugs his shoulders like it’s no skin off his back and leaves the gym.

Ben stands there for a few seconds before climbing up into the bleachers. He’s still not sure which one Meng Ling is supposed to be, but he figures that if this guy is as good as Jamie implied, then he’ll be pretty recognizable.

The two teams are warming up so Ben scans the players, trying to place Meng Ling. Everyone looks to be around the same ability level—or at least within the normal ability range. Ben’s about to give up and head back to the room to relax when a player that he didn’t see steps out from behind the bench and grabs a ball.

From the moment the boy picks up the ball, Ben tunes everything else out in the gym. There’s no audience, no other team, just this kid and the ball because the kid handles the ball likes it’s an extension of his body. Like this kid was made to be on the basketball court, every inch of his body fine tuned to be a basketball machine.

The boy dribbles down the court, going for a layup and Ben swears that he stops breathing while the ball is in the air. With a sudden rush of exhilaration, Ben feels so inspired that he wants to run down the bleacher to the court and play another game, right now, find out what Meng Ling is really made of.

But when Meng Ling grabs the ball after his shot (obviously) goes in, instead of following it up with another excellent shot, he turns and smiles at the crowd watching him and immediately starts exaggerating his moves and showboating, drawing appreciative whistles and applause.

Ben rolls his eyes. Of course. Obviously someone’s let the fame and attention go to their head.

Ben stays for the game and each passing minute is even more of an utter disappointment. It’s clear that Meng Ling has a lot of talent but he totally plays around, barely taking it seriously, chatting the entire time with his teammates. By the time that Ben leaves, half-way through the second half, he’s actually pissed at Meng Ling for wasting such obvious potential.

“Ugh, Meng Ling is a complete idiot.” He complains to Jamie when he gets to the room.

Jamie lifts his headphones from off his ears. “What?”

“That kid, Meng Ling. What a waste of talent.” Ben says, sitting on the bed where his stuff was unceremoniously thrown. He punches the pillow a few times. “I hope we get to play them just so that I can embarrass him and show everyone that he’s a complete tool.”

Jamie rolls his eyes and puts his headphones back on.

The next day, Meng Ling’s team, Dongguan Basketball School, plays the game before the Rangers. Despite not wanting to give Meng Ling the satisfaction from paying attention to his wasted potential game, Ben can’t stop watching, his blood thumping a little faster at each slip of genius that comes through when Meng Ling makes any effort, well-executed plays and perfect shots. Dongguan wins easily, 63 to 34, against the Nashville Rebels.

When Ben’s team takes the court for warm-ups, Ben feels someone’s eyes on him and whips around. He finds Meng Ling watching him while chatting with a teammate as they start to head out. He smiles at Ben, a jaunty line of his lips and a quirked eyebrow. Ben feels himself scowling and turns back around, making sure to hustle around the court a few times to get warmed up, just to show Meng Ling what it’s like to actually try.

The Lone Texas Rangers win their game 73-62 which pushes them into the top eight teams.

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On Saturday morning, Coach David gathers the team in close in the area outside the gym for a pep talk.

After giving them a rundown of the team, he pulls everyone in close. “What did we come here to do?” He asks the team.

“We came here to win!” Everyone yells back. Ben can’t help the huge grin that comes onto his face, his whole body itching to get out there on the court and play.

When they enter the gym, Ben sees that Dongguan is in the middle of their game, apparently playing right before the Rangers again. Unlike the previous game, Meng Ling looks like he’s actually sweating, even perhaps making an effort.

Even though Ben reminds himself that there’s almost no value in watching Meng Ling squander his talent, he can’t turn away from the court, captivated by the utter ease that Meng Ling possesses. And, more than a little pissed that Meng Ling is so talented while barely even trying.

When Ben’s game starts, Dongguan sticks around to watch part of their game, probably checking out the competition as well. Ben pushes himself extra hard and every time he thinks about jogging down the court instead of sprinting or walking to the bench, he reminds himself of Meng Ling’s performance and puts in a little more effort.

The game passes by too quickly and before Ben realizes it, the final buzzer is sounding and his teammates are huddling around him and giving him high fives.

“What?” He manages coherently after catching his breath.

“Hey man, you got a triple double.” Jose says, bring his hand up for a high five. Ben high fives back automatically and shakes his head in delighted confusion. A triple double! That’s crazy.

Even though he knows that the team still has to win another game to get into the championship, the win feels great. When Ben finally emerges from the team huddle, he sees Meng Ling watching him from next to the bleachers. Ben stops in his tracks, staring back. Unlike earlier, Meng Ling’s look is calculating and serious; there’s no smile on his face. Before Ben can analyze it further, someone jostles him from behind, snapping Ben out of his thoughts.

Ben looks back at Meng Ling and points up to the score board now showing his triple double stats. Meng Ling doesn’t even look up, instead nodding his head, accepting Ben’s silent challenge. Jamie grabs Ben’s arm and starts pulling him towards the rest of the team. By the time Ben looks back towards the bleachers, Meng Ling has disappeared.

The semi-final games are played later that afternoon, the Lone Texas Rangers against the Chesterton Wolves. Dongguan is playing again before them so Ben heads over earlier, dragging a protesting Jamie with him in order to see if Meng Ling can actually rise to the occasion or if he’s all talk.

Watching Meng Ling, Ben reluctantly acknowledges that he’s not doing a bad job. His talent dwarfs the rest of the team, but even though Dongguan has Meng Ling, the other team is doing a good job holding their own. After all, as talented as Meng Ling may be, he can’t win a game all by himself.

At the half time break, the score is tied. When the teams return for the second period, Meng Ling looks up and catches Ben’s eyes, flicking briefly up to the scoreboard and giving Ben that same stupid smile before the whistles signals the start of the half.

As good as Meng Ling had been during the first half, it doesn’t even compare to the second. Meng Ling’s performance is….amazing. There’s no other word for it. He’s everywhere on the court at once, taking shots, playing defense, and even hustling back and forth down the court as if he has a second reserve of energy to keep drawing from.

When the final buzzer sounds, Meng Ling points up to the scoreboard, triumphantly smiling in Ben’s direction. Ben looks up at his stats and scowls. Meng Ling did not manage to get a triple double, but he completely out-scored Ben: 25 points to Ben’s 16.

Ben’s semi-final game turns out to be just as hard fought as Meng Ling’s. The Wolves have more than a couple tricks up their sleeves and they are a well-oiled machine. The Rangers keep trying to make inroads on them, but the Wolves are playing excellent defense, shutting Ben down almost completely by sticking two men on him. Once Ben stops being able to shoot, the rest of the team seems to lose their confidence as they shoot brick after brick. The Rangers down by a point going into the second half, and the Wolves refusing to give an inch.

With five minutes left in the game and the Rangers down by seven, Coach calls a timeout. He pulls out a whiteboard and starts angrily drawing out the plays that they’re supposed to be running. As he watches Coach David illustrate how Ben is supposed to go through the center and get the pass, Ben feels his shoulders sag with frustration. How is he going to get a single pass when they keep putting their best defenders on him?

When the buzzer sounds to signal the end of timeout, Ben turns back towards the court, his mind still racing to come up with solid plays that will actually get the team points. The team can play defense all it wants, but if they can’t score, they’re not going to win. And if they don’t win, then Ben won’t get the opportunity to show Meng Ling how it’s actually done in the championship game.

He sees the Dongguan team sitting up near the top of the bleachers which must mean that Meng Ling is somewhere and he stands up a little straighter, his back stiffening with resolve.

“Hey, Jose, Reggie.” He says. Jose and Reggie come over.

“What’s up?”

“I’ve got an idea.” He quickly explains his plan before the ref blows his whistle and tells them that if they don’t get on the court, then the game is starting without them.

This time, when Rangers get the ball, Ben embraces the fact that he’s being double teamed and draws them out as far as he can, not even trying to get the pass. When they’re solidly to the side, Jose and Reggie step up to block the players from moving and Ben ducks out, getting a lightning quick pass to shoot and score.

The Wolves figure out the play pretty quickly, but it gives the Rangers enough momentum and confidence to finally get back in the game. With a minute left, the Rangers are leading by three and even though Jamie misses his shot, the team plays good defense and solidly shuts out any last second three point shots.

When the game ends, Ben points up where he knows Meng Ling is sitting and gestures towards the scoreboard where Ben's final push managed to push his points just over Meng Ling's. Take that Meng Ling, Ben thinks gleefully as he salutes the Chinese team and then follows his team out. After all, Ben has to rest so that he can beat Meng Ling in tomorrow’s championship game.

When the two teams show up to warm up for the final game, Ben feels an extra frisson of energy. He can barely stand still long enough to tie his shoes, every bit of him humming in anticipation of actually playing Meng Ling.

The game starts well enough—Jamie gets the tip off and passes it back to Ben who walks it down the court and then goes in for a quick jump shot.

Meng Ling gets the rebound and instantly streaks down the court, so Ben sprints back and attempts to stay between Meng Ling and the basket. Meng Ling slows it down for a second as if going to pass and then, out of nowhere, winks at Ben and does a perfect fadeaway shot.

Ben’s not sure if the crowd is cheering or if it’s just the blood roaring in his ears. Regardless, he has to repeatedly remind himself that punching Meng Ling in the face would likely get him banned from the tournament. And be a flagrant foul. At the very least.

For the rest of the game, Ben makes it his mission to make Meng Ling’s life as miserable as possible. He’s everywhere that Meng Ling wants to run to, in the way of every pass that Meng Ling wants to make, and pushing and shoving Meng Ling.

Between the two of them, they amass almost 60 points going into the last two minutes. Ben’s calling for the ball any chance he can get and his teammates are doing their best to cooperate. Meng Ling’s shots are getting crazier and crazier as he finds even more outrageous ways to show off. With thirty seconds left, Ben goes up for and hits a beautiful jump shot, putting the Rangers up 81-79.

“Stay strong everyone!” Ben yells as the Rangers run down the court. Everyone gets on their man, sticking closer than ever.

The clock ticks down slowly as the Dongguan players pass amongst themselves on the perimeter, trying to find a decent shot, but everyone on the Rangers is doing their job and not giving them an inch. Ten seconds left and Ben can almost feel the double victory—not just the Bell-Fielding championship but the joy of knowing that he is just as good if not better than the annoying Meng Ling.

Five seconds and one of the Dongguan kids passes the ball to Meng Ling. Ben steps in to defend, refusing to allow any space for Meng Ling to pass the ball. Meng Ling makes direct eye contact with Ben for a second, then takes a step back and goes for a three pointer.

There’s a long moment when the ball is curving through the air while Ben’s stomach drops and he thinks, miss miss miss. But he knows where it’s going to go before it gets there and turns to look at Meng Ling rather than watch the ball go in. Meng Ling is still watching him—not even looking to see where his game defining shot will go—and Ben hates him so much in that instant that Ben wants to grab a hold of Meng Ling and shake him or push him or something to get through.

When the teams line up to shake hands, Meng Ling winks again at Ben after shaking his hand and Jamie has to hold Ben back from physically attacking Meng Ling as Meng Ling laughs at Ben and walks off the court.

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Ever since that day, Meng Ling has dogged Ben’s footsteps. Apparently, life isn’t worth living if you’re Meng Ling, unless it’s to make Ben’s life a living hell. From the junior Olympics to college basketball, Meng Ling has been there every step of the way, with his stupid face and stupid smile, haunting Ben wherever he goes.

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The USA TODAY's 2024 All-World high school boys basketball team was selected by Michael Neal after discussions with analysts Linda Meyer and Frank Rossin and numerous coaches, players and sportswriters.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: MENG LING

6-9, Center

Beijing, China

College: Signed with UNC

The facts: Led high school team, Dongguan Basketball School, to third consecutive national China title, averaging 27.4 points, 18 rebounds and 6 blocks. Led 2023 China 18-Under team that placed 2nd in the FIBA U19 World Championship.

People don't know: Meng’s parents adamantly opposed Meng playing basketball when he was a kid. It was only when uploaded videos of Meng making trick shots went viral did they finally consider letting him play.

Motivation: "My competition challenges me to work hard. There are certain players who I constantly play against... [laughs] [eds note: likely referring to fellow All-World player Ben Watkins as the two have met in international competition a staggering fourteen times over the last three years] and I know that if I'm not playing my best game, they're going to blow me by."

***

BEN WATKINS

6-10 Center

Lancaster, TX

College: Signed with Georgetown.

The facts: Led team to a state title, averaging 29.1 points, 15 rebounds and 8.2 assists. Team captain of the 2023 USA 18-Under National team that won the FIBA U19 World Championship.

Superpower: "No sleep. Just think how much more I could get in if I didn't need to get eight hours of sleep each night."

Season Highlights: "There's been a lot of highs from this season, I played on some really great teams and worked with amazing coaches. But, I think beating Team China in the FIBA World Championship definitely takes the prize."

....

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“Hey, good luck.” A voice says, snapping Ben out of his thoughts. Ben turns around from where he had been pacing in the elevator hallway to find Meng Ling giving him one of those looks.

“What do you want?” Ben asks suspiciously. “Are you here to sabotage me before the draft starts?”

Meng Ling just laughs, Ben clenching his jaw in response. “Why would I need to sabotage you?” Meng Ling asks. “I’m going to be the number one pick.”

“Like your team won last year at the NCAA championships?” Ben asks. Meng Ling glares at him and Ben feels a jolt of energy when their eyes meet. Meng Ling looks pissed and he takes a step towards Ben as if to push him against the wall before he stops himself.

“May the best man win.” Meng Ling says finally. He walks over to Ben and briefly rests his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I think we both know who’s going to win that one.” He says and then walks away, not looking back.

Ben considers yelling back after him and finally getting into that fight that he’s been itching to have for years, but he can only stand there, the vivid memory of the heat of Meng Ling’s hand still pressing into his skin.

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Meng Ling rubs it in his face all summer that he was drafted first overall and Ben was drafted second.

“Oh Ben,” He’ll say casually while Ben’s dribbling the ball down the court in the WMCCB summer league. “Is that what second place dribbling looks like?”

Ben really can’t be held responsible if he accidentally-not-accidentally throws the ball at Meng Ling a few times.

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When Meng Ling wins rookie of the year, it's just after the second round of playoffs and the Bobcats have just lost to the New York Knicks. The loss still feels like a punch in the stomach and the announcement of rookie of the year makes Ben want to curl up in his bed and never leave again.

In desperation, Ben calls up his college roommate Derek and they get really drunk together at Ben’s apartment.

“It’s not that I wanted to win it,” Ben tries for the millionth time. “Rookie of the year.” He clarifies after a second. Obviously he wanted to win the championship. He’s only been dreaming about it since he was seven.

Derek looks confused. “But you wanted to win it?” He says, his words tripping a bit over themselves.

Ben shakes his head. “I mean, I wanted to win it. But I wanted Meng Ling to not win it.”

“That doesn’t even make sense!” Derek says finally, swaying a little as he stands up to go get some more rum. “You wanted Meng Ling to not win more than you actually wanted to win. Messed up.”

“I just wanted Meng Ling to not get something! Everything gets him.” Ben says. Derek gives him an odd look. Ben thinks over the words that he just said. “He gets everything.”

“What is it with you two anyways?” Derek asks, finally locating another bottle and bringing it back to the table.

“What do you mean?” Ben says, taking another shot as it was proffered, the alcohol barely registering on the way down.

“You are like...obsessed with him or something. You talk about him all the time.”

“With good reason!” Ben yells. “He got the rookie of the year, during my rookie year! He was drafted first overall. And he won that stupid Bell-Fielding championship.”

“That last one doesn’t actually count for anything, you know that right?”

Ben glares at Derek. “He’s just a total asshole....” He casts about for a second, trying to think of how to phrase it so that Derek will understand and be on his side. “And he winks at me!”

Derek gives Ben a hard look. Well, as hard as a look can be managed after a solid eight shots and several beers. “Are you fucking with me?”

“What? No. He winks at me--always just mocking. Mocking me!”

“Mocking you? Or flirting with you? Because I definitely don’t wink at people I’m not trying to get it on with.”

Ben sputters for a second. “I don’t even know what--that question is so ridiculous. It’s not even a question!” Derek keeps looking at him. “He is not flirting with me! He’s the worst person ever and I....” Ben sighs. “I need another drink.”

The rest of the evening passes in a hazy blur of ranting about Meng Ling and his stupid hair and his stupid face. When Ben wakes up the next morning, his face mashed awkwardly into his couch cushions, he has the horrible suspicion that he may or may not have managed to get ahold of Meng Ling’s phone number and leave a message on Meng Ling’s voicemail. God, he really hopes that didn’t happen.

 

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Ben tries to put Derek’s comment out of his mind all summer. It’s ridiculous anyways--why would Meng Ling be flirting with him. He hates Ben just as much as Ben hates him. Ben mostly succeeds until halfway through the summer, he gets a call from his agent.

“How’s it going?” Mike says when Ben picks up. He sounds extra peppy, which immediately raises red flags.

“What’s going on? Whatever you want me to do, I don’t want to do it.” Ben replies.

“Don’t say that. Besides, I don’t want you to do anything. You’re already doing it.”

“What am I doing then?”

“So you know how you’re going to be volunteering at the NBA Cares training camps next week?” Mike says.

“Yes...” Ben responds.

“Well, Christian Reynolds just dropped out. There’s been a family emergency and he had to cancel. So...they’re bringing in Meng Ling.”

“God damn it.” Ben swears. “Are you kidding me?”

“No. I am not kidding you. And before you ask me to take you out or see if there’s someway to get around it, there’s not. These kids have been looking forward to this all year. You and Meng Ling can avoid each other like normal people do for one week.”

Ben rubs his face with his hand. “Fine, fine. I’ll do it.”

“Good.” Mike says. “Because these kids are so excited to get to work with you and the Rookie of the Year for an entire--” Ben hangs up before Mike can continue, rubbing it in even further.

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Meng Ling strolls into the meeting with the NBA handlers ten minutes late, immediately evoking the long since familiar visceral feeling of wanting to punch him in the face. But Derek’s comments immediately start playing through Ben’s head. Even though Meng Ling hasn’t changed since the last time Ben saw Meng Ling when the Mavs played against the Bobcats in February, Ben can’t stop feeling like he’s seeing Meng Ling for the first time. He keeps thinking about the idea of Meng Ling flirting with Ben and even though this idea has never been or will ever be true, Ben’s suddenly aware that Meng Ling is actually a good looking guy. A really good looking guy.

And just like that, as if it’s some switch that’s been turned on, Ben can’t unsee it. Meng Ling is really attractive and Ben needs to be somewhere that is not near Meng Ling in order to wipe these traitorous thoughts from his brain. Before Ben can make a strategic retreat, Meng Ling takes the seat next to Ben, settling in and giving him a smug look that says “I am so much better than you will ever be.” Somehow, even that's vaguely attractive. Ben pinches the bridge of his nose: it’s going to be a long week.

Meng Ling catches up with Ben on the second day of the camp. So far, Ben’s been fairly successful with avoiding him when they don’t have to pretend to like each other in front of the kids, but Meng Ling seems to take that as a personal challenge.

“So you think I have stupid hair.” Meng Ling opens, smiling broadly at Ben. Ben blushes. He had really hoped that he in fact had not left that voicemail. He scowls at Meng Ling to cover up for his embarrassment.

“I think that you have stupid everything.” Ben responds.

Meng Ling looks mock affronted. “I happen to take a lot of pride in my hair. It hurts me that you don’t appreciate it.”

Ben rolls his eyes. “Yeah, like you really care. Why don’t you go bother someone else, Meng Ling.”

“You know, you can just call me Ling.”

“I’m ok, Meng Ling.” Ben says, emphasizing Meng Ling’s name.

“You sure? Just think of how great an honor it is to be able to address the rookie of the year by his first name.” Meng Ling says, laughing. Ben throws Meng Ling a glare and leaves. If he happens to glance back to get a good look at Meng Ling’s ass, well, there’s no one else there to say otherwise.

 

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For the rest of the summer, try as Ben might, he’s unable to get Meng Ling out of his head. When he turns on the TV, ESPN is always running some story about the hottest young player in the NBA. When his electronic interface alarm wakes him up in the morning with sports radio, they’re always discussing freaking Meng Ling. Everywhere he goes.

Ben spends every second that he can practicing. He knows that he needs downtime in order for his body to recover, but Ben is determined that he will finally beat Meng Ling this year. So when the season starts, Ben is in the best shape that he’s ever been in, ready to give this season his all.

The season starts slow but the team finally starts gaining momentum in November. Ben’s stats reflect his summer training and for once in his life, he’s actually leading Meng Ling, although Meng Ling’s just below Ben, constantly spurring Ben to step it up.

The rest of the team seems to take their cue from Ben because the team has a ten game winning streak in January-February, six of which are road games. Suddenly, the Bobcats are the team to beat in the East.

Of course, no small victory is complete without Meng Ling managing to make it somehow about him and the Mavericks are doing almost just as good as the Bobcats. Everyone’s talking about a Bobcats/Mavericks finals show down.

Publicly, Ben refuses to comment on a match up. “We have to get to the playoffs first.” He says. “And if we make it,” Although at this point, he always thinks to himself, they’re definitely going to make it to playoffs with the way that they’ve been playing. “Then, we’ll take it step by step, round by round.”

But Ben can’t stop thinking about a Bobcats/Mavericks match up in the finals--a repeat of the NCAA Championships from two years prior--an actual showdown between Meng Ling and himself. Winning the NCAA Championships is amazing, but it pales in comparison to what it would mean to beat Meng Ling for the ultimate championship.

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Going into the first round, both the Mavericks and the Bobcats are seeded first in their conferences, so just as Ben is allowing himself to get excited, Meng Ling goes and sprains his ankle.

Ben doesn’t see the game where it happens--he’s giving a press conference at the time about their win against the 76ers. But he sees the clips over and over again on ESPN and NBA tv--the trip and the fall, and the team’s announcement that Meng Ling will likely be out for four to six weeks.

It’s a blow to the Mavericks and while they scrap through the first round against the Sacramento Kings, they’re clearly walking wounded. They fall in six games to the Denver Nuggets in the second round.

Meanwhile, the Bobcats blow through their competition. The Bobcats beat the 76ers in 5, the Celtics in 6, and the Miami Heat in five. Ben barely has time to breath throughout the first three rounds. Every moment that Ben isn’t playing is filled with instructions about eating or working out, conserving energy, team meetings, or sleeping. As for the playing--it’s the most intense experience of Ben’s life.

The games just keep coming and Ben thinks that he should start feeling tired, exhausted, the constant wear on his body catching up to him. But instead he feels so alive and energized, like he could play forever, hunting down this championship. The only times that he slows down are when he catches glimpses of Meng Ling on television--at some press conference or being chased down by paparazzi.

A couple times, Ben takes out his phone and hovers his finger over Meng Ling’s name, thinks about texting Meng Ling--to see how he’s handling his injury. But then he always remembers that he hates Meng Ling and quickly puts his phone away.

 

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They win the championship. They win the championship. They win the fucking championship.

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Ben is so proud and happy when the Bobcats beat the Nuggets. But when the team stands on the podium, accepting the championship trophy from Adam Silver, Ben can’t help but feel a little let down. Yeah, they beat the Nuggets, who didn’t go down without a solid fight. But it was supposed to be the Bobcats against the Mavericks, Ben against Meng Ling.

After the champagne and the press conferences, the team heads to some bar that the management has rented out in order to celebrate.

Ben drinks with the best of them for about an hour and then sneaks into one of the hallways in order to catch his breath for a few seconds. He ducks into one of the supply closets near the kitchen.

He takes out his phone and stares at it for a long time, and then steels himself as he presses Meng Ling’s number.

Meng Ling picks up on the first ring. “What do you want?” He says, sounding extremely pissed. “Did you call to gloat? Tell me about your championship ring?”

“No. I...” Ben tries to say something, but the words come out strangled. “I don’t know. I just. I wanted to call you.”

There’s a long pause. Ling clears his throat a few times. Finally he says, sounding like the words are being forced from his throat, “It was a good game.”

Ben thinks it over for a few seconds. “It would have been better if we had played against you.” Before Ling can respond, Ben hangs up, breathing quickly as if he had just run a suicide up and down the court.

 

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The following year, both the Bobcats and the Mavericks lose in the third round of playoffs. The only thing that keeps Ben from drinking himself into oblivion and not leaving his apartment is the fact that the Olympics are coming up and he’s been invited to participate in the training camp.

Ben tries not to think about Ling. They haven’t talked much since the year before--sniping comments on the court, trash talk between the periods or at the all star game. But every time they meet, Ben feels like he’s anticipating something. That something is going to happen, but he can’t quite say what.

But training camp comes and with it, everything gets pushed out of Ben's head except the thought of making the national team. Ben doesn’t look at the rosters of any other teams, especially not China’s, and refuses to listen to any sports programming, focused on his goal.

When the word comes that Ben’s made the team, he immediately checks the news and China’s roster. There, at number 32, center is Ling.

This is it, Ben thinks to himself. This is his chance to finally best Ling on the world stage.

The first few exhibition games are fun--Spain puts up a good challenge, as does Brazil--but everyone on Team USA is anticipating that the real challenge will be when they play against China. On the long flight to Cairo, Ben can’t stop thinking about the game and what it would be like to play against China.

In the opening round, USA plays against Portugal, South Africa, Brazil, Japan, and Canada. The team has some kinks to work out--none of the players are used to working with each other and the egos make coaching the team a challenge for Chris Young. USA loses to Brazil early on--a game they should have won--but still advances to the next round.

They play against Russia in the quarter-finals--a faster paced game then Ben is used to, but the team finally starts clicking, and they win, 92-84.

Ben watches the China and Australia game. China easily overtakes Australia to win 95-68 with Ling the clear driving force of the team.

Semi-finals, USA is matched up with Spain. USA trails for most of the game, but none of the players refuse to give up and by the time they’re halfway into the fourth period, USA has tied the game. With thirty seconds left to go and down by two, Ben gets a pass from Christian Reynolds on the perimeter. Even though three pointers are not Ben’s specialty, he’s got a clear shot, so he takes a deep breath and shoots.

The ball sinks into the net perfectly and the team plays great defense, for the last 15 seconds, blocking Spain from making any shots.

The team wants to celebrate after their win, but Ben’s too nervous to go out. China is playing just a few hours later and Ben wants to watch, anxious and nervous with something that he can’t really define.

China is playing against Argentina and it’s a beautiful game. Gorgeous. Ben finds himself fixed to his seat during the game, absently chewing on a fingernail as he watches the back and forth between the two teams. When China pulls away in the beginning of the forth, Ben cautiously allows himself to be optimistic, but it isn’t until the buzzer sounds and the final score reads 102-94 that he allows himself to smile. Something settles inside his chest--an odd mixture of happiness, anticipation, and pure certainty.

Ben’s not sure who will walk away with the gold medal, but he knows that it’s going to be a good game.

 

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The gold medal game? It’s everything that Ben thought it could be. They’re no longer kids playing in some high school tournament but instead with the best of the best in front of the world. Every minute of the game is an exhilarating challenge, Ling everywhere at once, the clear leader of his team.

The game stays tight the entire way through, but the moment that sticks out forever in Ben’s memory is with 35 seconds left on the clock, China 97, USA 98, the Chinese point guard goes for a jump shot near the perimeter and Ben jumps up to block, desperately willing his body to move faster. Along his side, he can feel a sudden warmth, and Ben knows without looking that Ling is right next to him, fighting just as hard for the ball to go in.

Through the grace of God--no, through hard work and talent, Ben pushes the ball down, narrowly avoiding the rim. Christian gets the rebound immediately and sprints down the court to score, sealing the game 100-97.

And that’s it. Ben can’t even think he’s so happy. He’s just beat Ling, his adversary on the biggest court imaginable, in the biggest way possible. He just beat Ling at the Olympics. Ben can't even process it but someone's grabbing his arm and everyone's yelling and Ben finds himself pushed through the handshake line--Ling looking at him intently--and then onto the podium.

Everyone tears up as they get on the podium and the Star Spangled Banner comes on. Ben sneaks a look at Ling, but his face is unreadable. He looks over at Ben once near the end of the song, and opens his mouth as if to mouth something, but then closes it and looks away.

 

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The rest of the team goes out to celebrate, but Ben excuses himself before anyone can stop him and heads back to the Olympic village. He can’t quite articulate where he wants to go, but he feels restless and lets his feet lead him to Ling’s door.

Hesitantly, Ben brings his hand up to knock at Ling’s door. Before he can do much more than rest it there, trying to think of what to say, the door opens and Ling’s there, looking surprised.

“Oh I was just...” Ben starts, not sure of where he’s going to go.

Ling tries to say something and stops, quirking his head at Ben. Ben draws in a deep breath.

"Do you have somewhere to go?" Ben asks, suddenly wishing he was standing anywhere but here. Ling purses his lips and stares at Ben, indicating that Ben should speak.

"I,uh." Ben starts. He stops, trying to find the words to express what he's feeling, but can't concentrate because his heart is pounding wildly in his chest. "I have been waiting so long to beat you."

Ling's eyes narrow and he looks pissed beyond belief. Which, to be fair, would probably be Ben's reactions if he had just lost at the Olympics. Ok, come in second place at the Olympics, which really amounts to the same thing.

"You came all the way over here when you should be celebrating with your team to gloat against the person you just beat?" Ling asks, looking more angry than Ben has ever seen him.

"Yes. I mean, no, not really. Can you give me a second, I'm not sure how to say this." Ling keeps staring at him instead of shutting the door, so Ben takes that as a yes and takes a deep breath to collect himself. He's obviously going about this the wrong way.

“You are the most annoying person I have ever met and you make everything so difficult.” Ben says finally. “I hate you, I think your hair is gravity defying, and you think you’re God’s gift to the masses. But you are an amazing player and the game I played tonight with you was the best game I have ever played.”

And before he can think about it, he leans in and kisses Ling.

Ling stiffens for a second, his whole body going rigid. Ben stops and pulls back, his mental voice already starting the berating and the horrible narration of how this will be splashed across every single feed tomorrow morning. Ling laughs to himself and then pushes Ben a little, driving him into the wall of room's hallway.

"Are you kidding me?" He says, getting into Ben's face.

"Uh, sadly not." Ben says. He assesses the situation for a second. Ling may be strong, but if he tries to punch Ben--Ben can and will take him down.

"It was a rhetorical question. Of course you would decide to make a move now." Ling laughs to himself and then leans into kiss Ben. He kisses unpredictably, his whole body reacting to Ben and they're back on the court, hashing it out, each one trying to show the other who's better. Ben's on fire, it feels like he's on the podium receiving his medal all over again, everything fitting into place perfectly.

After a few minutes, Ling pulls back, gripping the back of Ben's head and smiles."Yeah, tonight was amazing. And it'll make when I beat you in four years all the more sweeter." Ben opens his mouth to respond but Ling kisses him again.

Well, Ben thinks to himself, he did just win the gold medal. He can let Ling think that he might have a shot at it for a few minutes. After all, once they get back on the court, Ben is going to make sure to disabuse him of that notion.