The Perfect Game

Basketball Ringers Fail to Steal Zinger's Glory

Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright 2001

What's the opposite of a ringer? A zinger, perhaps. Ali McKeown's mom, Karen, liked that description for her spunky, but vertically challenged daughter.

As most fans know, a ringer is someone who has been fraudulently entered into a game to gain an advantage over the competition.

Danny Almonte, the child who pitched a perfect game in the Little League World Series last month, was a world-class ringer. According to league rules, Almonte should have been 12, but an investigation showed he was really 14. Almonte's team was forced to forfeit every game it played and his perfect game was erased from the record book.

McKeown's story involves a perfect game, ringers -- and a zinger.

For our purposes, a zinger shall be defined as a player who puts her team at a disadvantage in terms of the competition, but is nonetheless an asset.

That would fairly describe Ali and her role a few years ago on a Clayton recreation league team made up of 10- and 11-year-olds. Unlike Danny Almonte, Ali was the right age -- she was 10. But she was on the small side.

So small that her team jersey stuck out of the bottom of her shorts. So small that during the first seven games of the season, Ali never once got the satisfaction of hearing the ball clunk off the backboard or clang off the rim, much less swish through the net. Ali stood maybe 4 feet 3 inches tall.

She was not without talent. The pros would call her a gamer -- speedy and a hard worker. None of her teammates teased her about her size, nor about her air balls. And one of her coaches, Scott Decker, worked with her just a bit longer than some of the other players.

Decker brought an impressive resume to his job. He played some college ball and he's a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Plus, he's kind of sly.

All through the season Decker worked with Ali on a special shot. It could only be used under a special set of circumstances. He called it "The Granny."

Ali worked on that shot in her back yard with her sister, Cassie . Cassie , then 16, played varsity basketball for Clayton High School. At 5 feet 2 inches, Cassie knew what it was like to be the shortest on the team. Once, in front of the squad, her freshman coach asked her to stand up. She was already standing. She earned her way on to the team by drilling 3-pointers.

As they practiced in the driveway, Cassie alternately teased, coaxed and coached Ali. You don't want to be the only kid on your team NOT to score a basket, do you?

And that's just the way it stood as Ali's team approached the eighth and final league game. Every child but Ali had a point or two.

This game would be played in Clayton High's Stuber Gym, where Cassie's varsity team played, where blue and orange banners hung commemorating championships of yore. Ali's team was facing off against a private school. The coach was a hale fellow who happened to be a circuit judge. Had the game been broadcast on ESPN, announcers might have made much of the matchup of the criminologist and the judge.

As it turned out, it was a mismatch. The judge's kids mopped the floor with the criminologist's kids.

Still, they played gamely on, especially Ali, who had yet to get her basket. Playing her usual tight defense, Ali saw an opening as her opponent dribbled toward the free throw line. Reaching in, she cleanly swatted the ball away, then recovered it.

Looking up, she saw no one between her and the basket -- just the sound of 18 thundering feet behind her. It scared her.

Thumpity-thumpity-thumpity-thumpity... sprinting and dribbling, Ali closed in on the basket. No one held out much hope that anything would come of this. Not Cassie , who was watching from the stands. Not Coach Decker who, nonetheless, was shouting his support. Not even Ali, who couldn't help remembering that she had gotten her feet tangled up in similar situations.

But in those few moments Ali had increased her lead on the pursuing pack. It gave her just enough time to screech to a halt just a few feet from the basket, gather herself, and deploy The Granny. She squatted, lowered the ball nearly to the floor, then propelled it underhand toward the basket.

Ali heard neither a clunk nor a clang. Just a sweet swish.

Decker thrust his arms skyward in triumph; Cassie teared up. Ali tried not to smile. She didn't want to embarrass herself. But her legs wouldn't cooperate. She was jumping up and down. Her teammates swarmed around hugging her and offering high-fives.

As it turned out, Ali's team won the game. No she hadn't launched the winning shot ... nothing as storybook as that. It turned out that the judge had played a couple of ringers. The referees found out and told Ali's coaches they had won by a forfeit.

The coaches didn't say anything about it. Not to the team. Not to the recreational league officials.

No sense in spoiling the perfect game.