By Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick has won a Homer ward, a Nebula Award and five Hugo awards. He has written more than fifty novels and hundreds of short stories. You can visit him online at mikeresnick.com
Everyone called him the Big Guy.
He was seven feet nine inches tall, strong as a bull, and graceful as a gazelle.
I don’t think anyone could pronounce his real name, not even the guys who created him. I remember hearing them refer to him as Ralph-43 a couple of times, which kind of makes you wonder what happened to Ralphs 1 through 42.
Still, it was none of my concern. I don’t get paid to think. I get paid to rebound and play defense, and once in a while, when our first two or three options are covered, to put the ball in the hoop — or at least to try.
My name’s Jacko Melchik. I’m pretty tall, though nothing like the Big Guy. I’m six feet ten and I weigh 257 pounds. (Well, I did after practice this morning. Now that I’ve had some fluids I’m probably up around 265.) That’s what I am. I’ll tell you what I’m not: strong as a bull or graceful as a gazelle.
It was only a matter of time before they went out and got a better center than me, but no one ever anticipated what they wound up with: I don’t know if he was a robot or an android or some other word, but I know he was the most awesome basketball player I ever saw. I’d seen old holos of Wilt the Stilt, and of Kareem and Shaq and all the others, but they looked like kids next to the Big Guy.
I still remember the day he walked out onto the court during a morning practice. Fishbait McCain — that’s our coach; no one’s sure how he got the nickname, but they say he once ate a bunch of nightcrawlers when he got drunk on a fishing trip — walked over to me and pulled me aside.
“I want to see what this machine can do,” he said. “If he backs into the lane, keep a forearm on him, and when he goes up for a shot, give him a shove. Let’s see how he handles it.”
“I been reading the newsdisks,” I replied. “I know what he cost. I don’t want to damage him.”
“He’s gonna take a lot worse than that if I put him in a game,” said Fishbait. “I got to know how he reacts.”
“You’re the boss,” I said with a shrug.
“I’m glad someone around here remembers that,” said Fishbait. He clapped his hands to get the team’s attention, then gestured for the Big Guy to step forward. “Men,” he said, “this is our newest player. I know you’ve all read and heard about him. If he’s half what they say he is, I think you’re gonna be happy Mr. Willoughby outbid all the other owners for him.”
“Jesus, he’s bigger’n I imagined!” said Scooter Thornley, our point guard.
“He’s bigger than anyone imagined!” chimed in Jake Jacobs, our back-up power forward. “You got a name, Big Guy?”
“My name is Ralph,” he answered in surprisingly human tones. “I am pleased to meet you all, and to join the Montana Buttes.”
“You can feel pleasure?” asked Doc Landrith, our trainer.
“No,” said the Big Guy. “But good manners required such an answer.”
“Well,” said Doc, “if you don’t have any emotions, at least Goliath Jepson ain’t gonna scare you when you go up against him.” Jepson was leading the league in rebounds and technical fouls. I don’t think anyone liked him, even his teammates.
“Okay,” said Fishbait. He tossed a ball to the Big Guy. “Let’s try a little one-on-one. Ralph, let’s see what you can do against Jacko here.”
The Big Guy took a look at me, his face totally expressionless. I moved forward to lean on him a little, just enough to make contact and see which way he was going to move when he began his drive to the basket, but before I got close enough to touch him he’d already raced by me and stuffed the ball through the hoop.
“Again,” said Fishbait.
This time I reached up to stick a hand in his face and obscure his vision. He responded with a vertical leap that must have been close to 60 inches, and swished the ball through from the 3-point line.
That was the beginning of a ten-minute humiliation in which the Big Guy out-quicked me, out-stronged me, out-jumped me, made every shot he took, and blocked all but two that I took.
We spent the next ten minutes double-teaming him. Got him to double-dribble once, and one other time I saw him move his pivot foot but Fishbait wouldn’t call it, and he beat the pair of us 30 to 0.
“Men,” said Fishbait when the second humiliation was over, “I think we got us a center.”
It meant that I was out of a job, at least as a starter, but how could I object? We were a pretty good team already; this was just the thing we needed to reach the next level and knock off the Rhode Island Reds for the title.
Each of us in turn walked up to the Big Guy and shook his hand and welcomed him to the team. He couldn’t have been more polite, but you got the feeling he was programmed for good manners, because his face and attitude were no different than when he was racing downcourt with the ball.
“And you, Jacko,” said Fishbait when we were all done, “I want you to room with Ralph, help him along, show him the ropes.”
“Room with him?” I repeated. “Don’t you just turn him off at night and turn him on again in the morning?”
“He’s a member of the team, and he’s going to be treated like a member of the team. He’ll travel with us, he’ll room with us, if he eats he’ll eat with us.” He stopped abruptly and turned to the Big Guy. “Do you eat?”
“I can, if we are in public and it is required,” answered Ralph. “I will remove what I ingest later, in private, and get rid of it. Or offer it to my roommate.”
“No, thanks,” I said quickly.
“It will be sterile,” he assured me. “I have no digestive acids.”
“I’ll take a pass on it anyway,” I said.
And kids like me were making one last trip to the beach before it started making its advance on us.
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