In the Game

What does it mean to be a champion?

By Nora Raleigh Baskin
From the September 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will analyze the problem and solution in a story about a boy who is figuring out how to balance his desires with what’s fair to others. 

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: R
DRA Level: 40
Topic: SEL,

Problem and Solution: As you read, look for the problem that Cory faces and how he decides to solve it.

It was noisy and hot and crowded inside The Foot Palace. The line was long and moving slowly, and Cory realized pretty quickly that they should have gotten there a lot earlier. This was the first day the new Isaiah Jackson Retro 4s were on sale, and it looked like every kid on the planet was there. 

“So this is what kids are doing these days,” Cory’s dad said. “Standing in line to buy overpriced sneakers?”

“Not just any sneakers, Dad,” Cory said. “These are new this season. Everyone wants them.” He peeked ahead, trying to count how many people were in front of him. The line moved two steps forward, and one more kid walked by in the opposite direction with a shoe box and a big smile on his face.

“You are all welcome to keep waiting,” a woman in a striped Foot Palace uniform announced as she walked up and down the line. She cupped her hands around her mouth like a megaphone. “But I have to let you know our supply of the Isaiah Jacksons is getting low.” She called out the sizes they still had left.

“Eight and a half. That’s me!” Cory said. He could actually feel his heart beating faster.    

“But what if there aren’t any left when we get up there?” 

“Eight and a half? Are you sure?” his dad asked.

Cory nodded.

“I’ll be right back.” His dad walked straight to the front of the line. Cory didn’t know what his dad was planning to do, but whatever it was, Cory hoped it would work. Leaning over the counter, his dad said something to the cashier that Cory couldn’t hear. The man pointed, and Cory’s dad headed off around a display of soccer balls and lacrosse sticks, and out of sight.

Five minutes later they were leaving, and Cory had a box tucked under his arm.    

When they got to the exit, Cory heard the woman in the striped uniform announce, “Eight and a halfs are now sold out.”

One boy who had almost made it up to the counter pulled his hoodie over his head, slouched his shoulders, and stepped out of line. Cory figured he must have wanted the eight and a halfs too, and now he wasn’t going to get them.

“What are you looking at?” his father asked. “C’mon, let’s get home.”

As they were leaving, Cory glanced back one more time.

The boy in the hoodie looked really disappointed. But then again, so did a lot of other kids. There wasn’t anything Cory could do about that. 

He followed his dad out of the store.

“Hey, Cory. Hold up,” Jason called out.

Cory slowed down and waited. Jason had moved to town at the beginning of the year and quickly become one of Cory’s good friends. He had also turned out to be one of the best players on their travel basketball team, if not the best.

“You going to check who made it to the tournament?” Jason asked as they walked together toward the middle school gym.

“Yeah, my dad said they’d be posting the list after school today.” Cory knew that only the top three players would be chosen, and he was confident he knew who they’d be.

“You think my name is on there?” Jason asked.

Cory looked at his friend and rolled his eyes. “You joking? Of course it is.”

“Well, your dad’s the coach, and he’s seen me making three-pointers all year,” Jason said.

“Yeah, but I blocked a few of those,” Cory laughed. “And what about all those jump shots I made over your head?”

“OK, good point. Call it even?”

Cory agreed. “You know we’re going to be numbers one and two on that list.” 

They walked past the cafeteria, the science lab, the band practice room, and the teacher’s lounge.

“Whoa!” Jason suddenly came to a full stop, looking down at Cory’s feet. “You have the new Isaiah Jackson Retro 4s?”

Cory had to smile. He lifted his left foot, then his right.

“So fire!” Jason said. “Before my brother went to college, he used to make me watch all Jackson’s old games. Jackson won MVP twice and a championship ring. He was the best.” 

Jason talked the rest of the way down the hall, throwing out Isaiah Jackson stats—his height, where he was born, and the names of the different teams he had played on. “I didn’t know you liked him too,” Jason said.

Cory actually didn’t know much about Isaiah Jackson except that the shoes were really cool. He didn’t know what to say, so he broke into a sprint.

“Ready? . . . Go! Let’s find out who’s number three!”

Jason chased after him, and they were both out of breath and laughing when they got inside the gym.

Until, that is, they were standing in front of the names taped to the wall.

Three-on-Three Invitational Showcase Tournament    

1. Cory Brandt    

2. Will Costa

3. Matthew Reilly

Alternate: Jason Williams 

“How could you not pick Jason?” Cory asked as his dad drove him to the tournament. They had been arguing nonstop since yesterday afternoon. “You know he’s better than Will or Matt! Everyone does.”

But Cory’s dad had a million reasons. Mr. Costa worked with Cory’s dad. The Reillys were old friends of the family. And both boys were very good players.

“It’s just one tournament,” his dad said. “There will be plenty of others. But I certainly hope you get your head in the game before we get there.”

“I will,” Cory said.

So maybe his dad was right. There would be plenty of other times Jason would get to play. But now, Cory had to concentrate, like his dad was telling him. He couldn’t change anything, and he didn’t want to make it worse by worrying the whole game.    

The four boys were taking off their sweats, tying up their sneakers, and stretching out on the bleachers. The game before theirs had just ended. Matt, Will, Jason, and Cory hurried out onto the court and began warm-up drills.

Lay-up lines. Three-man weaves.

The announcer behind the scoreboard picked up the microphone. “Each team must have three players on its roster and one alternate. Ten-minute halves. Running clock. No time-outs.”

It would be two short games and then the championship—only three players, no subbing in and out. The alternate was there only in case something went wrong. Jason would never get to play.

It’s just one tournament, Cory thought. There will be plenty of others.

The horn sounded, the clock started running, and their game began.

No time to feel bad.

The other team was good, and at the half it was a tie score. Matt, Will, and Cory were playing well. They pulled ahead in the final minutes, and the game ended 34-32.

Jason stood up and cheered the whole time. The second game was an easy win, 54-34. Again, Jason rooted for them from the bench, which made Cory feel even worse. 

“I’m going to fill up my water bottle,” Cory told his dad. 

“OK, but I want you back here to watch this next team play. They’re the ones to beat if we want to win the championship.”

The other team was legendary. They had one kid with a highlight tape on YouTube and another who was so tall he looked like he could dunk without jumping. It would be a tough game. Even if Jason were playing. Which he should be. 

The hallway outside the gym was busy. The concession stand was open, with players from all over the area waiting in line to buy Gatorade, coaches discussing strategies, and parents looking at the videos they’d just taken on their cell phones and complaining about bad calls.

Cory was at the water fountain when he saw Jason’s older brother coming down the hall. Cory had only met him once, but he was sure it was him.

He must be home from college to surprise Jason.

Cory slipped back into the gym and watched as Jason’s brother took a seat on the top bleachers, behind their bench. And of course, he was wearing an Isaiah Jackson throwback jersey. So far, Jason hadn’t seen his brother, and unless he turned all the way around, he wouldn’t even know he was there.

Until the game was over and Jason probably wouldn’t have played one single minute.    

“OK, this is it boys. Get out there and win,” Cory’s dad said. “We all want to go home happy.”

Four of them gathered for a hand-stack. Only three of them ran out onto the court.

It isn’t fair, Cory thought. Doesn’t Jason want to go home happy too?

But didn’t grown-ups always say “life’s not fair”? Besides, it wasn’t his fault his dad was the coach and had picked the team. Cory hadn’t done anything wrong.

Except it didn’t feel good to feel this bad. There would always be plenty of other times, but this one should have been Jason’s—and it still could be.

The whistle blew. The clock was set to 10 minutes.    

Cory, Matt, and Will ran out onto the floor. Cory shouted, “Hey guys . . . flying chest bump!” When he came down, Cory rolled his ankle, letting his legs crumple underneath him.

I should whimper a little. OK, maybe a lot.

Cory whimpered.

His father jumped up immediately and ran onto the court. “What happened? What’s wrong? Can you get up? Can you play?”

“It’s my ankle, Dad. It hurts real bad. I think I broke it.” 

“You barely fell,” his dad said, kneeling down. “Let me see that.” 

When his dad touched his foot, Cory let out an Academy Award-winning yelp. Matt, Will, Jason, the two refs, and the coach from the other team all crowded over him.

“This kid isn’t playing anymore today,” one of the officials said. He looked up at Cory’s dad. “You got an alternate?”    

This trophy wasn’t one of those that unscrewed from the bottom and fell apart before you got home. No, this was real, shiny metal and a solid platform. It was huge, and it went to the winners of the Three-on-Three Invitational Showcase Tournament. Jason had been on fire, and they had won the final game, 54-53. 

Cory was sitting on the bench with an ice pack on his foot, but his teammates made him hobble up for the photo, his arm slung over Jason’s shoulder for support.

“Say ‘Champions!’ ” the photographer called out. She snapped the picture. It wasn’t until then that Jason looked up and saw his brother. He was in the stands, clapping his hands, stamping and hollering.

“Way to go, J-man!” his brother shouted.

Jason’s face lit up. “I can’t believe it. That’s my brother,” he said. “Cory, that’s my brother up there. I didn’t think he’d be home . . . He came to see me . . . and how lucky that I got to play!” He stopped, and his eyes darted to Cory’s ankle. “Oh, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“It’s fine,” Cory said, because it was. It really was.

Everyone started packing up, throwing away water cups, grabbing their sweats, and putting their basketball sneakers back into their gym bags. Cory would have to tell his dad eventually, maybe even tonight.

There would be plenty of other tournaments.

But today everyone got to go home happy.

Especially Cory.

This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue.  

Audio ()
Activities (7)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Audio ()
Activities (7) Download All Activities
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

In the story, Cory and Jason display teamwork, sacrifice, and sportsmanship. Reinforce these values with  some incredible true stories from Olympic history.  

Competing in sports can be tough. This article from KidsHealth offers tips on how to handle challenging situations and encourages your students to practice good sportsmanship.  

Teamwork is essential to many sports-and it’s also an important skill to promote in the classroom! Challenge your students to build their problem-solving, communication, and cooperation skills with these activities.    

More About the Story


Problem and solution, setting, descriptive language, inference, character, compare and contrast, author’s craft, character’s motivation, interpreting text, opinion writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

On one level, this realistic-fiction story is about a youth basketball tournament. On another level, it examines the differences (in fairness and enjoyment) between earning an advantage and simply having one.


The story is told from the main character’s point of view (but in third person). It’s chronological, but gaps between sections require the reader to make inferences.


The story includes some challenging academic vocabulary, such as legendary and strategies, as well as rhetorical questions and metaphors.

Knowledge Demands 

A general understanding of the game of basketball will aid comprehension.   

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)  

  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 11.
  • Storyworks fiction is a “kit” with close-reading questions right on the page to help students understand the story and to practice questioning and monitoring comprehension—strategies they can apply to any story.
  • Point out to students the bubbles in the margins of the story and the arrows that connect each one to a sentence in bold. Preview the questions in the bubbles with them.

Vocabulary (10 minutes)

  • Distribute our vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story.
  • Vocabulary words include megaphone, stats, legendary, whimper, and hobble.

2. Close Reading

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the story independently or listen to the audio as they follow along.

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Read the story again as a class, pausing to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Answers follow.
  • Discuss the critical-thinking question.

Answers to Close-Reading Questions

  • Setting (p. 11) Cory is at an athletic shoe store named The Foot Palace, where he hopes to buy a pair of very popular new sneakers.
  • Descriptive Language (p. 11) This shows that Cory is excited about the possibility of getting the sneakers—and also anxious that the store will sell out of his size before he gets to the front of the line.
  • Inference (p. 11) You can infer that Cory’s father says something to the cashier that convinces him to give Cory’s dad special treatment—allowing Cory to get the sneakers without waiting in line. This shows that Cory’s father is willing to ignore what’s fair (waiting his turn in line) to try to get what he wants.
  • Character (p. 12) Cory might be thinking that it’s not fair that he ended up with the sneakers, instead of the boy in the hoodie. He may feel guilty but believes that there’s nothing he can do about the situation. At the same time, Cory is excited to have the shoes.
  • Inference (p. 12) Cory assumes that his father will choose the most skilled players to participate in the tournament. Cory believes this is the most fair approach and would give the team its best chance at winning. Since he’s certain that he and Jason are the best players, Cory is confident they will be selected.
  • Compare and Contrast (p. 12) For Jason, the shoes are special because his brother taught him to admire Isaiah Jackson. In contrast, Cory doesn’t have a special connection to Isaiah Jackson. He knows very little about the player and is interested in the shoes only because they’re popular and look cool.
  • Author’s Craft (p. 13) Ending the section with the list creates a dramatic effect. You can imagine that Cory and Jason are shocked to see Jason listed as the alternate. Their laughing stops suddenly when they read the list. In a similar way, the section ends abruptly after you read the list.
  • Character’s Motivation (p. 13) Cory’s dad gives reasons that focus on his relationships with Matt’s and Will’s families rather than on the boys’ basketball skills—although he points out that they’re both good players. Answers will vary for the second question.
  • Character (p. 13) At this point in the story, Cory is bothered by the unfairness of the situtation but believes that there’s nothing he can do about it. Later, as he continues to feel troubled, Cory decides that he must come up with a solution that lets Jason play.
  • Character (p. 14) Jason is almost certainly disappointed that he’s not playing in the tournament but still enthusiastically supports his teammates. For Cory, watching the best player behave so selflessly emphasizes how unfair it is that Jason is not playing. This makes Cory feel worse.
  • Inference (p. 14) Seeing Jason’s brother causes Cory to believe even more strongly that Jason should be playing. Cory is upset that Jason’s brother came to surprise and support Jason but will not get to see him play.
  • Identifying a Problem (p. 14) Cory’s feelings are in conflict. He is struggling with knowing that the situation is not his fault and wanting to do something to change it.
  • Identifying a Solution (p. 15) Cory decides to fake an injury so that Jason, as alternate, can play.
  • Inference (p. 15) The mention of the trophy lets you know right away that Cory and Jason’s team won the tournament.
  • Character (p. 15) Cory is happy for two reasons: His team won, and he found a way to make sure Jason got to play.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • Answer the question asked in the subhead, “What does it mean to be a champion?” Who are the champions in the story? (interpreting text) Answers will vary.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Problem and Solution

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

To help struggling readers with making inferences, play the audio of the story as students follow along in their magazines. Pause at the end of each section to discuss what happened, and together write a one- or two-sentence summary.

For Advanced Readers

Invite students to write an additional scene for the story in which Cory tells his father about faking his injury so that Jason can play in the tournament.

For ELL Students

Have students find the words earlier and faster on page 11, and better and worse on page 13. Explain that the -er ending means more: more early and more fast. Better and worse are irregular forms, meaning more good and more bad. Go over superlative forms (earliest, etc.), then have students practice using the words in sentences.

For Social-Emotional Learning

Hold a class discussion on teamwork. Ask students to describe what qualities team members need to make their group effective. Post answers on the board, and then have the class determine if Cory and his teammates possess the traits identified by your students.