Saturday, March 4, 2017
Photo by Wayne Pridemore
While nothing matches the feel of a crisp fall Friday night watching the spectacle of a good high school football game, the distance of the fans from the field, coupled with the unrecognizable nature of the helmeted players, make for a remote experience.
Basketball, on the other hand, has to be the most intimate of all the high school sports.
Fans sit within feet of the court. It's natural for passions to be aroused and for fans to try their best to help make the difference between victory and defeat for their team.
Players' faces, and their facial expressions, are distinct, as are their sweat and tears.
Fans get so close to the action, it's easy to form opinions and make judgments about players - from both teams.
I stumbled upon my first girls high school basketball game in 1999. I was blown away by the teamwork, effort, pretty passes, and artistry I saw. It was love at first sight.
The following seasons I was all in cheering for my local team, attending all their games, doing my darnedest to root them on to victory every night.
But there was a team in our league that was a juggernaut, a Goliath. They dominated, going 67-1 in league play the next four years, 98-9 overall.
They were talented, sure. But they were intimidating, too. It seemed as if they started guarding our girls as soon as they got off the bus.
They wore kneepads, mouth guards, and dour, grim expressions that never changed.
If you looked up the word 'gameface' in the dictionary, you would see their team picture. It never seemed as if they were having any fun.
They had quick guards and tall powerful post-players.
The last thing they needed was a deadly outside shooter, one who never missed. And yet, they had one.
Boy, did they ever.
She drained threes with such regularity that I demonized her, actually muttering under my breath, through clenched teeth, the following phrase every time she released a shot --- "that evil, black-hearted, soulless she-witch". And just as I got to the 'she-witch' part, the ball invariably would go through the net for three points.
Even though I'd never met her, I hated her. Not in a Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan, or a post-Mariners A-Rod way, but in a way that prevented me from imagining she could ever be capable of having any positive characteristics.
Her team won the State Championship her senior year.
The following morning the paper had a picture of her. She was leaping for joy, hugging a teammate, ponytail in full twirl.
And she was smiling.
I realized I'd never seen her, nor a single one of her teammates, smile. Ever.
For the first time, I saw her as a girl. Not as a basketball player - as a girl.
The more I looked at that photograph, the more it dawned on me that she looked a whole lot like all the girls I rooted for. A nice girl. One who probably liked the same music, movies, and TV shows as did the girls on my team. One who, just like the girls I rooted for, could be trusted to babysit their neighbors’ kids.
It occurred to me that probably the two biggest differences between her and the girls I rooted for were what color shirts they wore, and what part of town they lived in.
I kick myself to this day for not having enjoyed or appreciated that team’s excellence.
I was irrational, admittedly. Like some of the parents I see and hear at games now.
As the years have rolled by, I've changed. I still root for my team, but I don't live and die like I used to. I've come to appreciate all the players and teams I see, recognizing they're all flawed individuals (like myself), striving to find themselves and become the best they're capable of being.
And when excellence presents itself, I'm no longer blind to it. No matter what color shirt it’s wearing.