Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Basketball Jones

For the record, this was written for the Phillips newsletter, whatever it's called, last year.  My daughter's a rising 8th grader there now.

Chapel Hill has always been a basketball town, but like so many other things in life (young readers will understand this in 20 years), it was so much bigger and purer when we were young. UNC basketball was the cultural heart of the town. The ACC had only 8 teams then, and all of them were good. On any given night, anyone really could lose to anyone. When the ACC tournament came around in March, some teachers (our favorites!) would bring little black and white televisions into the classrooms on the first day of the tournament – always a Friday -- and we would watch the games for the last couple of periods of school. And it wasn’t like the principal didn’t know.

The coach then was Dean Smith, who defined the spirit of the time and place. An unfailingly polite, flat-toned Kansan, Smith succeeded on the court, but was more important for what he did off of it. We natives like to think of Chapel Hill as a bastion of enlightenment, but it is in fact in the South, which means it was once segregated. The schools were desegregated only in 1966, and around this time Smith worked with civil rights leaders to desegregate local businesses and neighborhoods, and was since that time a beacon of good sense and manners for everyone.

Back on earth, as us 7th graders rose from childhoods cocooned in elementary schools (I went to Seawell), our visions of the world expanded first to grasp that not only were there other elementary schools, there was a whole other junior high school (Phillips was a junior high, grades 7-9, back then). At the time, there was only Culbreth, so the cross-town rivalry fairly described our universe. And it was an unadulterated rivalry. It wasn't that one side of town was fancier than the other or anything, we just wanted to beat them, and they us, because they were there.

This was before club sports had become prominent, drawing attention and energy away from school sports. Basketball was king, and it was only natural that the Phillips-Culbreth basketball game was larger than life. As game days approached, excitement levels got out of hand. The gyms were always packed, and were steamy from overoccupancy, exertion, and sheer anticipation. Phillips was led by Ranzino Smith, who would go on to play at UNC, and who always brought the house down by dunking during games despite being only 5' 8" or so. But it was a team effort, and both Phillips and Culbreth typified the era of relatively early integration by featuring a balance of white and black players (including current Phillips Athletics Director John Beyle). Players from both schools look back fondly to this day about the discipline forged by the coaches, of fingertip push-ups and wind sprints without end, and strong team bonds.

I personally had been and remained a very skinny kid, and never had a real hope of playing basketball for the school. I played soccer, and we were good and had our own real rivalry with Culbreth, but soccer was kind of a marginal sport then. We didn't command the attention that basketball did, particularly the attention of the girls. So we wanted to prove ourselves on court. On Friday nights my mom would drive me to the Phillips gym, which was often open for free play, and I would practice, whether anyone else was there or not. At lunch when the weather was good I would wolf down my food and then try to wedge myself into the games on the blacktop by the gym. I was fast and could jump but I couldn't shoot, but I wanted to be a player nonetheless, so I was probably a little out of control, pushing too hard, fouling people left and right. The more talented guys would often taunt me, "come on, soccer boy," but I shrugged it off as best I could. I remember one time Clarkston Hines - who went on to star in football at Duke and even played pro football – barked at me, almost certainly after I fouled him: "There's only room for one Clark on this court." And he didn't mean me. But I stayed out there because, for an early teen boy with something to prove, it was the only place that seemed to matter.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Excellent essay, amigo.