Every year around this time I start to reminisce. It might be the sounds of the pep band echoing off the walls of a gymnasium or the sight of a team bus rolling down the highway that rekindles the fire of basketball fever. To quote Christopher Walken,” I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell.” There is nothing quite like a rendition of Joy to The World or Final Countdown to get you in the mood to watch a District Tournament.
I remember fondly my first 8C District Tournament. It all started around Thanksgiving weekend my freshman year of high school when I learned how I could letter in basketball. Lettering in basketball as a freshman was almost impossible at my school. It just didn’t happen. Receiving a letter my freshman year would require hard work, sacrifice and a whole lot of luck. Well I started out that season playing on the JV squad. Those were the good old times when the most important things in your life were the games that tipped off just after school got out.
Well the season went along and I could tell my play was improving. It was coming down the wire with who would make the roster for the tournament team. For tournaments, teams’ rosters are expanded from the usual 10 players to 12. I was in the hunt for one of those two final spots. I was competing with a junior and a sophomore to make the tournament team.
I will never forget the afternoon before my final JV home game that season. Coach Gary McManus, whom I still love to death, beckoned me over to the bench where he was sitting. We were the only two in the gym and I had this feeling that he was going to make a decision on who he was taking to the 8C District Tournament. As we sat down I had one of those Saved by the Bell moments where Zach Morris says, “time out” and everything stops and he is alone with his thoughts. All I could think about was that I was going to make the tournament team. Then I stopped thinking and finally started listening just in time to hear Coach McManus say that he was going to place the other two players on the roster and leave me off.
I was crushed. Devastated. Shocked.
My mind was racing because the goal that I set at the beginning of the season wasn’t going to happen. I so wanted so badly to letter in basketball my freshman year. Then I asked Coach McManus a question, “Could I still practice with the team?”
Coach seemed stunned by my question. He hesitated and then said I could still practice with the team and be listed in the program as an alternate. Being an alternate for the tournament team was better than nothing in my opinion. I would only letter if someone couldn’t play in a game because of injury or some other goofy scenario.
Well the first game of the tournament our team lost to a talented Centerville squad. The Miners were just too much for us, but the atmosphere was something else. In a shirt and tie I sat on the bench and gazed around at the banners on the wall, the bands as their music bounced off the wall, and the capacity crowd that filled the Paris Gibson Middle School Gymnasium. It was wonderful.
The next day our team had to play the Highwood Mountaineers. Loser-out action is always tough on teams. Usually tipping off at 8:00 AM the games are only attended by families, really close friends, and the crowd of basketball fans that attend nearly every basketball game. By the way that last group is my favorite. They are the true basketball fans and people you wan’t to be around. I refer to them as the hospitality room crowd. You want to be a part of this group.
Now back to the basketball game. I showed up at 7:00 AM with my gym bag in hand. It was just in case something crazy happened. Well something crazy did happen. The junior that was picked over me to be on the roster didn’t come to the game for some crazy reason. I got the nod from Coach McManus to dress out and got to emerge from the locker room with the team and warm up in front of the less than capacity crowd. It was wonderful. You would have thought I was warming up in Madison Square Garden by the grin on my face. With the pep band playing in the background I ran through the layup lines and the game eventually tipped off. The team ended up losing but in the waning moments of the contest I got to hit the floor at the 8C District Tournament. It was a dream come true.
That is a memory I will never forget. It always comes back around this time of year. Districts is a special time for high school basketball players. Even if you’ve gone 0-2 for the tournament as a team, sometimes the individual goals that are achieved can make all that hard work worth while.
I guess that’s why I love hearing Joy to the World so much when I walk into a cold gymnasium on a Saturday morning. Because even on a morning when only family, a few friends, and the hospitality room crowd are in attendance, dreams can come true.