Head In The Game
Want to clear your head? Want to stop feeling sorry for yourself because your basketball team failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the 18th consecutive year? Then go to a 7th-grade basketball game.
You'll need some background here, so let's start there. For the last 14 years I've weaved my personal life into my writing, and I've probably referenced a lot of this before, so I'll start by tying some of those things together for you.
I grew up in Highland, Illinois. Which meant that my entire freshman year at UIUC was spent saying "no, not Highland Park - Highland, down by St. Louis." My love/hate relationship with the Braggin' Rights game grew out of growing up 29 miles from The Arch (but on the orange side of the river).
In the summers while in college, I worked at a restaurant down at Lake of the Ozarks (halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City). Somehow my friend Brad and I convinced my mom and dad to let us live at the family lake house for three entire summers. The first summer was just Brad and I. The next two summers we talked them into letting four of us live there. There were only two rules: clear out when the family was coming down for a weekend and no parties. We went 1 for 2.
Brad played D-III basketball in St. Louis and I, uh, joined Orange Krush to watch basketball. That first summer (1992), we brought a weight bench down to the lake. He was working out to prepare for basketball the next winter. I was working out because in 1991 I had discovered that you could go get a bowl Frosted Flakes any time you wanted in the Forbes-Hopkins-Garner cafeteria.
That's enough of a background to set the scene here. Fast forward to the end of the Arkansas game on Thursday. I'm sitting up in the pressbox beyond depressed. My phone buzzes and it's a text from Brad saying that his twins will be playing in a 7th-grade basketball tournament up in the Champaign area this weekend. He sent me their schedule. Here was my response:
The timing was perfect. Brad's twins, Trey and Trent, had wanted me to come to one of their games. At the Virginia tailgate last September, I'm pretty sure I promised them that I would go to at least one of their games this winter. Illinois lost, I was headed back to Champaign on Friday, that gym in Philo is only 15 minutes from my house, my wife is in Idaho this weekend so Illinois losing meant that I'd just be sitting around here moping by myself... this works perfect.
I attended the game last night and they dominated. It was a weaker opponent, so there was a running clock most of the second half, but it was still fun. We went to Philo Tavern afterwards and despite my "I'm not watching one more second of the NCAA Tournament" vow, the Purdue game was on and I got to watch the final four minutes. Boiler down.
At dinner I did two things:
- Told Brad's assistant coach every story I could remember from our time at the lake.
- Explained to Trey and Trent once again that I set up their mom and dad on their first date so they exist in the world because of me.
Their second game was this afternoon, and that's why I'm writing this. You're finally caught up to the present. Let's go back to my question at the start.
Want to feel better about sports? Attend a 7th grade basketball game. One inside the gym at St. Thomas in Philo is just about perfect. It goes way, WAY beyond just "these kids are out here having fun." It even exceeds "after a full winter of wringing my hands over Illini basketball, it's fun to just watch a simple game." Hopefully I can capture it in the rest of this article.
Let's start with the thing that dominates 7th grade basketball: growth spurts. Some 7th graders are nearly six foot tall and some 7th graders are 4'-3". 7th grade basketball is usually going to be decided by which kids have hit their growth spurt and which kids have not. And, in a way, that's the case with Brad's twins. Trent has hit his growth spurt (he's taller than me now). Trey has not (yet). I'll give you a photo so you have some faces for the names. Trey on the left, Trent on the right, blogger in a zip-up hoodie and sweatpants in the middle.
NOW we're fully caught up. To the game.
Trey lived up to his name. Trent (growth spurt) plays inside. Trey (waiting for the growth spurt) is on the wing. And Trey couldn't miss. In the first half alone he was 4 for 6 from three and had 20 points. Yes, Illini fans, it's possible for one player to hit four threes in one half. Even in 7th grade.
The best part of his performance - to me - was the parents from the other team. One dad just could not handle Trey's accuracy from beyond the arc. In first half, every time Trey touched the ball, the dad would yell "shooter!" and "get in his face!". There's having fun in the stands at a 7th grade basketball game, and then there's listening to dad's yell "SHOOTER" every time your friend's son touches the ball.
Trent ended up scoring 15 and Trey had 25. Highland won 83-66 over Riverside-Brookfield. And I should do the thing again: "Yes, Illini fans, it's possible for a team to score 83 points in one basketball game. And this game only had 32 minutes."
The whole thing made me... homesick? In a good way? I suddenly had this longing for a fall Saturday where my dad and I would rake leaves all day and then burn them in the driveway (right there in the middle of town - I miss small town 1980's) and then go inside, watch college football, and eat my mom's chili. There's something so fulfilling about watching a basketball game through that lens (especially after watching 33 basketball games through a frustration lens all winter).
This was home for me. The other tall kid on the team, Braden, also scored 25. When my dad and I went to rent a tiller on some Saturday morning in April in 1986, we rented it from Braden's grandfather. In the top row sat Trey and Trent's grandmother keeping score, just like she did when I was the PA announcer in high school and Brad was getting the most out of his five fouls (while scoring 18). I'm texting our other high school friends things like "uh, Brad is... actually a really good coach?"
And because they had "Highland" across their chest, I wanted to learn the name of every player. The other set of twins on the team, Jude and Gabe, are the guards who make it go. If you need a fast break, Mikey is your man. Justin reminded me of me on the basketball court at that age (I don't know if that's good or bad for you, J). Noah scored 7 - that's him on the free throw line in my photo at the top - and don't forget Phoenix, future Mississippi Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Start your preparations now, Jerseyville.
Brad just sent me a team photo from after one of their Tournaments, so I'll give you all the faces to go with the names. From left to right, that's Phoenix, Noah, Trey, Justin, Gabe, Jude, Trent, Braden, and Mikey. Coach Brad on the left, Coach Eli on the right:
Two games and I'm all in on this team. Two games and I remember how much I like sitting on the bleachers in a Catholic school gym listening to the squeak of sneakers. Two games and I'm ready to say that Trent and Trey can be the basketball version of Chase and Sydney Brown.
And at the end of the game, even when getting blown out, the Riverside-Brookfield team reminded me that sports are just the greatest. First, a ball gets wedged between the backboard and the rim (just like our game on Thursday) and Trent - taller-than-me-and-he's-only-in-7th-grade Trent - has the hops to go up and dislodge it. This got one of the R-B kids so fired up that he went over and high-fived Trent. Game recognize game.
Then, with a minute left, Riverside-Brookfield really wanted to get one kid a three pointer. When he put that three in the air, every one of his teammates leaned in like it was Furman's three to beat Virginia. He missed, unfortunately, but one of his teammates picked him up by yelling "SO CLOSE!".
Yep, I needed all of that. My head is squarely back in the game now. A five-hour drive home from Des Moines feeling sorry for myself and then two 32-minute 7th grade basketball games got me right. It's a game, it's a game, it's a game.
And it can be so much fun.