Hoop Dreaming: Remember When High School Hoops Was Everything?

jabari parker simeon

I would like to think that had I seen Jesus’ jump shot, I would consider it less perfect than Michael Jordan’s.

However, I’ve never seen it. Perhaps it was better than Mike’s.

There is a topsy-turvy moment about town. We’ve celebrated Jordan and mourned Dr. Buss. The television has found a few more college games as the NCAA tournament draws nearer. An all-star game full of all stars and bereft of meaning came and went, like it does nowadays.

For me, I head out to the local gymnasiums to watch the beautiful game bounce down the court. It is high school playoff time, and that means I’m adding and subtracting, reading body language and scoreboards, taking photos and answers.

Perhaps the most perfect of all competitive ball, the high school game is engrained with those who play to play. It also features the bench players needed for roster spots and the stars who think they are better than they are.

I’m not interested in the private academies that recruit fantastic players and send them away to big-time universities. Their game is much less pure; it is too pretty to be a high school game. Instead, I like the scrappy kids who usually play football or the tallest kid in school who has a spot on the team because he can rebound. There is poetic justice in their presence. There is empathy for them.

Incredibly, recent games I’ve covered have come down to final shots and critical turnovers. It seems that is the trend around tournament time. When March is around the corner, we find out who is made of what and how much of it they have left. The vagueness of "what" is intended. It is indescribable.

Back when cable boxes and computers weren’t a prerequisite to live in the United States of America, local teams drove the community. It was never a spectacle the likes of football in West Texas. This wasn’t wrestling in Iowa. It was just good basketball. No matter the venue, you saw familiar faces. For many, it was a family affair. The kids babysat themselves with a ball and the court. Being around the court seemed to be the same as being on it.

The gyms filled up, and the air conditioning went out. It was hot and sweaty and loud and crude at times. The slice of passion was served with freedom to yell at the refs – who were mostly honest people looking to make a few extra dollars. But hey, they knew what they signed up for.

These games were no different than the pros to me as a child. We followed the team across the state, we watched the games and we talked about them on the ride home. Everywhere they went, we went. Every time they lost, we lost. We never wondered what there was to do. We went to the games. It connected us to the team, to each other and to the community.

Now, as I head out to the local gyms in the same place I did years ago, the stands are bare. Parents are frantic about their children's playing time. The community still exists within the fans, but there are so few around. Instead, they are watching DVR’d episodes of whatever-the-popular-HBO show is now. They can watch every professional game in the stratosphere without leaving Maple Drive. It’s just about what’s convenient rather than what is fulfilling.

That fulfillment of watching kids grow up and enjoy success is not lost on this sportswriter. Around this time of year, the popcorn is saltier than it usually is. It’s hotter too. The gyms have a little electricity, and the refs sweat more than they usually do.

For one moment, a kid can hit a shot that’s right out of history. There, he can hit the game winner like Jordan did in Utah. He can smile and laugh with teammates after the game over pizza. While the attitude of some has changed (as it always does with time), there are still perfect and naïve moments to be seen.

I feel bad for those who go elsewhere and miss the excitement. I’m damn lucky to get paid to do it because I’d probably do it for free anyway.

As these kids grow up, they will envision that they were once as good as Jordan for a play. Well, maybe today’s kids don’t remember Jordan. After all, he’s 50 years old now. They don’t want to be like Mike. Rather, they want to be like Kobe or LeBron. I suppose that is the wheel that will always turn; kids will adapt to be like the players they see in crunch time.

In my kitchen, there was a plastic hoop with circular score dials. Another one was a cardboard cutout of a player as the backboard. Both were Jordan endorsements.

I wanted to be like Mike and like the senior on the local team. I just wanted to be on the court like these saviors of the game. That was the altar of my youth. I was their disciple.

And had I seen Jesus hit a jump shot, I suppose he’d be up there too.

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