Still, we survive, even thrive. Why?
Two words: tourney time.
Outsiders term our annual basketball obsession “March Madness.” We call it “March Magic.”
More than five decades ago, I experienced my first taste of it in a rural elementary gymnasium packed to the rafters. The fans amazed me more than the skinny eighth-grade team. Upstanding grown-ups shrieked from wooden bleachers like gangs of outraged crows. Teachers popped up and down, much more fun at games than in the classroom! At half-time, I exchanged my nickel for wondrous Beech-Nut Fruit Stripe gum. I chewed all five flavors at once.
Nothing, however, compared with the games’ true marvel: the referees. A bleat of their whistles, and players and fans stopped in their tracks. Even our school principal, whom I believed was a first cousin of God, stood at attention.
One referee power outshone them all: with upraised fingers, these omnipotent beings could change the scoreboard.
Though I tried to “score” points for my team, the Taylorsville Bears, holding up two fingers, I did not possess the magic.
Gradually, my awe of the game outgrew my wonder at the referees. Their movements paled compared to the raw poetry of farm kids running, guarding, shooting a ball into a basket with awkward grace.
One year, when county tourney time arrived, the Taylorsville Bears were the team to beat.
In the early afternoon, Taylorsville defeated Wayne. Our evil arch-rivals, Rock Creek, pounded on Petersville. Anyone who has experienced small-town basketball can write the script that evening: the hats-off, hands-over-hearts moment of thin civility during the national anthem. The Coliseum roar of a crowd segregated by school colors. The wild choreography of young bodies driving, diving, shooting the basketball. The blast of songs by a Bobble-headed band. The final screams of winners smothered by popcorn confetti as fans stormed the court.
Of course, we won. Do you think I’d write this if Rock Creek had beat us?
March Magic persists, yet consolidation and categorization have changed sports scenery. The sacred barn-like 1920s gymnasium where I watched my first tourney game disappeared years ago. Fruit Stripe gum can be ordered on the Internet — for more than a nickel.
While I still love basketball, I don’t get carried away. When March Magic tugs at me, I wouldn’t think of trying to up my team’s score by raising two fingers.
Now I raise three.
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