At the high school where I teach, we’re known for pretty horrible in every sport except one: baseball/softball. The evidence: our football team has won literally two games in the four years that I’ve worked here, our soccer teams are registered as “junior varsity” and still barely break .500, and the boys swim team would have gone defunct this year had our Driver’s Ed teacher not talked a scrappy bunch of ragamuffins into signing up.
We’re like those really horrible teams in Disney movies—the ones where a likeable yet completely unathletic group of boys goes from zeroes to heroes in the course of an hour and a half—except we’re just likeable and unathletic. That whole Underdog-Coming-From-Behind-To-Win-The-Championship thing never happens for us.
Even in softball—the one sport where our kids actually flirt with state championships perennially—the hype of the season goes into June, when there are no kids left around to paint their faces blue, wear Spartan t-shirts, and gallivant about like rabid soccer fans in Liverpool.
It’s been disheartening, to say the least, to watch my loveable high-schoolers have nothing to cheer about. This winter, however, one group of boys put the spirit back into our hallways.
And it was really, really fun to watch.
Our varsity basketball team made it to the Elite 8 in this year’s 2A tournament for the first time in 17 years, and in attending that final game where they eliminated by a farm school with a 6’11” horse anchoring the post, I realized that watching high school sports creates a much more exciting game atmosphere than any professional contest I’ve ever witnessed in person.
I’ve seen the Bulls and Bears both in live playoff games, and I’ve been to sports bars to watch a variety of home teams do their thing, including the White Sox on their way to the World Series back in 2005. While all of these experiences get fans riled up to levels only paralleled by the Rodney King riots, there’s just something impersonal about the experience.
Sure, we love the teams we grew up watching, but in the same way we as kids fall in love with a beautiful celebrity we’ll never meet. I love Brian Urlacher and Paul Konerko. Ben Gordon and Frank Thomas. If Michael Jordan asked for my hand in marriage, I’d probably say yes, to the dismay of my own current fiancée and despite Jordan’s history of gambling and infidelity. Those are things I can deal with because a die-hard Chicago sports fan, I love His Airness.
But at that super-sectional game in Macomb last week, with about a third of the student population in the stands—faces splotched in war paint, blue shirts undulating in bulk like a giant adolescent wave—and parents, teachers, and administrators joining in the cheers just across the way, I felt a deep love for sports I’ve only experienced a few times in my life.
I can think of three, actually. The first was a little league game when, in the top of the first inning, we whomped on a team 15-0 and were still going with zero outs. They forfeited the game right then and there. The second was winning an eighth grade basketball championship by hitting the final two nail-in-the-coffin free throws with seconds to go (that’s this whole other story). And the third was watching my close high school friends take a state championship every year at the Illinois State Cheerleading Championships (we had some damn fine cheerleaders).
That’s what it felt like at this game, watching kids I taught and invested small pieces of myself put every stinkin’ ounce of energy and ability their bodies could muster into something. Anything. As a teacher, you watch hundreds of kids do just enough to pass the class, or just enough to please the adults in the school. Out on that court, these boys left nothing to be desired.
Neither did the folks in the stand. There was love in the building, just like there’s love at pro sporting events, but the emotion was denser, tenser. There were no cheers out of obligation; every single one was raw support and familial encouragement. It was beautiful.
The team lost (which was probably a good thing because they would’ve gotten spanked by Peoria Manual in the next game, which was televised), but I left the experience feeling really good.
There may not be the same level of talent in high school sports, but the atmosphere is exponentially more emotional. Even more emotional than my newly-public feelings for Michael Jordan. If anyone sees him, tell him I’ve been sitting next to the phone waiting on his call for days…