Another in a series of articles reminiscing about growing up in small town America in the 60's.
When you hear the words "March Madness" you probably think of the big, annual NCAA basketball tournament (and all the crazy betting pools you may "donate" to). But that's not what I have in mind here, although basketball is somewhat involved.
I'm referring to the terrible, gray, cold, snowy or rainy days of March in the Northeast, where I grew up in Southern New Jersey. That time of year drove me nuts as a kid, because I couldn't enjoy my usual outside play activities, and instead went bonkers being stuck inside the house (with my three younger brothers plus my sister!). The stir-craziness that ensued at home was quickly matched by the madness of the indoor mischief pursued elsewhere.
Serious (?) Basketball
I grew up in a farming community (named Vineland) that was famous for our high school football teams. Football was by far my favorite sport, and even those kids, like me, who didn't make the team, participated in informal "pickup" tackle games in our local, open fields almost year-round. But by March, the weather was too inclement and the ground was either snow-covered, or mushy melted snow and mud, or frozen solid! So we turned to a different indoor activity, basketball, which wasn't supposed to be as "rough" a sport as football, but soon turned out to be when we played it!
Our basketball "education" began when we attended the local public high school games. The school's team was never very good and lost more than they won, but they did like to put on a show (or should I say "circus") for the hometown crowd while also letting the visitors know they were in for a tough contest, win or lose. The home squad always had a few "big boys" (200 pounders from the football team) who couldn't jump but sure could stand up like a wall and smash any opponent who tried to drive the ball to the hoop (elbows also were very effective weapons)! And, if the style of play was not intimidating enough, there were the jeers and cheers and chants led by the "hoods" (I'm not talking about my friends from the neighborhood; I'm referring to our town's black leather-jacketed, grease-haired "delinquents" and "dropouts"). They reveled in bad-mouthing the opposing team. Back then, basketball uniforms were pretty skimpy, with the tops and shorts very short and tight. The hoods' taunting of the visiting team's physiques, which consisted mainly of whistling and "cat-calls", was relentless and loud. But, worse than that were the less-than-politically correct cheers the hoods began (and were often quickly followed with glee by the rest of us spectators!). I remember when we played our chief rivals, from the nearby town of Millville (yes, it was the farm boys vs. the factory workers). At least one of the referees usually came from the visiting town. So, when one of our best players kept getting fouls called against him, the entire student body, led by the hoods, stood up and screamed and chanted in protest, "elevator, elevator, we got the shaft!" As if that wasn't convincing enough, the entire crowd launched into the chant, "Hoytee, toytee, my o'moytee, who the he-- is he? Biff bamn, g-- damn, Millville referee!"(and, believe me, there were many more colorfully worded chants which I won't recount here; as we say in Jersey, just "fuggetaboudit!"). The loud criticism of the ref was often followed by pelting the ref (or the other team's fans) with popcorn. Once in a while, this raucous behavior, bordering on mayhem, got so out of hand that the cops in attendance chased the hoods around the gym, under the stands and out into the parking lot! Now that was good old entertainment!
Very Serious Basketball
Now I'm about to describe a somewhat different game and I'll use the word "basketball" very loosely. Encouraged by the outlandish behavior at the high school games, the young, teenage neighborhood boys and I played a game, on almost every cold, winter day at the local YMCA, which seemingly started out as basketball. But it soon degenerated into another mischievous March endeavor. We had an organized league at the "Y", where we played on teams named for the town's service clubs (like "Jaycees") and we wore reversible red and grey jerseys (so you knew what team you were on). However, the Y made the mistake of appointing another high school kid as the proctor and referee, and that was asking for trouble! When that proctor was often late (or after he left), the real game ensued - - what we fondly named "Animal Ball"! Suddenly, there were no rules and no fouls. The only goal was to get the ball into the hoop at the other end of the court and each team was committed to it, no matter what! Tackling (and crashing the opponent onto a hardwood floor, ouch!), running and knocking people over on the way to the hoop, and throwing the ball at opponents' heads (if all else failed) were all "legal"! I particularly loved it when, after the initial rough-housing, the taller boys decided to just put the shorter kids on their shoulders and we ran up and down the court trying (usually unsuccessfully) to dunk the ball.
We did, unfortunately, get caught at these unruly antics from time to time, but we made good mischief out of that situation too, by running over to the room housing the indoor pool and seeing who could jump in (with clothes and sneakers on) and make the biggest "cannon ball" splash! (Just good, clean fun!)
But all that March madness was nothing compared to what went on when my public high school team went to play the only other high school in town, a private one, at their place.
Very, Very Serious Basketball!
Before going further with this story, I just want to let you know that many of my friends and neighbors went to the private high school (sometimes one kid in a family went to the public high school and another to the private one!). So although some following details of this story may seem biased or politically incorrect, I assure you they are being recounted light-heartedly.
Back to the story. The private school had only one sport it seriously competed in with other schools - - basketball. It didn't have a large student body and it didn't have a big field for football, baseball or track. It only needed 8 or 10 boys to form their basketball team and it had a small auditorium that it converted, with pull out stands, into a basketball court.
The games at the private high school were incredibly heated (and I don't mean the inside temperature, which they may have turned up intentionally to their advantage, but the heat generated by the 500 to 1,000 people crammed into only about 5 rows of stands on either side of the court). To the private school, these games meant everything (including the town's "bragging rights" for a full year)! They were very well prepared for battle and totally committed to victory. The building was so tiny that the ends of the court barely fit. The backboards hung from the walls and if an opposing player tried to drive to the basket he was not so gently directed face-first into the concrete! Knowing this, the private school's players didn't have to be particularly tall, big or fast, just good dribblers and outside shooters, which they definitely were! Allegedly, they also knew exactly where they could (and could not) dribble the ball because the floor was made of linoleum tiles and they knew which ones were old and loose and caused the ball not to bounce correctly (which definitely helped them steal the ball on defense!). Not only could they shoot but they repeatedly and meticulously practiced from certain spots on the floor, and they reputedly marked those exact spots on the tiles! They also had an ancient game clock with moving hands that seemed to always get stuck when they were behind or they needed a few more seconds at the end of a game!
But perhaps the scariest, most physical advantage the private school had was that the spectator seats were located inches away from the court and always occupied by their belligerent fans and mean teachers (as the story goes, the teachers enjoyed cultivating their reputation for being mean because bad kids who got kicked out of public school often were sent to the private school to get some discipline!). I remember the time a friend of mine, who played on our public high school team, launched himself out of bounds trying to gather a loose ball. He landed into the stands, falling between two rows of seats, at the feet of the home school's teachers - - and they started kicking and punching him and wouldn't let him get up and back into the game, until the referee came over to break it up! That was some very, very serious March madness!
However, I do have to point out that, after all those warlike games, many of the kids from both schools would meet up, make up and have fun at the local pizza "parlor" right across the street! All was forgotten and forgiven (at least until next year's game)!
Please Keep This
"On the QT"
(Or Maybe Not!)
Just to let you in on a secret, my parents never, ever knew about all this March mischief, nor did most of the parents in town, who just dropped their kids off at the Y or high school games. So please don't tell my 93 year-old Mom about all this wildness now!
And, by the way, you probably shouldn't share certain of your high school "moments" with your parents either. But how about sharing them with your kids or grandkids? (When they're old enough to enjoy your stories but sensible enough not to repeat your bad behavior!) I'm definitely going to send a copy of this article to my children. After all, this is some of the great personal "legacy" stuff that never gets passed down in an estate plan!