The gravel parking lot of the high school is arranged like sardines in a can, pickup trucks with streaky layers of winter dirt wedged between Detroit nostalgia and Japanese invention, no late-model flash to be found for at least two counties.
The heat of the cafeteria beckons through a fluorescent-lit open door, the home crowd having arrived early for the taco salad/chili supper fundraiser — a welcome sight indeed after our two-hour drive from Kansas City.
We wait in line behind Wrangler jeans and John Deere hats that testify to the salty byproduct of honest labor while families of toddlers greet players’ parents and Courtwarming candidates shimmer and sparkle their way through the crowd.
Then the visiting team emerges from the locker room in a mass of citified blue.
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“Thanks for coming guys,” my son says cheerfully. “We’re 10 minutes from Nebraska!”
We pay concession stand prices for home-cooked food and promise to return at halftime for pie. The upper row of the bleachers gives us the perfect vantage point for this parade of authenticity: little girls in pink cowboy boots, the police chief and booster-club moms. This is a community that finds meaning in hard work and taking care of one another, a place where the Courtwarming King’s extracurricular activities are fishing and working on the farm, and not because either might be a unique qualifier on his college application.
The game is hard-fought and I am contemplating the weight of home-court advantage when our boys downshift into an unused gear and begin to pack it away, neatly, efficiently, like folding an American flag. The drive home through February cold is dark and quiet, perfect for replaying images of stands filled with neighbors and grandparents, junior high kids and coaches’ babies. They have been sitting in those bleachers since November. The lucky ones will be there until March.
It has been 10 years since I stepped into a gym for my first high school basketball game. That first year, when my daughter Hannah climbed into the minivan after tryouts, burst into tears and said, “I made it,” I exhaled, having no idea I would hold my breath for the next decade.
Basketball was not our only sport, so I am no snobbish purist, but this much I can say: It is a game that wants commitment. You start in November, and if you are a mortal and not a god, there is always the question of whether you will be chosen. If the answer is yes, then three or four hours a day becomes six days a week for the next four months.
December is the warmup, a few games here and there; winter break, when the days are short and practices long. And then in January you slide into the bleachers for the long haul, look around and know that for the next two months and change, these are the people who will bear witness to your life. Three times a week, dinner is hot dogs or nachos during whatever game comes before yours. The downloads begin at warmups: tales of irritating bosses and wedding plans, breakups and booster-club dinners, layoffs and life.
Someone’s daughter sings the National Anthem a cappella. There is a collective, sharp intake of breath, and for four sets of eight minutes, you live and die with every play, scanning the bench for moods if players are out and praying them through rebounds and referees if they are in. The buzzer sounds. Teenagers tug at jerseys and wipe away sweat as they trot or trudge to the locker room, and the woman next to you turns and says, “... and garlic bread and salad. We need one more family to chip in.”
By February, the cards are dealt. Someone is generally unhappy, though if the team is winning, their discontentment is contained like grassland after a burnoff. In a losing season, it is a cancer, anger and blame leaping wildly from bench to bleachers, court to concession — chattering flames that lick at every high-top. In these seasons, 28 days can feel like a lifetime.
It can also feel like a minute.
In those years, when your son or daughter is one cog in a well-oiled machine that hums its way through a Midwestern winter, it is always spring in the gym. The delicate balance of talent and personality, of discipline and fun, recalibrates daily. Those who contribute are humble, and those who don’t are encouraging. Ten players are of one mind, a coach remembers the joy of play, and parents are an afterthought — the people who pick up the tab after games and bask in the reflected glory of young people reaping success where they have sown effort.
Two times in those 10 years we had such seasons, girls and then boys winning a game that meant they would play in a college gym at the state tournament. There were T-shirts and inside jokes, fruit snacks and Gatorade, hotel rooms and hot dogs for one last road trip.
And in that place where no one is at home, you realize that the advantage doesn’t live in a gym with your glory years hanging on the wall. It lives in the pony-tailed freshman next to you, who will play for three more years with the memory of that season nudging her on. In the coach who will come to your wedding and the mother (not your own) who is proud of you for going to college. You see that your upper hand was the dad who knew you were broke and handed you 20 bucks for gas every time you brought his son home from practice.
Hours and days. Weeks and years. Over just like that.
Emerging from the gym onto city streets or into the ink of a rural night, there is wooden floor and memory behind; pickup games and seasons in the bleachers ahead. The home-court advantage is a gift for life.
Kate Forristall is a writer, arts fundraiser and former Shawnee Mission South booster-club parent. Since September, she has been traveling the country for IRLProject.com, a road trip to visit 24 people she follows on Twitter.