Lord, now lettest thou thy Servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen it all now, boy. And what I saw at the Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was the Rockets of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys winning the State 7A Arkansas High School Basketball Championship.
Let us put this in perspective. The Rockets have been around since 1930. They have never gotten past the semi-finals. That's 78 years, if you are counting, which is a positively Cubsian history of incompetence and futility.
Actually, it's not as shocking as all of that. They have been a player or two away from being respectable for the past 8 years or so. The Seniors on the team have played together for 3 years. 3 of the guys played Middle School ball for Holy Souls down the street. So today marked the first time that three Holy Souls Wabbits-yes, Wabbits-played on a championship team.
It seemed like half the People's Republic of Hillcrest was there in Hot Springs to watch the local boys play. On the road to Hot Springs I noticed that every other car seemed to have a purple C on the gold background stuck to the rear windshield.
I sat next to my friend Steve, with whom I have watched the Rockets be on the receiving end of numerous ass-kickings over the 3 years of his reign as Principal and Maximum Dictator over there. To say he was wound tight is like saying Wally Hall is illiterate. As I looked over the scene below us, my mind drifted back to one of the happiest memories of my own youth.
My father and I used to go to the State basketball tournament together. This started when I was in Junior High although it may have been earlier. My father was from Indiana. Which of course made him the world's biggest goddamn expert on schoolboy hoops. Of course, even though I found his incessant talk about the superiority of the way Indiana ran it's tournament (everybody used to get in and all the schools big and small played each other) I had to concede he had some props. Up until that point in time, the best player I had ever seen was Central's Fred Allen. Since then the best guys I have seen were Little Rock Hall's Sidney Moncrief, Catholic's Chris Bennett(whom they cheated like hell to get), Parkview's Dexter Reed, Russelville's Corliss Williamson and Central's Joe Johnson.
Dad saw Oscar Robertson when he played for Crispus Attucks High in Indianapolis. I had to give him that one.
And although he never lived to see it, "Hoosiers," a film about the fictional Huskers of tiny Hickory High School winning the Indiana High School crown despite being coached by Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper became one of the most beloved sports films of all time mainly because even people that didn't like sports loved "Hoosiers." So I would have had to give him that one too.
But mainly I remember all those nights out at old Barton Coliseum with my Dad watching hoops. We get there early and watch the teams for the first game warm up. As you might imagine, Dad liked to go watch the country schools, the ones from little wide places in the road that I had never heard of at that point in my development. I remember watching, in no certain order of importance, Pyatt, Rector, Harrison, Desha Central, Fort Smith Northside, Pine Bluff, Alma, El Dorado, Charleston, in addition to all of the Little Rock schools. I remember seeing the last two "colored schools"in the county: Little Rock's Horace Mann and North Little Rock's Scipio Jones. I remember Mann had a kid named Scarborough that nobody could do anything with. I also remember how worried some of the white folks were that Mann might win it all. Quelle Scandale! I also remember asking my Dad why Harrison didn't have any black players. I remember him getting all uncomfortable and telling me that we would talk about it in the car on the way home.
Although our relationship deteriorated as I grew older, times were good during that snapshot in history. There was no better place to be than in old Barton watching basketball and eating hot dogs with my father.
My reverie ended when Conway and Catholic came out for the warmups. There was 6500 or so in attendance. Not bad. The crowd was a sea of blue for the visiting Conway Wampus Cats and purple for the Rockets. What fun.
Conway, with a couple of really scary sophomores, threatened to run Catholic out. Conway was hitting threes from all over the place while the jittery Rockets were clanging two footers. Catholic went in at halftime lucky to be down by 6.
Evidently the Rockets were reminded in the locker room by Coach Tim Ezzi that they ain't exactly the Phoenix Suns and that they needed to run some offense instead of running up and down the floor. All of a sudden the high-low post stuff they had left back in Little Rock reappeared in the nick of time. The guards started finding their range and Catholic went into the 4th quarter up by 5.
Whenever Catholic has a 1/2 point lead they pull the ball way out and immediately start running their version of the Princeton offense full of back screens, moving without the ball and going backdoor at every opportunity. This is the basketball equivalent of the dance of the Seven Veils. Or as the same Fred Allen mentioned above once described it to me,with no malice intended, "white boy ball."
Catholic was up by 1 with 9 seconds to go when Conway fouled to put them on the line. I grabbed my knees and looked at the floor.
" Uh-Uh!" Steve said. " You're gonna watch." And so I watched as the front end of the one and one bounced 4 times-4 times- on the rim before falling through. The kid missed the second shot but Catholic got the rebound. Ball game. Snowstorm in Hell.
My right arm went around Steve's shoulder. He had the baby in his right arm and his left around my back. Would have made a great picture.
Buck Bowen would have loved it.