Apologies in advance for the marathon length of this post. Apologies also to Seattlest's Seth, should he turn up; I'm scared that the last paragraph might break his heart.
‘Tis the season, so last night I met up with Mike and Roger for our annual appreciation of nutritionally unsound food, followed by local high-school basketball. Because my alma mater, Garfield, is undergoing renovations, Garfield is currently housed well north of its roots, in the former Lincoln High School building in the more…affluent-white-liberal Wallingford neighborhood.
A word about Lincoln, first: that’s where my mom went, class of 1965. She was part of a truly gigantic baby-boom onslaught; there were over a thousand kids in her class alone. When I was growing up, she vividly remembered and described her high-school experience, and her yearbooks were kept in a basket of various oversized volumes in our living room. I used to pull these out and pore over them as a kid, flat on the floor, breathing in their musty black-and-white smell and trying to decipher the different looped or craggy handwriting. I studied them as if they were guidebooks; in hindsight, I probably knew those yearbooks better than the ones I accrued myself, years later. I remember the photos the way you do the illustrations in a beloved children’s book: the knee socks and plaid pencil skirts; the homecoming king and queen (who were forced to dress up as Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln, hilariously). The attempts at witty captions. Drivers’ ed mishaps and German exchange students. Boys in drag at a pep assembly, because boys in dresses will never not be funny.
After 30 years and tons of therapy, I’ve begun to recognize that my mom is one of those people for whom the high school years really were a golden era, “the best days of your life.” I mean, God forbid, right?...but in her stories, in the way she kept those yearbooks close at hand for decades, I have kind of sussed out that she was really happy, then. Maybe her happiest. At this juncture, that’s a distressing thought, however little I can do about it. I do remember being both relieved and disappointed, in equal measure, to arrive at Garfield in 1984 and discover that it had nothing at all to do with the the world represented in those Lincoln Totems.
So. Garfield vs. Woodinville, a suburban school, at Garfield’s temporary “home.” As it upgrades its sometimes nearly century-old high school buildings, Seattle’s been cycling multiple schools through the Lincoln facility for multi-year stints. Lincoln itself closed in 1982 and was allowed to languish for at least a decade before getting its own marginal improvements to serve as a staging area. Thus, the gym is assertively neutral; there are no logos on the floor, and Garfield’s various league and state title banners must be safely in storage. The grimy acoustic panels behind the baskets are painted an institutional blue, officially no one’s color. The temporary pads on the walls are purple, and the big bulldog-head sign I remember is bolted to the wall in an awkward corner, but that’s about it.
The bleachers, surprisingly, are new: molded plastic-and-metal affairs that are solid, so that you can’t drop your change or your jacket down there, or make out underneath, or hang around attempting to look up someone’s skirt. Roger noted with approval the pre-molded ass curve that ran the length of each seating panel, and I have to concur: the classic wooden bleachers were aesthetically charming but meant crippling disfigurement to the over-30 set. We made it through the last quarter of the girls’ showdown and the whole boys’ game last night, and I didn’t need a cervical collar to get up, so that’s good.
We were expecting a Garfield blowout, and surprised not to get it: the first three quarters were a tense scramble, Garfield particularly struggling to penetrate the snarl of Woodinville defenders anywhere near the hoop. Despite the close game, however, I found myself constantly distracted by the people-watching. The pep band did a hip-swaying dance in place that set the entire stands rocking gently beneath us. I singled out the girl in the band with whom I identified, with her avant-garde glasses, retro wedge haircut, and vintage plaid coat. (I wasn't her, in the 80s, but I sure wanted to be.) Her battered cardboard instrument case was dotted with stickers; during the action, she and a friend leaned their heads together over the complicated liner notes of a CD, giggling. At the half, she and several girls ran out to the concession stand and returned with pink boxes of those chalky conversation hearts, Valentine’s Day a mere month away.
At one point, the game was halted when a Woodinville player lost a contact lens in a scuffle under the basket. This moment surprised me most: several coaches and trainers, down on their knees at the end of the court, gingerly patting back and forth, one wielding a flashlight. After several minutes, one of the refs bent deeply at the waist, reaching to make the universal one-fingered *poink* of contact-lens retrieval and proudly offering her prize to the relieved kid. Spit on that and slap it back in, son, there’s a game to play! That they found the damn thing, though--intact, after all that sneakered stomping! That was frankly the most amazing thing I witnessed all night.
Garfield also has a number-one fan that I’ve seen at our previous games, a guy from the neighborhood whose name, I think, is Rick. I don’t remember Rick from my days, although it’s entirely possible he was there; Mike tells me, via his kids, that Rick has been hanging about at every game for years. Rick has haphazard teeth, and may be slightly inebriated, or delayed, or some combination of both…but Rick’s primary characteristic is that he loves Garfield basketball like nothing else on earth. He paces the sidelines; he knows all the cheers. He stands a few feet behind and adjacent to the pep-band conductor and conducts along with him, or compels the crowd to join in. Periodically, the band plays a romping traditional fight-song anthem, to which I believe there were lyrics, in the 60s—I looked them up, for some dumb yearbook assignment myself. During this number I watched Rick closely, to see if he was singing the words…but his lips showed only “ba baaa ba ba ba ba-baaa” in time with the tune. I don’t know if Rick is an alum, or just a devotee. I was happy, though, that someone had thought to bring him along to Lincoln, transplanting him to this alien neighborhood of hemp yoga wear and Thai bistros and multiple dog-sweater boutiques.
At the half, two of the Garfield cheerleaders sauntered—GHS cheerleaders all have master certification in sauntering—over to the announcer’s table and commandeered the microphone. “Okay,” announced one. “Um. Okay, um. This is— " swiveling to give a snickering glare at her classmates—“shhh! This is—shut up. Um, okay, this, uh…this is. Um. This is for Rick.” She held up a crisp new GHS t-shirt, which Rick trotted across the gym to collect, beaming. He folded it carefully under his arm before resuming his pep-conducting duties in front of our bleachers. “Was that a ceremony?” Roger leaned over to ask me, under his breath. Yes. Good enough, I think.
The announcer clearly dreamed of a career in sports radio. “High school basketball,” he reminded us periodically. “You wait ten minutes and the second half starts! The most Friday-night entertainment you can buy for six dollars, ladies and gentlemen.”
Fourth quarter—still a tight game, but Garfield was able to put a handful of points between themselves and the Falcons as the end drew nigh. One of the real reasons we’d gone to the game was to get a look at Tony Wroten, Jr., the 14-year-old freshman phenom that local media has basically been anointing as the Second Coming. The Seattlest crew essentially believes this kid can fly, so we were frustrated that Woodinville seemed to keep a tight lid on Wroten for most of the night. That reputation is a lot of pressure for someone that’s just barely been introduced to Algebra, which makes me uneasy…but nonetheless we’d all kept our eyes on him throughout. He’s 6’1”, so not huge (though he has time yet to grow). Ultimately what I noticed most is that the kid seems to have the wingspan of a hang glider. Every so often he’d reach to snag an errant pass or loose ball, and his endless arm seemed to unfurl in slow motion, fingertips juuust grazing the ball, tenderly collecting it back into his possession. It was a beauty to behold, man…but really we wanted to see some acrobatics, everyone did.
There were maybe 10 seconds on the clock in the final quarter when Wroten broke free of the pack and took off, sprinting the length of the court. You could feel it coming—I shouted “OH!” aloud, and Wroten sailed up for a monster dunk, the thing we’d been waiting for all night. He hung on the rim for a moment, then dropped—and I didn’t see exactly how he landed, but…he landed wrong. He went down, falling full-length to the hardwood, and writhed. Everybody threw their shouts into reverse, a sharp singular inhale. Silence clapped down over the gym like a bell jar. The clock froze at six seconds while a preternaturally gifted ninth-grader crabbed on the floor, pedaling air. I don’t know which one of us muttered “Jesus, did we just witness the end of a career?” Maybe all of us did. After several eternal sick-making minutes, the trainers got Wroten up and hobbling off the court—limping, but not hopping; does that bode well? A dislocated knee, a jammed ankle? I actually got up this morning and watched a few minutes of High School Sportz Blitz MegaBlast Whatever, the local highlights show, before heading off to yoga class. I’ve scanned the two daily papers, too: not a word. So maybe we didn’t see the most devastating thing ever, last night, a split second encompassing both thrill and terror, of utmost significance in the weird microcosm universe of high school. Here’s hoping.
Garfield 66, Woodinville 55.