Hot crowds can't turn a cold night around

March 01, 2003|By ROB KASPER

IN THE COLD chaos of Thursday night's snow, I landed in an overheated island of normality, a championship high school basketball game.

Such games are being played all around the state, as this winter sport, if not this winter, now comes to a cacophonous conclusion.

I am such a basketball junkie that I could, I suspect, watch a game in which I didn't know a single player. But in this case, the game between St. Mary's and St. Paul's for the title of the MIAA "B" conference, I was rooting for kids I knew, my son's schoolmates at St. Paul's.

A few years ago, my son stopped playing organized basketball, my true love, to concentrate on his true love, football. Until that time, I had been a basketball parent, sitting with other dads and moms on the top row of the bleachers, watching our once-skinny boys grow into well-muscled young men. Many of these kids are now seniors. This was their final high school game. I had to go.

Snow has played havoc with high school schedules, and the game, which had been postponed once by weather, was suddenly moved to an earlier starting time, 6 p.m., to dodge the heavy snowfall predicted for later in the night.

Flakes were falling when I pulled into Villa Julie College, the neutral site of the contest. I walked in with Ray Plack, whose son, Holden, is a mainstay of the St. Paul's team, scoring more than 1,000 points in his high school career. I remembered that a few years ago - and it seemed like just yesterday - Ray and I had teamed up with our sons to play in a father-son tournament. Then, we loomed over our sons; now they tower over us. I used to think of Holden as a tall drink of water, but now at a beefy 6 feet 8 and sporting bright yellow basketball shoes, he struck me the other night as a giant dose of Powerade.

Final games are big occasions for the families of high school seniors, and Ray and I wondered if the parents of the St. Mary's seniors would be able to travel through the snow and rush-hour traffic from Annapolis in time for the contest. When Ray and I entered the gym, about 25 minutes before the scheduled start time, we were the only spectators.

The start time was pushed back a bit, and eventually the gym began filling with parents, students and noise. Students clapped their hands, beat drums and hollered. Sometimes their chants were not in the best of taste or sportsmanship. But the fury, excitement and occasional humor that comes rolling out of the student sections at basketball games seems to me to mirror the roller-coaster ride that is adolescence.

It was a tight game, as championship contests should be. The St. Mary's boys, led by seniors Marcus Perry and Jeff Postell, played tenacious, clawing defense and a ball-control offense, against the bigger, favored, St. Paul's team.

The game came down to second chances. After a missed shot, Postell grabbed the ball and put it in the basket to give St. Mary's the lead with little time left. At the other end of the court, a second-chance shot by St. Paul's missed, a St. Mary's player grabbed the ball and was fouled.

High school basketball can deliver deep joy, or cruel disappointment. From my perch in the bleachers in the game's waning seconds, I saw disheartenment wash over the St. Paul's seniors - Holden, Raymond, Qwenton, Shel and Bryan. These are kids I know and so I was rooting for them to end their basketball careers with a championship. But a few feet away, the St. Mary's team was ready to erupt in jubilation over a well-deserved win. They, too, had seniors winding up their high school careers.

Then, in the very last second, with St. Mary's ahead by three points, another St. Paul's senior, John Leonard, entered the game when a player fouled out. John's father, Jack, sitting next to me, pulled out a camera to record the moment.

As he did, a storybook ending flashed through my head: John Leonard, in the final seconds of his high school career, fires a desperation shot from half court that goes in and send the game into overtime!

Sure enough, he got the ball. Sure enough he launched a bomb. For a moment, I thought the shot was going to go in the basket.

But my vision was faulty, clouded with sentiment. The shot fell short, and on this snowy night, it was the other team that sent its seniors out in a blaze of glory.

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