It’s state basketball tournament time in South Dakota, an exciting time for kids everywhere and my annual reminder that I never played in the high school version of what sportscasters call the “Big Dance.’’
Spring prom was the big dance in the early 1960s when I attended high school. Nobody “punched their ticket,’’ not to the prom and not to the state tournament. In fact, I hate that phrase. This team or that team punched its ticket to the Big Dance. Doesn’t the conductor punch tickets? And if every sportscaster is saying the same thing, doesn’t “Big Dance’’ become, well, trite? A cliché? It does.
Anyway, I never made the state tournament. I went to the tournament in 1962, my senior year. Chamberlain competed in Class A for the first time that year. We played Mitchell in the sectional tournament. We were ahead by four at the half. I had three, maybe four fouls by then, and everybody in our locker room knew I wasn’t going to last through the third quarter. I didn’t let them down. With two or three minutes left in the quarter, I was watching the game from the bench. At the final horn, the scoreboard in the Parkston gym showed us down by 10 or 12 and eliminated from the competition.
I said I went to the tournament that year. I did. Four or five of us hopped in a car and drove to Huron for one or two games. We smoked William Penn cigars on the trip. I remember that. I only vaguely recall the games. My clearest images are of Jack Theeler from Sisseton burning the nets from every angle on the court. He threw up a couple of jump shots from so close to the baseline that it looked like the ball would hit the edge of the backboard and bounce back at him. Instead, it kissed off the glass and through the hoop. To this day I don’t know how he did that. Wizardry, I guess. Had Harry Potter books been around, I’d have said Theeler attended Hogwarts in his spare time.
So, yes, I missed the state tournament experience. My cousin Leo didn’t. A senior in 1960 when I was a sophomore, he played on the first Chamberlain team to reach the tournament. The Cubs were Class B then, along with all but the biggest 32 schools in the state, so it was kind of a big deal to get to state. Leo was skinny as a cottonwood sapling and not very tall, but he played in the paint with the big boys. He developed this weird over-the-head shot with the basket behind him. It took a while for a defender to believe he was actually shooting that way and a while longer for them to realize he was going to make some of those shots.
While he was playing in the state tournament, I was on the bench with torn ligaments in my ankle. Not the varsity bench, you understand. We had this kind of unusual creature called the Medicine Creek Conference team. I’m pretty sure I’m right about this. Our sophomores played the varsity teams from several neighboring towns – Reliance, Kennebec, Pukwana, Presho, Vivian and one or two more. We got creamed by everybody, it seems like.
Reliance had a superb team that year. They had a bunch of big, strong inside players and quick guards. When we played them on our floor, our coach decided to stall, to hold the ball. It was a version of the four-corner offense that some colleges were starting to use. The first quarter of our game ended 3-2. We were behind but keeping it close. Half was 9-6, and we smelled upset. It never happened, and after the game my cousin, who started for the Longhorns, told me it was a lousy way to play basketball.
Well, it was, but don’t blame me. I was on the bench holding my crutches, dreaming of one day going to the state tournament. I may not have been as good a player as some of the great ones of my era, but I had the same dream.