March Madness: High School Edition

Last week, Kevin Garnett "scolded" (Star Tribune) some of his teammates for laughing after another loss.

It was difficult to not think about Garnett and the moribund style of basketball the NBA plays while watching two terrific high school basketball games Wednesday night. The gym in Maple Grove was packed with parents and students, all of whom had a stake in the outcome: win or go home. Gophers coach Dan Monson sat on the bleachers in the corner, eating popcorn and salivating over the raw and tough city kids before him (salivating, that is, if he's got an iota of coaching acumen left in him).

Greg Boone was there, too. Boone played for Minneapolis Central in the glory days of Minneapolis basketball, and is now an avid youth-sports organizer. He once told me that people often tell him that the '75-'76 Central team featuring Boone, William Henry, Greg Maddox, Duane Nelson, and Andre Griffin was the greatest high school basketball team they've ever seen. They once beat Edison, 100-25.

Central was undefeated in 1976. I was there the night when sharp-shooting roly-poly point guard Johnny Hunter and the North Polars beat them in the regionals in front of 7,000 at the old Met Center. The next day's banner headline in the sports page of the Minneapolis Tribune screamed: North Shocks Central.

That's how it was. Two classes: A and AA, winners and losers, and not everybody got a trophy or a certificate. And it now occurs to me that Griffin introduced me to Minnesota's version of racism. His senior year, Griffin and Marshall-U's Rodney Hargest engaged in a ferocious scoring duel, and Minneapolis basketball lovers followed it with all the zeal that college hoopsheads have followed this season's duel between Duke's J.J. Reddick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison.

Hargest dropped 52 one night; the next day in a matinee at Washburn, I watched Griffin drop 53 on dead-eye shooter Tim Wahl and a very good Southwest squad.

Griffin was the best high school basketball player in the state, along with two other black players, Hargest and De La Salle's Mark James, and Wahl. But when it came to the Mr. Basketball awards at the end of the year, the powers that be gave it to some white out-state sled named Peterson. After the banquet, I watched Griffin walk through the parking lot with his runner-up trophy, unfastening his tie and looking beyond dejected.

Last night, my old baseball coach Pat Widell called me up to go to the game. I've written about my love for high school ball before, and I'm always amazed at how refreshing it is. I saw old friends and met their kids. "Is it as intense as you remember it?," said the wife of the brother of my first girlfriend, laughing at me and Pat as we rode a ref for not calling a foul after one of our lads got mugged by three players late in the game. We weren't even the loudest fans in the gym, and amazingly, nobody got thrown out for heckling or rooting.

Game report: The Minneapolis De La Salle Islanders celebrated what would have been the 45th birthday of Kirby Puckett and the birth of my niece, Sara Ann "Puck" Woll, with a thrilling double-overtime victory over their arch rivals, the Benilde-St. Margaret's Red Knights. Kids hit the floor for balls, made dramatic shots, and played hellacious defense. When a river rat named Joe Scott hit an eight-foot jumper to win it at the buzzer, one of the Benilde kids crumpled to the floor and started crying. The De kids went wild, and in the post-game hand-shaking line, consoled the devastated Red Knights.

Somewhere across town, a bunch of millionaire professional basketball players were laughing after yet another loss, and a broken-down millionaire quarterback demanded, and got, traded. Somewhere else, the Minneapolis De La Salle Islanders girls' team was getting ready to play in their first state tournament.

Admission: $6

Hot dog: $2

Pop, candy, popcorn: $1

We stuck around and watched the first half of Minneapolis Patrick Henry against Orono. Henry is the class of the state, and the Orono kids were the most frightened white people I've seen in ages, but they were big and well-coached and they gave it their all. Henry won by 25, and plays De Friday night in the regional final.

I'm coaching my ten-year-old son Henry in basketball at Pearl Park again this year. A few weeks ago, I had to talk to him about shooting too much. He plays just like me: never met a shot he doesn't like. I had to come with the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do thing and tell him that guys don't like to play with ball hogs ("bucks" in my day), that basketball is best when you pass; when you move the ball and move without the ball, when the five acts as one. He was so pissed off at me. He was embarrassed. We had words.

Our next game was against one of his best friends', Jonathan's, team, whose coach I play pick-up ball with on Sunday mornings. It was a great game. Everybody in the packed gym was into it, the game went into overtime, and my son hit a three-pointer to win it. At the end of the game, our guys went nuts, and Henry came over to the bench and gave me a quick hug.

I'm bringing him and as many of his teammates as can make it to see the Henry-De game Friday night. I want them to get psyched for our all-day tournament at Pearl on Saturday. I want them to see basketball played by people who love the game and play it the right way, but don't get paid for it. I want them to see cool older guys caring passionately about the game, so much so that some of them get their hearts broken. I want them to know that getting your heart broken is part of life, but that if you're lucky, you might live long enough to hang around the perimeter and put up a few threes.

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