There's Just No Telling Where These Kids Are From

This will be the basketball report for this season, and then I can go back to twiddlin' my fingers and counting inventory on my feet. Some years back, now, I innocently suggested that the game of basketball be adjusted to accommodate the wee squirt of 3 feet, 13 inches who would like to play basketball and can hit 100 percent from mid-court, but doesn't get to play in a world of Kentucky Wonder beanpoles. My proposal is to have teams that are sized to suit, and the Duke and Notre Dame midgets can play each other while on the next channel the North Carolina seven-footers take on the Vanderbilt elevators. Pick your size and tune in.

As usual, when my particular genius surfaces, nobody paid attention. So the other afternoon somebody who doesn't like me said the Maine State high school basketball tournament started that evening on public television, and I was glad. Now that Jack Benny isn't available, this is about as funny as you'll find. In the first place, a generation ago Maine was hornswoggled into forming school districts that lumped scholars until our towns, villages, locations, places, and gores lost their identities and we no longer had a Waldoboro High School, but came up with a new name that was either Meduncook Valley High School or Muscongus Bay High School. I'm not sure which.

Waldoboro, you see, has been assimilated into a union with 15 other towns, more or less, and in cultural terms has ceased to exist. I have been told, and believe it, that a class valedictorian once missed the bus and there wasn't a teacher who knew how to get him home. But each of these amalgamated computer centers fields a basketball team, and if it goes to the state tourney, nobody at the TV station - and nobody at home - ever heard of the place. With the TV people, this doesn't matter, but the folks at home (some of them) would like to know which teams are playing and where they come from.

The game I tuned in was not introduced as to localities, except it was played at the Augusta Civic Center. I suspect many of our school districts are named by some sort of Wheaties contest and the names are derived from forgotten Indian words that, usually, mean Place Where Deer Ran When Squaw Dipped Water. Since 1822, that had been merely known as Pluggstown, settled in 1598 by Squire Rufus Plugg, who dug sassafras roots in the dark of the moon. The high school is now named Happy Toodles High, or maybe something like Pockamunkus. And the community has the second-highest tax rate in Maine.

I do not know. I could not be sure. I tried. I think the announcer was eating spaghetti. It sounded to me that Sokokamoggin High was playing Moostagonkus High. The only thing I can tell you about that is that Nokomis High was not involved. Nokomis High is in Newport. Newport is on Sebasticook Lake. I don't know, either.

But the very important thing about Maine high school basketball is summed up by the fact that in this game I watched, they played for eight minutes and neither team scored. The play-by-play announcer was extremely excited, and distinctly called the name of each player who failed to sink a shot. He did not, however, tell me what towns were playing and why. That is, why were these two in the playoffs?

You may correctly guess that I was never much of a basketball fan. As a good left fielder at baseball, I felt there was merit in a game where I could stand still in the field, and then connect about once in every four times at the plate, whether I reached or not. Baseball appealed to me for its almost sedentary nature. Few high school batters got one into left, and when one did it would be right at me. Romping up and down a gymnasium didn't appeal.

NOW, let me enlarge that! We didn't have a gym when I was in school. We played in the town hall, which was 15 feet short and eight feet too wide, and it had a seven-foot ceiling with two lamps in wire cages. Spectators sat on benches along the sidelines and up on the stage. (The piano for dances was moved off for basketball games.) It would be (and was) impossible to make a three-point shot in our town hall because of the ceiling, and the light fixtures were rim-wracked to prove it.

There weren't too many towns in those days that had places built for athletic purposes, and while visiting basketball teams made wisecracks about our town hall, when we went to visit we saw a few lulus. One town was best of all, and I think it was named Waterboro. Today it is probably merged and named Willymunkeag. But then it was the basement of the school - and the location of the heating plant, except that it was the gymnasium by supposition and local custom. The heating pipes ran in a plumber's phantasmagoria along the walls and the ceiling in a way that called for caroms on every shot at basket.

Visiting teams had no notion of how to score, but the local players knew just where to hit a pipe to score two. I have heard that until a new school was built, the Waterboro High hoopers didn't lose a game in 23 seasons, except away, when they never won. I hope I'm right about that, as these things are important if you know what town you're talking about. Unless you're doing play-by-play on Maine TV.

* The Division-A Final of the Maine State Boys Basketball Championship will be held March 15, in Bangor.

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