America may be massing troops for war, but here in Rome there's a more immediate campaign on people's minds: the state high school basketball tournament.
Coosa High, a local team, has made it to the round of 16, and many here think they could go all the way. Finally. Two years ago, they made it this far only to lose in overtime, after a referee ruled that the final shot - a nothing-but-net three-pointer - was released after the buzzer (a call that's still hotly disputed).
This year, the Eagles have looked better than ever, losing just one game all season. And Coosa fans are expecting neither referees nor the Wesleyan Wolves, their opponents at the Forum tonight, to stand in their way.
None of this is to say that Romans aren't following the Iraq situation. They watch the news, and most seem to know of someone - a church member's son, a schoolmate's brother - who has been sent over. But the subject doesn't elicit the passion of jump shots and rebounds off the rim.
Most here are in favor of ousting Saddam Hussein, and are quick to declare their support for President Bush and the troops. Yet behind the pro-war refrain lies a notable ambivalence. Many wonder about the war's human and financial costs. And they're troubled by visions of its aftermath, including a long US occupation of Iraq. In this Rome, people want nothing to do with imperialism.
Tending the hospitality room at the basketball tournament, where Coosa friends and family feast on homemade macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and sweet tea before the game, Pam Jeffries offers a sturdy endorsement of military action: "We need to do something," she says. Comparing Mr. Hussein to a bully on the playground, this mother of two teenagers says: "We need to stand up for what's right."
But when pressed on how extensive the US role should be, she wavers: "It seems weird that America's always the big brother, telling everybody what to do. I don't know if it's right or not."
It's a typical response in this old carpet-mill town in northwest Georgia's red clay hills, where churches outnumber gas stations and the politics lean conservative. With its historic downtown full of 19th century homes and quaint brick storefronts, Rome still gives off a small-town feel, though it's increasingly being subsumed by the booming Atlanta suburbs. It's a place where a customer can walk into a local antique shop to pay for an item taken home the day before - and the owner will ask if she remembers the price. There's a classic luncheonette, Partridge's, where residents can go for a "meat and three." But there's also a trendy new cafe, Harvest Moon, with pressed Cuban sandwiches and other more exotic fare.
As the game begins, with the tip-off under a giant American flag, it's apparent that the Coosa team may be feeling some pressure. The Eagles look a little tentative against their nothing-to-lose competitors, and it's affecting their timing, giving the Wolves an early lead. But basketball is nothing if not a game of momentum, and the team finds their rhythm after a couple of key three-point shots, bringing the score to even. Then a major blow: Coosa's center, one of their best players, gets his third foul, and has to sit down. The team hangs on until the half-time buzzer, when, up by two, they head into the locker room to regroup.
In fast-growing Floyd County, there are other high schools, too. And not everyone at the Forum is rooting for the Eagles. Indeed, there's some whispering in the stands that the Coosa team has gotten a little arrogant this year. "A lot of people resent seeing somebody else be successful," observes Ron Roach, who coaches girls' basketball at nearby Chattooga High.
To many here, there's a similar explanation for anti-American sentiment abroad. "It's jealousy," says Ray Peugh, a retired GE employee who's come to the game. He and other Romans are particularly disgusted at the way America's European allies have been withholding support for military action against Iraq.
"We've done and done for other countries, and look at how France and Germany are acting," says James Wallace, another GE retiree, shaking his head.
America may be the only superpower, but folks here are wary of spreading US resources too thin, and sensitive to what they perceive as ingratitude. In a town that's seen a number of mills close recently, they're not too happy about the prospect of paying large sums of money to nations like Turkey. "You want to help other countries, but you hate to see them take things from our country," explains Mr. Roach.
Yet he gives the president the benefit of the doubt. He knows what it's like to have folks second-guessing you: "It's just like in coaching. It doesn't matter which five people you put in the game - somebody in that gym is going to question what you've done."
The start of the second half is disastrous for Coosa. Wesleyan scores seven straight points, playing a scrappy, aggressive game. The mood in the Forum shifts palpably: For the first time, it looks as though the Eagles might lose. By the end of the third quarter, the Wolves have opened up a 44-33 lead.
Down in the Forum's lobby, Cheryl Eaves and other members of the Coosa band are selling snacks: candy bars, fries, pickles wrapped in foil. Cheryl's older brother Jesse has been deployed to Kuwait, and earlier in the day, she sent him a care package - mostly junk food, as well as some batting gloves and flea collars to keep sand fleas out of his boots. She follows news about the Middle East pretty closely, and says she has mixed feelings about the war: "If it's necessary, then yeah, I support it, but if it's not, then I think we should avoid it."
She's not the only teenager here thinking about Iraq: A group of kids at Coosa recently did a school-wide survey on the subject, asking questions like, "Do you think the conflict with Iraq will affect your life now?" (a vast majority said yes) and, "Would you volunteer for active duty if you had the chance?" (an equally large majority said no).
But even for Cheryl, life has remained pretty normal. A busy sophomore, she plays the flute - "our band is awesome," she gushes - does drama, baby-sits, and is in a Christian youth group. At the concession stand, she and other band members jostle each other and joke about who ate the missing Starbursts.
Most Romans agree that their town's too small to be a terrorist target, and few admit to buying duct tape during the recent high alert. Though it's only an hour or so from Atlanta, the way the wind blows, something would have to happen in Birmingham, Ala., for it to drift to Rome, says Mrs. Jeffries confidently.
Still, they know an attack on America could affect them, and most see Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as a real threat. "We all live in this economy," says Richard Hayes, a retired physics teacher who's collecting tickets at the tournament. "What if [terrorists] went over a Midwestern farm area and contaminated the land? We all have to eat. We'd be in a right mess."
Coosa comes out firing at the start of the fourth quarter, making an 8-0 run and cutting Wesleyan's lead to three. But the Wolves answer back, pulling ahead once more by eight with just two minutes left. With defeat suddenly a real possibility, the Eagles pull out their big guns, hitting an amazing four three-pointers, leaving them down by just one point with 19 seconds left. The crowd is on their feet. Wesleyan nails two free throws, making it a three-point game. But on this final possession, the Eagles are unable to hit a three. They miss the first attempt, and the second, and finally put it in for two just as the buzzer sounds. Final score: 57-56.
On the Coosa side of the Forum, it's a mood of dejection. But soon, many are putting it in perspective. It's only a game, after all, and the Eagles will get another shot next year. And as the crowd files out under the American flag, the clash between rivals fades to another unsettled score - a geopolitical battle worlds away, with stakes far higher than they were in Rome.