Forget March Madness. This is the week Mainers catch February Fever.
Symptoms include a strong desire to leave their hometowns and flock to the nearest city by the thousands to watch the state’s best high school basketball teams tip off in rollicking auditoriums in Bangor, Portland and Augusta.
The condition has resulted in faces turning green — in the case of the Mount Desert Island Trojans — or red — in the case of the Bangor Rams — or blue — in the case of the Central Aroostook Panthers.
School buses loaded with players, coaches, cheerleaders and bands follow routes out of town lined with homemade signs wishing them luck as they arrive to face their rivals on the state’s most historic hardwood. It’s the biggest stage on which many of them will ever appear.
Families and fans pack into cars to drive — in some cases more than 200 miles — to add their cheers to the chants from the crowd, the squeaking of sneakers and the blasting of horns from the high school bands. From the stands, parents watch — and hope for — their children. Students — donning the numbers of their favorite players — root for their classmates.
The importance of high school basketball, at least for a week in February, goes beyond wins and losses.
“As a player, it was always a dream. Your dad takes you to the games and in my case it was to watch my older brothers. It’s very contagious,” said 43-year-old eastern Maine basketball legend Matt Rossignol, who rewrote the scoring record books as a player at Van Buren High School and also has enjoyed success as both a boys and girls basketball coach.
Indeed, the tournament is a family affair, particularly for the Reed family of Bangor.
“It’s intense, but I still watch,” said Hermon High cheerleading coach Kristie Reed, who is married to former BDN All-State player Mark Reed, the Hermon boys basketball coach.
Watching the game is more than Kristie’s mother-in-law, Norma Reed, can do when they involve both her son and her husband, Roger Reed, who has won seven state, and nine regional, boys basketball championships at Bangor High since winning one Eastern Maine title at Bangor Christian in 1979.
“It was very exciting when they were both involved in the tournament, first when Roger was Mark’s coach with Bangor and then when Mark was coaching Brewer, but my heart was always in my throat when Mark was playing,” said Norma Reed, who just celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary last December. “I couldn’t watch. I was always back in the alleyway whenever games were close late in the game.
“I never even saw the five-overtime game in Portland [1992 state final between South Portland and Bangor],” she said. “I was there, but I never saw it. I was out in the corridor. I saw it a bunch of times after on replay, though.”
The tournament can be intense for those in the stands, but perhaps more so for those on the sidelines.
“It swallows you because that’s all you think about it for the whole week,” said longtime high school varsity basketball coach Jamie Russell, whose Penobscot Valley of Howland boys are playing in only their second quarterfinal game since 1987. “[My family understands] what I’m going through with the late hours and doing videos and stats. It does swallow you up for the week. And when you don’t make it, you spend the whole week being envious of those who did.”
In a way, the tournament can take on Civil War-like characteristics, pitting sibling against sibling either as players or coaches, or even parent against child.
“This will be the third year I’ve had to coach against my son, but never before in a tournament game,” said Russell, whose son Bryan is a point guard for Penquis High of Milo.
While the social impact of the tournament is considerable, the economic impact is measurable.
“It’s good for everybody in town,” said John Marko, who manages a hotel directly across Main Street from the Bangor Auditorium. Perched atop a hill at Bass Park, the auditorium and its V-shaped roof are easily visible to those coming off the highway into the city throughout the week of February school vacation.
Marko enjoys the uptick in business, which ranks only behind the economic boost coming from the city’s American Folk Festival, he said. He enjoys the fans and the teams that stay the night at his hotel and eat dinner at the attached restaurant. There are also the “die-hard fans” who come no matter which teams are playing or what the weatherman is predicting.
Harold Hoar is one of those fans, and the tournament has become a major part of his life.
It’s about 120 miles from his home in Houlton to Bangor, and Hoar, who turns 64 this year, has been going to the Eastern Maine tournament faithfully for decades. This year, he’s only staying two nights in the city. In years past, he’s stayed the whole week, taking in as many games as he could.
“I enjoy everything,” said Hoar who, bespectacled and clad in a suit and tie, has become a fixture in the seats near courtside, where he banters with the officials and greets the fellow tourney fans he has met over the years. Last year he was one of more than 43,000 people who came to the auditorium over the weeklong event.
Tournament attendance here has held fairly steady at around 40,000 over the last five years, except for a dip to about 35,000 in 2008. By way of comparison, the Bangor State Fair draws between 65,000 and 70,000 people during its late-summer run at Bass Park.
Weather and matchups can cause the tournament attendance numbers to rise or fall, said Mike Dyer, who runs the city’s Bass Park complex. But, high or low, the numbers are significant to the city and its aging facility. At the auditorium, people spend about $2.50 per capita on concessions at the game. That’s a lot of popcorn, pizza, steamed hot dogs and the like — about $100,000 worth — over the course of a week.
People who come to the games buy food not just at the venue, but at local restaurants and grocery stores. Then there are the sojourns to the Bangor Mall, the region’s largest retail center, which consistently reports a spike in business during tournament week.
But, more than eating and shopping, the tournament is about basketball.
And part of the tournament tradition in Bangor is the auditorium itself. Built in 1954, the city’s auditorium has seen its share of buzzer-beaters, net cuttings and hoisted trophies. It’s also seen its share of leaky roofs, inclement temperatures and crowded hallways.
The City Council hopes to replace the aging facility with a $65 million arena, funded in large part by money coming from Hollywood Slots, the state’s only casino. Dyer points out the benefits of a new facility — better seating, a full kitchen and a reliable climate control system — but the project does have some opposition.
Despite the promise of modern comforts and assurances of fiscal frugality by city officials, opponents believe that taxpayers undoubtedly will be asked to foot some of the bill. A recent petition drive has forced the issue to a citywide referendum, and Bangor voters likely will be asked in May to consider whether to build a new arena.
If and when a new facility is built, the tournament experience in the Queen City might more closely resemble that of the Western Maine tournament in the much newer Augusta and Cumberland County civic centers.
“It’s like comparing the FleetCenter to the old [Boston] Garden. It’s more antiseptic and quiet because the crowd is farther away,” said Penquis boys coach Tony Hamlin, who has coached teams in both eastern and western Maine. “You don’t have the bleachers and the smells and the whole atmosphere. I think the Bangor experi-ence is more sensory. That’s something the western tourney just lacks.”
For his part, Harold Hoar isn’t sure what he thinks about a new building. But, as a longtime fan, he does know one thing.
“I think if it happens, when the old place is gone, I’ll miss it,” he said.