KENT WARD

Basketball as relief from winter

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 3:50 p.m.

For many a rural Mainer, a memorable vehicular encounter with mid-February’s first serious frost heave on the road to the village can be a reminder that soon the dismal mud-splattered snow banks of March will herald the pothole-patching interval that leads eventually to the welcome greenery of spring.

We muddle through this period with patience, having learned long ago that one does not rush the process. Spring will arrive on its own terms, when it is ready. Still, we do what we can to grease the skids.

We do the seed catalog thing. We schedule outdoor events that require lots of snow to pull off, knowing full well that this will automatically trigger a prolonged thaw that might shave days off winter. And we keep an eye out for the first gaggle of Canada geese winging their way north. When our feathered friends arrive to co-opt the tiniest bit of open water, winter’s back may be considered broken.

But most of all, we pass the time superbly with the aid of one of Maine’s more noteworthy inventions: high school basketball tournament week at the venerable Bangor Auditorium, a venue for 48 teams — 24 of each gender — in classes B, C and D, most having survived a preliminary round of playoffs. The Class A tournament for larger schools will be played at Augusta.

Schools are out for recess, and the coming week has been marked as one in which it would be unwise to schedule an event that goes head-to-head with the tournament. Defy the gods on this, and chances for getting brutally upstaged are great, as — given their druthers — the hordes will defer to King Basketball at an auditorium nearly on its last legs while a new building, scheduled to open in late 2013, arises next door.

All the more reason why, in memory of the old barn’s historic past, longtime basketball supporters may feel a special urge to make an appearance before weekend.

Fierce rivalries will be renewed on the court, even as old friendships are renewed off court — including more than a few at local watering holes, restaurants and motels. Proprietors of business establishments will grin all the way to the bank.

Work schedules in eastern and northern Maine will take a beating as employees beg off to attend their “grandmother’s funeral.” The fact that the old gal has died during every tournament week for the past half-dozen years will be overlooked by understanding bosses off paying their respects to their own recently deceased-again grand-mum. Should employee and boss bump into one another at the refreshment stand, neither will rat out the other back at the shop.

Up from the scattered precincts of Down East the fans will come, and down from The County, in droves. From the coastal plain and the upland communities, the river towns and farming villages, enthusiastic delegations will travel to see the hometown kids compete for their allotted 15 minutes of tournament fame.

School pep bands and cheerleaders will keep the fans revved up. Players fortunate enough to compete in the tournament that began Friday night will have fond memories to cherish for a lifetime. Those who never had the opportunity will always wish they had. Some games will be blowouts, some will be edge-of-the-seat overtime nail-biters. All of them will feature the best efforts of the teenage participants. Guaranteed.

When tournament week ends next Saturday, six eastern Maine teams in classes B, C and D will have been crowned regional champions. A week later, they will play their western Maine counterparts for state championships in their respective classes.

As the tournament winds down, players and most fans will be gracious in victory or defeat. Should there be bruised egos and hurt feelings, they will not linger for long. Within days, former adversaries will have rallied around the regional champs in their quest for the gold ball trophy that signifies a state championship and a year’s worth of bragging rights.

Author Willa Cather’s observation that “Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen,” rings as true today as it likely did nearly a hundred years ago. But although our winter could well become stale and shabby before getting booted out the door this time around, imagine how old and sullen it might have grown without the diversion of tournament week to pull us through.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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