While instant replay became the focus of conversation during Tourney 2020, the opportunity to watch state championship games live in all three host cities within a 24-hour span over the weekend served as a reminder of a more impactful issue on the game.
That’s the differing levels of physicality within the game.
I vividly recall the 2006 Class A boys state final between Hampden Academy and Deering of Portland, when Deering avenged a 59-49 loss to the Broncos in the 2005 gold-ball game at the Bangor Auditorium by defeating Hampden 47-37 at what then was known as the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
I wrote back then that given the physical play in the Portland meeting and the much more tightly called Bangor clash a year earlier that had those two games been at the opposite locales, the 2005 Deering team would have won that year’s championship game played in Portland while the 2006 Hampden team would have beaten the Rams had that year’s final been played in Bangor.
The difference in physicality from game to game still exists, but it may be more how basketball is played at different levels rather than how it’s administered.
The Class A state finals I witnessed in Portland on Saturday afternoon looked decidedly more physical than the B games in Bangor on Friday night and the C and D matchups in Augusta on Saturday night.
“The refs were kind of letting us play a bit, and we started off slow because in Augusta you couldn’t get away with anything,” Hampden Academy senior forward Mikey Raye said after the Broncos — who won their regional crown at the Augusta Civic Center — rallied past York 65-56 in the Class A boys title game at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
“We kind of got punched in the mouth a little bit at the beginning of the [state] game — literally, [sophomore center] T.J. [Henaghen] got punched in the mouth. Then once we discovered we could play harder and get away with a little more we went for it, like that [late-game shot] block I had. You never see me doing something like that.”
Coaches from North schools often prepare their players differently for games in southern Maine, both vocalizing the inevitability of physical play and even staging more physical practices, sometimes using pads normally reserved for football workouts to help simulate additional contact that might be part of the game.
But it turns out that such contact by itself is not necessarily a foul.
“It’s the impact the contact has on an opponent that causes a foul,” said T.J. Halliday, the state’s coordinator of basketball officials. “If I’m dribbling up the court and you bump me and it doesn’t bother me in the least, that’s legal incidental contact. If you bump me and I lose the ball, that’s illegal.
“It comes down to understanding what’s legal and illegal, and I’m not sure people outside of officiating really understand that.”
Halliday, who was part of Waterville High School’s 1985 Class A state championship team, has maintained his connection with the sport since then as a game official and now in his new role.
Halliday watched 155 high school basketball games in person this winter, 113 during the regular season and 42 tournament contests.
“I watched all the tourney games in Augusta,” he said. “I’ve seen games in Caribou, Presque Isle and Hodgdon. I’ve been down to Cheverus [Portland] and South Portland, and I didn’t walk out of any of those games thinking it was called differently in different places.”
The fact that this year’s Class AA and Class A state finals in Portland were different from the Class C and D title games in Augusta or the Class B finals in Bangor should come as no surprise. The larger the schools, the deeper the talent pools with the majority of the student-athletes being bigger, faster and stronger than their smaller-school peers.
“The styles of play are different, the quality of play is different, the level of play is different, boys and girls are different,” Halliday said. “No official that I know of goes into a game hoping to blow the whistle 75 times, but sometimes the style and quality of play is different.”
I’ll leave it to the professionals like Halliday to determine best practices for keeping high school basketball in Maine both safe and entertaining, though personally I prefer a slightly old-school, less-physical version of the sport.
“When I watch the game of basketball, the official is either right or wrong,” Halliday said. “Every time they make a decision, when they blow the whistle or don’t blow the whistle, it was either a foul or it wasn’t.
“The rules are exactly the same from Kittery to Fort Kent.”