This is a piece I wrote a decade ago about my final high school basketball game.
SAVOR THE JOURNEY -- AND DON'T LOSE
The dream usually begins in a locker room with five or six basketball players sitting on a wooden bench. It normally ends on a basketball court, sometimes back at my old childhood home. It always ends in defeat.
Fifteen years after my last high school basketball game at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton—a 73-67 playoff loss to eventual Class A state champion Maple River—the memories from that night visit me in my sleep at least once a week. Aside from the obvious—some type of emotional immaturity—I don’t really know how a basketball game from a March night in 1993 can still have such an effect in 2008. It likely has something to do with trying to capture a bit of lost youth.
Maybe it’s because I still wonder how far we could have advanced in the playoffs that year. Or maybe it’s just about remembering what it was like to be on a team with friends I’d known for a dozen years, in a community that will be home long after I’ve moved thousands of miles away. Maybe it’s about the hours of practice, the days spent shoveling off the neighbor’s driveway to shoot at his hoop, and the summer leagues that led up to that game, and how in two hours it all just…ended.
It’s all of those things, and they’re all lodged in my subconscious. History’s written by the winners, but it’s the losers who dwell on it. In the years since that loss to Maple River, whenever I watch a game, I identify with a losing team, especially in the playoffs, especially with the seniors. Underclassmen will have another year or two to play high school ball. Coaches will always have more seasons, new teams, fresh opportunities. When Blake Hoffarber nailed his miracle jumper while seated on the Target Center floor, I watched the highlight in amazement, while also wondering just how long it’d take for the losing players on Eastview to get over the shot. Last year, when Ellsworth defeated Cass Lake-Bena for the Class 1A title on a last-second shot, I wondered what the defender would think about that play in 15 years. I wonder if he’ll dream the same dream for decades.
A friend of mine believes in the theory that people primarily dream about issues they want to fix, about unfinished business they need to rectify. So, assuming my old high school team doesn’t meet the guys from Maple River in an old-timers game with thirtysomethings whose quickness and jumpers have disappeared even faster than their hairlines, there won’t be a chance to make things from that night right. Will this dream reappear for as long as I remember the loss? It’s nearly impossible to reminisce about your high school sports feats without sounding like the sad inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s "Glory Days."
But then, that’s what they were. We were a senior-dominated team at JWP in 1993. Of the top nine scorers, eight were seniors, the lone exception being sophomore guard Chad Wolff, whose ascension to the varsity helped us turn a 7-6 record into a 15-7 mark entering the Maple River game. We had great balance: six different players led the team in scoring in various games during the season. Our 6-7 center Martin Joyce occupied the middle, a decent bench provided depth, and we had strong shooters with Doug Schweim, Matt Fury, Wolff, and myself. And we were also lucky to have the chance to play Maple River.
In the opening round of the playoffs, United South Central outplayed us for much of the game. We rallied from a five-point deficit in the final minute of regulation and won in overtime. The extra session came only after a kid for USC missed a free throw with .4 seconds left that would have won the game. Wonder if he still dreams about that shot? Unfortunately, while we won on the scoreboard that night, we lost off the court. Dan Sanderson, a tough, versatile forward who was our second-leading scorer, got ejected along with a USC player. A hot-headed referee overreacted to some minor shoving between the pair and threw them out.
State rules forced Sanderson to sit out the next game—the game against Maple River. We faced a Maple River team that was one of the more underrated powerhouses in the state in the 1990s. Back in those days of two-class basketball, Maple River and star guard Chad Ostermann went 92-11 between 1989 and 1993, winning a state title and three district or sub-section championships. They were the superior program in south central Minnesota. Everyone aimed for them. An explosive offense set the tone—they scored 109 points in the first round of the 1993 playoffs—but they relied even more on a stout defense. In fact, the 67 points we got against them were the second-most any team scored on them all year. Minneapolis Roosevelt, led by future Gopher John Thomas, scored 69 in handing the Eagles their only loss of 1993.
And in Ostermann’s final two seasons, Maple River lost only once to a Class A team. But what a loss that was. In the 1992 sub-section finals, Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton stunned the once-beaten Eagles behind the sterling play of seniors Lance Nelson and Ben Kipp. My dad remembers standing in the men’s bathroom before that game and hearing a Maple River fan talk about what it would be like playing Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop in the first round of sections, seemingly forgetting that the Eagles had to win one more game to reach that showdown.Maple River wanted revenge for that 1992 defeat.
Several of us played as juniors in that upset, though none of us contributed many points. Still, that upset provided us with a confidence that other teams in the area didn’t have against Maple River, whose years of success intimidated many squads. Even short-handed, we felt good about our chances.
The details from that final game remain as vivid as the night they happened, as if they’ve been embedded on a chip in my head. We played at Waseca High School, in front of a packed gym. On the 10-minute bus ride from Janesville, I envisioned us pulling off the upset. I remember sitting in the locker room before the game, listening to Led Zeppelin blare on the stereo. I remember our veteran coach, Dave Tonolli, telling us we could win. I remember the warmups as we took the court. I can still feel Waseca’s tartan court beneath my shoes. The crowd is buzzing. The JWP band plays one of the pregame songs that have been around for a generation, probably "The Final Countdown" or "Tequila."
Show me a tape of that game and I could predict exactly what was coming next, like a moviegoer knowing every line that’s coming in a film he’s seen 20 times. Once the game started, it took us a full quarter to find our legs. Although not intimidated by Maple River, we were nervous at the beginning. Maple River led 12-5 after the first quarter. Even worse, our center Joyce picked up three fouls, further depleting an inside game that had already suffered because of Sanderson’s suspension. Maple River eventually took a 30-17 lead in the second quarter. In the final two minutes, though, we rallied to cut it to 32-26 at halftime. We never did take the lead. But we battled until the final seconds. In the third quarter we trailed 42-39 and had a chance to tie but a 3-pointer bounced off the rim. Midway through the fourth quarter, we cut the deficit to two points. We controlled the momentum. The guards were bombing in threes from all over the court. Maple River had the superior talent, but now we had a shooter’s chance. It seemed a second straight upset was possible, maybe even probable.And then…and then Maple River pulled away in the final four minutes in the way favorites have done to underdogs in countless games. They grabbed key offensive rebounds. They broke free for fastbreaks. They made clutch defensive stops. I scored 26 points in the game, but 23 of them came in the second and third quarters, with only three coming in the fourth. My legs died, followed by my jump shot.
I still recall the helplessness as the Eagles turned their two-point lead to four, six, and 10 points. I threw up an airball on a short jumper, then threw a pass away that led to a layup. With about 90 seconds left, we cut it to six points again, but got no closer. In the closing seconds, I fouled out of the game. The crowd applauded as I made the slow walk back to the bench, a much-appreciated gesture I barely heard as I buried my head in a towel for the final moments. It didn’t take 10 years for me to start regretting that defeat.
Back home in Janesville after the game, I got a ride home from my backcourt mate Schweim. Seated in his black Beretta, I climbed out and walked up to my house knowing I’d never step on the court with him again. Minutes later, when I saw my parents, I hugged them and said, "I don’t want it to be over."
The basketball season continued on without us. Maple River crushed Waseca in the sub-section finals, then cruised to the section title. In the Class A state tournament, the Eagles rolled past Storden-Jeffers, rallied against Clearbrook-Gonvick and ultimately won the championship with a victory over Faribault Bethlehem Academy in a game that produced a final score more often seen in the 1930s state tournaments—33-29—than the modern game. By winning the title, Maple River fulfilled a prophecy Ostermann delivered to me in our postgame handshake. As we went through the line, Ostermann shook my hand and said, "Now that we’ve beaten you guys, we’re going to go all the way."
Knowing that Maple River had done just that—and knowing we had given them one of their toughest games of the entire playoffs—felt good, although perhaps their title played some part in my decade-long dwelling on the game. If we gave them a close game, and they proved to be the best in the state, how far could we have gone? But when I’m thinking more realistically, I realize those are most likely delusions of grandeur. We had a fine team that on a good night could beat anyone, perhaps through to the state tournament. We were also capable of going cold and losing to most anyone. Our journey could have easily ended in the sub-section finals, or the first round of sections, or the finals.
So I really don’t think the dream’s caused by wondering what if? What is it then? Shortly after I moved to New York City in 2004, I stumbled upon an old audio cassette tape. I tossed it into the stereo and immediately realized it was the KTOE radio broadcast of our loss to Maple River. I listened to the entire game, from the pregame interviews with both coaches, to the postgame wrapup. Along the way I pictured each shot, each rebound, and each teammate. I haven’t listened to the tape since.
But I think that game remains with me because of everything that led up to it. Thinking about that game reminds me of the summer basketball camp I attended as a kid in Fulda, when I got to spend a week at my grandma’s house. It reminds me of the pickup games I played with my buddies on our driveways, battles that lasted for three or four hours and were occasionally heated, but always fun. That final loss reminded me of our ninth-grade season, when kids from Janesville and Waldorf-Pemberton combined to form a single school. We met new teammates, and new friends.
That game reminded me of the practices and the fast-break drills we ran, the jokes, and the bus trips. It reminded me of the pregame speeches from coach Tonolli, the postgame meals at Subway in Waseca, and, yes, the victories. It’s all of those good memories that lead me to dream about the March night in 1993 when it all came to an end.
So what have I finally learned? Don’t lose. A better lesson? Savor the journey, because the ending will arrive far too soon and you’ll remember it for far too long.