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1949


birmingham, michigan in the fall of 1949 seems huge and impersonal to me as mom and i make our way through the brown, auburn, and gold leaves that clutter the street in front of the old two story brick barnum junior high school building. but, in fact, the population of the small suburb of detroit is less than 30,000 people, mostly employed in and about the auto industry that calls detroit it's home.

the day we arrive at the principal's office, the school year has already begun for the rest of the students. there are three hundred children in this school; more children than there were people in the town from which i've come. we are introduced to mabel harabedian; a student in my own grade who will act as a guide for me and show me around. she is dressed in a plaid pleated skirt and a white blouse with a green cardigan sweater and a circle pin.

"i'm mable." she says; big grin on her face.

"hi. i'm noel."

"noel? oh, like christmas?", she asks looking at my mother.

"yes", mom answers, "born on december 30th."

"what's your last name?", she turns back to me.

"stookey"

"i'll call you 'stook', okay?"

"okay", i say.

she is a great choice to guide me. she loves the school. she loves the principal's office. she loves the doorknob that she turns as we stepped out into the hallway. she loves the hall. the hall loves her. now don't get me wrong, mable isn't a gushy wushy kind of person, it's just that she directs such focused attention on anything that comes into her view that it melts. like me.

after the brief tour of the two story building, i am brought to the door of room 116; mister beam's room and my home for the next nine months.

homeroom 116 has one better than average athelete. his name is john buick. he is captain of our intramural basketball team. all boys in homerooms 'participate' in intramural basketball. john is resigned to this fact and actually appears to do quite a good job of encouraging the rest of us by including us in some portion of every game (though it very well may be by mister beam's direction).

it doesn't take too long to become aware of the athletic pecking order here at barnum junior high. homeroom C128 is a monster on the basketball court. pete kass is one of the guards. he has excellent form and can hit a basket from 30 feet out. tim webber has great moves from his left forward position and often sinks fall-away jump shots from the corner. but the hulking marvin green is generally regarded as high jock of the school. he plays center with a surety and physical confidence that is awesome. it never occurs to me at the time that he may be a year or two older.

every wednesday the homerooms meet after school on the gym floor to play a competitive schedule that traditionally ends in a championship game between two homerooms for which the school sets aside two special hours during a regular school day.

the results of each wednesday's matches are posted in the hallway along with the current standings. amazingly, through a series of defaults (the other team not showing up)

and john buick's exemplory play, homeroom B116 is the sole occupant of second place in the standings. C128, of course enjoying it's expected steamroller season of no defeats.

this year, the top two teams in the intramural league will play for the championship of the school. and through a series of bizarre defaults and narrow victories, homeroom B116 finds itself head to head with the intimidating C128 squad. this game is to be played during the school day and classes will be suspended during the activity.

there is a core of six or seven players with experience here amongst the homeroom 116 players. john buick has helped fashion a reasonable bunch of ball handlers from this group of enthusiastic non-atheletes. kurt emmerling plays right forward and besides mable, is the only person with whom i've exchanged more than a 'hi'.

there are eleven of us dressed in our gym-class maroon cotton shorts and for this championship game we've been given halter shirts with numbers on the back. my number is 11. it seems like a good number. i wonder a bit about numbers and their relationship to performance. since i've only played in two of the games this year, a total of about three or four minutes, i have a lot of time to think about things like numbers and stuff like that.

the gym is packed. the mid-morning sun coming through the narrow casement windows above the team benches projects random overbright white geometric shapes on the far side of the gym near the exits to the hallway. the team benches are on one side...the bleachers on the other. the floor is wood, the walls are wood. the echoes of the voices blend with the squeak of our sneakers on the hardwood floor.

i suppose i would be nervous if i was going to play, but since this is the championship game, i'm not expecting more than my token appearance sometime after the fourth quarter has begun. by then we probably will have fallen so far behind that it will be thought of as 'good sportsmanship' to put me in.

the starting lineups are announced over the crackling public address system. perhaps it's my imagination but the applause for the C-128 team seems to underline the prevailing favoritism here. john leads our four regular starters out to the floor. the crowd begins some chatter. "alright, alright...lookin' good, lookin' good! howboutcha 128!"

the buzzer sounds and from the opening tip-off it is apparent that this will not be a difficult game for C128. they sink three baskets before we get our first shot; a foul shot that we miss and the rebound from which leads to still

another C128 basket.

the first two quarters are lost in a flurry of C128 ball handling and by halftime, though C128 has not scored as well as expected from the outside, marvin greene has controlled most of the under basket activity and and his team has built, by intramural standards, an impressive 15 to 6 lead.

john buick has scored all but two of homeroom 116's points and in the locker room there's not much to say: we all know what's happening out there. we've been lucky...if webber and kass were hitting their outside jumps like they usually do the score could just as easily be 30 to 6. at least it still kinda looks like a contest.

until the second half starts.

within the first few minutes both guards for C128 hit from 20 and 30 feet out and the worst fears are realized...C128 has decided to 'get serious' and we are about to be on the short end of a very embarrassing final score.

after still another miss at their basket resulting in a turnover to C128, a discouraged john buick calls a time out and comes over to the bench.

"stookey...you're in!" he says and plops down dog tired.

"huh?" it's so early in the game yet...

"go in - play center!"

"uh...ok..." and as i run across the floor to the otherside where we will bringing in the ball i hear mable's voice float out over the crowd...

"okay...stooooooook!"

the referee's whistle blows and the ball comes in to me. i'm trying to dribble and walk and the ball is bouncing from the floor back up to me at about chest height.

kaboom, kaboom...

i begin to make my awkward way down the floor. the defense closes in. i can see they are waiting for the next five foot bounce. i take the ball with both hands and pass it toward one of my teammates. well, kinda toward...actually it sails about three foot over his head and into the crowd...

there is a collective gasp from the crowd.

"ats-okay-stoooook...you'll get em!" mable's voice seems amazingly reassuring despite it's starkness.

the ball is brought back in bounds by C128 and as their quick passing brings the ball up the court i find myself backed up under our basket waving my arms about. a side pass off to marvin green in the right forward position and he drives toward the basket. i move out hesitantly to stop his shot and as he releases the ball toward the hoop i jump up, reach out with my hand, and slap it back down...it glances off his head and out of bounds.

"atta way stooooook!"

well, how about that? our ball out?

the ball comes to me again and i begin to dribble down the court again...kaboom, kaboom, kaboom...

one of my teammates comes to back court. he motions to pass it to him. i thankfully comply and trot on down near the basket. there seems to be a lot of unneccessary activity here...all these arms are out and waving and i just kinda back my way in and wave with them when suddenly into the crowd comes the ball and...i've got it!

'gee', i'm thinking, 'the basket is right behind me.' i can see it in my mind. 'i'm probably close enough to shoot...'

i start to move to my left. somebody's there. to my right...uh-uh, somebody there as well...a hand is reaching at the ball...another one...suddenly i know all i have to do is get up in the air where there's some room...then i can turn around. still facing my end of the court, i spring into the air, twirl around and sure enough there's the basket. swish! two points!

"okay, stooooooook!"

my feet hit the floor and i'm astounded. i've invented a new shot!

everyone seems as mystified as i about what has just happened but as we all reach the other end of the court and C128 misses their answering shot the time-out buzzer goes off and back into the lineup comes a charged-up john buick.

" go down and stand under the basket" he whispers as he takes the ball out of my hand. "just stand there and wait for the pass..."

and so it begins. i go down and stand in front of the basket. john or someone on the team brings the ball down

and eventually gets it to me in the middle. i jump up in the air, turn around, there's the basket and swish two points. jump, turn, swish. jump, turn, swish. i do this ten times in the second half. all of them go in the basket. punctuated each time by an "okay, stooooooook", the game's expected outcome completely flip-flops, C128 seems to get horribly rattled, can't make the simplest shot and homeroom B116 wins the intramural championship by 10 points!

at the final buzzer a partially stunned group of teachers and students make their way out the exits of the gym. mable and i wave to each other as i head for the locker room.

inside the locker room it seems so quiet. i really don't know what to expect, but i would think that there would be champagne and towel snapping and jokes and pranks and all the things that we see on t.v. now but of course this is 1949, pre-t.v. and besides it's only junior high school and i've never been in a locker room following a championship event before...and i suppose i'm just as glad there's not a bunch of festivity going on anyway cause then everybody would see that i'm wearing boxer shorts underwear instead of briefs like everybody else. gads... my legs are spindly enough anyway without sticking out of these big white pantaloons! we are all dressing to rejoin our classes. john buick is first-dressed and claps my back as he leaves. "nice game", he says. he is the only one in the locker room to speak to me.

the hallways are deserted. except for the muffled voices of the teachers through the closed doors, there is only the echo of my shoes in the hall as i approach mister battenhouse's room for my science class. the class has been in session for about 15 minutes and as i open the door, i hope that i'll be able to get to my seat without calling attention to myself.

the applause takes me totally by surprise. and it doesn't stop. i feel my cheeks flush. uh...what response is called for here? gads...i've never been here before...i don't know anybody in this classroom...uh...

i bow from the waist.

the clapping stops abruptly. there are a few giggles. i was on top of the world for about an hour. now i'll have to start all over again.


 

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