High school basketball players, especially seniors, are approaching the most important times of their seasons. They may not know it yet but the memories they are about to make will be with them forever. This is one of the things that makes high school sports so special.
Over the years while teaching I was known to get sidetracked occasionally and start telling an old story. I never knew what might trigger those memories, especially as I approached my mid-60s when the memories are many but way back in the past. It might be a photo, or sitting around reminiscing with old friends, or just the time of year, or a comment by a student, or perhaps a song. Today, as I sit here enjoying my retirement, it was a song.
49 years ago this month, in 1970, was my senior year at Lawrence County High School and my last month playing high school basketball. Our team was pretty good and favored to win the region after Fayetteville (not yet called Lincoln County) was upset by Manchester (not Coffee County High in those days, I don't think. We called it Manchester.)
The region tournament was in Shelbyville and, superstitions in sports being what they were, we followed the same routine each night. I rode in the car with Coach Ralph Benson (who is pretty much a legend in this part of Tennessee, at Lawrence County High and even more so at Summertown High. The huge mural which graces the north wall of the gym at LCHS is Coach Benson.) and every night I sat in the same seat, in the back. Ralph would always play the radio and I, being very competitive and emotionally high-strung before games, used the music as a way to stay calm.
Every night a particular song that was very popular would play, at least once, on the ride to the game:Rainy Night in Georgia by Brook Benton
The tempo of the song was perfect for me to relax and I would sing the song to myself, never realizing others might be able to hear me.
In the region finals we played Manchester (this was the only year, EVER, that both finalists didn't move on the sectionals) and built a big lead only to have them come back on us in the 4th quarter. They took a two-point lead with about 5 seconds left and I threw the ball to half court and we called time to set up a last shot. There was no three-point shot in those days so the best we could realistically hope for was a tying shot or, in our wildest dreams, a basket and a foul shot to win.
I inbounded the ball, stepped in bounds, and got the ball right back from about 35 feet. I put up the shot and it looked perfect, seemingly going down in the net before it rattled a couple of times and popped back out. Season and high school career over. Devastated.
One day the following week, probably Monday, I was leaving the gym after turning in everything and cleaning out my locker after school. The gym was empty and there was an old ball, one of those old leather ones with part of the leather torn off, laying near the bleachers. I picked it up, walked to the same point 35 feet from the basket, took off my coat and laid it down on the floor, and relived the shot. This time, of course, nothing but net.
I picked up my jacket and headed across the court for the door. I heard someone whistling and turned to see Coach Benson, standing near the stairs leading down to the dressing room. It took a second to realize he was whistling "Rainy Night in Georgia". He turned and walked away without saying anything and I walked on out.
When I have told this story in class in the past I get a little emotional. I thought that writing it would be different...