For me, the high school gymnasium was a place I was forced to go on a regular basis to be knocked down and hit with balls of several different sizes. Sometimes these balls would hit me accidentally, and sometimes the point of the game was for bigger kids to hit me with these balls. In fact, the coach would stand on the sideline and yell — loudly – for everyone to hit everyone with balls. The gym was also a good place for having my gymshorts pulled down when I wasn’t looking.
So when I left high school, I left the high school gym, and I’ve pretty much never looked back until last night. My friend Tony has a son, a smooth monster of a kid, 6’4”, 180 lbs., a senior starter for the South Burlington High Rebels. Tony’s love for his kid and his desire for his kid’s team to win are great and powerful forces, and the longer you’re friends with Tony the more you come to share his unique vision of the future, in which the South Burlington Rebels roll like a division of Sherman tanks over every other high school team in the state of Vermont.
Some of these other teams, in Tony’s utopian world, may need to be rolled over twice, teams like Spaulding and the arch-rivals, Rice High.
And so last night I find myself in a high school gym again, to watch the Rebels take on Middlebury, and it’s like I’ve never been away. So much is the same, so many things I’ve forgotten:
I’ve forgotten that desperate feeling, as I set foot in the gym, that I need to go to the bathroom and check my hair and then go hang around the Yearbook room for a while. I’ve forgotten the chaperones standing grim watch over the one bleacher containing all of the wise-guys and derelicts. I’ve forgotten the painful shyness of high school kids, the way so many of them walk with slightly hunched shoulders, arms tucked at their sides.
I’ve forgotten why the basketball players in high school always got the girls. Football and baseball players are athletes, but basketball players are performers, entertainers, and they do what they do under the burden of bright lights and close observation. They’ve been practicing their looks, their chest-bumps.
And I’ve forgotten too that this is the first time I’ve gone to a sporting event since September, the first time I’ve heard the national anthem with a live crowd. Suddenly there aren’t two teams and two sets of fans, but one electrified group of American parents and children, and even Tony seems briefly disposed to think well of Middlebury’s starters.
The miracle moment comes late in the game, when Middlebury comes roaring back, threatening South Burlington’s lead, and the theme from Rocky blares from the speakers. Since Sylvester Stallone made such a joke of the Rocky franchise, I’ve forgotten how powerful that song is in isolation, how truly compelling, and the wise-guys and the derelicts start taunting the away team, Warm up the bus! Warm up the bus! The cheerleaders begin tossing one another around like lawn darts, and out of nowhere Tony’s son crashes the boards and then takes the ball coast to coast, from one end of the court to the other. He pulls off a dazzling reverse lay-up, all net, and his father is momentarily on another planet. Tony’s up off the bleachers and his arms are up in a salute that can itself only be called Rocky-like and he bellows loud enough for his kid to hear in the scrum of arms and legs on the floor, “That’s the one, baby, that’s the one!”
And when the game is finished, and the world is safe from the Middlebury threat, another father stops by and remarks to Tony, “The refs finally just let ’em play tonight. I like it when the refs let ’em play.”
Tony says he likes it when the refs let ’em play too, and I nod my head knowingly. I can only assume from the exchange that there are nights when the refs don’t let ’em play, and I feel lucky to have missed one of those. It costs three dollars to get into the game, which is cheap enough but I’d definitely feel cheated if I paid three dollars and the refs didn’t even let them play.
I walk out of the gym feeling like maybe I’ll come back sometime, because it’s different and better as an adult. You can feel the love of other parents for their children hanging like incense in the gym, and no one pulls your shorts down, and these are both very good things.
–Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.