When I was in first grade or so, my buddies and I put some candy in a little basket with an anonymous note professing our love to a set of sisters who won at least two, maybe three state basketball championships.
We went to every high school game, because in a town of 800 all conceivable passion for all things competitive is consolidated into the basketball season. As a kid, you idolize those who run through the paper wall for pre-game warm-ups as AC/DC mixes with the Chieftain stomp and dream about your turn.
The high school and elementary classrooms were in the same building, so when it was our turn to be the focus of little gazing eyes, 3-foot future Klawock Chieftains broke free from the lunch line to give us little crayon pictures wishing us luck in the game that night. We’d give them high-fives, thank them and continue walking to class a little taller.
Now, kids like junior Matt Peters, the All-Conference big man who pretended he was a bear in the bleachers as a toddler when his sister won state my senior year, carries the flag of this generation of Chieftains.
Last week the regional tournament was held in Juneau. It’s a spectacle that turns communities into abandoned burgs scattered in the southeast Alaska forest. Nine 1A schools descend upon the host site with both their teams, if they can field them, sleep in hotels if they’re lucky, but more than likely roll out sleeping bags onto gym, wresting, or math room floors.
As an athlete, you have great excuses at your disposal. The 17-hour boat ride was rough and that dude in front kept puking, the float plane did flips, you slept on a floor for five straight nights. But a town is counting on you, so you hesitate to use them. It’s not really pressure. It’s more like omnipresent love.
I got nervous Friday night as I watched the championship games streaming on the Internet. After the Klawock girls (22-2) won handily against perennial powerhouse Yakutat, the Klawock boys (25-2) trailed 29-17 at the half. With no shot clocks in Alaska, a quarter can go quickly, so being down nine with five minutes left in the game might as well be 20.
Then it happened. 45-40. 45-43. Tie game. The team stud, junior Tyrus Morgan twice missed put-backs through a sea of slapping hands, but it wasn’t until he was clubbed to the floor that a call was made. His free throw made it 46-45 Klawock and it was on. After a steal, junior Sam Rew threw a behind-the-back pass on the fast break. The coach in me panicked but the pass was perfect. 51-45. Yakutat didn’t score until the game was on ice. A 21-2 run in the final five minutes won the regional championship and completed a Region V 1A title sweep for Klawock. Last year Yakutat’s boys took home the nets. This year, it was Klawock’s turn, all of Klawock: the players, the coaches, the fans, the alumni, the kids.
Few expected Yakutat to win, but before the game they decided to do it anyway and almost pulled it off. The more you care the more it hurts, but you can’t get anywhere unless you risk getting your heart dunked. They gave the best team all it could handle, but Klawock did what champions do. Now they have to do it all over again where it matters most – state.
Stories like these encapsulate March Madness and sports in general. It doesn’t matter if you can’t pronounce Klawock, the story is universal. We love to watch people who care. We love watching passion in action either because it reminds us of who we were, or who we could still be even off the sporting field.
The stories are useful, enduring. In Manteca there are trophies, footballs, softballs, bats, helmets and signed basketballs wrapped in severed nets in buildings and stadiums named after people who lived it well during their shot. We want to live like the ball is in our hand, history in the balance, like it was back then or is now. That’s why we watch, why I am thankful for the Internet and why I will always be a Chieftain.
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