In the 1950s and 60s, high school basketball was the king of Maine sports. Communities rallied around their teams and the twice-weekly games were the social events of the season. Fights broke out, tires were slashed, romances—even marriages—began and ended before, during, and after the games.
One of the highlights, not only of the winter, but of the year, were the high school basketball tournaments. Not only did schools shut down for the week, businesses closed. Some townspeople took their vacations in February, not to fly to Florida but to drive to Lewiston, eat at Stickino’s Restaurant, and watch the Western Maine Basketball Tournament at the Memorial Armory.
I first heard the call to become part of what I now think of as the annual pilgrimage to Lewiston in the eighth grade, when I began playing basketball. By the following year, while I might have gone to church on Sunday and listened to my pastor and next-door neighbor, Scotty Campbell, tell us about a loving God, my real worship service was in my backyard, shooting my new yellow Voit basketball into the hoop my father had put up over the garage door. My scriptures were the sports pages of the Portland Press Herald and the Portland Evening Express. My icons the pictures I cut from Sport magazine: Hot Rod Hundley, Jungle Jim Loscutoff, Bill Russell.
The twenty-six-mile drive from Yarmouth to Lewiston took us small-town kids into another world: a city of bright lights and dark alleys, where everyone, it seemed, spoke French, and tall spires of stone churches loomed against the horizon. The Memorial Armory itself, built in 1922-23, also stone, cavernous, inspired an even greater feeling of awe.
But as with any good pilgrimage, it was the journey itself that was as important as the destination. Riding on the team bus, I learned about sex (even though at least half the information was wrong), what makes a good joke, and any number of songs. I learned how to hold my own swapping insults—what we called “cutting”— and I made friendships that continue to this day.
The first time I walked into the Armory, I realized at some level I’d crossed the threshold into what today I would call liminal space—out of ordinary time, neither past nor present nor future. The smell of smoke, sweat, and popcorn was like incense to my nostrils. My ordinary life—my family, my interests in music and reading, even my fantasies about girls—dissolved, and I was completely in the moment, focused only on the other team, the basketball, the basket.
In those days, the Western Maine Basketball Tournament was comprised of eight teams each from small, medium, and large schools. The teams with the best win/loss records played those with lesser records, with the winner going on to play other winners until there was only one winner left: the Western Maine Class S, M, and L Champions, who would then face the Eastern Maine Champions in the even bigger cities of Portland or Bangor. Every game was a 32-minute morality play, complete with heroes—our guys—and villains—their guys. There were always upsets, increasing the drama. And, of course, there were more losing teams than winning ones: one of life’s great lessons.
Pilgrimage is about dealing with disappointment, learning from mistakes. It’s interesting to me that during the four years I played basketball for North Yarmouth Academy, the town’s high school at the time, our team lost no more than maybe a dozen games, and yet I remember the losses far more than the victories. For three years, NYA won its first tournament games and then met Freeport in the Western Maine Finals, where we lost every time. During my senior year, we finally beat Freeport, as well as all the other teams we faced in the Western Maine Tournament, besting Cape Elizabeth to win the Class L Championship. I remember little about any of those games. What I do remember vividly, even 56 years later, is our loss to Orono in the State Championship. I can tell you the score—74-52—as well as where I scored each of my 10 points—one long jump shot to start the game, two foul-line jump shots, one put back off a rebound, and two foul shots.
Pilgrimage, however, is also about beginning again. For me, the next basketball season started the day after the tournament ended. I estimate that during my four years in high school, I had a basketball in my hand 350 days a year. I was always looking ahead to the next year. Playing basketball gave my life a meaning and a purpose. It gave me hope.
One reason I had such a hard time adjusting to college was that once I stopped playing organized basketball, I no longer had the next season to look forward to, nothing to work towards. This turned out to be a great lesson, one I’ve needed, still need more than ever these days: for serenity, I have to have a goal—some kind of basket, if you will—to shoot for.
As a teacher, I continued to attend the high school tournaments, now as a spectator, watching the game change, observing some of my former opponents in the crowds or refereeing the games. And I still watch the occasional tournament game on Maine’s Public Television channel.
I watch as some people go to church occasionally, as reminders of how the experiences of my youth have molded me. For example, there was always a spiritual component to basketball for me. Those many hours I spent shooting my yellow ball into the make-shift hoop—the sense of first extending and then leaving myself, as if the ball were part of me, so that releasing the ball toward the basket was like soaring into the air, leaving the secular world behind—I see now as precursor to years of meditation.
And after my daughter died from cancer, I found myself thinking of Mr. Beal, my first basketball coach, and the way he had driven me. I heard his voice sometimes in the morning, “Come on, Wile, move it!” and I began to think of my grief as a basketball opponent, one I needed to work as hard to defeat as I had had to work to beat Freeport.
Except for some rural parts of the state, basketball is no longer king of Maine sports. Hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse—both men’s and women’s teams—all draw big crowds. A good thing, I think. (People who talk about the good old days seem to forget how few opportunities there were then for women to participate in much of anything except cheerleading.)
And while I’m sorry the Lewiston Armory no longer hosts high school tournaments, I’m glad to see it is still hosts recreation programs, gun shows, the “Androscoggin Falls Angels Roller Derby League,” and, once a year, large numbers of the Somalis now residing in Lewiston who gather to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
Nice to see that the Armory remains a destination for pilgrims.