No salary caps. No $100 million contracts. No arbitrators. No agents. No lockouts. Just this: a buzzer blaring and a basketball spinning near the rafters and two kids, two teams, two towns about to get their lives changed when it comes down.
Of course, pretty much the entire town of Kimberly isn't even watching the ball. Those folks are still hugging, screaming and thinking they've just won the Idaho Class A-3 high school championship at the Idaho Center outside Boise. With only 2.9 seconds left in the season, their hero, junior Rich Arrossa, swished a Houdini of a jumper for a two-point lead. They figured it was over. They were state champs for the first time in 46 years.
No wonder almost nobody noticed Mike Christensen, a hat-rack-thin senior for Declo High, as he took the inbounds pass, dribbled to just past the free throw line and heaved a 75-foot rosary off his chest, trying to save a 25-0 season, his high school dreams and the hopes of his town of 300. "Without our high school sports," says Jay Fox, who runs Declo's only grocery store-gas station-deli, "we don't have much."
Seemed like that basketball would never come down. "It was just like in the movies," says Mike. "Everything seemed to go totally quiet, and the ball just kind of hung in slow motion."
If anybody was going to make a shot straight out of Hoosiers, it would be Mike. He's one of those kids who can sit in the backseat of a 1976 GTO going 35 mph and bank a crumpled Doritos bag off a 7-Eleven and into a trash can. A bow hunter, he has taken deer at 75 yards. In practice he made 75-foot bombs now and again, though his coach, Loyd Garey, always made him stop. "You're not going to get that shot in the game," Garey said. One night at a Declo girls' game, Mike bought a one-dollar raffle ticket and won a chance at making a half-court shot for charity. Count it!
Now the crowd at the Idaho Center loosed the kind of gasp you hear when a Wallenda falls. Now there was this indoor thunder, and Mike's dad, Val, is crying, and Rich's dad, George, is crying, and Rich is crying, and Mike is somewhere in the middle of a scrum of arms and shoes and size-12 grins, and the little scoreboard reads DECLO 72, KIMBERLY 71,0:00. Didja hear? Some kid just banked in a 75-footer to take state!
Sports today isn't easy. We suffer the agents and contracts and lawsuits because we know that at its center sports is heartachingly real. It doesn't come from Disney or Nike or somebody's convoluted scheme to gift wrap a school record. Sometimes there's utter joy, and sometimes there's utter sorrow. Sometimes it stays for only 2.9 seconds, and sometimes it stays for a lifetime. "I never felt any-tiling like that in my life," says Kimberly guard Scott Plew. "To feel the highest high you've ever felt and then, in the next second, the lowest low, it was horrible. But I'm still glad I was a pail of it."
What happened next was more amazing still. Nobody beat chests or pointed fingers or commissioned a new tattoo. No parents screamed at scorers or coaches or kids. The Kimberly players just stepped up straight and tall and took their runner-up trophy and medals and their ache as Declo became, officially, the state champ on a shot too big to dream.
Back home Mike and his teammates got to ride through town on the fire truck, and girls Mike hardly knows gave him hugs. The school threw a big assembly to celebrate its first boys' basketball tide and asked Mike to try the shot again. Sure enough, he made it on the second try. Fox taped every newspaper clipping he could find by the cash register, where they'll probably hang for what, 50 years? "Tell you what," he says. "He's got free lunch in here the rest of his life, long as I can afford it."
In a small town much of who you are in life is worked out by your senior season. If he gets lucky, Mike might play some Division III college ball, but he's got to go off on his two-year Mormon mission soon. After that, he hopes to stay in Declo, maybe make a living working outdoors, while holding down a permanent job as the town legend.