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"Dad," you'd ask, "do you think I could go stand by the court for a couple seconds and watch the warmups?" "Don't get lost," he'd say, and you'd walk down to Bradley's end. It was much brighter there. The sound of the basketballs on varnished wood and the squeak of Converse All Stars were very loud. Fwoom, fwoom, swish. Very few shots missed. Chet Walker stood casually, palming a ball.
You were excited. Suddenly a basketball was coming right at you, bouncing, then rolling across the yellow wood and into your hands. It was brilliant orange and warm and large in your hands. It smelled of Tuf-Skin mixed with leather. It was beautiful. You couldn't move. In the distance there seemed to be a noise, someone yelling at you. A Bradley basketball, you had never expected this. Then someone appeared. "Gimme the ball, kid," yelled the bespectacled manager, and it dropped from your hands.
The Braves were tough at home. From 1956-1966 they lost only 12 games in Peoria. Away games were another story. During five of those years their record was 69-8 at home but 22-29 on the road. During the 1962-63 season Bradley was 14-0 at home and 3-9 away.
In the Missouri Valley you were expected to lose once you left town. The paper continually referred to away courts as snakepits. As grade-schoolers we had no idea what a snakepit was; we never asked our fathers or someone who might know because it seemed vaguely possible we were using a dirty word. Most of us envisioned a snakepit as being something like a swamp with huge cobras and crocodiles slithering around amid bubbling black pools and vapors.
But 1960 was a good year for Peoria fans and it was the year that a lot of the religious basketball fanatics in our crowd made their Confirmation.
At mid-season there was a big showdown between Bradley and Cincinnati, the No. 1 team in the nation led by Oscar Robertson. Bradley was 13-1, having lost only on Cincinnati's court. The two best college teams in the country came on the floor in Peoria that night.
None of us went to the game. All the tickets had been gone since Thanksgiving and they couldn't be wasted on children. In our homes we prepared for the game. Radios were tuned. Some guys said their rosaries. A few worked on indulgences from the back of prayer books. Others sat on their beds and shot rolled-up socks through coat-hanger baskets on the wall. I remember dribbling a scrubbed basketball through the house.
It started horribly. Oscar Robertson was so good, and immediately the score was 21-12, Cincinnati. Bradley called time-out and regrouped. At the half the Braves had battled back to within three, 47-44. My palms were so wet I carried a dish towel with me as I dribbled.
The second half started. Throughout Peoria saints were invoked and people paced the floor. But one boy, one who was to sacrifice everything, lay face down on his bed in the dark.
Cincy and Bradley traded baskets. They traded fouls. The crowd screamed and the announcer for WIRL went hoarse. Chet hit two in a row from 20 feet away. Madness. The Big O hit from 15. Paul Hogue, Cincinnati's center, dunked.