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Sometimes sport really is a microcosm of life. When the author visited Hamilton, Ohio (pop. 63,189) about five years ago in search of a typical small American city, he discovered a community divided by class conflicts and racial prejudice. It was also beset by a declining economy and rather bleak prospects. All of which made Hamilton indeed typical.
Set against the social fabric of the town, a game, such as the Dec. 17, 1976 basketball game between the town's two high schools, which is described below, takes on greater meaning than that of the final score.
In repose, before their team has made its appearance, the Taft High cheerleaders could almost be mannequins. Care has made no crease on any of their six upturned faces. Their wholesomeness is marred only by the scent of honey-licorice cough drops wafting from two of them who have colds. The girls are not, however, innocent of anxiety. One chews on her lip, another toys with an ear-level pimple she can only wish she had disposed of earlier. Perhaps they are not naive about the world but simply immune to it. At 16 and 17, they have known pressures equivalent to those to which board chairmen are subjected at angry stockholders' meetings. Selected after scrutiny far more rigorous than the members of the basketball team had undergone, the Taft cheerleaders have seen their every flaw magnified in videotapes of tryouts that were shown to a panel of judges with Olympian authority. Yet now they are placid.
Though no player has yet burst from the locker room, the gymnasium, redolent of sweat and wintergreen, is abuzz with the din of 2,200 voices, not yet in full yell, but warming up like a symphony orchestra. The game is being played at Garfield on Hamilton's older, shabbier East Side, but the Taft fans have one side of the gym to themselves. The two stands emphasize the differences between the schools, the divisions in Hamilton. The Taft side is tweed and cashmere, Garfield tends toward chinos and leather jackets, dungarees and workshirts.
The Garfield side is divided between Appalachian whites, come north to man factories after their farms gave out, and blacks, who hope their children will break out of Hamilton to find money and equality in nearby Cincinnati, or Chicago, Los Angeles or Atlanta. A local character, whom I shall call Flatiron, a former steelworker whose nose was mashed in a foundry accident, describes the Garfield atmosphere: "On the big hill right above the school is the old home where the county has stashed its down-and-outers ever since the 1840s, and that's pretty much the Garfield story." With little to do but collect his pension and disability payments, Flatiron spends his time examining the social forces of the town. "What you get these days at Garfield," he says, "is peacetime teenagers whose parents both work, yet never see more than $11,000 between them in a single year. They send their young to a school at the foot of Poorhouse Hill in a neighborhood appropriate to that designation. The southern whites and the blacks have weak affection for each other. Sometimes right in the hallway they fight like bearcats, but for this game they hate Taft more. In 10 years, if they don't leave town, they'll be competing for the same jobs, working for the folks on the other side of the gym. Garfield teachers with kids send them to Taft, never the other way 'round. Now and then Garfield gets its mad up and gives Taft a run for its big bucks. Not this year."
For the students of Taft and Garfield, this game is a way of telling time, of establishing a relationship with Hamilton's past. Banners from old championship seasons drape the gym. The game between Taft and Garfield redeems a dreary record, settles ancient grudges. To the players and their classmates, the game is the season.
Not that the Taft-Garfield game assumes a larger importance only among Hamilton's adolescents. The community at large is aroused by the game, which inspires bets, office pools and barroom arguments. Because Hamilton doesn't have professional or college sports, it's making no great claim to say that a ticket to the Taft-Garfield basketball game is the hottest one in town, but extremes are reached that would scarcely be imaginable to those unfamiliar with the role of sports in America. Fistfights over seats have broken out among Garfield fans, and Taft parents have used basketball season tickets as courtroom pawns in their divorce settlements.
Having forgotten their own adolescence, some of the parents ascribe to teenagers unlimited vigor and sexuality. Among the high school students, therefore, are athletes and beauty queens who become temporary stars in the firmament of local life. The players are infinitely skilled, the cheerleaders infinitely sexy, available for safe fantasies because of the under-age taboo and because, like movie stars, they are unattainable anyway. Work controls the practical side of Hamilton, but this game unleashes its psychic life, its dreams of heroism, beauty, potency, triumph.
Taft's practice sessions the week before the game had all the fervor of war councils. Coach Marvin McCollum paced the court, squinting intently at his varsity. It was a squint with a twinkle. McCollum's war council was also a play, and the play wasn't a melodrama, but a kind of ethical romance with moments of self-mockery. The romance was in the love of victory, the ethics in the means by which victory was pursued.
McCollum was as calm as he was concentrated. When mistakes were made he gestured a player to the sideline for quiet advice. He watched his charges making layups, trying hook shots, turn-around fadeaways, and then scrimmaging against the second team. McCollum is a moralist fond of trite sayings and mangled parables from sources as disparate as Lao-Tse and Tennyson. While practicing for Garfield, these flowed in a happy mixture of earnestness and whimsy. McCollum believed all of them, but he knew they were, after all, slogans and not the Sermon on the Mount. He seemed to use them for inspiration and as tension-breakers.