Basketball a show worth watching

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Jerry Hinnen / Sports editor

I was set.

The Demopolis game was over at Saturday’s Vaughn-Robinson Classic in Mississippi and the Greene County game was still to come, but to come two more games (featuring Mississippi schools only) and almost three hours later. I’d already followed the Sportswriter’s Creed by stuffing my face with free food in the New Hope High School hospitality room and done my post-Demopolis game interview, and I still had more time to kill than Matthew McConaughey.

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But I’d brought my latest copy of Sports Illustrated and a book, I had a bottled water and a Snickers, and I was ready for a nice couple of hours of ignoring what was going on on the New Hope court.

But a funny–and, to be honest, not altogether surprising–thing happened. I spent a lot more time watching the game than I did reading about Vince Young. This one team’s player, a No. 24, was the only real chance his team had but he kept draining threes. And this big No. 30 for their opponents, he was scoring every time he got the ball on the post. And, omigosh, he just dunked right in the face of some kid who looked like he’d gotten a rock in his trick-or-treat bag.

Bottom line, I ended up watching, oh, 31 of 32 minutes of a blowout game between two anonymous (to me) schools I’ll likely never even hear the names of again. And it got me thinking–why on earth did I just do that when there was Rick Reilly and Steve Rushin to be read?

But more importantly, it got me to thinking–I still haven’t explained why, like football, high school basketball should be an every-Friday-night thing. So here’s a list of reasons high school hoops is the best idea since peanut butter met jelly, the same I Love This Game! treatment I gave Dixie Youth baseball and high school football (Don’t worry, you’re safe from any future “10 reasons you should watch ice hockey” columns):

1. The improvisation. A girls’ player steals the ball and leads a three-on-one fast break towards the opposite basket. Does she A) pass to the player to her left B) pass to the player to her right C) take it herself? If she chooses option C, does she A) fake a pass before putting up her shot, or does she B) drive towards the defender in order to draw a foul?

Contrast this with, say, a running play in football. The running back can either run where the play is called or run elsewhere, but that’s about the extent of his options. After that, he’s simply running away from defenders-it’s much more instinct than decision-making.

This is certainly not to take anything away from football. (I would prefer not to have a pitchfork-and-torch-waving mob at the paper’s door tomorrow.) But every football play begins with a script, while relatively few basketball plays do. Excitement happens in football when either the script is followed perfectly or torn apart; basketball provides excitement by rarely using a script at all. And it’s in that space to improvise we find…

2. Artistry. The no-look pass; the baseline dribble and off-balance reverse layup; the crossover followed by the drive down the lane and monstrous slam; even the form of a jump-shooter as he or she swishes a 3.

All of these have an aesthetic appeal … heck, call it a coolness, a did-you-see-that-quality that comes as much from the players’ quick thinking as from their athletic gifts. And it’s a very rare high school basketball game, at any level, where one or two of these plays don’t come along, where you have no choice but to shake your head and clap.

3. The Noise. Lord knows the fans at high school football games can be intense. But the simple dynamics of high school-size crowds in gymnasiums vs. stadiums means that to get the kind of noise you might hear at Sumter County vs. Livingston or R.C. Hatch vs. Marion at a football game, you have to visit Tuscaloosa or Auburn. And if that level of noise doesn’t raise your pulse a couple of notches, sorry, you’re a zombie.

4. Popcorn and strawberry sodas, thankyouverymuch.

5. The unpredictability. We’re all in agreement that any team could lose a game at any time either on the football field or on the basketball court. But those “any times” happen a lot more on the hardwood, as the NCAA Tournament reminds us every March. Of course, you don’t have to wait ’til then for that reminder: just look at last Friday’s game between Livingston and Sumter County, where a Cougar team that has struggled all season but is now improving came within two points of knocking off the top-ranked two-time defending 3A champs.

6. Slam dunks. Fun for the whole family!

7. The players. Sit in the stands for a football game, and unless you catch a glimpse of them taking their helmets off on their way to a sideline huddle, you’re never going to see the players’ faces until the game is over. Sit in the stands for a basketball game and unless you’re in the nosebleeds, you’re going to see every grimace after a hard fall to the floor, every howl of joy after an and-one, every look of angry disbelief when a phantom foul is whistled. There’s plenty of drama in football, of course; but to this fan at least, the drama in basketball always seems a little more personal.

One more time: I don’t intend this column to be seen as a knock against football, which has its own exhaustive list of things to recommend it. But a lot of sports fans, especially in the South, see the sport as a pleasant diversion until baseball and spring football practice roll around, and for my money there’s way too much to basketball to look at it that way.

Actually, there’s too much to it to look away at all, even for Vince Young. That No. 24, whoever he is, is pulling up from downtown again…