Of Course," said Olin Luke, "not everybody likes the fast break."
I nodded but did not reply immediately because I had a mouthful of apple crumb pie. I scraped the plate for the last of the crumbs and then took a swig of coffee.
"Mr. Luke," I said, "that was as fine a piece of apple crumb as I've ever tasted. My compliments to the pastry cook."
"I don't believe you'll get a better piece of pie in Egypt," said Mr. Luke, a slight, soft-spoken man of middle age, the proprietor of Luke's Café ("Always on the Square") which is on the square in Pinckneyville, Ill., a Perry County town 65 miles southeast of St. Louis. When Mr. Luke said Egypt he was, of course, referring to southern Illinois, which is called that because one of its principal towns is Cairo, 85 miles due south of Pinckneyville. Cairo (pronounced care-oh in the area) was so named because the Mississippi's habit of overflowing its banks at that point every springtime put the first settlers in mind of the River Nile.
February 2, 1959
"Mr. Luke," I said, "what is your feeling about the fast break?"
Mr. Luke took a sip of coffee and lit a fresh cigarette. "I go along with the times," he said.
Now this answer had considerable significance. What Mr. Luke says carries weight. He is the No. 1 basketball fan in P'ville (a town nickname deriving from the fact that Pinckneyville is too long a word to spell out in newspaper headlines and on basketball jerseys). His restaurant is buzzing with basketball talk from the time the doors open at 5:30 a.m. until they close at 1 o'clock the following morning. Mr. Luke has missed only five games of the P'ville High School Panthers in 18 years. If it hadn't been for a heart attack, he wouldn't have missed the five. He is very philosophical about the heart condition and, over the protests of his doctor, he drinks all the coffee he wants, smokes cigarettes, goes bowling and, of course, sees every basketball game. He has made one concession to his doctor: he lets Mrs. Luke do most of the work of running the café.
I swung around on the seat at the counter and looked out the window and saw people hurrying by, flapping their arms or holding gloved hands to their ears in the zero cold. It was warm and cheerful in Luke's and I was glad I had taken the advice of Mrs. Rackley, the taxicab driver. Mrs. Rackley had told me, as we drove from the Illinois Central depot to the Friendly Haven Motel, where I was stopping, that I'd learn all about the local basketball situation and get to know just about everybody in town if I did nothing more than just sit in Luke's place.
I sat staring out the window, pondering the import of what Mr. Luke had said about the fast break in basketball in light of what I had learned since I came to town. The facts were that P'ville had once been a powerhouse in Illinois high school basketball competition. This was when Merrill (Duster) Thomas was coach. He turned out consistently strong teams, sent eight of them to the state championship tournament at Champaign, won the state championship once and had a record of 17 and 7 in state tournament play when he decided to retire as coach two years ago and accept the newly created post of athletic director. Of course, Duster continues to teach his five classes in mathematics and chemistry.
As a monument to Duster Thomas' great record, a handsome new gymnasium had been built. It was financed by a special bond issue and, when it was completed, it was named Thomas Gymnasium. It was the last word in construction; there wasn't a pillar or a post to obstruct the view from any seat and it was big enough (allowing for a few lap-sitters and standees) to accommodate Pinckneyville's entire population of about 3,200 persons.
To succeed the highly successful Duster Thomas, the school board settled on a young man of 24 named Don Stanton. Don (who bears a certain resemblance to Terry Brennan) had excellent qualifications. For one thing, he was born and raised in Pinckneyville and had played under Duster Thomas. He had won an athletic scholarship at St. Louis University, where he played under the renowned Ed Hickey, and, after getting his B.S. degree, had served for a year as Coach Hickey's assistant.
Don (who was assigned to teach American history) had to start coaching from scratch. The squad he inherited had lost seven boys through graduation. That left mostly green-as-grass sophomores. The first thing Don announced was that he was abandoning Duster Thomas' more conservative style of play and was going to use the fast-breaking offense that he had learned under Hickey at St. Louis U. He told the newspapermen (including his brother Harry, who is editor of the weekly Advocate) that he figured it would take three years to indoctrinate the boys with this new style of play. "But," he said, "It's the kind of basketball I've got faith in."
Don said that he would hold fast to all other standards established by Duster Thomas. All basketball players would have to maintain a C average in their studies. Nonathletic students can get by with a D. Moreover, the no-dating rule for members of the squad was to be continued. Any boy who so much as took a girl to Luke's for a barbecue-on-bun would be instantly dismissed from the squad. Don agreed completely with Duster that if a boy studied hard enough to keep up a C average and took his basketball seriously enough, there was no time for romance.
(A man in Luke's Café had a story about how young love can get in the way of winning basketball. Some years back a Pinckneyville player was dating a girl off season but obediently suspended the romance for the duration. However, when the state tournament rolled around and P'ville made it, the girl's parents thought it would be nice to take the girl to Champaign to see her beau play. The first hint the player got that his girl was up in the stands came when he happened to look up and see her laughing and giggling and letting a perfect stranger—to the player, that is—feed her popcorn. "The player," said the man in Luke's, "couldn't hit the red side of a green barn after that. I firmly believe the incident cost us a state championship.")
Even with inexperienced material, the Panthers of last season managed to win more games than they lost. This year the young squad (of the starters, Jack Margenthaler is 15, Dave Roach, Ed Bigham and John Nelson are 16, and the one senior, Dave Harris, is 17) began to show the effects of Don Stanton's coaching. He soon had them molded into a smoothly working combination that was acknowledged to be a cinch to win the Southwest Egyptian Conference. When Referee Joe Franks saw them play in the Centralia Invitational Tournament, he made the flat statement to the press, "There's no doubt about it. The P'ville Pincks are on the way back."
Thinking about all this, I turned back to Mr. Luke.
"Mr. Luke," I said, "I'm just wondering if another piece of apple crumb would spoil my supper."
"If you're wondering, you want it," said Mr. Luke, raising a hand to signal one of the waitresses. "Apple crumb here," he called out.
PINCKS SET A RECORD
"You were saying, Mr. Luke," I said while I was waiting for the pie, "that not everybody likes the fast break. How do you mean?"
"Well," said Mr. Luke, "take the game with University High at Carbondale Saturday night. The Panthers were really hot. That score of 106 to 41 set an alltime record for the Pincks. But a lot of people don't like that high-scoring basketball. A lot of people around here would walk out on a game like that."
The girl put the apple crumb before me and then leaned back against the pie counter to listen.
"Mr. Luke," I said when I had finished the pie, "I wish you'd check me on a few impressions I've got."
"Shoot," said Mr. Luke.
"Well," I said, "the reason I came to Pinckneyville was to see just how seriously a small town takes its basketball. Now I could have gone to Herrin or Galesburg—I believe they're most likely to battle it out for the state championship?"
Mr. Luke closed his eyes and nodded sagely.
"But," I said, "you'd naturally find people a little hysterical in towns like that right now. On the other hand, there must be hundreds of towns in Illinois where the people have given up on the team this year. In other words, in some towns there are dreams of glory, in other towns there is deep despair. As I see it, looking at the situation with the cold, objective eye of an outsider, Pinckneyville is sort of in between right now. The Panthers aren't the equal of the great teams of a few years ago, true. But they're coming fast, as Joe Franks, the referee, was saying. Now I've been watching practice every day and yesterday noon I had dinner with Duster Thomas, Don Stanton and Wib Ragland [the assistant coach] at the high school cafeteria. Incidentally, I don't see how the school can put out such a fine meal for 30¢. But anyway, I was told that Don Stanton will lose only one man, Dave Harris, next season. So I don't see how he can help but have a winner. That's why I'd like to ask you, Mr. Luke, would you go so far as to say the basketball recession is over in Pinckneyville, the renaissance, so to speak, is on in this part of Egypt?"
The girl behind the counter looked at me oddly. "What do you do?" she asked. "Write up sports?"
Mr. Luke made a gesture of impatience. "Go set up the booths for supper," he said. The girl shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
Mr. Luke took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled. "Yes, I think you could say that," he said carefully. "Personally, I'll give even money right now that the Panthers make the state tournament next year, and, at the proper odds, I'll bet they're the state champions."
I swung around in my seat and stood up.
"What about tonight's game with Sparta?" I said.
"We'll win that," said Mr. Luke.
"If so," I said, "it just about clinches the Southwestern Egyptian title, right?"
Mr. Luke nodded.
I turned up my coat collar. "I'll see you at the game, Mr. Luke."
"See you," said Mr. Luke.
I went outside and stood on the corner, taking deep breaths in the biting cold. I looked around the square and reflected on what I now knew about Pinckneyville as a town. Its principal industry is strip coal mining, a method in which enormous shovels (big enough to swallow a five-room house in a bite) strip off the top soil and lay bare the veins of soft coal that are close to the surface throughout most of Egypt. Farming accounts for considerable income, but the fact is that P'ville could use some new industries. A phonograph-record factory located there recently and provided quite a few jobs, but the new pudding factory, frankly, has been a disappointment, jobwise. It seems about 20 people can turn out as much pudding in a month as all Egypt can eat in a year.
Even so, Pinckneyville looks prosperous. The homes are neat and well kept. Two policemen, John Siebert on the night shift and John Koerner who works days, are sufficient to maintain law and order. There is no juvenile delinquency as the big cities know it. (Of course, a couple of years ago Officer Siebert had quite an experience. Some kids lured him down to the railroad depot on a pretext while some other kids climbed to the top of the Santa Claus in the town square and placed a basketball in the giant figure's hand which was raised high in a gesture of welcome.) There are two banks, two weekly newspapers (John Shely's Democrat in addition to Harry Stanton's Advocate), half a dozen churches and that many bars, one bowling alley, a lone movie house, the Capitol, open only on weekends. It's easy to see why high school basketball is the big thing in public entertainment, the subject of the endless discussions in Luke's Café and at Reese's paper store, at the lodge halls or wherever people gather.
RUMOR OUT OF SPARTA
I got out to the gymnasium early. Mr. Luke, wearing a cap and a sports jacket, was waiting for me just inside the entrance. He motioned for me to step over in a corner of the lobby. He looked around and then spoke with the air of a conspirator.
"Fellow from Sparta dropped in the café just after you left," he said. "He claimed that the Bulldogs were going to freeze the ball tonight and try to hamstring our fast break."
I whistled. "Good lord," I exclaimed. "Do you believe that?"
"He wanted to bet me $5 neither team would score 50 points," said Mr. Luke. "I told him I'd bet $5 we won, but I wouldn't bet on the score. He backed down on that."
The gymnasium was beginning to fill up. It wasn't a sellout, but I attributed that to the cold weather and the icy highways. The boys and girls of the band filed in and took their places. Bandmaster Woodrow Maloney set up his music stand and began to leaf through the selections for the evening. Down off one of the ramps Duster Thomas, free of coaching responsibility and looking relaxed and youthful with his crew-cut gray hair, tossed a ball around with some of the grade school kids.
Mr. Luke and I found good seats. Sitting in front of us was young Dr. Gene Stotlar, the surgeon, a great Panther star of some years ago. The band struck up a number, and to me (in the happy atmosphere of people laughing and chattering in anticipation of the game) the music sounded as sweet as Guy Lombardo's.
Now the pretty girl cheerleaders pranced out and Pinckneyville gave a cheer for Sparta and Sparta gave one for Pinckneyville. Then the cheerleaders lined up under the basket where the teams would come out and, as Pinckneyville's Panthers raced out on the floor, the band played its traditional entrance music, When the Saints Come Marching In. The crowd roared its welcome of both teams, and Mr. Luke and I stood up and applauded. Then, as the game was about to begin, Mr. Luke and I sat down and exchanged a meaningful glance, both of us thinking of what the Sparta man had said about the Bulldogs' plan to hold the ball.
It immediately became apparent that the Sparta man had it all wrong. The Bulldogs started out to run and shoot just like Pinckneyville and horribly, it seemed to me, drew off to an early lead. I couldn't believe my eyes in view of what I had been hearing all week. I looked accusingly at Mr. Luke. "What goes?" I demanded. Mr. Luke smiled and said, "Doesn't mean a thing. Keep your shirt on."
When the half ended with Pinckneyville trailing 34-33, I decided to go down in the dressing room. I soon found out that Don Stanton was taking the situation a lot more seriously than Mr. Luke. His coat hurled into a corner, he turned on his players, his lips curled in scorn. "Call yourself basketball players?" he snarled. "You call yourself basketball players? You ought to be leading by at least 10 points right now! Don't you fellows know that this game will probably decide the conference? What's the matter with you out there? This Sparta team is tough! Roach, everything depends on the way you defense Hayes (Hayes was high scorer for Sparta], and Margenthaler, I want you to hit those boards, you've got to get those rebounds if we're going to win!" So on and so forth.
I went back up in the stands and bought two Cokes, and when I got back to our seats I handed one to Mr. Luke. "Coach really ate 'em out down there," I said. "I don't know if it'll do any good. This Sparta bunch looks tough to me. That Hayes is hot as a pistol."
Mr. Luke sipped his Coke and shook his head. "Take it easy," he said. "We're only losing by a point. Lots of times this year we've been losing at the half."
"Oh?" I said.
"Sure," said Mr. Luke. "They'll get going now."
There was a lot at stake in this second half. After all, as Mr. Luke had said, a lot of people didn't like Don Stanton's fast break. Now. if Sparta was able to stop the Panthers, fast break and all, the critics would have more reason than ever to snipe at the young coach and demand a return to Duster Thomas' style of play.
PANTHERS CATCH FIRE
But Mr. Luke certainly had called it. The Panthers really caught fire as the second half began. They drew away to a big lead and soon it was apparent that they were going to win by a fat margin. As the shots kept swishing through the net one after another, I looked around to see if any of the old guard who didn't like highscoring basketball were starting to go home. Nobody budged.
An hour later Luke's Café was a madhouse. It seemed that everybody in Pinckneyville was trying to get in. The high school athletic department (as usual) entertained the players and the cheerleaders, girls and boys sitting at opposite ends of the table in strict observance of the no-dating rule. There were cheers for the team, for Don Stanton, and then Mr. Luke got up and, pretending he was conducting an orchestra, led everybody in the Pinckneyville school song. There were cheers until everybody was hoarse.
It was near midnight when the café at last began to clear out. I sat at a table with Mr. Luke and Don Stanton and his pretty wife, June. Don had a hamburger and June had a barbecue and I took a piece of apple crumb pie. Finally, we talked ourselves out, and on the street I said goodby to the Stantons and congratulated Don again.
Back at the Friendly Haven Motel, I stopped at the office to get the key to my cabin from Everett Kelly, the proprietor.
"How did the game come out?" said Mr. Kelly.
"86-66," I said, as I started out the door.
"Who won?" asked Mr. Kelly.
I turned around and told him. But I didn't realize until I got to my cabin that I had replied, ''We did."
That's what a week's exposure to high school basketball in Pinckneyvill had done to a cold, objective observer from out of town.