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LONGING AND BLISS IN A SMALL MONTANA TOWN, ONE GIRL'S LIFE WAS LARGELY ABOUT BASKETBALL

March 06, 1995
March 06, 1995

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March 6, 1995

Hockey
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LONGING AND BLISS IN A SMALL MONTANA TOWN, ONE GIRL'S LIFE WAS LARGELY ABOUT BASKETBALL

By Megan McNamer ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE MARINSKY

It had to do, in part, with the seasons and the weather. The game
peaked at a time of year that was between times, that otherwise
felt depressing, with only an occasional tremulous flutter.
Valentine's Day, followed by Ash Wednesday. Walking down an alley
you would see a sugar-candy heart melting in the slush. The
inscription: sum dish. This meshes in my memory with all those
winters -- raw and ugly, sloppy if the wind was a chinook. Life
had a dull kind of chaos to it. But inside those gymnasiums it
was clean and warm and still. It was whatever I wanted it to be.
And that's why I grew up loving basketball.

This is an article from the March 6, 1995 issue

It all began in grade school with the St. Margaret's Huskies
(``Hard to beat, hard to beat''). This was in Cut Bank, Mont., up
on the Hi-Line, a series of wind-stripped little towns linked by
the railroad tracks and the long ribbon of U.S. Highway 2. At St.
Margaret's we were two grades to a room, with no gym of our own
and no association with the Public-ers (a word we considered
interchangeable with Publicans, Christ's adversaries), so all our
games were away. We played kids from tiny Heart Butte or from Star
School, the Catholic-run boarding school near Browning on the
Blackfeet Reservation. I remember wood-burning stoves just beyond
the baskets. They burned any player who reached for an errant
shot. I remember another court with only one basket, so the game
had to be improvised accordingly. Basketball had limits, barriers.
But it seemed full of consequence.

I, of course, was sidelined. It was the '60s in rural Montana, and
I was a girl. By junior high school I acknowledged my position as
spectator. But that didn't diminish my interest in the game. If
anything it started to take on more weight. I switched my focus
from the surroundings to the players.

I watched a Blackfeet player, Jim Kennedy, launch a midcourt shot
that left his long fingers milliseconds before the final blast of
the buzzer. The ball arced for a silent eternity, then swished
back to earth amid a human roar. It sounded as though Lindbergh
had landed in Paris. The Cut Bank High School Wolves lost a
preliminary game in the State B Tournament to the Browning High
School Indians by one pivotal point. My best friend Julie and I
cried.

I watched Don Wetzel from Cut Bank -- also a Blackfeet, compact
and quick -- steal the ball at the final moment and dunk it in a
victory over the Shelby Coyotes, causing my best friend Shelly and
me to cry.

I watched a Conrad Cowboy named Dick Harte make another of those
long shots, changing fate in the nick of time. And I knew that
the KSEN radio announcer was at that very moment screaming,
``Heartbreaker by Harte!'' as always, his words bouncing off the
stars and down into Canada.

I watched those players for clues to myself. I was concerned with
chance, a sudden upset, a ball flirting with the rim. But I was
also concerned with certainty. I desired the players, and I
desired a certain way to be. Long-limbed and loose. Sweating
victory. In this respect, there was something both satisfying and
heartrending about basketball. It was charged with against-odds
possibility.

We would saddle up with chains and set out -- the mother of my
best friend Robyn driving -- for 80 miles through snow flurries,
ignoring the winter-storm warnings, skirting the eventual ROAD
CLOSED sign. Homing in on Havre, the B squad game on the radio as
our signal, we would have the car heater going full blast, making
our wet-nyloned feet stink.

Once there, it was time to head for the bathroom and prepare. Put
on our best blouses. Stuff our bras with Kleenex. Take out the
curlers and spray the spit curls. Tease and comb our hair into
smooth helmets. Erase our faces and apply a ghostly mask of white
lipstick and black mascara.

The A squad game would begin, the important game. There were
boundaries, rules, it would go on only so long. And while it
lasted, the clock ticking away, I could forget the long drive, the
rocky night, wind, Lent, death. My own gawky self. I existed
within the game, which had an almost organic pattern, a coherence
all its own.

From the starting lineup to the end of the bench, the players
were extraordinary. In their shiny uniforms (usually something and
gold) they were stars, all of them, even Tom, my winter-prom date,
who was just getting his growth. When emerging from the mysterious
locker room, he had a momentary glow.

This phenomenon wasn't new. Buzz -- a guy my father's age, a
growly, barrel-shaped, sleepy St. Bernard of a man, now a chef and
modestly successful restaurateur surrounded by a hazy halo of
cigarette smoke -- was in his youth a Hi-Line high school
basketball star. He was lean, of course, and flashing. The town
fathers, as he tells it, would stop him on the street and give him
money. Not to play harder, not to rig the game. Just for being, on
Saturday night, Buzz.

My dad was a basketball star for Shelby, as were his brothers. He
and my uncle Bob had tight curls that popped back into place after
each flurry of play. They would have traded any amount of time on
the bench for the pleasure of flipping their hair out of their
eyes just once, one smooth swoosh. I guess they sensed something
we all knew intuitively: Basketball was only partly about baskets,
balls and the various tactics for getting balls into baskets. It
was mostly about bodies.

Poor exposed elbows, winter-pale legs, soft, first-growth hair
matted with sweat. Those high school bodies were sort of pitiful.
But they were in motion. They kaleidoscoped right past the
cheerleaders, who had a physical presence I always found
discouragingly at rest.

Cheerleaders in the 1960s wore dress shields. They kept their
faces flat. They shouted V!-I!-C!-T!-O!-R!-Y!, but their
performance didn't seem goal-oriented. They repeated the same
motions no matter what was happening on the floor. There was no
sense of evolution in their actions.

For a while I wanted to be a cheerleader myself. I wanted the
social endorsement that went with being a cheerleader; I wanted
the attention. I wanted something, and this was what was given me
to want. But, for all that, I really didn't want to stand
positioned on the center line, traveling neither to the left nor
to the right.

Being a cheerleader seemed so static: Be cute and things will come
to you. This might sound similar to being Buzz on a Saturday
night, but there was a difference. It had to do with desire.
Bodies, at their best, are always wanting -- in both senses of the
word. Those high school basketball players had zits and skinny
legs, but they were trained to summon passion. And they were
rewarded with a kind of redemption. They were gracelessness turned
to grace.

I eventually played in the pep band, a negligible role in the
overall mix. Everyone liked hearing our songs. Distorted and
stumbling, they nevertheless added jazz to the main event. But we
might as well have been a human jukebox or itinerant musicians
from the street, the way fans averted their eyes. We weren't in
motion, we weren't quite still. We were just something odd in our
stiff, hot uniforms with their high-water pants. At tournaments,
in the crush of the crowd, pep bands from various towns were
positioned here and there in a cordoned-off gulag. Deep within our
boardlike band suits, we perspired. But we enjoyed a bit of
importance then. We were court eunuchs at the royal palace.

As a member of the band, the closest I ever came to insinuating my
body into the orchestrated whole that is basketball was when I
performed my solo cymbal crash during The Star-Spangled Banner. I
would take one step onto the floor and clear a little room. ``And
the rockets' red glare. . . .'' Crash! It occurred to me that I
could tamper with the scheme of an evening by being innovative at
this point -- by executing a modest pratfall or by substituting a
triangle's tiny ping for the big metallic crash.

But I didn't.

I believed in the drama of basketball; I didn't want to break the
spell. And my band position -- betwixt and between -- was not so
bad. It afforded a good vantage point and excellent camouflage. I
could become nearly invisible, making it easier for me to dream.
And I could really see the players.

Later I had a similar experience while in a community production
of Jesus Christ, Superstar. There was a rabble-sized cast,
dramatic music, an emotional text. I was a leper and had to spend
most of my time underneath the stage. I would peep through a
little gauze-covered porthole (the stage was built on risers),
waiting for my cue. Then I would writhe out at various intervals,
along with other strategically placed lepers, to clutch at the
Savior's robes.

While I was waiting, I would watch the sandaled feet of the
Apostles. Because there were so many bodies, with so much
happening on the stage, each second of the show was carefully
blocked. The Apostles' every move was scripted and meant to be
executed just so. The actors, I'm sure, were thinking mainly about
their arm gestures (supplicating) and their facial expressions
(agonized), just as I did for those few moments when I twisted
into view. But from my porthole I was looking at the Apostles'
feet, which were right at the level of my eyes. And I was
fascinated with what a good job the feet were doing. They moved so
confidently, always doing the right thing to contribute to the
overall moment. I suppose that if I had seen the whole
supplicating, agonized effect from somewhere in row M, I might
have thought, Well, this is, after all, community theater. But at
foot level I was in Nazareth.

The basketball players of my memory also followed a script with a
limited number of positions and modes of execution. Still, their
bodies moved spontaneously, intuitively. Maybe that was why they
seemed so full of promise to those of us who couldn't play.

Of course the players yearned to indulge in grand gestures -- the
hair toss, the full-body prostration, the moment of prayer at the
free throw line -- and sometimes they did. But like actors or
dancers caught up in a performance, they didn't know, or didn't
appear to know, what their feet were doing. And so it seemed as if
they were involved in the truest dance of all.

``The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self
of the chains that shackle the spirit.''

Stravinsky wrote that in The Poetics of Music. ``In art,'' he
continued, ``as in everything else, one can build only upon a
resisting foundation.''

By focusing on feet, as gender-equal as any body part can be, I
injected myself into the art of basketball. And then the players,
with their peculiar constrained grace, affected me. They were, I
think now, like male divas of the Chinese opera, women in brackets
-- beating wings within a tightly defined space. I watched the
game, and I was in it; the real actors were me and not-me. We were
agents in a combustive play. It was about growing up, death to the
present. It was about all of unknown life. For the length of a
game, we were an ignited dream.

In my flat band suit I could picture myself any way I wanted. I
imagined that I would eventually emerge into the world looking
something like them, those leaping players, instead of taking any
other form -- the domesticated cheerleaders, for example -- that I
could see.

After high school I stopped watching basketball. I left Cut Bank
and considered my departure to be the true beginning of life. All
those games had been mere rehearsal. It was time to take the
floor.

And then last winter I went to a game, my first in more than 20
years. My six-year-old son, Patrick, and I perched up among the
rafters of Dahlberg Arena at the University of Montana in
Missoula. I went under the guise of a good mother; Patrick, I
said, should get a glimpse of the world of organized sports. He
obligingly sat beside me, content with his plastic pom-pom and
tiny megaphone -- free, for being cute.

Neither of us quite knew what we would see.

There it was, the gleaming yellow-gold of the gym floor, a warm,
squeaky contrast to midwinter muck. And there it was, I felt it,
that familiar, light-headed sensation of being inside a large
windless space. There was the band, duly in its place, having just
finished Satisfaction. (Our warmup song was always Taste of
Honey.)

And there were the cheerleaders: Janes of a regimental jungle,
each with one sturdy shoulder bared. Some were being flung about
by strong and happy boys in sweaters. Some intoned a dispassionate
chant before a very large crowd -- 8,000 or so, certainly as many
as had ever watched Cut Bank play Shelby.

And there they were. The satin-shorted idols of my youth, wheeling
stars in this cozy universe, apostles of grace, dancers at the
altar, saints on a saffron stage. . . . There they were. Working
up the same celestial sweat.

Women.

Every one of them.

As I entered the real world to begin my true life, other women,
younger women -- girls from the Hi-Line -- started playing
basketball for real.

It began, the thump-and-rush rhythm of the game. I watched April
Sather from Havre move methodically down the court, fluttering
the fingers of her left hand in a semimenacing signal. I watched
Malia Kipp, a Blackfeet player from Browning, assume a stance that
was both polite and wary, her legs pivoting in perfect synchrony
with the game. I looked at the program. The players on the UM
team were all from Montana, mostly small towns. Jodi Hinrichs,
from Fairfield, hung her head at the free throw line as if in deep
repentance, then slipped the ball soundlessly through the net.

I was moved. I was jealous and joyful. I was filled with longing
and with bliss.

I saw the players as high school boys, Wolves, Coyotes. They were
Buzz, skinny again, Uncle Bob, his hair straight. They were
Blackfeet warriors on horses, Lindbergh landing in Paris again and
again. They were stars of the Chinese opera, released. They were
loose-limbed and glowing. They were slender men in masquerade,
and they were women unmasked. They were me. They were me and
not-me.

Megan McNamer is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and
two sons in Missoula, Mont.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE MARINSKY[overlapped images: man shooting basketball, womenwatching, and cheerleader cheering]COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE MARINSKY[men playing basketball and woman playing cymbals]COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE MARINSKY[overlapped images: men playing basketball with man on horse, woman and child watching, Spirit of St. Louis airplane]