Small Town, Big Winners A hoops dynasty is the glue that holds the community of Bingham, Maine, together

February 19, 2001

One has to venture deep into the heart of western Maine to come
upon the town of Bingham, a no-stoplight, one-bar outpost of
1,200 where the roads have MOOSE CROSSING signs, and Thompson's,
the only restaurant, closes at 7 p.m. on weeknights. It is an
unlikely place for the Streak to have originated, and for those
unfamiliar with the way basketball courses through the veins of
this blue-collar mill town, it is nearly impossible to fathom how
such a thing happened.

Officially, the Streak began in February 1997, the last time
Bingham's Valley High boys' team lost. Since then, the Valley
Cavaliers have won a state-record 80 consecutive games and three
Class D state championships. So dominant are they that Valley's
coach, Dwight Littlefield, who teaches math at the high school,
has sometimes taken out the starters in the first quarter this
season, and the team has still won by scores such as 97-26 and
94-19.

Over the Christmas break, Valley (enrollment 130) played an
exhibition game against Bangor High (enrollment 1,460), the
defending Class A state champion and the top-ranked team in the
state. In theory it was a prodigious mismatch, the classic city
school versus backwoods kids. One almost expected Dennis Hopper
to shuffle out, brow wrinkled like a shar-pei's, and take a seat
next to Littlefield on the bench. As it turned out, there was
nary a drop of drama--no rousing Hoosiers-esque finale. Instead,
the Valley Cavaliers jumped to a 19-5 lead and went on to win by
nearly 30 points, an outcome that, as the Waterville Morning
Sentinel put it, came as a surprise only to "people outside of
Bingham."

Valley's frenetic style of play is best described as a 32-minute,
five-man weave. Rebounds morph into outlet passes, cutters
materialize out of the fray, and the ball fluidly and
relentlessly finds the open man. It's like watching the precision
passing of a Princeton team played at the breakneck speed of
those old Loyola Marymount squads. That the players know one
another's games so well is not surprising--the core of the team
has been together since elementary school (during which they went
42-0), and the boys have spent their summers playing every day
until sundown on the court behind Quimby Elementary School.

The floor leader is senior point guard Nick Pelotte, a
headband-wearing 5'9" shot of adrenaline with a penchant for
no-look passes, fearless drives and 25-foot bombs. Filling the
lanes are juniors Jason and Luke Hartwell, identical 6'3"
redheaded twins who grew up playing "an ungodly amount of
basketball, usually five or six hours a day," according to their
father, Gordon (Bub) Hartwell, who was a star at Valley himself
in the mid-'70s and now coaches the girls' team. Anchoring the
middle is 6'9" junior Brian Andre, a 265-pounder with a nine-foot
vertical reach and a soft touch.

To understand the Valley phenomenon, one must first recognize the
passion with which high school basketball is followed in Maine,
which has no professional franchise and only one Division I
college. High school hoops is big news there--front-page,
above-the-fold, statewide-telecast, call-in-radio news. Even so,
Bingham basketball is unique. "Basketball has always come first
here," explains Jesse Jacques, Bingham's first selectman. "Things
have been pretty bleak at times, but basketball has always
brought a sense of community pride and self-esteem to the town."

Never affluent, Bingham was nevertheless always a good place to
raise a family--a hardy, salt-of-the-earth riverside community
where the men worked at the mill and ice-fished on their days
off. But then, in 1973 the Quimby veneer mill, the area's largest
employer, shut down and took close to 350 jobs with it. "It was
complete devastation," says Jacques. "We had 65 percent
unemployment for a few years. It was like a ghost town." With
limited options, many residents began commuting 100 or more miles
a day to reach International Paper and other outlying mills.

The year after the Quimby mill closed, Valley reached the state
finals. Three years later Littlefield became the varsity coach,
and the team has had only one sub-.500 season since, racking up
15 conference championships and a 340-105 record in his 24 years
at the helm.

Valley's home games are the biggest social event in town (and, as
Littlefield reminds a visitor, "also just about the only thing in
town during the winter"). It's always a full house in the tiny
school gymnasium, a utilitarian structure that also serves as
cafeteria, town theater and, on occasion, funeral parlor.

Down a tiled hall from the gym is a trophy case housing the
school's three gold balls, the gilded trophies given every year
to the state champ in each of the four classes. "Winning the gold
ball, that was special," says Luke Hartwell, shaking his head
with genuine awe. "No one can tell you about it; you have to
experience it."

Even if parts of Bingham seem a touch archaic, the basketball
program is anything but. Littlefield has all the games
videotaped, and his wife charts shots, rebounds, assists, blocks
and three-pointers. Each morning at six, the team gathers at
school to lift weights under the instruction of athletic director
Jack Kaplan. The work has paid off: Every boy on the team can
bench-press his own weight (except pizza lover Brian, who
nevertheless puts up 240 pounds).

Streak or no, this set of Valley players will soon have to move
on, their spots taken by the next generation of Bingham boys. All
four of the stars have a shot to play college ball, most likely
in Division III, at a place like St. Joseph's College, where last
year's star, Chris Willer, is a point guard. But no matter where
their careers take them, these young men will never again
experience anything quite like playing for Valley High. After
all, in what other town of 1,200 would the following scene
unfold, as it did recently when a middle-aged woman walked into
the town office.

"My granddaughter has got a heck of a crush on the little guy.
What's his name?"

"Nick," the woman is told.

"Well, I had to chase him down at the schoolyard to get his name
signed on a shirt. Would you believe it?"

The consensus among the men present is that no, they wouldn't
believe it.

"Anyway, I got it," she says and walks toward the door, then
stops and turns back. "Say, there's a game tonight, right?"

COLOR PHOTO: HERB SWANSON The Hartwell twins, Luke (left) and Jason, play "an ungodly amount of ball," says their dad.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)