When I was 10 or 11 years old, on the Sunday after the state high school basketball tournament ended, I went to church. During his prayer for the congregation, the minister said, “Forgive us, O Lord, if our thoughts have been more with Williams Arena than they have been with thee in recent days.”
At that young age, this caused me great confusion and brought me to question this whole church-going business.
I had been a big basketball fan ever since I was a pre-schooler and my dad took me to a high school game in our crackerbox gym, where the bands played rousing school songs, fans jammed to the rafters roared with every score and the players dashed madly up and down.
When I was in fifth grade, I had my tonsil’s removed. The surgery was not something I looked forward to, but, using my limited bargaining powers, I agreed to it — as long as the operation was performed the week before the state tournament.
In those days, tonsillectomy patients spent a night in the hospital and then a week home from school. That way, I could see the Thursday afternoon games, too.
Every other year, I sprinted the three-quarters of a mile from the school to our house, usually arriving just as the first game ended.
The obsession wasn’t just mine. The state basketball tournament was annually the biggest sporting event in Minnesota through the 1950s and 1960s.. If you have ever seen the movie, “Hoosiers,” that was exactly what it was like.
State tournament athletes became instant household names, and I could go right down the list starting with New Prague’s Ron Johnson, Danube’s Bob Bruggers and Austin’s Tom Kezar.
The waiting list for tickets was 15 or 20 years long. Photos of all the teams appeared in the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers. Long caravans followed the state entrants to and from the tournament.
I didn’t understand the minister’s prayer because everybody I knew watched the basketball tournament. Whether your school made it to state or not, the talk in the barber shops and cafes statewide the third week in March was about the tournament.
To me, it was hard to believe that God wasn’t tuned in with the rest of us. Wasn’t it part of his plan to put those high school boys on that huge stage to let them demonstrate their exceptional God-given ability? What’s more, part of the tournament’s mystique was also that God always caused it to snow statewide during the tournament.
Over the years, of course, the magic disappeared. First, TV began offering an increasing number of games from the NCAA tournament. Then the state went to, first, two classes, and now, four. Then girls’ athletics took hold and hockey expanded, dividing attention and loyalties even more.
For many years, I groused, like the old-timer I was becoming, about the move to enrollment classes. That destroyed the magic, I thought. David can still slay Goliath.
This was in spite of the fact my school’s attempts to make state were usually cut short by much larger schools. I grew up in Waseca, which was in District 4. Waseca was the smallest of the four “big” schools in the district, along with Northfield, Faribault and Owatonna. Twelve “small” schools were split into the East and West sub-districts.
In the first round, the four “big” schools were paired. The two winners, and the two sub-district champions advanced to the semi-finals.
The two years I played on varsity, we lost in the first round, first, to Northfield and then to Faribault. That Faribault team went on to finish runner-up in the state.
Today, 32 teams make it to the state tournament after winning their “section.” When there was one class, 32 teams won their “district” tournament, advanced to the “region” and eight advanced to state.
This year, for the first time, I came to an acceptance of the multi-class system. I watched much of the tournament on TV, and the large Class 4A schools looked like they had been recruited to play for some college. I had to admit that the sport and society have changed.
And if I had any doubt that God hadn’t reprioritized things, then why did he not get around to making it snow during either the boys or girls tournaments?
Tom West is the editor and publsher of the Record. Reach him at (320-632-2345 or e-mail [email protected].