State tournaments, 'The Big House' and the privilege of telling high school stories
It's that time of year and, once again, I'm lucky to be in the middle of it
Eventually, this is going to be about the thrills of covering high school basketball this time of year, perhaps a bit about writing about high school basketball this time of year and about how, yes, “The Big House,” though not much to look at, really is a thing.
So, of course, I’m going to begin with a story about sports writing and college football.
That’s because I really believe, without the contributions of one particular sportswriter, Oklahoma would not have claimed the 2000 national championship.
Because, had Berry Tramel, the longtime Oklahoman sports columnist — and before that, sports editor at The Norman Transcript, the job I had for 15 years — not been laying bare the faults of Sooner football coach John Blake, there’s a very good chance Blake would have been allowed to serve out his contract, which had two seasons remaining, meaning Bob Stoops would have wound up in Iowa City rather than Norman, and OU’s next coach, whoever it might have been, would have began digging out of the program’s rubble from an even rockier bottom beginning in December of 2000, rather than December of 1998, when Stoops arrived from Gainesville.
Indeed, I remain convinced the column Tramel wrote, appearing Oct. 6, 1998, sealed Blake’s fate.
OU had lost to Colorado the Saturday before, and during it Blake had gone for a two-point conversion that was clearly the wrong decision, but it was his explanation for the decision, not the decision itself, that Tramel crushingly chronicled, and without his contribution that day, decent chance the program’s last national championship would still be the one Barry Switzer guided OU to in 1985.
I’ve been fortunate.
Been to a bunch of national championship games and a few playoffs, a quartet of Final Fours and innumerable regionals, a couple Heisman Trophy ceremonies and one NBA Finals and they’ve all been great fun, filled with great food and drink — Fiesta Bowl, hello!! — and, fantastically, the opportunity to meet some of my idols, like the 90 minutes I spent talking sportswriting with the Boston Globe’s great Bob Ryan at the 2002 Final Four in Atlanta.
Still, I’ve never written anything with the same — oh, let’s call it, competitive — impact as Tramel writing about Sooner football in 1998. I don’t think I’ve ever contributed to an historic program making an historic hire.
What I have done, though, is write some great stories. Like the feature about super fan Stephen Jones, and some columns that mattered to people, like the ones about the girls basketball team that remained perfect, even after staring down racism at the state tournament.
Those two, and others in their neighborhood, have something in common: they came from the high schools.
Here it is.
The best thing about covering colleges and the pros?
The food, the stats being kept for you, and a bigger atmosphere, which can be wonderfully intoxicating.
The best thing about covering high schools?
Almost every one of your readers has an emotional investment in what you’re writing about; and not just what you’re writing about, but the actual words you’re writing, because there’s a decent chance you’re the only one writing them and if you’re not, you’re one of the only two, three, four or five.
Everybody’s covering it.
Though just a single newspaper covers them daily, the whole world covers the entire NBA, a podcast for each team on every corner.
This week, I’ve been fortunate to be back on the preps, helping out my old newspaper.
On Wednesday, at State Fair Arena (or, now, Jim Norick Arena, which I may never acknowledge) — aka “The Big House” — I was there for Community Christian, Norman’s Class 3A private high school (and grade school and middle school), and Washington, the Royals topping the Warriors 53-49.
Thursday, it was Lloyd Noble Center for the Class 6A boys, Moore taking down Putnam City West 53-48.
Today, Friday, Moore meets Edmond Santa Fe at 6 p.m., back at Lloyd Noble Center, while CCS meets Oklahoma Christian School at 7 in Yukon.
I’ll be in Yukon.
Should nobody else become available to cover in Norman, I may have to make the most of the Moore-Santa Fe boxscore sent to me and write a little about it, too.
Should they both win, it will be a fantastic Saturday, covering the Class 3A championship at “The Big House” in the afternoon and writing it up fast enough to get back to Norman for the Class 6A final, tipping at 7:45.
Should that happen, I’ll probably be reminded of the day I covered a girls game at Byng, a boys game at Edmond Santa Fe and another boys game back at Byng, all on the same day, during the ’96 playoffs, while sports editor of The Daily Ardmoreite.
Colleges and the pros may be intoxicating, but they’re not heart-stopping, and that’s the high schools because they just mean everything to the people they mean everything to in ways the next levels can’t match.
There’s nothing like covering big games that matter like that, courtside, inside gyms everybody’s losing their mind, and I can’t tell you the privilege it is to be the one to tell the story from gyms like that, almost always a story bigger than the game.
Getting to do it from “The Big House” only makes it better.
As a kid, I played hockey in that arena. I watched the Blazers play hockey in that arena, and as a much younger adult, I watched the Blazers there again on nights The Myriad was booked.
I’ve been to pro wrestling in that building and ridden my bike a block away from it to watch Sunday doubleheaders at old All Sports Stadium.
It’s a monument to my youth and a monument to high school sports all at the same time, and though I’ve covered a bunch of state wrestling and basketball tournaments there through the years, Wednesday was my first day back in a bit.
I don’t think the bathrooms have changed in 45 years. I can’t believe professional teams of any ilk have ever called it home, but they have.
Oh, to give it a huge renovation, to make it gleam like Kansas City’s Municipal Arena.
Maybe some day.
Still, time has made it mythic and, inside it, you feel it.
Then there’s the writing.
Covering high school hoops this time of year, you can be dutiful, or you can shoot higher.
You can put the score, the day it was played and maybe the leading scorer, too, in the first sentence or you can tell a bigger story.
If you care about your writing or want anybody else to, I suggest always telling a bigger story; and at a state tournament, any sport, any class, you should feel bound to that responsibility.
The folks you’re writing about have sacrificed to be on that floor, or that mat, the least you can do is try to be great yourself.
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If I failed, I tried.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Is it the state tournament that produces the moments, or is it the Big House itself, State Fair Arena and the most famous high school hardwood in Oklahoma?
Perhaps, as long as there are moments, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is they happen and late Wednesday night, those moments belonged to Community Christian’s Collin Bond, and because they did, the Royals are on to the Class 3A boys’ final four after topping Washington 53-49.
NORMAN — Just making it to the Class 6A state tourney for the first time in 17 years, Moore had already made a bit of history when it arrived at Lloyd Noble Center Thursday afternoon to take on Putnam City West.
Now it’s made more.
Not since 1990, when the Lions finished state runners-up, had the program won once arriving at the state tourney.
Now, 32 years later, thanks to a fourth-quarter explosion coach Gregg Hardin said he knew was coming, they have.
Netting 19 points over the last 5 1/2 minutes, the Lions, eventually, blew past the Patriots 53-48.
It’s a big freaking deal, so write it like it’s a big freaking deal. Tell it in grand terms because it is actually grand.
Also, I swear, giving yourself a running start with a little history or a rhapsody on the magnificence of the moment makes the rest of it so much easier to write, too.
Who knows what I’ll write today?
Not me, and it’s part of the thrill.
When it’s time to hit the keys, they’ll be hit.