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There’s nothing quite like high school basketball

By Walter Geiger I have always loved basketball. I spent hours upon hours shooting hoops in neighborhood driveways, dreaming, as did every other kid, that my shot was a last second one that won a big high school or college game. That dream never materialized because I was too short, too slow and lacked the skills. But I loved the game. My family left Savannah midway through my sophomore year of high school for the metropolis of Ailey. I quickly adopted the Montgomery County Eagles, the team at my new school. This was different from city ball. MCHS played in quonset hut and band box gyms around south Central Georgia in old Class B. We would roll up to towns like Dudley, Dexter, Alamo, Hazlehurst, McRae, Soperton, Lyons and the like. Back then Lyons was the epicenter of violence in what was known at the time as bloody Toombs County. People were shot once or twice a week in pool halls and juke joints there but that is a column for another day. There wasn’t much else to do in that area of Georgia back in the early 70s. We had three TV channels and had to go outside and turn a TV antenna by hand to choose between stations from Macon or Savannah. So, people spent cold winter nights at basketball games. Those loud little gyms pulsated with intensity and were almost always packed out. People screamed, stomped, booed officials and, occasionally, resorted to fisticuffs before, during or after games. The MCHS fans had a cheer I had never heard before and have not heard since which still runs through my brain every time I approach a high school gym. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon rind’¦ Look at the scoreboard and see who’s behind’¦You! Rind was a stretched out ‘˜rhinnnne’. Behind was ‘˜behinnnne’. This was rural basketball in the first years of integration at MCHS. The Montgomery County fans had a lot of chances to use that cheer. The Eagles were good – state tournament good – but the Lady Eagles were unstoppable, winning state titles in 1971 and 1972. Back then, girls played six-on-six basketball. As I recall, two played offense and were restricted to that end of the court. Two played defense and had to stay on the defensive end. Two played both offense and defense and had free run of the tiny gyms. Back then, the state tournaments for all classifications were played at the Macon Coliseum. We loaded up in our parents’ cars and took a combination of back roads and segments of I-16, which was still under construction, to Macon. We routinely ran across impromptu roadblocks along the unfinished interstate where the boys were drag racing in their Roadrunners, GTOs and Chevelles on largely isolated and brand new drag strips paid for with federal money. Once in Macon, we would eat at Shoney’s Big Boy, Shakey’s Pizza or splurge and go to Sizzlin’ Steak House. Last week, the Eagles played for the state title in Macon but lost by three points. MCHS still does not have a boy’s state title to its credit. Maybe next year. Saturday, I went to the arena at Georgia Tech where the Spalding Lady Jags and the Upson-Lee Running Knights played for titles. Though the arena did not have quite the feel of the old Macon Coliseum, it was raucous. The energy was palpable. There were four games that day and I think the gym was nearly a sellout three time as fan groupings changed over during the breaks between contests. ‘We’ve never had this many people for Tech basketball,’ one security guard told me. The Spalding girls, with a unique lineup that included three sisters who started, rolled to a 58-46 win over Henry County for their first ever title. The Running Knights pulled way in the second half to win their 63rd straight game and second consecutive state title by eliminating St. Pius 70-54. Upson-Lee pulled this off despite losing three players who made poor personal decisions during the week before the game. I marveled at how much taller and more gifted the athletes, both male and female, are than back in the day. This was confirmed by a huge courtside section of seats filled with college coaches and recruiters. I didn’t hear the old watermelon cheer and there was no Shakey’s Pizza afterwards, but the intensity of the experience is still alive.

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