|Rooting for the hometown boys|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
I found myself in an unusual position at a sporting event last night. I was standing up, clapping my hands and cheering for my team.
Normally, I sit in the press box, professionally interested in the game, but physically and emotionally removed from its outcome. But last night was different. Last night was personal. Last night, my high school alma mater was playing in the Washington state basketball tournament for the first time in a quarter century. And with 48 seconds left in the game, my R.A. Long Lumberjacks were trailing the state's most successful program, the Mercer Island Islanders, by just three points.
This wasn't quite "Hoosiers," but there were elements of that movie's David-Goliath finale. Mercer Island is a much larger high school than R.A. Long, and it has been to the state tournament 11 times in the past 14 years and 21 times total. It has won the title four times, beginning in 1985 when Quin Snyder was the team's leader.
R.A. Long, meanwhile, hadn't reached the state tournament since 1977. In an era when high school tournaments keep expanding to so many classes that the trophies resemble Angelie Jolie's bra size (the 2003 Class 38DDDDDD state champions!), my old school in Longview somehow went 26 years between state appearances.
Students graduated, married, had kids, raised them and then watched as they in turn added to the school's drought. If Mercer Island is the Duke of Washington state high school basketball, we were more like the Clippers.
(As were many of the school's other athletic programs. Our football team was so bad my senior year that I felt compelled to write a letter to the high school paper ripping its play, my first effort at sports commentary. I've faced a lot of professional athletes angered by my writing in the years since, but no confrontation was quite so uncomfortable as when a former teammate called me out of class that day and threatened to beat the living crap out of me. Sure, Chuck Knoblauch and I had some nasty moments, but at least we didn't sit next to each other in history class.)
The economic disparity between Mercer Island and Longview is even more striking. Mercer Island (the Seattle suburb named for the inspired man who once upon a time shipped single young women to Seattle to provide wives for the lonely workers) is one of Washington's richest communities, if not the richest. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen lives there, as does seemingly half the roster of every Seattle pro team. Whenever I drive onto the island to play softball, I expect border guards to demand my passport and visa.
Longview, meanwhile, is a town of 30,000 in southwest Washington that could inspire an entire Bruce Springsteen album. Founded by a lumber company that no longer exists, the city has a depressing unemployment rate that isn't getting any better any time soon. The aluminum plant where my father worked for more than three decades and where my brother worked for more than two decades declared bankruptcy Tuesday.
So this was a huge game, a monumental game, and the only one since my graduation, actually, that I gave the slightest damn about.
My high school in the state tournament. With a chance to beat Mercer Island.
One old friend left a message on my cell phone to alert me to the game. Another left a message on my cell phone and my home phone. My brother, John, e-mailed me, repeating the school's old fight slogan: "Give 'em the ax, Jacks, Jacks, give 'em the ax, Jacks, Jacks, give 'em the ax, give 'em the ax, give 'em the ax, Jacks."
(Yes, I know. Lumberjacks. Everyone always laughs when I mention the name. And they laugh harder when I mention the name of the girls team, the Lumber Jills. But the names always seemed perfectly natural coming from a logging town. Besides, it's infinitely superior to the name of another team in the conference: the Camas Papermakers.)
Taking my seat at the Tacoma Dome just before tipoff was like attending a high school reunion, only much better, because there weren't any pathetic drunks in bad suits and worse haircuts hitting on their old flames.
My brother sat to my left. To my right was Dan, my oldest friend (we met walking to kindergarten). Next to him was his brother, Mike, who graduated three years ahead of us. Behind me was Diane, who used to sit across from me in world problems (and whose youngest child, Connor, is now the team's ballboy).
Kyle's counterpart was Ed Pepple, who entered the tournament with more victories than anyone in Washington state history (845 by the official count, 846 by his personal count, because he stubbornly counts a controversial loss in the 1981 state final as a victory). Mercer Island plays the most fundamentally sound basketball this side of Hickory High. It may be the last team in America where you can see a perfectly executed chest pass and bounce pass on the same possession. Its very name inspires dread in opponents.
Like all rich and successful programs, Mercer Island is very easy to dislike. It's the rival school where all the rich kids go. The local suburban paper nicknamed the team the Mercedes Islanders. The student section fancies itself a prep version of the Dukies, chanting such clever things as "Loser's ... Bracket!" at the end of a tournament game. Few fans even bothered showing up for the R.A. Long game, even though it was an easy 40-minute drive to Tacoma. At Mercer Island, the state tournament doesn't really begin until you get to the semifinals.
It was almost unfair to wait 26 years for a state tournament and then draw such an opponent in the first round. On the other hand, beating those bastards would make this first appearance all that much sweeter.
Mercer Island jumped to a quick 6-0 lead and R.A. Long appeared nervous. But the team got over that quickly enough and simply outhustled the much taller Mercer Island players. With Adam Perry leading the way, the Jacks rallied to tie the game at 17-17 after the first quarter and 30-30 at halftime.
I suspect the Mercer Island kids received a good-tongue lashing at halftime, because they came out playing with more intensity. They also began hitting jumper after jumper, while the Lumberjacks fell out of their offense and turned over the ball repeatedly. Mercer Island led by seven after three quarters and extended the lead to 12 points with about four minutes left.
"It's not looking good," my brother said.
And then, just like that, the game turned around. A trey, a two-shot technical for vicious elbowing and another basket off the inbounds pass cut the lead to five within a matter of seconds. We were back in it, and I was on my feet hollering for the Lumberjacks to win for the first time since high school.
"Give 'em the ax, Jacks, Jacks, give 'em the ax, Jacks, Jacks, give 'em the ax, give 'em the ax, give 'em the ax, Jacks."
Craig Marshall's trey cut the lead to three points with 48 seconds left, but the Jacks couldn't get over the hump. Mercer Island missed four consecutive foul shots, but R.A. Long couldn't never take advantage. MI's lead grew to six and, as the seconds ticked away, the students began their classy "Loser's ... Bracket!" chant and the defeat became inevitable. A last-second desperation shot would have made no difference in the outcome, but it too fell short.
R.A. Long lost 67-61. We go to the loser's bracket to compete for third place.
"We did what we did all year. We played our tails off and we never gave up," Kyle said after talking to his players. "We're not going home in two games, we're going to come back and win the other bracket. We're going to bring a trophy back to R.A. Long High School."
His voice cracked a bit.
He had accomplished something no coach had done at my school in a quarter century and his team had shown it belonged with the state's best. But like all good coaches, he was as disappointed with the loss as he was proud of his team's performance. He was certain his team could win, and it didn't.
"There was a little bit of that feeling of awe when we got here yesterday and I walked into the gym," he said. "But it went away quickly. We definitely wanted to get to the title game. This team is hurt right now, but we were confident coming in and we're going to play hard tomorrow, too."
R.A. Long, meanwhile, graduates eight seniors from its first state team in 26 years. Who knows when the Lumberjacks will return.
The game and the reunion over, we said goodbye, walked out into a brisk wind and headed for home. As my brother headed south to Longview, I pointed my car north and played some Springsteen.
They're closing down the textile mill, across the railroad tracks.
Damn, I wanted to beat those guys.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.