It is dark and raining sideways.
Yet, there is warmth and life inside the gym.
Honey colored wood glows and shines under the lights high above. Neighbors align themselves on long wooden benches close enough to visit and catch up, but most eyes are down on the floor where boys and girls run about in summer shorts and high top shoes on cold winter nights.
Basketball knits little towns together.
Invented during a snowy Massachusetts December in 1891, Dr. James Naismith’s game was a way to keep restless athletes conditioned during the winter months. His superiors at the YMCA International Training School requested a game that was not too rough, would keep track and field athletes in shape without getting injured and could be played within a standard size gym.
The gymnasium came first, believe it or not.
It’s hard to imagine a high school gym without basketball hoops, but I’ve been in some of those old gyms where the out-of-bounds line was just inches from the wall - built in the days before fast breaks and diving saves were likely to take a player careening out of bounds.
Originally, things were a little different -- there was no dribbling, only passing. The first game was nine players on each side.
Yet even the first public game reportedly drew a few hundred people to watch.
Spread by the promotion of the YMCA, the game took root in the still largely agricultural United States. It spread to high schools outside of cities and found a special place in the hearts of little towns all over the Pacific Northwest.
It required only 5 players, so small town schools could easily field a team. The equipment needs were not great - originally two peach baskets and a soccer ball - replaced in 1906 with metal hoops and nets and a “spalding ball.”
At a time when the railroad was the fastest way across the country, basketball spread to every tiny town with a gymnasium -- and towns built gyms so they could play it. Girls basketball developed not long after that first YMCA game. The “gentle” wintertime sport being well suited to the farm girls of the Pacific Northwest.
As Rachel Bachman wrote for the Oregonian in 2010, when Naismith was still alive and coaching in the 1920 and 1930s -- Oregon girls high school basketball had become so popular that some schools had two teams. In towns with just a few dozens students in the whole school, two-thirds might play the sport.
As Louise Leininger, who played for Mosier High near Hood River in the mid-1930s told Bachman, basketball was a natural for the resilient girls of rural Oregon.
"We were farm girls," said Leininger. "We were hoisting boxes with fruit in it and things like that."
A backlash against the “unladylike” sport grew in the cities after World War I, but girls basketball hung on longer in rural areas. The traveling basketball teams -- and the fans that followed -- provided a vital social outlet in the 1930s.
When I was growing up in small town surrounded by other small towns -- we had to combine with neighboring high school just to get enough players for a football team,
Yet, when basketball season came, each tiny school could find enough boys and girls to put on the court. Rivalries grew up over generations with the next town over.
Often, schools like Wishram or Klickitat might only come up with 5 players -- so that if someone fouled out, they had to play one short. I recall one game in Wishram’s tiny railroad town gym where they played the whole fourth quarter with three against our five -- and nearly won.
I myself never played. Too nearsighted to see the basket, too vain to wear my glasses back then.
Yet in little towns, basketball has its own gravity. For a couple games a week, the gym is the place to be. I was in the pep band, and then the boys team manager just so I could still be a part of it.
I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of basketball. I’ve never watched a full game on TV.
Yet there is something different about watching the game in person.
I moved to Naselle during the Lyle Patterson era - a time when the little town was well known on the far side of the state for consistently great basketball. Patterson was hired as a football coach and math teacher at first, then took over basketball duties when the position opened up. Over the next 32 years he took little Naselle to the state so many times that they planned the school calendar around state tournament.
His 623-228 record is the fourth best all time in the state of Washington and includes a mountain of district and league titles as well as five appearances in the championship game. After Naselle he helped Knappa win back to back championships in Oregon.
What’s fascinating about Patterson’s success is that in such a small school, you have to make due with the kids you have from year to year. Short kids, tall kids, fast kids and slow kids -- to consistently come up with 30 years of winning from such uncertain talent speaks volumes.
Yet rural towns where the winters are dark and inhospitable were fertile ground for basketball to take hold and rich soil to cultivate new players year after year. Every kid probably had a hoop up in the hay barn where they could practice their shots and imagine high school glory.
Basketball stars could be discovered in lower grades, their talent followed by a community. Basketball so easily became THE thing with the ability to draw neighbors out from their homes to sit side by side on uncomfortable benches amid the staccato and the shouts, the squeaks of sneakers and the cheers and groans of the crowd.
The amazing journalist David Halberstam probably wrote all this much better years ago. Examining Indiana’s fascination with the sport in a 1985 article for Esquire Magazine, he observed:
“Small towns, villages often, neither grew nor died; they just stayed there in suspended between life and death. In an atmosphere like that, where so little meant so much, there was only one thing that male and often female children did, and they did it every day and every night, and that was play basketball. It was a sport for the lonely - a kid did not need five or six friends, he did not even need one. There was nothing else to do, and because this was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone even wanted to do.”
Yet if the culture of small town basketball developed because of its accessibility, it became a part of the small town community because adults “needed to see it, needed to get into a car and drive to another place to hear other voices” - rituals essential to fending off the loneliness of long hard winters.
“There were few ways for ordinary people to meet one another. Guests and visitors were rare. There was church, and there was basketball, gyms filled with hundreds, indeed thousands of people, all excited, all passionate. In a dark and lonely winter, the gym was a warm, noisy and well-lit place.”
Now I sit in the Lyle Patterson gym and watch my 13 year old daughter who has come to love this sport. I sit with my wife, who like me, never played high school basketball, but still loves to watch the games.
Maybe eventually the rise of TV and the internet will one day starve small town basketball of this community function. After all, participation in all high school team sports is now declining for varied and uncertain reasons. Fewer kids may tolerate getting back late from far-flung towns with schoolwork due the next morning.Ironically, too much professionalization may be hurting participation -- year ‘round leagues may be making sports less attractive to the casual athlete with no expectation to play beyond the high school level. Other opportunities, rising cost to play and cuts to school sports programs may also erode away at high school sports.
As in all things, the future is uncertain.
In the meantime, I sit next to neighbors and strangers. The heat of so many bodies in a wooden box prompts us to strip off winter coats. Between quarters we ask how so-and-so is doing now that she’s out of the hospital, while toddlers climb up and down the bleachers. Generations watch generations of grandkids, nephews and nieces out on the court. Newcomers to town settle in.
Gym bleachers are much like church pews, except there is more talking amongst the seated, more cursing under your breath and cheering out loud too.
As the lights from the rafters shine on the glass like gym-sealed maple below, as the near-freezing rain pours down outside, it is still warm and lively in this echoing wooden box.