I haven’t watched a high school basketball game from start to finish since my wife hung up her sneakers in 1998. (Annie was #44 in the playbook and #1 in my heart, although I was too cool to admit it.)
That changed this past Saturday when I cheered on the Union City Lady Indians against Wood Memorial in the Class 1A State Championship.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said to Annie after a girl from Union City drilled a three out of the gate. (To qualify crying: I had a single tear welling up in each eye. It wasn’t like I was ugly crying.)
“I had tears running down my face watching The Facebook video of them leaving town,” Annie confessed.
Our hometown is Union City, Ohio, our school, the Mississinawa (yep, it’s spelled wrong) Valley Blackhawks. Our town was divided by the Indiana-Ohio state line. Our rivals were the Union City Indians.
Union City is a small town (2 towns actually) with a combined population of 5,000 with two mayors, two fire departments, two schools, and two time zones (part of the year).
I remember playing in a junior high basketball game against the Indians that ended in an all out brawl.
When we looked across the state line, we were rivals, but when we looked at the outside world, we were one. From the same small town. Many of our parents and grandparents went to school together or played against one another. Many of the factories that employed them left town taking pensions and futures with them. Leaving us.
Why do people stay in a small town when opportunity abandons them? Because it’s home.
The Indians drilled a jumper and went up 5 to nothing.
I didn’t know most of the girls on the team, but I knew their families and their stomping grounds and what our town had been through. I went to school with a few of the girls’ parents. I knew my piano teacher was cheering them on and so was everyone else who made up my entire world the first 18 years of my life.
Five to nothing would be the Lady Indians’ biggest lead. I think the game was tied at 7 and then Wood Memorial dominated with floor spacing, ball movement, and shot selection. They were a well-oiled machine. Union City was grit and hustle. They blocked shots, fought after loose balls, and somehow managed to hang around until the fourth quarter.
My hometown was written on their jerseys and they were on TV, and for a few minutes punched a perennial state-contender in the face. They had worked hard and were playing in a stadium where the Pacers play. I’ve seen LeBron James play on that floor. That floor was good enough for LeBron and it was good enough for the Lady Indians.
I think that’s what brought on the tears. They stood on a stage worthy of kings, and they played like winners. They belonged there. They knew it. They weren’t dwelling on the past or what might’ve been.
They were winners from a town that had experienced too much losing, and for two hours they reminded me and others just how proud we were to be from Union City.