It’s more than just basketball
There’s the small lot, snow piled up in scattered places. Enough room to park a tiny Hyundai Accent, which looks like a clown car with this tall, overweight, middle-aged writer standing next to it.
No luck; there’s a small side lot with spaces marked off at 45-degree angles. One empty spot. I’ll take it.
I grab my 20-year-old weathered, metallic clipboard — stuffed inside is information on both teams — a slim reporter’s notebook with some pages ripped away and curved in slightly. Can’t forget that statistics sheets to tabulate both team’s exploits. Some pens are tucked in as well, especially one my father gave me where a tiny lightbulb shines brightly. I’m amused as I press it a couple of times.
My brown camera bag is on my shoulder as I close and lock the car.
There’s the entrance to Windham High School. Haven’t been in here since I was a correspondent for another paper more than two decades ago when I was studying journalism at Kent State University. I sat high atop some pulled out, wooden bleachers then, which would shake every so often.
I flash my Tribune Chronicle press pass, sign a piece of paper and buy a couple of 50/50 tickets, then proceed toward the gymnasium. There’s a black partition outstretched by two posts, one at each of the four entrances to the playing surface. They were meant to prevent people from going back and forth behind each of the baskets – encouraging them to go to the yellow and black, hard plastic bleachers on either side.
A little after 6 p.m. Friday, the Windham side was filled to the top. Bleachers about half the height on the other side contained the overflow crowd of Bristol fans.
Windham boys basketball coach Marty Hill, whose namesake graces the Bombers basketball court, has taken many teams over his storied tenure to greatness and state prowess. Craig Giesy, a Bristol legend in his own right and part of a state Final Four team in the early 2000s, has transformed the Panthers back into an immovable force in the Northeastern Athletic Conference.
The two were talking at midcourt, in front of the scorer’s table, prior to the game. I meandered out of my reserved seat with another local reporter beside me, wiggled out of the surroundings and excused myself out of the crowded bleachers.
As I made my way to the area behind one of the baskets I see Gregg Isler, whom I first met years ago as the LaBrae boys basketball coach. He used to come behind me as I was tabulating my final statistics, as most everyone exited the old LaBrae High School gym, and said, “I think you missed a number there.” We had a good laugh and visited once again that night. Now the Windham Schools superintendent, he’s still the same person with that great personality that always brings a smile to your face. He even admitted he missed coaching, watching the Bombers warm up prior to Friday’s game.
Hill and Giesy went to their separate locker rooms, so no photo to post on my Twitter account (@jvargoTrib). No matter, because good conversation with great people is so much better than keeping your social media account up to date.
Isler even provided me and the other reporter sitting there bottles of water.
“I was in my office and thought you two would like something to drink,” he said.
The atmosphere before tipoff was that of a tournament game — raucous fans, and players with stomachs churning in anticipation. The small, western Portage County gym had plenty to behold, high school basketball in its purest form.
Even fans at home could see the game on MyYTV live as the camera crew set up with wire discreetly put behind the padding behind the one basket and around the table next to the Windham sideline. You can still see the game on wkbn.com.
Bristol rolled out to a big lead and a couple of Windham’s top scorers were in early foul trouble. The Panthers had little trouble getting by a Bombers team that struggled to shoot most of the night and couldn’t get to the line all that often.
The Bristol players celebrated winning a share of yet another NAC Stripes title, but the fact both teams had this kind of atmosphere behind them meant more than anything – getting both ready for upcoming tournament play and possible rematch in the Division IV Orwell District. I’d make the trip to Grand Valley High School for that one, as long as I can get dinner at the local A&W Restaurant. That means an extra session on the elliptical at Planet Fitness for me.
After talking to both coaches and Bristol players, I saw Giesy, and his father, Mark, there. Mark stepped away momentarily, I told them both to get in the picture, which is posted on my Twitter account. It is their Giesy Pit, which is a basketball court in their backyard, where many Bristol players have honed their skills in the offseason. It’s part of the culture in Bristolville and one that happens in driveways and courts around Windham.
The hospitality at both places, it’s second to none. Then again, you can find that in most places around the NAC.