Wednesday, October 2, 2013


If Illinois is among the states with a feverish high school basketball culture, then the Waukegan High School gymnasium is the shrine of American high school basketball. It is an old, free-standing hotbox of noise with permanent rows of benches on all four sides of the court. Before each game, the lights extinguish to blackness except for one spotlight on ROTC students presenting the colors for a stirring vocal rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. In this community a high school basketball game was and remains a ritual of respect. Luckily, the Dawghouse was consistently home to the third and fourth rounds of the IHSA playoffs so that players and fans from neighboring communities could experience the magic. I was one of them.

The status of the Dawghouse is absolute, but questioning Illinois basketball seems fair since neighboring Indiana has garnered most of the attention with the classic 1986 film Hoosiers.

When I was only 2, America learned that rural Indiana basketball fans drove in headlight-illuminated caravans through cornfields to wherever the local school was playing that Friday night. The coaches won enough or faced town-hall meetings regarding their employment. The gyms were small but loud even minutes before the tip. And every farm household, of course, hung a basketball hoop on a barn or silo. They didn’t need to pour concrete around the goal since frequent play killed the grass and compressed the dirt into a suitable half court.

High school basketball wasn’t like that for me. My backyard court was concrete, and the hoop was attached to a pole that served no agrarian purpose. My suburban alma mater’s following rose and fell with the performance of the team. I played for winning freshman and sophomore teams while the varsity team struggled to win and attract enough of a crowd to fill half the gymnasium. By the time I was old and barely good enough to play varsity myself, we were competing for conference championships and earning the top seed for the Illinois High School Association playoffs, the original March Madness. The gym was bursting at the seams, and it had almost nothing to do with me.

The most important thing to know about my high school basketball career is that it was unlikely to have happened. In my college and adult years, I discovered my natural preference for games that did not involve breaking a sweat. Poker, backgammon and chess have occupied my attention since I left Libertyville High School in 2002. My coaches would be sad to know that their game did not stick with me, but four years of play ain’t bad for a beer-brewing chess player. Competitive basketball is a grueling, body wearing thing. At times I needed physical therapy to put shoes on my feet.

What has stuck with me is the spirit of competition, the thrilling feeling of giving my best effort and being met in the middle with an equal effort working against me. That experience triggers something great in us no matter what the medium might be. In my lazy man games, I win some and lose some. In more organized competition, the end result is always disappointment with the exception of one champion.

My top-seeded basketball team never made it to the Dawghouse. An eight seed outplayed us for it. You might think it would kill me to replay our final game and opportunity in my head, but it doesn’t. I cried in our empty bleachers in the same spot I watched games as a kid until a cheerleading friend consoled me onto my feet. I walked away from playing the game forever without regrets.

I knew I was lucky to have played basketball for Libertyville. I think I did it because I witnessed a 17-year-old redhead try to hit what could be the Dagger in the Dawghouse in March 1994. Eight years later I walked into my varsity locker room and found my teammates watching the game on a fuzzy television screen. Many of them, like me, were basketball players because of that moment in time. I sat on the bench in front of our lockers and felt like I was 10 years old again, wanting to have faith in a basketball floating through the air. Back in 1994 it seemed that nothing else mattered. In a way, nothing else did.
I'll never forget that. I even have the tape of that. I watch it every once in awhile. That was unbelievable. Oh, my gosh. And against Libertyville, which is my alma mater. That was the most memorable game. 
~Jim Ackley, 1930-2012, scorekeeper for Mundelein High School boys basketball for 50 years, when asked weeks before his passing which game he remembered the best

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