The packed gym

Jan 17, 2014 By Steven R. Peck

Two old rivals gave the best they had Thursday, as they always do

In one sense it's true that basketball games between Riverton High School and Lander Valley High School used to be more "important" than they are now, but in another sense they are as meaningful as ever.

For proof, look no further than Thursday at Wolverine Gym, where the teams of boys and girls fielded by the old county rivals played two games worthy of the best the rivalry has offered through the generations.

The lost significance has to do with technicalities of a sort. The teams aren't in the same conference any more. In fact, they aren't even in the same classification. Riverton plays Class 4-A basketball, Lander Class 3-A. The game has no effect in the standings, no bearing on the seedings for postseason play. In the clinical, statistical sense, it's just another game.

But don't tell that to the players, the coaches and the fans Thursday, who watched two exciting, entertaining and exceptionally close games, both, as it happened, won by Riverton.

There is an intimacy to a basketball game that a football game can't provide. Fans are closer to the court, the two coaches can speak to each other during the game (and often do). There are fewer players, and their bodies and faces are not obscured by helmets, facemasks and bulky uniforms. The variety of the human form is on clear display.

As such, the effect the game has on its players and fans is more apparent and heated. We can see the strain on the faces, the exhaustion in the slumping shoulders, the tension in the hands when a player stands at the free-throw line with, in his or her mind at the moment, everything in the world at stake.

We see the emotions of the students who are watching their friends, the teachers who are watching their students, the parents who are watching their kids. The bass drums thump. The cheer squads spark the crowd. The players carry the action.

Unbound by heavy coats, unconcerned about staying warm, concentrated in a small space within four walls, the basketball audience has an energy no other sport can match as the starts, stops and changes of fortune play out at racehorse speed when the games are as close as Thursday's were.

Fewer and fewer things can bring people of disparate ages, backgrounds and interests together these days. Many of us move from home to job and home again, connected electronically and entertained the same way.

The circumstances under which we might choose to set aside our comfortable chairs, our responsive video screens and programmed earphones to take a chance on exposure to something whose progression is not of our design, whose outcome is not clear, and which is decidedly public rather than calculatedly private are less and less common now.

So the packed high school gymnasium on a winter's night is to be celebrated and cherished. Yes, it is "only a game," but that isn't synonymous with "it doesn't matter." It matters intensely during the couple of hours it takes place. If it didn't, the seats wouldn't be filled. The spectators wouldn't slide across slick streets, struggle in and out of their winter clothes, sit on hard benches in close, loud, heated proximity to people they might not know, and invest so much of themselves.

Thursday night was the only time this year the Wolverines and Tigers will play each other. Elsewhere in our county, temporary dramas of a similar vein will play out between and among the Wranglers, Chiefs, Cougars, Rams and Eagles in various combinations.

They will help pass the dark winter. They will help define the times. They will raise our heartbeats and our voices. They will make our memories.

And then, if we're wise, it is over. That's where "it's only a game" has its value. The gym empties, the tension eases, the elation dissipates, the disappointment subsides. And we get on with the other parts of our lives. We have had our outlet. And, as outlets go, a hard-fought high school basketball game is better than most.

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