Basketball is a series of snapshots of our past. It is neither good nor bad; it simply is. From the Fab Five and the hip-hop revolution in the ’90s to the drug use of the ’80s all the way back to the old days of segregation, basketball reflects its time. It is left to us, the current stewards of the game, to learn what we can from the past.
In 1945, in the middle of the Mississippi wilderness, a ragtag team without a name put together a remarkable season that ended in heartbreak. The school disappeared, the players grew old and died, and the story passed into the abyss of obscurity.
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In the study of my grandfather’s house there is a small sheet of paper hanging on the wall. It is a photocopy, a duplicate of something much, much older. A schedule. Lyman High School, Boys Basketball, 1945-1946. It is a school that doesn’t exist anymore. My grandfather is one of the few surviving players. The piece of paper sits between a mounted largemouth bass and some black and white Navy photos. And like everything in my grandfather’s study, it has a story behind it.
If you can get a straight answer out of him, my grandfather is 84. He is worn and whitened, and every part of him has lost the fight against the years â€” except for his eyes. His eyes look the same way at 84 that they do in those Navy pictures, like he’s up to no good and likes it that way. When I called him and asked if I could come and interview him about the Old Days, he snapped back with a chuckle:
“I reckon you’ll need more than one interview for that.”
I drove up to his house on a Wednesday and he led me into the study. He produced maps, picture albums and boxes of meticulously preserved newspaper clippings. While I sorted through the material he set himself in orbit around me, opening cabinets and drawers and poring through old yearbooks for anything that looked interesting.
“Tell me about that,” I said, pointing at the hanging schedule.
He thrust his glasses over the bridge of his nose and removed the paper from the wall.
“That’s a long time ago,” he said, finally.
The schedule had a corresponding table of results, so you could follow along and see how the team fared. There were lots of blowout wins and then the whole thing ended with one line at the bottom: Lyman 34, Natchez 36.
I had played basketball in high school and college, and I knew as well as anyone that when a season ends on a two-point loss, well … that’s the kind of thing that tends to stick to your insides.
“Natchez…” I said. “Tell me aboutâ€””
He didn’t even give the question a chance to hang in the air. His answer shot out, fully formed and prepared.
“Shouldn’t have beat us…” he said, first abruptly and then wistfully. “Shouldn’t have beat us.”
The eyes flickered, the glasses came off, and the old man shook his head.