Bowdoin students from out of state like to talk about Maine in romantic, if sometimes condescending, terms. Maine is eccentric, idiosyncratic, and off the beaten path. Maine is quaint, Maine has its own little traditions.
They’re not wrong, of course. My hometown of Orono has an annual tradition of using a lottery system to select a single citizen to be stoned in the town square. Great fun is had by each and every unaffected family.
That’s just us, though. Maine’s best traditions are those that bring folks together from all corners of the state. My personals favorites are the boys’ and girls’ high school basketball tournaments, which are now starting in Bangor, Augusta and Portland.
High school hoops is an oddly big deal in Maine. Even in relation to its small population, the state produces very few D-I basketball players. A small percentage of the states’ best players, however, go on to become excellent D-II and D-III players. At smaller schools, plenty of kids who wouldn’t see court time almost anywhere else in the country can play significant roles on playoff-bound teams.
Take me, for example. Despite being a turnover machine who shot about 25 percent from three, I went into my junior season ready to take on a starting role after my team lost some key players from the previous year. Nonetheless, in anticipation of a possible playoff appearance, I convinced my youth group—one for cool teenz, not lame ones, I promise—to reschedule our service trip so it wouldn’t coincide with the tournament.
We went 2-16 that season.
But, for some reason, our fans kept showing up to games. And it wasn’t just our parents. It was middle-schoolers, local families and awesome old guys that gave me rides when they saw me walking to games. From what I can tell, that’s how it is all over the state. Keegan Pieri ’15, a forward for the Bowdoin men, won two state championships at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport.
“A local bank bought tickets for everyone at our school, so everyone went to the finals game for free,” said Pieri, one of several Bowdoin basketball players I spoke with who seemed stoked to talk Maine hoops. “On Main Street, every store would have signs up in support for us. It’s a unique experience, having an entire town rally behind you.”
Megan Phelps ’15, a captain for the Bowdoin women, grew up on Mount Desert Island and remembers well the pilgrimage that MDI fans made to the now-replaced Bangor Auditorium—also known as The Mecca—to watch their Trojans compete.
“Anytime either the boys or girls team would travel for a tournament game, someone would hang this giant plywood sign by the entrance to the island on the bridge that said ‘Last one off the island: turn off the lights,’” she said.
For non-ballin’ high school students, tourney time is a chance to paint their bodies, support their friends and yell obnoxious things in a crowded setting. That’s as good as high school gets, right there. Since the tournament is also one of the few Maine sporting events broadcast on television, these games can be rare opportunities for Maine kids to be on TV.
“It was a big thing to sit on the wooden bleachers at the end of the Augusta Civic Center because at halftime you could get on TV,” said sharp-shooting Polar Bear Selena Lorrey ’16, who attended Traip Academy in Kittery. “That was a huge thing for them,” she added, laughing.
Even folks with no team allegiance whatsoever flock to the nearest tournament site to buy day passes and camp out in the bleachers with a bucket of popcorn. So what is it that makes Maine high school basketball, a product that is, frankly, not awesome, an event that captivates many in the middle of February each year? I think the answer is simply that Mainers love basketball. They talk about it year-round, whether in regard to their local JV girls or the Boston Celtics. Hell, you can’t go to a Maine State Fair for five minutes without seeing a Larry Bird graphic tee. Of course, sometimes high school hoops win out by nature of being the only game in town.
“In the winter, it’s just somewhere for people to go,” said Lorrey.
So if you find yourself coming down with the sports apathy that often goes around Bowdoin this time of year, find a radio and scan for a tourney game. You’ll know you’ve found one when you hear a hoarse announcer being drowned out by screaming tweens, moms and randos.