Fan on the Fringe

vestandballA winning team brings fans out of the house and into the stands – even in high school. I’m not talking about fair weather fans. I mean the “fringe fans” – the folks in the community that don’t go to every game; the people that actually have a life other than high school sports. I can hardly remember, but I was a fringe fan once; and I plan to be one again – most likely soon after Quinn graduates.

Parents, and certainly the kids themselves, appreciate fans like these. We need them. Earlham fans have jumped on the bandwagon this season for our boys’ basketball team and it’s been a lot of fun for everybody. Cardinal fans have historically gotten on board for their teams when more is on the line, and this season the stands – home and away – have been filling up with red.

Not all small Iowa towns are this enthusiastic about their sports teams – but many of them are. It has a lot to do with community pride and wanting to support the school – but mostly I think it has to do with the kids themselves. Most high school fans in a small, close-knit community don’t necessarily see the kids as quarterbacks, point guards or shortstops – but as the little boy who used to live across the street ten years ago; or the girl that was in the same Brownie troop as their daughter; or the grandson or the granddaughter of that nice couple down the street. Knowing the kids like this gives the fans more of a connection to the team and makes the winning more fun and rewarding.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a full-time, every-night fan for so long or perhaps it’s the wannabe coach in me, but I do tend to see kids as shortstops and point guards first. Of course I’ve enjoyed getting to know my kids’ friends as something other than teammates, but my first question any time I see one of them might be, “How’s your pitching arm?” or “How ‘bout that sore knee? Gonna be ready for the season?” As a fan with kids on various teams, I have tended to dissect strategy, plot lineups, and scout the younger classes for potential talent – all in my mind. It works for me and it’s been great fun.

But not with this year’s basketball team. Without any kids playing, I’ve felt more “fringy.” I have left the heavy fan thinking to the moms and dads and just soaked it all in.

For instance, when I see the twin brothers playing, I can’t help but remember when they played 6-and-under soccer with Kristen and I coached the team. I didn’t do much strategizing, partly because I was told when I was recruited not to worry about it (“Just clap a lot”), but mostly because I didn’t actually know any soccer strategy. So Kristen and the twins would basically draw up plays in the dirt on their own – and the plays worked. The boys (along with Kristen) competed in these games like they were World Cup finals. I liked them immediately.

Several of the players on this year’s basketball team are younger siblings of former varsity teammates of Kyle and Kristen, and, as a sure sign of my own advancing age, my first thought when they started cracking the varsity lineup was, “How can they be this old already?” They have transformed from little kids eating snacks in the stands while their brothers and sisters played into six-footers knifing to the basket like Pete Maravich. How (and when) did that happen?

Another interesting dynamic is that Kristen’s boyfriend plays on the team. Back when she was still out-coaching me in soccer, I was positive that she would never have a boyfriend. A little later when the boyfriend thing became inevitable in my mind, I fully expected to hate and resent any of her future suitors. But besides being an excellent guard, the boyfriend is just too good of a kid to hate. That kind of bugs me, frankly, but I’m adjusting.

The most engaging thing about this team is how they play and the way they represent the school and community. They have combined their skill and ability with selflessness, desire, and the kind of teamwork that coaches from the time of Naismith have preached about into a brand of basketball that’s as entertaining as it is effective. As they take the floor for their state semifinal matchup tomorrow morning, I’ll be in the stands admiring their work – with my fringe on.

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