After a day filled with blowouts, you feel like you're being tested. Do you love the game as much as you think?
You understand how first rounds work, how the match-ups are lopsided, so that eases your anxiety and fear. Besides, Morgan Park plays next, against Thornton Fractional South from South Suburban Lansing, Illinois. Morgan Park won the tournament last year and looks primed to repeat. You expect another blowout, but that doesn't bother you. Your back is starting to hurt and you wonder if you have the stamina to last the entire tournament.
You think about when you first started writing about basketball, right out of high school. Your back didn't hurt as much then. Neither did your knees, which click now, as you stand and stretch before tip-off. You decide to take better care of yourself, which you say more as years pass.
Watching hours of high school basketball makes you miss invincibility. Or at least you miss acting reckless and not worrying. When your back hurt in high school, you thought it sucked. That's all. You wanted to play sports, but your back hurt too bad, so it sucked. When you went to the doctor and found out you had been running around with tiny cracks in your spine for about a year, you thought it really sucked. But you never thought about how those tiny cracks would make sitting on hard bleachers a form of torture, or how you would need to take more breaks than your dad while shoveling the driveway.
Your dad is 40 years older than you and has to take medication for his heart.
You realize you're 22 and feel old. You wonder what 30 will feel like. Or 25. This is what a day filled with blowouts does to the brain. Your thoughts wander. Zoning-out turns into ruminating.
And then you look down and see Morgan Park.
Only four schools in the tournament's 50-plus years have repeated as champions. It would be good for you if they pull it off, because it would make the story you're writing more interesting. You could write about witnessing history.
You've seen them progress all season and you think they could be the best team in the state.
You also want them to win because you are from the South Side. The Holiday Tournament pulls teams from all over Chicagoland. You crave situations where you can prove your side is better than any other side, or suburb. No matter how small the occasion. So when Barack won the presidency, South Side won. Derrick Rose didn't win MVP for the Chicago Bulls, he won it for the South Side. If Morgan Park repeats, the Holiday crown stays on the South Side for another year. That's how you think.
You see Morgan Park's Head Coach Nick Irvin is relaxed. You've seen him during practice, yelling and screaming. But when you went to practice yesterday, he was calm. You take calmness as a sign that everything is clicking. Nick even joins the shoot-around, stepping up to take threes and laugh with his team.
What you notice first, once the game starts, is that TF South is small. Their tallest player is 6-foot-5. Morgan Park has four players above that, including Senior Josh Cunningham. Josh needs a great performance this tournament. He hasn't decided where he's going to play ball next year. He's the best undeclared senior in Illinois and every great performance adds to his value. You've seen Josh dominate in practice. He's made your jaw drop in practice, made you blurt out "DAAAMN!" in games; he's good, often the best player on the court, but you want to see him devastate an opponent. Against a small team like TF South, you think Josh can do something special.
After the first half, Morgan Park is up by eight and Josh has 10 points.
No blowout, no domination. Instead, a good team beating a less-good team by a comfortable margin. Again, Josh looks like the best player on the court. But this is the Holiday Tournament and you want more. And you want Josh to want more. So when the points start coming, you're happy. You don't notice it at first; you just see that he's dominating. Then you look at the scoreboard to your right and see "31" next to Josh's number "21."
When you look back again, Josh grabs a defensive rebound, doesn't pass, puts the ball on the floor, races up court and slams. It looks like one movement and you think that's what greatness is supposed to look like. On his way back on defense, Josh high-fives Nick. You've learned that Nick only high-fives during a game when he's too giddy to wait for a stoppage in play. Here's the thing about great players: they rarely disappoint. When the stage is set for a big performance, great players exceed your expectations and keep you coming back for more.
Josh finishes with a career-high 37 points. He adds 19 rebounds and seven blocks. Morgan Park wins by 30 points. Josh gets a signature performance. You get another blowout.
You head out into the cold and are ready to be tested again tomorrow morning.
Follow Gabriel James Bump on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GabrielJBump