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About The daily Astorian. (Astoria, Or.) 1961-current | View Entire Issue (Jan. 5, 2018)
THE DAILY ASTORIAN • FRIDAY, JANUARY 5, 2018
Erick Bengel | Features Editor
In small towns, basketball has its own gravity
I myself never played (too nearsighted
to see the basket, too vain to wear my
glasses back then).
Yet in little towns, basketball has its
own gravity. For a couple of games a week,
the gym is the place to be. I was in the pep
band, and then the boys team manager so I
could still be a part of it.
I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of
basketball. I’ve never watched a full game
Yet there is something different about
watching the game in person.
I moved to Naselle during the Lyle Pat-
terson era, a time when the little town was
known on the far side of the state for consis-
tently great basketball. Patterson was hired
as a football coach and math teacher at first,
then took over basketball duties when the
position opened up. Over the next 32 years
he took little Naselle to the state so many
times that they planned the school calendar
around state tournaments.
His 623-228 record is the fourth best
of all time in the state of Washington and
includes a mountain of district and league
titles as well as five appearances in the
championship game. After Naselle he
helped Knappa win back-to-back champi-
onships in Oregon.
What’s fascinating about Patterson’s
success is that, in such a small school, you
have to make due with the kids you have
from year to year. Short kids, tall kids, fast
kids and slow kids; to consistently come up
with 30 years of winning from such uncer-
tain talent speaks volumes.
By ED HUNT
For The Daily Astorian
t is dark and raining sideways, yet there
is warmth and life inside the gym.
Honey-colored wood glows and
shines under the lights high above. Neigh-
bors align themselves on long wooden
benches close enough to visit and catch up,
but most eyes are on the floor where boys
and girls run about in summer shorts and
high-top shoes on cold winter nights.
Basketball knits little towns together.
Invented during a snowy Massachusetts
December in 1891, Dr. James Naismith’s
game was a way to keep restless athletes
conditioned during the winter months. His
superiors at the YMCA International Train-
ing School requested a game that was not
too rough, would keep track and field ath-
letes in shape without getting injured and
could be played within a standard-size gym.
The gymnasium came first, believe it or
It’s hard to imagine a high school gym
without basketball hoops, but I’ve been in
some of those old gyms where the out-of-
bounds line was just inches from the wall,
built in the days before fast breaks and
diving saves were likely to take a player
careening out of bounds.
Originally, things were a little different.
There was no dribbling, only passing. The
first game was nine players on each side.
Yet even the first public game reportedly
drew a few hundred people to watch.
Spread by the promotion of the YMCA,
the game took root in the still largely agri-
cultural U.S. It spread to high schools out-
side of cities and found a special place in
the hearts of little towns all over the Pacific
It required only five players, so small-
town schools could easily field a team.
The equipment needs were not great: orig-
inally two peach baskets and a soccer ball,
replaced in 1906 with metal hoops and nets
and a “Spalding ball.”
At a time when the railroad was the
fastest way across the country, basketball
spread to every tiny town with a gymna-
sium — and towns built gyms so they could
play it. Girls basketball developed not long
after that first YMCA game, the “gen-
tle” wintertime sport being well-suited to
Northwest farm girls.
As Rachel Bachman wrote for the Ore-
gonian in 2010, when Naismith was still
alive and coaching in the 1920 and 1930s,
Oregon girls high school basketball had
become so popular that some schools had
two teams. In towns with just a few doz-
ens students in the whole school, two-thirds
might play the sport.
As Louise Leininger, who played for
Mosier High near Hood River in the mid-
1930s told Bachman, basketball was a nat-
ural for the resilient girls of rural Oregon.
“We were farm girls,” Leininger said.
“We were hoisting boxes with fruit in it and
things like that.”
A backlash against the “unladylike”
sport grew in the cities after World War I,
but girls basketball hung on longer in rural
areas. The traveling basketball teams, and
the fans that followed, provided a vital
social outlet in the 1930s.
A ‘sport for the lonely’
Damian Mulinix photos
The Naselle Comets celebrated after a win in overtime.
The Naselle bench and fans reacted as time expired on the Comets’ 2016 season.
The gym is the place to be
When I was growing up in a small town
surrounded by other small towns, we had to
combine with the neighboring high school
just to get enough players for a football
team. Yet when basketball season came,
each tiny school could find enough boys
and girls to put on the court. Rivalries grew
up over generations with the next town
Often, schools like Wishram or Klicki-
tat might only come up with five players,
so if someone fouled out, they had to play
one short. I recall one game in Wishram’s
tiny railroad town gym where they played
the whole fourth quarter with three against
our five, and nearly won.
Yet rural towns, where winters are dark
and inhospitable, were fertile ground for
basketball to take hold and rich soil to cul-
tivate new players year after year. Every
kid probably had a hoop up in the hay barn
where they could practice their shots and
imagine high school glory.
Basketball stars could be discovered
in lower grades, their talent followed by a
community. Basketball so easily became
the thing with the ability to draw neighbors
out from their homes to sit side by side on
uncomfortable benches amid the staccato
and the shouts, the squeaks of sneakers and
the cheers and groans of the crowd.
The journalist David Halberstam wrote
all this much better years ago. Examin-
ing Indiana’s fascination with the sport in
a 1985 article for Esquire Magazine, he
“(S)mall towns, villages often, neither
grew nor died; they just stayed there sus-
pended between life and death. In an atmo-
sphere like that, where so little meant so
much, there was only one thing that male
and (often female) children did, and they
did it every day and every night, and that
was play basketball. It was a sport for the
lonely — a kid did not need five or six
friends, he did not even need one. There
was nothing else to do, and because this
was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone
even wanted to do.”
Yet if the culture of small-town basket-
ball developed because of its accessibility,
it became a part of the small-town com-
munity because adults “needed to see it,
needed to get into a car and drive to another
place to hear other voices” — rituals essen-
tial to fending off the loneliness of long,
“There were few ways for ordinary peo-
ple to meet one another … Guests and visi-
tors were rare. There was church, and there
was basketball, gyms filled with hundreds,
indeed thousands of people, all excited,
all passionate. In a dark and lonely winter,
the gym was a warm, noisy, and well-lit
The echoing wooden box
Now I sit in the Lyle Patterson gym
and watch my 13-year-old daughter who
has come to love this sport. I sit with my
A Naselle Comet got a hug from his mom in the stands as other fans affectionately
See BASKETBALL, Page 2C