The following is my account of one of the greatest rivalries in elementary sports history. It retells the infamous showdown at the 1992 Langley Grade Seven Boys Basketball Championships between Peterson Road’s heroic grade seven team, and the evil grade six team.
Okay, they weren’t evil ;). Enjoy
“Did you hear that Mr. Page entered the grade sixes into the grade seven tournament?”, John declared. There were four of five of us kids gathered in a cluster outside the grade seven entrance of Peterson Road waiting for the morning bell.
“What?!!”, I said in a surprised tone. “Can he do that?”
“Well, he did it”, John replied.
“Hah. We’re going to kick their asses”, a few others chimed in.
I had to take a minute to process this information. My first reaction was one of dismay. “The audacity!”, I thought. “These upstart grade sixes thought they could challenge us?!! Who did they think they were?!”.
Surely this broke some law. I mean, we had dutifully followed the unwritten protocol of “wait your turn” through seven years of elementary school. My mind went back to the dispute we had with some grade-three kids, when we were in grade one, about who got to play on the soccer field. Our case was dismissed with prejudice by the noon-hour supervisor on the grounds that the grade threes were older. As a part of that ruling, we were assured that, when we were in grade three, we could use the soccer field. This dispute was not alone in its affirmation of the protocol that the needs of the older outweighed the wants of the younger.
We had paid our dues, and now it was our turn to be sovereign. These upstart grade sixes thought they could buck this sacred law skip to the top of the food chain. This insolence could not go unpunished.
My second thought was that this was unprecedented! To my knowledge, no grade six team had ever, in the history of elementary school sports, been allowed to compete in the grade seven tournament. At least not of the school already had a grade seven team.
Better fact-check that, I thought, as my historical knowledge of elementary sports was limited to the past three years and spanned only a couple of schools.
“Has a grade six team ever been allowed into a grade seven tournament before?”, I asked the wikipedia of the day (aka John, Steve, Ezra, and Pat).
“Nope”, they said.
It was confirmed. Unprecedented in the history of sports. Which leads me back to my first thought again. “The Gall!”
If I’m honest with myself, however, the most unsettling aspect of this news was that the grade sixes were pretty good. “What if they beat us?”, I thought. I’m sure this same thought crossed the other boys’ minds as well, but none were foolish enough to express it.
I had been teammates with most of the grade six boys at one time or another. Several of them had been on my baseball teams throughout elementary school. A few of them lived in my neighbourhood, so we would often play street hockey and tennis together. During lunch-time football, we would frequently scrimmage against them, and one of them even played on our (grade seven) team when we were low on players.
They were fast and athletic so I wasn’t immediately confident that we would beat them in a head-to-head matchup.
As a thought experiment, I imagined a pick-up game combining both grades, where I got to “draft” my team. Who would I pick?
Well, my first pick would probably be Quinn, as he was our best player. Quinn was tall and lanky, with a shoe size that hinted that he was going to grow a lot taller. He could jump, dribble equally well with both hands, and make highlight-reel lay-ups from both sides of the hoop. His dad was very tall, and had coached several of our basketball teams throughout elementary school. If he wasn’t on the courting shooting hoops, he was probably carrying a basketball en route to a court.
Having chosen a grade seven as first pick in this fantasy draft, I felt a little bit better, but the subsequent picks weren’t going to be as easy. We had a good crew. We had played together for years in multiple sports, and we knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses well. I could think of four or five good choices for the second pick. Pat, Chad, the other Steve, John, Ezra, Chris. All were good players who I trusted with the ball. But…. I can also think of one or two grade sixes who, If I’m honest, deserved the second pick over my trusted mates, and an additional four or five who would be solid third picks. So it is conceivable that four of the five starting spots in the “dream team” would be filled by grade sixes.
“But we have a height advantage”, I tried to convince myself, “and the experience”. Our sheer will to win would be the difference. We got this.
As far as I recall, the grade six boys were gracious about the situation. They were all good kids, and we got along well with each other. I suspect that if the roles were reversed, we wouldn’t have been as respectful. But they didn’t need to say it out loud – the threat was palpable, and the stakes were high, but asymmetrical. They had nothing to lose. We, on the other hand, had everything to lose. If we allowed to the grade sixes to come into our tournament, and beat us, it would have been demoralizing.
On the first day of the tournament, we arrived in the DW Poppy Secondary gymnasium as a team. The schedule was posted on a portable bulletin board, the kind with wheels and a chalkboard on the back. There were about ten schools listed. I overheard some players from other schools wondering out loud about the fact that Peterson Road had two teams. I thought about explaining it to them, but decided not to. Better to leave them guessing. Information is power!
We had played against most of these schools during the regular season, and I felt confident about our chances. In my mind, only two teams mattered. Langley Central had a kid named John MacDonald who was, hands-down, the best player there. He was five foot ten, and, like Quinn, could dribble equally well with both hands. He didn’t need to jump at all when shooting free-throws, and his three-point percentage was better than most boys’ layup percentage. He was a complete player, who could have been playing senior ball. Because of him, Langley Central was the team to beat.
The other team that mattered was, of course, the grade six squad. In our eyes, it was the only game that mattered. If we managed to run the board against all the other schools, win the championship, appear on TSN for interviews, and be congratulated by the Queen for our achievement, but lose to the grade sixes, we would feel obliged to retreat to a dark corner and curl up into the fetal position, never to be seen again. Yes, it was that important.
As with any tournament, it was possible that we wouldn’t end up playing the grade sixes at all. They could have been placed into a different pool, and then we would only play if we both made it to the finals.
“We play Langley Central second! On the main court”, Chad shouted, looking over his shoulder with his index finger on the schedule, “and then the grade sixes, in the small gym”.
So it was official. Game On!
After winning our first game, we assembled on the main court to start our warm ups for the game against Langley Central. We started with layup drills.
This gym had a completely different feel than the elementary school gyms we were used to. The hardwood floor was a little bit less bouncy than the linoleum I was used to, and the plexiglass backboards were a bit more bouncy than the wooden ones we had. The gym was two to three times the size of Peterson Road’s. It had actual stands where spectators could watch, and a large electronic scoreboard mounted near the ceiling. This was the big time.
After our warm-ups, we returned to the bench where our coach picked a starting lineup. The chosen five stayed on the court, and the rest of the team took their place on the bench. The five included Chris and I sharing guard duty, Quinn in the middle, and Pat and John on the wings.
In professional basketball, they usually have a starting five players, and individual players may be substituted out in the course of the game when a starter needs a rest, or runs into foul trouble. The coach may also make a substitution if they want a particular match-up. In elementary school, however, our substitutions worked more like line-changes in hockey. The starting five would play a few series before being replaced by the second line, followed by the third line, etc..
This made for some dramatic momentum swings in games, as the skill-level of different lines vary wildly.
Quinn lined up against John MacDonald for the tip off to start the game. They won the jump ball, MacDonald tipping it back to their point guard, who took a couple of dribbles before passing it back to MacDonald. A couple more passes, then back to MacDonald under the hoop, who dropped in an easy lay-up.
Not a great start. But now it was our turn.
Chris in-bounded the ball to me and I took it up the court. I saw John open on the right side just inside the three point line, so I bounced it over to him. He gave a quick head fake to the defender then took it to the hoop, where MacDonald was waiting for him. A little fake to the left and then an underhand layup made it up to the rim. After a couple of rattles around the rim it dropped for a basket and we tied at two. We got this.
A few minutes later, with the score seven to two, Langley Central did a line change, and their star player was replaced by a new squad. I found it puzzling that they didn’t just have him play the entire game. With him on the bench, we clawed our way back into the game. A few minutes later, with our team up now ten to nine (or thereabouts), their top line was back on the court, and momentum changed again.
This pattern continued throughout the game. Their top line would run up the score, and then we would inch our way back against their second line. When the final buzzer sounded, though the score was close, we were a couple of baskets shy.
This loss didn’t phase us terribly. We knew what we were up against and the score was close enough to make us feel like we could turn it around the next time, which we assumed would be in the finals.
On to the main event – the only game that mattered – in the small gym.
This gym felt more comfortable than the main gym, as its size was closer to what we were used to. It still had a hardwood floor, plexiglass backboards, and an electronic scoreboard. But it was a newer gym (about 3 years old), and the floor felt a little bouncier. The lighting was also a little brighter than the dull lights of the main gym.
After the pre-game warmups and rituals, both teams assembled on the court for the tip off. Our team wore the white side of the school’s invertible jerseys, the grade sixes were wearing grey and burgundy T-shirts. A moment of calm before the storm as the referee prepared to toss up the ball to start the game. Our height advantage secured an easy victory on that first jump ball – and on most of the subsequent ones.
Unlike the Langley Central game, which was a series of momentum shifts, this game was see-saw. Back and forth. They would score, then we would score. We would stop them, then they would stop us. We went into halftime in a virtual tie – which was too close for comfort. Things were a little bit tense. Players who made mistakes were informed of them by certain other team-mates – just in case they weren’t aware that they weren’t supposed to miss that last layup.
This pattern continued into the second half, while intensity continued to rise. With under thirty seconds to go, we were down by a point. I was watching from the bench as Chad dribbled the ball up the court and the team set up the offence. The sixes were playing tight defence with everything on the line. We passed the ball around the perimeter but couldn’t find an opening. Twenty seconds left. Finally someone got an open shot. Fifteen seconds… the ball arced through the air, our hopes attached to it … 13 seconds… It went off script and bounced off the front edge of the rim and returned to flight, back into the court. 11 seconds. Luckily the rebound found its way into Pat’s hands near the free-throw line. Pat, who was one of our most reliable shooters, made no mistake with it. He stepped forward and released a shot that resulted in a swish.
We all cheered loudly. Everyone on the bench was on their feet, with arms in the air celebrating what was looking like a sure victory. I glanced up at the scoreboard for some assurance. 8 seconds, 7 seconds.
The game was not over yet. They passed the ball in, and started down the court with urgency. With only a few seconds remaining they knew it was all or nothing here. The guard threw up a “hail mary” to their forward near our freethrow line. I watched in horror as the pass was completed, and their player (I don’t remember who), turned to the hoop, and started his attack run. Two dribbles, a step and a half, and he was going up for a lay-up, but at the last second, Chad, dove in from behind and got a piece of his arm just before releasing it.
“Foul!” yelled the ref.
And so, with the score thirty-nine to thirty-eight, for us, and three seconds left on the clock, a grade six was going to the line for two free-throws.
The coach decided to substitute in all of our tallest players at this point to make sure we got the rebounds, so Chad was out, as he was one of the shorter players. I could see tears running down his face as he sat down.
“What’s wrong?”, I asked.
“I lost the game for us”, he said frantically. “It was my foul. If he sinks these, it’s my fault!”.
He was too agitated to sit, so he started pacing the sidelines.
“Hold on a minute”, I said. “If you didn’t foul him, he would have sunk it for sure, and then we would have lost already. This way we still have a chance.”
That seemed to calm him down, and our attention shifted to the court where everyone lined up for the first shot. We watched as the ball traveled toward the hoop, and… bounced out.
An eruption from our bench. Everyone was already on their feet, but now we were jumping and screaming. We had evaded the immediate danger of losing, but they still had a chance to force the game into overtime.
The referee bounced the ball back to the grade six’s hands. The gym got silent. You could cut the air with a knife. Everything was now riding on this one young boy’s shoulders (I really wish I remember the name of the boy – if anyone reading this knows, please share). He bent his knees and raised the ball up to shooting position, then launched it toward the hoop. This time, after bouncing around the rim for a second, the ball decided to drop through the hoop, and just like that, we were going to overtime.
Having been one shot away from victory, I could taste disappointment in my cocktail of emotions. But it was a new game now, and we were going to come out guns blazing.
The electronic scoreboard was updated to read “5:00”, and the ref called the game to order again.
This overtime frame followed the same pattern as the rest of the game, with back and forth action. However, we managed to go up by a couple of baskets early, and we retained the lead throughout. Truth be told, I don’t remember very much about overtime, as the real and memorable drama had already played itself out in regulation time. When the final buzzer sounded with us ahead on the scoreboard, we all rushed the floor to celebrate.
We recounted the memorable moments of the game to each other in between hugs and high fives. “Thank God”, I confided to Ezra, “I did not want to lose that game”.
“I won the game for us!”, I overheard Chad say during the celebration. “If I hadn’t fouled him, they would have won.”
After a short celebration, we lined up for the customary show of sportsmanship to shake hands with our fallen foes – our friends. The optimists among them threw in a “See you in the finals” along with the usual “good game”, but I could see the disappointment in their eyes. The emotion was still raw.
We didn’t end up winning the championship that year. We lost our semi-final game against Wix Brown the next day, which relegated us to a fourth place finish in the tournament. Disappointing as that was, it didn’t really matter that much. We had accomplished the most important feat and could return to Peterson Road with our heads held high and our rightful dominance still intact.