My wise-guy buddy from New York says that living in the District of Columbia is like living on the moon. It's an emasculated town, he says - no traditions, no ethnic variety, no politics to speak of, no deeply felt loyalties.
As his final stroke of damnation, my friend says the kids in the D.C. schools don't have any school spirit.
I did two things as soon as he said that. I pointed out that most of the spirit in the New York public schools is the kind you drink. And I pointed the car through the ice and sleet toward the D.C. Armory. There, four of the biggest, oldest and peppiest D.C. public high schools were about to take part in a Friday night basketball doubleheader.
It was Anacostiva vs. McKinley Tech in the opener, Easter vs. Dunbar in the night cap. Established rivalries. Four schools in four quite different areas of town. Fifty boys representing more than 9,000 students. Surely this would be as good a test of our spirit as any.
Well, we passed, y'all. Maybe the noise level wasn't quite what one would find at the Indiana state high school basketball finals, or in the New York subway. But 2,000 people showed up, and rooted, and hollered and screamed.
Here's what it was like:
H.L. Brooks is walking her beat, which consists of the east grandstand. She wears a big badge announcing her name and a big 38 on her hip, announcing that she means business. She is one of 10 security guards assigned to the doubleheader. Clearly, she expects the worst.
"These kids are much worse than 20 years ago," Brooks says, as the first game is starting . "They had more respect then. At least mine did."
Brooks proves to be anything but a prophet. Her hat, perched delicately on her Afro, falls off a few minutes later. Two kids leap to retrieve it.
Ken Thomas is a burly forward, No. 31 for McKinley. The word is that he didn't get the word. He showed up for the game in his maroon jersey. The rest of the McKinleys were wearing white.
It is the kind of mental error that might tag Thomas as forgetful for a good long time. Indeed, when he strips off his warmup suit and enters the game with three minutes to play, he looks sheepish, as if expecting hoots.
But none come. Thomas neatly steals the ball from an Anacostia Indian. The maroon-clad McKinley cheerleaders whoop. "So he forgot," says a girl in the McKinley rooting section. "You never forgot anything?"
Cheers, and more cheers. At every time out, every interlude. Phalanxes of girls burst onto the court, doing cartwheels. Then the chants begin:
"We walk on wood because we know we're good."
"They got the ball, brothers, and we want it back!"
"Get up off your feet, I say, get up!"
The girls draw the same aaaahs for their leaps and splits as the boys do for their slam dunks. And they are irrepressible. Even though Dunbar trails Eastern by 13 points with only three minutes to go, a Dunbar basket is greeted by war whoops, and at least 100 fans shake their red and black Dunbar pompons.
Halftime of McKinley Anacostia, and a young man slips into a chair at the courtside press table. He beckons to the referee. The referee walks over, warily.
"Hey, man, why don't you let 'em play, man? What you blowing that whistle for all the time?"
The referee gives the young fan a once-over. "You must have had too much reefer," he replies, bouncing the ball.
Indeed, indeed. On a foray to the men's room, three young men brush past this aging jumpshooter. They are giggling. I sense that something's up, but can't imagine what.
I push open the door. Wham! The smell of freshly smoked marijuana is overwhelming.
But on the gym floor itself, everything and everyone is cool. A young girl is openly puffing on a cigarette. A tobacco cigarette.An usher her to put it out. She does, without a word.
Warmups for Easter-Dunbar. Croching at mid-court is Andre Hawkins, a student and basketball player at American University. He is fiddling with a Polaroid camera. His brother Tony, a guard for Eastern, is standing in line, waiting to try a layup.
"Hey, Tony," says Andre. "Hey, come on, Tony!" But Tony won't pose for him. He brushes his big brother away with a wave of the hand.
"He gets like this before games," Andre explains. But he shoots two frames of Tony for the family album anyway. They don't turn out very well, but they are "better than nothing," Andre says.
Sam Goodwin is a basketball recruiter for South Carolina State College. He wears a blazer with the school's crest on the left breast and a red tie with the letters "SCS" down the center of it. He makes funny little notes and diagrams in a diary. He is one of the men who can mean scholarship money to basketballers, so he is treated with deference.
"It's hard to get a kid from the city to come to the country," Goodwin says. "But if we can get a kid to visit the campus, we'll get him."
The man sitting behind him grins, He is from the country himself, and he knows it's true. The man is Eddie Bledenbach, chief scout and recruiter for North Carolina State, the national champions two years ago.
Two minutes left. Eastern, having lost to Dunbar twice last year, has a huge lead and is obviously about to get its revenge. Sensing the same thing, James Ratiff, Eastern's 6-foot-8 star, hurls his wristband into the Eastern rooting section. Bot much of a wedding bouquet maybe, but the thought is there.
So is the din. Great wails and shouts of victory well up. "Oh, pretty," shouts one girl. "Pretty, pretty, priteeee!"
Outside, after the game. Dunbar has finished on the short end of the score, as they say. But one student is still holding aloft a red and black Dunbar pompon, taped to a stick. It's as if he were carrying a flag.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announces to the throng as it picks its way along the icy sidewalk. "Dunbar is still No.1!"
He is jeered and cheered in about equar amounnts.But listen, you, up there in New York: He isn't ignored.