CAIRO, ILL. -- It happened on the last Friday night of February in a small town about 35 miles north of here called Anna, a place that the black kids in Cairo say stands for "ain't no niggers allowed."

Fewer than three minutes remained in the big game, the regional basketball championship. The Cairo Pilots, after racing to a 15-point half-time lead, trailed by 2. But the way they saw it, they were not losing the contest so much as having it taken from them. Every call seemed to favor the hometown Wildcats of Anna-Jonesboro, who had gone to the foul line 24 times to Cairo's eight. Cairo, all black except for the coach and his son, had seen this happen before in other white towns. The players looked frustrated and tense.

Then Brian Craig, a 5-foot-10 Anna guard, grabbed a defensive rebound near the end line. He wheeled around, elbows extended. Once, twice he whirled, hitting two black Cairo players. The third time, his elbow struck Pilot forward Stanley Crume in the chest. Pop! Crume smacked him with a right to the jaw, and all hell broke loose.

When it happened, when the fight erupted under the Cairo basket and white players from Anna-Jonesboro dashed across the court to help their buddies and throw some punches, when black fans from Cairo poured out of the stands to push and shove back, the big game transcended basketball.

Cairo's black principal had his hat knocked off and glasses smashed as he tried to pry kids away from each other. A county judge from Anna stormed over to the Cairo bench and accused an administrator of roughing up his son. The Anna coach, who had been stomping his feet and arguing with the referees on the sidelines all night, dragged his burly son from the fray. Cheerleaders screamed and fans on the far end gasped in horror. A corner of the gymnasium became a mob scene of fists and angry faces. County sheriff deputies moved in as the tournament manager grabbed the microphone at midcourt and threatened to clear the building.

Suddenly this scene and what had transpired on the court -- every call by the officials, every move by the players -- was suffused with the history of race relations in Cairo and all of southern Illinois, a region known as Little Egypt that in miles and culture is closer to Jackson, Miss., than to Chicago.

The fight occurred on the third night of a week two reporters spent in Cairo exploring how race relations had changed there since the late 1960s, when it was a cauldron of racial discord. The object was to see what this town of 6,000 residents -- half white, half black -- might reveal about race relations in America and the reasons for an apparent resurgence of racial incidents from New York's Howard Beach to Tampa. Cairo (which rhymes with pharaoh) is where North meets South.

At first, the fight suggested that little had changed. But it soon became apparent that in this desolate town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the site Mark Twain chose for Huck Finn to learn a lesson on the meaning of friendship from the runaway slave Jim, the fight had a more complex meaning. It symbolized not just how the races are torn apart but how they come together.

After the game, which Anna won 78 to 74, Cairo's fans, black and white, concluded that their team had been done in because of who they were, the color of the players' skin, the history of their town.

Cairo head coach Bill Chumbler, called "The White Shadow" by his players, knelt, dazed and alone, in a corner of the gym for several minutes after the game. "We go through this all the time," he said finally. "Race is part of the problem. There are no black referees down here, and we know that if it's close near the end, they're going to take it away from us."

The next morning the white director of Cairo's country music radio station, WKRO, delivered a five-minute editorial, charging that the team, his team, the town's team, had been "jobbed" by the refs because of race.

Mary Susan Worthington, an organist at the all-white First Southern Baptist Church and secretary at the high school, sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of The Cairo Citizen that began: "What I felt in my heart came true at the regional tournament in Anna, Illinois, on Feb. 27, 1987. I knew before we got to Anna that prejudices would come forth, and they did."

Her pastor, the Rev. Gary Lee Ummel, made the fight a centerpiece of his Sunday sermon. "Some folks are willing to fight to proclaim that blue and white is all right," Ummel said. "If those are our school colors, those are our people, whatever the color of their skin, and we'll fight for our own people."

Ed Armstrong, the white school superintendent in Cairo, viewed the videotapes of the game and called his lawyers in Chicago to see whether they could take legal action.

"I don't think that basketball is ever that important, really, but it can bring our community together," Armstrong said. "This time it was obvious even to some people who might not be as objective in their racial attitudes as they should be, that the team was mistreated. It was obvious why. There's an awful lot of racial hatred involved. The whites in Cairo see that, and they know it's not fair. Their team, a black team, was suffering unfairly."The Trailblazers

Charles Bridges was 20 when he strode into the Cairo Fire Department on a balmy summer morning in 1976 for his first day of work. The lean black man remembers making his way past two fire trucks that still bore bullet holes from Cairo's racial wars a few years earlier and taking a seat at a kitchen table before five white firemen.

For a moment, no one spoke to the first black hired by the department. Finally, Bridges recalls, a captain glanced over and asked, "You mind if we call you 'boy?' "

"My name is Charles," Bridges said.

"We already got a Charles," the officer went on, gesturing toward a fellow across the table.

"Call me Charlie," Bridges responded, his eyes glaring back.

"Hell, that's what we call him."

"Make it Chuck then," Bridges said. "Y'all best not call me 'boy.' "

For weeks, Bridges cooked his own meals at the station, refusing to eat the others' food for fear they might taint it. The mistrust ran so deep in the old days, according to John Holman, a white firefighter, that several of Bridges' colleagues suspected that he might have taken part in the sniper fire that often crackled whenever they went to douse flames near the all-black Pyramid Courts housing project.

But Bridges stood his ground and made a place for himself. Nearly 11 years later, the bullet holes remain in Cairo's fire trucks, reminders of an ugly era, and Bridges is still called Chuck.

"Back then you had some bad bigots in this department. But I knew I had to fight it," Bridges said. "Either blacks were going to be here or I was going to go down swinging."

Many blacks here have fought similar battles to assume larger roles. At the police station next door to the firehouse, Robert Brownlee and Anthony Massie are entering their fourth year of service.

Brownlee heard about what a rough town Cairo was when he moved here from Pennsylvania. In many ways, Cairo has lived up to that reputation. He said Cairo police often get calls from white citizens who ask that a black officer not be sent. "Some of those yokels out there will look you square in the face and call you 'Nigger,' " he said.

Brownlee and Massie had two things working in their favor: Their brotherly bond and the eventual respect of a few of the white cops who proved it by taking their part.

"The fact that we have to work together has cut through a lot of the racial bull. Last night I arrested a white guy for disorderly conduct and driving under the influence," Brownlee said. "I got him over here and another officer, a white guy named Shaefer, booked him.

"I left the room for a minute and apparently the suspect started getting outrageous," Brownlee went on. "I heard Shaefer holler out, 'Hey Bob, this guy's calling you a nigger.' The guy couldn't believe that Shaefer did that -- a white guy ratting on a white. I went back and said, 'Oh he is, is he? Slap another charge on him.' "

So it is at the firehouse, as well. Bridges' closest friend is Holman, a white veteran of the department who came to Cairo from a small bean farm back in 1967, when Cairo was a city of smoke and gunfire.

"You had a prejudiced notion of blacks before I came, didn't you Holms?" Bridges asked his buddy the other day, as the two sat in a couple of rocking chairs at the station.

"Right," he answered in a drawl.

"People were shooting at you."

"Yeah, I was prejudiced," Holman said, "but I wasn't that way until I came here. I worked with blacks and went to school with 'em. My best pal was a black guy I used to pick beans with. Then I became a fireman and picked up the prejudice the other firemen had. It was a black-white situation in Cairo back then, and I wasn't black. I was here when those bullets hit those trucks. But you know, if you were here back then you'd say most of the prejudice and hatred wasn't racism. It was fear. Everybody was scared to death."

Holman said the fear was finally confronted with Bridges' arrival. His work in the face of fire went a long way toward erasing suspicion. "I can't tell you how many times we've saved each other's lives," Bridges said, recalling the time he fell through an attic while fighting a blaze and Holman saved him by dangling a hose over his body to keep it wet.The Changes

The civil rights movement came here so late that the town's black leaders, impatient for change, made pilgrimages to Mississippi in the mid-1960s to learn how to demonstrate and bring federal lawsuits against the city to gain their share of jobs and civic appointments.

During those days skin color determined practically everything here -- where you could eat, shop and live, where you could work. Mention the 1960s to a black native of Cairo and a deeply personal memory is triggered.

Bridges will never forget the city swimming pool on Sycamore Street where, in 1962, a fight broke out when a group of demonstrators tried to desegregate it. Shortly after the pool was finally integrated, the city shut it down and filled it with concrete. A year later Bridges' older brother drowned trying to swim in the Ohio River.

Anger mounted in the face of such injustice. In July 1967, when a black soldier was found hanged in the city jail, Cairo was rocked with so much violence that the National Guard was called in to restore order.

Over the next three years the town was a battle zone. Blacks attacked the police station, police attacked the housing project, and white and black citizens attacked each other. When the sun went down the guns came out. In 1969 more than 170 nights of sniper fire were reported. The old U.S. Customs House, which served as police headquarters, is still riddled with bullet holes. Many consider it a miracle that only four people were killed during Cairo's years of terror.

Today the racial composition of the fire and police departments and the council offices reflects how much and how little has changed. Ten years after a lawsuit forced Cairo to elect the city council by aldermanic districts, rather than at large, three members are black and four are white in a city that is half black. The first blacks were elected in 1980. The police have Massie and Brownlee in a force of nine; the seven firefighters include Bridges.

But in some ways Cairo seems a prisoner of its past. The mayor for the last 11 years has been Al Moss, the white owner of a boat supply store who once belonged to a local group of white merchants and rowdies known as the "White Hats." The leading black member of the council is the Rev. Charles Koen, a local militant and old-time firebrand who helped lead Cairo's civil rights drive.

The two men despise each other with a passion that has not cooled over the years, and the council is so polarized that the black members, upset by Moss' refusal to entertain their motions, had to go to court last year to force Moss to observe Robert's Rules of Order.

This year's mayoral campaign is a modified version of the same old fight. Robbie Koen, the reverend's 22-year-old daughter, is the only candidate running against Moss in the April election, but her surname is still loathed by many Cairo whites who remember her father's prominent role in the '60s. At one point he belonged to a militant group known as the "Black Liberators" and fasted for 74 days to protest what he called white oppression of blacks.

Charles Koen is being probed by federal tax and firearms investigators in connection with a fire that destroyed a building that housed a social service organization he heads. He has decided to forgo a run for reelection, saying that he is making way for a new generation of black leadership.

The city, meantime, sinks deeper into economic malaise. The unemployment rate is the highest in the state, above 20 percent, and the downtown streets look like an abandoned small-town movie set. Last year the hospital closed for lack of funds. Among some there is an apathy that borders on cynicism. Publishers of the weekly Cairo Citizen, afraid of inviting attack, stopped writing editorials during the time of terror and never resumed. The recent primary election wasn't covered, except for a brief mention that Robbie Koen had announced her candidacy.

"We haven't done them {editorials} because of a lack of subjects, more or less," said Steve Brinkmeyer, current news and sports editor of the paper. "Back then, it might have been because they were trying to dodge the heat. The editors who were here then are long gone now." The paper didn't cover the primary "because we figured the winners were a cinch," he said.

In Pyramid Courts, however, the election is big news. The project, 20 or so low-rise brick buildings with wood siding, is on the city's west side near the Mississippi levee. For 27 years, it has been home to a feisty black woman named Geneva Whitfield, now 61, whose apartment once served as headquarters for black militants, including the Rev. Koen. As matriarch of the struggle, Whitfield operated a walkie-talkie network in the project that crackled to life after curfew, keeping members of the resistance in touch, radioing "Little Boy Blue," "Catfish" and other secret contacts.

Today, Whitfield is surrounded by memorabilia of the radical days, including photographs of fistfights between blacks and merchants. But her front door and car are incongruously adorned with stickers supporting Mayor Moss, the former White Hat who once brawled with black boycotters, including Whitfield's daughter.

Koen, Whitfield said, betrayed the cause when he moved out of Pyramid Courts and forgot those who couldn't. Moss, she added, "has the contacts to keep Cairo alive." Koen said Whitfield switched allegiances when a social service organization he heads decided to stop helping her financially.

The city's religious establishment is equally fractious. Cairo boasts two ministerial alliances, one black, the other white. The two groups have found no common ground. The other day the Rev. Ummel, the white pastor at First Southern Baptist Church, took a handgun from under his car seat while driving a Washington Post photographer into Pyramid Courts and placed it between them on the seat. The Rev. S.W. Oliver, meanwhile, the pastor at Cairo's leading black church, First Missionary Baptist, was blunt when asked whether he felt there were any good white people in town. "The only good ones are dead," he said.The Hippie Choirboys

Cairo was a segregated town when Bob Conroy, now 41 and dean of students at the high school, was young, but now and then in the summer he rode his bike over to Pyramid Courts to shoot around with the best basketball players in the area. The black kids called him "Little Buddy." Those hours playing roundball were the sum total of Conroy's experience with blacks until he was graduated from college.

Then, drafted by the Army, Conroy found an alternative to the war in Vietnam. The country was torn racially that year, 1968, and teachers who volunteered to go into tough schools were offered special deferments by their draft boards. Cairo was right up there with Harlem and Watts on the list of places where such deferments were granted.

Conroy's assignment during the first year of desegregation was as a "roving sub." He roamed the halls, stairs and bathrooms at the high school maintaining order. At first, "it was like putting cats and dogs together." But soon the students found an equilibrium, he said, and behaved more maturely than their parents.

After a few years Conroy became the football coach, a job that changed his perceptions of black and white.

Because of the violence in Cairo, no other high school teams would come here to play -- in any sport. From 1968 to 1972, every game was an away game for Cairo. In football the Pilots had to travel to places such as Mayfield, Ky., and Chaffee, Mo., for competition. When the Pilots arrived at the outskirts of a town, their bus would be met by the local police, who escorted them to the gym or playing field. When it was over they would be escorted back to the highway.

"I had to coach kids in the worst situation in the world," Conroy said. "But as it turned out we were the best thing Cairo had going. There was a group of kids who got along better than anybody in town. I don't know if God sent them to us or what, but they meshed, black and white, they were friends and teammates. I called them my 'Hippie Choirboys.' "

Three of the choirboys still live in Cairo and remain best friends at age 31. Their relationship has always had a special symmetry: Ronnie Woods, the black center, the team's soul and inspiration, hiked the ball to Bruce Brinkmeyer, the white quarterback, respected for keeping his head in the game, who flipped left or right to Harry Lee Williams, the gifted black halfback.

Woods, now head football coach at Cairo, was the leader on the field for those 1971 and 1972 teams. "We'd go into all-white towns and it would be 'Hey nigger' this and 'Hey nigger' that and Ronnie would always ignore it and pat them on the back and say 'Nice play,' " Conroy recalled. "I always told them they were going into the lion's den and they had to behave like gentlemen."

Brinkmeyer, who teaches at St. Joe's, the Catholic grammar school, but helps Woods coach the Cairo football team, remembers how upside-down the world seemed back then. "We were just trying to play ball, and when you see a black teammate out there sweating and working just like you, that person becomes your friend, you don't see him as different," he said. "But the town didn't get along that way, and then when we traveled to some other town it was like, 'Here comes Cairo,' like we were something real bad. Like all we wanted to do was fight."

Woods and Williams lived at Pyramid Courts, where the lights were turned out at night to thwart snipers. "We had to deal with all kinds of problems," said Williams, now an electrician at a paper plant across the Ohio River in Kentucky. "It was hard to study without lights, and it certainly hampered our social lives, with curfews at 6 or 7. Ronnie had his own curfew anyway -- he had to be home when the Dairy Queen lights went on."

Williams perfected his outside jumper playing at night on the "PC" basketball court, where the lights had been shot out. With only the moon and a distant street lamp illuminating the hoop, he and his buddies were forced to improvise. They put chain nets on the rims so that they could at least hear whether the ball went in.

"You'd fire it up from 25 {feet} and then listen for the sound, the jingle," Williams said. "Sometimes we'd be arguing about what kind of sound it made. 'That went in the hole!' 'No, it hit the front of the chain!' It was really weird."

After four years of road games in football, the choirboys finally were granted a home game in the fall of 1972. They deserved better. The team from Heath, Ky., came over for the historic matchup. It rained hard the night before and throughout the game. They called it the "Mud Bowl." Williams reached the end zone once, but his touchdown was called back. The final score was 0-0. For Cairo, it was a small victory.

A few months later, the basketball team journeyed to Heath for a contest that jogged back into Williams' memory 15 years later as he sat in the stands at Anna for the regional championship. He had a strange and awful feeling that he had seen this before, and he had, in a way, back in Heath. The Pilots coach had warned his players before the game that, once again, they were in hostile territory, and that they had to ignore the crowd and the bad calls.

"Just put it in the hole" was their motto.

But the game had barely started when their two best players had three fouls called against them. The coach, infuriated, was hit with two technicals and kicked out of the game.

"It was ridiculous," Williams recalled. "Coach pulled us off the court and took us back to the locker room. When the ref came in to see what was going on coach lunged at him. We had to hold him back. Never seen him like that before. 'Boys,' he said. 'You haven't had a home game in three years. You've had to take a lot of crap. But you don't deserve this. You really don't deserve it. You decide whether you want to keep playing under these conditions."

They chose to play. Conroy, the assistant in basketball, took charge of the team and Williams laughs when he thinks about Conroy's instructions to the squad.

"Let's shoot the ball," Conroy said. "Put it up!"

"Coach," said Williams, the point guard. "Should we run the options?"

"I didn't say anything about plays, Williams," Conroy responded. "Shoot it."

As Williams now says, "it was back to the projects again. We loved it. We were throwing up 25- to 30-footers before they could call anything on us. And we were coming back. All they had to do was turn the lights down a little and put chain hoops on, and there would have been no stopping us. As it was we cut a 20-point lead down to 4. They had to go to the line at the end to beat us."The Partners

The year after he left Cairo High, Williams married. His wife was older -- she had two daughters -- and white. They have been together 13 years.

To understand this town's attitudes on the subject of interracial marriage, consider the interview the Rev. Ummel had when he was being recruited as pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church three years ago.

"What do you think about mixed marriages?" one church member asked him.

Ummel knew that one man in the congregation had married a Mexican woman and another had a Filipino wife. "Well, if you're talking about Aurora and Miok," he said, referring to those two women, "I think you are blessed because they are here. If you are talking about how I would feel if my daughter wanted to marry a black man . . . . "

There were gasps and looks of astonishment.

They hadn't meant it that way, Ummel realized. A marriage between black and white would not have occurred to the questioners.

At Cairo High, the student grapevine is rife with stories about white girls getting shipped to far-off relatives for having black boyfriends. The students say one was sent up to Champaign recently; another to Ohio.

Still, as Williams says, love is blind and it can flourish and grow in the unlikeliest places. One of the high school's teachers, Ron Newell, got married -- the same year as Williams -- to Julie Jones, a black woman who was the secretary to the principal.

Newell, whose father ran the National Guard unit in Cairo during the troubled years, had had few dealings with blacks until he returned to Cairo after college to teach at the high school. There he realized that the only difference between his black students and the white ones was that the blacks, most of whom lived at Pyramid Courts, had a more difficult time studying at night.

"At night I'd go outside and look downtown and see fires and tracers flying through the air," Newell said. "It finally dawned on me, after a few months of this, here I am giving my kids so many pages of homework and how in the world can the kids living down there in the middle of all that possibly do it? I decided I'd do what I could with the 50 minutes in class. The kids knew what was going on, but they didn't bring it to school with them. Parents were the problem. The outside world was having this fight, this war."

Newell and Jones met when they chaperoned buses for the weekly out-of-town athletic contests. Jones' mother was leery of Newell at first, but he quickly became accepted as a member of the family. It was different with the Newells and Julie.

"My family didn't react too well," Ron Newell said. "My younger brother punched me out, and my mother was crying when I told them Julie and I were getting married. They didn't accept it at all. They still don't." His parents refused to attend the wedding. In 13 years, they have never invited Julie over to their house. They've never even talked to her.

"Racism is not dead in Cairo by a long shot," said Julie Newell. "There are a lot of people who get along real well; they talk to each other at work and enjoy each other's company. But for the most part they do not socialize. There are still strict lines. We don't worry about it too much because we go our own way. When we want to do things we get out of Cairo."The Burden

It is 12:39 on a Thursday afternoon at Cairo High. The halls are spotless and void of stragglers. Elmer McPherson, the black principal, who grew up in Pyramid Courts and was in the first integrated graduating class here, is meeting behind closed doors with the parents of a white girl who needs to be disciplined. The parents are asking McPherson for help and guidance. "Mac," as he is known, is universally regarded as strict but fair. He paddles the kids -- black or white -- when he thinks they deserve it, and parents seldom complain.

He is proud of the school, which he considers the heart of Cairo, the one place in town that offers harmony and hope.

Down the hall Ron Newell's 7th period economics class is meeting. Six of the students are white and 16 are black. The white kids sit together in a cluster on the left side of the room, the same way it is at lunchtime in the cafeteria. When asked about the seating patterns, the students all say it is a matter of friendship, not prejudice.

These kids are war babies, in a sense, born during the most racially troubled period in Cairo's history. All they know about those days is what their elders have told them.

One student remembers being told that he was the only white baby born in Cairo on a spring day in 1969, when there was rioting in town and the National Guard surrounded the hospital. Another remembers that her grandfather, a dispatcher at the police station, got shot in the shoulder by a sniper.

The stories passed down to black students evoke images of fear: people sleeping in bathtubs to protect themselves from the potshots of white marauders; whole neighborhoods becoming de facto detention camps, ringed by troops and controlled by strict curfews, police assuming that any group of three or more blacks constituted a riot threat.

They have only vague notions of why it started, why it persisted for so long or what it meant. One black student said he thought it had to do with ensuring that black people could do "the same things as whites."

A white girl remembers asking an official once about why the city no longer had a public swimming pool. As this student recalled it, the official responded, "We both know the problem." She paused a moment and said, "The black people?" The official nodded in accord.

Local history to the students is a burden. Many said that their parents dealt with race better than their grandparents and that they will improve on that, but habits change slowly. The white kids have always had their own hangouts -- at the parking lot near the intersection of 8th and Washington, where they watch the cars go by; out on the point of Fort Defiance, where they watch the barges float past -- and although they said they would welcome black friends to party with them, few do.

They hold up small acts of reconciliation as proud achievements. Ellen McCrite, a blond senior, is planning with a black friend to hold a party for blacks and whites, a rare event. "It's the older people who hold us back. I think the young people really want to get together," she said.

Amy Britt, another white student, took particular delight in a message written by Cheryl Logan, a black girlfriend, in her yearbook: "I wanted to be the first to sign your book to thank you for being a real friend. We're living proof that opposites do attract."

When and if racial harmony comes to Cairo, these students don't want to be anywhere near it -- near Cairo, that is. In past addresses to student assemblies, McPherson, the principal, has stressed that Cairo is dying and that the students' futures must lie elsewhere. Only one student in Newell's class said she wanted to stay in town after graduation. The rest said they would rather be anywhere: the Army, Paducah, Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, California. Anywhere except Cairo and the South Side of Chicago.

"Cabrini-Green, whooh!" said one student, naming a notorious Chicago housing project. "They carry knives up there!"

Cairo is not a typical American city. Its racial past is too violent, its economic future too unpromising. But this place has always seemed larger than life, an allegory for promise and fear.

Charles Dickens, in 1840 in his only trip to America, stumbled upon Cairo, called it "a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise" and then used it as his prototype for a nightmarish Eden in the novel "Martin Chuzzlewit."

Mark Twain's Jim wanted to round the bend at Cairo to head into free territory beyond the reach of slave hunters. He and Huck Finn floated past Cairo in the fog, and Huck tried to fool and belittle Jim by telling him that everything he had done to keep them going was just a dream.

Jim interpreted the dream. He told Huck that all the trash and debris on the raft were as foul as the people who put "dirt on de head er day fren's en makes em ashamed." Later, Huck went to apologize. "It made me feel so mean I could have kissed his foot to take it back," Huck said. "It was 15 minutes before I could work myself up and go and humble myself to him; but I done it and weren't ever sorry for it."

In Cairo, there is some of Dickens' gloom but more of the racial reconciliation evoked by Twain. The landscape is forlorn. The history is cruel, based mostly on fear and uncertainty. But just as Huck eventually realized that he and Jim were motivated by the same yearnings, whites and blacks in Cairo are slowly reaching that understanding.

After the fighting stopped in the mid-1970s, the people here had to deal with each other. The whites could not hide in exclusive neighborhoods because there are none. They could not build freeways as walls around the ghetto, because the place is too small. In 1968, the year Cairo High was desegregated, some parents tried to have a white-flight school -- they called it Camelot -- but it has lost its allure, lacking money, teachers and a sports tradition. It closed last year.

It is no longer blacks against whites in Cairo. It is Cairo against the world. "We all want the same thing," said Mayor Al Moss, the old White Hat. "We all want success."The Return The basketball game was over and a misty fog enveloped Anna as Mac and Little Buddy, the principal and the dean of students -- the odd couple of Cairo High -- headed home. Behind them trailed three school buses carrying fans and the crestfallen Pilots team. They drove down Anna's main street, past a parking lot where local teen-agers sat on the hoods of Jeeps and pickups to watch the Cairo caravan. The neon lights of the Dairy Queen and Bunny Bread bakery gleamed in the darkness.

Mac, wearing his blue-and-white Cairo jacket and hat, was at the wheel, driving without his glasses, which had been broken in the melee. Little Buddy wore a Pilots pin on his sport coat. Mac kept looking in the rearview mirror to make sure that the buses were in line. Little Buddy looked ahead, where a police car led the procession to the highway out of town.