Slam-Dunk Summer

By Ed Metzendorf

My 15-year-old nephew, a camper for six seasons at Camp Northstar in the New England states decided to return to camp mainly to complete some “unfinished business”—knocking off rival Camp Eagle in the annual basketball tournament. My curiosity and my occupation allowed me to create a business trip around this game. After my meetings and a quick lunch, I arrived at Camp Eagle on July 21. After checking in at the office, I was told to head toward the gym rather than the outside courts where several other games were going on. The gym, despite having several open sides and a slight breeze off the lake, was hot. Arriving only 2 minutes before the game was about to start, I heard music blasting a typical “psych-up” song as the boys on both teams were going through the traditional basketball layup lines.

As the buzzer sounded, I focused on the Northstar sideline where the boys huddled, intent on winning the game. I giggled along with my friends who had joined me for the journey, belittling the players’ seriousness; after all, this was just a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds playing an inter-camp basketball game.

The campers and staff members from Eagle gradually filed into the gym and gathered on the sideline. Many of the male fans were dressed in their standard uniform, but several boys had used the occasion to show their creative side and paint their chests and wear Indian headdresses to pledge their allegiance. As additional spectators arrived and the music continued, staff members and campers danced and cheered to show their Eagle spirit.

Gearing Up
Finally, the music stopped, and the much-anticipated game was underway.  From the outset, there was an apparent contrast in styles: Northstar—the “bigger” team—used its version of the Twin Towers to clog the middle, while Eagle—the smaller, faster team—relied on ball movement to fire as many 3-pointers as possible.

The referees must have agreed before the game to “swallow their whistles,” as the boys on both sides literally had to power through “hacks” to get shots off. On almost every other possession the boys dove to the gym floor, fearlessly trying to retrieve a loose ball. Anyone looking for high field-goal percentages and nifty playmaking was at the wrong gym, as successful shots were at a minimum; however, intensity was at a fever pitch. In contrast, this game made a New York City playground pickup game look gentle and well-choreographed.

In the middle of the second quarter, Eagle made a few 3-pointers in a row and finally took the lead. During a timeout by Northstar, I went over to chat with the owner of Eagle. A starter on the Eagle team had stormed out of the gym, angry that he could not play because he had injured his finger. The camper insisted he needed to play. Minutes later, he was whisked off on a golf cart to the infirmary. By the time he returned, it was halftime (the nurse determined that his finger was fine), and Eagle had expanded its lead to six points (21-15).

A Nail-Biting Conclusion
The third quarter and the early fourth quarter continued to resemble the first half, with many turnovers and missed shots. However, as time dwindled down, Northstar was within striking distance and finally abandoned its 2-3 zone defense. The man-to-man defense was slow to develop, but after a long possession that almost resulted in several steals, Eagle was called for an illegal pick. Down three points with less than a minute to play, a Northstar guard quickly moved the ball up the court and drained a 3-pointer with only seconds remaining, sending the game into overtime.

Word of the game must have spread around camp because all of the Eagle campers left their scheduled activities to attend the battle. Several other tournaments were being hosted at Eagle that day, and other Northstar campers as well as boys from other nearby camps were also present for the second half. The gym was now standing-room-only, and I found myself ushering kids off the end lines to make sure no one interfered with the game or got hurt. As the teams entered overtime, the tension was thick.

Northstar, seizing the momentum of its fourth-quarter comeback, jumped to an early lead; however, Eagle stayed close with a hoop or a big defensive stop. After some clutch free throws, Eagle appeared to have control, 41-37 with 10 seconds to play. Northstar inbounded the ball and rushed up the floor. The player who had hit the clutch 3 at the end of regulation got the ball at the top of the 3-point arc and—in the midst of several pump fakes and the possible shuffling of his feet--swished a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. My friends and I went crazy, shouting “no way!” The Eagle crowd was stunned. Suddenly, the referee waved off the hoop, saying a foul had been made before the shot. The Northstar coaches and players reacted in disbelief, but handled the situation relatively well. Northstar then made two free throws, banking in the second one, despite trying to miss to get off a “miracle 3”). Eagle inbounded the ball, the last seconds ticked off the clock, and Eagle was victorious. Imitating the ESPN culture, the boys from Eagle stormed the floor, jumping on the backs of their friends in celebration. The teams quickly shook hands, and the Northstar team retreated to an isolated spot on the Eagle campus to deal with what had just happened.

Guts And Glory
For the next two days, as I travelled around Maine visiting other camps, I told anyone who would listen about the astounding events that had unfolded that Monday afternoon. I made a few calls, sent a few short video clips (to relatives), and tried to recap the game, but I’m sure I didn’t do it much justice. The players had played as if that game was the most important of their lives. Each camper displayed an enthusiasm and dedication that would make every staff member, alumni of their respective camps, and parents extremely proud.

Following years at camp, many of these boys will go on to play for school teams, go to college, and be successful professionals. Some may forget this game, but others will remember it and discuss it with friends at reunions and other social settings long after becoming adults.

This may have only been one day out of a summer full of games, trips, color wars, and talent shows, but to me (and hopefully those who witnessed the game), it seemed symbolic of the entire camp experience. Every boy who participated will return home with a better understanding of values such as teamwork, loyalty, and selflessness.

I went to Casco, Maine, expecting to watch my nephew play in what I thought was to be a glorified pickup basketball game, but I left with a new appreciation of all of the good in traditional summer camps. In a time when sports and culture have been tainted by overbearing parents and instant technology it was great to watch a game played where boys could just be boys. One thing I know for certain is that, even when the scoreboard registered all zeros that afternoon, everybody on that court was a winner.