A novel in verse … and the writing thereof

Basketball culture and Philip Aaberg

Sunday, March 13th, 2011 by

I didn’t think of yesterday’s basketball games as research.

Yes, games, plural; after Trent’s team won their morning game, we returned to see if they could beat the team that had defeated them in their first game of the playoffs. They did, taking third at State. Go Diamondbacks!

I went for fun, which I found in plenty, along with more of a workout for my adrenalin glands than I’d planned on.

Then I encountered the slew of very western names on the Diamondback team that I wrote about yesterday: Brody, Bridger, Clint, Clinton, Jonah, Kyler, Logan, Tiegan, Trent, Wyatt. I have also started thinking about basketball, Montana, and my book. For one thing, I’ve realized that basketball is almost certainly part of the life of Cory and his brothers. One or more of them would have had to play.

Me, I learned basketball at school in New York City, under the old “girl’s rules,” which pretty much took all the fun out of the game. You couldn’t dribble the ball more than a few steps before passing, since you had to stay inside your zone; in fact, you couldn’t run more than a few steps, for the same reason.

Then the building across from our apartment was torn down, probably because it was so riddled with drugs that just leaning up against the bricks would get you high. A pocket playground was put in, and during my last spring in New York, when I was twelve, I spent every free moment there playing basketball. I was the only girl and for quite a while the only white, and it was the first time in eight years in the city that I met and played with other kids on the street. So I’ve got fond memories of basketball.

It fascinates me that the same game can be so powerful in so different a context, almost a different culture.

I mentioned yesterday that the school we went to watch, Dutton-Brady, numbers 41 students, though a different source for this year puts the count at 37. This is not unusual in Montana, outside its “big cities.” In fact, it’s the norm. There are more than twice as many class C schools (under about 120 students) as there are schools in the other three classes combined. Half of the class C schools have fewer than fifty students. And this is now, 2011. In fact, many smaller towns are shrinking as farms consolidate or go under.

Basketball–which can be played indoors through a winter that often lasts from November through April–is an extremely popular game here for both girls and boys. Whole towns follow the games.

Hyphenated names like Dutton-Brady crop up all over the north and western regions, evidence of shrinking populations. Sometimes these consolidations are bitterly resented, as old rivals suddenly are forced to play together as members of the same team. Identity and sense of place are threatened not only for students, but for parents and communities as a whole as towns shrink to the point where they can’t field a basketball team or support an independent school.

Many of these issues were brilliantly explored in a documentary called, fittingly, Class C, which followed five girls’ teams for several years. I saw this movie at its Bozeman premier, which may have been the world premier, and was riveted. It includes lots of footage of teams, townspeople, individuals, and games, along with extensive commentary by Phil Jackson, whose understanding of the game and of the Native Americans who play it helps to reveal the culture that the game helps shape.

The movie also introduced me to the music of Philip Aaberg, a Montana-born pianist and composer who made good in the east before returning to Montana—to his hometown of Chester—to raise his own children. Most of my favorite pieces haven’t made it to You Tube, and many that are there have been used as settings for a rather odd assortment of photographs and videos. To hear the lovely “Remembering this Place,” you can choose between a short version that gets a peculiar treatment involving peachy-pink foods–all fruit and gelatin and cream–or the long version, with endless generic time-laps photographs of Mt. Fuji. My advice is to go for the long one, then pick up your knitting or carving. Just remember–the videos are Japanese, but the music was made in Montana.