Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pinetta's Golden Heroes

Soon after my mom introduced me to basketball, she started taking me to games. They were at night, and that meant a trip back to school, but with nothing to dread. It meant talking about the game for the four-mile ride there, then rehashing it on the way back.

The gym, by day little more than a torture chamber where elementary kids like me were forced to learn four-square, dodge ball, and “tumbling,” was by night a glorious shining coliseum, packed with students and teachers and former players and a whole assortment of farmers, preachers, bus drivers, mechanics, tire salesmen and mill workers. 

Just inside the entrance, there was always a cluster of old men wearing overalls, leaning against the wall, jawing in that rich north-Florida dialect mostly about the game, but also about this'n'that, things that happened over yonder, things they's gone do directly. That corner of the gym was Pinetta's version of reserved luxury seating -- them same fellers was there ever-last game.

The little gym had bleachers on only one side. The players sat on the other side, home team on the left, visitors on the right. In between the two teams was a stage with burgundy velvet curtains, a golden Old English “P” centered on the valence. On this stage sat the score-, clock- and stat-keepers. 

A fixture there was Mrs. Mary Louise Farnell, legendary sixth-grade teacher, solid as a brick wall, close-cropped reddish hair, with dark, penetrating eyes distorted by thick-lens glasses. No teacher was more intimidating – if you had the hiccups, for instance, she would call you up to her desk, make you look her in the eye and then hiccup, and, try as you might, you could not. But on game nights, she was transformed into a fan like everyone else, and actually seemed to like us, and she certainly loved those former students of hers now wearing sweaty blue and gold jerseys.

The first game we went to, my mom told me to watch out for Jackie Strickland, who she considered the star of the team. The jump shot was still relatively new back then -- some guys still stuck with the two-handed set shot -- but Jackie had a nifty one. After the jump and just before the shot, he quickly kicked his feet back, forming a fleeting "L" in the air as he sent the ball backspinning toward the basket. 

I started trying to imitate that shot the next day, but I still haven't mastered it.

Also on this team were, among others, Gerald Hall, Nels Falk, Tom Adams, Phillip Sims, Randall Buchanan and Joe Adams. Randall and Joe just kept growing and getting better after leaving Pinetta and wound up playing college ball, at Troy and Mississippi College, respectively.

What about the girls? They had a strong team that year -- LaNora Zipperer and Edna Sims stand out in my memory -- but they were saddled with "girls rules" back then This means they had six starters instead of five: Three of them were guards and had to stay on the opponents' side of the court, the other three were forwards and played only offense and weren't allowed to cross the half-court line onto the defensive side. Also, the girls could only dribble the ball three times before either passing or shooting.

High-school athletic officials apparently worried that the little ladies might hurt themselves if they played by boys' rules or, allowed to play unfettered, might just get too worked up and become downright unladylike. (For some reason, somewhere around 1960 girls' basketball disappeared from the courts of north Florida and was gone for at least a couple of decades.)

During the games, my mom would name the the players -- boys and girls -- and tell me their numbers and explain the plays and rules of the game. I ate it all up like candy. I was one happy little kid, and I wish I could've been my mom for a moment, a parent seeing my child that happy. 
My first heroes. Thanks to Rhonda Thompson Strickland for these pictures.

Over the years, while I waited impatiently for my time in front of the rowdy and adoring fans, we kept going back to those games and watching the mantle being passed down year after to year to another set of local heroes. Some of them I still remember: Ronald Bass, Nick Strickland, Allen Tuten, John Washington, "Kid" Adams, and the incomparable Jerry Bass who averaged 30 points a game in the slow-break era.

My mom also taught me the great rivals of the Pinetta Indians. Chief among the villains were the Lee Rockets, maroon and white, who, generation after generation, produced Hickses and Webbs and Cherrys and Williamses who seemed born to play ball. 
Standing next to Coach Jerry Holland is perhaps Pinetta's all-time best, Jerry Bass. Next to Jerry is another star, Bobby Joe Buchanan. Kneeling: Jesse Wiglesworth, Nick Strickland (co-captain), Jerry Bland, Ronald Bass (co-captain) and Mills Boyd.

By the mid-'60s, this rivalry, nearing its twilight, would blossom into one of the state's strongest. It's not much of an exaggeration to say it was a small-scale version of the FSU-UF wars with all its intensity, the winner immediately gaining bragging rights in, uh, well, Madison County. The teams certainly knew each other well: Due to the gradual closing of other small schools, we had to play each other four times in the regular season just to fill out our schedule.

For a brief time, both teams were blessed with coaches who could have worked anywhere they wanted to: For Pinetta, Mack  Primm; for Lee, Richard Brown.

Anyone in Pinetta or Lee during these years could cite the statistics of any of the following: From Pinetta, Jerry Herring, Burnett "Kid" Adams, Robert Hardee, Alvin Townsend, Eddie Cantrell (whose mom was the star on my own mom's team), and Ray and Stanley Williams; for Lee, the legendary Sherrill Hicks, his sharp-shooting cousin Kyle Hicks, Richard Williams, Jerome Mercer, and Bubba McMullen.

(I can't verify this, but it was said that if you took all the jockstraps Sherrill Hicks faked off an opponent and put them end-to-end they would stretch all the way from Lee to Valdosta, GA.)
One of the better Lee teams. Front row John Barrs, Dale Brown, Ronnie Webb; back row: Joe Webb, Berry Jones. the incredible Sherrill Hicks, Allen Cherry, Richard Williams, Kyle Hicks, Carson Cherry (thanks to Allen Cherry for the picture.)
Like Pinetta, Lee went only to the 10th grade, and we were both stuck with playing 12th-graders from other “C” schools such as the Greenville Pirates (black and gold), in a town 14 miles away that prided itself on being the birthplace of Ray Charles. At the free-throw line, under the guidance of Coach Wiley Selman, all their players were trained to do a sort of genuflection, starting with feet together, then, for right-handers, slowly moving the left foot back, then bending the knees before launching the shot. (I have no idea why that sticks in my mind.)

We also had to play the larger, Class B Madison High Red Devils’ “B” team, in their more expensive-looking red and white uniforms. We really didn't like Madison because we had no choice but to go there once we finished 10th grade and because their school was about five times the size of ours. 

Beginning in the early '60s, our inevitable yearly downfall came at the hands of our nemesis, White Springs, blue and gold like us, who always, always beat us, barely, in heartbreaking fashion in the first game of the Class C District tournament. Their most memorable player for three years was Jerry Connors who wore thick-lensed black-frame glasses into the gym, but then played without them, actually looking at the ball, not the rim, as he shot, and he rarely missed; his sidekick, a center, kept his glasses on but wore an intimidating umpire’s mask over them.

Sometimes we would be better than White Springs, and we believed we could beat them. But they knew they could beats us, so they did. We really got sick of saying "We'll get'em next year" on the bus headed back to Pinetta. The cheerleaders and players barely felt like making out on this sad journey home.

Pinetta's fame was created and kept alive not by newspaper stories, the 11 o'clock news or ESPN SportsCenter, but by oral tradition, as it were, the handing down of stories from one generation to the next.

Once at breakfast, for example, my maternal grandfather, who we called Granddaddy, slipped an entire fried egg in his mouth, then chewed slowly with his few teeth while gazing out the window at the morning light peaking through the pines. He sat quietly for a moment, then broke the silence with, "I reckon that Johnny Farnell could get up and down that court while dribblin' a basketball faster'n anybody I ever seen." 

Many hours of my youth were spent accompanying Granddaddy as he spent the day either doing nothing or just a few things very slowly. When he stopped by Johnny Hollingsworth’s Sinclair filling station to gas up and sip a bottled Royal Crown cola, there’d always be some loafers congregated under the station’s awning, gossiping and just generally bullshitting, and they’d invariably work in accounts of and reactions to the latest Pinetta game. 

Their commentary was never technical, never about Xs and Os, but almost always about heroics, about a boy who could run full speed the whole game and not even be breathing hard or who could steal the ball in mid-dribble and next thing you know he was dribbling the ball his own self  t'other way, or the feller who could take just a step or two over the half-court line then shoot that thang straight through the bottom of the net. Sometimes they'd complain that the refs -- usually the team of Lon Shadrick and Harry Reams -- favored the other side. "Hell, five can't beat seven," they'd say, "ain't no way!"    
My first year as a Pinetta Indian

As a clueless little dumb-butt purpling his tongue with a Nehi Grape Soda at Granddaddy’s side, I don’t think I even dared to hope that I could someday play a game I loved more than anything, actually play it in front of people who were there to watch me, then enjoy this taste of immortality when tired or retired farmers sang of my deeds as they spat and drank beneath the shade of Johnny Hollingsworth’s Sinclair filling station.

Could I ever grow up to join this pantheon, to be one of Pinetta's golden heroes, to go to war against the Rockets and the Red Devils, to put an end to the White Springs curse?

To live that dream would have been a happiness too great to endure.


  1. OK, first things first. What basketball players and cheerleaders made out? That sure slipped by me.

    1. That's hilarious! I KNEW you would notice that even though I snuck in at the end of a paragraph. I think my sister might've been guilty of some of that.