October 1, 2014

Places I’ve Played

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Basketball in the study hall

Dec. 22, 2011

By Bill Skiff

 

Bill Skiff’s basketball home games at Cambridge High School were played in its study hall (picture circa 1940s). (Courtesy photo)

As a young boy, I learned my baseball in the barnyard, but I learned my basketball in the study hall.

In the 1940s and 50s, Vermont high school basketball courts came in many sizes and shapes. Our court at Cambridge High School was no exception.

Our second-floor basketball court was also our study hall. It was where we reported every morning for attendance. In this open room, each of us had our own desk. The desks were arranged in rows from front to back, and spaced about 3 feet apart — all across the floor.

When basketball season arrived, the study hall began this mystical transformation into a basketball court.

The janitor would place chicken wire frames in front of all the windows and hang wire cages over the lights in the ceiling. He then oiled the floor to keep down the dust.

As the school’s closing bell rang, each student pushed his or her desk out of the study hall and into the hallway — where it remained until the next morning. At both ends of the court, huge floor-to-ceiling nets were then dropped, and more desks and chairs were stored behind it.

What made our study hall court interesting was its size. Your standard high school basketball court today is 50-by-84-feet with unlimited ceiling height. Our study hall court was 29 ½-by-47 feet. From the floor, the ceiling was just 12 feet. Regulation height of a basketball rim is 10 feet. That left only 2 feet above our basket before you hit the ceiling!

No one ever arched a shot at the basket. All of our shots flew straight at the backboard and banked in. It drove our opponents crazy. They spent the first quarter of each game bouncing balls off the ceiling (which was out of bounds), and turned the ball over to our team.

Spectators sat in school desks behind the protective nets at each end of the court, just behind where the baskets hung from the ceiling. When you went in for a layup shot, you jumped straight up. If you didn’t, you landed tangled in the net and in the lap of someone in the front row.

Sometimes an opponent would push you into the sidewall, which was covered with the chicken wire. This experience left you with a “chicken-wire tattoo” for at least a week.

It was a difficult court for the officials to see all the fouls. When there were 10 players under the basket, it was so crowded that the referees couldn’t see what was going on. I gave, and received, many elbows under those boards without a foul ever being called.

That did not mean, however, that the officials didn’t have control of the game. My friend, Dick, had a quick temper. One time after he was pushed to the floor, he got up and was about to start a fight. The official stepped in front of him and said, “Son, you can play basketball or you can fight, but you are only going to do one at a time.”

Our basketballs were the same color as the oiled floor. I used to joke that I never knew basketballs had writing on them until I went to college. In fact, I never knew they were light brown. We had three basketballs. One was the game ball, another was the JV ball and the third was left over from years past. Today they have more basketballs on the court during warm ups than we had during all four years of high school.

We didn’t have lockers and showers. Only one school in the whole league had a shower. Dad, our coach, always planned an extra hour when we played there so we could take our one shower of the season. At home, mother made me take a bath twice a month whether I needed it or not.

Each player had his supportive fans. Charlie, our center, was 6-foot-2. His fans would yell, “Go big Tommy!” Dick’s would yell, ”Get the lead out Dufresne!” My best fan, my mother, would wait until there was not a sound on the court and then yell, ”Give the ball to Billy!” I always wished I could hide.

We had wonderful cheerleaders. They stood in the opening to the study hall, ready to run out on the court when the opportunity arose. We also had a terrific girls basketball team. Their rules were so different (it would take me a whole other column to explain them).

We enjoyed our study hall court and the game of basketball. The whole town would show up for games. If you played a poor game, you avoided going out afterward for fear that you would run into someone who would ask, “What was the matter with you last night? You looked half asleep.”

We loved the game of basketball and would play it anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. And if you think our study hall court was different, wait until I tell you about some of the others.

 

Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]

 

Editor’s Note: Look for more of Bill Skiff’s basketball-themed columns in January.

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