Standing Center Court

I remember the very first time I saw intensity. Before the second month of my second summer at Avoda, I didn’t even know that intercamp tournaments existed. Then one morning, breakfast was interrupted by a Sound Off. Lee Kaiser came barreling into the Mess Hall after the prayer and started bellowing out rhyming verses like a deranged emcee. But it didn’t end with him. With every line he delivered, the entire camp thundered back with twice as much authority. They were standing on tables and tossing chairs around. Benches became noisemakers. Everyone knew the routine.

You ain’t got no place on your left!
Your right!
You ain’t got no place on your right!
Your left!
Sound Off!
Sound Off!
Bring it on down!
1-2-3-4 … 1-2 … 3-4!!!

Before I knew it, Bunk 14 was leading the camp in a series of songs and cheers. The Mess Hall was swaying like the Boston Garden. Everyone knew when to pause, when to clap, when to stomp, when to rise. It was as if they’d entered a different dimension. I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in it, even if the words to “Hey Bournedale” meant nothing to me. To this day, I still don’t know what the hell a “team on the beam” is.

I remember the first time I saw my destiny. After Junior Hoops and Senior Soccer were introduced, the lights dimmed and Bubblehead stepped to the podium to introduce what he called “the heartbeat of Camp Avoda.” On cue, the entire camp formed an aisle way hugging the entrance to the kitchen. I like to think that “Sirius,” the progressive rock anthem that made the 90’s Bulls the coolest team of all time, was playing in the background as Bubblehead introduced Senior Hoops. One by one, they came flying through the kitchen door, slapping hands and screaming at the top of their lungs. Hatch. Geller. Gilbert. Steiman. Laz. Silly. Bazar. The Twin Towers, Moose and Cooper. Legends in their own time. They were the center of attention. They were rock stars. They were heroes. I was completely transfixed by their presence before I even saw them play. On that day, I was hooked on Senior Hoops. Even then, I could see what the Avoda Tournament meant to them. It was their day. And one day, it would be mine.

I remember the first time I saw passion. After the morning pep rally, the enemy slowly trickled in. Bauercrest, Bournedale, and YJ rounded out the field, and off we went. The entire day was a blur of blue, white, yellow, red, soccer balls, and basketballs. There was never a dull moment. While Jesse Faneuil was between the posts for Senior Soccer and Josh “Deuce” Damm was trolling the paint for Junior Hoops, Hatch and Steiman were crafting a Cinderella story for the Seniors. After getting trounced at YJ and Bauercrest earlier in the summer, the team had found new focus and was making a serious run at hardware. I remember being caught up in a sea of blue and white, living and dying with every basket. There’s nothing quite like the sidelines at the Avoda Tournament. Propped up on a tiny hill overlooking the games (in the days when sawed-off tree trunks served as the bleachers), Avodians hiss and heckle like two hundred Spike Lees. They chant “De-Fense” and jump up and down like a drunken student section at a college game. They raise their efforts to another level when they sense a momentum swing. I never appreciated this until I started playing Senior Hoops, when I could actually look out into the sea of faces in the midst of a tight game. Winning was as important to them as it was to me. And that made me want it more. I wanted to win that hardware for everyone, not just the players and coaches.

I remember the first time I saw heartbreak. Locked in a nail-biter with a heavily-favored Bournedale team in the finals, Senior Hoops trailed by two with the ball under their own hoop. I’ll let this transcript from the ’96 Avodian do the work:

“Gilbert has the ball out of bounds, looks up court to Steiman who cannot shake loose from the defender. Gilbert better get the ball in quickly before his 5 seconds are up. Gilbert lofts the ball upcourt, Schneider comes down with it. Two seconds to play, Hatch is calling for the ball at the top of the key. Schneider feeds him a pass with one to play. Hatch turns and shoots…ohhhhh, off the side of the rim from about 22 feet away, and Bournedale wins a thriller at Avoda, 36-34.”

To this day, I still have the image in my head of Eric Steiman keeled over at mid-court — flat on his stomach, his body lifeless, his face buried in his hands, his heart no doubt ripped in half. To this day, he is the best athlete I’ve ever seen at Avoda. He won Desert War and Color War that summer, but I could tell neither meant as much to him as that tournament did. I’ll never forget that image and how helpless I felt. I’ll never forget seeing Bubblehead walking over to Adam Hatch, who had done so much to carry that team, and whispering something in his ear before helping him off the floor. I’ll never forget the look on Lazzy’s face — bewildered, devastated, directionless. A future Leadership winner and Color War General, lost and in pain. I remember the other guys — Silly, Sammy B., Geller, Moose, even Garrett Lowe — sprawled throughout the court like Steiman. They had just been crushed by a Mack Truck, their hopes dashed, their dreams obliterated, their hearts ripped out. I have more clichés in the tank if that doesn’t get the point across.

I learned a hard lesson that day about winning and losing, but most importantly, I learned how glorious it was to cheer for Avoda. Just being a part of that tournament was a memory I’ll never let go. Even in defeat, I was just proud to have been a witness to that team. Seeing how much it meant to them, and knowing how much it meant to me, made the loss secondary to the overwhelming gratification that came with being an Avodian. It doesn’t make the gut-check any less painful, and it shouldn’t. If you can’t mourn the loss, you can’t cherish the victory. But to live in that moment, as a coach or a player or a superfan (and I’ve been all 3), is a feeling you can’t appreciate until you’ve been there. And even then, it’s indescribable. But once you’re witness to it, you’ll know what I mean.

There is so much about that day that came to define my life as an Avodian. It was then that I learned what being at Avoda was all about. I may never be able to fully explain why, but winning that tournament became an all-consuming obsession. I saw what it meant to Hatch and Steiman and Bubblehead. I also saw what it meant to the distraught staff members on the sidelines and the crying 14ers balancing on the tree trunk bleachers. Watching Steiman weep at mid-court, I saw what that center circle stood for — a symbol of accomplishment and triumph, an emblem of pride and honor, an everlasting mark of Avoda brotherhood. We still don’t let players stand inside it until they prove their meddle on the court. That day, I learned what it meant to feel intensity, passion, heartbreak, and a call to destiny. And when it became my time to carry the torch, I tried to instill those same emotions in the wide-eyed little kid in Bunk 3, so when he saw me holding the first place trophy at mid-court (after first taking a quick dip in Lake Tispaquin, of course), he’d hear the same calling I did that day in ’96.

That’s what Avoda basketball did for me.

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