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Afternoon Shift

The messiah

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It is sometimes necessary to go back to high school. The older one grows, the more those four years can act as a comfort. Faded are the angst and insecurities. Brighter every year is the first kiss, the lively prom, the innocence. For those who played sports in high school, the memories are plentiful and vivid but they are also increasingly untrustworthy. The ordinary becomes triumphant: Four points in that game is now 24, the sloppy six-yard run, a zigzagging 62-yard punt return. Perhaps—I’m in no mood to consult with sports psychologists for contradictory opinions—this is some sort of defense mechanism against the belly that is now hanging over the belt, the gray or vanishing hair and the bones that have begun to creak. The mirror tells one story; the past another: Once we were kings.

Benji Wilson was a king, cut down dead in 1984.

Because I have often gone into what people call the inner city to watch basketball, I saw Wilson play in high school.

And so, I am at a game a few years ago and more than 2,000 boys and girls are streaming down the 27 steps that lead from West Franklin Boulevard into the gymnasium of Westinghouse High School where the Warriors play.

Though it can be clouded by the reality of harsh neighborhoods, the egos of coaches and parents, the unrealistic dreams of playing in college or the pros and the insecurities of youth, high school basketball is still basically a sunny game; an exuberant display of coltish athleticism by players and of unbridled energy by fans. In a pro-sports era marked by spoiled millionaires and felons, and fans who sit on their hands or snooze in luxury boxes, watching 32 minutes of high school basketball will renew one's faith in all that is right with games.

The Warriors are playing the Cougars from Crane High School.

The rival crowds exchange shouts, screams, cheers, dances and the pounding of bleachers. The teams exchange baskets and the lead. By the end of the third quarter, the score is tied, 41-41.

Early in the fourth quarter the Warriors unleashed their press. It is a ferocious kind of ballet; a blur of limbs and colors. Final score: Warriors, 65, Cougars, 55. Excitement drains from the gym as quickly as air from a balloon. In a while the gym is empty and there is no sound but the warm echo of youthful glee.

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