Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Blizzard Basketball
Blizzards in the 1960s meant two things in Harrold. No school and all day basketball!
Harrold, like several other small towns in central South Dakota, had a small gym. By small, I mean the the center circle and the jump circles almost touched, and the out-of-bounds line was either the wall or a line that ran under the bench where the players sat. The out-of bounds on the ends were the wall, or in Harrold’s case on one end, the stage. We learned how to shoot lay-ups by slamming into a huge mat hung against the wall or draped along the edge of the stage. Harrold was a bit unique in the fact that there was a balcony hanging over each sideline, reaching about a foot over the out-of-bounds lines, so if you weren’t careful you could go up for a jump shot and get the ball crunched between your head and the balcony edge. You didn’t do that too many times and you became “shot-shy”. It was a definite home court advantage. Since there was no or very little seating, most of the spectators were in the balconies, hanging over the railing, cheering or booing the players. Talk about spectator involvement! There were two other unique characteristics to Harrold’s gym. It was in the basement, with natural light coming from windows above both balconies, giving excellent light during the day for playing basketball, and it had a wooden floor. The floor wasn’t unique because it was wooden, but that it had gotten wet and had bulges and ripples in it. They had tried to repair it, but the repair many times resulted in more damage. Imagine playing basketball in Harrold for the first time, driving for a layup down the side, and having the ball hit a bulge and bounce out-of-bounds. Like I said, we always had a big home court advantage, designing plays around ripples in the floor, a low hanging balcony and a brick wall under the basket.
Winter blizzards meant all-day basketball for the town kids, with a player (usually one in good standing with the coach) asking the coach for a key to the school house. Not just the gym, but to the whole school building. The word got out, either by the few phones in town or word of mouth, or just by showing up that there was going to be all-day basketball! There was usually enough town kids to put together a three-on-three or four-on-four pickup game that would go on for hours. If the blizzard lasted for several days, we played ball several days. The only problem with playing two or three days was that if the electricity was off, as it often was during a storm, the gym would cool down. That wasn’t the biggest problem though. After the first day of play we used up most of the hot water in the showers. Come to think of it, that was probably more or a problem for our moms than it was for us when we came home sweaty and smelly.
Sometimes after play, late in the day, we would go to a player’s home and make homemade ice cream, going outside and chopping ice off of fences, buildings or streets to feed the hand crank ice cream maker.
I, like so many others, played a lot of basketball in that little Harrold gym, and it seemed like the closing of a big chapter in our lives when it was replaced with a modern auditorium. It was eventually turned into classrooms. When we have one of those big blizzards that hit South Dakota, in my mind’s eye I am playing basketball in Harrold’s old gym, dribbling around the bulges in that wooden floor.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the July 24, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News