(*Author’s note: it’s that time of year again. One of my favorite sporting events is here once again: the Nebraska High School State Basketball tournament. I am reposting my epic-length ode to the Lincoln High School 2003 State Basketball champions from my old blog over at Burnpoetry and others at No Coast Bias will be weighing in with their favorite memories from State Basketball later on in the week. I have left this particular manuscript relatively untouched from its initial publishing in 2013. So let’s all hop into the DeLorean, crank that bad boy up to 88 MPH and get our nostalgia on.)
The Lincoln High Links won a State Basketball title 10 years ago. The echoes of that victory still reverberate somewhere deep in my fandom. That title, even though it occurred during my sophomore year, attached itself to the narrative of my formative years at Lincoln High, a time period in my life that has truly become more gilded in my recollections the older that I get. It was a three game stretch in the early beginnings of spring, when the prairie pilot light for summer has only just been lit, and the icy fist of winter was loosening into a palm.
Was I on the team? Not a chance. I retired willingly after the boys of the Freshman “B” team took home the city title in 2002 and that was truly the ceiling for my basketball skills. Does it seem slightly ridiculous to still hold such a fond spot in my now semi-adult heart for a high school game that happened back when “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly was noted as “my jam!”? Say what you will, but these were important times in a burgeoning sports-centric mind.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to go to Lincoln High. My parents had decided that they loved the multicultural aspect of both of their sons attending a high school that had a veritable United Nations of different cultures, races, and ideology. My brother was two years older than I was and he proudly sported the red and black. I would soon follow suit.
As soon as I watched my first Lincoln High basketball game, I was hooked. I had loved basketball from the moment I first started following the NBA in 1996 and, seeing how good the teams were from Lincoln High – their speed, toughness, and a healthy mix of hero worship for the guys who I knew were so cool at the place I wanted to become cool– I quickly became one of their biggest supporters.
I watched in agony as they were bounced from 2002’s state playoffs by their arch-rival Lincoln Southeast. It was a painful display of the rivalry between both schools that I would come to embrace and to love throughout my years of high school.
This out-and-out fanaticism for the basketball team certainly didn’t lessen when I found myself a sophomore at “The High.” If anything, it gained in momentum. I attended home games, cheering wildly until my vocal chords had been Fran Dreschered. I attended road games, jubilantly howling like an injured baboon until my voice sounded like Bobcat Goldthwaite. Any games I could attend that year, I did.
The team had amassed a gigantic following of fellow die-hards like myself. Chanting, swaying, we would jump up and down until the bleachers appeared ready to collapse like a decrepit building on the San Andreas fault. And those were just for regular, middle-of-the-week games. When it became clear that The High was headed to State once more, the stage was set for a massive, recklessly crunk, exodus of near-hooliganism to find its way to the Devaney Center.
You see, at Lincoln High, basketball was a great uniter. It took sectionalized groups and gave them a common interest. It took the marginalized, the outliers, and put them in a crowd of students who, for four quarters, all knew exactly what it was that they similarly desired: a victory. Stereotypes were shed, biases sidelined, and “in crowd” was lost to the gymnasium-filtered air. A mass of black and red, shoulder to shoulder, lungful to lungful of screaming pride.
Lincoln High was never a bad school, but it suffered from a reputation around town as being a school full of thugs. This feeling of persecution, of misconceived judgment but those with their noses too high in the air to get a good view of the actual place, only served to ratchet up the intensity when the Links found themselves headed to the Bob Devaney Sports Center for State Tournament games. Make no mistake, it was Us V.S. Them (*Author’s note: capital letters intentional.)
There was a great rising motion occurring, the week of the tournament. A soft-malleted crescendo beginning in the hallways and parking lots. Subtle, at first, but gradually building from echo to white noise to simmering hiss. Like prairie thunder in the distance or the electric charge in the air after scuffing your socked feet across a carpet in dry, dry winter months. It was the school. It was preparing to shift. The school that week felt like a carefully laid beartrap being pulled back to lethality. It was cranking, cranking, and delicately positioning. We were anxious to hear the jaws snap viciously forward but first we had to sit through another Spanish class.
I realize, at this point, that this may seem entirely too dramatic; too prosaic. I get that. But you have to understand that, during this time, this was about to be the biggest sports events of my life. I had too much pride, too much passion invested in Lincoln High sports to take this moment lightly. Lincoln High sports represented not only me. It represented us. At least to a certain extent and I wanted desperately for that “us,” that “we” to emerge at the top of the heap. I wanted the band to look good, I wanted our student section to “win” by outcheering and out-taunting the opposition. I wanted the kids who carpooled into school together in rusted out death-on-wheels vehicles to show that this book wouldn’t be judged by its cover, but by its heart and passion, and fight.
All of these complicated, intrinsically Lincoln High feelings were tied to the impending showdown at State. Yes, I knew it was only a game. Yes, I knew that if we lost I would be completely fine. No, I didn’t care about rationalization or logic. It was high school sports at their core and, I would argue, at their best.
First up for the team was playing Central again. The same Central that the Links had beaten in the playoffs the year before, a game in which the Central coach lost all semblance of cool and ended up getting at least one technical foul. The Eagles ended up scoring another “T” at some point in the game and I remember being completely blown away at how cool and collected the Lincoln High bench was.
Emotions may have been running high, but head coach Russ Uhing was unflappable. He was serene. He was Lake Placid on a windless day. Central’s coach was Lake Placid re-runs on the SyFy channel. Uhing was a single candle-flame on the edge of a Spa’s bath, windlessly unflickering. Central’s coach was a dude smoking bath salts. It was a grudge match from the start. It was another proud school, with a storied past and a currently checkered reputation, and the game came right down to the wire.
The Links had to hit free throws in order to send the game into Overtime, where they eventually emerged victorious, winning 68-61. In a change of pace from the previous year, no technicals were handed out. Uhing was as calm in his team’s victory on this day as he always was. Phil Jackson, on his most mellow pipe-ful of Ganj while watching the sun set over his Montana ranch, couldn’t have been more Zen than Russ Uhing.
The team had survived and advanced. They were moving on. We were moving on. I was about to get my parents’ permission to skip class. All was right with the world.
I’ve already discussed what led us to this point. I’ve covered my borderline absurd love for the Lincoln High Links’ basketball program, from my time spent proudly attempting to be the glue-guy for the Freshman “B” squad to my boyhood hero-worship of the near-missing teams of the early 2000’s. I’ve explained my penchant for hyperbole and the rose-tinted glasses that I have strapped to my face like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1980’s rec-specs. However, before we go any further I have a confession to make. Right here and right now. I need to get this off my chest before I pick up by describing Lincoln High’s second round tourney game against Omaha Westside.
In the darkened, bleak years of 15-year-old stupidity(*Author’s note: otherwise known as 2003) I wrote a rap song about the Lincoln High basketball team.
There, I said it.
I’m not proud of this fact. Honestly, it’s taken me 10 years to admit as much publicly, and I feel like if I’m going to continually burn on things I need to be as honest as possible. The 2003 version of me had very-loosely held ambitions to break into the rap game. So I sat down one fateful day, put pen to paper, and cranked out what might be the worst rap song since Marky Mark dropped his pants in “Good Vibrations.” I’ll spare most of you the gory details of this Shel Silverstein, paint-by-numbers rap song. Titled, “Game Time at the High” it involved name-dropping our starting five, bragging about the 22” rims on the cars in the school’s parking lot and any number of other atrocities. It was, essentially, a war crime. I was foolishly convinced by some of my classmates that the song wasn’t that bad (*Author’s note: it was.) and submitted it to the school’s poetry magazine at their behest. I don’t openly support book-burning, but I desperately wish that someone would hunt down the copies of this dark, dark chapter in my life and Farenheit 451 the hell out of them. Moving on.
After we had beaten Omaha Central the mood could only be described as crunk. As a mofo. We sprinted through the parking lot, war-whooping like the racist extras in an Indians V.S. John Wayne movie, baying at the night air. We were feverish. Fervent. We were 16-year-olds with wings on our heels and adrenaline pumping through our veins like we’d just gotten Pulp Fiction needled right to the heart. We were beside ourselves. Not knowing what to do to celebrate this enormous victory, we leapt into our one-friend-who-got-a-car-for-his-16th-birthday’s car and peeled out. Directly into traffic.
Unfazed by the instantaneous gridlock that is Devaney Center parking, we bumped DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” as loud as our speakers and ears could take it. (*Author’s note: I’m not entirely sure how a song from 1996 came to be my own personal anthem for Lincoln High’s miraculous run, but it absolutely was. I mean, it’s no “Game Time at The High”, but it was okay.)
In typical high school fashion, once we got out of the parking lot of the Devaney Center, we were desperately in need of some fast food and a place to hang out. We rolled into Runza, piling gleefully out of the clown-car-packed vehicle and an impromptu dance party took place in the parking lot. At some point we decided that the best way to consecrate such an amazing sporting event was to have one of our group attempt to bong an entire mini-cone full of Mountain Dew from the restaurant. They had given out the cones to help our students cheer, apparently, but I feel relatively certain that we weren’t the only ones misusing them. The Dew-bonger choked and sputtered and generally soaked his Lincoln High shirt in a sticky amalgamation of 47 grams of sugar per serving mixed with all the unholy chemicals that make Mountain Dew so damn Mountain Delicious.
Eventually we had to head home. Hoarse. Exhausted. Way too excited to sleep without first burning off some energy by playing Nintendo 64 for a while to calm my nerves. Finally beginning to unwind to the sweet, sweet goodness of Goldeneye I was able to take a deep, rattling, breath. The next day would be a day game. It would be a parentally sanctioned truancy bonanza. It would be a showdown between the Westside Warriors and the Lincoln High Links.
Having school the day of a state basketball tournament game is pointless. It’s like trying to study in a library while Kiss is having a debauched, insane concert two Dewey Decimal places over from you. My concentration was shot. Our concentration was shot. Even the teachers seemed ready to “come down with something” and split as quickly as they could. The dull, throbbing white noise, like the soft humming of industrial air-conditioning that had been building; that had been continuing to increase incrementally from way off in the distance at stage left? It was getting louder. It was nearly drowning out math and science and English and the droning of teachers clicking through their 4th power point of the day. The school was poised at the precipice. We were looking over the edge, with our parachutes strapped on at 10,000 feet up. We were. Ready. To. Jump.
For the Westside game I had to play with the drumline at halftime. It through my whole pre-game routine out of whack and, initially, left me in a foul mood since I wasn’t able to stand in the student section like I normally would have. However once it was game time, the jackhammering heartbeat, the swaying crowd full of friends and colleagues and casual-acquaintances-turned-high-fiving-best-friends was too much for me. I was swept away. After proudly strutting onto the court to perform with our school’s dance team, replete with Nelly-style Band-Aids under our eyes (*Author’s note: big ups, 2013, on leaving that weird trend behind.) and red and black camouflage bandanas, I was able to set my drum aside and focus purely on the action on the court.
And “action” is perhaps underselling how exciting the game actually was.
It was a back and forth battle. Both teams were scrappy, over-achieving units that had good coaching. They had a rabid student section that truly gave as good as they got. Almost. We shouted. We chanted. We attempted to will our boys to a victory against the invading hordes from Omaha. As the game came down to the wire neither team was able to pull significantly ahead. The Links gamely clung to their opponents, refusing to allow the opposition to pull away. Uhing was Freon. He was pre-Al Gore Ice Caps. The team never flinched. Hovering somewhere above the din, above the tumultuous Molotov Cocktail of our unbridled emotions, was a sense of calm.
The team. The coaches. They were oblivious to the bedlam occurring in the Black and Red mosh pit behind their basket. They were focused and hungry and full of flinty-eyed determination borne of hours spent shooting in stiflingly hot gyms, borne of suicides run from missed free throws (*Author’s note: I’ve seen both of these with my own eyes. I’ve been in the gyms at Lincoln High in the summer time and they’re Devil’s Oven hot and I’ve seen the looks of teammates when you’re responsible for making them run. Frankly? I prefer the heat.) and borne of a stiff, rigid pride that won’t let you turn your head away even if you fear the worst.
With time running down, the Links were down by 1 point. I honestly don’t remember who drove the ball, but I do remember that he missed. I remember that the ball seemed to hang for a crystalline moment, suspended in animation, softly perched upon the wishes and hopes of a bug-eyed student body in mid-air.
10 years ago, Nick Madsen went up and tipped in a shot. At the buzzer. For the win.
10 years ago the students of Lincoln High school volcanically erupted. Exploded into a massive, TNT-roar that ripped through our chests and nearly ruptured our vocal chords. Time had expired and Lincoln High had, again, managed to desperately cling to another victory. They had survived. We had survived.
Our student section was a joyous prison riot. I grabbed the closest student to me and shook him like I was a dirty cop, trying to force a confession. Screaming, leaping, jumping. The band wasn’t playing. The students weren’t worried about who they were suddenly grabbing. Parking lot beefs were suddenly turned to full-on bearhugs and some people merely stood in a stunned silence. Simply put, the moment escapes even my most desperate, breathless, re-tellings.
(*Author’s note: after I posted this, my brother was able to track down a YouTube video from Jarod Gilmore of the fourth quarter. Say what you want about the quality of video, in 2003 this was as close as you got to HD, but if you just listen to the noise you’ll understand how exciting this game was.)
We rocket-boosted out into the parking lot. Pouring out. Holding banners and flags and wearing red, black, and cowsuits (*Author’s note: yes. A group of students all got together and coordinated the wearing of cowsuits to the game. They held a banner that read, “Udderly Unbeatable” which I still find to be a stroke of genius even at age 26. You can never have too many fans in cowsuits, in my opinion, and they set the standard for bovine-crowd interactions. Eat your heart out, Chik-Fil-A.) we flooded out onto the concrete landings of the stadium sprinting at Usain Boltian speeds.
I still had track practice that day, and ran with red-dye in my hair and flecks of paint dripping down my face. If we would’ve had a meet that day, based solely on the adrenaline tsunami, I feel certain we could’ve shattered some school records.
We were in the championship game. After two spinal-spasming-ly close contests we had somehow come out with only one game standing in our way. We were to play Lincoln Southeast for the state championship. We would be coming face to face, head to head, crowd to crowd with our biggest rivals. It would be Montagues and Capulets with jerseys and a ball. It was to be Sharks and Jets without all that sissy dancing. We had one team to beat. We had the team to beat. We went home that night, joyful rabble-rousers, and prepared ourselves for the biggest game of 2003.
(*Author’s note: And here, after way too many words, is the final chapter. If you’ve read this far, you’re truly an endurance athlete.)
The weekend games are always the most fun in the state basketball tournament. Sure, it’s awesome skipping 2/3 of your classes for the day to paint up like a strange combo of Darth Maul and the least sneaky special ops soldier ever, but having nearly a full day to work yourself into a Seismically active, frothing at the mouth maniac? That’s what makes Saturday at the State Basketball Tournament better.
You have to understand the rivalry between Lincoln High and Lincoln Southeast at this point in time in order to better understand the intensity between the two teams and fanbases. In the early-mid 2000’s Southeast was a sports powerhouse. They were cranking out division I talent in football, basketball, and baseball. They were routinely among the top teams in the state in basketball, having lost in the previous year’s finals after offing the Links in a brutally tough game in the semi-finals.
When Southeast and Lincoln High’s basketball teams met on the court, the intensity level would catapult off the radar. Students would camp out for games the moment school got out. Fights would break out, Principals would wade shoulder deep into student sections in an effort to keep the peace, and fire marshal’s would stop people from getting in at the door due to gyms being over capacity.
It was an old-school, bitter, rivalry that broke bonds and divided friendships. I knew several kids who were at Southeast. I thought they were great. Until it was game time. Then I would launch into a rapid fire shit-talking attempt to verbally incinerate them and they would immediately fire back. We would inevitably find ourselves on opposite sides of the court and I believed I was honor-bound to out-shout, out-taunt, and out-cheer whomever stood in opposition to the Red and Black freight train.
The games were always contentious. They were emotional slugfests that left your scalp tingling, your throat desperately calling for hot liquid, and your adrenal glands ready to go on strike. By halftime.
I honestly can’t remember if we beat Southeast that year. I vaguely recall losing to them, but I truly can’t be sure. (*Author’s note: I know, I know. I just spent 200 words talking up the games as completely unforgettable. What can I say? I’m old. I’m broken down. Maybe someone can refresh my memory, when this post comes out. In the meantime I’ll be crushing up Ginseng and snorting lines of it off my mirror in an effort to stave off my on-rushing senility.)
The bottom line is, when your whole rivalry is predicated on white-hot, liquid-magma, hatred for the opponent revenge isn’t really necessary for motivation. Ever game against Southeast, whether we won or lost, felt like it was a Quentin Tarantino revenge film reaching its gory climax. Dlinks Unchained, if you will. (*Author’s note: I apologize. That’s a little corny, even by my standards.)
As we mad-dashed our way into the student section for the game our rising action was becoming fully complete. Our deus ex machina was firmly in place. The slow simmer from part one that I had mentioned, that flickering spark? It was a boiling, raging, forest fire.
The distant timpani-roll that had been building sonorously since Thursday of that week was now a full on spastic, flaming drum solo so loud it resounded in your lungs. The tension wasn’t so thick you could cut it with a knife, it was so thick that you would need a logging crew to chainsaw their way through after using TNT to explode open fissure-like crack.
I was 16 and on fire with school pride; radiating with hope that my school, our school, could somehow continue their Nantucket Sleighride towards victory. I was fully prepared to howl with all my wolfen fury until my lungs exploded like a too-full party balloon that has landed underneath a stiletto heel. I looked left. I looked right. We were a pack. A rabid, heaving, viscerally charged mass of desperate, pitched longing. When the band struck up their notes we yowled with unrepentant fervor.
When the team was introduced I screamed like a Bieber-groupie getting backstage passes, hitting pitches and octaves that, even at 16, would have astounded auditory scientists. Fortunately, I was one voice among many, many, cheers and my own voice was swallowed up by the ever-increasing decibel detonation coming from the student section. It was death metal concert loud. It was shuttle launch loud. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the Devaney center as fiery before a game has even tipped before or since.
Once the game began our manic chants and hoarsely defiant screams filled the air. We wanted to pay back Southeast for the previous year. We wanted to assert ourselves as the basketball power in the city; in the state. We wanted vengeance.
Immediately things started going wrong for the Links. Shots weren’t falling. The offense wasn’t flowing. The team battled, to be sure, determined to outwork their slow start. Southeast started scoring. They were hitting buckets. They were rebounding. They had all the answers on defense. An icy finger of doubt slid down my spine; a creeping, uncomfortable caress.
Southeast seemingly had the answer for everything. There was a subtle riptide pulling at our ankles, tugging us out and away from our steel-mill-hot passion. We fought it. We kicked and screamed and tried to head against the current. Southeast just kept pulling ahead. As the first quarter was drawing to a close the Links still hadn’t hit a basket. Or a free throw.
I had completely depleted my repertoire of swear words at this point.
Desperately I searched for anyone who might be bi-lingual to bail me out with new cuss words but, upon Southeast scoring yet again I broke the search off and went to my tried and true, old school American curses. I was driven to inventing brand new f-bomb combos, stringing together obscenities like a foreign cabbie in rush hour who didn’t quite have a handle on the English language yet. The quarter ended with Southeast up 13-0. The Links had inexplicably been shut out.
Coach Uhing was liquid nitrogen. He was a human Polar Bear Plunge. The team fed off this calm.
We did not.
Eyes bulging. Sweating like I had just gotten done playing in the game myself. Mind reeling. I was a meth-lab of emotions. I hadn’t given up. Oh, no. But I was drastically, stringently worried. I wasn’t sure what to do. I had never seen our team get blanked in the first quarter of a game. With Southeast up by 13 the lead certainly wasn’t insurmountable but it was sizeable.
The Southeast fans were on a rampage. There was blood in the water and they were hungry. They were Shark Week in HD, swarming viciously with their teeth out and their hands high in the air, high-fiving hard enough to amputate. I don’t blame them. They were thunderously pleased with their team’s performance, holding their distraction-balloons high into the air in the shape of zeros. They were the bellows pumping onto the hot, bitter coals of our would-be vengeance. They scored again at the start of the second half.
We found ourselves firmly strapped in on the front car of a cocaine roller coaster.
They had 15. We had nothing.
They had 15. We had each other.
We had our team. We had the immutable, foolhardy hope of die-hard believers, even though the light was flickering and the clock was ticking.
Our intensity rose. Combustion engine firing on anger and pride and that all-too-familiar feeling of our shoulder blades meeting the wall with nowhere further to retreat to.
Suddenly we scored our first basket. Then we scored another. We redoubled our fanaticism. Cajoling. Pleading. Fighter-plane loud as our boys engaged in evasive maneuvers in the on court dogfight. Basket by basket. Inch by inch. The Lincoln High Links were pulling themselves out of the freshly dug grave of a scoreless first quarter, zombies coming back once more. No longer was this a bloody stomping. This was Rocky in the 12th round, toe to toe.
To be honest, the rest of the game blurs a little to me from here. It’s like an epic watercolor that sort of ran together into a beautiful palette of colors and images. A big shot here. A big stop there. The team’s bench imploring the fans to keep the intensity level high. Uhing clapping calmly, as if he was at a mediocre theater production.
By the time we took the lead, we were in a state of delirium. The cadaver of the first quarter had somehow been Frankenstein-ed back to life. Stitched together, an amalgam of pieces playing their part, and lightning bolted to accelerating life. I’ve never heard the Devaney Center louder before or since. Lincoln High Alum, some of the proudest I’ve known, responded to our energy. Parents and students and players alike leaping to their feet.
We ended up winning the game, that day 10 years ago, by 5 points. Scoring 43 points in the final three quarters we were able to outlast the Southeast Knights. Though I never would have admitted it at the time, they fought valiantly. (*Author’s note: I can only clearly assess our rival school now, 10 years in the future, if that’s any indication of how heated our rivalry was.)
As the final horn sounded, anointing a new king in the State of Nebraska, we detonated. Mt. Vesuvius met Pompeii and our student section spontaneously combusted into madness. People were falling, crying, jumping wildly into the air. Insecure young men were hugging passionately and everyone, everyone, felt like we had just conquered the world.
It was 10 years ago. I was 16. And it still gives me goosebumps to recount the scene.
Our team, ever conscious of their rowdy and reckless fans, their hooligans, stood in front of the student section and let us buffet them with a joyful typhoon. Holding their jerseys up for all in the stadium to see. Lincoln High, they said. “Lincoln High” we screamed. Our pride was radiant.
Coach Uhing smiled.
The team climbed ladders and cut down nets. They were given medals and a trophy and an assembly where the entire school attended, cheering like lunatics for the guys that had finally brought home a state basketball title. They had blazed through collective, beating-as-one hearts, and etched their names in neon across the remainder of the school year.
They had done it. They had successfully climbed the mountaintop. They were Sir Edmund Hilary. And we fancied ourselves their Tenzing Norgays.
They had won for themselves. They had one for each other. They had won for black and for red and for the coaches who believed in them all along.
They had won for Lincoln High.
Whether or not they knew it that day, they had won for us.
(*Author’s note: the best part of writing this absurdly long, self-indulgent memoir has been all the people who have shared what their experiences at these games were like. Whether it was former players, former students, or anyone lucky enough to have been cheering for the Links that year, everyone was — and still is– moved by the victories.
If you made it through this rambling piece, feel free to offer your own testimony in the comments section. I was blown away by how many of us still care so deeply about this team and that time in our lives. I would love to know where you were when the horn sounded or what you were thinking when the clock hit zero. Thanks for reading. Go Links.)