We often think of football as the grand high school sport of the American South, and indeed it is, with autumn in the South being as much about touchdowns and tailgating and high school rosters as pumpkins or harvest festivals. College and pro ball of course is huge too, but for rural communities, their favorite college teams may be miles away—and so high school ball, with its understandable local pride and the excitement of seeing local kids play, becomes the sports focus of many communities. Yet when winter rolls around, the high school football season is all but over, and basketball is gearing up.
Basketball, like football, is an American sport, invented in the United States and having grown up within the confines of American high schools prior to winning interest at the college and pro levels. While we all know the NBA today and there’s no escaping it during the winter and spring months (March Madness is soon to captivate the nation once again), it was at the high school level that basketball was formulated and first came of age. The National Federation of State High School Associations devised the first formal rule-making for basketball decades ago, and that is where the rules we have today came from. It is possible that some think of basketball as a more northern or urban sport, but it has a major following in the South, and the fandom here is like no other.
High school sports in general form the basis for a lot of small-town culture in the South, providing a way for youth to be involved in wholesome and character-building activities while forming a sense of community. When you think of, say, a town like Claxton, Georgia, you don’t just think of their famous fruitcakes and chicken, but also of the Claxton Tigers, their local high school’s team. These teams are ways for not just students but whole communities to embody their identities and sense of common goals. Generations attend the same schools and in a way that is particular to small towns: it’s not uncommon for a father or even grandfather to watch his son or grandson playing football on the same field or basketball in the very same gym as he did decades prior. There is really nothing—not even the grand spectacle of multi-million-dollar professional sports—that can replace that feeling.
Walking into the Suwannee High School gym in Live Oak, Florida, on a chilly January night near the end of the Florida high school basketball season, I could sense the excitement. I was there with my friend Eli who is an alumni of the rival team—Columbia High School in nearby Lake City—which was playing Suwannee that night. Due to the long-standing situation of rival schools, a lot of the crowd was wearing the purple of Columbia but there was even more of the emerald green of Suwannee’s Bulldogs in the stands. Few seats were vacant and it was a safe bet that more families than not in Live Oak were here at this game on a Saturday night. It was also Senior Appreciation Night, a tradition many schools have near the end of the season before play-offs in order to present that year’s graduating seniors and announce any plans they have—which of course includes any who are playing basketball in college. It’s a big deal: these kids have been part of the community for nearly two decades and many may be leaving town soon for college or the military or otherwise. So Senior Appreciation isn’t just about their accomplishments on the court but about them as citizens of their community.
Nothing is left out or overlooked. There were cheerleaders, of course, and both teams have coaching staffs that number at least five men each. There was someone in a huge, rather warm-looking, grey bulldog costume as the mascot, girls are selling popcorn and peanuts at the concession stand: I asked if they still had any Suwannee Basketball T-shirts just to upset my friend wearing his Columbia shirt. They were out—you had to get them early in the season—a kindly student government representative informed me.
The head coach of Suwannee’s team had a son on the team, one of the outgoing seniors. Everyone expectedly knew everyone else, though I, in the company of Eli in his Columbia purple tee, was assumed to be visiting in support of the opposing team. Conversations prior to the game turned from the fates of Suwannee basketball in previous years to who had new baby calves and how they were faring and other agricultural pursuits—Live Oak is in the heart of both major cattle and field crop territory for Florida. You hear of the barbershop or beauty salon being a locus of gossip and town chatter, but so are high school sporting events.
A couple weeks later we were at a basketball game in Valdosta, Georgia. Valdosta High School is larger than Suwannee’s, and has a position of pride in not just local but national high school sports. Indeed, both Valdosta and its rival school—Lowndes across town—have exceptional programs in basketball, soccer, cross-country, and football. Valdosta High School’s record from its inception in 1913 includes six national championships, 24 state championships, and 41 regional championships, making it one of the winning-most football teams not only in Georgia but in the entire nation.
That pride expectedly boils over into everything sports-related happening here. To get to the school’s gym, you walk through the cafeteria which was already crowded with fans prior to the game. As my friend Eli and I spoke with a teacher, she apologized for the crowding: it wasn’t just the popularity of basketball, you see, but the current 1970’s school building was slated to be replaced soon by a brand-new structure elsewhere in town. Walking into the gym, not only did Valdosta have its cheerleaders out for the game, but their rival of the night, Colquitt County High, had brought its own squad and no small amount of fans. Colquitt, Eli explained to me, was a rural county but also mighty in sports and known for bringing a virtual army of supporters whereever its teams had a game or meet.
Valdosta’s gym was spotless and like Suwannee’s, every spare bit of wall space seemed occupied by banners proclaiming championships won by the school’s various sports teams over the years. By chance, both Valdosta’s and Colquitt’s school colors happen to be black and gold, so Valdosta was in their alternate white, black and gold-trimmed uniforms for the night but still the entire gym was a sea of black and gold. The play-making was fast and sure, and I spotted several kids whom I would not be surprised to see finding careers in college ball or even possibly beyond. For that matter, back in Live Oak there was one kid—on Columbia’s team—who was not even a senior but displayed a remarkable sense of style combined with speed. This is where—and how—it all starts: All over the South there are high schools, often in rural areas, small towns, that have produced athletes who went on to the NBA or NFL or otherwise made a career in professional sports. And many more who played ball in college. And many beyond that who just enjoyed playing in high school and brought that enjoyment and excitement to their hometown communities.
SEE MORE MIKE WALKER “BASKETBALL IN THE SOUTH” PHOTOS HERE