The Big Game, 2018 Second Place Tie Winners’ Circle

By Les Tanner

“Anybody home?” Bill called as tossed his hat toward the chair where he always kept it.  And as always, he missed by a good four feet, nearly knocking over the potted plant that sat on the coffee table.

“In here,” came a reply from somewhere in the house.

“Where’s here?”

“The den,” called Carrie.  “I’ve been sitting in front of the TV watching soaps and eating bonbons all day.  You didn’t expect me to do any housework, did you?”

He knew that if she’d rested for even five minutes, it would be a miracle.  And sure enough, he found her busy working on one of her quilts, while a pile of clothing to be mended sat on a card table by the television set—which was not on.

“I’ve got a couple of surprises for you,” Bill said, settling himself down onto his favorite lounge chair.

“I usually love surprises,” replied Carrie. ”Judging from the look on your face, I may not like these, however.  But go ahead, lay them on me.  I can take it.”

“I’ve been invited to play for the Invaders in next week’s Pumpkin Bowl.”

“That’s a nice surprise, Dear.  You’ve wanted to play in that game since we first came to town.”  She hesitated, not sure she wanted to hear what came next.  “So what’s the second surprise?”

“You’ve got to play, too.”

As is true with small towns everywhere, everyone in Grangeville knew almost everyone else.  It is also true that such towns are usually home to two categories of residents: Those whose families have lived there for generations, and those who’ve not lived there for more than twenty years or so.

In communities which are far removed from bigger towns like Coeur d’Alene and Boise, the residents must invent their own entertainment.  In Grangeville, besides the various school sporting events, town picnics, recreation department activities and the annual Border Days celebration, the Halloween basketball game was something everyone in town looked forward to.

The first of these events was held in 1970 when the owner of Asker’s Market, who was an alum of the U of Idaho, challenged the new principal at the high school, a Boise State College grad, to a game of basketball.  They picked Halloween as game day, one reason being that it would allow them to skip “trick-or-treat duty”.  The opposing teams would be made up of Asker’s employees and high school faculty, and since neither group had five males capable of playing, the game was to be coed.

They hadn’t really planned to keep it a secret, but they were very surprised at the publicity it got.  Not only did the Idaho County Free Press make it a front page story, but it also promoted the game as a “major confrontation between the oldies and the newbies”, in spite of the fact that there were as many newcomers in each group as there were old-timers.

We must defend ourselves from the invaders!” declared the paper’s editor.  Anything to attract attention.

And it worked.  Not only had the names of the two teams been born, but for the first time in anyone’s memory, there wasn’t a single trick-or-treater out that night.  Nor was there anyone home to welcome them if there had been.

The game became an annual affair, drawing spectators from towns across the Camas Prairie and down along the Clearwater.  After the first year, admission was charged, in the form of donations—be they money or food—with all of the proceeds going to useful causes: the food bank, the volunteer fire department, a family whose home had been lost in a fire.  Costumes were encouraged for both spectators and players, and the results were so outrageous that several of the games were covered by TV crews from around Idaho.  The event soon was tagged “The Pumpkin Bowl”, in spite of the fact that the prize was not a pumpkin but a monstrous old gourd that had been carved to look like a jack-o’-lantern.  The gourd had been found in the basement of the old elementary school when it was being razed, and was displayed in the lobby of City Hall, along with a plaque listing the winners and scores of each year’s game.

“But why me?” asked Carrie.

“This year’s rules,” Bill replied.  “The Pumpkin Bowl Board always changes something to keep things interesting.  For one thing, everyone has to be thirty-five or older.  For another, only married couples can play, five couples to a team.  It’s really an honor to be invited, and I just couldn’t say no.”

“But I’m…”  Carrie wasn’t sure how to say it.  In fact, it didn’t need to be said.  It had been the reason behind the teasing she had endured—and usually enjoyed, to be honest—all of her life.

“…vertically challenged?” Bill offered, preferring not to say the word.

And indeed she was.  Bill was not quite six feet tall, and he still had to bend over just to kiss the top of his wife’s head when she was standing.

“Come on, Carrie.  You played soccer and volleyball and track when you were in high school.”

“But that was in a tiny little town in Nebraska.  Everybody had to participate in everything just to have enough for the teams.”

“I’ve seen you run,” Bill replied.  And throw, he thought to himself, having been on the losing side of many a family snowball fight when the kids were little.

The teams had a week to practice, and they made good use of it, with the Invaders using the gym at the junior high, while the Defenders practiced at the high school.  All in all, things looked pretty good for the Invaders.  Two of their players, a man and a woman, were nearly as tall as Bill, and although Carrie was at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, they all worked well as a team.  Bill had played in college and was still able to sink an occasional shot from outside the three-point circle, while Carrie proved to be surprisingly quick, often stealing the ball from the much taller players during their scrimmages.

But the Invaders knew they had their work cut out for them, the primary reason being one key member of the Defenders: Big Wanda, as she was known in town.  And for good reason: She stood all of six feet, five inches tall.  Besides that, Wanda had led her alma mater, Lewis-Clark State, to the national finals in small-college women’s basketball not once but twice.  Marriage and her desire to become a teacher had kept her from going pro.

This was the first year that Wanda had been able to play in the Pumpkin Bowl, however.  She had stepped down as principal of the high school the previous spring, and since the three-person Pumpkin Bowl Board had traditionally been comprised of the manager of Asker’s, the high school principal, and the Mayor, she’d not been eligible.

“She’s almost twice as tall as you, Mom,” ventured Lynn.  She had come down from Moscow to watch the game, which was held in the high school gym.

They had all known Wanda for many years, but never in circumstances like this in which ones  height, or lack thereof, could be so important or obvious.

“I’m not sure I turned the oven off,” ventured Carrie.  “I think I’d better go home and check.  I forgot to feed the cat, too.”

“Oh, come on,” said Bill.  “Are you going to let someone intimidate you just because they are a shade taller?”

At that very moment, Wanda saw them and trotted over.  “Good luck tonight, you guys,” she said—and meant it, they knew.  Wanda was a cheerful and friendly person, and had been a wonderful principal.  “Just try to keep up with me tonight, Bill,” she said with a wink at Carrie and Lynn.  With that, she patted Bill on top of the head and went back to join her teammates.

“If anyone says anything,” said a very red-faced Bill, “you are all walking home after the game!”

“Not a problem,” retorted Carrie, who was trying, unsuccessfully, to keep a straight face.  “Remember that we came over in my car.”

Fortunately for all concerned, the buzzer sounded, indicating that the game was about to begin.

The rules of the game, which had been set many years before, dictated that everyone must play at least one quarter, or 12 minutes, but not more than 24 minutes, and that there must be at least two men and two women from each team on the court at all times.  Other than that, standard rules for basketball applied.

There was, however, one unique feature of this particular game.  As the result of a rather embarrassing incident involving officiating that had occurred in the fourth Pumpkin Bowl game, the Board decided to go “outside” thereafter to obtain officials, of which two were needed: a referee and a score-and-time keeper.

Tonight, no trouble was expected because the officials were Sister Esther Margaret and Sister Mary Agnes, two well-known and respected residents of St. Gertrude’s Monastery over in Cottonwood.

It has been said that the only way to make modern basketball exciting is to give each team seventy points and five minutes to play.  Although that was not generally the case with Pumpkin Bowl games, anyone interested in the details of any game could find them in the following day’s issue of the Idaho County Free Press.

In brief, tonight’s score fluctuated back and forth between the Invaders and the Defenders, with the Defenders taking the lead when Wanda was playing and losing it again when she had to sit.  To their credit, both Bill and Carrie had their moments in the sun, with Bill sinking a critical three-pointer just as the first half ended, and Carrie making a couple of important steals.

It was the last few seconds of the game that were to make this Pumpkin Bowl one to be talked about for years to come.

Wanda had given the Defenders a 10-point lead, but was pulled by her coach when he was informed by Sister Mary Agnes that Wanda had already played 23 minutes.  This was a big break for the Invaders who came roaring back to take the lead at 46-47 with only 15 seconds left to play.

“Time!” called the Defenders’ coach, using up their last time out, and to no one’s surprise, he signaled for Wanda to check back into the game.

And it paid off handsomely when the Defenders quickly worked the ball to Wanda at half court—and in what seemed like just three giant strides, she was at the basket, where she leapt high in the air and slammed a dunk through the hoop so hard that it seemed to make the gym shake.

Everyone in the building looked up at the scoreboard: Defenders 48, Invaders 47—and 5 seconds left on the clock.

The Invaders had two time outs left, and their coach immediately called one of them.  He talked briefly to the whole team, and when the buzzer sounded to start play again, the Invader who was to put the ball into play threw it with all her might down the court.  It was not an unexpected move, but luck was with the Invaders.  Bill was able to get his hands on the ball, had enough room to dribble twice, and then let loose a long jump shot.

Or at least that was his plan.  The ball no sooner had left his hand when none other than Wanda appeared out of nowhere and swatted the ball clear up into the bleachers behind the Invaders basket.

As soon as the ball was touched by one of the spectators there, Sister Esther Margaret blew her whistle, prompting Sister Mary Agnes to stop the clock.  Again everyone looked up at the scoreboard, and again they saw: Defenders 48, Invaders 47—but now there were just 2 seconds left on the clock.

“Time!” called the Invaders coach.

He looked the situation over.  All they needed was a two-pointer to win the game, and they would be able to put the ball into play under their own basket.  But who would obviously be guarding the player there?  Big Wanda.  Things looked pretty grim.

Then he made the move that had people shaking their heads in disbelief.

“Carrie, I want you to go in for Bill.”  Carrie still had plenty of playing time left.  In fact, she’d been on the bench almost the entire fourth quarter.  And Bill was the tallest player on the Invaders team, as well as their best outside shooter.

“Me?” she croaked.

“Yes, you,” replied the coach.  He called her over, spoke quietly for a few seconds, then had her go check in at the scorer’s table.  “Liz,” he said to the tallest woman on the Invaders team,” I want you to put the ball into play.”

And so it began.

All ten players assumed their designated positions in and around the basket, with Liz out-of-bounds ready to receive the ball from the referee, and Wanda looming over and around her, arms out-stretched and moving.

Sister Mary Agnes sounded the buzzer indicating play was to resume.

Sister Esther Margaret placed the ball into Liz’s hands and began to silently count off the 5 seconds that Liz had to put the ball into play.

Carrie, who had been standing at the top of the free throw circle, began walking toward Liz.  “Coach wants me to throw the ball in, not you,” she said loudly.

Wanda and the other Defenders relaxed at this odd turn of events.  Who better to throw in the ball than the shortest of all the players on the court?

“No!” shouted the Defenders coach, who suddenly realized what was about to happen.  “Wanda!  Everyone!  Pay attention!  It’s a trick!  Wake up! WAKE UP!!”

Liz, as puzzled as anyone by it all, did what her coach had apparently wanted her to do and tossed the ball to Carrie, who had stopped just a few feet away.

Sister Esther Margaret dropped her hand as soon as Carrie touched the ball.

At that signal, Sister Mary Agnes started the clock.

And as though she had been practicing it for years, Carrie lifted the ball, aimed, and shot, up past the towering and motionless Wanda, and against the backboard, where it obediently dropped through the hoop—just as the buzzer sounded ending the game.


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