BURLINGTON, Vt. – In the blah post-Super Bowl February, an American soul might trudge through the dark, dark darkness of early evening in search of a balm. There it might appear in the distance and in all its charming modesty, a nondescript basketball building, just as the phone announces 21 degrees Fahrenheit amid its usual cold-hemorrhaging of battery power.
Does this home to the Vermont Catamounts look like it’s really not much of anything, like something you would find at a finer high school? Yes, it does, and that’s perfect. Might there be some college-age lads filing in with hockey sticks, as if this nondescript edifice might serve multiple purposes? Yes, and yay. Might it afford a sight, first thing inside the unpretentious lobby with the soda machine on the right, of not only a raffle – one ticket for $1, three for $2, 10 for $5, 25 for $10 – but one of those little gizmos with a crank that spins around the raffle tickets before to ensure fairness before selection?
Wait, could my February soul also see some . . . wooden bleachers?
Is that too much to ask?
The will to see any of the country’s smaller college basketball hothouses, including that of the NCAA tournament-regular Vermont Catamounts, stems not from some wish to revisit a romanticized portion of the past, for such wishes are always delusional. It’s not about some last-century era having been superior, because it usually wasn’t anyway. It’s something about the small ad for a local bank as a sign on the wall behind one baseline, the same for a local insurance company behind the other, and then a roofing-company ad that reads, “Above The Rest Since 1875.” It’s about how pep-band members apparently and understandably have flung some of their winter clothes beneath the bleachers before performing. There’s something in the age-old practice of visiting a place and overhearing a telltale conversational snippet and, this being Vermont, it being this: “I’ve always been, like, really intrigued with state government.”
It’s a hunt for a morsel of intimacy and authenticity amid all the spiffy, soulless arenas and the gushing money and the yawning distances between players and fans. It’s the following revelation of impossible charm from 6-foot-6 senior Anthony Lamb, Vermont’s best player with his 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game:
Each game in the 3,224-seat Patrick Gym, he says, he thinks of the fans, which isn’t hard because they’re so nearby.
Then he thinks of how they come, night after night and season after season.
Then he thinks of how they sit through those hours on those wooden bleachers.
Then he thinks of how many of them sit all those hours on those wooden bleachers while being, you know, old.
“If you walk down the street, it’s about 5 degrees,” Lamb said. “Honestly, just everything’s blue-collar, everybody’s working hard. I don’t really see anybody slacking, when I go in the community. Everybody’s working hard. Even the people that work after the game, they work really hard to make sure that everything is ready for us. They’re giving us their all the same way we try to give them our all. . . .”
“I appreciate everything they do thoroughly. Like, every chance I get, I try to tell them, ‘Thank you,’ and just, ‘How’s your day going?’ Like, making sure that they’re all right, because I know they do just as much for me as I do for them.
“And the really neat thing,” said John Becker, the ninth-season head coach, “and people tell me this over and over again, how much our program, and just the way our kids are, and obviously we have success, and that helps, but we help the community get through winter” – just as do, of course, the speakers on the lampposts downtown, blaring classical music in the snowfall.
So bring it on, a home game against the Maine Black Bears for the Vermont Catamounts, 105-28 the last four seasons. A soul in winter sure can use that sign atop the bleachers: WELCOME TO CATAMOUNT COUNTRY. In a world too full of show, the soul needs a mascot with a raggedy tail that might could use some sewing (or maybe not). It needs cheerleaders packed between the baseline and the emergency-exit doors yet operating admirably in their crammed space. A long platform behind one baseline holding 12 folding metal chairs, with one chair for Tom Brennan, the former coach for whom the court is named, and Brennan himself sitting back there in a scarf? Sure and sure and sure.
Let the public address announce the possibility of a children’s birthday party (“Kids, how’d you like to have your birthday in Catamount Country?”), the pizza giveaway and later, the winner of the new TV!
Sit in the midst and think about how college basketball still squeezes in a place for these players from gumdrop gyms. Think of how UMBC toppled No. 1 seed Virginia in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2018 six nights after winning the America East title here in a 65-62 upset, where there’s no video camera, no kiss-cam, no proposal cam, no preening cam. Revel in the “Academic Cup” banners and remember how life churns on such that, next season, Vermont will move into a new arena, albeit with similar capacity.
Let Lamb read an audio message before the game, urging fan decency, and let the fans comply, never getting any ruder than one dude accusing an official after a call: “Makeup!” And let the U.S. and Canadian flags hang together on the wall, while Maine brings in players from Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Turkey, Serbia, Denmark, Latvia, Britain, Lebanon and Norway (but not the country, the town in Maine).
Sophomore guard Robin Duncan, one of the three brothers from Evansville, Indiana, who have flooded Vermont’s roster with Duncans in recent years, says it reminds him sometimes of that prep gym in New Albany, Indiana. Redshirt junior guard Ben Shungu, who grew up in Burlington and won three state titles on this floor, says, “I don’t think anywhere else has it the way we do.” And Becker notes the fleeting stays of one-and-dones at Godzilla programs and says, “And you can’t see them when they struggle and then see them have success and develop and grow. And here our fans get to do that. So Senior Night is always a very emotional night here, because you feel like you’re losing a friend, or they feel like they’re losing someone that they’ve seen grow up.”
In fact, here amid the bleachers, appreciate that Becker went from high school in Connecticut to college at Catholic University in the District of Columbia, saw his basketball prospects wither, worked in the early 1990s for $17,000 a year, saw his basketball prospects rekindle. He coached at Gallaudet University and worked a non-basketball job at Georgetown at the same time, learned sign language, went to George Washington for a master’s degree, had “a couple different I.T. jobs,” got back in, coached at Catholic, came up here to direct basketball operations for then-Coach Mike Lonergan, marveled at the rusticity of the gym for a Vermont program that beat Syracuse in the 2005 NCAA tournament, thought he might have to leave to keep his family solvent, got an assistant job, stayed.
“And now to be the head coach here, to have been here for 14 years, nothing’s changed. You know, I still walk the same hallways, and the same piece of chipped paint that I notice every time I walk by on that wall, year after year, and there’s something comforting, probably in that, that it doesn’t change. Obviously, we have a new arena coming, but . . .”
Beyond that chipped paint, outdoors on the sidewalks again, a few hours amid the wooden bleachers and Naismith’s wintertime creation has worked again. The beleaguered phone says the temperature is down to 19 degrees, but the soul does feel warmer.