Doesn’t matter if it’s the boys or girls. It doesn’t matter if you have never heard of the teams playing. It doesn’t matter what the final scores of the games are. It doesn’t matter if there are no future NBA players playing. What DOES matter is the event itself. An event so vastly underrated in the state of Ohio, that it is a hidden gem. An event that after going to, you won’t have a negative word to say about it.
The State Basketball Tournament
Every third weekend in March the final four teams standing in each of Ohio’s four divisions take part in a tournament to determine the best team in each division. It’s a basketball junkies dream. Four games on Thursday, four games on Friday, and the four championship games from each division on Saturday. Non-stop games from ten in the morning to when the last games ends at about ten at night each day.
What makes the tournament so great?
To really get a good idea about what a big deal the tournament is, you first have to start even before the games begin, on the drive down to Columbus. Seeing the cars driving down I-71 South decorated in the teams colors. Many a time, people communicate by writing letters of good luck, or, for the really brave, letters of encouragement for the team that the decorated cars team is playing. Just drive along side and stick the letter up to the window.
Pulling into the parking lot, it feels like a college football tailgate. The motorhomes, the nine foot high team flags, and the smell of barbeque are everywhere. Screams of “Go Tigers!”, “Go Bulldogs!”, and other team names greet you all the way to the arena. As you approach the arena, you may be lucky enough to come face to face with a state tournament legend. No, not a former or current Ohio State player. It’s a guy that has been around a lot longer than any of the players.
The Mad Scalper
We all know that scalping tickets (charging over face value) is illegal (as least on the grounds of the arena). That never seemed to bother The Mad Scalper (TMS). TMS, legend has it, was a homeless guy (at least he looked like one), with about four teeth, and looked like he hadn’t showered in a month. Full beard and mustache. He always carried around an umbrella with just the spokes showing. You could always here his booming voice from anywhere around the arena “WHO’S SELLING TICKETS, WHO NEEDS TICKETS?”. The guy would ALWAYS have 20-25 sets of tickets to EVERY game. Where he got these from remains a mystery to this day. It wouldn’t be a state tournament without catching a few glimpses of TMS.
It’s just DIFFERENT from any other sporting event. Seeing each teams fans dress in their schools colors, taking up the seats behind each basket. Seeing those fans screaming, and chanting twenty minutes before tipoff. Towns of maybe 2,000 people bring 5,000 people to the game. You know that the town they are from shut down for the day. When the final seconds tick down before tipoff, and the horn sounds, the deafening roar of fans of both teams.
It’s a PA announcer saying the same message before every game, that any fan breaking the OHSAA rule for fan behavior will be prosecuted (there was a time, when that announcer said “executed” instead of prosecuted, which gave a huge gasp from the crowd). That same PA announcer repeating the same line just before the national anthem: “We live in a country with freedoms like no other”. Once the game tips off, a funny thing happens that you don’t see at a normal game. The fans stay engaged the whole game!! Weather it be chants of all kinds, yelling “THREEEEEE” when their team takes a three pointer, or even during timeouts, when someone in the crowd, face painted and wig on, may lead the student section of that team into the famous “roller coaster” (If don’t know what that is, Mason High School made it famous, it’s a riot).
Of course, it’s also about the emotion. Real emotion on the players and the fans faces. From the pure joy and hugs all around from the winning team, to the hugs all around and the tears coming from the losing team and fans. It’s REAL. It MEANS SOMETHING to these players and fans. Remember, these ARE kids that are 16 ,17, and 18 years old, that maybe dreamed of this moment, playing for their school and making it “down state”. These players, on the winning or losing side, come to the realization that this is the last high school basketball game they will ever play, with a group of guys they may have spent their whole life playing with. It’s the underclassmen of each team, knowing how hard it was to get to Columbus, wondering if they will be able to return next year. The state tournament is also about walking out of the arena between games and almost comically hearing the fans of the losing team complain about the officiating. That’s a state tournament tradition in and of itself.
It’s isn’t just about the games, it’s about the Event
Many of you may say “Sounds like an Ohio State football game”. Yes, they are similar in many ways. I will ask those people “Do you enjoy game day in Columbus when Ohio State has a home game?” If you do, now just imagine 12 of them in a three day period. That is what it is like. It isn’t a set of individual games. It’s an EVENT. An event that encompasses schools big and small from all over our great state. You may see fans dressed to the nines from the more affluent schools, to people dressed in overalls in their schools colors. It’s the debates and arguments you have with the people sitting around you that you may sit by every session, or it could be the history lessons of past players and teams from those same people. It’s the trips to the Varsity Club, seeing fans from the winning team celebrating their victory with a few cold ones, only to be made fun of when they forgot to get the tickets to the championship game on Saturday right after their semi-final win.
Now imagine doing that 11 more times!!
The state basketball tournament may be the best event to go to in the state of Ohio, if you are at least even a casual fan. It is certainly the most underrated. It’s a pilgrimage every fan should be a part of.
Now, if we could only move it back to St. John Arena