The Year the Stage Burned
Before Coach Leverette’s knuckleball hit me between the eyes in the spring of 1963, my year started in September, 1962. It was my first year at Semmes High School. I was a sophomore having spent my first 9 years at Wilmer – a 1-9 feeder to Semmes. Wilmer-boys were hicks when we came into the home of the Bulldogs – especially when compared to the aristocracy of the kids from big town of Semmes and the middle-class kids coming from the near-Mobile communities of Orchard and Alpine Hills.
Wilmerites were not the lowest folks on the redneck continuum, however. That was reserved for the kids who lived just east of the Mississippi line, followed by those who called Tanner-Williams, Cuss Forks, and Young’s Neck home. The latter two communities of Cuss Forks and Young’s Neck being places that god-fearing and law-abiding-folks did not go without an invitation, and it was said that this included the sheriff.
My entry into high school society was further hampered as my mother taught at Semmes Junior High and had taught probably every kid at Semmes High School who now welcomed us into the fold on the first day of school in 1962.
Truth is that everyone who went to Semmes was a redneck. On the continuum of redneck schools there was (in order of best to worst) Semmes, Baker, Citronelle, Theodore, Grand Bay, and Alba. As I remember it, Murphy and Vigor were the elite public schools but were looked down on by McGill (boys) and Toolen (girls) – the Catholic high schools, and Wrights (girls) and UMS (boys) – the secular private schools. Of course, no matter where we fell on the redneck continuum, there was always Baldwin County!
Back to my story of the fire. Somewhere during football season of 1962, the stage which was in the gym burned. No one ever knew the reason – perhaps some upset would-be-actor who did not get the lead role opposite his or her significant other at the time. No matter, it burned, but only the stage. Nothing else was hurt. Well, except for the beautiful parquet gym floor, which was buckled up like freshly turned rows of a garden. To fix the floor, the school system decided to replace the wood with tile – asbestos, 9×9 tiles, I am sure. That was all we needed to add a bit more redneckedness to our school – a basketball court with the cheapest floor tiles the school system could find.
Now there were a couple of other unexpected results from that fire. Because they were busy repairing the stage and messing up the floor, basketball tryouts and early season practices had to be held away from the school – at UMS, the closest gym to us. I remember two things about that experience. All the banners of teams that had won championships in every sport for UMS. Gawd almighty! It was like looking at the skyscrapers when I went to New York.
The second thing was that that feeling soon passed as we started our tryouts for the JV basketball team – or the B-Team as we called it back then. Our coach was none other than our head football coach – the legendary Coach Charles Leverette. This old country boy was just a little overwhelmed by it all, I am here to tell you.
I only remember one thing about the tryout, although I am sure we shot layups and jumpshots and the like. I only remember how Coach Leverette cut the twenty-five or so of the basketball wannabes down to twelve as that was all the uniforms the school had for the B-Team.
After about an hour of practicing shooting, he gathered us up into a group and told us how he was going to decide who made the team since our first game was in a week. “Gentlemen,” he said in his most commanding coach-voice, “You are going start running around the court, and when there are 12 of you left, that will be our team.”
And it came to pass.
I was not going to be excluded from the Semmes High School Bulldog Basketball B-Team. There were a lot of things I did not have as a player. I did not have 20-20 vision. I stood 5 feet 9 inches tall in my black Converse Chuck Taylor high tops, and I struggled to weigh 140 pounds even after a big Sunday dinner. But the one thing I could do was run – probably built up from walking on all those Saturday afternoon ten-mile rabbit hunts with my dad. So, like Forest Gump, I ran and ran and ran and ran and ran … and then I threw up. But I was among Coach Leverette’s twelve disciples on the Semmes High School 1962 Bulldog Basketball B-Team.
I mentioned earlier that the stage fire caused a couple of results other than that terrible asbestos tile floor. The first was Coach Leverette’s Run Forest Run method of selecting his team. The second was that when they took up that beautiful parquet floor which was, by the way, about an inch thick, and put down that asbestos monstrosity, those hideous tiles were maybe 1/8th inch thick.
As a result, instead of the baskets being precisely 10 feet from floor to rim, our baskets were 10 feet and 7/8ths inches from the floor to the basket’s rim. I guess the workmen never thought about lowering the baskets to compensate for the difference. During my three years of playing on that strange court, I saw more than a few opponents jumpshots fall just about a 7/8th an inch short!