Islanders over Millers in an epic

With two minutes left and the Class 3A high school championship game tied and eventually headed to overtime at the Target Center on March 24, DeLaSalle point guard Tyler Moore brought the ball up against his Washburn defender and, at half court, broke into a huge smile that seemed to say, “Isn’t this awesome?”

I know how he feels. I fell in love with high school basketball in the winter of 1975, when Percy Wade, Jim Kenny, Don Zierden, Dale Warren, Mark James, and a bunch of other north, northeast and southside Minneapolis kids from DeLaSalle went to the state tournament for the first time at the St. Paul Civic Center.

It was the era of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and “Godspell,” and it was here, at this liberal Catholic school by the Mississippi River, where I forged some of my oldest friendships, many of which were cemented when we got hooked on the life-or-death-agony-and-ecstasy rush that those packed gyms offered amidst an already potent cocktail of popcorn, sweat, cheerleaders’ perfume and hormones.

In the ’75 tourney, Wade (now head girls basketball coach at Bloomington Kennedy) shot the lights out as the Islanders upset then unbeaten Waseca, who were led by the great double-sport athlete Gene Glynn, the state’s first Mr. Basketball and now the first-year manager of the Twins’ Triple A team in Rochester. De lost in the semifinals, and for the next two years I rooted hard for them, which is what I did Saturday night, even though I didn’t realize as much until the final horn.

It was Washburn versus DeLaSalle, the first time in Minnesota basketball history that two Minneapolis schools had met in the state championship game, and I was going be there. On the way downtown, I told my young charges that they should get ready for an epic game, one that should go on to live in both schools’ lore, and that it would probably come down to whoever has the ball last and which team could make their free throws. The intensity was on.

As we settled into the corner of the Target Center near the De student section, we talked about the various family ties we share with both schools. I ran into old friends and neighbors from both sides of the fight — and one former neighbor, Becky Wright, mother of Jake Wright, the kid who infamously moved from the neighborhood to play ball for the Hopkins Blue Devils and who, the night before, famously buried three three-pointers in a three-overtime loss to Osseo. Crazy.

Across the arena, the Washburn student section was an undulating sea of blue and orange, which had to be like shooting into a lava lamp for the DeLaSalle free throw-shooters. DeLaSalle led the entire way, with each team playing with guts and grit and at the sort of full-tilt that only happens in high school ball. The game went into overtime, and with three seconds left Washburn sprinted the length of the court to take the lead, 56-55, looking for all the world like they’d won the game and neighborhood bragging rights for all time. 

Then it happened. One of those unforgettable moments that keeps you coming back to sports. In a blur, Moore took the ball the length of the court, drove the lane, drew two defenders to him, and kicked the ball out to senior guard Ross Barker. In one fluid motion, and not 30 feet from us, Barker took a jump shot that hit nothing but net as the horn went off, making for a real-life storybook ending that every gym rat who every practiced 100 jump shots in a row dreams of.

Bedlam. Heartbreak. Joy. Barker’s teammates tackled him at mid-court while my screaming daughter grabbed and hugged me. It was only then and there, as we danced amidst the erupting black and gold confetti, that all those games from my high school days and all my Islander allegiances came back in full.  

More than anything, though, as we watched the champs get their medals and Barker live a moment-in-the-sun dream that everyone in the arena and beyond got to come along for, I kept muttering to myself what seemingly everyone in the city was saying hours later, the next day, and for years to come: 

“What a game.”