All I could say was “Wow!”
Wow to the fact that after 37 years of covering prep sports in the Milwaukee suburban area with all its commensurate ups and down that I could still be surprised.
In the last couple of days since the coronavirus effectively canceled sports for the time being (particularly basketball) and allowed the world to get on with far more important things, like saving people’s lives, all of us who have written about sports and love doing so have had a chance to pause and reflect.
The sad, yet rational and life affirming season cancellation and suspension decisions of the WIAA, the NCAA, the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and countless other organizations worldwide, have put sports on the backburner and put human life ahead of profit and championships.
The May 12 WIAA decision to cancel the girls state tournament mid-stream and call off the boys tournament just hours after the sectional semifinal round was completed, hit close to home for me and many of my statewide brethren in the field
The decision forced all of us who cover prep sports for a living to take serious note of the fact, that ours, with extremely rare exceptions, is not a life or death profession.
We, especially those who have done it as long as I have, do it because it’s not really a job: It’s fun and frequently exciting and beats the crud out of almost all the alternatives we have thought of to make money, especially when you get to talk to an excited teenager who just came off the bench to hit a game-winning shot for his or her team.
You simply can’t beat those moments and you smile at the thought of your story recording that moment living in some mother’s scrapbook for all eternity, but as we all know, doing that simply does not compare to medical science.
And yet, we continue to do it.
Yes, the paychecks are often small, and the too long 12-14 hour deadline days of a community sports writer can wear you down, and we won’t mention the gloomy fact of the depressing decline of the local community newspaper, but there is still joy to be found in noticing a 17 year old’s big day.
So yes, I am very sad and a bit at wit’s end about this situation, something I have never seen the likes of before. I support the WIAA decision 100 percent, but as I said before:
So I’ll reflect a little on the little joys and victories that came out of all this sadness, which in the big picture, can’t compare at all to all the uncertainty, misery and horror that the pandemic is causing.
I’ll start with the fact of how souped up I was over the March 5 West Bend West-Germantown girls sectional basketball game at a sold out Slinger High School (it lived up to the hype)!
And that leads me into a discussion of some of the good things that came out of all the cancellation decisions.
Before that exciting GT-West game, I had the honor of being part of the pre-game festivities by doing a little analysis and prognostication for the terrific W7 Video Productions with my friend and high energy Germantown announcer/teacher/coach/mom (not necessarily in that order) Michelle Griffin-Wenzel.
It’s strange to see myself on video and I view my voice as a glorified croak, but W7, which is owned and run by the tireless Gary Wipperman as a way to promote girls’ sports in Wisconsin, and Griffin-Wenzel, are always kind and generous to me. They do a great service for prep sports in this day of declining print media and I support them every way I can.
Their motto is “For the girls.”
Wipperman, who has daughters himself, wears his heart on his sleeve, and like many others was devastated when the WIAA pulled the plug on the boys and the girls state basketball tournaments at about 11:15 p.m. on March 12, shortly after the Melrose-Mindoro girls held on to defeat Mishicot in a thrilling overtime girls D4 state semifinal held in a virtually empty Resch Center in Green Bay.
Wipperman was doing an in-depth video profile of Mishicot, which he has done for other teams over the past few years, and decided not to accept things quietly. Because of that, at about 2:45 a.m. later that morning, he sent out a love letter to the Mishicot program and the beautifully complex relationship that is prep sports and the communities they are tied to.
He titled it: “What I learned today. …Life’s Not Fair.”
Wipperman also included shout-outs to the DSHA, Pewaukee, and Oconomowoc programs that, unlike Mishicot, didn’t even get a chance to play a game at state. He included all kinds of loving details and inside notes that only someone who really cares and understands could have known about.
Wipperman was well aware of the disappointment that the players, coaches and fans of all those teams whose state dream came to an end experienced in a most unexpected way.
It was elegant, touching, beautifully rambling and a lovely requiem for a season which saw its race end a couple of meters before the finish line. The story went viral locally on Twitter and I strongly recommend that you look it up at productionsw7.com or highlight the above link.
And it turned out that Wipperman’s essay was just the tip of the iceberg as a lot of people tried to make a silk basketball out of the sow’s ear that were all the cancellation notices.
That same night, my friends at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Art Kabelowsky and Jon Masson, authored a well-crafted, detailed and nuanced piece on the WIAA cancellation that more than hinted at the wrenching pain that went into the Board of Control’s decision.
They didn’t want to pull the plug on the kids, but reality took precedent over dreams left unfulfilled. As WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson aptly told Curt Hogg of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “(Being) Ignorant or arrogant was not a label I wanted on the WIAA.”
So the kids took it upon themselves to salvage those dreams as best they could as the WIAA allowed teams to take to the Resch Center floor following the announcement to take pictures and make a few memories. One of those moments involved the winners of the D3 girls state semifinals (held earlier on March 12), Wrightstown and Platteville, who gathered together on the morning of March 13 for a joint team picture.
The picture may have included a few “what-if” tears but they were overwhelmed by the beaming smiles of all involved that told anyone who looked upon the picture that all these kids were indeed champions.
As were the players on DSHA and 2019 state D1 champion Bay Port, who were to have played a D1 state semifinal on the evening of March 13. To fight off their disappointment, the players gathered together earlier that afternoon on the court to play a fun game of six on six hoops with an imaginary ball and substantial woofing
It included a lot of laughs and reportedly ended in a tie, which was also fitting. Please read the fine story here on the Journal Sentinel website by the excellent veteran college and prep writer and editor Mark Stewart.
Prior to that, the Bay Port Twitter account sent out a hilarious post, challenging the other D1 qualifiers including DSHA, Oconomowoc and Middleton to winner-take-all contests of Tik Tok dance; rock, paper, scissors or a head coach 3-point shooting contest.
My particular prep hoops story ended that March 12 night down in Burlington with a boys D2 sectional semifinal Waukesha Freeman assignment between an underdog Waukesha West and Southern Lakes Conference champ Elkhorn at Burlington.
The WIAA was at that moment trying to preserve the tournament for as long as possible while still respecting the threat of the virus. It limited each side to about 88 people attending the game (team staff, family of players, and a very diminished fan base).
Burlington staff were very professional and helped the evening go off as well as possible. Credit goes to Athletic Director Eric Plitzuweit and old friend and Principal Eric Burling for making the best of a bad situation as they took a big financial hit not only because of the limited attendance for this game but also for the lost attendance that was to come for the March 14 sectional final.
The kids played hard as favored Elkhorn held off a gritty comeback from West. West coach Don LaValle said that the players handled the situation well considering all the uncertainty, just lamenting the fact that they could not play before what he felt was going to have been an “electric” packed house.
But still, the 200 or so people in attendance made plenty of noise, especially a six-pack of Elkhorn students who hooted and howled with every Elks’ basket. Those six formed a small celebratory corridor for the team when it came out of its locker room after the game as they happily embraced their victorious classmates.
I filed my story at 10:40 p.m., 35 minutes before the WIAA decision came down. I exchanged a few texts with my Freeman editor Pat Neumuth as we both assumed resigned airs of acceptance at what had to be done.
We both worried about the upcoming spring season, which is also on hold, as schools across the state are now closed to try and slow the virus’ spread. The Freeman’s March 13 edition included a front page story on the issue while the sports page included several boys sectional game stories (including mine), likely the last game stories of any kind for quite some time.
Later that weekend, an online petition went up calling for the WIAA to try and finish the tournaments at a later date to give the players and teams a sense of finality. It had over 40,000 signatures when I looked at it. But because of the uncertainty of when any sports will come back, it is likely a quixotic gesture; lovely, but doomed to failure because of the sheer enormity of the crisis that is facing this state and country.
Kids, as I have been told by coaches time and again, and as I have seen for myself, are far more resilient than adults. They will move on from this disappointment and likely achieve much greater things.
Meanwhile, adults are trying to set good examples elsewhere in the basketball world. With no NBA basketball, owners such as the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban as well as the entire Milwaukee Bucks team, are trying to make whole financially the numerous hourly staff at their arenas. They are following the examples of players such as Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who earlier pledged large sums to help their arena staff.
Their examples should be followed by all in sports who make fantastic sums of money off the labor of those who often live paycheck to paycheck. As has been said by many during the crisis: We need to look out for one another.
In NCAA basketball, which saw its season come to an end before the conclusion of the various conference tournaments and with the NCAA tournament itself canceled, various teams took it upon themselves to create their own versions of the brilliant “One Shining Moment” video montage that always follows the national championship game.
Many of these went viral on social media.
And along those lines, there was a lovely gesture by Scott Van Pelt of ESPN, who took note of the harsh and sudden finality of it all for so many other prep and collegiate players and so set up a Twitter thread #SeniorNight. It allowed teams great and small from across the country to post pictures, videos and notes to highlight their best day or simply thank all their supporters or just provide a better way to say “Good-bye” to the season.
Simply elegant and perfect.
That grace note celebrated the best that sports has to offer both grand and sublime, and in this moment, when sports is being put in its proper perspective and we all try to be a little more aware of what’s really important, it too warranted a “Wow!”
So be patient and listen to the scientists, pay heed to the advisories, and as noted before, look out for each other.
Sports will be back, I promise.