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March Madness, Montpelier Style

Local basketball coverage from the 1970s. Courtesy Spencer Bresette.
It was a major March blizzard in the early 1980s in central Vermont. By mid-morning, my young son Jamie enjoyed his snow day by building a snowman. By noon, state workers were released, a rare event, even now. When the legislative session got called off for the rest of the day, I knew we had a real nor’easter.

I watched the drama unfold on Sparrow Farm Road with an inner glee. Who doesn’t relish the quiet beauty of mounting white piles on back decks and fields? By early afternoon, snow spread like a blanket to the horizon.

In those days we relied on WDEV radio out of Waterbury for weather reports. I cranked up the wood stove, the heat offering comfort in an old farmhouse insulated with ancient copies of the Times Argus stuffed into walls, and tuned into WDEV on the transistor radio. Their message was simple. Stay home.

The memory of this blizzard has dimmed, not unlike the view out back during a storm when the sight of stately white pine and balsam trees fades in and out with swirling snow. I am certain of one thing, though. The storm happened on a Thursday.

Thursday evenings back then were marked on the calendar with a fervor known to religious zealots, complete with a sense of community, celebration, tradition, and amplified with familiar sights and sounds: The Montpelier Men’s Basketball League games met on Thursday nights, a sacred winter festival at the Rec Center on Barre Street, our coliseum.

It fell short of regulation size and the walls were too close, but the court transformed middle-aged men into boys when the whistle sounded for opening tip-off. This was true for both league games and the lunch-hour pickup encounters.

To a collection of lawyers, loggers, teachers, construction workers, state employees, and small business owners as well as those in between jobs — going to the Rec Center for basketball games was our trip to Mecca. Scattered now by the passing decades, these players craved not only the bright lights of the gym, but the camaraderie and bonding known to central Vermont basketball warriors.

With the blizzard raging, only a fool would consider a league basketball game. But, nonetheless, at 4 p.m. my partner turned to me and asked “What are you doing and where do you think you are going?” I zipped up my parka while laboring to put on heavy winter boots, on my way out to shovel a path to my car, which slumped partly hidden under a mountain of fresh snow. This very action seemed strange even to me, given that not only was the storm raging but a noticeable wind had also picked up. Why not wait until morning?

Even today I am not sure that there is a simple, absolute, rational explanation. Who can explain the attraction that the enchanted Sirens had over Odysseus in Homer’s epic tale? 

Be that as it may, despite any rational behavior common to a man in his mid-30s, in the back of my somewhat distorted if not disturbed mind was the sacred mantra “the game must go on,” a refrain instilled by coaches and adults from elementary school to high school and through college and beyond. If my actions were questionable, they were also spontaneous, activated by the tingling and tantalizing hope of enjoying the thrill of athletic battle, team camaraderie, graceful shots swishing through the hoop, and the pulsating tension of an uncertain outcome. The fraternity of central Vermont hoopsters shared this devotion to the game with reckless enthusiasm.

Despite the blizzard, the cancellations near and far, and the enticing notion of staying by the wood stove, I shoveled around my car with a vigor that would have made John Henry proud. I took it as a sign from above, and I am not a religious man, when after 5:30 p.m. in the near dark winter wonderland, I heard that distinct rumble of a snowplow coming down the road after a noted absence. That the plow created a new snow pile behind my car did not diminish my resolve. 

Just minutes after 6 p.m. I returned to the house just long enough to inhale a sandwich, grab a sports bag containing my lime green Carriveau’s Gulf gas station jersey, and bid farewell with a kiss and a hug, and a high five for Jamie.

“You are crazy,” said my partner with an emphasis on “crazy.” She was wonderful in most ways but clearly deficient in understanding the Thursday night ritual. It probably never occurred to her that we were scheduled to play Julio’s Restaurant, the team that shared first place in league play.

The author’s basketball jersey. Photo by Ken Libertoff.
At the top of Sparrow Farm Road, I turned onto North Street, to that magnificent expanse with the Green Mountains totally exposed. The open vista invites wind and white-outs. I saw nothing but swirling, blinding flakes screaming across the open fields. There were two options. Go back home or carry on. Using memory as a guide, I aimed forward in a straight line. Only when I reached a sheltered area protected by trees and shrubs did I exhale.

Proceeding downhill on North Street is stimulating on a good day, and, at certain points, one risks going over the guard rails and heading in a near dead drop into the rec field, or, with better luck, landing more softly in the baseball field. In a blinding snowstorm, the drive down that steep, curved hill is nothing short of heart stopping. Gripping the wheel and applying the brake, I slowly wound down the steep incline. As I pulled into downtown Montpelier, I took comfort that traffic was exceptionally light.

Crawling slowly up snowbound Barre Street, I approached the gym. A magnificent sight greeted me; the gym, lit up, illuminated fresh snow and the many cars parked out front. As I carefully climbed snowy steps to the “cathedral entrance” and pulled open the heavy wooden door, I heard the distinct thumping of a basketball, the squeak of sneakers, and the banter of players as they warmed up. 

Both teams had a full complement of players that night, true basketball warriors. ‘The game must go on’ — and it did — blizzards and rational behavior be damned!

Ken Libertoff of East Montpelier not only played for Carriveau’s Gulf and Miller’s Concrete in the Montpelier Men’s League but proudly wore number 34 for the University of Connecticut basketball team in the mid-1960s. Contact him at KennyL16@aol.com.