Having been in journalism more than 25 years, I admit to having bad days, days I don't want to think about, and days where I would just prefer to chuck the whole thing and become a mailman.
But then football season comes along and I get spoiled rotten, usually by the highly successful Homestead and Germantown squads, run respectively by the very fine and erudite gentlemen Dave Keel and Phil Datka. I try to be fair to all the other sports and usually succeed, but I know where my heart lies: I worship at the altar of football and am proud of it. I am a happy man August through November.
However, there are times when basketball finds its way into the heart of this "College Game Day" and Camp Randall Stadium-loving gridiron gonzo. It happened four years ago when pioneer Brookfield East girls coach Lindy Kemp and her all-state center Kelly Lam (now at Marquette) made their way into the state semifinals in Kemp's second-to-last season and made me smile with their skill, talent and grit.
Now it has happened again. Germantown boys basketball coach Steve Showalter has been fighting an uphill battle for parity with the school's football team for years. It's been a tough battle, but Showalter's got a lot of Indiana-style "Hoosiers"-born and bred hoops bravado in him (he was born in the state before being raised in Baraboo).
In these last two years, he's made massive inroads, winning plenty of games, claiming two conference titles and now earning an historic school first WIAA state tournament berth in the last of three increasingly memorable WIAA sectional final games at the Al McGuire Center in Milwaukee on March 1. Wauwatosa East, New Berlin Eisenhower and Germantown all punched their tickets to state in one astonishing, thrilling game after another. All of three of them came down to the last possession, all decided by a grand total of six points.
It was called a "Super-Sectional" by organizers and it lived up to its billing, especially to Showalter.
"For years, I would have good football players that I would try and teach a little basketball to," he said. "Now I have basketball players who are also pretty good at other sports too."
Showalter has gotten this far because he's that rare bird in Germantown who wouldn't accept second-class citizen status at the school for his program. A hometown cop by trade, a devoted family man, an acolyte of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan back from the days when Ryan (who still answers his own phone) was starting his Division III empire at UW-Platteville and above all a devout gym rat who loves basketball almost as much as his family. He was the man to take mediocrity and turn it into the full-blooded roar of success.
Showalter brought energy and warmth back to Friday nights by teaching his talented team an entertaining, heart-filled brand of basketball. A noisy, fully-engaged student section followed and carried the band with them. It got so exciting in the last two seasons, it almost seemed that the painted Warhawk mascot on the gym wall was twisting his fierce grimace into something of a smile and clutching the laurel wreaths that held the words "spirit" and "pride" a little tighter.
It began with the first conference title in 33 years last season and it came to a screaming, bloody, gutty roaring head on March 1 at the McGuire Center when forward Andy Neumann ("My personal toolbox," Showalter said) tipped out Marvin Fitzgerald's missed free throw with just .9 of a second to play, clinching the Warhawks' first state tournament berth with a 60-59 win over Milwaukee Vincent and inducing a series of Lambeau-style leaps into the student section by players such as Neumann, his cousin Zach and Michael Laubenheimer.
"Andy and I talked about whether we should do that if we won," Zach said with a laugh. "It just sort of happened."
There was lots of happiness to be shared. Showalter and his dad, who never played basketball himself, but who has now embraced his son's passion and commitment fully, hugged and shared an intense, private conversation.
Then there was bloody, but unbowed point guard Rick Bowers, who suffered a painful hip pointer as well as a bruised tailbone in the sectional semifinal win over Sussex Hamilton the night before. He would endure an onslaught of relentless physical pressure defense by Vincent in the final as the Vikings tried to eat up all of the 18-point lead the Warhawks had built earlier in the game.
He would have to change uniforms in the tense final moments because of blood and would drag himself up off the floor time and again after being fouled (Showalter said he hits the deck all the time in practice but always gets up). Bowers would eventually hit 10 free throws, every last one of which would be important and absolutely neccesary if he were to fulfill the promise Showalter saw in him two years ago when Bowers transferred in from Brown Deer.
"The first game I played, Coach said I had what it takes to get us to the next level," Bowers said quietly, gratefully. "I didn't believe him at first but now I do. It shows what a lot of hard work and patience can do."
And there was Showalter's assistant Jim Lawinger, with whom I share a little serendipity. I mentioned earlier I was spoiled rotten by football, four state titles, two each by Homestead and Germantown in the last decade, but I hadn't had any team make the state boys basketball tournament in 21 years. It was the Lawinger-coached Sussex Hamilton squad that got me to Madison in 1987 and now Lawinger and I both get to come full circle in this latest trip to Madison, getting to a place where neither of us had been for much too long.
"Really?" he said and then broke into a wistful chuckle as he and I watched, as the last of the handshakes and hugs were finally embraced and then reluctantly let go. "That's really neat."
What was really neat was the reaction of everyone to this pressure-packed day, this love letter to basketball. Germantown and Marquette High School officials cajoled and convinced dozens of volunteers to work the three-day sectional event with its seven games (five of which were decided by a single score). And all that sweat and labor Athletic Directors Jack Klebesadel (Germantown) and Dan Hardwick (Marquette) and their staffs put in was rewarded by simply the finest day in this Wisconsin prep hoops season.
"Super-sectional doesn't begin to cover it," said Klebesadel in passing and without a trace of irony in his voice.
Especially to Showalter, who watched with amusement as his team lay flat on their backs and made an oval around the center circle at the McGuire long after almost everyone but the maintenance staff and the happy first-time-at-state Warhawks had finally left. They did it simply because they could.
Center Ben Averkamp said this victory, this night, was a "special feeling;" one that would have to be explained over and over again to future generations of Germantown players.
For the coach himself, it was like a shadow had been lifted and light had been allowed to enter the room.
"All those years, when I would open the gym (for the high school players) and it would just be me and one other guy playing one-on-one," he said. "All those 65 losses (over nine years). It's all gone now. It was all there one moment and then the next, (when the free throw was missed) it was gone. Lifted in a second. How do you react to a situation like that?"
If you're a still unreformed football junkie like myself, who's now found the utter joy of March Madness, you just count yourself fortunate to have seen it all.