On Saturday I played in a packed house, sold out gym, with 500 screaming (albeit opposing) fans. It was loud and it was bright. Most weekends in Germany I’m lucky enough to play in front of 400-500 loud on-lookers. It’s a soccer mentality here even when it comes to the stands: they are loud, they yell at the refs, and they drink beer. It is a pretty great atmosphere.
But this week? This week in February, I am jealous of a bunch of high school kids from Maine. This week many teams get to play at my favorite gym: the Bangor Auditorium. The 6,000 seat arena has proven itself a kind of oasis in the dead of winter for decades with the yearly Eastern Maine basketball tournament. During that week all roads lead to Bass Park and cars are backed up to the highway. It’s almost like our own personal March Madness and every small town packs their families into cars, bundles up to make the pilgrimage, and “the last person out of town shuts the lights off.”
As a young girl I remember watching Penny Stevens and Kelly Bowman take on Amy Vachon and the Cony Rams—Nokomis’ most successful year to date. My best friend, Michelle, and I sat wide eyed in the crowd decked out in our Warrior maroon and war paint. At that time we were just a part of the screaming fans, taking in a tournament game at the Mecca.
Years later we would discover that there is nothing like playing at the Auditorium. I was fortunate to be able to compete in 12 tournament games there in my four years at Nokomis. Let me tell you, it never got old; each one of those 12 times had its own mystique.
The amazingness always started before the game: in the locker room. As you are changing or listening to the coach’s pregame talk, anticipation builds. We would hear the muffled sound of our award-winning band already pumping up the crowd. The opposing locker room was always just down the cement hallway; we could often hear the other team’s pregame cheers—taunting us to be even louder.
The heat in the locker rooms was almost unbearable and then we’d make our way into the dank, wet, cold, dark hallway before running out onto the court. The only noise you hear is that of your teammates trying to pump each other up—those cheers echoing off the cement walls. Our little point guard would peak in through the blue doors, watching for the big score board to start ticking down—signaling the teams that it was time to start warm-ups.
The magic of the Auditorium really hits you when you step on the wooden floor and the bright lights shower over you. The lights are so blinding that if it weren’t for the deafening cheers that cascade down from the bleachers you may not even notice the thousands of fans. The bands start challenging each other with their music and the fans warm-up their voices, hoping to defend their home team.
Some of my friends back in Maine talk about spending afternoons in the bleachers watching teams fight for the continuance of their seasons. Though playing at the Auditorium beats being a spectator any day, I am jealous and I want to be there. I haven’t been in that building since we lost the State Championship in 2003. Wow. I’m so happy for these 15, 16, and 17 year-olds who will be playing the biggest games of their young lives and I hope they are enjoying every minute of it. I am fortunate to know exactly how they are feeling. But, the only thing better than playing at the Mecca, is winning there.