There are plenty of ways to define North Dakota.
Open skies. Robust agriculture and energy industries. Cold winters. Friendly people with a touch of that Fargo accent. And for us, it's home.
But for a few months out of the school year, there's really only one way to describe our state: Class B basketball.
High school athletics is an integral part of many communities across the nation, to be sure. But in the more than 100 North Dakota small “Class B” towns that field teams, basketball takes on a life of its own. Rag tag teams generate a kind of fandom generally reserved for sporting events of much larger scale and significance. Entire towns turn out for home games, portable bleacher chairs in tow, past “Region Champs” t-shirts proudly worn.
There's nothing exceptional about the physicality of it all. High school gymnasiums in Class B towns are, more often than not, decades old and a little cramped. The athletes are teenagers—many of them extremely talented in their own right—but teenagers nonetheless. The games can often be lopsided, and some years, squads see an entire season will go by without tallying a single mark in the win column.
Sometimes, what makes a thing special is not what you can see—but what can only be felt.
I've taken in my fair share of Class B basketball games over the years. I met my husband in one of those cramped gymnasiums when we were still in junior high. I watched him play scores of games as a guard on a fledgling Class B varsity program some 15 years ago. Today, our three kids and I often follow him to those same small town gyms where, as our kids coined it years ago, Daddy “blows his whistle” as a referee. And we love it.
There's always popcorn, of course, and the occasional taco-in-a-bag. Sometimes, there's a pep band, doing a slightly off-key variation of “On Wisconsin” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” And though the number of games I've seen is well into the hundreds, no two contests have ever played out the same.
But no matter what the town, team, or talent, one thing is always constant: there's deep hometown pride hanging so thick in the air you can practically slice it.
Maybe it's a function of the small, tight-knit communities that rally around these teams.
Maybe it's the nostalgia of past graduates who played in these gyms—10, 20, 50 years ago—who now proudly pack the bleachers to cheer for their kids and grandkids, neighbors and friends.
Maybe it's the thrill of the unpredictable competitiveness that plays out night after night, in contest after contest.
But maybe the magic of North Dakota Class B basketball is the very fact that we cannot properly define it.
Maybe it is something that instead, defines us.
This post is sponsored by a grant from North Dakota Tourism. All opinions are my own.