My Alma Mater Reminds Me Why I Love Sports — and Community

–Note: My apologies, this is pretty long and written as much for my old home town as my new one. But I hope you’ll indulge me. Its about things that are important: home, America, basketball, etc.

9/365: Score!Conrad James, all 6-4, 275 pounds of him, jerked the top of his tent-like Palatka High jersey over his head to hide his face.

It was the most inelegant act his giant hands committed in the entire game–the 4A semifinal of the state basketball tournament at the Lakeland Center. When James wasn’t in foul trouble, the massive center played with a violinist’s hands and feline feet. He spun; he drove through the heart of dense, suffocating 2-3 zone; he snatched rebounds from taller guys; and he shot free throws so soft and flat I thought once he might make the ball balance on the front of the rim.

“No. 24 (James) is almost unguardable,” said the coach of the opposing team, Cardinal Gibbons Prep. “Our outlook was to try to get him in foul trouble.”

That outlook worked. James could only dominate in spurts. And now, still on the floor with four fouls, he had watched Joc Peeples, one of Palatka’s guards, graze the boundary line just in front of the Palatka bench before spinning to take last second shot — which missed anyway. The Fighting Panthers were finally out of chances. Just .3 seconds remained, enough only for an inbound play. Defeat and accountability stormed across James’ face. He had been in foul trouble, and he knew it. It cost his team, and he knew it. He was despondent.

But time remained. It’s physically impossible to make a steal, turn, and shoot in 3/10ths of a second, but the Panthers needed to go out on the floor one more time. You finish the game; that’s part of playing. And so Conrad James pulled himself together, straightened his jersey, and joined his teammates on the floor. He bumped somewhat roughly into a Cardinal Gibbons player, one of the many he’d battled all game, and quickly put a virtuoso hand gently on the player’s shoulder. My bad. An accident. The player returned the gesture. Gibbons inbounded the ball. The horn sounded. And that was it. Palatka High’s first-ever trip to the high school basketball Final Four as an integrated school (It became Palatka’s only high school in 1977) was over.

I graduated from Palatka High in 1990. If I remember this right, we had a great basketball team in my junior year, 1989, which got upset in the district finals and missed the playoffs. One of the star players of that team was a guy named Donald Lockhart, who dunked on people like it was his job. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered Friday that Donald was one of the assistant coaches for this year’s PHS team. The head coach is Lamar Purifoy, who served as one of the student managers of my high school baseball team. He was a nice, serious guy in 1989 and 1990, and by all accounts he remains so today. His game-coaching style is as reserved and dignified as his personality. And it works. In two years as PHS head coach, he’s gone something like 51-6. That’s all the more impressive when you realize how bad Palatka was in hoops for a really long time. The PHS athletic director is Matt McCool, a longtime friend I’ve known probably since I was 10. We played baseball together and spent countless hours of pickup hoops in my parents’ driveway. Matt was a hard-throwing pitcher (could hit 90) and went on to play for the University of North Florida with several other of my friends. Matt’s dad coached Palatka High’s football team — as well my sister and me in various sports.

All of them, by the way, are public employees getting fat and rich off spending countless barely paid hours working with young men. Where were you, Tea Party jackassess, when Lamar Purifoy tutored Conrad James on his drop step and the need to finish the game with his head up? Probably whining about keeping government out of your Medicare. But I digress.

My uncle Tom Townsend was elected superintendent of Putnam County schools in 2008. I actually learned from him on Thursday about the Panthers’ great run, and I decided to cheer them on in person at the Lakeland Center Friday. I’m so glad I did. I couldn’t be prouder of all those guys I grew up with, as well as the kids on the team. There’s something indescribable about watching your history and community continue itself and succeed without you. I left Palatka a long time ago, but it’s the biggest part of who I am. And I will always root for it and my friends and family.

palatka muralI got to thinking about this during the game. The class contrast between the schools playing could not have been more obvious. Palatka High is a one-high-school town’s public high school. No private alternative exists, except for a few very small religious schools. There’s no fancy charter high school. PHS takes everybody. And as such, it reflects the strengths and struggles of an economically-drifting, multi-ethnic small southern town, with below average median education credentials. [That does not mean below average smarts or talents. If I’ve learned anything about life, it’s that credentials are often crap, as is our fake “meritocracy.”]

Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons is a $9,500 per year Catholic prep school in relatively affluent south Florida. Now, I’m not about to slag off on Catholic prep schools. The Catholic Church in America has a long, proud history of providing an expensive, quality education to kids without the means to afford it. Three nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph order went to jail in 1916 because the had the temerity to educate young black students in Jacksonville. I don’t know enough about Cardinal Gibbons’ practices and history to go all class warfare here. I do wonder if a skinny kid who stands 5-1, but has great potential as a writer in 6th grade, has anything approaching the same shot of getting a $9,500/year education at Cardinal Gibbons as a kid with great jumping ability and a silky shot.

As an aside, Palatka, between 1924 and 1928, was the heart of the worst Ku Klux Klan violence in Florida history. Much of it targeted Catholics as well as blacks and even Greeks. So it’s a bit delicious to note that the town’s big integrated high school played a stirring state semifinal game against a big Catholic school, whose team was full of young black men–and no one cared or even really noticed. Just a hard fought game. Many brave Palatkans, black and white and otherwise, drove the Klan out of power in Palatka in 1928 (I’m writing a book partially about that). I can think of no better testament to their lasting victory than how little that history figured in Friday’s game. Only a few bastards spinning in their graves — and me, I guess — noticed.

However, obscure historical pleasures aside, the game did reflect a modern reality and probably the central challenge we face as a country. No matter how we dress it up, no matter how progressive and egalitarian Cardinal Gibbons strives to be, here’s the bottom line: Gibbons is a school designed to keep kids out, which is what all private schools ultimately sell; Palatka High’s very existence is premised on bringing all kids in, which is what America ultimately sells. The crowds cheering on the players reflected this, as did the players themselves. All you had to do was look at them to understand that you were watching a marketplace compete with a community.

Physically, Conrad James was the only Palatka High player who could go measurement for measurement with the Cardinal Gibbons players. If Palatka had any other kid taller than 6-1 who played any minutes, I need my eyes checked. Gibbons players’ had three, four, five inches on the Panthers at almost every position. I kept telling Tom, “I can’t believe how small they are.”

But one shouldn’t overdo the David v. Goliath angle here. PHS actually had a better record during the season than Gibbons, and nobody on Gibbons’ team could line up against a Panther in a 40-yard-dash. PHS played withering end-to-end, man-to-man defense the entire game. I have no idea how you get into that kind of shape, but it must require ridiculous discipline and pain. I would hate, hate to bring the ball up against those tasmanian devils. Palatka’s game is to harass, create turnovers, get transition points, and just wear teams out. They wanted to go up and down the court.

Gibbons wanted to walk the ball up, spread the floor on offense, and run lots of back cuts. They played the opposite of frenetic. On defense, they played a tight 2-3 zone, daring Palatka to shoot and hoping the Panthers would get impatient and make some bad decisions. Palatka wanted to play as high-scoring a game as possible; Gibbons wanted to play in the 30s and 40s.

It was deeply entertaining to watch the teams try to impose their wills on each other. Both succeeded at various times. Palatka forced many turnovers, far more than the Gibbons coach expected, he said later. But I was actually impressed with how well Palatka played even when Gibbons slowed the game down. I thought the Panthers attacked the zone quite well and got a number of really good shots, which is the sign of a smart, well-coached team. Unfortunately, with Conrad James on the bench, a bunch of 6-1 guys were trying to finish at the basket against a bunch of 6-5 and 6-6 guys. The Panthers missed a number of tough layups. Not bad shots, just altered enough by height to miss. That was one big deciding factor as Gibbons built a 12-point lead through the middle of the game. And frankly, it’s what big private schools pay for. They pay to make sure they have tall athletic guys who can affect layups.

Crucially, Gibbons made a few threes through the middle of the game, and Palatka didn’t. Watching the way the Panthers missed their shots–consistently off the front of the rim–I’m pretty convinced they were bedeviled by the open space behind the hoop in the Lakeland Center. If you’re accustomed to playing in a gym rather than an arena, it’s easy for the broad open space to bumfuzzle your depth perception. I played a charity game once at the Orlando Arena and couldn’t believe how much the setting affected my shot. It almost gives you vertigo. But no excuses here. Gibbons managed to overcome it and make some big outside shots. Meanwhile, Palatka didn’t seem to get comfortable with outside looks until the fourth quarter when they hit two threes that helped key their big comeback. It also coincided with Lamar Purifoy’s crafty decision to start running Conrad James in and out of the game — subbing in for offense and pulling him out on defense. If only they could have done both of those things a little sooner…Ces’t la vie.

Anyway, Gibbons thought it had put the game away several times, and several times, Palatka made plays to get back in it. The Panthers had the ball with a chance to tie or win with 30 seconds to go and again with 8 seconds. For various reasons, they never got off a good shot.

Afterward, the Gibbons coach told the Palatka Daily News:

“They didn’t quit. There is no dog in that team. That school, that coach, that community has something to be proud of.”

That’s damn right. And let’s call a spade a spade. It’s simply a much greater achievement for a one-high school small town to produce a team that can go point-for-point with a bunch of taller kids recruited from all over. I don’t care what happened in the game. Lamar Purifoy outcoached the hell out of the Gibbons coach. And I don’t mean that as an insult to Gibbons. I’ve got no inherent problem with how they do things, as long as they acknowledge Palatka’s model is far harder and provides far more lasting value to far more people. Yet, that’s almost never acknowledged.

Our culture is designed to take note only of the final scoreboard, to reward people who do it the easy way. Winner takes all. Marketplace versus community. We, as a country, need to understand and acknowledge the differences between those two concepts and stop rewarding and celebrating legal cheating. Team stacking and cream skimming–in all its forms–need to cease as national values. The marketplace should bolster the community, not sneer at it, or eviscerate it, as it so often does. See Academy, McKeel. See Scott, Rick. See Street, Wall.

florida's oldest dinerI visit Palatka quite a bit–at least several times a year. My parents still live there, as does much of my extended family and many of my childhood and high school friends. I’ve been struck in recent years by the sense of pessimism and resignation there that I’ve picked up from people of all races and classes. It may just be a question of growing older and seeing life’s possibilities constrained. Anybody who lives to 40 or so with any honesty will get humbled by life, whether they live in Palatka, Lakeland, or New York City. But it seems particularly acute in Palatka. I suspect that the looming realization that the country’s economic patterns are increasingly hostile to traditional model of life in small industrial towns plays a role. Palatka has one major private sector employer–the Georgia Pacific paper mill–that has provided a middle class lifestyle for a large number of people without college educations. People with college educations, like me, tend to leave.

Other than that, like most small towns, government, in all its forms, is the dominant economic engine. Cops, teachers, emergency workers, and coaches are the backbone of Palatka. For the college educated who stay, the public school system is by far the single most important economic force and largest single employer. I think there’s a sense of unease, particularly after the economic collapse of 2008, about how long that economic model–GP plus government–can last. And Palatka, like America, has become less white over the years. It’s now a hodgepodge of multiple demographics. Finally, I think Palatka shares a sometimes paralyzing cognitive dissonance with much of the country in professing a hatred of government while benefitting and earning a paycheck from it for important community work. I think “conservatives” there are learning some very painful lessons very slowly about what they think they believe.

In any event, I go to Palatka and hear about the Oxycontin problem from my friends. Or I hear how violent and racially divided Palatka High is. One local businessman, if I remember this right, used the phrase “slaughtering each other” to describe kids at PHS. Now look, I won’t for a second deny the very real drug and racial problems that any economically-challenged small town where people interact with one another will have. Kids, like adults, will organize themselves by tribe. And they will fight. And I know there have been occasional incidents at the high school in recent years. But they’re not “slaughtering each other.” You couldn’t have had a more well-behaved group of kids than those who attended the game.

And whatever strife there may be at PHS is not new, nor is it chronic and unresolvable.

I attended Palatka High in the late 80s, in the heart of the crack age, which absolutely flooded small towns with violence and social destruction. I don’t have the stats handy, but I’d wager a lot of money that Palatka crime is down significantly today from what it was then. Back then, I watched a number of nice guys, of all races, with whom I attended elementary school, with whom I sung in choirs, with whom I played youth sports, disappear into crack highs and money and the drug war. I watched two of my good friends, one black and one white, get into a brief fistfight in leftfield during a baseball practice. They were arguing over a very serious, very violent racially-based fight that happened earlier in the day at school. Their teammates, black and white, broke their fight up. We, as a team, worked through it. We won the district championship that year. And we, as a school, worked through it. We danced together at prom; we hugged and high-fived together after graduation. We made bawdy, totally inappropriate racial and ethnic and social type jokes about each other, to each other’s faces. And we laughed, most of the time. And we’re still standing. A lot of those guys and girls I went to school with became the men and women cheering on Conrad James and the rest of fighting Panthers. Those of us in the Palatka diaspora should be very proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves.

2005_RiverfrontBeyond its people, Palatka has quite a bit going for it, actually. It sits on a beautiful stretch of the St. Johns River. Good four-lane roads now connect it Jacksonville, Gainesville, and St. Augustine. Drive through the downtown, and it doesn’t seem particularly bleak. It’s more vibrant than when I left in 1999. And it has some decent playgrounds and athletic facilities, including the lovely Ravine Gardens state park.

Anyway, the last thing anybody in Palatka needs from me, who left in 1999 rather than stick it out and fight for the success of that community, is some pedantic lecture or pep talk. I hope people will read this instead as an appreciation and kind of a love letter. Neither Palatka nor America has ever been kumbaya. It takes fire to make the pot melt, after all. This is what we do. We throw all of us together in all our impossibly different types; we fight; and we work it out. It’s rarely pretty. But it can be. And what’s the alternative?

Palatka, like all communities, can’t make itself into a marketplace. And America, at its best, does not hide from itself behind gates.

I mentioned my uncle Tom Townsend before. He got elected Putnam County school superintendent in 2008. That puts him in nominal control of the most important economic and social force in Putnam County, of which Palatka is the county seat. He does not have a four-year college degree. He was a parent volunteer who came to see the administration of the previous superintendent, who I also know quite well, as unresponsive to large portions of the Putnam community and to parents generally. Tom ran for school board and won and then ran for superintendent and won. He’s a brilliant natural politician and organizer. No one, even his many critics, doubts his brainpower.

I think Tom’s administration is one of the truly fascinating stories in education that you will ever find. He’s an unabashed, unapologetic liberal Catholic Democrat in rural north Florida. People called him “Tombama” in 2008. Yet, the conservative state education department loves him. It awarded him the state’s first-ever District Data Leader of the Year award in 2010.

Here’s a passage from the press release:

In his nearly two years of service as Putnam County’s superintendent of schools, Mr. Townsend has been a strong supporter of financial planning and transparency in the local public school system. His leadership in the creation of the Learning Gains Index, which quantifies teacher effectiveness in terms of student growth, has helped to better inform his educators about their work in the classroom by examining average student growth per teacher using FCAT scores.

Now, I’m something of a skeptic about FCAT scores as tool of evaluation, but my understanding is that Tom’s data plan does some pretty sophisticated things in measuring where a kid starts and ends and how a teacher contributed. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you that administration tends to be a bigger problem than teachers. As you can imagine from that little background, Tom has managed to anger virtually everyone in Putnam County at one time or another since his election. The teachers union, business community, and local newspaper have been particularly hostile to his plans. The 2012 election will be bloody, I’m sure. The head coach of my district championship baseball team, who did a number of very nice things for me and whose son was one of my best friends in high school, has emerged as one of Tom’s toughest critics. He may run against him, I hear. Such are the endless complications of home.

[one_half]I’m not really in any position to judge the merits of the criticism, with the exception of the newspaper performance. The Palatka Daily News has disgraced itself repeatedly with its dishonesty and irrational hostility toward Tom’s administration, treating it with clearly different standards than it treats everyone else. Coverage seems dictated entirely by how much tax money the school district is willing to spend on pointless advertising–not much, as I understand it. The paper’s performance has left me deeply embarrassed to admit I started my reporting career there. If it sounds like I’m accusing publisher Rusty Starr of selling out every aspect of the journalistic mission, it’s because I am. (And no, I didn’t run this by Tom or write this at his behest. He’ll probably be mad at me.) Palatka, as a community, deserves better than the pathetic excuse for a paper it has now. Long ago, despite Rusty, we used to give it much better.[/one_half]


Here’s the bottom line: Gibbons is a school designed to keep kids out, which is what all private schools ultimately sell; Palatka High’s very existence is premised on bringing all kids in, which is what America ultimately sells.


Whatever happens with Tom in 2012, whatever the ultimate success or failure of his plans, whatever his personal faults, I feel very comfortable saying this:

That community had settled into a sense of pessimistic complacency, signaled primarily by its school system, which propped up its economy. The tax money came in regularly, and it went out regularly: to teachers, to administrators, to realtors, to newspapers, to insurance providers, to car dealers. Like I said, school systems tend to be the largest economic engines of small towns. And institutions tend to get run for the benefit of the people who run them or benefit the most financially from them. For a long time, not enough attention was paid to what Putnam Schools as an institution produced as long as the checks flowed. The parents don’t care. Why should I care? There was a lot of that kind of talk, I think. I heard some of it myself.

And then along came Tom, and he found parents that did care. He eventually found an electoral majority that wanted to care more about the entire community, not just the same old groups that controlled the shrinking pie. His entire administration is based on the idea that Palatka and Putnam County, as communities, are worth pissing people off. He has done that, and he will continue, I’m sure. It may cost him his job in 2012.

It’s a silly metaphor, but Tom’s calling for everybody in his community to play as hard as those kids on the Palatka High basketball team. If you’re a teacher, step it up. If you’re a principal, do your job and stop whining about the union rules. If you’re an insurance provider in this community, give us a better price. Stop blaming each other. Keep coming back. If you lose that way, at least you lose with your head up.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter of Palatka’s game, Tom ran down to the front of the Palatka crowd, right behind the Palatka bench, and started flapping his arms like a chicken to get the crowd up. Right about the time he got there, Conrad James got a three-point play under the basket, and the Palatka section roared to its feet. When Tom came back to his seat, he told me:

“We got ’em up, didn’t we?”

I said, “Well, Conrad did, at least.”

He joked back at me, “I’m a politician. It’s all about timing.”

There no magic fixes for Palatka or small towns or America. But there are a lot of people who live in them worth cheering for, worth pushing ourselves for, worth pissing everybody off for. That’s why I’m rooting for Tom. And if he goes down in 2012, I hope whoever comes after is willing to stand like an idiot in front of his or her community and get it up on its feet for the work that Lamar Purifoy is doing. That’s leadership.

Go Panthers.

Creative Commons License goal photo credit: Hanna Pritchett

Creative Commons License Angel’s Restaurant & Mural photo credit: Romana Klee

Creative Commons License aerial photo credit: imagelane

One thought on “My Alma Mater Reminds Me Why I Love Sports — and Community

  1. Inspiring and Courages, You can only hope that this piece reaches and changes at least some, job well done. Thank you

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