Members of the Machias Memorial High School boys' basketball team celebrate after defeating Greenville in the 2017 Class D state championship at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.


February 2022 rolls in and, just as soon as the candy hearts have been eaten, the basketballs are let loose and that distinctive “swishhhh” echoes statewide as tournament season ramps up into high gear.

This month’s lead-up and weeklong schedule of basketball games remind me of the excitement that arrives every autumn in the small Pennsylvania town where we raised our children. Along with cool temperatures, the high school football season —otherwise known as “Friday night lights” — would arrive, and our community was better for it.

Across the state of Maine, teams play tournament basketball during a winter break from school that begs the question: Which came first, the tournaments or the break? No matter, basketball players and fans look forward to this week as much as teachers, students and communities. Even more so today, given a pandemic that has shadowed our every move.

Whether the crowds are in a gym or a small high school football stadium, the games are a well-deserved break from the daily tedium of work, parenting and local news amidst the moving dynamics of a pandemic. It’s a chance for everyone to take a little time for themselves, family and the kids. Sport is all about the kids, right? Well, not exactly.

Ask anyone sitting in the stands what brings them to the game. If they’re honest, they’ll admit it’s not only a mild distraction from the day, but it’s also a chance to see and perhaps recapture some sport’s magic from past glory days — and maybe even see some new ones made along the way.

If anything can bring people together it is local sports. Football is still the draw in Pennsylvania cities and rural towns, and it’s been that way for a long time. The other sports are well represented but lack the buzz a football game brings to the start of a weekend.

Both of our children were very active in sports. When they were in high school, a basketball game at one school to see one play preceded a mad dash across town to see the other play later that evening. Football games drove me crazy as a parent. I could not sit in the stands.  A quarterback’s father’s nervous habit would find me walking the field’s perimeter while the game was played.

Here Down East, basketball is that sport. Down East crowds can get loud and serious all at the same time. Other sports are here, too, but basketball is everywhere. Even though Washington County is large, the schools and their pool of players are small; yet the heart and grit displayed are always big and bold. And, like in other places, rooting for the underdog here feels just as good as in Anyplace, USA.

Speaking about that underdog feeling, this year marks 42 years since the “miracle” in Lake Placid at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Many of us know where we were when that ragtag group of amateur college hockey players beat the five-time gold medal professionals of the Soviet Union, which today is recognized as the greatest upset in sports history.

Closer to home, the boys’ basketball team from Machias Memorial High School has finished the regular season with a perfect 15-0 record, while the girls basketball team finished with a 12-4 record going into the playoffs. This year’s tournament season will surely feature some proverbial upsets along the way in some of the games played across the state. No matter the outcome for any team, the fan keeps coming back and the community always respects the effort.

A line from a movie stuck with me years ago about why someone would still watch something after the pundits predicted its outcome. In the movie, a co-worker tells his friend— a wrestler who is an hour away from the match of his life — why he has taken the night off of work to go watch the match, and why he lost a night’s wages, got a haircut and got dressed up to see the match. The wrestler laments that it’s only a six-minute match. And his friend replies, “It’s not the six minutes, dummy, it’s what happens in those six minutes.”

I think that is how most of us feel when attending any event involving people doing something they love to do. We go and watch others on the basketball court, baseball diamond, football and soccer fields, wrestling mat, swimming pool, track, at recitals and competitions of all types. Seeing others doing things we have done before, or only dream of doing ourselves, makes it better for all of us, no matter the outcome.

It is that inherent “what if” of sports that keeps us coming back for that buzzer-beater shot, last-second goal, “Hail-Mary” pass and catch or seeing someone get back up after being knocked down. All of it keeps us coming back for more and just maybe another opportunity to hear someone say, ”Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.