Another Maine high school basketball tournament week has come and gone. Credit (or blame) technology, if you will, but I don’t feel as if I missed much.

Yes, that statement is open to multiple interpretations. Maybe it’s an accurate depiction of my emotions on multiple levels.

I get the impression from some of the dedicated folks who encouraged and supported my work when I was a full-time member of the state’s hardest-working sports department that this week was some sort of milestone. A litmus test, if you will, of my commitment to a new area code and a new way of life.

In other words, y’all thought I’d be back by now. Or at least many of you did. I could read between the lines of your social media messages, public and private, in the past dozen-or-so days. “We miss you” posts. Screen shots of Bim Gibson and me from our annual MPBN meeting-of-the-mindless.

With sincere affection, I reciprocated. Of course, I missed the people. Sure, I missed the back-slap from everybody and their brother as they walked behind media row. I missed Dirigo super-fan Bev Glover’s annual gift of whoopee pies. I missed interviewing the victorious tri-county kids who were perceptive enough to know that I was on their side, even as I tried like heck not to let those feelings creep into my written work.

Forever it has been the interactions with the people behind the ropes — not the activity on the court — that makes the Maine high school basketball tournament a special event. And it shall remain that way for as long as there is such an animal.

There is no use pretending that it didn’t feel slightly weird not being in Augusta when the doors opened two Thursday afternoons ago. The last time I missed a Western/Southern Maine tournament in its entirety was 1985. I was 12. My family had tickets to the Daytona 500, and we spent a week chasing rides at the Walt Disney theme parks when it was over. Not a bad alternative.

Now, back to the future. By later that Thursday evening, I was in the heart of basketball heaven — Lexington, Kentucky — watching the top-ranked boys’ basketball team in the state do its thing. This past Tuesday and Friday, evenings were occupied watching the boys’ and girls’ teams from our high school hammer their way to “district” titles. There wasn’t much time, or need, to get nostalgic or wistful.

The high school tournament is a predictably tradition-rich but almost painfully drawn-out process here. There is no February vacation. You don’t drive to one of three venues in the state, camp out all day for eight consecutive days, then twiddle your thumbs the next six weeks. Neither format is necessarily right or wrong. They’re just … different.

Thanks to those differences, and by the grace of my internet connection, I digested my fair share of hoops Americana from Augusta, Portland and Bangor. Old friends Matt Boutwell, Ryan Palmer and the gang at Sports Time 780 did a smack-up job. Contrary to some of the bellyaching I read online, the streaming video and corresponding commentary were sensational, from my vantage point. Everybody involved made me feel as if I were there.

It was both comforting and concerning to see that nothing has changed. The event and all its pageantry are fun and exciting as ever. The actual product on the floor? Well, I’m sorry, but it’s atrocious.

No, that’s not the recycled assessment of someone who has moved to a bigger pond and pretends to have seen the light. It’s consistent with my voice-in-the-wilderness cries for help in this space for the past decade.

With the exception of the 1 to 2 percent of players who aspire to a collegiate career, offensive skills in Maine high school basketball are sorely lacking. Coaches know this, and because they are no dummies, they have adjusted their defensive tactics accordingly.

The result: Unwatchable games, irrespective of gender, in which the winning team almost always scores in the 30s or 40s. Offensive fouls at the rate of one per minute, because by golly, Joe or Jill can’t throw the ball in the ocean, but they can be taught to draw a change. Which, in turn, puts an already alarmingly small pool of officials in the position of deciding more contests than ever.

Down here in the Bluegrass, they score at will, both in the half court and in transition, and yes, by any naked-eye assessment, the game is played at a higher level. Girls’ basketball, in particular, is sensational.

But I don’t think any of that is because this place inherently harbors better athletes. They just care more. Pickup games are still a thing. Hoops in driveways still get used. The season isn’t confined to a nine-week window. The top Division I prospects still associate more closely with their hometown team than their AAU squad.

It’s all stuff that you could control. That’s the good news. But it also would require real change, and embracing the ways of the past, two things that run contrary to current human nature. That’s the bad news.

If all goes well, soon as I hit the ‘send’ button on this column, I’ll get to enjoy three more weeks of tournament basketball. This, after our high school teams have already played 32 games. And I will do so while all my old friends watch the snow melt and pine for any signs of basketball season to which they can attach their trembling, frostbitten fingers.

Ask me if I miss that.

Kalle Oakes covered every basketball tournament for the Sun Journal from 1990 to 2016. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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