You could feel the electricity. It danced along the rafters where pennants from past championships hung, sashayed through the balcony where the grownups sat and then skittered through the frenzied, war-painted, gold-clad student body.
This was inside the Eagles Nest on Thursday night, where the Lakewood St. Edward High Eagles played host to Campbell Hall Episcopal, a perennial North Hollywood (Calif.) powerhouse.
Both schools came into the game highly ranked in the USA Today Top 25 High School Basketball Poll and both schools had a glamour player already signed, sealed and delivered to big-time college teams.
Campbell Hall featured Jrue Holiday, a 6-foot-4 senior guard headed to UCLA and St. Ed`s featured Delvon Roe, a 6-9 senior forward headed to Michigan State. Spartan coach Tom Izzo was part of the standing-room-only throng.
There was some added jazz to the night. The game, which had been sold out for days, was being carried nationwide by ESPN. What`s cooler than that? Advertising banners for Old Spice and Nike were plastered everywhere.
You can, with a giant shoehorn, squeeze almost 2,500 into The Nest. The shoehorn was employed Thursday night, and then carted awayÂ to the schools` basement.
Big game, big stars, big crowd, big shoehorn, big banners hanging from the rafters, big-time coaches in attendance, big-time ESPN. All in all, a very-big-deal night at the ol` Nest.
A night when expectation shook hands with the electricity and both came away with a delightful tingle.
"WE ARE -- ST. ED`S -- WE ARE -- ST. ED`S -- WE ARE --"
The chant from the gold-clad St. Ed`s student body reverberated through the house. Teams going through their layup drills. Some oohs and aahs at the dunks.
There`s something about Catholic school basketball that sticks to my ribs like a bowl of oatmeal. It`s solid, it`s pure, it`s nourishing and downright good for the soul.
Probably goes back to my formative years growing up in Philly. There`s a wonderful old barn of a place downtown called The Palestra. It was old when I was a kid. Philly`s Big 5 would square off there: LaSalle, St. Joe`s Villanova, Temple, Penn. Cram maybe 10,000 in there with standing room and the place starts rocking with chants.
"THE HAWK -- WILL NEVER DIE -- THE HAWK -- WILL NEVER DIE -- THE HAWK ..."
Would be the chant from the St. Joe`s side of the Palestra. Big game that night against LaSalle and LaSalle`s All-American, Tom Gola. The game fades in memory, but not the sights and sounds.
Is all testosterone and mocking chants back and forth. Catholic school pride. Deep-throated male voices raised in unison. Student body paying attention to the game. No giggling back and forth with friends looking over the crowd to see if Heather or Courtney or Jason has showed up yet, like at a public school game.
"I wanna go to Villanova some day, dad," I said once.
Fat chance. Was raised Catholic because my mom insisted on it. My dad and his dad weren`t anything. Maybe Agnostic. Long story short: If they were going to be paying for college, it sure as hell wouldn`t be so that I could go to Villanova - or any other - damn Catholic school.
"Ya got that, Sonny?"
My mom won the high school battle, though. Which is how I wound up at St. Ed`s. My senior year we had a player who got a scholarship to Le Moyne College. Another wound up getting a full ride to little St. Edward University in Austin, Texas. Was a big deal back in the day.
This St. Ed`s team has Roe going to Michigan State -- the 6-9 center-power forward Tom Pritchard on a full ride to Indiana -- and point guard Frankie Dobbs being hounded by every mid-major between Xavier and Bowling Green.
Was as good a high school game as any I`ve seen - and that`s going some because it was St. Ed`s first of the season. The Eagles had some rust. Campbell Hall was unbeaten through four games. Game went into overtime. Nothing`s cooler than an overtime game on a school night. The Eagles won 78 to 73.
Some impressions: Holiday will be something else at UCLA. Probably All-Pac-10 his freshman year. He can put a move on you and he can launch rainbow jumpers like he keeps them in his hip pocket. "There`s plenty more where that came from --"
The surprise of the night was Pritchard. Gonna be a solid Big Ten player. He has muscle and moves, and he`s fearless. Up in the balcony someone says, "That big ol`, corn-fed, country boy is sumpthin` else."
On this night he was all of that. Try 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Delvon Roe. Big, rangy kid. No question he has game. His stats for the night: 18 points, 12 rebounds, five blocked shot and six assists. For a big guy, he can dish it pretty smooth.
Here`s the thing: Some of us came away disappointed. Too much of Roe`s game is underneath the hoop. There are too many things he does not yet do well. He doesn`t seem to possess that mid-range 10-to-15-foot jumper. His free throws get offered up like flapjacks coming off a spatula. No rotation, no finesse. Just: here ya go. Tryin` one.
Roe also doesn`t seem to be the sort of player who can take a game over -- break a defensive player down, then explode around him or over him. You`d think so, `cept he doesn`t.
Part of that is because St. Ed`s coach Eric Flannery has a well-disciplined, unselfish team that gets its impetus off its defense. Defense first, then offense, style points a distant third.
It has always been so. It was that way when Flannery had the Steve Logan-Sam Clancy-Steve Lepore trio that won the state championship back when Flannery was a second-year coach at Ed`s. He looked about 15 years old then, Flannery did. (Looks maybe 25 now if he forgets to shave the day before.)
When it was over the kids in gold T-shirts and war paint shrieked and danced and mugged for the ESPN cameras and came down out of the stands to pound the backs and shoulders of their fabulous five and their coach.
"WE ARE -- ST. ED`S -- WE ARE --"
A little tremor of pride shimmied down my spine like a caterpillar.
We stood in the mezzanine, watching the scene unfold beneath us. Bill, his eyes cast toward the ceiling of The Nest, remarked: "It still looks like the old Boston Garden with all those banners."
The banners are all for state hockey and wrestling championships - plus the one state basketball pennant which Flannery and Logan and Clancy & Co. put there.
Dennis, who went to St. Ignatius, put a wicked little smile on his face that showed a lot of teeth and said, "I`ll betcha anything St. Ed`s would trade in every one of those banners for just one state football championship banner."
A Catholic school dig. We helped each other laugh.
"(Bleep) you, Dennis," we said.
The Catholic school pride thing. Like the St. Joe hawk, it never dies. It may fade away, but on nights like this it comes back. Never fails.
You had to have been there, I guess. At a Catholic school, I mean.
Contact Doug Clarke at email@example.com.