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Girmindl's Ghost

A diary of Shaker High School's 2005-2006 basketball season, a retelling of Shaker's fabled 1979-1980 season, and general commentary on high school hoops, updated daily...


"I like sitting in the back row. I found that sitting against the wall is just easier on your back." -Dean Smith, on the comfort of the H-gym bleachers

Girmindl's Ghost

Girmindl's Ghost, An Essay:

INTRODUCTION

This essay is about the strange way that the story of the 1979-80 Shaker boys varsity basketball team hangs over Shaker basketball to this day. It is divided into three parts. Part I, titled "The Missing Evidence," is a discussion of the mystery that surrounds the 1979-80 team. Part II, title "The Long Shadow" is about the way the 1979-80 team lingers in the collective memory of Shaker basketball. Part III, titled "Girmindl's Ghost" is a set of simple suggestions for getting out of the shadow and properly celebrating the 1979-80 team. (Also, be sure to check out the H-gym new gym photo essay, which is helpful during the below discussion of the trophy case.)

Part I: The Missing Evidence

Considering how freakin’ good they were, the strangest thing about Shaker's 1979-80 team is that it's not easy to figure out what happened to them. It’s like a big secret. And it’s one of the reasons I'm writing this blog. Ask anyone - and I mean anyone - about Shaker basketball and it's bound to come up at some point that "Sam Perkins went to Shaker." Ask them if the team was good when Sam was there, and they'll answer "yes, very good." Then ask them if they won the state title. Most likely the answer will be, "Geez, I don't really know. I don't think so. I’m not sure." That’s the bottom line – almost everyone knows that Sam Perkins went to Shaker and the Bison had a fantastic team, but almost no one can tell you how far they got in the state playoffs.

If you talk to someone with a little more knowledge of the team, you're bound to hear things like this: "Shaker in 1979-80 was the best team I ever saw," or "they won their games by an average of 27 points," or "They had a front line bigger than most college teams," or "Did you know they were ranked #1 in the state and #11 in the nation that year?" And, as it turns out, all of those things are true. But then if you ask the same person if they won the state title, you'll get something like, "no, i think they got upset by Mount Vernon in the playoffs," or "No, they all got the flu and were sick as dogs during the playoffs"** But you can usually hear in their voice that they aren’t really sure what happened. It’s really uncanny. It’s like classified information. What the hell happened to the 1979-80 Shaker boys varsity basketball team? The team that everyone knows had Sam Perkins, the team that was ranked #11 in the nation, the team that won its games by an average margin of 27.8 points, the team that had a frontline size of 6’9”, 6’7”, and 6’6”. What happened?


The answer is that they lost. The greatest team in section two history, and one of the best teams in the nation, simply got outplayed one night and lost to a vastly inferior team. They never played for the state title. To get all the painful details, you'll have to read Girmindl’s Ghost in March. But that's not what this essay is about. This essay is about the way that the 1979-80 team is remembered and lives on in the collective mind of Shaker basketball ever since they played their last game on March 11, 1980.

In a nutshell, it’s not remembered. At least not publicly, not the way it should be. Think about it: this is the greatest basketball team in the history of section two, and it's almost impossible to find out about the 1979-80 team by going over to the Shaker gym. . Go over there and try. Inside the gym, forget it: the only thing there related to the ’79-80 team is the banner that lists the basketball league championship years and sectional championship year. Ominously, 1980 isn’t on the banner. Outside the gym, you have two places where you can find stuff related to that team: you can look at the hall of fame and locate Sam's picture and Tim Cain’s picture, or you can go over to the far right end of the glass trophy case. There's some nice stuff there: Sam's varsity jersey (which by the way, deserves its own essay, as it's sized about as big as what a 5'11" player would wear these days), a picture of Coach Girmindl, the Capital Conference title plaque from the previous year, and a plaques with the team picture from 1979-80. Bend down and read the team picture plaque: it says the team was 23-1, ranked #1 in the state, and ranked #11 in the nation. No mention of what they were champions of. Nothing. Zero. A total tease. What happened?*** You just can’t find out by looking for it at Shaker, that’s for sure.

Another example. It's February 6, 1987. "Sam Perkins night" at Shaker. The gym is packed at 6:30 because between the JV and varsity game there is going to a ceremony honoring Sam, retiring his jersey, and opening up the brand new Shaker sports hall of fame.**** It's been 7 years since Sam played his last game at Shaker, and it was about time to honor him. He's been a star at Carolina, the captain of the gold medal Olympic team, and an NBA starter. It's a big deal. My dad and I got seats in the lower part of the Shaker student section and we thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I got Sam's autograph on my program later that night as he greeted people at the reception in the old gym. I still have the program. It's a collection of news clippings from the 1978-79 and 1979-80 season. A great read and a fun resource about Sam. But there's one clipping missing: the sectional finals from 1979-80. It's not there. In fact, there's no way to tell from the 40 page program how the 1979-80 team ended its season. What happened? You can’t figure it out from the Sam Perkins night program, that’s for sure.

In essence, we've collectively buried the story of the 1979-80 Shaker team. Even as we celebrate its greatness, the powers that be have chosen to forget its fortune. Maybe because it’s too painful to think about what happened in March, 1980. Maybe because there was an easy alternative: simply celebrate Sam. Put up his jersey in the display case, let everyone know that an NBA star went to Shaker, and just bury the misery of that loss where no one has to look at it.

But somehow, I think, that shortchanges the 1979-80 team. Because they lost, their story has largely been lost, blended in as a footnote to Sam's great career at Carolina, in the Olympics, and in the NBA. Instead of celebrating the 1979-80 team, we celebrate Sam. And that’s fine. Sam deserves all the recognition in the world. But the way all the memorials –as well as our collective memory - is set up right now, it looks like Sam Perkins was the big deal in 1979-80. And he certainly was. But that team was far greater than it’s superstar. It deserves more recognition. Personally, I'd love to have a huge memorial to that team, complete with a detailed story of their season, available on display down by the gym. Isn’t it a shame that everyone and their brother knows Sam went to Shaker, but almost no one knows anything else about the amazing team he played on?

Part II: The Long Shadow

If that was it, I’m not sure it would be all that big of a problem. But there's also another effect of all of this: even if we don’t talk about it, and even if we pretend they didn’t lose, everyone still knows in the back of their mind that Shaker once upon a time had a killer basketball team. And that killer basketball team – the one we all know was great but don’t have a clue about them otherwise – has become the benchmark for all Shaker teams since. And we’ve really created a monster. As good as the ’79-80 team was in reality, it has become 100 times as good in legend. And that legend – built because we’ve buried the story – has become the impossible benchmark against which Shaker basketball has since been judged. It’s downright eerie: by not talking about that team and by burying their story, a strange shadow is created over Shaker basketball, in which a team you celebrate but never talk about, that was great but never won the title, becomes the subconscious benchmark for all Shaker teams since. I call this phenomenon Girmindl’s Ghost.


If that sounds a little storybook-ish, well maybe it is. A lot of people play Shaker basketball who don't know a thing about the 1979-80 team, and a lot of people watch Shaker basketball who don't know a thing about the 1979-80 team, and so there's a lot of it that just goes under the rug. No big deal. But even people with just a small knowledge of Shaker basketball history - even people like me who weren't conscious of basketball in 1980 - definitely experience the shadow of the 1979-80 team.

To me, this shadow has two main psychological effects on Shaker basketball and its fans:

Effect #1) A pessimistic attitude about the ultimate goal. After all, if the greatest team ever to play Shaker basketball couldn’t deliver the state title, how could the current team, no matter how good it is?

You can't get to the adult section of the bleachers without passing by that tribute to the 1979-80 team. It's right by the door. You basically have to look at that #32 jersey, and you have to see the picture of Julius, and you have to - even if only for a moment - think about that team. But part of it is what you don't see that matters. Shouldn't there be a "State Champions 1980" banner hanging in the gym, beautifully framed behind the backboard or hanging from the rafters above the bleachers? And why does the banner in there listing the sectional titles not list 1979?

And then it hits you, like a ton of bricks – if they couldn’t win the state title, how in the hell is the current year’s team going to win the state title. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought this, and how many times I’ve heard people say this to me over the years. No matter how good Shaker’s team is in any given year, the entire fan base brings a defeatist attitude to the table. God, I do it every time I walk into the gym.


Effect #2) No matter how good the current team is, they are constantly judged in comparison against the 1979-80 team. This really came to a head in 1991-92, when Shaker won the sectional title for the first time with a little distance on the events of 1979-80. After every win, you'd hear the debate: how do you think they'd do against Perkins, Cain, and company. And ultimately, the legend of 1979-80 had grown so strong, that the answer was always a resounding, "not a chance."***** But the question was constant. I think I even remember the news asking poor Coach Holmes how he would compare the teams, despite his never having seen the 1979-80 team play! It didn't help that Shaker's star in 1992 - Reinis Kanders - was an exchange student from a far away place, instantly drawing comparisons to Perkins' move upstate from Brooklyn.

And then after Shaker won the sectional title, the dialogue changed a bit. It became very odd to compare the mighty 1979-80 team to the current team once the current team had done something the old team didn't. People who still wanted to talk the comparison would say thinigs like, "Damn, I wish the 1979-80 team had faced this year's competition." The tone changed. I'll never forget walking out of the season-ending loss to in the state regionals in 1992 and hearing someone tell my dad, "Perkins could have beat them," meaning the 1979-80 team would have beaten the day's opponent. It was fitting. With Shaker at the pinnacle of local basketball once again, with a great new coach and a fantastic team, the shadow was stronger than ever. And you see it a bit already with the current team.

Nowadays, 25 years later, you don't get as much direct comparison. There are just fewer people around who witnessed both teams compared to 1991. But you still get it. Brad is compared all the time to Perkins, who is still often mentioned in articles, TV stories, and internet discussions about the team, particularly because Brad chose an ACC school. It just won't stop.

All of this – both the missing evidence and the long shadow – is reinforced by a third aspect of Girmindl’s Ghost, which is not an effect but a mitigating factor:

The death of, and subsequent tributes to, Coach Girmindl. Julius Girmindl - coach of the 1979-80 team, was a great basketball coach and also a personal friend of my parents. He died just a few years after the 1979-80 season, before the Hall of Fame was ever built and the tribute to the team was constructed. From an early age, Girmindl became a legend in my head. I started kindergarten at Southgate in the fall of 1983, the first year the school awareded the "Julius Girmindl award," which went (and still goes) to the graduating 6th grader who exhibits the combination of excellence in scholarship, athletics, friendship, leadership, and school spirit. It was a tribute to Jules, who had taught phys ed. at Southgate and developed those qualities in hundreds of kids during his life. And the award is literally revered at Southgate, by faculty and students alike. It's a big deal. Not that I knew who he was in 1983. But I knew he was special. Then there's the Girmindl Tournament, the annual holiday basketeball tournament that's been going on since 1978 but wasn't given it's namesake until after his death in the 1980's. Another great tribute to Jules. There's also a great picture of Coach Girmindl with the tribute to the 1979-80 team, along with his award as coach of the year in 1978-79.

I tend to think that Coach Girmindl's passing away has a lot to do with the muted flavor of the tribute to the 1979-80 team. While it's a tribute to a basketball team, it's also a memorial to a great man who died prematurely. In that sense, it's required to be somewhat more somber than a simple basketball tribute. And when you check out the tribute, it does have a bit of a feel of a memorial, with the picture of Jules and all. But it also tends to reinforce the hollow feeling one gets when they think about the 1979-80 team. What happened? Additionally, Coach Girmindl would have been the key link to an institutional memory of the 1979-80 team had he not passed away. Part of the story not being told is not having the main storyteller around to tell it.

Part III: Girmindl's Ghost

The long psychological shadow of Girmind’s Ghost has been hanging around Shaker basketball for over 25 years. It’s time for it to go. Once upon a time, I thought the best way for that to happen would be for everyone to forget all about the 1979-80 team. Just be done with it. But I’ve changed my mind since then. In fact, I think the shadow of the 1979-80 has some useful energy that could be redirected. Here are three ideas:

1) Spread the story of the 1979-80 team so it's no longer the big secret. Yeah, they lost. That sucks. But it some ways it's a story that's easier to identify with and to learn from than if they had won. Everyone should know about the 1979-80 team, and no one should feel bad that they lost. On 23 nights that winter, they were the best darn basketball team you could imagine. But they were human, just like this year’s team. It doesn’t take gods to win the state title, just a darn good team. I'm doing my part by writing this blog. I'm also thinking of writing a book about it in the next few years.

2) Redo the tribute to the 1979-80 team in the hallway outside the gym. It doesn't even have to be bigger, but it certainly could be better. Right now it's treated like something slightly more special than the other sports trophies. That's silly: this team dominated the front page of the TU sports section for months, it's the biggest thing that ever happened in Shaker sports. I'd expand the amount of space dedicated to it, and design a memorial that told the whole story of the team, including the unexpected failure. And let's cheer it up a bit - we can have a tribute to Coach Girmindl that's more exhilerating than sad. Right now that's not true.

3) Win the goddamn state title sometime soon. Obviously, this is out of our control. Is the current team good enough? I’m in no position to judge – for god’s sake, I’m stuck in the “if the 1979-80 team couldn’t do it, how could anyone” mindset. But the current team is certainly a contender for the section title, and after that, why not? It’s only 3 mores games to the title…

CONCLUSION - WHAT IF?

The long shadow of Girmindl's Ghost will obviously dissipate over the years as fewer and fewer people have a connection to the 1979-80 team, or even a connection to the events of next decade - Coach Girmindl's death, Sam Perkins night, and the 1992 sectional title team - that helped cement in the shadow.

There may come a day when I go to a Shaker home game and don't at some point look up at the banners and think "What if..." about the 1979-80 team, simply because I've forgotten about it. And maybe I won’t doubt that the current team could win the state title. I don't think so, but it's possible. But that's not the way I'd want the shadow to be removed. I'd much prefer a collective shift in perceptions about the 1979-80 team and what it means, and about how it should be recognized. And that can only be accomplished through positive action.

And i'm sure wherever he is, it's what Jules would want.

NOTES
---------------

**The flu thing is a confusion with the regional final from 1978-79, when Shaker did have three palyers, including Perkins, who had the flu. However, they won that game.

***The only other place in North Colonie that you can find Perkins stuff or stuff related to the 1979-80 team is over at Bought Hills, where there used to be (don't know if it's still there) a framed Sports Illustrated Cover from the early 80's with Perkins and Jordan in their Carolina Uniforms making #1 symbols with their hands. If it's still there, it's located in the hallway near the gym.

****One fun fact from that night is that the varsity game featured Burnt Hills senior Tom Huerter, who went on to star on Siena's NCAA tournament upset team two years later.

*****I don't necessarily diagree. The 1991 team was great, but their frontline would have given up 3 inches on Perkins, 5 on Cain, and god knows how many on Tueke, since Jim Haver coudn't have been six feet tall. A total mismatch. On the other hand, the game had changed in the intervening 12 years: one of the reasons Haver started was because he was ice-in-the-veins three-point shooter, something the 1979 team never had to contemplate. If Shaker 1991 had a prayer against Shaker 1979, it would have been through Haver banging in a ton of 3's, in my opinion.

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