The school gymnasium is just as you remember it: The smell of sweat, the smell of fear; the childhood anguish of an evil room where cross-armed coaches and lesbian gym teachers reside, shouting orders and demanding push-ups. An encaged clock rests on the wall near the scoreboard, stopped in time, reading 8:36, just a stone’s throw from a painted banner reading, “Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body.”
Welcome to the Fort Bragg High School gym, where it's a Sunday afternoon and the Men’s Basketball League, Mendo Coast Parks & Rec division, is well underway.
Grown men are busting up and down the court. The constant vibration of the scoreboard overhead is like a dentist's drill. At one point, Mitch Cinotti, of the North Coast Brewing Company's Pub Team in Fort Bragg, lets out a hoarse scream, which echoes across the gym—an apparent defense against an opponent’s lay-up attempt during a fast break. It was a sound matched only by the frequent whistle blowing of the ref, who resembled a cop directing traffic in a hollow tin box.
At half-time, the teams gathered on opposite sides of the floor. By now, Fort Bragg's lead had ballooned to twenty points. “All day long, man. All day long,” a member told his huddled teammates.
This would be the extent of strategy talk between the players, who have no coach.
The league, which has been around since the 1950s, is made up of mostly young and middle aged men who play on six teams, coming from Point Arena, Anderson Valley, Little River, and Fort Bragg. Each team pays $400 to participate in the league, while each team member pays an additional $30—a financial sum that pays the salaries of the refs and the scoreboard operator.
During this particular match the Pub Team from Fort Bragg was putting a shellacking on the Point Arena Outback, who showed up winless. Sitting behind the Pub Team’s bench, there was a sense of fellowship between players: “Nice, Lance!” a teammate yelled. “Nice board!”
Early on in the second half, it became obvious the Outback wouldn't overcome the deficit. Everything was going for the Pub Team—including three pointers—which banked off the backboard and into the hoop, causing teammates on the bench to shout, “Bank’s open!”
At the final buzzer, the score was 76-54 in favor of the Pub Team, who improved to 2-3, while the Outback dropped to 0-5. I caught up with Pub Team members Justin “Dreamboat” Jones and Cinotti after the game at the North Coast Brewing Company and discussed, among other things, the potency of the pub’s garlic fries, which Mitch refuses to order. This says a lot about Mitch, a handyman and carpenter who, on the court, is the speedy little guard who runs circles around opponents. He’s steadfast. He makes decisions, which is perhaps why his teammates nominated him team captain/general manager. As such, Mitch’s duties include (and are limited to) calling everyone to tell them when the game will be played and making sure nobody on the team yells at the refs.
“We are the best team,” he proudly states. With a 2-3 record, I am skeptical. Mitch argues the record is deceiving, and games have been lost due to unfair calls from referees. “The refs call a lot of fouls on us. They hold grudges. Our whole team is out-of-towners.” Also, one member apparently smells of alcohol every Sunday, and another’s league membership was revoked after he threatened a referee with his life. These factors do not bode well with the refs. You may also be surprised to learn that the “best team” doesn’t ever hold practice or even run an actual designed play during a game.
No matter. These guys were meant to be on the court: Before moving to the league, they played at the rec. center. And they're not going back now.