Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

In 1973 I wrote a story for Saturday Review magazine about the Friendsville Academy boys basketball team, the worst team in the history of high school basketball. They had lost 119 games in a row when I began following them. The losing streak would eventually reach 138. Here is that story. I'm posting it on the occasion of the death of David Dick, the CBS News correspondent who flew in to cover the team's first victory in six years. I chauffeured him around Friendsville as he reported the story.


There is no joy in Friendsville. The local high school basketball team, the Friendsville Foxes, has lost 119 consecutive games. More than six years have passed since Friendsville defeated Clinch High School, 65-50, on Valentine's Day in 1967. Two classes have graduated without ever seeing their team win.

Loss number 88 in the streak, Greenback High won that game, 45-43, --after a confused Friendsville player scored on the wrong end of the floor.

The streak stood at 102 games when the Foxes' ace guard, Johnny French, hit a desperation shot from midcourt at the final buzzer and the scoreboard read:

Friendsville 65, Glencliff 64.

While the crowd erupted into a minor riot, the opposing coaches held a heated discussion with the official scorer. It turned out that the scoreboard was wrong the game was really tied. And with four of the Friendsville starters already fouled out, Glencliff won easily in overtime, 77-70.

``Snake bit'' is the word they use in Friendsville to describe that kind of luck.
More than six years have passed since Friendsville defeated Clinch High School, 65-50, on Valentine's Day in 1967. Two classes have graduated without ever seeing their team win.

The school has only 26 boys in grades 7 to 12; it's too small to field a football or baseball team.

As the team went into the current season, coach Joe Fink had retired, leaving as his legacy a 119-game losing string, shared with two predecessors. The new coach, Rick Little, a recent college grad, was optimistic about ending Friendsville's long sojourn in the jaws of defeat. All five of last season's starters were returning, and a hotshot transfer student would become eligible in January.

Lanier, November 14. This is the first game of the season, but the excitement is not on the basketball court. Charles Kuralt of CBS News is filming an ``On the Road'' segment about the Foxes' woes, and the distracted Lanier fans alternate between intense interest in the TV crew and half-hearted attempts to act natural when the cameras are turned their way. The Friendsville fans are not self-conscious they've already appeared on NBC's Today show. I talk with a Friendsville student, Frank Arr. ``Sure I want to see them win,'' he tells me. ``It'd be a new experience.'' Will they win tonight? ``Naw, we want to give ABC an equal opportunity to cover us first.'' Final score: 66-30, loss number 120.

Copperbasin, November 18. The Friendsville cheerleaders never give up. The game is down to the final minute, and their team is behind by 30 points, but they're still shouting, ``Foxes are best'' and ``Beat Cougars.'' I talk to Patty Walsh, who's been a cheerleader for four winless years. ``Sure it gets discouraging,'' she says, ``But we've got to keep trying. We can't lose forever.'' But they lose tonight 76-44, loss number 121.

Webb, November 21, at Friendsville. The Friendsville gym is freezing for the Foxes' home opener because the boiler isn't working. Webb's coach wears a heavy winter coat during the game, and team members who aren't playing keep their warm-up jackets on. Back for the game is former coach Joe Fink, now a forester at Big Ridge State park. I ask him what he said to the team before each game during his tenure. ``I used to give them a pep talk to get them aroused,'' he says, ``but I found out I was just making them nervous. So I quit saying anything.'' Webb wins, 86-41, loss number 122.

Walland, November 28. I drive to Walland, but the gym is dark and the door is locked. The boy at King's Texaco and Market in Walland tells me that the gym has been condemned. I hurriedly drive to Friendsville and arrive just as the game is beginning. Walland wins, 92-21, loss number 123.

Greenback, December 1. Greenback takes out its first string with three minutes to go in the first quarter. At half time the Friendsville cheerleaders do their ``Hello from Friendsville'' cheer. I listen closely as they give their names and hometowns, but I can't believe my ears. At half time I talk to DeDe Shimizu from Maryland. ``We never give our right names or anything,'' she sighs. ``Tonight Liz Davis said she was Charlie Chan from New York. And I told them I was Sarabelle from Detroit.'' Final score: 84-26, loss number 124.

Washington College Academy, December 2, at Friendsville. One of Friendsville's star players is out with a bleeding ulcer. Frank Arr says it's from too much moonshine. Final score: 69-33, loss number 125.

Tennessee School for the Deaf, December 5. The kid who usually plays the Foxes' mascot is in regular school clothes. He tells me someone stole the suit after the last game. Final score: 74-25, loss number 126.

Tellico Plains, December 9. There is no game tonight. Tellico Plains dropped Friendsville from its schedule at the last minute.

Townsend, December 12. I arrive during half time of the girls' game. A few members of the girls' team are outside smoking. The boys might as well be. Final score: 84-32, loss number 127.

Clinch, December 15. Snow is falling on Clinch Mountain as I drive to the game. Inside, the gym is bare brick, and an echo resounds from wall to wall. Frank Arr says the game has to end before 9 so the cows can come back in. Tonight could be the night. Clinch hasn't won in 57 games, and one of its starters is so fat the has to wear cut-off blue jeans. But there's bad news, too: the Friendsville team is down to eight. Two more players, both starters, have quit the team since the last game. Friendsville takes an early 8-2 lead, but it doesn't last. Final score: 64-41, loss number 128.

Cleveland Day School, January 12. I arrive at half time of the girls' game again, and Friendsville is behind, 23-0. They finally lose, 54-8. I ask Janie Lynn, one of the reserve guards, what their coach says to them before a game. ``Mainly, he tells us not to smoke on the bus. And at least to go out there and try. Put on a good show.'' I haven't spotted Frank yet, and I'm about to ask where he is when the boys take the floor. My God, Frank is now on the team! At half time I corner him and ask him why he decided to go out for a team that hasn't won in six years. He puts it in perspective: ``There's nothing else to do in Friendsville.'' Final score: 76-24, loss number 129.

Townsend, January 16, at Friendsville. Frank says that he and Robin Ingram, one of the starting forwards, went over to the visitors' dressing room before the game and caught two Townsend players smoking dope. I ask the Townsend manager about this, and he denies it. ``They don't even smoke,'' he reasons. Final score: 83-45, loss number 130.

Cleveland Day School, January 19, at Friendsville. The cheerleaders shout, ``Hello to the Trojans'' at half time, and DeDe introduces herself as Pisser from San Francisco. The boiler isn't working again. Final score: 85-39, loss number 131.

Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy, January 23, at Friendsville. Friendsville's star center, Woody Profitt, has joined the army, and John French is out with a sprained ankle, but Glen Brue is now eligible. Frank scores his first 2 points, Glen scores 12, but the Baptists beat the Quakers, 92-33, for loss number 132.

Lanier, January 25, at Friendsville. Friendsville outscores Lanier in the second half, but Lanier wins, 79-55, loss number 133.

Walland, January 30, at Townsend. Since its gym was condemned, Walland has been playing its home games at neighboring Townsend. Final score: 91-28, loss number 134.

Washington College Academy, February 3. It’s Homecoming for Washington College. The president of the school tells me he’d like to have some publicity, but not for losing to Friendsville. Washington College leaves its first team in until the final two minutes in an effort to score 100 points for the Alums. I wonder how much more indignity they want to inflect on a team that hasn't won in six years and feel relieved when they fail to make 100. Final score: 98-54, loss number 135.

Tennessee School for the Deaf, February 6, at Friendsville. Tonight is the sixth anniversary of the Foxes' last victory. With seven minutes to go in the first half, Friendsville is leading, 15-13. Even the boiler is working. But it doesn't last. The boiler quits first. Then Glen gets into foul trouble, and guard Mike Jervey, weak from the flu, sits out most of the second half. Final score: 71-47, loss number 136.

Greenback, February 9, at Friendsville. The girls' game is canceled, since all but three members of the team are sick with the flu. The boys lose, 77-51. Number 157.

Webb, February 10. Cheerleader Kimi Julian has been steadfast all season in giving her real name and hometown. Tonight in the ``Hello to the Spartans'' cheer she breaks down and calls herself Wendy from Israel. I have been proud of her courage all season. I am also proud of the team for not giving up after it falls far behind in the first half. I catch myself standing during the ``All for Foxes, Stand Up and Holler'' cheer. And I call the referee a plumber. Am I getting soft? Final score: 78-10, loss number 138.

St. Camillus, February 15, at Friendsville. It's the biggest home crowd of the season 129 paid admissions. Art Masker, the headmaster of St. Camillus Academy, tells me it's only the third time this season they've made enough at the gate to pay the referees without having to dip into school funds. Friendsville coach Rick Little has a hunch that tonight will be the night, and says he'll shave off his bear if the team wins. I talk to the St. Camillus coach's wife, who asks me about Friendsville. I tell her they have two eight-graders on the team. She says St. Camillus has two seventh-graders. I tell her Friendsville has been beaten by as much as 70 points this season. She says St. Camillus has lost by over 100 points several times. A true battle of the giants is in the offing.

Friendsville gets the opening tip, takes a 6-0 lead before St. Camillus even gets off a shot, and leads at the half, 28-7. Other good omens appear: no one goes out to smoke at half time, and the cheerleaders even give their right names in their ``Hello'' cheer. Friendsville wins, 64-43!!! The streak is broken! (Naturally, the scoreboard is wrong it reads 62-43.) Friendsville fans celebrate with kisses and tears. Tomorrow the whole school will get a half-day off.

Friendsville sophomore Janie Lynn burst into tears and her classmate Terry Duffield fainted dead away.

While the Friendsville fans congratulate one another, I watch the St. Camillus team trudge to their dressing room. One player passes me, head down, mumbling, ``The laughing stock of the nation.''

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