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A fond look back at haybarn basketball

MN Sports Blog on November 6, 2015 - 11:20 pm in Reflections & Columns

By Bruce Strand, 2014

There’s not a lot of farms in this area, which means very few barns, which means most basketball players around here missed out on haybarn basketball. And that’s too bad. Pickup basketball is especially fun in haybarns two-thirds full of hay with some open floor and a hoop on one end.

When I was growing up in west central Minnesota, there were barns all over the place, and most farm families with kids in sports had a hoop in theirs. You could play in 90 degrees or 10 degrees. Kids warm up quickly playing basketball, even half-court, although the ball didn’t bounce as well.

Haybarns hosted countless 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 games between neighborhood kids (sometimes adults) Sunday afternoons, at rural birthday parties, and after your high school season was done.

This was intense competition. Your brother or your best pal became your mortal enemy when you were trying to beat his team to 20. Something about the cavernous, enclosed space made the games seem more official. Williams Arena is called “The Barn,” isn’t it?

You could retreat the haybarn by yourself to practice shooting, too. The only part of basketball I could do well was shoot, mainly due to endless solitary hours in the barn. I would shoot free throws in blocks of 100, always trying for 90 percent. I made 61 in a row once. The ball swished through the cords, hit the wall the backboard was nailed to, and caromed right back to me. Very little time was lost.

Our haybarn court had two key pieces of makeshift equipment.

The backboard was constructed from thick oak planks (my father operated a little sawmill) that I mounted on a cross-piece and hand-sawed into the old-fashioned half-oval shape, and then painted the little square above the basket. It may have been the heaviest backboard ever made. Somehow we got it hoisted 10 feet off the floor.

Our court also had a scoreboard. In shop class, I took a 24-by-24 piece of tin, cut two sets of rectangular holes for the Home and Vis scores, and made four circular plywood pieces with numbers 0 through 9. It was nailed to the wall and after each basket the inbounds passer spun the circles to show the updated score.

Some farms had newer barns with firm floors. Ours was old and creaky, and the floor sagged a bit in places.

Occasionally somebody’s foot would break through the boards, and we’d have to nail a little plank over the hole. You tried to avoid dribbling where the floor sagged and where those planks were. They were leading causes of turnovers in haybarn basketball.

Another hazard was the 3-foot-by-3-foot hole near the door where you threw the straw bales down for bedding for the cattle. It was just off the court but you had to be careful. I remember someone falling though once, not playing basketball but some other horseplay. At least there was a soft landing, mix of manure and straw.

That old barn, scene of so many glorious hoopfests, blew down in a storm two years ago. Nobody lives there now, so it wasn’t being used except maybe by stray cats. Certainly not by basketball players.

After hearing about that, I had to see if my old scoreboard, at least, could be retrieved, just as a keepsake. Peering under the wreckage, I spotted the familiar tin sheet, near the door, but had to leave it there. Had I tried to crawl under the wall, it might have collapsed further and nobody would have found me for weeks.

It was quite a nostalgic moment to see my scoreboard, with the faded letters and numbers that I’d painted a half-century ago. We really made those numbers spin back then.

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