IT HASN'T BEEN LIKE THIS here since the days of Harold Pressley, the whiz kid at St. Bernard in the early '80s, for whom The Curiosity Factor ping-ping-pinged like a whacked-out pinball machine. Forget Rollie, Digger and other assorted celebrities who came to watch. It was the local sporting public that turned St. Bernard games into events, twice-weekly productions of “we just gotta go see if he's really that good.”
It's happening again, this time with a basketball player of another gender. Heather Buck is filling gyms throughout the region, including student sections in full throat, gawking townspeople and famous coaches from mondo college programs.
This time, it was Montville on a Wednesday night, the gym so full that people had to be reminded repeatedly not to block the fire exits. In one corner sat Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, diagonal to the Montville students, who were standing and jumping and hollering to start the game.
Surely, some were there to see whether the Indians, much improved under coach Derek Wainwright, could slay Stonington, the defending Class M state champ. Stonington, however, comes with the pedigree of being more than a champion and perennial contender. Stonington comes with Buck, the 6-foot-4 center, on her way to being the best girls' basketball player in the history of our corner of the world, who is being coveted in other corners of the world at the moment from Boston to Palo Alto.
The Bears looked like they'd be contending again after their 54-30 win, during which Buck had her standard 28 points, 10 rebounds, six steals, four blocks, three French hens, two turtle doves, yadda, yadda, yadda. It wasn't much of a game, really, unless you paused to appreciate the circumstances.
It's not everywhere in Connecticut, or many other states, where there's this twice-weekly opportunity to see what an honest-to-goodness, make-the-college-coaches-drool, Division I player looks like. It's not everywhere in Connecticut where girls' basketball is played to overflow crowds and students who care enough to come out and see the games. Certainly, Waterford and NFA, which could play deep into March, have become attractions. But the star of the show has already been there and done that deep into March, Wilt with pig tails, the reigning state player of the year.
“I don't know why my name is on the mailbox at school,” Stonington coach Paulla Solar cracked before Wednesday's game. “They should just put Heather's name on there. I'm just the delivery person anyway.”
Solar knows better than anyone else that she's not merely coaching an all-time player, but a young woman who could teach a course on how to handle herself. Heather Buck, whose head could be inflated like one of those automobile air bags, has remained one of the girls. She's a teammate and friend first; and someone who happens to be really tall and really good second.
True enough, it's too common in sports today for media hacks to link the mutually exclusive qualities of success and character. But Buck is the whole package, chips and a drink included.
Witness the scene just outside the Stonington locker room after Wednesday's game. Most of the Stonington players had already exited. The door swung open and Buck was lagging behind.
“Someone wait for me!” Buck wallowed, apparently not wanting to be in there by herself.
Teammate Kayla Murphy saw the opportunity. She smirked and said, “Someone wait for me!” mimicking Buck's voice, just exactly the kind of repartee that makes locker room time only the best time of all. If Buck weren't one of the girls, Murphy might have just walked out rolling her eyes.
Buck's general amiability belies the way she's treated when she's playing. Opposing coaches want her every blink of an eye to be a foul. Opposing student sections are mostly playful when they harass her, like two weeks ago when Lancer Nation in Waterford serenaded her with “overrated” (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap).
“It's probably my favorite cheer,” Buck said. “It makes me so mad. I've figured out how to channel my anger into focus.”
Still, the hostilities in gyms outside the land of brown and white have been quite the education for Buck's younger teammates. Stonington lost four seniors off the championship team, Andrea Buck, Jacquie Fernandes, Kasey Solar and Morgan Rein, for whom antagonistic environments were no more of an issue than a hangnail. It's been more of a challenge for Heather and the Buck-ettes of 2006-07.
“It's good that they saw it last year, but it's a lot different to play in front of it when they're on your back about everything,” Buck said. “At the beginning, we got flustered. But it's becoming less of an issue.”
Buck knows the reason for The Curiosity Factor during road games. She really didn't want to address it, because that would have meant talking about herself. She managed, “It's an honor.”
It is for the rest of the sports public around here, too. She actually got Muffet to visit Montville, Conn., on a Wednesday night in January. Let's continue to enjoy Heather Buck the player and the person. We may not ever get to see this again.
This is the opinion of Day assistant sports editor Mike DiMauro. He may be reached at email@example.com or 701-4391.