Friday, January 16, 2009

Pirates on the Prairie

Pulling for the underdog is a habit that comes naturally to most of us. No matter the event, there is just something special about watching a little guy or a small town team or school successfully compete against the heavily favored big ones. Whatever the result, it is always heartwarming to witness an underdog play well enough to be on the brink of winning a big game or championship despite the odds against it happening.

Eric Bergeson’s Pirates on the Prairie looks at one such team, the Halstad High School Pirates, a combination of small town and farm boys, which made it all the way to the Minnesota state basketball tournament in 1952. Halstad, a northern Minnesota town near the border with North Dakota, was home to about 500 people in 1952 and its high school fielded basketball and baseball teams largely made up of the same handful of players.

By 1952, most of the boys already had played basketball together for several years, instinctively knew where to find each other on the floor and had developed an almost uncanny ability to find just the play they needed right when they needed it most. Most important, they played the game as a team and did not have to rely on any one player to carry them. Nevertheless, what happened to them in 1952 was something beyond their wildest dreams because they went to the state tournament where all teams, regardless of size, competed in one bracket - and they almost won the whole thing.

Pirates on the Prairie, though, is much more than the story of a few boys who managed to play a game exceptionally well for several weeks in 1952. Sports fans will be pleased with the way Bergeson chronicles the seasons leading up to 1952 and will feel the town’s joy and excitement as he recreates key games from the 1952 season as well as each tournament game. However, what makes the book special is the way that Bergeson develops each of the players, coaches, and townspeople into real people, people who had lives before that magical 1952 season and people who have lived for a long time since those glory days.

The Halstad starting five, all in their seventies now, reunited to meet together with Bergeson to share their memories of that season. What they had to say about the game, their coaches and the little town in which they grew up was often more touching than all the success they achieved as boys. Amazingly, they still carry themselves as the athletes they were more than fifty years ago and display the same team spirit that made them so successful then. The 1952 high school basketball season helped make these men who they are today and they seem to realize just how blessed they were to have experienced it.

Pirates on the Prairie started out as the lifelong dream of a man who, as a little boy in 1952, idolized the Halstad High School basketball team. He asked Eric Bergeson to consider researching and writing their story, and now he shares his dream with the rest of us.

Rated at: 4.0

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