The West Desert basketball team is finally able to live the American dream and exercise its inalieanable rights - to play high school hoops and to play at home.
That's after playing three seasons of home games 135 miles away from its own court. And that's despite having the smallest enrollment, the smallest gym and perhaps the most remote location of Utah's 100-plus high schools.***** Started as a one-room private school in 1948, West Desert School sits along the eastern slopes of the Deep Creek range near the Nevada border. Isolation is an understatement - 100 miles to Delta, 170 to Provo and 225 to Salt Lake City - and the roots of the ranch-oriented valley trace back to shady folks hiding from the law and a branch of The Order of Aaron, a religioussplinter group.
Ed Alder wears a number of hats at West Desert - principal, teacher, drama director and coach for all sports. He's also a West Desert alum, having attended in the old one-room school - it still stands a stone's throw away from the current facility. After finishing the eighth grade in 1964, Alder went to high school in Salt Lake City, graduated from the University of Utah and taught in Idaho before returning to West Desert when the high school grades were added in 1979 - about the same time a new school building was constructed.
***** The "new" school boasts three classrooms, a media center, and a multi-purpose room that serves as the lunchroom, gymnasium and auditorium. The school staff includes three faculty members, an aide, a custodian and a lunchroom assistant, while the current enrollment is 56 for grades kindergarten through 12th. The four high school grades consist of 17 boys and girls - all but one of the boys play on the basketball team - and a senior class of three.
West Desert is in fourth year of sanctioned prep competition, with its limited numbers allowing only three sports - cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring. This year, the Hawk basketball team enjoys the "luxury" of nine players. "Basically I have a young, inexperienced five-man team," says Alder, who starts a senior, a junior and three sophomores.
The two veterans are 6-foot-3 senior forward Rory Bates, who's averaging just under 30 points a game, and 6-0 junior bruiser Arnold Timm. The three sophs are getting a baptism of fire after seeing little action last year, and only senior Troy Bronson has much experience among the four on the bench.
Says Bates of basketball: "It's something we can do. We can't play football and we don't have enough for baseball. It gives us a chance to play some of the larger schools and sometimes beat them . . . I'd like to play for a bigger school, but I don't know if I'd start or if I'd see a lot of minutes. Here, you can play 48 minutes. If you're a boy out here, you've got to play basketball."
However, even that seems threatened. With fewer boys coming up in the lower grades, Alder says West Desert might have to switch to girls basketball in the next year or two.
***** It's tough enough for teams to travel to play at West Desert; it's something else when they see the Hawks' home court, which is carpeted and measures less than 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. By comparison, a common high school court to 86 by 50.
In preparing for last week's first home game of the season, players themselves were hanging the recently welded rims on the metal, fan-shaped backboards while Alder layed down masking tape in shortened 3-point line.
And that's just the beginning of the ground rules. There are some additional obstacles to avoid - no baseline, skimpy sidelines, four large heaters, a fire hose hanging on a wall, and the two girls manning the flip-style scoreboard set on a small table against the far sideline wall.
And then there's the stands. West Desert faithful file into a classroom, where the folding walls open up to the gym. "Depending on what side you sit on, you can see either one basket or the other - but not both," says Alder. Some 40 folks of all ages are likely to show up for the game - that's about 40 more fans than previous years, when West Desert played its "home" games 135 miles away at Tintic High in Eureka, Utah County.
***** West Desert's first home game of the season is a Jan. 17 afternoon Region 11 contest against Rowland Hall-St. Marks. The Lions, who play a game annually at the Salt Palace, get their first look at the other extreme in court dimensions - and their jaws drop as they enter the West Desert gym.
Rowland Hall struggles at first, leading only 22-20 at the end of the first quarter. But the Lions become better adjusted to the small court and the scores become more lopsided at the end of the final three periods - 55-39, 73-41 and the final 111-73. So much for the Hawks' homecourt advantage - in fact, both of West Desert's victories so far this season have come on the road.
Bates finishes with 40 points and plays all 48 minutes - the final two-plus quarters with four personal fouls. And Timm adds 20, meaning the rest of the West Desert team combined for the remaining 13 team points.
After the game, Rowland Hall Coach Dan Shwam is admittedly relieved - not so much that Rowland Hall maintained its undefeated league record but that none of his players were injured because of the carpeted confines of the Hawks' home gym.
"Hey, this is a credit to Ed to even field a basketball team - and they're competitive, too," says Shwam, adding that the trip to Trout Creek allowed his players to see how the other half lives - and where they play.
Alder interrupts Shwam. "I should have told your kids to bring their guns out and we'd go rabbit hunting."
Instead, he invites Shwam and his team to stay for a little post-game pot-luck team dinner - the Hawks' own hoop hospitality.
You see, they play basketball a little differently at West Desert.