Ask different people with connections to the long-running high school basketball series between Brainerd and Howard when the rivalry was at its peak, and the answers will vary from decade to decade.
Brainerd's Panthers and the Hustlin' Tigers are set to clash again tonight at Howard in a key District 6-AA matchup. The girls' game is scheduled at 6 and the boys will play at about 7:30.
Tickets will go on sale this morning at Howard's box office starting at 9. The gymnasium has a seating capacity of 1,700, but principal Dr. Paul Smith said to stay in accordance with all safety codes, ticket sales will be limited to the first 1,300.
Dank Hawkins is the facility manager at Eastdale Recreation Center and a Howard graduate of 1976. He believes the toughest years to get tickets to Brainerd-Howard games were during the time he played.
"If you didn't buy them early at school," Hawkins said, "you'd probably be left out."
Hawkins played on a city-championship Howard Junior High team, which he believes was a more dedicated and sound group overall than the high school teams today. He said he isn't sure if any Howard or Brainerd players now could've made that team, based on fundamentals.
"The caliber of the game has really dwindled a lot," Hawkins said. "In our time we were constant gym rats. We stayed in the gym or the back yard. As cold as it is now, we'd be outside at the playground down on Jefferson Street. On these teams now you might see one or two guys that live and die basketball."
Robert High, whose basketball coaching career at Brainerd dates to the 1970s, said the '80s were powerful times in the rivalry, too. He mentioned Brainerd players such as Keith Rawls and Joe Maffett helping escalate the level of play in those years. Jay Price and Malcolm Mackey were Panthers soon afterward.
The rivalry was strengthened after Riverside, Howard's previous longtime rival, closed in 1983. It was that year that current Hamilton County Board of Education member George Ricks, a 1968 Riverside graduate, began volunteering his services at Howard. Not long afterward he became the public-address announcer for Tigers football and basketball games, and he continues in that role.
"The big rivalry used to be Riverside-Howard," Ricks said. "After Riverside closed, then it became Howard-Brainerd. The young folks might say the rivalry is just as good. I say no. Riverside-Howard used to sell out Maclellan Gym."
The Brainerd-Howard rivalry had a stint at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, first at Maclellan Gym in the 1990s and later at McKenzie Arena. Ced Dozier, a 2003 Brainerd graduate, played all of his Brainerd-Howard games in the arena.
"I really do miss those days," Dozier said. "I miss the Roundhouse days. Those were big games with big crowds. A lot of showdowns between me and Sir-Lee Mason. There were people who thought he was better. A lot of people thought I was better. It was great competition."
Dozier is in his fourth season as a Panthers assistant coach. Although he's not that far removed from his playing days, he believes things have changed drastically with this latest generation of players.
Two seasons ago Brainerd lost both regular-season games to the Tigers and scored 34 and 31 points in those games. The Panthers rebounded to score 49 and beat Howard in the district tournament.
"Video games were around back when I played, but we played those in our spare time," Dozier said. "We had cell phones, but we weren't that big on texting. We didn't have iPads or Facebook or Twitter. Instead of working on their left-hand layup or dribbling with their left hand, that's what they're doing. I guarantee you the average high school student spends at least two hours on a social network a day.
"We might go from gym to gym on a Saturday and play from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. Now they only pick up a ball when you call them."
The schools are content now with the games being back on the high school campuses. Howard will profit tonight from all parking donations and concession sales, which would not be the case if the game was at UTC.
Security would have to be paid for at McKenzie Arena. But additional security is having to be paid for now by the home school because of reported gunfire outside the gym the last time the teams played, as well as when Howard played at Tyner.
"Senior citizens used to come out and enjoy the ballgames," Hawkins said. "But now with all the gang activity, the shootings witnessed this year at a couple of rivalry games, they're staying home. You don't see that at rivalry games like Baylor-McCallie. It's an inner-city thing, sad to say. People looked forward to coming out more back in our day."
High said students aren't to blame.
"Those are not Brainerd or Howard kids," he said. "They're all young adults not even in school that are causing all these problems."
Regardless of the level of play, at least the intensity between the teams seems alive and well recently. The Tigers pulled out a one-point victory in overtime in the Region 3 tournament last season. The first meeting this season went to overtime with Howard winning on Lorenzo McCauley's 3-point shot at the horn.
"It'll be a good crowd," Hawkins said of tonight's game. "A lot of young people will be there. It's just not the same to me."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.