A CITY’S central business district is often described as its heart, but in every community there are spots which could just as easily – and often more rightfully – claim the title.
They offer a true sense of the place, and as they are not usually part of the tourist trail, can only be pointed out to visitors by the locals.
For instance, if a visitor arrived in Wangaratta’s CBD seeking to quickly gain an idea of the city’s community spirit, I would direct them first to the Docker Street library, and then on to the HP Barr Reserve.
The former is common to most locales; libraries are often the place people of all backgrounds adopt as their second home, and where their needs for knowledge and social connection are met.
The latter, stitched from the fabric of Wangaratta’s rich sporting history, is uniquely our own.
Known as ‘The Barr’, it encompasses a broad spectrum of sporting facilities, from hard court tennis to rodeo riding, netball to squash, football to swimming, and skateboarding to gymnastics.
In recent years, I’ve become a regular visitor to the Wangaratta Indoor Sports and Aquatic Centre at the Barr in its guise as the home of Wangaratta basketball.
My kids were drawn initially to the fast-paced nature of the game, and have been hooked as they’ve developed their skills and knowledge over a few seasons.
To be honest, after a busy day, the thought of being in a stadium surrounded by energetic young bodies and the echo of balls bouncing on wooden floors doesn’t seem all that appealing.
But joining the throng of people flooding into the centre can change your mind.
Outside, you may pass netballers going through their paces on the Barr Reserve courts, and young footballers training on the adjoining Bill O’Callaghan Oval in fading daylight.
You’ll see excited kids kitted out for basketball, and others full of chatter as they clutch towels and goggles on the way in or out of swimming lessons.
Passing through the centre doors is something akin to entering a bio-lab set up to study a microcosm of society.
The smiling staff will greet you, and you’ll glimpse people of all ages filling the gym, flicking through magazines and watching TV screens as they use the bikes and treadmills, or chatting while waiting to use the equipment.
On your left, you’ll see the indoor pool buzzing, again with all ages, while the tables in the walkway are taken by teenagers completing their homework on laptops, sharing stories, and snacks from the centre’s cafe, as well as families gathering pre or post activity.
From upstairs, you’ll hear the group exercise leader encouraging a sweaty bunch of patrons to push through the pain barrier on their path to fitness.
Passing into the centre’s basketball stadium on game nights, Mondays and Tuesdays, deepens the study of human interaction.
Junior players congregate on the edges of the three courts, waiting for the chance to spring into action.
Parents and grandparents are scattered around, discussing the week’s happenings – globally, nationally, and in their own worlds.
Younger siblings find fun climbing the stands, playing chasey, bouncing and catching balls, happy to roam the safe environment guarded by like-minded families, and learn how to amuse themselves – it’s rare entertainment without screens, and they love every minute.
While some teenagers prepare to referee junior games, the budding relationships of others take shape as they keep an eye on their crushes or (if brave enough) exchange a few words.
Then it’s game time, which offers a chance – as do all kids’ competitions – to see sport in its most pure form.
Kids of varying abilities thrown together in team environments provide some of the most wonderful, inspiring moments you can see from week to week.
There are the obvious stars, some of whom have been around basketball since they were babies and know these courts like the backs of their hands.
Others are natural athletes who, you get the feeling, will excel at any sporting feat they attempt, some with the drive to go all the way.
There are the rough diamonds, kids who – with a little attention and encouragement from a coach or two – will hone that X factor that sets them apart.
Then there are the real heart-lifters – the kids who have never played sport before in their lives, don’t like heavy focus on themselves, or lack the confidence to believe they can be great players, but have a go anyway.
I’ve seen some beautiful moments involving those players, whose sporting careers may begin and end on these very courts this year or the next, but who will carry snapshots of their successes with them through their lives.
The expression on a player who scores his or her very first goal, for instance, is enough to bring tears to your eyes – especially if it takes a season to happen.
The youngster who has struggled to catch the ball, but snaps up an intercept and manages a pass to a teammate will show you the meaning of true happiness – that it comes in these tiny moments that should be celebrated and remembered.
Of course, there are lowlights for these youngsters – own goals, injuries that seem almost inevitable because of the pace they travel down the court, and the feeling they’ve let their teammates down with an errant pass or a foul.
But the rallying cries and care from their young teammates, volunteer coaches and keen spectators lend weight to the oft-maligned view that sport is a metaphor for life.
We can face those lows, or truly celebrate the highs scattered along our paths, only with the support of those around us.
And the understanding that we each bring something different to the table, but every contribution is valuable and there to form part of the team, is central to the whole system operating successfully.
If a bunch of kids can help illustrate that so beautifully without even realising, it shouldn’t really be so difficult for the rest of us.
Towards the end of each game, the next age group and their support crew will move into the stadium ready to play, continuing right up the senior matches that end the night.
For 10 minutes or so, the kids have a larger audience, and those who will be ‘big game players’ stand taller and relish the experience.
Game over, the two teams huddle together to cheer each other, their coaches and refs, then go their separate ways, back through the walkway still chock-full of people, including those arriving from work with their gym bags in tow, ready to work off the rigours of a long day.
There are catch-ups, adults marvelling at the development of the kids, discussions about what’s for dinner, and calls of ‘See you at training on Thursday’.
These are just a couple of nights in the life of the centre – there is activity across the Barr all week – but to me, the scenes they offer are community personified.
# Special thanks to Guest Blogger – Simone Kerwin .