Thursday, February 21, 2013

Life and Loss with Michigan Basketball: Volume II

This post will be installed in segments. This is part II. 

Previously: "He Takes a Timeout. They Don't Have Any Timeouts!"

The Age (and Fall) of Innocence

We're all made up of flaws. One of my primary flaws as a youngster was a short temper, prone to rages that my mild-mannered adult-self could never understand. There were some post-Michigan football game temper tantrums when I would throw baseball trophies into the wall in my room, or stomp my feet on the bedroom floor. But there weren't many Michigan football losses in those days.

I come from a large Irish family. My childhood is chock-full of jovial gatherings of many aunts, uncles, and cousins with merry conversation and spirits enhanced by free-flowing whiskey and beer. And it was a Michigan-loving Irish family, in which "The Victors" was sung at every Christmas gathering as far back as I can remember.

Not all of those memories of the Irish family gatherings are lighthearted, though; there's one particular dark spot that stains my collective memory. It was March of 1998, and the Wolverines Hoops squad - led by the likes of Robert "Tractor" Traylor, Maceo Baston, and Louis Bullock - was a victory over UCLA away from the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Mind you, this was 1998, mere months after Michigan football had gone undefeated and won a National Championship, so I wasn't exactly accustomed to losing at this point. As the game clock wound down, the otherwise festive atmosphere was interrupted by some tears and some unremembered object being thrown against my living room wall. The room grew quiet as my aunt's and uncle's jaws dropped, as they watched me storm through the living room and storm up the stairs, yells echoing off the stairway ceiling.

What I've discovered over the years is that there is a direct correlation between the stock you put into the outcome of a sporting event and how well your life is going at the time. In the fall of 2011, for the first time ever, I found myself unable to feel much sadness over a Michigan football loss - too much had gone wrong in my own life for me to care much about a game; I watched friends post on social media sites about their sorrow over a Michigan State loss and felt jealous, because it meant things were pretty much fine and dandy in their own lives. What this means, of course, is that my life was pretty damn good when Michigan lost to UCLA in that NCAA tournament game. I had no significant real-life problems to worry about in my nine or ten year old life, which made made it easy to feel rage and sorrow after a sporting loss. Aside from being forced to eat my vegetables at the dinner table and having to do my homework before running off into the backyards with friends after school, sports losses were the biggest issue in my life. It was an age of pure innocence. It could never last.

In my own life and in Michigan basketball, I could have never anticipated the windswept world that awaited up around the next bend in the road. One of the grand tragedies of life is that, in our youth, we yearn to be grown up, unaware of the true glory of kid-dom and unaware of the realities of the adult world. In the same way those were the last years of pure unadulterated innocence for me circa 1998, those were the last years of innocence for Michigan Basketball as well. Things were about to come crashing down in tumultuous fashion for us both. I would soon enter the strange times of junior high school, and then the treacherous world of high school - the tragic realities of the world becoming clearer and clearer with each passing step I took. And in similar fashion, shortly after that loss to UCLA when I stomped up my parent's staircase and threw a temper tantrum in my childhood bedroom, news outlets began to speak of scandal deep in the dark rooms of Crisler Arena that would plunge Michigan into a dark time.

Recent Sports Quotes

"This moment probably occurs at some point in your 20s, probably around the time you notice that, oh wow, most of the players in the game are younger than you are. That weird mind-flip. It's not that you stop loving, hating, or marveling over players. It's that by the time you're, say, 27, the open-horizon feeling of childhood has started to dwindle. You're beginning to lose that glimmery deep-down belief that everything is possible. You're playing sports less seriously than you used to, if you ever played sports seriously. You knew when you were 16 that you were never going to be Michael Jordan — of course you did — but a future in which you had become Michael Jordan was still available to your imagination; it was impossible but not irrelevant. Now it's both. You hit 30, 35, 40, and the life of a professional athlete seems more and more remote. It's one of a million pasts that never happened rather than a future you can dream about."

"God, let me watch sports like a 9-year-old forever."

- Brian Phillips, Grantland: Who Moved My Cheese?

"I would understand later that baseball was what truly made him an American: the sports pages were more crucial documents than the Constitution."

- Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life

Monday, February 4, 2013

Life and Loss with Michigan Basketball

This post will be installed in segments. This is part 1. 

Previously: Life and Loss with the Red Wings

After getting rained on during my evening jog through these suburban neighborhoods - the domestic houses silent in the lazy Sunday dusk - I secluded myself away for the evening. I opened yet another tin of chewing  tobacco - another weekend away from booze, at least - and listened to the freezing rain patter on the rooftop and the February gales whistling through the treetops behind the house. A basketball game from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois glowed from the television screen, teams in bright orange and bright yellow executing layups at opposite ends of the court in the calm before the storm. It felt like a mid-winter's dream: I had spent years upon years of my life waiting for this moment, but it didn't feel real.

There I was, rapidly approaching the quarter century mark of my life, feeling like an old man: full of nostalgia and regret. Late November of 1992, when I was but a little tyke, was the last time a Michigan basketball team held the national number one ranking. That could all change that Sunday evening as I watched from the basement of the home I grew up in. It was supposed to mean something. Or so the sports media pundits would have you think. Any true basketball fan knows that a number one ranking in February means nothing. Yet it did mean something. It was a weight that followed me that night on my jog through the streets of my hometown, to the couch where I listened to the sounds of winter outside as I caught my breath from the bitter cold, through the narcotic high as the chewing tobacco sunk in.

What meant something wasn't any number one ranking, though. It was the twenty years in between number one rankings.

Baptism in Dirty Water:"He Takes a Timeout. They Don't Have Any Timeouts!"

Life's narrative begins at our first memory. For me, that was the night my baby brother was born. I don't remember when my parents walked me to the Kapler's house next door as they departed for the hospital, although I know now that happened. I don't remember what games we played, or what movie we watched, or anything, at the Kapler's house that night. I  don't even remember my mom ever being pregant, really. But I remember quite distinctly how I couldn't sleep that night. I wanted to go home. I must have known something life-changing had happened. And I remember the sticky heat of that June night, when the Kapler's walked me across their green front lawn to my own house next door  in the middle of the night. My life would never be the same as soon as I walked into my house that night, for the first time ever as a brother.

Sports fans have similar moments - that first ever memory of when sport came into their lives like a new baby brother. For me, it was the Webber timeout.

There's a hazy, smoke-filled memory of a gathering at my new house; there's something important happening on the television screen - antennae sticking out and all in those days - glass mugs with some sort of brown substance in them, people a lot bigger than me congregated around the television set. Its sort of like one of those very late night bar memories where your memories are fuzzy and don't fit in any order. I'm under a table, or peeking from behind a couch, or something like that. The sports announcers on the television are shocked. The people in the room groan in unison, like they all found out someone just died. Chris Webber had called timeout.

My family's comically oversized computer, brand new in 1994, came with a complimentary Sports Illustrated: 1993 Year in Review CD-Rom. The images from that video compilation are as fresh in my mind today as they were in '94, as I watched that video hundreds of time, truly fascinated with this sports thing: Bama's George Teague stripping the ball from Miami in the Sugar Bowl, Mario Lemieux announcing his diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease, America's Team, The Cowboys, winning the Super Bowl. But most prominent is the incredulous cry of the announcer, "He takes a timeout! They Don't Have any timeouts!" as Chris Webber found himself trapped in the corner amidst defenders cloaked in Carolina blue. The seconds were ticking away on the Fab Five era and on the national championship game, and Webber formed a "T" with his hands whilst tucking the ball under his arm.

Those words mesmerized me: : "He takes a timeout. They don't have any timeouts! Technical foul! Technical foul!"

There probably never was a boy more affected by the words "technical foul" than me. Over the years, those words ringed in my head during those endless classroom hours as the nuns scrawled Geography terms on the blackboards, the old radiator fumbling away in the background. I thought about Webber's facial expression after he called that timeout; pure sadness and regret was an emotion my five year-old self had never known. I spent countless after-school hours in front of the basketball hoop in my driveway, imagining I was Chris Webber during that moment. I desperately wanted to correct the frown on Webber's face, and I always pretended I was him going up for the last second shot. And I smiled, as if my play in my driveway could alter the course of fate. I hated that look on his face - it was just so sad.

It seems almost fitting now that a frown would play such a pivotal part in my sports upbringing: a baptism in dirty water.