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.

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