Friday, March 1, 2013

Life and Loss with Michigan Basketball: Volume III

Yellow Badge of Courage

Part I: "He Takes a Timeout. They Don't Have any Timeouts!";
Part II: The Fall from Innocence

"Why has the relationship that began as a schoolboy crush endured for nearly a quarter of a century, longer than any other relationship I have made of my own free will? And why has this affinity managed to survive my periodic feelings of indifference, sorrow, and very real hatred?"
- Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

In sports, as in life, the low points are what make it possible to appreciate the highs that much more. Those seemingly never-ending losing seasons, the humiliating defeats at the hands of your arch-rivals, sitting in half-empty stadiums during the futile seasons, whiskey-drenched nights when you swear you're finished with the team once and for all: we fans take an odd satisfaction in these trying times; we wear those low-points on our sleeves like badges of honor - for our fandom had been tested to the limits and we had remained devout in our allegiances. For nearly a century, Boston Red Sox fans traced their entire identity to the pride that came with years of defeat and ground balls that trickled through first basemen's legs. It was easy to be a Yankees fan; but there was more pride in being a Sox fan, because they had stood on trial and never withered.

As the nineties gave way to the aughts and as I grew older, I began to grow more self-aware of my fandom. In turn, I began to realize that I had no badge of honor to speak of. My fan upbringing had occurred during the prosperous Lloyd Carr era, with few defeats at the hands of Ohio State or Michigan State to speak of; that, and my other team, the Red Wings, had experienced success unprecedented in the hockey world. I was not the Red Sox fan in this metaphor, I was the spoiled Yankees fan. And that didn't sit well with me. In this way an odd hint of jealousy snuck up on me. My fandom had come of age alongside my childhood best friend Steve, a Michigan State legacy and lifelong fan. Steve had gone through a fan's trial - the nineties and early aughts were not overly kind to Michigan State - and had come out the other side ardent in his loyalties. He seemed to have that badge of honor I desperately coveted.

The solution seemed simple, as Michigan Basketball stood in the shadows of Crisler Arena's dark ages. So I returned to Michigan Basketball after a period of indifference, this time more fervently than ever. In the subsequent years, my fandom matured as I was relegated to cheering for NIT Championships, as I suffered through countless beat-downs at the hands of Michigan State, and as I cheered in a sparsely populated and dilapidated Crisler Arena. But there were rewards. This was a relationship I had never felt with Michigan football. After all, it seemed everyone and their brother in Michigan could claim they were Michigan football fans. But I took pride - pretentious as it may have been - in being one of the few who truly cared about Michigan basketball.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around, Michigan Basketball had become more than just a means to an end; our relationship had blossomed into something much bigger. Around this time I began to withdraw from the life corollary to the strictures of Catholic school life in what I perceived to be then a dead-end town. This is not to say that I ceased my social life, but things were beginning to feel stale; I was beginning to learn that there was more out there in this world than the shirt and tie routine of a narrow-minded Catholic high school. I spent many a night drinking whiskey, pouring over pages of Dylan lyrics, driving aimlessly down the streets of my hometown - sometimes I just wasn't ready to go home - growing more and more in awe of what lurked outside my bedroom window. But nothing represented my expanding world more than the Michigan Basketball student section.

I watched in awe of the Maize Rage that winter of my senior year. Here were students not much older than me dressed in silly outfits, cheering wildly, probably off to guzzle down a few beers after the game: they seemed liberated. I grasped that they lived in a world that had a lot more to offer than my small town ever could. I idolized that student section, watching them in my growing knowledge that not every road was going to lead home anymore. Soon I would be on my way, too.

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