Sometimes people want to know why I do this: why I follow a team so avidly, and why I choose to write about them. Sometimes people make the frustrating assumption that I must be so involved and fanatical because the basketball players are boys, and I'm a girl, and OMG maybe one of them will like, totally go out with me!
Ohmygod, like, shut up.
Let me explain.
When I was nineteen years old, I stumbled upon a little pocket of the college community that I had begun to love, cobblestone and redbrick dorms and paper hearts on the dining hall walls. This pocket buzzed and bubbled with hoarse voices and cherry-red cheeks, all squeezed into one space that I could clearly define -- a building that smells of shined wood, popcorn, shoe rubber, and fizzy chlorine.
In many ways, these were the smells of my childhood, a little girl who grew up with wonderfully strong women, and also a father and a brother, a grandfather and three uncles; a little girl who sat in the bleachers of the local Baptist church gym and waited while my brother practiced with his fellow seven-year-olds. I was nine at the time, and I would lean back against the hard wooden slats and read, or practice multiplication tables, or stare at the majestic mural of the eagle on the wall behind me. I created a tune for the Isaiah passage it mirrored, and I can still hum it today, hearing loud kiddie basketball practice behind me.
They will mount up with wings as eagles
they will run and not be weary
they will walk and not faaaaaint.
(If you did hear me humming it, "faint" would be the longest note, and would drop down several notes on the scale.)
And so I knew very early what it was to watch a team, to have a team, to spend your Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons supporting a team.
I could not have known how my predetermined sports passion gene combined with my college choice would bring this unimagined richness to my life. Even five years ago, when I had Davidson brain-ingrained as the only place I wanted to go, it was certainly not because it is one of the smallest Division-I schools in the country.
On Saturday morning, as we awaited tip off for Davidson vs. UNCG, Jessie and I dawdled down Main Street, Summitfull and sunsoaking. We talked about being happy that I've been able to stay closeby my first year out from graduation, and her sophomore year. We talked about the team, our boys, and I beam because she gets it, she understands, and she didn't get scared away by my profanity and shrieking during games last year. We talk about watching players progress, especially Nik, and how suddenly after ten or twelve games, we breathe better when he's on the court. We have literally watched him become this rock-steady force.
"Jess!" I exclaimed shrilly, "that is why I write what I write! We get to watch! I mean, I watched this skinny kid in my class go from here to ... to winning the All-Star Skills Challenge, in a span of two and a half years!"
Jessie knows this, of course, and Carrie did too as she wiped tears away after her last home game on Thursday; most all of us know it, but for some reason I still repeat it and write it and glow it and it needs to be known, known, known:
We cradle in our hands this invisible mystery, the wondrous ability to watch the story unfold and be part of it as it does.
I'm not naive enough to think that this doesn't happen in all aspects of our lives; I know it does, and I treasure that. I do think, however, that putting it in the context of a wooden court, a group of players and coaches, and a red-neon clock gives us the means to see it concretely, if only for two hours a couple times a week. For these halves that turn to minutes that turn to life-force we believe seconds, we know where we are and what we are doing and who we are watching. Stats and whistles and even brassy trumpets and crisp quick drums place us here, solid, and we have a purpose.
There's another part, though -- I look up and I can almost see it, thick in the bright bustling air. This idea of concrete person/place/thing doesn't complete itself without the history and knowledge of what has come before. I am consistently fascinated that people return to this place, this campus and this arena, seeking emotional and personal connection that they found when they were young. Conversations flow; eyes catch eyes, laughter bellows, tears fall. We each hold within us this myriad of stories, of moments, and through them we connect and move and grow. Within this concreteness of a game, a team, the messy joy and confusion of life joins in a blurry haze; this mix of knowledge, history, love, and mystery moves in me to create a whole new emotion that I do not own words to describe.
Life joins with life, and Lord, it bowls me over.
On Saturday at 1:55 PM, I felt very in and out of time as I watched this senior captain tenderly take his mother's arm and wipe away tears before he even stepped onto the court. Even though I do not know him, I thought about all that is within Brendan, concrete and abstract, for indeed his life has been much moved by this building and this court. I thought of the fulfillment and hard work and love that has existed within this space for him; here he was a child, a teenager, here he has witnessed magic and created it, become a leader and claimed it. Here he has his family. Here, for him and for us, are so many things that we can explain and even more that we cannot.
Billy, Ben, and Brendan. With every minute that fell, I felt remnants of a particular glory fluttering gently into the rafters, catching on the yellow banner that hangs lower than any other. I felt my own history as I watched them complete a chapter of theirs. There was Billy, cheerfully quiet and all button-up business, collecting papers and patting his friends on the back; he has made this story a part of himself, and himself a part of the story, from Statesboro to Detroit to Puerto Rico. Ben played his heart out, and I thought of his beam on the bench in Raleigh, and the way he would muscle you out of a rebound, no questions asked. The British flag flew as he lifted the ball up and in, under two minutes, and we rumbled and roared -- we are proud of you, will always be proud of you. Brendan had his squared-up set jaw all day, sharp eyes like his father, draining from beyond the arc with that confidence in his shoulders and bounce in his feet (I had a fleeting recollection of The Davidson Show's first-ever episode, which gave special credit to "Brendan's first three-pointer as a Wildcat!" in the Davidson-Emory highlights). There's always a special murmur on Senior Day, the last two minutes, because you know Bob's going to take them out. And when he did, in the midst of the ovation, I felt very quiet and quietly alone, watching history and magic and love fill it up.
History held court all weekend, with Lefty, and the Maloy family, and countless other names that I know, voices that I was honored to hear. It moved me immensely to be surrounded by those who have gone before and returned, regardless of how long the absence. I sat at a table with a family of mine that I never thought I would have -- stemming from an Internet message board, here they were in real life, friends and comrades who have taken me in. As we were served dinner, our bright-eyed waitress enthusiastically explained that she's from Italy, and she's getting her degree in architecture from UNCC (but don't worry, she loves Davidson). William had a slight smile on his face as she bustled off. "Well -- everyone has a story."
I began this season writing about the significance of names in our lives. When does a particular name move from being nothing much to being one that makes you stand up, cheer, beam? It's all part of the story. I've loved this season for many reasons, for giving me names of which to be proud, for giving me people to stand for. Billy, Ben, and Brendan. Frank, who looked more overjoyed than I've ever seen him on Saturday when he made a great play. Will and AJ, who have grown from walk-ons sitting at the end of the bench to captain and leader, up and yelling, slapping hands and brimming hope. Jake and JP, such opposites in looks and such brothers in focus, long limbs and quick flashes taking over the court. Nik, whose name and game have been such a joy to watch, smooth and force-filled and biting. Clint, whose jubilant smile from last year's bench has become a constant on the court, along with his determined hardnosed power-throughs under the basket. Tom, driving and switching, hard-held eyes. Jordan, quick moving and hustle, De'Mon, his blazing grin and strong arms forcing the issue and getting results, love of the game. Chris, quietly coming out of the woodwork, pushing, shooting, forward into the future. Clay, brow furrowed, clapping hard.
In fifteen minutes, my father and I will leave for Chattanooga. Davidson plays UNCG at two in the first round of the 2011 SoCon Tournament. I will not be hundreds of miles and cell phone towers away this year; win or lose, I'll breathe the same air. Win or lose, I'll count this a wonderful season.
On Saturday night before the dinner honoring Mike Maloy, I pit-patted through the empty spring-break campus, breathed in the cool air, watched the sun drip down over my beloved alma mater and all my memories. History, mystery, magic, discovery, connection, movement, honor, family, grace. I passed through the clearing where we once lined up in early-morning March to climb onto buses heading for Detroit.
"I am so full," I whispered to that memory, to the air, to the future.
And this is why I write.