Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The right place.

Heading to my seat before the Southern Conference men's basketball championship game, I caught up with Sink and tapped him on the shoulder. "You ready?"

He didn't halt his long stride or hesitate to answer over the pep bands' dueling brass. "Well, if I ain't ready, I'm in the wrong place!"

I chuckled nervously. Then I stopped and thought about it.

If I ain't ready, I'm in the wrong place.

I'd spent the morning barely getting over our eeked-out semifinal victory against App, savoring the gray skies from my table at Malaprop's with no stress or pressure or imminent history-claiming moments on the horizon - at least not in the next hour. (As an aside: Asheville wins over all other tourney sites, because I can walk from the cozy paper-smell tea-and-bagel independent bookstore to the arena in under three minutes. Can we make this my normal routine, please? K thanks.)

Then I'd traipsed up the block to the arena, gulping down cold air and nerves to watch the Lady Cats take on the Lady Mocs in our first championship game in over a decade.

Oh, what a glorious bursting brilliant rip-out-your-heart forty minutes.

If I ain't ready, I'm in the wrong place.

This was the right place for our girls to be, no question about it. They marveled and moved me, their energy and talent and ceaseless pushing forward, seeing and feeling something bright ahead of them, and yet simply seeing and feeling each present moment. I recalled spotting Sophia as a freshman around campus, not knowing yet that I was looking at one of our greatest ever. I remembered my favorite moment from the men's semifinal the night before, when the girls left the arena by way of the endzone, and we stood and screamed for them, and I thought Laura's pink happy cheeks were going to burst right then and there. I thought about Barbara's voice later that night in the Doubletree ballroom, bubbly with exciting giggles as she thanked the crowd for their support. And every second of the game, from the court to the bench, I felt the pulses of their devotion and determination. Every huddle, every timeout, the bench was up and cheering, hugs and high-fives and yells. And when the buzzer sounded, our team gathered in the center of the court, clapping their way through the heartbreak, the so-closeness, meshing into one, holding fast to each other.

Only hours before they took the floor, Hannah Early had tweeted: On the day of the biggest game of the season, I know that nothing in this life matters, unless it's about loving God and loving others.

We are in the right place.

On my way to the pre-game event for the men's game, I happened to pass our women's team bus on the side street behind the U.S. Cellular Center. The driver was waiting for the girls at the door, a small older man with a baseball cap and glasses. Rain misted. One of our girls tossed her bag onto the pile of luggage and made to board the bus. But then she stopped, leaned down, and the bus driver gave her a hug. Consoling, congratulatory, sharing in this moment and all of its aching emotions.

She boarded, and I spoke to the driver as I walked past. "Please tell them," I said, almost a plea, "Please tell them that they were wonderful."

He nodded.

If I ain't ready, I'm in the wrong place.

Sitting in the arena waiting for the boys' game to begin, I could only think that none of us felt we were in the wrong place (though my nerves made it difficult to tell if I was ready). Some of us have been in this place for years, decades, pumped full of memories, the highs and the nosedives. Some of us have been welcomed in only recently. Some of us were welcomed when we didn't even realize it - I can't say that I knew how intertwined my future would be with the people of Davidson and Davidson basketball when I walked into Belk for my first game on December 1, 2006. And that's the fun and magic of this ongoing story. When you take away the nerves, the Facebook and Twitter posts, the selection committee, the hype and predictions, the past and the future, even when you take away the matter of winning and losing, it all boils into the air and this remains: a family.

And family is what I think of, always, with these people and this program. The students who hopped on buses after class to come cheer (there's a remnant of nostalgia for me too, thinking of Detroit-bound buses at 5 a.m.), young children and old folks, players' families and former players, alumni and those we've dragged into the fray, friends who watch from afar and text like they're in the seat next to you (Jessie, Dad)... Family is the Pope and the Rabbi and D-Block and Carol Quillen leading "Sweet Caroline" and Morgan coming from Memphis and Anjan from D.C. and Angela flying in from Chicago and Owen flying in from Maine and countless others, and family is Coach's little granddaughter in the front row decked out in Wildcat regalia. Family is what I thought of when I saw Jake's monster blocks, De'Mon's graceful pivots and killer inside moves, JP's light and airy jumpers, Clint's grins and cheers from the bench, Nik's free throw brilliance... Family equals Tyler and Tom's defense and poise, Jake Belford laying it up and in, Jordan's fearlessness, Ali always the first one up to clap and encourage, and the whole bench emptying, sending our teams of the future onto the court to finish off a championship.

Yes, it's a sweet victory, but why does it matter? Family.

It struck me as the buzzer sounded and they ran to hug each other, genuine and rejoicing, players and coaches, mentors and friends. It struck me when they raced to the edge of the court and reached the students, cheering and chanting and stretching their hands out to touch celebration. It struck me when Coach McKillop approached the students beaming, holding his granddaughter, and when he bowed down to their cheers. It struck me when the boys hoisted the trophy and sang with us, and Jake carried the trophy to the students, a sharing, a communion, an acknowledgement of what life in this community means. And it struck me when they draped the victory net around Dick Sanderson's neck, crowding around his wheelchair for a photo, mirroring teams of the past, answering a call: We are in the right place.

I've noticed something about this team all year, most of McKillop's teams actually, and I only just wrote it down at 7:03 p.m. that night, right before tip-off, right before I would suddenly have no control over this game and this outcome (ready, set...). Deep breaths, I typed hurriedly on my phone, and tried to take some myself, deep breaths. Because even as "Sandstorm" raged and the roars rose, Jake, JP, Nik, De'Mon and Chris huddled, arms solidly around each other, inhaling as one. In, out. Ready. Deep breaths, I wrote. They do it because they know: We are in the right place. 

How lucky we are to be right with them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh my...This is special. Thank you