I always hated sports. As a child, I played outside, swam all summer, rode my bike, and sledded and skated in winter, but I was not interested in playing or watching organized sporting events. I grew up in a Big Ten town, and was constantly bombarded by games on TV, games on the radio, and the difficulty of driving anywhere on the day of a home football game. I also hated the interpersonal heat and mayhem when my Michigan State University family traveled to Ohio for Thanksgiving with my mother’s Ohio State University uncles and cousins. I was completely horrified that grown men could get that upset because some big idiot dropped a ball or got knocked down. As far as I could see, football involved a bunch of thugs running at each other and falling in a pile. Basketball made more sense, but was still just a bunch of taller thugs with fewer clothes. I attended precisely one football game in four years of high school, and cleverly found a college at which football existed, but was really kind of a joke in the greater world of college sports; it was the “Anti-Big Ten.”
I had a two brief flirtations with sports that were really about impressing the objects of my affection and not about passion for a game. When I fell in love with hockey-playing Stuart, who lived near my grandmother in Rhode Island the summer after fifth grade, I had a brief obsession that included learning all about Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, and requesting a puck and stick for Christmas so that I could play street hockey (which was interesting since no one else I knew had a puck or a stick, or played street hockey). I never saw Stuart again, and although I could (and can) follow a game of ice hockey with some interest, I can also walk away without a second thought. I became a basketball fan when I was in love with John, watching the Detroit Pistons play game after game, and learning to identify a pick & roll, a pivot and a technical foul. My separation from John being more dramatic and disturbing that Stuart’s slow fade from my conscious mind, I rejected basketball along with everything else associated with the relationship.
By the time I was an adult, it was well-known that I had no interest in sports, and wasn’t interested in being led to the Church of ESPN for a conversion experience. When the rest of my family gathered to watch bowl games on New Year’s day, I sat in another room and read, or entertained whatever babies we had at the moment. When my husband, and later my husband and son watched sports on TV, I suffered it by sitting in the same room with them and reading, despite the annoying cheers, whistles, and buzzers. I was kind of proud of my sports-resistant nature; watching people who cared about the outcome of a game was kind of like watching people who are drunk when you are sober. They yelled, they jumped out of their seats, and they said things like “all riiiiiight!” and “come on, come on, come on…YES!” Sometimes, to my great surprise, they cried after the beloved team won a game. I cried about all kinds of things, to be sure, but I could not even remotely imagine caring so much about which group of testosterone-y thugs beat another team of testosterone-y thugs that anyone would weep with joy.
We live, now, in a neighborhood near the Michigan State University campus, and all of the neighboring houses are student rentals. Four years ago, as I engaged in the annual meet and greet with our new undergraduate neighbors, I met a group of male housemates which included what appeared to be a giant. I soon learned that the giant (whose name was Jake) had come all the way from a small town in Wyoming on a full academic scholarship, but that he was also a walk-on for the M.S.U. basketball team. He was a smart kid, and a funny kid, and during that fall we often saw him leave the house at the crack of dawn in his green and white sweats for a workout before classes began. He came home long after dark, after practice and hours of homework. As I got to know the boys in his house, I learned that Jake almost never actually got to play, but that he was expected to participate in all workouts, coaching sessions and games on top of a rigorous academic load. He was no thug, he was willing to give up most of the social life associated with his senior year in college just for a chance to walk on with the team. I was intrigued.
When Jake offered us tickets to the first game of the season, I surprised myself by saying we’d love to go. I enjoyed the brisk walk towards the Breslin Center in the midst of a huge throng of fans, I liked going to the window and asking for the tickets that were held for us, and watching the team warm up from our floor bleacher seats, reserved for players’ families and friends. We were so close that I could see sweat fly, and hear the squeak of giant green and white basketball shoes. We saw Jake, not even close to being the tallest giant in comparison to his teammates, and I began to study the program to find out about the other men on the team, studying up on their home towns and majors; all of the kind of personal, “girly” details that made me feel like I was still me, even on the edge of a basketball court with “Havana Gila” blasting through the speakers, and announcements about something called a “fifty-fifty raffle.”
When the game started, I had my conversion experience. That’s really all there was to it; by some alchemical process of being in that place, learning about those boys and watching them run, and weave and shoot, I became a Fan. It felt strange, at first, to yell out loud, or to cheer (I don’t think I had ever cheered in my entire life) but it was impossible to stay poised or quiet after a hoop-grabbing slam dunk, or a beautifully executed steal. A new, true believer, I went on to read about the history of the team, devour newspaper stories about the players and the coach, and watch every televised game that season. When the games weren’t on TV, I sat glued to my computer, watching something called “Game Tracker” which was to basketball what “Pong” was to tennis; a small graphic of a ball moving back and forth across a rectangle, with text updates after a foul or a score. I began to see, in college basketball, not a group of nameless thugs, but My Boys, who trained their bodies to run hard and fast for minutes at a time, understood complicated strategies, and took the beratings and blessings of their coach as one might accept the ministrations of a beloved father. I knew that Coach held the team to high standards academically, and that he expected them to display good character on and off the court. I came to love him, too. I loved his animated face and barely contained emotions after bad calls and botched plays, and the faint smile he permitted after a three-pointer sailed into the opponent’s basket with a satisfying “swoosh.”
Although I wasn’t sure that I could love another team, especially after Jake graduated, it turned out that I could. I loved Goran, and Raymar, and Marquise, and Travis, gangly Tommy and each year’s new crop of freshmen. This year, I was bereft when I discovered that I had somehow missed the first game, and rushed to find the schedule and put it on my calendar to assure that nothing comes between me and Spartan basketball. I will snap up proffered game tickets, cheer with the Breslin crowd when I can, cheer from my couch when I can’t, and have conversations with perfect strangers about how we pulled out of a slump the previous night because the offensive players were “on fire.”
In case you suspect a flash-in-the-pan kind of love, susceptible to evaporation in the cool breeze of time, I will tell you something I have never told a soul. The first year of my basketball fan-hood, Rob participated in a conference in Grand Rapids Michigan, and Sam and I tagged along to stay in the magnificent Amway Grand Hotel with him. After dinner, we dropped Rob at his booth for the evening, and as we started to walk back to our room, I remembered that we were missing the start of an NCAA playoff game. As Sam and I sped down long, carpeted halls, he noticed that the TV over one of the lobby bars was showing our game; I rationalized that it was okay to sit on a bar stool with my 8-year-old next to me as long as we weren’t sharing a Jagermeister. It was for the sake of our team. As we watched, eating tiny crackers and drinking soda through tiny black straws, the most giant of our giants, a seven-foot Nigerian, fell and injured his elbow with an audible crunch. It was terrible to watch, and his agony was compounded by the fact that it was an important game, and more than one of the high scorers had been benched due to foul trouble. The announcer said that, replacing the injured player was our Jake “Number forty-three, a walk-on from Cody, Wyoming.”
“Jake’s in!” said Sam.
“We know that guy!” I told the bartender. As the three of us watched (the bartender unable to resist our contagious enthusiasm), Jake played real minutes, assisted, shot, and scored. After a year of working out, learning plays, watching tapes, and spending most of his minutes on the bench in his sweats, he played in a nationally televised playoff game, and he played well.
Reader, I cried.