Day 21: Finals

Feelings shoot like sparks across time and place. The last time I’d felt this way about a basketball game was on Friday, March 4, 1983. I was lacing up a pair of Converse All-Stars (This was a few years before the Choose Your Weapon ad campaign, but if I’d had the choice, I’d have chosen Magic) in the lockerroom at the Milwaukee Arena, also known as The Mecca. In a few minutes, I’d proudly lead my maroon and gold clad (short shorted) team out onto the court for warm-ups prior to our quarterfinal matchup in the (now-defunct) 54th Annual Wisconsin Independent Schools Association Class A State Tournament against favored Oshkosh Lourdes and their 6-8 Indiana-bound star Todd Meier.

Lourdes had lost only four games all year and came into the tournament (for the second year in a row) riding a 15 game winning streak, including a waltz through their regional tournament. For our part, the Madison Edgewood Crusaders were 13-8, and had lost four of our last six games before putting together two decent ball games to win our own regional. The only other team in the tournament that we’d played during the season, Whitefish Bay Dominican, wound up posting a 9-13 record, but they beat us by 20 on our home floor. Despite this, we were an overachieving team that had made the State tournament against predictions; and where bigger, more talented representatives of our small school over the previous four years had failed. Our biggest player was a 6-6 sophomore who, though he would go on to set scoring records at Harvard, was at the time skinny, inexperienced, and under confident. As our coach had told me prior to the season, “let’s face it, your class is a great bunch of guys, but it’s only Flint and Mark (two bad-boy transfers to our school who started alongside me senior year) that have made you even respectable as an athletic class.” Or something like that.

Still, there I was, with my teammates, getting dressed in the same lockerroom that had been used by Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others only a few years before, getting ready to tread the same floor, shoot at the same basket, with more fans in attendance than I, for one, had ever played for. I’m not sure the knot I felt in my stomach that day was any worse than it ever was before a game. I was used to it, I mean. And I knew enough to know that it only meant that I cared about the game – not, for example, that I was unprepared or overmatched. I knew, though I couldn’t have articulated it then, that it was a sign that the game hadn’t started yet. With the opening tip, there would be no more nerves. I guess, in that sense, it’s a sign of consciousness and of the way it grasps for a purchase on the slippery surface of an anticipated experience. My body would know what to do for the most part, but sitting in that lockerroom, it wasn’t time yet, wasn’t time for my body to do what it had done hundreds and hundreds of times since I was a small boy in my driveway: dribble, pass, shoot, defend, rebound.

We lost that game. We played hard defense though, and intelligently executed our patient offense. I was the pass first point guard on that team, a co-captain, the coach on the floor. But the last 2:04 of regulation provided me with memories that will last me forever when, down six, I hit 3 consecutive 18 ft jumpers over their zone to send the game into overtime (an opportunity to hit a fourth went awry when a cross-court pass sailed over my head). But in overtime, Meier was just too much. He scored the final points of my career on a frightening two handed dunk. I’d never played in a real game in which someone had dunked before.

And that dunk, as much as anything, marks the crossroads from which he and I would go in very different directions. He’d go on to a significant supporting role on Indiana’s 1987 NCAA Championship Team (as well as some mention in Feinstein’s Season on the Brink – the downside: he had to meet Reagan and give him a hat and sweater). Meanwhile, I’d go on, after a successful intramural and city league career, to become a college literature professor teaching a course on basketball culture. His career-ending dunk marks too, in that sense, the psychic spot from which my course developed: for it to go a different way, to see what a different road might have looked like, the wish for one more chance. And that has been the energy and the pitfall of the course all season – I mean, all semester – its emotional strength and its intellectual weakness.

I knew this already, well before lacing up my sneakers in the Intramural Building at Michigan last Wednesday night. But there’s a way in which the knot that I felt as I did so viscerally emblematized the fact that I was approaching this tournament as that second chance; as it emblematized also all that has been inseparably great and weak about the course. Once again, I’d be suiting up for a tournament. Once again, Big Ten basketball players would be playing on the opposing team. History repeats itself, Marx famously wrote, the first time as tragedy the second as farce. I think this particular repetition was probably neither, but if I had to choose, it was much closer to farce.

My team, Saline Sickness (pictured above from left: Big Will Campbell, Ryan Rain Drop Feeley, Light Skin Jesus, and Jordan The Technician Dumars), did not win the First Annual Free Yago Cultures of Basketball JAMboreee. We didn’t finish first, second, or third. We didn’t finish fourth, fifth, or sixth. We finished seventh. Out of eight. In our defense, we did not have a UM basketball player on our squad. Our player-owner, Jordan Dumars, rehabbing a torn meniscus, wisely decided not to play in the game. In his stead, he recruited Big Will Campbell, a 6-5, 333 pound defensive tackle from the UM football team. Will was a remarkably quick, skilled baller, and a really nice guy (he even addressed me as “Professor”… in the middle of a game, as in, “Professor, I’m open!”). But he’s no D-1 player. In fact, the only team that finished worse, the team we beat in the final game to avoid the ignominy of last place, also was missing its player-owner, 6-10 Evan Manatee Smotrycz who might otherwise have led his S.W.A.T. team (comprised of 6-3 Sam The Garbage Man Klein and 6-2 Matt the Hebrew Hammer Gordon) to a respectable finish. As it was, Evan, unlike everyone in the class, unlike everyone who has been reading the blog or following me on Twitter, somehow managed NOT to realize that the tournament was Wednesday night at 8:30 (not Wednesday morning) and so by tip-off was already back eating his mom’s home-cooked meals in Reading, Massachusetts. S.W.A.T. team thus had to make do with the kindness of strangers – a different UM player rotated in to hoop with them in each game – and so they were never able to gel as a team.

Tournament MVP went to Corey Bing Bing Person, a 6-3 UM walkon from Kalamazoo, who led his team, The Dream Killazzz (6-0 Elliott Darvy Darvish and 6-4 Nick Sizzle Pagano) through a difficult preliminary group round and then to a championship game victory over Los Tres Amigos! (featuring 6-11 Blake Bird McClimans, 6-2 Mack Bronco Ladd, and 5-8 Tim Soy Sauce Yeh). Other highlights included a devasting posterizing of 5-10 Ron The Professor Beach by Colton Chevy Christian, a Tim Pop Pop Hardaway dunk over the game but ineffectual challenge of my teammate Rain Drop (nice outward facing bookends to my career: Meier’s dunk and Hardaway’s dunk), the lights out three point shooting of Matt Wisconsin Lunchbox Vogrich and Stuart Dr Funk Douglass, the unrepentant and often effective long range gunning of Chantel Blue Steel Jennings, the 40 inch vertical leap of Sean Nugget Fletcher, and the 3rd place game clinching triple from unexpected hero Rajesh Shake n Bake Kumar.

But even those participants I’m not singling out here had, I hope, like me: their one shining moment: a swished jumper, a sweet no-look pass, a tough put back on an offensive rebound, a steal or blocked shot, no injury. I didn’t, of course, get to see every game, but I did see every team play at least one game, and in every game I saw each player on the team contributed something, and I saw teams working pretty well together. More importantly, everyone seemed to me, at least to be having a good time, to be competing joyfully, forming small rivalries and camaraderies, trying hard, talking a little trash, and developing running gags.

It was over too quickly, like my dream of winning the title and so righting the course of history that had gone so tragically wrong 28 years before on the floor of the Mecca. We took some team photos. Claire, bless her heart, gamely snapped hundreds of action shots with my phone. And then one by one, with fist bumps or handshakes or hugs, I said goodbye to them as they filed out of the gym, on their way to study for exams, on their way to the rest of their lives. That’s fine, of course, and it is as it should be. As a teacher I know that and to some degree I experience it at the end of every semester. Just not so much. It doesn’t always hurt in this way.

And I guess that is what made this class, for better and for worse, what it was. It was made from my heart, and my memory, and my desire, relentless, to keep making life new. From the afternoon I spent crying in a bathtub in the Red Roof after the first day, trying to understand and to explain to Claire what it was all about, to the nerves and eager joy of the big game, and all points in between — Bethlehem Shoals‘ visit, a bit of internets attention for me (thanks Beckley and the True Hoop gang) and Matt Gordon, a stirring tournament run by the UM team, and a visit from Coach John Beilein — this class was infused with my feelings for the game, past and present and future. Sometimes, that probably got out of hand. Sometimes, it might have led me to attach too strongly to the players and perhaps to short shrift some of the other students, at least on occasion. I’m sorry for that if I did. I couldn’t help it this time, but I’ll learn from it. But even with whatever pitfalls might have ensued, I’m not sorry for the vulnerability I showed in teaching a class not only with my my mind, but with my heart; in modeling for students the attempt (leave aside success or failure) to do my job and fulfill my vocation as an integrated adult.

In the end, I’m heartened by three things. I won’t pretend these are really rational things, they are just things that have touched me and that, when I think of them, hearten me. I want to share these with you, but before I do I want to say, now this course is over, and so is the course diary. But it has opened up for me the possibility of bringing what tools I have to writing about basketball and I intend to keep doing that, even without the twice weekly inspiration and structure of my class to motivate my posts. I’ll keep writing. I hope you’ll keep reading.

So, my three heartening things:

1) After everyone was at the gym, shooting around and warming up at different baskets, we all started gravitating toward a single basket where we were just shooting around randomly. And then, like a flock of migratory birds, to my mind out of nowhere, we formed two lines leading away from that hoop: one line shooting layups and the other rebounding. So lovely, all the colors of our jerseys, somehow that common idea forming and materializing, the joking and kidding as people tried different crazy shots. I was so excited that when my turn came to shoot my lay up, I laid it up off the glass too hard and didn’t even draw iron. I swear I’m not a terrible basketball player, but I’m pretty sure that was the most terrible shot of the day.

2) After the tournament, there was a flurry of mutual Facebook friending among members of the class. I won’t pretend to know what that really means to this generation. But to me in the moment it felt that these people were at once reaching out and letting each other in; these people who perhaps started things off in January more aware of differences than similarities had studied together, argued sometimes, thought together, cheered for one another, organized a basketball tournament together, and played ball together and so were now, well, friends… at least on Facebook. And I don’t want snarkily trivialize the fact that it was on Facebook. Because I also felt happy to friend and be friended by them. I don’t mean to rationalize my failures as a professor in this class or any other – lord knows I’m aware of them – but I consider it one part of my job to teach and to model for younger human beings how to reach out and how to let in – how to be friends in and with the world.

3) Todd Meier, remember him? He did indeed end my high school career. He did go on to play Big Ten ball and even to win a National Championship and go to the White House. Today, Todd, having gotten his degree in Business from Indiana, is back home in Oshkosh working as the Director of Market Development for Mercury Marine. I hope this makes him happy. I have no reason to think it doesn’t. But I have to say, with no disrespect at all intended, that after all this, and because a life is a whole thing, I wouldn’t trade a single step of the path I began to walk in 1983, tears stinging mingled with sweat in my eyes after Todd’s dunk in Mecca, for a single step of his.

Now you can go back and see how it all started on the first day of school.

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