The now-annual Bad Essay post

Oh, yes, it’s that time of year again, finally – I begin making use of our obscene cable subscription today. Duke basketball is on tonight at 7:00 pm!

This is the second year in a row I’ll be posting one of the first essays I ever wrote (keep in mind I did fiction for a long time) – it’s bad and the players are no longer accurate and it’s tremendously dated…I wrote it around 9/11.  I think. Thereish. But as poorly written as it happens to be, it still accurately describes my love for the game.  Skip this post if the very thought of college basketball puts you to sleep.  Otherwise, keep in mind I was young and today I am VERY hungover from A.’s birthday party last  night.

 

An Infinite Minute

                                               

 

            My husband hates the last minute of college basketball games.  The continuous time-outs and foul shots make him gnash his teeth, curse the coaches, bemoan the commercials.  “How can one minute last an hour?” he demands, frustrated by the eightieth Burger King commercial.

            The first college basketball game I remember watching was the 1992 Duke verses Kentucky Elite Eight game.  My brother and I were in a hotel room in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tired after touring the University of Michigan’s campus all day.  Derek has always been an avid Duke fan, and he turned the game on while my parents were unloading the car.  What I remember from that game isn’t, as I’ve read, the perfectly executed basketball played that night – I recall what most basketball fans have forever etched in their memories: Grant Hill making an impossibly long pass to Christian Laettner, who made an impossible basket, in an unbelievable 2.1 seconds left to play.

            My brother, of course, was astounded, thrilled.  Grant Hill, in his twelve-year old eyes, was a hero. “Wasn’t that amazing, Courtney?” he shouted, jumping up and down on the bed, pumping his skinny arms in the air.  “Duke rules!”

            It was amazing.  The Duke-Kentucky game went into overtime, and the last minute of play had taken twenty.  In basketball, it seemed to me, a minute could last forever and anything could happen.

            Since then, the last minute of college basketball is my favorite, especially if the score is close.  A game can be won or lost in a second; a heartbeat.  A player’s career can begin or end in that same moment.  When people complain about the time it takes for a college basketball game to end, I believe that they fail to recognize the importance of the end of the game.  Often, if a team has played well for the majority of the game, it means relatively little if, in the last minute, a player misses a foul shot or a field goal.  I’ve seen teams make up twelve-point deficits in under a minute, and games that change leads just as many times in thirty seconds.  The last minute of any game allows for chance miracles and rogue baskets, tenuous foul shots and long three pointers.  It allows for infinite moments of grace.

            After the Duke/Kentucky game, I was hooked.  Because I was raised in a family of Michigan State University Alumni, for years the only team I rooted for was MSU.  My parents, aunts and uncles, almost everybody blood related to me had been a Spartan at one point, and I wanted to move to East Lansing as well.  Until then, I followed MSU basketball and football, which led to a lot of disappointment.  In general, being a sports fan for MSU is difficult – we rarely win.  That is, at least, until my senior year of college.

            I attended MSU from 1995 to 1999, and during that time head coach Tom Izzo took our basketball team from fairly desultory play to, in my senior year, the Final Four.  During the 1998-99 season, the campus was glued to MSU basketball.  Point guard Mateen Cleaves and his band of Flintstones (three players who grew up playing ball together in Flint, Michigan), along with Coach Izzo, created an electric presence on the court, and they convinced fans there was hope for a National Championship.

            In late March, MSU played against Duke University for a spot in the National Championship game.  Until that point, my memory of the Duke-Kentucky game was a good one.  Afterwards, when Duke won 68-60 and stole MSU’s opportunity to win the NCAA tournament, I realized the downside of the infinite last minute – when your team is losing it doesn’t last very long at all.

            From then on, I viewed Duke as a rival, and in an unfortunate twist of timing, that summer Sam and I moved to Durham, North Carolina so he could attend graduate school there.  It was my first time living so far away from my family.  My father-in-law is in academic administration, which makes his kids the post-doctoral equivalent of army brats, so Sam was used to long moves to faraway places.  For me, North Carolina was wholly new and exotic; the heat alone, after growing up on Lake Huron, left me breathless.  Everything felt unnatural there, from copperheads sunning themselves in my driveway to the havoc Hurricane Dennis trailed across the region.  To my surprise, many of MSU’s games were televised, and it was in my cinder block house on the Eno River that I allowed Coach Izzo and his team of seniors to court me with their game again.

            At the same time, I worked at Duke University, and by simple proximity became acquainted with the Coach K. phenomenon.  For MSU fans, basketball is a game; our proverbial blood, sweat and tears go into the sport of spectating.  At Duke, I quickly learned, basketball is a religion, and Coach Krysewski is a god.  Soured as I was with MSU’s loss to Duke the previous year, I was still amazed to see Krysewskiville – Duke students camping for weeks outside Cameron stadium in hopes of scoring basketball tickets.

            As the basketball season evolved, it became clear that both Duke and MSU were leading teams in their respective conferences.  All around me, new colleagues and friends were convinced of another Duke championship.  There was, in the late fall and early winter of 1999-2000, an energy on Duke’s campus not entirely different from MSU’s the previous year, with one huge exception: at Duke, there is an aura of uncorrupted devotion.  There is a sense of grace and sportsmanship that Dukies like to cultivate, an air that emanates “not only are we one of the best teams in the nation, but we are great guys.”  Duke fans like to brag about the individual players’ grade point averages, rattling them off like so many simple multiplication tables.  My husband enjoys the fact that few Duke players leave early to enter the NBA draft.  In articles and interviews Duke players and Coach K. can always be found offering positive remarks about the opposing team they played.  “MSU was doing a great job on me all game, keeping the ball out of my hands” Duke player Trajan Langden told  the Detroit Free Press, after eliminating the Spartans from the final game.

            It is this sense of devotion to team, coach and game that makes me distrust Duke.  I grew up believing in the glory and the guts of the Big Ten conference. I’m a Midwestern girl.  I like steak and cheese and beer and brats, and I like all of those best when watching MSU basketball.  The refinement and class Duke fans and players bring to the game feels pretentious, unnecessary.  What good is a sport if you can’t yell at the coach or complain about the referee?  What good is a game if you can’t bitch out the players?  To play exemplary ball game after game, to show sportsmanship even when teams put three big guys on your best scorer – well, that’s just sour grapes hidden behind an private school façade.

            My first year out of Michigan, my alma mater, led by Mateen Cleaves, won the NCAA Championship.  Because of the length of basketball season, the games leading up to March Madness connected me to friends and family  back home in a way that might not have happened otherwise.  Most of MSU’s games that year were close – I spent hours on the phone with friends and family, watching the final minute of basketball games in the winter of 2000.

            Since then, MSU has floated in and out of the NCAA tournament, playing well when by all accounts they shouldn’t, and playing poorly when the odds are in their favor.  Last season,  MSU made it to the Elite Eight without a point guard and played more freshmen than any team has a right to.

            Over  the past two years, basketball has become more encompassing, and I’ve found myself following more and more teams.  Because of another move, my in-laws became Syracuse fans, and as an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, I paid attention to the Panther’s performance, if only to predict how many students would show up to my early morning class the next day.  My father-in-law’s alma mater, North Carolina State University, was in the tournament last year, as was Central Michigan, where my dad received his master’s degree.  With my husband, I watched Duke play, keeping the snide comments to a minimum.

            Basketball season reaches its pinnacle in March, when the NCAA tournament begins.  Last year, with so many teams to watch, it provided a necessary distraction from the heightened terror alerts and all day coverage of the war in Iraq.  My father, who is nicknamed Paranoid Paulie, could only talk about two things; the war and MSU basketball.  As the older child, I generally listened to his diatribes against George Bush, Condoleeza Rice and John Ashcroft; as the child still enrolled at MSU, Derek received my dad’s analysis of every MSU basketball game.

            “Dad called me to make sure I have enough granola bars and chicken broth, in case of a nuclear war,” I told Derek, sometime after Christmas.

            “Dad told me everything wrong with Izzo’s coaching style,” Derek trumped.  When it comes to war or basketball, the latter is always the more intense conversation with my father.  Last year, he was entranced with Maurice Ager, and his messages on my machine always began with “That Maurice Ager,” before he launched into his assessment of Tommy Franks.

            In other conversations, paranoid Paulie told me his surefire way for combating insomnia.  “What I do is, I figure out different combinations for MSU’s starting line up,” he said.  “By the way, I’m mailing you an evacuation plan in case something happens.  They say on the news every family should have an evacuation plan.”

            When I was younger, I was always surprised that my mom enjoyed basketball so much.  Until I became a teenager, I didn’t particularly care for sports, and I was always suspicious when my mom would turn a game on, especially if my father wasn’t home.  Now I rearrange my schedule to accommodate games, skipping parties or grading papers in order to watch them.  In March, our television is perpetually tuned to CBS, and Sam and I run to it when we hear the update jingle, in order to catch the scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen.  When MSU lost last year in the Elite Eight, my mom and I joked that finally, we could stop scheduling our weekends around basketball.  Really, though, it wasn’t funny.  Every year a little more of me becomes entranced with the teams, the statistics and the often long last minutes of the game.

            New friends are often surprised with my stringent dedication to college basketball, but I am hardly alone in my fanaticism.  College basketball in general and March Madness in particular take over the country annually, helping those of us in Northern climates endure March’s fog and sleet, while it ushers spring in to the south and west of us.  What I sense with college basketball, though, are the tremendous possibilities that exist, not only in the last minute of the game but in the tournament structure as well.  There are analysts and reporters who decry the way the NCAA tournament is decided; it is faulty, and a rogue team can get in.  This is because NCAA officials consider not only wins verses losses, it considers the difficulty of the team’s schedule, the level of division and the difficulty of the conference.  Like a college application, the NCAA doesn’t consider just statistics; it looks for well-rounded teams; it tries to exemplify fair play. It allows dark horse teams from smalls schools to play against Cinderella teams, it offers  the unexpected.

            Already I am eager for this season to begin, anxious to analyze Izzo’s new recruits.  Sam says both Duke and MSU are in rebuilding years, and I shouldn’t get my hopes up, but what does he know?  He’s a Duke fan.  He also thinks it’s silly that one of my good friends named her cat Izzo, and he doesn’t believe me when I say Paul Davis is smiling at me, me from the three point line.  Sam possesses that private school pragmatism that allows for rebuilding.  He also hates the last minutes of the games, which is where the possibility and triumph of the sport exists.  In basketball, a fan can be practical and analytical, or he can hope despite a young team, a tired coach, impossible odds.  No matter what, the team is likely to offer considerable entertainment and several long last minutes that are pregnant with possibility, infinite in magic.

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16 Responses to The now-annual Bad Essay post

  1. litlove says:

    Wow- great essay, Courtney! I’m not a fan of basket-ball but I love the way you write about it. You remind me of Tom Wolfe’s novel ‘I am Charlotte Simmons’ which also had its element of basketball worship. That’s a book I’d love to know your thoughts on!

  2. Aw, litlove – it’s not great by any means but Thank You! You know, I have ‘I am Charlotte Simmons’ but haven’t begun it after a previously disappointing Wolfe experience…might be able to pick it up soon though!

  3. Emily says:

    I’ve always maintained that the last minute of the basketball game is the only one anyone really needs to watch (doesn’t keep me from watching the rest, though).

    And phew! I was afraid you were going to announce you were a rabid Duke fan. I didn’t go to Chapel Hill, but I’m “Tarheel born and bred” and absolutely despise Duke. The religion analogy is correct, although it’s some weird sub-cult in which people are captured and brainwashed. Also, they’re all Republicans.

  4. Carl V. says:

    I love college basketball during March Madness but don’t really follow any team during the year. I do make it a habit of going against Duke most of the time though…sorry!

  5. Emily, too funny – we’ll make sure never to put you and S. in a room together. And you’re right, it IS a sub-cult!

    Carl – you are either for Duke or against Duke usually – I think I’m the only person I know sort of on the fence.

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