Friday, March 19, 2010

Me and Curtis and the Tourney

When I moved to Texas, at 14, I had a thick Long Island accent and probably weighed 37 pounds (give or take a few). Making friends wasn’t going to be easy. Just surviving might not be easy. I remember one day, during basketball practice, I was jogging through a backstage corridor of the gym to get something. I passed a group of football players being spoken to by an assistant coach. He stopped me, and made it clear that I should apologize for interrupting their meeting. “Sorry,” I said. He fixed me with steely eyes. I was not a wise-guy kid to authority figures, especially muscular ones, but I think he believed I was being a wise guy. I just honestly didn’t know what he wanted. This was literally a type of human being I had never encountered in my 14 years on Earth. He kept staring at me. The football players subtly shifted their weight and wished for this scrawny blond to say the right thing so they could get back to business. “Sorry what?” the coach asked. I kept gaping for a few seconds, but my Northeastern animal brain finally put the pieces together. “Sorry, sir,” I croaked.

Abracadabra, he let me go. That coach wasn’t a bad guy. He taught my Algebra I class. I laughed to myself at the way he pronounced oil (“aaaaallll”), but he was a good guy.

Back at basketball practice, I also kept my eyes peeled for possible friend material. There was Jason, a thin blond kid who had moved to Texas from Illinois. Maybe too similar. There was Vic, a hulking, deep-voiced young man, 14 going on 30, whereas I was 14 going on 4. That wouldn’t work. Luckily, there was Curtis. We made each other laugh (partly by doing deep-voiced impressions of Vic) and were both college basketball fanatics. Curtis’ mind was more of a sponge for the sport (still is), but I shared his intensity for it. One of my favorite annual events was the Maui Classic, a preseason November tournament televised live that I would watch into the wee hours. I introduced Curtis to an annual preview magazine -- much more like a book in its dimensions; and a book by Tolstoy -- called Blue Ribbon, which my dad would get from a friend of his. It became a more mainstream publication over the years, but at the time there was a sense that we were getting it from a black-market dealer and had discovered a great underground resource: Full essays on all Division I hoops programs, and a long section on high school players in the back. If there was a 6-5 senior swing man from Detroit trying to decide between attending Michigan or Michigan St., Curtis and I knew about him.

I can’t speak for Curtis, but my grades could have been better.

Many of my favorite sports memories as a fan are from the NCAA tournament. I’ve moved away from the sport over the past 10 years or so (for multiple reasons), and I know much less about it now. Heading into this year’s action, I mostly knew that John Wall of Kentucky is really good. That’s an awfully small amount of knowledge. My 15-year-old self would kick me in the shins for dereliction of duty. But even still, I’m excited for and by the tournament every year. It really is the best sporting event we’ve got. (They’re talking of expanding it to 96 teams -- seriously -- which will ruin it.)

And what a day today. Wow. Two overtime games. A double-overtime game. Seven games decided by three points or less (three of those decided by a single point). A 4-seed loses, a 3-seed gets blown out, and a 2-seed squeaks out a win it probably didn’t deserve. The best opening day I can remember, and I can’t wait for tomorrow.

The rain cloud to all this is that North Carolina had a terrible season and didn’t make the field of 64. In one of my favorite posts here, I explained (or tried to explain) why I’m a Tar Heels fan. The tournament is not nearly the same for me without them, but there’s always the corollary (and almost equally intense) pleasure of rooting against Duke. Patrick Ambrose, who grew up in North Carolina, recently wrote an essay worth reading about his own history of loving the Heels and hating the Blue Devils:
When we lost to Duke in the 1980 A.C.C. semifinals, my brother and I responded by filling an Eagle Claw fishhook box with gunpowder and the contents of an Estes rocket engine. We inserted a fuse, wrapped the bomb in electric tape, and dropped it into a Duke coffee mug a friend had given us as a joke. In an empty lot, we made a lovely explosion.
Of course, hatred is not enough fuel to make it through a tournament. I’ll pick up teams to root for along the way. And there’s the sheer fun of the games, which, in their volume (48 games) and number of twists over this opening four-day weekend, prove better than anything else why the unscripted drama of sports will always keep some of us glued.

Every year, Curtis and I talk on the eve of the first round to fill out a joint bracket for an office pool my dad's been running for many moons. Curtis works in sports radio and TV now, so in addition to his natural ability to absorb information, he has a professional obligation to keep up. He teaches me as much as he can in a very short amount of time, and I use his wisdom to better enjoy the games. His team is Oklahoma, also absent from this year's dance. I would say that our teams' records were the biggest downer for us this basketball season, but no: The other day, we each heard an announcer refer to Glen Rice, Jr., of Georgia Tech. His father, Glen Rice, was starring at Michigan when Curtis and I first met. So hearing that his son is now in college, that was a downer. I was happy to meet Curtis at 14, and I'm happy to still know him at 36. I'm sure I'll be happy to know him at 60, but you'll excuse me if I'm not in a rush to find out.


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