Most people not from here, and even some who are, can’t understand the passion with which we view basketball. And while it’s true that there are many more important things our energies and actions could focus on, the plain and simple of it is that for many people, like me, college basketball is part of our lives, something we’ve followed since childhood. The Cards and the Cats are just the most prominent teams, the ones we follow with greatest enthusiasm. Games are an excuse to gather, for game day parties, in bars where others will yell as loudly as we will, reasons to crowd around somebody’s laptop or sit in the car with the radio blaring – to cheer our favorite players and, later, to critique the play or the referees.
Perhaps the best way to help all you non-hoops fans out there understand what I’m talking about is to tell the story of how I came to be a fan. When I was growing up enthusiasm and excitement could find no space in our house. So we had to listen to the games next door – at the Bisig’s. Back then basketball wasn’t televised. Radio announcers were the alternative for those of us without tickets. My brothers and me, Dan & Don Bisig, and sometimes their brother Jimmy (on whom I had a hopeless crush) gathered around the radio to hear Ed Kallay call the games for Louisville, or Joe Dean describe Kentucky’s play.
I can see us now, flopped over chairs in the Bisig’s basement, even sitting on the table next to the radio when the game got close – as if being near the radio helped us feel we were at the game. The action seemed faster to me than it was, propelled by Kallay’s words about beautiful passes, players diving for out-of-bounds or loose balls, the thunder of Converse-clad players’ feet running down the floor of Freedom Hall. How, I used to wonder, can he keep track of ten men moving so rapidly on the floor, all the while telling listeners what happened with accuracy. Sometimes, in the excitement of a snapped pass and twenty foot shot that rolled around the rim before falling through the net, Kallay’s words would desert him, and he’d fall back on telling us, “OH, I WISH you could SEE this!”
During Kentucky games, when a player – maybe Pat Riley or “Little” Louis Dampier – would make a soft layup from inside you could almost hear the swish, and Joe Dean would tell us there was “string music in Lexington KY.” The twang of the Appalachians in his voice was always a reminder that in every small town and every holler and ridge of the state basketball hoops hung from garages and barns, and young boys spent hours shooting there, dreaming of one day wearing a Kentucky blue uniform.
In the Bisig’s basement we’d throw our popcorn in the air in celebration of shots that fell – unworried about getting into trouble for making a mess there. The boys would pretend to shoot at invisible baskets, while I shook non-existent pom-poms in the air.
Back then only boys played, as far as I knew. Yet I loved watching pick-up games, watching the power of the players as they moved the ball forward passing, shooting, even defense. In high school my fascination grew as I sat in bleachers and cheered for Seneca, my high school, progressed to the state championship. Then my crush was aimed at six foot Wesley Unseld – a soft-spoken senior who smiled at even a sophomore girl. His incredibly huge black hands always held a ball, even when walking the halls between classes in his slow, slouching, sleepy--eyed gait.
When I was a student at U of L I don’t recall seeing players very much, but in grad school at UK I felt surrounded by their presence, their height and the way their bodies seemed to conserve energy off the court. I’d often eat breakfast at the Student Center and watch with awe as Melvin Turpin and Sam Bowie moved slowly and confidently from the food line to the players’ table, carrying three trays, each piled high with food. Then they’d shuffle back to the line and return with a tray of milk cartons and another that completely disappeared under the juice they’d gotten.
Early in my as-yet-unknown pregnancy and early in that basketball season I would join the mass of undergrads, camping in front of Memorial Coliseum – sometimes all night – to get my allotment of two student tickets for games. When my daughter Sarah was born she had basketball somewhere in her consciousness already, surely.
When Sarah began to play in fifth grade it was only because her friends were playing – parks league ball coached by parents. Yet Sarah, even taller than I had been at her age, loved to play. And she began practicing on her own, with me or her Dad, or when friends came over. By junior high Sarah had a soft touch with the ball and a way of moving on the court to block shots that amazed me. Her tiny school held other girls who loved to play as well, and a coach who pushed, and taught, and loved her players – toughly. Shalon Crowe dressed and looked like a model – for games. Yet she’d get in a player’s face for mistakes, grab a girl by the slippery jersey and practically drag her to the official’s table to point out what she wanted the player to do when she got into the game. Shalon could jump from her courtside chair and land, in three-inch heels, beside a referee to argue a call. She knew the game as well as any coach I’ve met, and she knew her girls and how to motivate them. Her players – her girls – would have walked through fire for her.
And I reveled in being a basketball mom – encouraging them from the bleachers, cooking high carb meals for the team. My best memories were of driving girls home from practice or even games – the smell of girl sweat filling my car, their conversation moving from the back seat toward me, making me smile.
They were girls who were learning to love what their bodies could do, who had the chances that we, of an earlier time, had never had – to play, to assert their right to take up room on the floor, to use brain and body as a single unit. They were girls who understood the execution of a play, how to win or lose as part of a team. Watching and supporting them made me happy for them, and helped me understand a previously unknown aspect of female power. To be part of a team, to know others will come to your aid, to know that those others depended on you, that your teammates will encourage you when your shots aren’t falling, and celebrate with you when they are – all things that my daughter was learning and experiencing. I felt joy for her.
When I watch games now, on television or those times when Sarah and I attend a game together, I yell. I’m rowdy. I lean forward to watch a one-three-one defense unfold, and stiffen as a player sets their feet to draw a charge, even feel the slam as they fall. I am IN the game as much as when I listened on the radio. Only now, because I know the effort and the strain, the intelligence and focus, the discipline necessary to play well I no longer play cheerleader with invisible pom-poms. Sometimes though, in the excitement and intensity of a well-played game, my body will want to express with more than voice. And then, I will still throw my popcorn into the air.