Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Heart's terrain is never prairie

Every so often, things can come full circle.

My daughter turned four months old Monday. The day she was born, I sat down behind her and took a picture of her with the hospital TV in the background so it looked like she was watching the Michigan-Arkansas game. Forty-eight hours later, I had forgotten about any notion I had that I knew anything about raising a child because that's what you do when your child's three days old. Every day is an adventure we just try and make it through. No matter how much she cries on any given day, when she smiles and giggles it's all worthwhile. It's love.

April 8 was a crazy day like every other one I've had in 2013. Doctor's appointment in the morning, half-day at work trying to finish a report, boiling in my office because it's that time of the year after the temperature shoots up but before the building switches on the AC, coming home to take an insanely important phone call, going out to get subs for dinner because that's crazy, helping give my daughter a bath and then, finally, settling down to watch a basketball game with the sound turned low so we don't wake up the baby.

What's the point of telling you all that? At halftime, John Beilein talked to Tracy Wolfson about story lines - how Spike Albrecht found the Invincibility Star hidden in the Georgia Dome, how Luke Hancock found it again a few minutes later, how the "unwanted" guys were putting on a show. Michigan basketball had no shortage of story lines. Some we couldn't get enough of: the shocking rise of Mitch McGary. The fall and redemption of Jordan Morgan. Crafty Coach Beilein, out-scheming Billy Donovan's logistics and Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Some we wanted to go away: Trey Burke maybe going pro. Tim Hardaway Jr. maybe going pro. Whoever has a great game maybe going pro. Some we hoped people would stop talking about: Chris Webber and the Fab Five. The late season troubles. Anything involving Bo Ryan.

That's a ton of story lines for one team. There's just one problem. They don't add up to a story. Stories aren't supposed to end that way. Once Spike Albrecht goes crazy and puts Louisville down 12, it's all supposed to be dénouement. Michigan coasts to the win, Kate Upton comes rushing down from the stands to kiss him, John Beilein smiles to himself and says something wise. Fade to the credits (which conclude with "and introducing Mitch McGary as 'Wes Unseld.'")

Stories are supposed to have bad guys. Dirty players like Elijah Johnson or the Icelandic hockey team that get their karmic comeuppance. Trash talkers like Brandon Triche hoisted on their own petard. It was supposed to be like a video game. Level 1: Nate Wolters. Level 2: HAVOC. Level 3: Withey. Level 4: Kenpom. Level 5: The 2-3 Zone. Level 6: Louisville, the final boss and big bad waiting at the very end.

But sports are life, and life doesn't have a classic story structure. The Cardinals turned out to be the worst villain ever. We have a Spike Albrecht? Well, they have a Luke Hancock. It's been 24 years since our last championship? It's been 27 since theirs. We're the good guys who play the right way and treat our opponents with respect? They're the guys who say stuff like this after the game:

Roy Hobbs hits a walk-off home run or he strikes out. He doesn't - he can't - give the New York Knights a lead that Al Fowler blows in the bottom of the ninth because the Pirates have a Roy Hobbs of their own. It doesn't make narrative sense. There aren't supposed to be other protagonists out there fighting against us not because they're evil, but because they don't know they're part of the same story. But that's life. We're all protagonists. That's sports. Every team is someone's favorite team.

Even in an event as tightly structures as March Madness, you can't cram everything story line into a coherent, comprehensive, narrative with a well-defined dramatic structure. You either have to just be straightforward: our team played their hearts out and came up a little short. We're proud, but we can't help but be disappointed. Or you have to let it all go in a stream of consciousness about the block and the trey and the charge and the blarge and the goaltending and spike going nba jam and the big puppy making no-look passes and tim hardaway staring at elijah johnson's nut shot and josh bartlestein going crazy on the bench and chane behanan getting all those damn offensive rebounds and nik stauskas going ham against florida and jon horford's tea with honey and the death of otto the orange and just let it loop forever in a gif at 30 frames per second and i know it's over and oh it never really began but in my heart is was so real.

Loving sports is like loving the rest of life: it rarely builds up to a climax and rarely gives you a clean, cathartic, ending. You could say fiction exists because this is inherently unsatisfying. Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness. One big win just leaves you wanting another big win. Every life, every day, everything worth living for, everyone worth living for is better sometimes and worse sometimes and you can't ever really hope to fully understand why. You can just hope or pray or work your butt off or do whatever you possibly can so that the good memories outnumber the bad ones. Loving a person, a child, or a team is living the up and downs, not living until you end on a high note.

That's what this team has given us. So many good memories. So few bad ones. The last one was no high note, but it almost never is in basketball. But there's reason to believe more good memories are on their way and they'll become etched into our lives. We'll remember the sadness at the end because we'll remember all the crazy and amazing and wonderful things we saw along the way.

Last night, I read Hippos Go Berserk to my daughter. Why did the hippos go berserk? Because the beast brought subs to their party. Sixteen years from now I hope to still be making references to crazy subs and embarrassing the hell out of her, because that's what dads are supposed to do.