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.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013


From that magical fifteen minutes when we shared Spike with an incredulous nation.
Andy Lyons / Getty Images
If you have noticed, or maybe you have't, I haven't written anything about the Michigan basketball team this season.  This should not indicate a lack of interest in the sport, or some grudge against the team, because it is neither of those things.  The lack of comment comes from a knowledge that I personally lack a depth of understanding about basketball to write about it with what I feel is a competence with which I feel comfortable sharing with the world. A man's got to know his limitations, after all.

Basketball will always rank fourth with me of the four major North American sports, and really, its probably fifth behind soccer.  That's not saying I don't enjoy the tournament, because I do, it's just the nature of my particular model of sports fandom.  One of my friends has suggested that my issue with basketball is that I place a personal premium on scoring, wherein the more difficult to score, the more I enjoy the game.  I can see this.  Basketball, even when played well defensively, has something in the nature of 20 to 30 made field goals for each team.

But I do know what I like in basketball.  I like outside shooters.  I like smart.  I like hustle.  I like adaptable. But mostly I like humility and teamwork.  The small size of basketball teams makes it more likely that the players on the team will feel more like a family, a brotherhood, than other sports.  So when players talk about how much they care about each other, you can believe it, because it's a small band of brothers and you get to know them.  Michigan's game has so many of the things I like that it leads to Nick Hornby's Arsenal conundrum*, only a positive one.

(*--As stated in Fever Pitch: "See after awhile it all gets mixed up together in your head, and you can't remember whether life's sh*t because Arsenal are sh*t or the other way around.")

And so I came to know this team on a first name basis, because it was always about Trey, or Tim, or Mitch, or Glenn, or Nik, or Spike, or Jordan, or Jon, or Caris, or Matt, or Josh.  It because about Nik and "CTRL-V" when he hit a three.  It became about the Trey Burke layup where he goes up, puts everything on the line, hits the deck, and goes to the line for the and one.  It became about GRIII hovering in the air like a glitch in The Matrix.  It became about The Big Puppy playing with an Novakian enthusiasm for life and the game.    It became about missed free throws and what felt like missed opportunities.  But it also became about hope.  It was a basketball version of Team 133, restoring something that had been gone, but we knew could be again.  It became about a coach who would never make it about himself, who carried himself with dignity, grace, and class, who noted just how amazing the first half had been as he's being interviewed on his way to the locker room.

In the end, we can probably go back and pinpoint the small moments that made the difference.  We were trying to do it on Twitter last night and we were more wrong than we were right, because there's no penalty for being wrong about something like that on Twitter.  We can argue about strategies, coaching decisions, rotations, and the like, preferably with our facts straight, but it won't matter.  It doesn't change the outcome, it doesn't really numb the pain.  The heart aches a little, because the moment was there and it slipped away and if the last quarter century has taught us anything, it's that you never know when those moments will come again.  But for now, know that Michigan has been in six national championship games, a loss to a Wooden UCLA team in 1965, a loss to Bobby Knight's undefeated Indiana team in 1976, a classic victory over Seton Hall in 1989, a loss to Coach K's back to back Blue Devils in 1992, a loss to Dean Smith Tar Heels in 1993, and now a loss to Rick Pitino's Louisville team in 2013.  A combined 21 titles for opposing coaches, 4,066 victories among them, all in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.  Hopefully the next one will be better.  Hopefully it will be sooner than later.

My thanks to you 2012-13 Michigan basketball team.  You were fun, talented, and classy.  That may not be all that you can ask for, but that's a pretty darn good start.