Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Why I Love Basketball

As our van continued along I-10 in New Orleans, the Superdome came into view. Duncan and Josh were behind me, having a conversation about the day’s filming of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and how amazing it had been to see him come from his bed, despite lung cancer, to play for us and to be interviewed for the film "2sides2everything." As for me, I was in another world. The day had been long and none of what happened could have been foreseen. I didn’t know from one minute to the next what was coming my way. Walking into the home of strangers is unusual enough for me, but to find the energy in that house, the familiar feeling of hope in a face-off with death, was a heavy burden for me. It took me back to my dad’s struggle with cancer and to moments in the lives of each of my friends who fought so valiantly against AIDS and cancer. It had been a very emotionally moving day. It would be some time before I realized how touching it really had been for me and how strong the bonds with these "strangers" would become. (If you wish to read more about the filming in New Orleans, see my entries for January 18-27, 2005.)

At that moment, though, I saw the Superdome and flashed back to 1982 and 1993 and the two men’s NCAA National Basketball championships that my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had won there. I remembered the shot made by Michael Jordan to put us in the lead in 1982 and how a Georgetown University player had passed the ball to James Worthy in the waning seconds of that game to give us a win. I then thought forward to 1993 and remembered how Michigan’s Fab Five seemed so invincible, only to have them fall to my beloved Tar Heels and a determined George Lynch. Both championships had been earned on the hardwood inside that enormous structure that we were rounding on I-10. These two titles joined the UNC title from 1924 and from the undefeated Tar Heel team of 1957.

Suddenly, Josh leaned forward and said to me, "Ron, I know you are a basketball fan. What is it exactly about basketball that makes you enjoy it so?"

I thought for a second, and the first thing that came to mind was this: "When I am watching a good basketball game, I have no choice but to live in the moment of the sport. If I am engaged in the team’s actions, I don’t have time to think about my disease, or what I will have for dinner, or how my feet hurt. I am completely wrapped up in the moment."

Josh said that he had heard the same kind of response before from a friend of his. He then went on to describe one of his favorite photographs, a panoramic shot of a basketball arena taken just as the ball is leaving the hand of a shooter, with no time left on the clock. As one looks around the arena, the faces of the people there reflect their hopes and dreams for that moment of eternity. Some are excited, expecting the ball to go in, some are frightened, expecting the ball to go in. The whole spectrum of emotion is represented in that one moment. Just as Josh finished his description of that photograph, Duncan asked him about something else and his attention was again turned to the back of the van.

I continued to think about why basketball was important to me. Had I had more time, my answer would have been much more complex than just the idea of living in the moment. There are elements of memory of past victories, of learning the sadness of defeat, of the intensity of competition and of the idea that one can never, ever give up. To explain, I have to go back to my days in High School.

I attended a school in rural Sampson County, North Carolina. Surrounded by small villages and fields of corn, tobacco, soybeans and vast expanses of pine trees, the land there was flat and the variety of activities to occupy young people was limited. Nearly every home had a familiar basketball hoop suspended from something, either a lamp-pole or a barn. When I was not working, I was playing basketball. So were most of the people my age in the area.

As a result, our Union High School basketball team was very talented and our Coach, Mr. Nathan Gay, was very good at directing young country boys to the State basketball championship tournament. We had intense rivalries with neighboring schools. As the population of North Carolina and the assignments to schools changed, our basketball team was moved from one conference to another, and our rivalries were adjusted to meet the needs of the new regions. By the time I entered High School, our Men’s and Women’s basketball programs were challengers every year. My Junior year, we had been placed into the East Waccamaw II-A Conference, a powerhouse that featured teams from Hallsboro and West Brunswick, teams that were fierce competitors themselves. To quote the Union High School Year Book, The Reflector 1976, page 56:

Union Sets and Break Records

The 1976 Spartan Basketball Clubs ended their basketball season proudly. The "Ladies in Red" became the regular season champions and also the conference [tournament] champions for the first time in the history of the school. Led by Gwen Imes, who had earlier set a single game scoring record (36 points), the girls ended the regular season play with a 15-3 record. Defeating Hallsboro in the East Waccamaw II-A Conference [tournament] assured the Lady Spartans of the first place trophy. Voted Al-Conference [players] were Gwen Imes, Sue Cooper, and Audrey Hayes with Betsy Johnson and Suzanne Eakins receiving honorable mentions. They ended the season with a 17-4 record. What a record! Coach Lee’s girls finally "got it all together."

The [Men’s] Varsity Spartans really had an outstanding season. They ended regular season play with an 18-2 record and went on to emerge as champs of the East Waccamaw II-A Conference, with Larry Morrisey and Ronald Williams voted All-Conference [players] and Evans Johnson, Garry Kerr, and George Murphy receiving honorable mentions. They also brought home the first place trophy from the District IV-AA Boy’s Tournament. They then traveled to the State II-A tournament where they gained a solid third place.

Coach Gay’s talented Spartans broke several school records in their final two games at the State Tournament. Against a strong Elm City team in semi-final play, the Spartans came from a deficit of 16 points in the last four minutes and twenty-eight seconds of play to gain a lead of 101-100. This incredible comeback, however, was not quite strong enough to defeat the determined five from Elm City, but Union scored a record 41 points in the fourth quarter of the game. [We lost 102-101 on a pair of made free-throws by Elm City’s point guard, despite a last second attempt by Evans Johnson that just didn't fall for us.]

The "Mighty Spartans" brought home the third place trophy after defeating [J. C.] Knapp in the consolation game, setting another school record—119 points in a single game. They ended the season with a 25-3 record, the best ever for Union. But, to quote a famous coach (Tim Lee), "Great teams and Great Records Are Made To Be Bettered."

This small snapshot doesn’t quite tell the full story. Within a few years, our Lady Spartans had improved and won a couple of State Tournament Championships. They ran the fast break better than some men’s teams that I have seen play. Some of our best players became pregnant in the off season, delivered their children, and came back to play again within the year.

As for the infamous game with Elm City, we had been paired into the same bracket with Elm City that year, so that we had to play each other before one team could advance to the State Championship. Elm City was ranked first in the State in our division and was undefeated. Their center, John Virgil, had already signed to attend UNC Chapel-Hill the next year, where he was a scholarship player. Union with its two defeats, was ranked second in North Carolina’s II-A division. Our heartbreaking loss to the Elm City team was followed by their own heart-breaking loss the following night. They played Clayton, a team with over ten regular-season losses, but which, at the right moment, stepped in to take the State Championship.

In our consolation game, we set the school scoring record, and I contributed, personally, by making one of two free-throws late in the game. Normally, I was only allowed on the court during practices sessions or when we were leading by twenty or more points with just a few minutes left in the game. I probably also hold another record. I am probably the only player who ever played basketball in North Carolina who fouled out of a game after having played less than one minute. When my senior year started, I was once again on the team. After scoring more points in the first two games than I had scored in all my previous years of play, I came down with a devastating case of influenza and then sprained my foot. My career as a player was over.

My love of basketball, however, was punctuated by several other moments from various sources. The US Olympic team of 1972 and their stunning loss to the Soviet Union will always remain in my mind. I found myself so worked up by the game, that I would watch for a few minutes and then have to go shoot a few baskets of my own to work off the stress.

I had long settled on attending UNC-Chapel Hill, partly because of its basketball program, but also because I was a recipient of a James M. Johnston academic scholarship to the school. Before that, however, in 1976, after our High School season had ended, two of my friends and I visited Chapel Hill during the National Basketball tournament and watched the UNC-Nevada-Las Vegas game while sitting on the floor in front of a television in Granville Towers in Chapel Hill. After returning home, we watched the Tar Heels march from improbable victory to improbable victory until they lost in the National Title game to Marquette. That run for the title cemented my status as a Tar Heel fan. Later, in the summer, I was boarding a plane for a connection to France when I saw Coach Dean Smith was on the same flight. I knew that he had briefly considered recruiting our star player, Larry Morrisey, and I started a conversation with my hero-coach with that tidbit of information.

Life took me along its path until I began to feel that something was not quite right with my health, somewhere around 1983. In 1985, I was diagnosed with HIV. Getting through the winters was difficult in subsequent years because I received that news on the 12th of December and each year, the anniversary would come along and knock me down at the time when I am most prone to depression. Luckily, basketball season started in December and soon was advanced to start in November. I let basketball serve as one of my sources for inspiration to keep living.

The UNC teams were consistently good, if not great. We had great rivalries in the Atlantic Coast Conference and many memorable games. I learned from the Tar Heels that you must never, ever give up. Our team could be down by twenty or more points at the half and could come back to win the game. I took basketball as a metaphor for life and decided to let myself live until the final buzzer. Coach Smith retired as the active coach with the most career wins a few years ago. He was replaced by his long-time assistant Bill Guthridge, who took us to the Final Four himself. After he retired, along came a young, enthusiastic coach, a few years younger than me, who had played at UNC on the 1982 team. Matt Dougherty initially brought great enthusiasm to the program, but then something soured with the team. Within a few years, he was forced to resign, and was replaced by our current coach, Roy Williams, a former Dean Smith assistant, who had taken his skills to Kansas and built a stellar program there. He now holds, if not the best win-loss record in the sport, one of the best.

Last year, we had a difficult transition between outstanding players and an outstanding coach new to us. We advanced to the NCAA tournament, but fell in our second round game. Over the summer and the fall, our team worked out its issues with Coach Williams, and the talented Tar Heels started to shine.

This is my favorite time of year. The flowers are blooming outside. The birds are returning. We have moved into the second round of the second week of the NCAA Basketball tournament and my Tar Heels are still in the running for a championship this year. We have to go forward, one possession at a time, playing good defense and excellent offense, but without looking toward the final goal of a championship until the buzzer is sounding in that final game. Otherwise, we will lose the joy, the glory and the excitement of the moment. We might lose on Sunday, but for now, we are still in the running, and we must never, ever give up.

Go Heels!



Anonymous Ben said...

Okay, that is a beautiful reason for loving basketball. I think it's ironic that I've so actively tried to stay ignorant and uninvolved with all the sports going on around us in Chapel Hill when it is in many ways the pulse and joy for so many people in this area. I guess it takes all kinds...

3/27/2005 06:59:00 PM  

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