My father was in a bad mood last night, just like my mother was in a foul frame of mind last Wednesday.
There had been some shouting, some cursing, perhaps (behind the closed bedroom door) a few tears.
Some terrible family tragedy? A community calamity? A heartbreaking happening of far-reaching repercussions?
No. ACC basketball.
My daddy’s Clemson Tigers blew an 11-point lead to fall 75-73 at Georgia Tech, continuing a head-scratching season that has seen them beat top 20 teams Louisville, Duke and Miami in succession before losing to Florida State, Virginia Tech and N.C. State. Their latest loss came less than a week after my mama’s North Carolina Tar Heels stumbled, 74-73, to a thinner, less versatile, but overall scrappier Duke team. The Heels have since rebounded to crush Miami and can further erase the Devilish taste with a win in Raleigh tonight, but my mama shares something with lots of coaches I’ve known: She remembers the losses more.
It’s edging ever closer to March Madness, the most wonderful sports stretch of the year. For those of you who may have missed my point on this subject before: Opening Day is the best day in sports. But the weekend-to-weekend span that starts with mid-major schools fighting tooth and nail for their Big Dance invitations and ends with the first two rounds (sorry, play-in games, you are not and will never be the ‘first round’) of the NCAA tournament is the High Holy Season.
It’s a little bit funny. I have always loved this time on the sports calendar, but my relationship with it has evolved – and it still evolving. In my younger days, I remember cheering for N.C. State and Villanova as I witnessed (perhaps without fully understanding) two of the biggest upsets in modern sports history. I remember the stunned disbelief of learning just how long 1.4 seconds can last in Clemson’s 1990 buzzer-beating loss to UConn. I remember being happy when Duke got over the UNLV hump in 1991, and I watched Christian Laettner’s Shot Heard Round the World in my college dorm room a year later.
As I began working as a sportswriter, I became even more immersed in the game. I remember pulling – silently but still fervently – for Alan LeForce to accomplish the rare feat of taking a women’s team to the tournament at Coastal Carolina after having gone dancing with a men’s team at East Tennessee State. I covered the Chanticleers (that’s Shont-a-cleers, ESPN peeps, for future reference) for eight years, and for most of those years, hoops were the biggest game in town. I saw up close the pain of a missed last-second shot in the Big South tournament and how much the game mattered, at this and any level.
Later, I covered several Virginia basketball teams, spanning the ACC to Division III, bouncing from the bells and whistles and pregame flames at John Paul Jones Arena to the blue-and-white boogie at the Hampton Convocation Center. Old Dominion’s men’s team got me to the Big Dance in person twice. The Monarchs upset Notre Dame 51-50 in the first round in New Orleans in 2010 before narrowly losing to Butler, 60-58, on a last-second layup in D.C. the next year.
The excitement of both those games thrummed in my blood on press row. By that time in a season, you have come to know a team and its players about as well as a reporter can. You’ve written every feature you can think of and caught yourself repeating at least one game story lead. You remain, of course, objective, ever wary of becoming, even for a second in your own thoughts, a homer. You root only for a good story, a compelling game, but you feel for the kids – and, at a certain point in your career and own maturation process, you realize that’s what they are: kids – you have spent three and four nights a week with for five months. An inner part of you smiles as the players cut down conference championship nets, and that same part hurts as they slump stoop-shouldered at their lockers after the last loss of the season.
You come to know the coaches, too. You see their sideline bluster and the softer side often hidden from the public. You see how much of their lives they give to the game, and how much they care about their players.
The new-fangled Facebook On This Day feature tells me that on Feb. 24, 2010, I wrote about C.J. Woollum becoming the first D-III men’s coach in Virginia to reach 500 wins. Woollum coached at Christopher Newport University and also served as athletic director. Physically, he was a small man, but his presence filled a room.
Woollum died in February 2013 of brain cancer at age 64. Some of the memories you collect have little to do with box scores. I had car trouble once, and Woollum stopped on his way out to ask if he could help. I assured him my husband was on the way. He waited until he got there.
On the court, the one season I spent covering ACC hoops remains most firmly etched in my memory. In particular, I remember my first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, the heart shown by the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Duke halfcourt shot that broke it. I remember the spit spattering my notepad from the students feet from my shoulder. I remember scrambling over the press table and fleeing the post-swish rush to the court, and racing to make deadline off the late tip.
I still miss being there. I was smack in the middle of a childhood dream, and then I wasn’t. I mourned that so long I gave myself other, far more important things to miss.
I understand that some – probably many – people would find it odd that grown adults would get so wrapped up in something as minor as a basketball game. I, who grew up watching Chris Corchiani dish the rock, Randolph Childress spot up from three, and Danny Ferry’s hairline recede, do not.
Is it somewhat out of proportion, a little nuts, a tad unhealthy? Maybe. But it’s almost March. It’s time for some madness.