The big surprise of this winter for me has been the return of college basketball to my sports-watching radar screen. Like a lot of people, I had loved the game once, in the golden age of Valvano, Jordan, and Villanova in the 1980s, as well as the darker years of the Duke dynasty and Michigan’s ill-fated Fab Five in the early 90s. But also like a lot of people, I had left the college game’s screaming, comically coiffed coaches and hopping student sections behind, just as the best players continued to leave it behind for the pros. By this fall, sports pages in the States were filled with laments over the decline of this All-American amateur pastime. It seemed that fewer and fewer people were tuning in until the NCAA tournament came around in March. What was the point of watching before that?
This January and February, though, while the NBA has turned into a one-team soap opera known as the Los Angeles Lakers, the college game has staged a riotous renaissance. Every few days brings a new twist in the rankings plot. The leading members of the Big 10 conference, Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State, have been slugging it out on a nightly basis, while new contenders like Miami and perennials like Duke, Gonzaga, Florida, and Syracuse remain in the mix. Watching, I’ve been reminded again of the upsides of the college brand of basketball. The games, at 40 minutes, aren’t too long. The style of play is more energetic and pass-friendly than the NBA’s. And the hysterical intensity of the crowds and coaches creates a hothouse atmosphere in those cramped university gyms.
The atmosphere this year has been at its hottest in the Big 10. I’ve enjoyed these games the most, in part because they’ve have been competitive, but also because of the traditional state rivalries of the midwest, and the traditions of each program. Unlike in the NBA, at the college level the uniforms and arenas and colors and cheerleaders and floor insignia haven’t changed their look much through the decades. You can feel the presence of Bob Knight in the Indiana gym, Magic Johnson at Michigan St., and even, hovering somewhere just over mid-court, the legendary early-60s Lucas-Havlicek teams at Ohio State.
I may also identify with the Big 10 because I grew up just east of that part of the country, in Central Pennsylvania. That’s where, roughly speaking, the Northeast begins to give way to the Midwest, where people stop saying “soda” and start saying “pop," where rusting ports turn to rusting steel mills. College basketball has never had a huge hold on PA; football, as everyone knows, has always been king at Penn State, and Paterno's program dominated when it came to scholarships. But basketball was popular at the high school level, and particularly at my high school, where on winter nights we packed our own sweaty hothouse gymnasium for every home game, and won a state title when I was a freshman.
I was in the stands for those games, but in earlier years I had played, or tried to play, against most of the players who were on that title-winning team. I was the basketball team in 5th and 6th grade, and had been encouraged to keep going by the high school's coach, another successful screamer who kept a beady eye on every far-flung young prospect in town, seemingly from the moment we first picked up a ball and tried to spin it on our fingers. By the time I reached fifth grade and caught his eye, I had shot a lot of baskets, pretending to be Julius Erving of the Sixers or Darrell Griffith of my favorite college team at the time, Louisville. It was probably Griffith’s outstanding nickname, Dr. Dunkenstein, that made me a fan, though I was and will always will be strictly a jump-shooting man.
My two years of organized hoops were played at my elementary school down the block, a big brick building with black floors. The team, a mix of black and white kids from the surrounding neighborhoods, was coached by the school principal, a man with the no-nonsense name of Mr. Dice. He was “Mr. D” to the team’s black players—they liked him and clowned with him—but never to me. Mr. Dice was a stocky, bow-legged, white-haired hollerer and hoops obsessive. But he cared about “his boys.” Once he was seen weeping with pride when a former player of his was announced as a starter on the town's high school team.
Watching college basketball today, I can see why people object to the berserk, neck-vein-straining coaches who prance along the sidelines and occasionally give their players a shove. Their autocratic ways are about as up-to-date as their hairstyles. Mr. Dice never did anything like that, but he did make basketball an intense, pressure-filled experience, and that’s how I still think of the sport. It’s probably wrong, but to me it only seems natural: If you play basketball, you’re going to get a coach, and his loud mouth, in your face.
Playing on that team, with kids from the grade ahead of me, was nothing if not a lesson in humiliation, sometimes comically so. Each winter the team took a trip to a tournament that was held in a backwoods village a couple of hours northwest of my town. In the weeks leading up to it, the kids who had been to the tournament the year before, and who eaten in the village’s only restaurant, a diner called Stockey’s, couldn’t stop telling the rookies about the “wing dings” they had there. Every practice, every drill, every sprint, every day walking the halls to class, they’d call out to each other, “We’re gonna get some wing dings!” Doing layup drills, they’d high-five as they crossed each other’s paths and sing, in gleefully high voices, “Wing dings!” It was all wings dings, all the time.
Our first night at the tournament, we took our places for the team dinner at Stockey’s. My fellow rookie sixth-graders scoured the menu for wing dings. We found them, the words half-erased, barely legible, utterly ignored, at the very bottom of the back page. But there they were—wing dings!—so we ordered them. We had to remind the waitress that they were there, but we ordered them.
When they arrived, it looked as if the chef had forgotten what they were as well. The fabled wing dings were a couple of chicken legs that were soaking sadly in...something. Grease, I guess. We looked up from this mess and down the table. Our older teammates were eating cheeseburgers. One of them, Nick, looked over at us and asked, with a glance of disgust at our plates, “What did you order?”
“Wing dings, like you guys said.”
“Wing dings? Who orders wing dings?" Nick said as he sucked on a milkshake. "You should have got the cheeseburger."
Had it all been a joke, all of those weeks? I wasn’t sure, until I saw the seventh-graders catch each other’s eyes and trade barely suppressed laughs. Looking back, they did an amazing job of controlling themselves for 13-year-olds. I was more disappointed than embarrassed. I really had been looking forward to those wing dings.
Anyway, food gags aside, the most important thing that I learned from Mr. Dice, and from playing basketball, was that team sports weren’t for me. Part of it was the pressure from the coach, which could be scary. Part of it was not being especially tall, or especially good. Part of it was not wanting to let anyone else on the team down.
Basketball isn’t a contact sport, or isn’t supposed to be one, anyway. But it is a game of aggression. “Go to the hole!” Mr. Dice would yell from the sideline; good things happened when you went to the hole, but I usually hesitated. I knew I wasn’t going to thrive, or possibly even survive, and I (happily) spent the crucial moments of most games on the bench. To play a sport, I had to be on my own, free to be in my own head on a court, free to let myself down and no one else. As often as I had dreamed of it, I would never be one of Mr. Dice’s ex-players who did him proud on the high school team.
The next year I quit basketball and baseball to concentrate on tennis. From a social perspective, it wasn’t an easy decision. The sport was foreign to 98 percent of people in town; virtually no one I knew played it. One of my former baseball coaches asked me that winter if I was going to go out for baseball in the spring—from his tone of voice, it was obvious he thought the answer would be yes. When I said no, he asked me, a little incredulously, “Well...what are you going to do?”
Rather than admit that I was going to play tennis—the word suddenly sounded ridiculous when I had to say it out loud—I shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” It worked out in the end, as I was much more natural at tennis than I was at any other sport. But there was a downside to bailing on the basketball team: I never got to play the wing-ding gag on anyone.
I did have a few successes with Mr. Dice. I can remember him applauding and yelling, “That’s it, Stevie,” when I finally, after a million missed opportunities those two seasons, cut to the basket and “made the extra pass” to a teammate for a score. I can remember him encouraging me when I tried the same thing in a real game and dropped the ball.
One morning the week before the big tournament, Mr. Dice, unable to wait until practice after school, called one of my teammates and I down to the gym to teach us a “weak side” play that he had drawn up. Maybe it was because there were just two of us there, or maybe it was because it was early in the day, but Mr. D wasn’t in a hollering mood. When we had run through the play to his satisfaction, he flashed a rare smile and said, “I think you got this one, Stevie,” and sent us back to class. He was proud that we had begun to learn the game, his game, the only game in his eyes. And he was happy to be in his element, away from his office and on a basketball court.
That court wasn’t my element, and basketball wasn’t my game. But that wasn’t all I found out from Mr. Dice. I learned that I liked getting better, but that getting better was hard and filled with pressure, real sweat-inducing pressure. I learned that I handled it better when it came from within. I learned, I guess, that I was a tennis player.
I'll be out next week on vacation, and will be back Monday, March 4th. Enjoy Dubai and everything else without me. Indian Wells, and live posts from the grounds, are coming soon.