Very few people had color televisions (at least where I lived) in the mid-1970s and cable didn’t exist. There were three channels that you could pick up with the rabbit ear antennae perched on the top of your 20-inch Zenith: NBC, ABC and CBS.
My whole childhood was focused around basketball. I played on two teams during the winter season, went to summer camps, played in summer leagues and spent every moment I could on the court.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons from December until April I would watch college basketball. Those were the John Wooden days at UCLA, the Bobby Knight days at Indiana, the Digger Phelps days at Notre Dame and the Dean Smith days at UNC. I don’t know if this is accurate, but I recall college basketball being more popular and accessible to watch than pro basketball in the 1970s. If that’s not true, it certainly was for me. I loved Kelly Tripuka, Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Scott May and all those college starts of the mid 1970s and when I shot baskets and played pickup games with my friends, I tried to play like them.
But no one compared to Magic. I was 14 in 1979 when Magic Johnson, along with Greg Kelser and the Michigan State Spartans won the national championship against Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
From that moment on I have been a Michigan State basketball fan.
I am not the typical middle-aged white man (if there is such a thing, but let’s say for now that there is) in that I really don’t watch sports on television and while I like baseball, I absolutely hate football, am bored by hockey and soccer and any other televised/organized sport.
I went to graduate school at Michigan State. These were the best years of my life (that is before my kids came along). I met my wife in a coffee shop in East Lansing, I learned how to teach because of a teaching assistantship I received from the English department, I met famous authors and literary critics, I was challenged intellectually, I drank lots of beer, stayed up late arguing about politics and poetry and ideas with my colleagues, rode my bike and ran all over the campus, worked out at Jenison arena where Magic played, made great friends and just had a wonderful time.
I also attended or watched on television almost every MSU men’s basketball game and while I would have had a rich and wonderful time there even without MSU basketball—it was that great athletic tradition that solidified and intensified my love for the place.
To give you a sense of how deep this goes . . .
I buy exactly one pair of shoes each year—a green and white pair of New Balance.
This is my favorite hat—I wear it just about every day in the winter and putting it away for the summer (I wear it through the spring) is a sad moment.
I drink my coffee out of this mug just about every morning.
I need to establish these contexts in order to illustrate the deep sadness I feel every year toward the middle or end of March when the Spartans lose their bid for the NCAA championship. Since 1979 there has been only one year—2000—when they did not lose any games in the NCAA tournament (and, damn it all, I spent that night fruitlessly wandering around the streets of Dublin looking for a television that was broadcasting the game).
This past Sunday afternoon, it happened again. The 4th seed Spartans lost to the 7th seed UConn Huskies (I can hardly type that!) in a game that left me slightly weepy and more than a little depressed and upset. Since then, I’ve been replaying parts of the game in my head—Trice bouncing the ball off his foot and out of bounds, Appling missing the inbounds pass from Payne, the anxiety on the face of Brandon Dawson when it was clear they were going to lose . . . I even wake up in the morning, grimacing from these and other parts of the game that went wrong for the Spartans.
This all leaves me wondering about a lot of things. I have such a wonderful life—a beautiful, successful, smart-as-hell, wife, two healthy, delightful children, a great job, a home city and state that I love and feel at home in . . . the list could go on. But something happens when the Spartans lose their final game of the season that makes me wonder what is wrong or what is missing that I feel this way? I’ve been thinking about these things all week, and I’ve arrive at this conclusion: nothing is wrong and the sadness I feel has nothing to do with a lack in my life. Rather, it has everything to do with the fullness and the richness of what’s been given to me, what I have experienced thus far. I have a deep heart connection to a place—East Lansing, Michigan State—and Michigan State basketball is a metonymy for the things I love, the things I’m grateful for, the things I cherish.
Go Green! Go White!