March Sadness, then Gladness

Today begins the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

A year ago, almost to the day, I did what I normally do on the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; namely, ditch work at noon, head to the basement, turn on the television and watch basketball games until deep into the evening.

Michigan State had the first game of the day and they were a #2 seed playing a #15 so in my mind, I’d calmly sit there and maybe even grade some papers and catch up on some emails. There were a couple of loads of clean laundry on the floor and I figured I do some folding during the second half. Instead, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the television, reading frantic texts from my MSU friends and staring wild-eyed at the screen.

By 2 pm the game was over, MSU was out of the tournament and the laundry remained scattered across the floor.

I walked upstairs, put on my shoes and went to collect the kids at school. When they came bounding out of the schoolyard, I leaned down and delivered the news as if a favorite pet had died. They looked up at me a bit incredulously but then shrugged their shoulders and asked, “Can we go play?”

I, on the other hand, didn’t take it so casually. I sulked for the better part of the weekend and I couldn’t bring myself to watch another game of the tournament. It wasn’t until the beginning of the NBA playoffs that managed to go back downstairs to watch television.

Over the course of the spring and summer, I’d occasionally check the MSU Athletics website and ESPN to read about the latest recruit and to check on the pre-season rankings (okay, I check it ever week). This, by the way, is really depressing because ESPN keeps the scores from the previous year’s tournament on the NCAA Men’s site so every time I check in about the latest news I’m reminded of last year’s fate. By October, though, I was feeling optimistic: the Spartans were ranked #12 in the pre-season coaches’ polls and they picked up a number of strong recruits.

When we were in Romania this past fall, the first thing I did was sign up for a VPN service so that I could watch college basketball while I was in Europe. MSU played its first preseason game against Arizona at the end of November–the game started at 2:30 am Romania time and I stayed up and watched the whole thing.

They lost at the buzzer.

We are in Ireland now. Last time Michigan State won the national championship was 2000 and I was living in Dublin then. This was before satellite television and the internet so I couldn’t watch the game.  That still hurts. I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I’m hoping for some magical, symmetrical turn of events where every time I am on Irish soil, the Spartans win the national championship.

Michigan State is a #9 seed this year and they play Miami at 3 am Ireland (GMT) time tomorrow. I’m telling myself now that I won’t watch it, but I probably will.

Anyway, I feel like maybe last year’s curse is lifting.  Last night, my sister-in-law’s UC-Davis Aggies won their first ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament game. I stayed up to watch it and we were texting back and forth during the whole game.

I realize that this magical, obsessive thinking about sports in general and my alma mater in particular can seem ridiculous to most well-functioning adults, especially among my academic tribe. God knows, I’ve been on the receiving end on more than a few eye rolls and face palms from Sujata.

But this is as much about memory and personal history as it is about anything else, and memory can cut different ways: it can haunt your present or it can help you feel safe and connected to your past. In that regard, then, my passion for Michigan State basketball is the better part of memory.

It reminds me of those cold winter afternoons when I was a boy in the 1970s and I’d huddle in front of our black-and-white television to watch the Spartans and then go outside and try to shoot jump shots like Greg Kelser and drive to the bucket like Magic Johnson.

It reminds me of those short winter afternoons or long, bitter cold nights in East Lansing when we’d meet in crowded bars where everyone was watching the game together.

It reminds me of watching MSU games with my children back in Denver and it reminds me of the three of us, after the games, heading up to the neighborhood basketball courts to shoot jumpers like Denzel Valentine and box out like Matt Costello.

It’s your life, man, so turn on those games this weekend . . . and remember.

 

 

 

 

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