Friday, April 9, 2010

The Big Game

I looked around and discovered that I was sitting in a sports bar of the Denver Airport. I had passed several places to dine, but was drawn to the place where televisions flashed scores of basketball, baseball and soccer. I was halfway to Kansas City, the first leg of my journey to the final game of March Madness. My blue team buttons which were pinned to my shirt, purse, and raincoat, denoted my loyalty and my status as a sports fan. There was no beer to accompany my meal, the only detail that distinguished me from the travelers at the surrounding tables who riveted their attention to the New York Yankees baseball game. I rooted for the Red Socks. They were playing at Fenway Park. I like an underdog. Everyone does. The mighty Yankees scored two home runs in the first inning. Their players in grey flew around the bases, nearly at a basketball pace. The watching young men stared at my buttons. The NCAA women’s basketball scores ran along the bottom of the television. I paid attention, as if it had been a stock ticker on the day that Citi announced thousands of layoffs. I actually cared about the basketball and baseball scores. Even with an earthquake in southern California that had barely ceased trembling, I was glued to the game scores. I laughed to myself that I was morphing into a man, and took a sip of my water. I had been seduced this March with madness, and my burning desire was for the success of my alma mata, Duke University.

Nine years had passed, since I had traveled to a college basketball championship. In 2001, my oldest son and I flew to Minneapolis for the final four games. Maryland played Duke in the semifinals. Duke University Development provided free tickets in return for years of generous giving. I was confident that our star studded team would win. From opposite coasts, my son and I to met in the center of the country for the showdown. We rented the last room in the city. I had never been to Minneapolis. It was freezing cold. We could care less about the weather. We were at the big game.

Our Iron Duke connections enabled us to attend the pregame donor festivities. We sat in a hotel banquet room while the pep band blared the school fight song, and grey haired fans politely clapped. I bounced to the rhythm, shook the pompoms that I had packed in my suitcase, and sang out my loved for Duke. My son was mortified. He would have preferred to have been in a bar with the student Cameron Crazies, painted in blue and preparing for the game by becoming intoxicated. When I begged for him to snap photos of me hugging the Blue Devil, he balked. He reluctantly recorded the moment on my camera.

When the team finished their dinner in an adjacent dining room, we gathered by the exit to cheer them on. Their next stop would be the stadium. As Shane Battier made his way through the crowd, I called out my admiration and to give Maryland hell. He stopped, turned, and smiled. Then, to me alone, said thanks before walking out of the double doors to the waiting bus. I was in love.

It was a dream team. I was not the only fan who knew they would take down the Maryland Terrapins. Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jason Williams were magic on the court. The win was not easy, and the game went into overtime. As the team fired three point shots, my voice disappeared in the cheering. The victory was sweet. Maryland was an easy team to hate. Shane, the classical pianist and brilliant student athlete, had been hit by bottle thrown by a Maryland student before at an earlier game. There was no crying for the Terrapins who went home without the trophy. Two nights later, Duke defeated the Arizona Wildcats by ten points to win the title as the best collegiate basketball team. Shane Battier was named the Most Outstanding Player. It was my first national championship, and we had won. The winning was seductive. I knew that I would be back to see it happen again.

Nearly a decade later, the feeling returned. We were not slated to win. When interviewed, Coach K never described this as a great basketball team. Good was the best adjective he would use when referring to his players. Even though it was a different team, I was convinced that we would go all the way. I had to be there to see it. I did not know when Duke would take the title again. A few months before, by the side of the road in South Dakota, I promised myself that I would never miss another opportunity. In truth, I knew that there would be opportunities in life that would slip by. Sometimes, there would be situations that seemed like opportunities that would better left behind. As I sat on a rock in the Badlands, watching the sun set over a vast landscape of colored canyons, I refined my self-promise. I would watch closely for all opportunities and grab or the good ones.

The time had come. I felt the pull to Indiana. It was weeks before the championship and sixteen teams remained in the battle. I had never been to Indianapolis. My poor knowledge of geography, coupled with my Badlands promise, had given me the boldness to jump into adventures that might give pause to a more thoughtful traveler. I posted on my FaceBook that I would love to have a friend go with me to Indiana for the final game. Gloria said yes. She lived in Kansas City and was also an A D Pi in college. I immediately purchased airline tickets for Kansas. There were no free University Development tickets this year. We found our seats on the internet. I asked if Gloria would drive us to Indy. She said yes. This became our sorority road trip. Gloria had never driven east of St. Louis. It never occurred to me, that we would be traveling from Kansas through Missouri, Illinois and a time zone to reach Indianapolis. Geography was not taught at Duke. All I knew was that my team would win, and I had to be there.

Gloria and I spent the game day driving in rain and wind through the prairies of the heartland. We passed the Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, the world’s largest cross in Effingham, Illinois, poultry processing plants in Indiana, and miles and miles of farmland. We never stopped talking, as we relived several years of memories, tragedies, and adventures for each of us. We laughed our way across the Midwest comparing stories of dating, men, and romance. We made promises that time would not slip away so quickly again without another road trip. We arrived in Indianapolis just before dinner. We had missed the Iron Duke festivities.

Indianapolis is a smaller city than St. Louis. The skyline is dominated by the giant Lucas Oil Stadium. I would have thought that an oil sponsored stadium would have been found in Texas, however this stadium is Texas sized. The structure reminded me of a huge extended stay Holiday Inn, completely inappropriate for its function. Perhaps it was the architect’s attempt at a heartland homey appearance on a grand scale. Gloria and I laughed, but we had barely stopped laughing during the eight hour drive.

I changed into my sparkly Duke blue top, and Gloria into her purple Kansas State colors. She was loyal to her team. I had cheered for the Wildcats in a Whidbey Island bar as they defeated Xavier in double overtime. It was a great game. They suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Butler who, now at the final match of the tournament, planned to win tonight. I pinned Duke buttons around my shoulders and held my blue and white pompoms tightly in my fist. We headed to the game by cab. The rain poured down in buckets. I was grateful for my Duke blue and white flip flops. I was prepared.

With plenty of time to spare, we circumvented the Oil Stadium cheering the students with their blue and white signs, knocking fists with older fans, and looking for familiar faces. The spacious outer halls were filled with spectators clad in blue. Butler blue and Duke blue. The game began at 8 PM. Thirty minutes to go. The tension called for French fries. No beer was served. I washed the fries down with a veggie burger, and we took out seats in the middle of an enclave of Butler fans. The battle was about to begin. We sat in the middle of the lower section behind the basket. The court felt like miles away. Gigantic television screens above the court and around the stadium displayed the action as players from both sides warmed up. Basketballs flew into the net with ease. Above us, the word read, “The Road Stops Here.” And we were here. Everyone around us had their BlackBerrys and I Phones at the ready. Friends were being tweeted, texted, called, and emailed. The airwaves were buzzing with communications. The news commentators sat on a platform below us under hot yellow lights, speaking into microphones, commentary that we were missing. We discussed our ticket prices and our purchase dates with the Butler fans beside us. Who had had the greatest faith in their team? I had. I was not a local fan excited about a national basketball championship. I had been waiting for weeks to see Duke walk away as the winner. I answered another email, called another Duke Alum, and posted another message on Facebook. The game was about to begin.

We were on our feet. The teams were being announced. “We are Duke,” yelled our players posed together on the television promo add. Kyle Singler, Brian Zoubek, Nolan Smith, Lance Thomas, the Plumlee brothers and Jon Scheyer. Not the 2001 team. A team of students who felt like my sons, ready now to play basketball. Coach K was announced, and the crowd booed. Gloria told me they were yelling for “Dook”, but I could hear. The jeers had begun. Emotions were already high. The local fans wanted tiny Butler to beat the Devils. They had forgotten that we were a Cinderella team too. They talked about how wealthy we were, how we always won, and how they only cheered for an underdog. Everyone cheers for an underdog. We were ranked number one, but it had not always been so. I looked over at Gloria. She was cheering for Butler!

“Go Devils,” I screamed and shook my pompoms. Then I smiled at the red-headed man in front of me, and told him that I liked Butler too. I was sorry that they were going to lose. He laughed. He knew I was right.

“What are they doing now?” the butler fan inquired. He was staring courtside at the Duke students, the Cameron Crazies who had followed the team to cheer them to victory. They bounced up and down without pause, and the game had yet to begin. The Crazies had become famous in sports magazines, newspapers, and on television for their creativity and enthusiasm. Now they were bowing in homage to the right side of the stadium. Sections of Duke fans through the arena were bowing in the same direction, hands over their heads. I looked.

“Its Crazy Towel Guy!”

I had been at the Duke Tulsa game in Cameron Indoor Stadium just a month before. Crazy Towel guy had sat a few seats from us on the same row. As the students began to bow in homage in my direction, the spotlights turned and illuminated a man my age, who stood and swung a white hand towel round and round above his head. The Blue Devil mascot had come to our row to knock knuckles with the oldest of the Cameron Crazies. Crazy Towel Guy was a Crazy grown up. Now he had traveled to Indianapolis to swing his towel in support of his team. I bowed in homage and shook my pompoms. Perhaps I could be Crazy Pompom Gal. I was crazy for Duke Basketball too.

The game had begun. The large digital clock on the balcony of the highest section of the stadium had taken forever to reach the start time. Fans in the upper decks were barely visible in the darkness, details blurred by the bright spot lights. I strained to watch the action below on the court from behind the tall red-head fan. I was here. I could watch a television screen from home in my living room. Duke was in white. Butler in black. Both teams were good guys.

The game was a battle. Butler’s Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack were not about to give Duke an easy victory. Thirty-three year old Brad Stevens looked more like a student fan than the coach of a team playing in a national championship. Who couldn’t cheer for him? He looked as if he was about to ask Coach K for an autograph. The Butler fans continued to boo the Devils. The noise never subsided. Fans screamed, the bands played, and the horns blasted timeouts.

I lost track of which band was playing for which set of fans. The tunes were the same for both sides. I shook my pompoms for both sets of blue. Our section of the stadium stood and yelled for most of the game. We yelled for defense or offense. We yelled for the blue. We were both blue. I knew that a Bulldog could not best a Devil. However, I can only relax in a Duke game when we are fifteen points ahead. We never pulled ahead more than five points, and those leads were fleeting.

“Rip ‘em up, Tear ‘em up, Give ‘em hell Duke!” Blue and white plastic strips were falling from my pompoms. The red-headed fan and I slapped hands and congratulated each other on our team’s three point baskets. The score went back and forth from the first half to the second half, and the digital clock continued to click away the seconds. No team was dominating. No one relaxed.

At the half, my confidence was still strong. I went to the t-shirt vender and asked if I could purchase my winning shirts early before the lines formed, and sizes were sold out. She stated that no shirts would be sold before the end of the game. I asked what would happen to the Butler shirts when they lost. She informed me that the shirts of the losers, printed for a victory that never happened, would be sent to Haiti. Poor Haitians. They should be sent the winning Duke team shirts. Why should they be made to wear Butler shirts!

The second half was a cacophony of time out horns, pep band trumpets and drums, cheers, yells, and the curses of fans. Back and forth the teams battle. We remained on our feet the entire time. The Crazies jumped and swayed courtside below us. The Devil paraded before the crowd. The cheerleaders shook their metallic blue pompoms above their heads. Coach K sat on his chair inches from the edge of play. Basketballs flew in the air and many missed. Each attempt to score felt like a game winning shot. The digital clock continued to count down. The fouls mounted. I worried for my boys. Would someone foul out? Then, for a brief moment, I feared we would lose. Oh God, my Duke t-shirt would be sent to Haiti.

Zoubek stepped to the free throw line. The Crazies formed their hands in the shape of the letter Z above their heads. The Butler fans yelled to break his concentration. The Duke fans yelled their encouragement. I yelled, “Zoooo.” The Butler fans beside me yelled, “Boooo.” Gloria yelled, and the red-headed fan in front yelled. The ball released and fell into place through the net. We were two points ahead. Z bounced the ball on the free throw line, took aim again, and shot. The pompoms of the Duke cheerleaders shook in the air. The Cameron Crazies waited to scream “Woosh.” The shot missed. The ball did not fall through the net. The Butler fans went crazy too. We were still ahead by two points, and although seconds remained on the clock, although Butler had possession of the ball, I knew we would win.

My hands were above my head. I was screaming. In a matter of seconds, we were going to be the national champions. Hayward had the ball. When he paused and took aim at the backboard, I could swear that the digital clock stopped. When the ball released from his hands, with time standing still, the arena went silent. I am sure that the fans were screaming, but in my memory of those last seconds, all was muted. I remember no noise, no bands, no uproar. The ball flew toward the basket in slow motion. A three point shot. The players on the court stopped moving and stared at the ball. The fans from the highest balconies watched the ball. The coaches held their breaths and watched the ball. The refs stood motionless and watched as well. The pompoms stopped shaking. The ball continued to travel slowly through the air toward the net. It was long. It hit the rim and bounced away. No basket. The noise returned. I could hear myself screaming. We were the champions. We were two points ahead, had possession of the ball and only seconds left to play. The horn blasted the end of the game. It was over. The Butler fans stood with their arms by their sides. Some cursed, and others talked about what a great game we had all witnessed. I continued to scream and jump up and down. Oh my God, what a great game! And I was there!

There would be nets to cut down, awards to be given, and speeches to be made. The court was a crush of players, fans, and cameramen. I rushed for the t-shirt vender. My winning Duke shirts were not getting shipped to Haiti. Next week, Haitian children would think that Butler had won. I knew the truth, that Duke that has the best collegiate basketball team in the country.

So what does it take to go to a basketball national championship? The answer is simple. Faith and balls. Basketballs. And, of course, a friend willing to drive you all the way across the Midwest. Next time I have the feeling that my team will be the national champions, call your bookie and place your bets. We are going to win! Thank you Coach K, thank you great team, and thank you Gloria. It was a wonderful experience! “Go Duke!”

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