I believe in the unbridled joy of basketball.. I was a gawky girl whose childhood was spent in the Pre-Title IX world of mid-Michigan. But since the first time I saw basketball, saw the country boys both lanky and stocky race up and down the floor, I loved it. And now I know why.
On a weekend in March, my husband and I went to Detroit’s Ford Field to see the Sweet 16 games there. Our own beloved Michigan States Spartans were playing in Houston, soon to be brought to their knees by the Memphis onslaught. But Ford Field was only an hour from home and hey, it was hoops. We sat in semi-nosebleed seats to watch the Wisconsin Badgers, big and disciplined and a basketball machine, take on the team of tiny Davidson College. And, Sweet Lord, it was wonderful.. It was like watching a bunch of ponies playing with bulky draft horses. I loved it. Most of all, the Davidson fans loved it. Their joy was palpable. And about 10 minutes before the end of the game, when it was clear that Davidson had the game in hand, the section of fans dressed in Davidson red rose to their feet and sang along with their pep band, that cheesy old Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline”. And they sang it with gusto. They sang it with every cell in their bodies. I got a chill. Because I recognized that moment.
I had felt it in the ‘70s when I saw Ervin “Magic” Johnson’s Everett High School team win the State Championship and the crowd in Chrisler Arena rocked the building chanting “Er-Vin-John-son”. I felt it in 2000 when Mateen Cleeves refused to lose the national championship and bounced on his sprained ankle, happy beyond pain. W all pay way too much attention to sports. The salaries of some of my favorite coaches would be better used for cleaning up the blighted areas of beleaguered Detroit. But here is the beauty of basketball. In those few moments, it gives you permission to know the unreasoning shared joy that children feel. That we so rarely can give voice to in our grown-up lives. It is a moment when you look at the person next to you and know you both share that irrational enthusiasm. It is a moment of grace.
On Sunday, we returned to Ford Field to see Davidson play Kansas, mightier by far than Wisconsin. And dang it all if they didn’t nearly pull it off. But the last basket didn’t go in and they lost by one point. One point. The vast majority of the people in the facility were rooting for Davidson. We all sighed, pulled on our coats, and headed to the exits. But as we were leaving, we heard the Davidson faithful, still in their seats, singing along to their pep band, “Sweet Caroline.” And they sang it just as joyfully as they had on Friday.