Last weekend, I was in Williamsburg with my 3/4ths of my family watching lots of basketball, having tagged along with Jenny on her annual March Madness trip. It was suggested by Jenny and Dad that I write an essay about watching basketball with my family. I thought it, initially, a lousy idea. (I’ve got a book to write, for starters.) And then, inevitably, I got ideas.
Along with the necessary essay ideas was the idea that an essay on watching March Madness with my family would be easy to ‘pitch’ to magazines as timely content next March. (I’m not banging this out before the championship games next week.)
At any rate, I need to bang something out quickly before I lose the memories, because if there’s any talent I have it’s for forgetting—a stellar trait for a writer of nonfiction. So here are dashed, first-word-best-word notes and sketches toward a someday essay.
A field goal in basketball is any basket made during play. A regular jump shot is a field goal. A layup is a field goal. A ‘3-pointer’ is a field goal. A dunk is a field goal. A free throw is not a field goal, but a free throw. Despite encompassing the same overall action and result as a field goal’s ‘shot’, and despite them calling the clock ticking away the seconds in which a player has to make a shot a ‘shot clock’, when a player is fouled and given the chance to make a shot (or two, as we’ll see), basketball calls what they do a ‘throw’.
It used to be that the arc outside which any field goal would score 3 points would touch the top of the key (an otherwise functionless semicircle that extends from the free-throw line) at a tangent, but now there’s a couple feet between the top of the key and the 3-point line, given I guess, how drugs and conditioning have changed the bodies of athletes in the last howevermany years since I last watched a basketball game, and how relatively easier it soon became to sink a 3-point shot.
There’s now also this other semicircle under the net which echoes the key’s, and it marks a zone where a defensive player can stand in advance of an offensive player rushing to the net, and if the defensive player gets within the semicircle before the offensive player does, then it’s the offensive player’s foul when he runs into the body of the defensive player. (I could have that one wrong. My family did their best to explain and I’m for god’s sake not looking it up.)
My sister, along with the legion of male and female basketball commentators, likes to call sunk 3-point shots ‘buckets’. Nobody in the world of basketball refers to the hoop’s net anymore in such terms as ‘swish’ or ‘nothing but net’ both of which reigned when I first start playing both actual basketball and NBA Jam on SNES.
After a team is fouled 7 times by the other team, they get what’s called a ‘bonus’, which means that whenever their players get fouled going forward, they are given 2 free throws to make. Without a bonus, a team’s fouled player is given a ‘1 and 1’ free throw, where if they miss the first one, the ball is in free play. The exception is when a player is fouled while taking a shot. Regardless of any bonuses (double bonuses are a thing, marked on the screen as ‘bonus+’, but there’s no telling what that means), such a fouled player always gets 2 shots.
I learned all this and more over three days of watching NCAA basketball with my dad and sister. It’s an annual trip Jenny makes down for the start of March Madness, and when I heard she was going again this year I decided to fly out and join her, as I was on spring break and had been trying to put in a visit with my parents. They retired twenty years ago to a new-at-the-time housing development in the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the famous colonialist cosplay tourist trap and the nation’s second oldest university, the College of William & Mary—not, this year, part of the NCAA tournament. The drive down I-95 was swift and eventless, dogwoods in bloom, the sun blazing, the skies a clear Tarheel blue.
Jenny would be unhappy with that comparison. She’s been an unwavering Duke basketball fan since I’ve been unpube’d, having falling in love in her formative years with Christian Laettner, a Duke forward whose biggest talent was making last-second game-winning shots, or ‘buckets’ as Jenny calls them now. Laettner is one of the most hated basketball players of all time (there’s even a documentary: I Hate Christian Laettner), but the people filling out this poll had clearly never been 15-year-old girls watching this blue-eyed fox win a lot at their favorite sport. Jenny’s love for him is matched maybe by her love for her husband, Adam, but definitely by her love for coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose surname I don’t have to look up how to spell, because Jenny taught me it years ago under the category of Must Know Info. One more story about this: after our first dog died, our older sister, Shani, brought a new one home, and it soon threw up on Jenny’s bedroom floor. Furious, she insisted that she get to rename the dog as penance, and that’s how Duke became even the family dog.
Watching Duke with Dad in the NCAA tournament was always a serious, high-stakes event for Jenny, but this year was Krzyzewski’s farewell season. That I was coming along on this visit was welcomed (we siblings always like a buffer while visiting our parents), but Jenny made it clear that we would be watching a lot of basketball.
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘That’s what we do at Mom and Dad’s anyway: relax in front of the TV.’
I thought I understood what I was in for. But by the time we left Sunday morning, I had watched more basketball in three days than I’d seen in my entire life. I’d always known about March Madness the way I knew about Mercury in retrograde: it was sometimes going on, and many people I didn’t know well cared deeply about it. I don’t care about basketball, but I care deeply about my family. I told myself, booking my flight, that I would do this for them. Or with them? I often confuse the difference. I am the youngest member of my family, and I live on a different side of the continent than they do.
Jenny and I pulled into our parents’ driveway just seconds before Dad came home from his job at a golf course—he works part-time preparing carts for foursomes as a way to get (a) free golf and (b) out of the house. The knee of his khaki pants was stained rust red. ‘What happened?’ Jenny asked, pointing, and he waved it away. Just tripped over a curb while he wasn’t watching where he was going. Just banged his knee a little. He thought he may have bruised his ribs, but it was, he assured us, No Big Deal. Dad is 74. Jenny and I suggested he get himself checked out at the ER, and he just asked if we needed any help with our bags. Dad doesn’t fear or avoid doctors—he’s had every kind of skin cancer, he’s conscientious about his health more than ever now that he’s aging—but he wasn’t about to let a little fall get in the way of this weekend with his kids. I couldn’t help but admire him in his red polo and khakis; Dad’s cheeks had sallowed over the years, but he was still, at his age, a sturdy dude. His squeeze hugging us hello was solid, all-business.
Inside, Mom showed us the brackets she’d printed out for us. Jenny had texted about this weeks earlier:
Dad and I fill out brackets every year and compare our selections. Would you be interested in joining in?
Sure. Do you put up money or just for fun?
Yay. We do it for fun. Especially when you pick the underdog and dad didn't. Adam always wins though and he cares the least 🤷♀️
In the contest of caring the least, I was not about to be bested. I should love a bracket. I mean, I love a spreadsheet. Systematic orderings of information or entities thrum something essential in me, like what a bow makes a violin string do. I took a pen and stared at this bracket of 68 teams. Why wasn’t it 64? The tournament had a ‘first four’ round of also-rans playing each other for the chance to be among the 64. Fine, okay. I looked at all the matchups. Texas Tech vs. Montana St. Michigan St. vs. Davidson. Illinois vs. Chattanooga. I tried to imagine the people for whom these names signified anything. Chattanooga has my whole life been only a choo-choo and a town in Tennessee I periodically read It’s Cool There Actually! articles about.
Basketball hadn’t even started and I was faced, once again, with the sports problem: how to get emotionally involved in a game played between strangers you have no affinities with? Hell for me is being stuck in a cab where the driver is listening to sports talk radio dudes argue about yesterday’s Tampa Bay v. Arizona game. Stuck in situations where sports is the subject, I’d try to pretend what I was hearing wasn’t news about teams but news about the animal kingdom—Should the jaguars blow it all up this offseason?—but it could never last.
I reminded myself that getting emotionally involved was caring, and for March Madness not caring was the key to victory. I looked at the seed numbers, and I aimed for upsets, and I bracketed my way to a Final Four I felt happy about: Connecticut losing to Purdue and Providence losing to Tennessee, the tournament’s ultimate victor.
‘No Duke?’ Jenny said when I announced my picks.
I told her I’d be sad about their inevitable upset and she admitted she hadn’t picked San Francisco, the school I teach at, to win even its first game. Neither had Dad. Mom, an indoorsy sort who sang in the choir growing up, never does a bracket, making her the smartest of us all.
When, in college, I learned how to watch sports on TV, it was football we watched, and that set the pace for me. Other sports felt like they were doing televised sports wrong. Baseball was mostly shots of clear skies and men standing. Ditto golf. Hockey was unwatchable because I couldn’t follow the puck, and in soccer they never scored. Soccer is this for 3 hours:
The problem with basketball—I’d announced a dozen times in my life, with who knows what authority I mustered up—is that they score too often. Look, another basket. Now it’s time for the other team to dribble it to the other side of the court and … yep another basket.
The games started Thursday afternoon, but Thursday afternoon, Jenny and I were keeping what’s for us a brisk pace in the Williamsburg Antique Mall—her other planned activity this weekend. An antique mall is a place where I activate. In any antique mall I’m with my eyes the way every dog is with its nose out a speeding car window: look at this, look at that, look at this, look at this, look at that. I found a nude lady mannequin wearing only a boy’s Cub Scout neckerchief and a photorealist pencil drawing of Johnny Depp with Fabio’s haircut. I found a yearbook/photo annual of a place called Kamp Kill Kare, and a painting of a bottle of Redskins Cabernet, with the old racist team mascot on the label. I was lingering in the junkier booths far longer than Jenny could, and I asked if we needed to get back. Hadn’t the games started already?
‘It’s fine,’ Jenny said. ‘It’s just the first half.’
Which is how I came to feel vindicated about my dismissal of the entire sport. At this level, the teams were all good enough to score a lot, and sure enough when we got back and Jenny turned on the Michigan-Colorado St. game it was 5 minutes into the second half and the score was 30-31. The rest of the game felt less like a nailbiter than gaming with a cheat code: you could apparently just skip right to the good levels that mattered.
I picked Colorado St, to win, and they didn’t. Then the next day, Colorado St. was supposed to play and lose to Tennessee, who in reality lost to Michigan. But that’s about bracket results and narrative and hope and feeling, and I think I have more to say about the experience of watching games, esp with Jenny and Dad in the room.
I need to acknowledge the knotting tension I felt in my gut during the final minutes of game play, because it’s clear that this is 9/10ths of the thrill of watching basketball. It’s a sensation that imprinted early on Jenny, for sure, watching her blue-eyed boyfriend sink a last-second shot to finish Duke’s 1992 tournament game against Kentucky at 104-103:
You can’t see it, but Reston, Virginia’s own Grant Hill has thrown Laettner that ball from the entire other end of the court. I get how this is thrilling. I get how there’s something … artful? maddening? stupid? ineffable, I think, and thus artful, in the way Laettner dribbles the ball once, with under 2 seconds left, before shooting, but it’s possible that the dribble was necessary for rule reasons?
I also felt driven to clap, quietly and to myself, whenever ‘my team’ sank a shot. Not every time. But I think what I was responding to was the actuality of a sunk basket amid so much fouling. They foul a lot in the NCAA. They’ll be driving to the net and inevitably someone on the defense will do something unseeable and occult that makes the whistle blow. And all the action has to stop. Plus I learned that intentional fouling is a strategy when you’re down and it’s in the final seconds of the game, because you get to stop the clock (reward) with the hopes that the fouled player will miss one or both of his free throws (risk) and thus return the ball to your possession.
So it’s foul after foul after foul. And then it’s shot after shot after shot. A lot of soccer-style passing from one player to another (thank god for the ticking clock that forces teams to make a shot). But sometimes, in the twisting-eels scrum of players around the paint, someone slips out to the 3-point line and the guy with the ball sees this and sneakily flings the ball out to him, and when he takes the shot with a tall man flying at his face, it’s exactly like that moment in drag ball culture when the beat drops and you watch the queen collapse herself in a dip:
When that moment moves your team back up into the lead, it’s extremely satisfying. It feels almost like justice. It feels like when you hear someone’s in remission, or when Antonin Scalia died.
One makes sounds when watching sports. Mine, as mentioned, is a little pat-pat flat-palmed clapclapclap to myself. Jenny’s is mostly saying ‘Oh!’ in anxiousness and ‘Buckets!’ in glee. Dad—and this has been true for as long as I’ve known the man—never expresses glee at a team performing well, the idea being I guess that scoring or preventing scores is just the job description that nobody needs praised for. But he is vocal with his upset. Aw, jeez, COME ON! is a standard construction. You assholes! is another, with an emphasis on ass that really brings out the flat vowels of his southern Maryland upbringing. He’s got a peeve for what he calls ‘street ball’ or ‘playground ball’, which I gathered was when players took their own paths or aggression tactics instead of, like, running a play. Is that what they call it in basketball, running a play? After so many years of watching football, I still can’t keep all the different positions straight, but I can follow a play, I can see how the setup along the line of scrimmage has forecasted a running play or a passing play, I can eye the guys getting open.
Basketball is messier, likely because faster. (There’s nothing fast about football. ‘Rushing yards’ is a funny euphemism.) When I noticed a defense strategy, it was Zone defense. God this is boring. I’m utterly bored writing about the mechanics of basketball. The point here is that Dad would see something (I hoped it wasn’t race) in the ‘style’, maybe, of the play that would anger him. And it would often anger the coaches on the sidelines, too, especially when a foul resulted, or a missed shot. At one point during Friday evening’s Duke game (which we had to sacrifice Jeopardy! to watch), they put a closeup on Krzyzewski after his team made a foul, and even though he wasn’t anywhere near a mic you could see his big angry mouth shout HANDS GO UP! HANDS GO UP! And then he put both hands in the air, like at gunpoint.
I have anger issues, perhaps, in that I rarely see the utility of having that feeling. Anger feels so physically unpleasant it’s been almost a survival tactic to not let myself get angry, which often, I’ve realized after all this therapy, has involved shutting down to even the possibility of an emotion. Don’t get too invested, Dave. Dad rarely, if ever, shouted at us growing up. He was not a simmering kettle waiting always to explode, but an empty kettle sitting helpfully on the back burner. (I identify with this so much I titled my second book If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There.) In sport, he ‘lets himself go’ maybe. He’s vocally expressive with anger and frustration. Jenny too, to a smaller degree. Whereas this was me over on the sofa all weekend whenever ‘my team’ lost:
I should love a bracket, but if I learned anything last weekend (other than the regulation facts above), it’s that forming a bracket carries a very real destructive force on actually enjoying basketball. If there’s a rule I try always to follow, it’s Bill Callahan’s ‘Root for the underdog / no matter who they are.’ Which is one reason why ‘Blue Lives Matter’ schmendriks suck and are anti-American (to say nothing of the dogwhistling racism in their claim): The Police Do Not Need Championing. They have the full support of the State. It’s like scorning your fellow countrymen laughing at the newly clothed emperor. If ‘Reminding teacher she forgot to assign homework’ was people, they’d be Blue Lives Matter folks.
Likely I could have done the smart thing and chosen every lower-seeded team to win, and thus I’d get to root for the underdog each time. But underdogs aren’t always so clearly forecasted. In the narrative of a game, things like ‘heart’ or ‘hustle’ start to appear, and it makes you want to root for that team to come through all the adversity they’ve had (sometimes, I saw, by what was pointed out to me as blind referees). However, if they win, then there goes your whole Midwest bracket. So here’s this little guy, literally, in comparison to the guys on the other team, playing like a phenom, and you have to clapclapclap when he misses his death-dropping threes.
It sucks, the way any gambling does when attached to a game. What filling out ‘my bracket’ did was demand disassociation from the players. They were not people I cared about, or felt I was living vicariously through. They were people I needed to deliver me my desired outcome.
I need more actual memories and fewer arguments nobody will care about, and so we return to my talent of forgetting.
Jenny and I spent an hour at the golf course Dad works at, hitting bags of balls at the driving range as hard and as high as we could—as with gambling, needing to do something fun (i.e., hit a golf ball very hard and very high) with some kind of scored accuracy also ruins every game. I wore a Syracusely orange performance polo Dad let me borrow, and then let me have to take home. ‘I don’t really need a golf shirt,’ I tried, at first. ‘Well you never know,’ he said, really wanting to give it to me, and thus forcing my hand. ‘Well, you know, it’s not really my style.’ I mean, look:
His face tried not to fall but fall it did. Another dashed hope. The compromise was that I would keep it in the closet of ‘my’ bedroom at their house, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about packing golfcourse clothes whenever I came to visit.
Jenny and I had fun together hitting golf balls, and after the first ten or so, she said, ‘I can’t believe Dad isn’t here to watch us.’ And I agreed. He’d set us up with free bags of balls and showed us where we’d be able to hit, and then went off to be social with the coworkers he already sees 3x a week. Maybe he needed a break from us, and we both agreed there was something nice about not having Dad tell us what he thought was wrong with our swings every time the ball sped feebly off the tee and dribbled twenty yards on the ground. ‘See, Dave, you brought your head up again’ etc etc. We didn’t miss it, but we both missed his praise. Or we missed getting to show off for him.
It was possible, I realized not for the first time, that Jenny has Daddy Issues, too. For much of my life, it seemed impossible. Dad was an athlete in school, playing all the sports, like Danny Zucko does over a week in Grease but with Dad it was for his entire time at school. Jenny did the same. Her years were set to a sport schedule: fall field hockey, winter basketball, spring softball. Dad bought us a basketball hoop when we were starting teen years, and these are memories I can bring in later, so long-ago-encoded with enough psychic scars I have little risk of forgetting them.
Sometimes the questions I’d ask the room during a game (never sure which of Jenny or Dad would know the answer) would have no ready answer, like when I asked what a Bonus was and what it meant. Jenny had to go on her phone for that one. I asked about everything, asked for clarification on all the rules and things I was seeing on the screen. I told myself without giving it much thought that I really needed to know why, if Jenny and Dad had said that any foul made during a shot attempt would grant the fouled player 2 free throws, they just gave the fouled shot-taker a 1-and-1 free throw.
There’s an easy and obvious pleasure I take in learning new things, even (some might say especially) when the new things have no apparent practical use. And I especially love to learn new things quickly, because it’s another of my talents. (It’s likely part and parcel with the forgetting talent: let’s make more room in here, please.) And I felt the strength or at least change in legibility by Saturday afternoon, knowing what to look for, what to expect. Specifics and details, EVER USEFUL!, fail me at the moment. I knew to look in the corner of the screen to see whether the leading team had possession of the ball at the next um…whatever they call it when the players hit a stalemate on whose hands are more firmly on the ball after a rebound. I knew to say things like, ‘Given that it’s a 2-possession game at this point he better feel bad about making such a stupid foul.’
In other words, I found myself doing something I’ve done at anxious times in my life: work overtime to fit in. Here’s how I put it in an essay I wrote years ago: ‘How did it feel to spend life learning sports metaphors the way one hopes to learn the language of his captors? What happens when the misfit’s unfit even for Misfit Island?’ My family was not just part of the heterosexual world I wanted also to be a part of, they defined it. That world sprang from their collective forehead, and much of that world involved loving sports, a thing I tried to care about but never really could.
What I cared about was the heteros in my life. My family. My football-loving guy friends. My default move, in trying to be close to people I care about, is to ask them questions about what they care about. In this, I become impressed, and I mean this less as an attention value and more as almost a physical action: I direct them in their answering to impress themselves upon me, and I willingly receive the impression. Asking questions is always easier than saying something, even if it often leaves me unsatisfied. This is a thing psychoanalytic scholar Léon Wurmser put into a new context for me when I read his book on shame:
The two basic modes [of interacting with your environment] could be called attentional and communicative, and the corresponding social modalities could be described as ‘being impressed,’ with its modifications of being attentive, curious, exploring, and fascinated, and as ‘expressing oneself,’ with its modifications of impressing, influencing, and fascinating others. Sexual scopophilia [i.e. voyeurism] and exhibitionism would be narrower versions of these more broadly conceived partial drives.
If I’d had the strength last weekend to express what I wanted—i.e., that it was sickening to me how poorer schools are than they used to be, how gleefully conservative US policies have gutted their budgets, and how students and faculty bear the brunt, and yet here’s college sports, this 100% useless vestige that has nothing to do with educating anybody, which gets all the money and attention—it would fall on deaf ears. Or angered ears, leaving Dad and Jenny not to accept my position on the matter as mine, but arguing with all the old shit about the value of athletics. (It helps raise money for schools! It gives young athletes an education for when their sports careers are over!) And we’d be at an impasse—not Not A Family Anymore, I’ve come to understand, and not Now A Family With A Conflict (because lord knows there’s plenty among us), but A Family In A Mood Of Goodwill That’s Now Been Soured A Little By The Fact Of This Difference In Our Ranks. This feeling would, as it always had, get compounded by the fact that I’m the youngest member of my family, and I would feel once again humored, at best, by the older heteros, but definitely not listened to. Likely outright dismissed. (Probably this is why I love teaching: I get to express things I believe to people who seem always to want to hear them.)
So I play along, and I impress the people I care about with my thoughtful questions. I elicit them to share their love and expertise. And I share so little of my own. Again, deaf ears, but then again as I said the idea for this essay was Jenny’s. Or maybe Dad’s? Memory doesn’t serve, but I recall both family athletes endorsed the idea.
And immediately I saw two essays in front of me, the wanted and the unwanted. The wanted essay would tell the story of the weekend, using basketball and March Madness as an objective correlative to evoke feelings of love and affection, and how here was this thing that could bring us three together, and let me learn something new. The unwanted essay would express how tired I am of this.
I don’t tire of my family. I needed them, I could feel it, after so much time apart. What I tire of is that hustle I got at above, the impressing hustle. At some point early on, I learned it wasn’t enough to let people have the things they cared about, I felt I had to visibly care about those things too in order to trick them, it’s almost felt like, into caring about me.
Where, though, is the boundary between impressing others and being in conversation with them? Taking your turn to talk about you, and then your turn to ask about the other? I’m not sure yet, but it wasn’t long after the wanted/unwanted binary hit me that I saw (as I soon do with most binaries I initially get hung up on) the way out was through, or with. The right essay would be both wanted and unwanted, just as the time I spent watching basketball with my family was.
I like, to return to Wurmser’s formulation, to peep on dudes as much as I like to show off to them, and as I’m risking making these notes hit 5,000 words I’ll wrap up with the recollection that I used to only want to peep. I used to fear showing anything of mine off, especially my body and its desires.
What changed? I came out. I grew up. I had sex. I did therapy. Basketball is for Dad and Jenny, but writing an essay about basketball? That’s all mine.
Oh, here’s my bracket for those interested:
- Not the coach.↵