Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mind Games

Yesterday I wrote fondly of the memory of watching Eric Maynor and his classmates at Virginia Commonwealth University upsetting Duke on the opening Thursday of the 2007 NCAA tournament. I claimed that the result of that game represented all that was pure and wondrous about sport. I wrote about how that game elevated my mood and left my workaday worries to be swept up along with the celebratory confetti that occasionally accompanies such stirring victories. And I stand by those sentiments. There are times when sport can bring out the best in people. When it can wash away stress and quell strife. Both for the participants and the spectators, sports can provide escape from a world that seems too small. And it can bring together a community that seems too large to ever share any collective experience. No matter what the people who think that they're too smart, too rich or too cultured ever say, there is value in the shared experience and the populist nature of athletics. Fandom is not the province of any one select group and not just the crutch of undereducated provincials. It's OK if it makes you irrationally joyful to watch your team win or to watch any team win when logic dictates that they shouldn't. In fact, sports are valuable, in part, because they are capable of eliciting such feelings.

Arguing over whether sport should be important misses the point. What is and what should be are different things. Perhaps it would be better if that were not so. But most of us don't have the luxury of eschewing pragmatism for the sake philosophy. And in this 9-to-9 life that we live eight days a week what is is the most important thing. In other words, I don't care if you think that sports shouldn't be a big deal. Heck, I wish that the internet truly was a meritocracy as it was intended. And that democracy didn't devolve into oligarchy when carried out on a large scale. Things are the way they are. And, it's far more helpful to deal with life that way rather than keeping it at arm's length because it should be as good as you think that you are.

Anyways, night's like tonight really make me realize the meaning of these games. Tonight, Boston College lost in the opening round of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament to USC. Tonight, the New York Knicks lost to the Sacramento Kings in a regular-season game that was crucial to the team's bid for a playoff berth. In and of themselves, these two results mean nothing. My life is unaltered. If anything, these losses might save me some money. But they do bring all my individual frustrations and sorrows up tight. I can feel the breath of missed opportunities on my neck like full-court pressing defenders. And everything that I had hoped a game could make me forget is only made all the more relevant when my team doesn't win. Just as a championship or unexpected upset victory can give us license to crow and be proud, a loss can allow shame and melancholy to walk through that same opened revolving emotional door that Maynor and VCU opened to exhilaration and relief with their shock win two years ago.

The power that sports has allows it to tease out not just our mostly latent capacity for euphoria but also the disappointments that we all feel but do our best to lock away. When they highlight the rewardless sacrifices, dashed hopes and futureless tomorrows that we all face. Which is why you see fans weeping or smashing or otherwise acting as if the loss of one game is far more significant than it is. Those moments are conduits for all the emotions that wouldn't show otherwise. The moment when BC's senior guard Tyrese Rice turns away from his soon-to-be victorious opponent - who is dribbling out the waning seconds of the last game of the season - and tiredly tugging at the headband hugging his furrowed and sweating brow, reminds us all of the times when we face our final disappointments. If we vicariously enjoy their triumphs then we share their defeats. The big losses bring us back to the time that we didn't get the girl. Or, more accurately, when we got the girl but couldn't keep her. When we cast a vote and it didn't matter. When we didn't get the promotion that we worked so hard for. When we knew we were good enough and had prepared but didn't deliver. When Endy Chavez made the catch only for Aaron Heilman to surrender a home run to Yadier Molina. When the veil was pulled between us and the thing that we thought we could have through sheer force of enthusiasm and effort. When the American dream was revealed to be nothing but a literary device. And you found yourself carrying wilted lilies to the grave of Horatio Alger.

Should it take the loss by a sports team, composed of strangers, that I support to make me experience everything lackluster about my life? No. It shouldn't. Should it take the collapse of our financial system to realize that predatory lending practices are not for the best? Nope. Again, things are not as they should be. They are as they are. And my teams are losers tonight. In the end, they always lose. Just like most teams do. And that makes me feel like a loser. Just like many people often feel.

I'm a Knicks fan. I'm a Mets fan. I'm a BC fan. I'm a Jets fan. Tonight it feels like the things in this life that I root for, that I want to see succeed, inevitably fail. Withered relationships with friends and former lovers, potholed avenues towards progress and sports teams may have nothing in common (unless, of course, it really is all my fault each time) but the empty feeling in your gut and the tightness in your jaw. Which means that the experience of one can remind you of the other two. Which means that a flood of emotions unrelated to whatever game you're watching and unasked for on a Friday night might never be farther away than a jump shot for the other team.

Thankfully, the joys of birthday candles, fifth dates and new socks also are never farther away than a Ronald Moore three-pointer in double overtime. Which is why we pay our money down and get in line for the rollercoaster. Because, unlike the other travails of our lives which take months and years to rise and fall, these games can lift us up after forty minutes. The clock is always ticking down towards relief. Or sorrow. But it's always ticking, either way. And there's always another game.

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