Wednesday, April 7, 2010

NCAA Title

I could feel the heat of the fire from 50 yards away. Helicopters pitter-pattered far above and students occasionally incanted “Let’s Go Duke!” before being drowned out by laughter, throaty male yells and the babble of thousands of people who were clearly happy. Very happy.

From afar, I sat on a bench watching a horde of Duke students huddle around a 20-foot-tall bonfire in the middle of campus. Moments before, the Blue Devils defeated Butler in thrilling fashion in the NCAA men’s basketball championship, 61-59.

Student’s launched anything they could get their hands on into the inferno. Droplets of cheap beer and Amp—which promoters handed out for free at the end of the game—sprinkled down on the crowd as cans soared through the night sky en route to the blaze. Writhing rolls of toilet paper levitated amidst the smoky drafts. A shower of swirling sparks escaped from the fire, frantically curling every which way like a school of fish that lost their choreographer.

“Let’s burn shit up!” someone yelled.

“Let’s have a riot!” seconded another.

“Just because you’re feeling woozy is no excuse not to rage,” said a shirtless male to a female with impassioned sincerity, the lip of his underwear advertising the American Eagle brand.

Phones and cameras glowed as students texted and snapped photos. Several girls sat atop the shoulders of males. As one blond was escorted closer to the fire, the crowd cheered as if they selected her to be the virgin sacrificed.

As time passed, new smells of pot and liquor brought diversity to the prevailing campfire musk. There was a guy in a gorilla suit. An impromptu wrestling match broke out. Whenever the fire began to ebb, giant thousand-pound blue benches were carried on the shoulders of fraternity brothers who looked like pallbearers carrying a casket with the morbidly obese enclosed. They’d tip the giant structures into the flames and the fire—freshly stoked—would growl while onlookers took several wary steps back.

I was on a bench far from the fire, describing the scene in my notepad. I simply couldn’t get wrapped up in the revelry, even if that’s what I wanted most.

Before the game, I’d heard of the post-championship tradition and dreamt of surrendering my will to the whimsies of the mob. There’d be footage of me on the morning news tipping cars, heaving Molotov cocktails through campus windows, and circling the fire naked next to free-loving pre-meds and MBAs.

But this didn’t happen. The riot never really got out of hand and I knew all along that this was a crowd I’d never feel a part of. Before coming here, I thought I might identify with a young, ambitious and intelligent mass of people. But I’m just of a different ilk. I’m old, prefer to be alone, and there’s an ideological chasm between myself and most students too wide to bridge. It’s sad to admit, but here I’ll always be an outsider looking in.

Moments before I was in Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke, over the past 10 seasons, has amassed an astounding 159-13 record (.924 winning percentage). By contemporary standards, Cameron is a small basketball court, only large enough to house a little over 9,000 fans who are considered the team’s “sixth man” for their ability to hex opposing teams.

I’d been in the stadium once before. I stood on the floor in the graduate section. For half the game—when the opposing team had the ball—the crowd jumped up and down in the rafters, screaming unremittingly. There were elaborate chants and hand gestures employed at different points of the game. The other team was ridiculed and demoralized. Duke won 84-48. Throughout my many years on sports teams and as a frequenter of sporting events, I’d never seen such organized chaos. And this was just an exhibition game…

Because I hadn’t watched another game until the tournament, I’d recently jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. Having been a Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan since my youth, I’m well-acquainted with unsuccessful teams and devastating losses. No goal. Wide right. The Music City Miracle. Four straight Super Bowl losses. The failures of these teams mirrored the outcomes of those I played on as a young man. I thought Duke might be my one chance to be on the side of a winner, even if I had to hastily pledge my loyalties. But really, I think I wanted to feel, if just for a day, that I was part of campus and the student body.

Because the championship was played in Indianapolis, Duke students who couldn’t make the trip were welcomed into Cameron where we’d watch the game on four television screens aired on the scoreboard.

Even though there were no players on the court, the atmosphere was just as electrifying. Chants erupted from the collective will. Mantras of “Let’s Go Duke!” and “De-Fence!” became common refrains.“Boos” moaned from the crowd whenever highlights of Butler were shown. For free-throws, the crowd would raise their arms and drop them as the ball went into the bucket, everyone yelling a synchronous “Whoosh!”

Because the players were several states away, it was obvious that the chants and cheers and boos weren’t for those in the game, but for the people in the stands. Each collective cry was a reaffirmation of solidarity. The thrill of being in a crowd comes from feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself; that you’re amongst people of your kind with whom values and traditions and beliefs are shared.

The game came down to the last seconds. Anxiety and excitement were palpable. There was concerted disconcertion. Butler had the ball and Duke was up by one with a just a few seconds left. Unease swept across the stands. The crowd mumbled their doubts. Palms were placed over heads as they watched Butler’s prepare for their last shot.

When they missed with three seconds left and Duke’s victory was all but sealed, a few streaks of blue flitted past me and ran onto the court. Before I knew it, I was in the midst of the throbbing throng—a hopping, hugging, fist-pumping mass of people who were swept from the stands and onto the court by some collective force too mysterious to name. Packed tight in the midst of the core beneath the scoreboard, I felt, if just for a fleeting second, that this was my team, my college, and my people.


Anonymous said...

What is it that makes feeling emotions worse than feeling alone? You've mentioned in things like joy over sports, friends, love, etc, that every time it is "I am an observer." How many times must you observe your observing position before you realize you're craving the lives you watch: life?

When we're in the moment, some become concerned with the moments they're not in. To be in no moment, they're still missing out. Can we not learn and grow while allowing our emotions to feel? Or is the only way be better, to be best, is to be distracted by nothing? Isn't that like an immune system being better, best, because it takes medicine to not allow a halt in perfection?

It sounds, Ken, dreamer of adventure, challenge, betterment, that your Everest is opening your heart. You're a traveler, no? A person who lives as a true traveler is the least lonely person who lives. Their home is where they lay and their family is the company they keep; the world!

Some people are jealous of your life. Are you?

Congrats on the championship! Party!

Anonymous said...

It looks like you may have made the transition to adulthood. You did not go with preconceived ideas of what you "should do" and thus did not become part of the "mob". You have had enough life experiences that you have direction instead of just wondering and looking for that elusive "something" that is out there. This is a good thing as knowledge will lead you down the fork in the road that is right for you----many never achieve that level of understanding. You were part of of a unique experience (less that 10,000 can say they were there)and one that you will remember forever. It is your team, your college and also you people---at least at this point in time----enjoy it, it is one experience that will never happen again the same way.

Congratulations to Duke


wojo said...

I have to say, I'm a little disappointed that a busch wasn't opened up for the celebration...

Anonymous said...

Here in Indy, my anesthesiologist on that day was a Butler grad. She left me halfway through my last surgery to make it to the game on time. Her replacement was inadequate. Sounds like a fun night, down there at least!


Anonymous said...

I agree with part of what Anon1 had to say. It seems like you just watch. I was at the game -- I'm a duke administrator -- and all I can say is that i've been around too many people that watch and never truly live their lives. if you like being an observer then good for you, you are living a life you want to live. But it seems to me that too often you want to live other people's lives. Why not love instead of watching other people love? why not argue instead of merely watching others argue? why not live instead of watching others live? Just a thought. I was much like you until I realized how alone I was. I lived vicariously through others until I realized that I would go home to no one while the people I watched went home to their loved ones, their friends, their families.

Ken said...

Anon—I’m grateful for your passionate comment. While I welcome your assessment, I courteously disagree that I’m “craving the lives I watch.” I love my life. I’ve been envy-free for years. I really can’t say I’ve wanted what someone else has had in a very long time. And yes, there is something sad about always “being on the outside looking in,” but that isn’t always the case. I have close friends I can confide in; I feel a sense of “unity” with things when I’m in the wild; I lose myself in the midst of athletic competition. But most of the time I am alone, and that’s okay. I cannot force myself into just any community. I feel as different from some people as I’d feel with a herd of buffalo, man-eating Papua New Guineans, or the dandruff on a pair shoulders. On another note, I really like your true traveler line—perhaps that’s something to which we should all aspire.

Heb—thanks. Always appreciate your comments.

Wojo—My Busch days pretty much ended after our post-floor hockey celebration freshman year. You ought to try an Alaskan Amber one of these days.

Surgeon-ha, I hope your patient didn’t suffer for it.

Anon#2—Also enjoyed your comment. I think my response to Anon #1 applies, but I’ll add that I, by no means, believe I’m living vicariously. You got me all wrong. ;) I’ve filled my life with my own stories and adventures. I don’t think I ever said or insinuated that I wanted to live someone else’s life. Just because I don’t feel part of a group or part of a celebration, doesn’t mean that I want to be part of them. While there are moments when I’m detached, there are plenty of moments, as stated above, when I am attached. And if I feel lonely, I’m certainly not going to knee-jerkingly attach myself to the nearest person or group, especially to those I have little in common with. There’s nothing wrong with a little melancholy and loneliness, by the way. They’re the byproducts of travel and sacrifice and solitude. Some sacrifices are made deliberately; one may hope that today’s sacrifice will lead to a more fulfilling and happy tomorrow. Yes, I go home to no one. But opening one’s heart closes other doors.

Anonymous said...

To all:
I’m intrigued by the whole solitary vs. sociable lifestyles convo and it’s made different thoughts about the matter swirl, and a couple questions erupt…

Firstly, I can understand different kinds of both sides and list related pros and cons. For instance “solitary” may include having no friends, being distanced from family, or maybe living separate from society completely. Any can feel lonely at times and for some people detrimental, while for others it’s/they are the healthiest lifestyles to live. And then there are of course different variations to “sociable” and pros and cons to them as well…

Now I’m aware that people’s lives/needs/wants change, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a definite answer here, but is the whole lifestyle thing really so black and white? Is it true one can’t enjoy the benefits of all – simultaneously?

See, I’m 22 and am kind of going through a solitude phase of my life right now, in the sense of an intimate partner and thus any close confidantes. Doing so has been one of the best lifestyle choices I’ve ever made, as it’s acted almost as a spiritual cleansing of sorts allotting attention in personal respects that I’ve never given sufficiently to before (granted the growth I’ve acquired has surely been supported by other aspects in my life too).

But in the past year and a half-ish, sternly practicing celibacy both physically and emotionally, I have not lost any of my internal feelings of the power, goodness, common sense, and why-the-hell-not reasons for enjoying love – and I know I won’t practice celibacy forever. Someday, perhaps even soon, I want to again trek the adventure of love.

But I’ve become weary. When I do, will I really be “closing doors”? Will I no longer be able to hone (and own) my own mind, own body, own being? What if my navigational skills are tip top and my sight 20/20 (a metaphor for being individually stable-minded and holding high self-respect/esteem/interest/etc.), will I still miss the doors?


Ken said...

SF-- Let's face it: entering into a relationship changes a lot. A relationship is not "free"; it has costs--a surrendering of freedom and the stunting of personal development for starters. I'm sure opinions vary, but I feel it's best to focus on yourself before ceding a part of your life to someone else, at least in the developmental stages of one's life.

Anonymous said...

When is a non-developmental stage of one's life?

Ken said...

Anon-- Great point. I think the answer should be "Never." And I hope--to the day I die--that I'm ambitiously developing a skill, eagerly learning some new way of thinking, and pursuing some lofty goal. I do think, though, that a person is more easily molded in his/her younger years. While all stages of one's life could and should be developmental, I think it's especially important to be able to fashion oneself early on without the encumbrance of a mate who could stymie early progress.

I suppose I should also observe that a relationship doesn't mean that one's development automatically comes to an end. I've just noticed that--for whatever reason--ambition and the desire to improve myself wane when I'm with someone else. While I can imagine a scenario in which a partner--either directly or indirectly--compels his/her lover to better him/herself, I've yet to experience it.

With that said, while it may not be inevitable, I think that oftentimes one's development tends to slow down at a certain point in a relationship or marriage--perhaps when things get "comfortable." A widening waistband might be indicative of a mind going soft.