Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Skating and Basketball...

There was an evening of ice skating early on in my dating the man who would eventually become my husband. The public skate we attended was on a Sunday evening; I knew from experience that it was lightly attended, for I’d made my freestyle attempts there many times without being restricted to center-ice-with-the-ring-of-pylons. After circling around a few times, I told Dan (the aforementioned eventual-husband) that I’d likely have to break away here and there for a double salchow, or possibly a lutz…

“You have to?” he laughed. “You can’t just skate around like everyone else?”

I thought a moment before responding. “Would you head to the court with a basketball and never try to make a shot?”

He got it. I knew he would, for I was suddenly speaking his language. Dan played basketball throughout his elementary and high school years, much like I had trained as a figure skater (till age 13, anyway). And the sports DO have their similarities, with the biggest one being the way points are accumulated—especially nowadays with the “new” scoring system. Each time a jump is executed properly in competition, you get points. Each time a ball is tossed properly in basketball, it goes through the hoop… and you get points. If you shoot it from further away, you get more points (think of it as increased technical difficulty). And while there’s no “artistic mark” for basketball players, there’s a certain sort of rhythm and flow that happens with the best teams… and certainly accounts for a better overall game, especially if both teams have it. Even if you don’t know a zone defense from back court pressure (and trust me, I don't), a great basketball game can be poetic, magical, and most definitely pulse-pounding exciting.

At least, that’s how I see it. And I’ve seen a lot of it over the past 22 years. For that’s when I moved to Indiana… otherwise known as BASKETBALL COUNTRY. Here in Indiana, BASKETBALL is like a birthright… or maybe better said, a religion all its own. Hoops are almost as commonplace in domestic driveways as a crucifix over a Catholic’s doorway. The gymnasiums in which basketball games are played are downright sacred in some cases; historic, cavernous, and revered landmarks where the thump of an orange ball and the squeak of sneakers on a glossy hardwood floor can be as uplifting as a gospel chorus.

I didn’t get it when I first got here. I’d never attended a basketball game in high school, and only attended one in college. Baseball I “got” a little better, since my younger brother grew up to play professionally for 10 years. But when it came time for me, as a TV producer/director working for an independent station, to cover basketball games every Friday… I was lost. If I heard the commentators announce there’d been a turnover, I made a joke (to my crew on the headsets) about how I loved turnovers fresh out of the oven for dessert. Nobody laughed. Looking back, I don’t blame them.

But little by little I came to appreciate the sport. I still can’t play it to save my life, but I enjoy it. And respect it. And, maybe because of those parallels I sometimes draw to figure skating, even toyed with the idea of learning more about it.

That’s where the Butler Bulldogs come in.

You might have heard of them by now, as they’ve found their way to two NCAA Championship finals in as many years—absolutely unheard of for a school with only 4,400 students, and smaller budgets and accoutrements to match. Here in my neck of the woods, Butler is nonetheless BIG. Partly because its base is here, in the heart of BASKETBALL COUNTRY… about 20 minutes from my home. But mostly because the Bulldogs are a very special group of guys that tend to play with extreme rhythm, heart, and magic at the most pressing of times.

Until last night, that is. I’m not yet knowledgeable enough of the game to explain What Went Wrong myself… then again, those in the know can’t quite put their finger on it either. I thought of Janet Lynn going down twice in her SP at ’73 Worlds… and Michelle Kwan nearly sitting down on her triple flip in her 2002 Olympic FS… and Todd Eldredge imploding in Nagano in 1998.

And this morning, as I read articles like this one, I thought about Kurt Browning in particular. A three-time World Champion heading into the ’92 Games in Albertville, he finished a crushing 6th place. Then he remained a favorite two years later at the Lillehammer Olympics and still couldn't get anywhere near the podium, finishing 5th. I thought about the interview I did with Browning for the Skating on Air book, and him talking about trying to keep his emotions in check while being asked repeatedly “what happened?” by Canadian TV… and how he finally crumbled shortly thereafter when he saw his mom. I thought about Browning being just a few years older, at the time, than our Butler guys right now.

On the surface, the situations may not seem similar at all: an individual sport vs. a team sport, sequins vs. uniforms, four minutes on thin blades vs. 40 minutes on the court. But when you’re on the biggest stage your sport provides, looking for a righteous ending to your story—not once, but twice—and it somehow slips away… how different can the two situations really be?

Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Shawn Vanzant, Ronald Nored, Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall… they were part of a team’s team, if you will. They rose as one, again and again, throughout the past few weeks of the NCAA Tournament. And they fell as one Monday night. But like Browning, and Kwan, and other greats that have suffered similar fates… their brilliant contributions to the sport will linger long after their greatest disappointments have faded into the distance.

I should know—I’m hooked now. And as my husband will tell you, I have a whole lot more to learn.

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