Sunday, July 6, 2008

Off the Bench

The beauty of summer is that you hunt for things to do. It's as if the elastic in your life has suddenly given way, resulting in a hungry tent of fabric you need to find the flesh to fill. I comply: donuts, poetry, Spanish, basketball.

Basketball is Indiana's church. We're raised in it; we know its hymns and liturgies by heart; we're keenly aware of who follows the Game and who is wandering in the wilderness. I've been out in the cold for nearly a decade myself, and so it was with trepidation that, last night, after Lo, these many years, I reclaimed my pew. Seat 118 C, nosebleed section, Conseco Fieldhouse, to be exact, for an Indiana Fever home game.

I am more than no good at basketball. I am rotten. In high school gym class, I had my own special free-throw line. My father tried to teach me to play but eventually settled for taking me to games: if I couldn't dribble or shoot (or throw, or catch, or move down the court without tripping) I could at least negotiate the steps up to the balcony while taking a handful of popcorn decisively to the hole. (Not that popcorn was a part of our routine. Because it was expensive, popcorn was reserved for special occasions, specifically those nights my mother joined us at the game. My mother, who had graduated from Northwestern, insisted upon cheering, loudly, for her embarrassingly inept team. We fed her the popcorn to keep her quiet.)

There are things I'd forgotten about basketball. There's an aleatoric loveliness to it, a kind of composed chaos. One of a set of things can happen, leading to one of another set of of things, all of which combine to create a lilting yet savage melody crescendoing to that most satisfying of cadences, the basket. Ah, scrap that over-intellectualized bullshit: let's DUNK! Subsequent to an adequate screen plus an assist, of course.

My father would sit beside me and lean forward so his weight was on the balls of his feet. He'd mutter under his breath, sipping the water we'd smuggled in, and eventually work up to yelling at the refs. He wasn't the only one yelling, but it was still mortifying: a grown man, my father, possessed of a PhD and an otherwise impenetrable calm, pumping his fist and screaming things about the referees' parentage so graphic the words grabbed my imagination by the nape of the neck and shook. I was seven, ten, thirteen. I begged him to hush. I pulled at his shirt to make him sit down.

Conseco Fieldhouse is bigger than the arena of my youth. The music is louder. The players make a greater percentage of their free-throws. Maybe because we're still not used to watching women play, the arena is only half-full on the night I go, and the fans are a sedate bunch, nursing their beers and smiling tolerantly when you get up in the middle of the third quarter to go the bathroom. As for my father, he doesn't go to basketball games anymore. He's older now, and beginning to struggle with the daily games of life, with locating his keys and finding the words for things.

I'm older, too. In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Fever forward takes a half-court pass from the point guard and drives hard to the basket. The whistle blows. I'm on my feet, screaming: it's blocking, God damn it! You wouldn't know a charge if your mother gave birth to it! Because the scary thing isn't the yelling. It's when it stops.

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