My name is Sallie, and I am a basketball fanatic.
I blame my mother. About the time I was entering my early teens, I recall how surprised I was to find my serious, book-reading mother occasionally watching University of Kentucky basketball games on TV. I don’t remember her talking about basketball much, but she had taken me to a few high school games, where my cousins starred. Up until that point, though, I hadn’t thought of her as someone who watched sports on television. At the time, I was devoted to Wide World of Sports and broadcasts of the Olympic games, but no one in my household was a fan of professional sports. I couldn’t imagine how my mother had the patience for such a tedious, and to me at the time boring, pursuit.
But I took notice. Basketball was not frivolous. Her interest had given it a certain heft.
When I was in college, UK won a national championship. Shortly afterward, so did the University of Louisville. My interest was piqued again. When home for the holidays, I watched what games were available. I started developing loyalties and interest in the players.
By the time I went to graduate school in Chapel Hill, N.C., I was hooked. While there, UNC and N.C. State won championships. I adored Jim Valvano. Some guy with an unpronounceable name had just started coaching at nearby Duke, trying to pull that team up from the bottom of the heap. Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, and Brad Daugherty wandered in and out of the foreign languages building where I taught. I was mesmerized.
Settling back in Kentucky after school, there was almost no way to avoid full basketball fanaticism. It was all around me. It was what I had in common with the majority of people I encountered. Some were suspicious of me because I rooted for both UK and UofL. But I was a pure college basketball fan. If a team was on TV and the players had signs of talent, I was interested. I was awed by their athleticism. By their tenacity. By their skill.
If you know me at all, you’ve probably heard me say, “God gave Kentuckians basketball to help us through our dark, dreary winters.” Why else would the typical college basketball season begin when the time changes in November and end in April, just as we’re all busting to get back outside?
Some of my friends still have trouble reconciling that someone who loves a good book and a classical music concert also loves college basketball. Thankfully, I have a handful of cousins who are just as diverse in their interests as I am. During this strange basketball season and the unexpectedly exciting men’s NCAA tournament, my cousins and I have connected from our homes in two different (rival) states. It’s been sheer delight watching their take on the games: the scientist who’s crunching the stats in real-time; the former player who’s questioning the coach’s call or the offensive set; the UofL and IU grad who’s trying to remain loyal to his alma maters and the Big Ten while honoring his Kentucky roots; and me, the simple-minded humanist who’s interested in the characters and the drama that’s playing out on the floor. While my cousins are breaking down plays, I’m texting “Woohoo! What a pass.” I don’t see the intricacies of the game; but I do see effort, determination, teamwork, and joy.
Another basketball season is about to end. I have a favorite team in the Final Four whose players unexpectedly earned my love and devotion only a month ago. The two teams I followed all season never even made it into the tournament. Initially I thought that meant I’d have a March free to do other things, but I surprised even myself. I adapted. I watched the games because I find beauty in the athletes’ ability. It makes me happy. And these days, that’s the only reason I need to invest some time in front of the TV.
P.S. Before you ask, of course I’m an equally avid fan of the women’s game! I’ll pull for our SEC arch-rival South Carolina in the Final Four, even though it hurts just a bit.