Photo courtesy of Steve McPherson
I am wearing a basketball jersey. As someone who writes about basketball and has never played organized basketball, this is a rarity for me. I’m wearing it because it was the only way to get my two-year-old daughter to wear hers to her first basketball game; I was leveraging the well-known rule for two-year-olds of “same-same.” Both jerseys are Ricky Rubio replicas, in the Timberwolves’ road blue.
I own some other official NBA merchandise -- a mostly complete accounting: one black Kirilenko road jersey bought on sale at the end of last season; one fitted Timberwolves hat bought shortly before I started writing about basketball; a grab bag of hats and jerseys bought over a decade ago when I first got into the game -- but the only item I wear regularly at all is a Seattle Supersonics fitted. I figure with that I’m safe. As an ex-musician, I don’t wear NBA gear for basically the same reason I would never wear my own band’s shirt. It’s not cool, man -- it’s for fans.
So am I not a fan anymore? I know my daughter is not going to understand most of what happens at the game, but I want to give her the chance to be near it, and become enmeshed in it. After all, we don’t fall in love with live basketball, at least not at first, because of beautiful down screens or crisp defensive rotations or true shooting percentages. It’s the atmosphere that does it, the feeling of being gathered into something bigger and stronger than oneself. It’s something I almost can’t even see anymore, except through her.
After a drowsy mid-afternoon drive, she is lifted from her carseat and set down inside a skyway teeming with people, some of them wearing shirts just like hers. She rides on my shoulders and high-fives the guy whose job it is to hype up the people coming through the big double doors. In quick succession, she meets the people at the media desk, a writer friend of mine, and the people who take our tickets. She rides an escalator. Each of these counts as incident, maybe even as exciting. And then we’re in the cavernous bowl of the Target Center.
I point some things out: the dancers on the court for the pre-game entertainment, the basketballs being wheeled onto the court. But her attention is drawn everywhere at once, before she settles on finding every Timberwolves logo she can see. “Timberwolf,” she tells me.
Once the game starts, she tells me other things. “It’s basketball.” “They’re running.” “Daddy knows it.” (Not sure where she got the last idea.) She’s not the only one learning new things, either. At one point, the guy behind me leans over and asks, “Who’s the head coach?” Of the Suns? Jeff Hornacek. “Of the Timberwolves.” Oh: Rick Adelman.
This is a thing I can’t even consider not knowing. And I am not a beat writer, not even in the deep end of statistical analysis of the game, yet I still have a hard time not drilling down into the same things possession after possession, a hard time not watching off-ball movement or keying in on the way a certain player floats for a baseline cut or dives harder than another off the pick and roll. At this point, basketball for me is relentlessly and irreducibly granular, every facet of it fighting for significance against every other one. I’ve got the self-appointed job of distilling it, figuring out what it’s all trying to say, of learning more and more. I am trying to know it better and better.
Along the way, I’ve very nearly filtered out every bit of pageantry that comes along with the live experience of the game. I frequently forget the Wolves even have dancers. The in-arena host is just a minor irritant. I often sit right through the halftime entertainment and couldn’t tell you what it was thirty seconds after it’s finished. I generally have no idea where in the arena Crunch is at any given moment. There is only so much attention to give, and that is not where I put mine.
But when Crunch comes close to our seats, my daughter notices. She sits on my lap and when she sees him, she turtles closer to me and I say, “That’s Crunch! He’s friendly.” “He’s a wolf,” she says, not fearful, just factual. I ask her if she wants to meet him.
“No,” she says and turns her head away, flattening it against my chest. It had been the same with Santa, with the Easter Bunny. When he moves away, she watches him go warily.
The limits of a two year old’s attention span send us home at halftime, but as we walk back to the parking garage in the now almost deserted skyway, she says, “Crunch.”
“Did you see Crunch?” my wife asks.
“Yeah,” my daughter says, now happy. “Crunch. He’s a wolf.”
There’s a lot of value in learning about the game. The learning itself is thrilling, as in most any discipline. Suddenly seeing things in a new way, developing that ability to spot where the ball’s about to go or gaining that quickfire sense of when a foul is about to be called and who it’s on: these things are fun and -- as Dr. Seuss would remind us -- fun is good. But the game that’s being played on the floor floats suspended in a sea of experiences that serious sports fans deem tangential or extraneous. Yet, for many fans, it’s all the game.
The next morning as I get her dressed for school, she spots the wadded up jersey where it still sits at the foot of her changing table. “Timberwolf,” she says.
Even if we forget it sometimes, there’s more to basketball than the basketball. There are millions of things, all teeming and lit up with various vibrations, resonances that reach back into the places where the game first took hold. It may be that my daughter will never love basketball, but I hope she loves the world. I hope she never stops wanting to learn about it without ever completely forgetting how it feels at the very beginning.