I adore Bill Raftery. He condenses basketball joy into lofty nonsense and pithy sublimities. “Lingerie on the deck!”; “A bottle of blackout!”; “Walter at the Altar: High Mass!” His pronouncements more or less demand the uncomfortable term “ejaculation;” when Raftery shouts, “The bounce…to ecstasy!” it doesn’t feel like hyperbole. You know all this. It is part of why everyone loves Bill Raftery.
But Raftery’s greatest call, the one he reserves for the biggest shots in the biggest moments, is “Onions!” I have long loved Onions! in a way that is not entirely rational, because Onions! is not entirely rational. An onion is a vegetable. It is quite literally of the earth; one must pluck it from the soil to enjoy it. It is pungent when raw and sweet when cooked. It is a quotidian foodstuff to a privileged westerner who needn’t worry about the arrival of his next meal.
And yet Raftery has taken that onion, multiplied or divided it, and made it a thing of celebration. Jesus fed the multitudes with fish and bread; Raftery feeds us with onions.
Onions! was never the secret word on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but it probably should have been. You see, Onions!, like those secret words, is an arbitrary dictionary entry become a source of joy because someone committed to it with love. Pee-Wee rejected society’s bigotries by creating a playhouse of pure, happy madness. Onions! is a similar act of defiance, rising above the authoritarian, retrograde bullshit of college sports like an escaped prisoner who has inhaled enough helium to fly away and then manages to use his newfound funny voice to talk the element out of poisoning him.
So imagine my disappointment when I learned that Raftery conceived of Onions! as just another way of saying “big balls.” (I pause here for you to scoff at my density and/or naivete.) Could this Dadaist mantra really be just another way for an old-guard guy in a suit to say that someone “manned up”?
No, it cannot. The NCAA is about nothing if not gerrymandering; notions of amateurism, payment, and compliance are all defined by comically squiggly lines. Therefore, I will use those same squiggles to castrate Onions!
Henceforth, Onions! will not evoke imagery of testicles, nor a worldview in which excellence is equated with being a be-testicled man. Onions! will just evoke onions. Personally, I like to think of them sizzling in a skillet.
An extraterrestrial creature brought to earth for the first time might take a look around and determine, quite reasonably, that nearly everything it sees is not onions. So when we encounter onions, why should we try to make them something else?
Let onions be onions. Onions!
Important Raftery/Onions GIF via SB Nation.