March Madness

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This morning I woke to news reports about the loss of national productivity during the upcoming NCAA basketball tournaments.  Workers absorbed with the post-season pour over spread sheets and compare records of Missouri and Pittsburgh. Will Ohio State take it all?  Will President Obama’s predictions somehow tip the scales?  Will Brittney Griner take Baylor to the top of the women’s game?

A few minutes ago, I called to check on a ride home for later today.  I’m on a train returning from a speaking engagement in Baltimore.  “The train’s on time,” I said.  “Looks like I’ll be at Amherst station at 4:30.”

Silence on the other end. “What did you say?” a distracted voice replied.  “I can’t talk now!  We’re filling out our brackets. Can you call back?”

I heard someone yelling in the background. “Jean, who do you have in the Georgetown—Notre Dame game?”

Sure hope I get picked up at 4:30

Obsessions amuse me. I’m all for them. In fact, just the other day I was in a conversation about “Magnificent Obsessions” and mentioned a house I look for every spring. It’s along Route 47 in Western Massachusetts, a lovely stretch of road that winds past loamy farmland along the Connecticut River.  About this time of year, I look for a regiment of white chairs that begin appearing on a certain wrap-around porch.  The chairs are the Magnificent Obsession of an elderly farm woman who places about ten of them at equal distance all around the porch’s perimeter. I’ve never seen anyone sitting in the chairs and the way they are staggered–one chair, five feet of empty space, another chair, five feet of empty space, another chair—would make it awkward for two or three people to talk comfortably.  A friend of mine describes this kind of line-up as “Elks Club Seating.”

I love the White Chairs of Route 47 because they are such a harbinger of spring. I drive by and imagine the old woman looking out the window and smiling. “It’s warmer,” she says to herself. “The snow is melting. Time to get the chairs from the cellar!”

When I was asked about my own Magnificent Obsessions in that conversation a few days ago, I had to confess that I have some: Emily Dickinson, the perfect chicken salad sandwich (grapes, walnuts, celery and very light on the mayo—PLEASE!), pots of coleus–especially a variety called Inky Fingers, and the Lady Vols basketball team at the University of Tennessee.

I’ve been an admirer of the great Lady Vols’ coach Pat Summit for a long time.  Summitt is the winningest coach in all of college basketball—men’s and women’s.  Eight national championships, .841 winning percentage, Basketball Hall of Fame, Naismith Coach of the Century.  Her coaching performance is unparalleled.

But what I really admire about Summitt is her trailblazing effort to increase opportunities for women in sports.  As a pre-Title IX baby, I believe strongly that sports are a vehicle for social change.  The more opportunities we have for women on the courts, the diamonds and athletic fields, the more we challenge stereotypes and move the world forward.

The graduation rate for all of Pat Summitt’s athletes isn’t bad either. Of the Lady Vols who complete their eligibility at the University of Tennessee, 100% graduate. Pat has her priorities and her rules. When you play for her, you must sit in the first three rows of every class you attend. “Pay attention,” Summitt says. To everything.

So, when a big birthday came up for me a few weeks ago—one of those “odometer changes,” if you know what I mean—my Magnificent Obsession for the Lady Vols took on unprecedented focus.

Last fall, this Lady-Vols-Obsessed-Women’s-Basketball-Watching-Wacko was the winning bid at a sports auction for item number 17:  “A Day with Pat Summitt.”

My heart be still!

On February 10, we flew down to Tennessee for a full day with the Lady Vols. I watched afternoon shoot-arounds, listened to scouting reports, studied film of the competition, toured the facilities, shared dinner with the team and took my place behind the bench for a game against Florida. For that evening, I was guest coach.

Did I mention I’m a pre-Title IX baby? What that means is that while I love basketball, I know very little about how it’s played.  My gym classes at McCluer Senior High in Florissant, Missouri never included strategy or chalkboard sessions.  Basketball meant that we ran up and down the court in our blue gym suits and tried to get to ball as soon as possible to Sue Brown. Sue was tall. “Just get it to Sue!” someone always yelled, snarled in a knot of sweaty arms.  That’s all I really know about the game.

Since the Lady Vols don’t have one player named Sue, my usefulness as guest coach had its limits.

At halftime, I went with the team into the locker room. This was the moment I was waiting for. For years, I have heard stories about Summitt’s locker room tirades. “This is a 40-minute game!” she would yell.  “You’ve got to play with intensity!”  “If I asked you to go to the store for milk, you’d bring back orange juice.  Pay Attention!”

Then there is Pat Summitt’s stare.  I couldn’t wait to see it. Summitt’s stares are the stuff of legend. Withering. Devastating. I wondered if I would cry.

But when the coaches’ door opened and Pat marched out, stat sheet gripped tightly in hand, there was no epic eruption.  Even though we were up by 20 points, she still was not satisfied. There was plenty of stern talk. Pat was disgusted with turnovers and laid down the law about the team needing to talk to each other on the court. I wondered if she had heard me yell, “Just get it to Sue!”

I think Pat is ignoring me.

We won the game.  Pat shook my hand. When I returned home, I realized I didn’t get one photograph of Pat and me.  I guess I never wanted to stop the action long enough to snap a picture. I wanted every minute to go on and on.

And maybe that’s the thing about Magnificent Obsessions. They aren’t about purpose. They aren’t about function. The White Chairs of Route 47 are not meant for sitting.

Magnificent Obsessions are all about abandon. We spin out of control. We go mad. For an all too brief moment, we unleash our most joyful selves.

So, ladies and gentlemen, get out your pencils and fill in those NCAA basketball brackets. In the Women’s Final Four, I’m hoping for the BIG rivalry: Connecticut against Tennessee.  This afternoon when I get off the train, I think I’ll play a trick on my neighbors who are passionate UConn fans. I’ll put an autographed photo of Pat Summitt in their mailbox.

Sweet!

And you know what that basketball lovin’ Emily Dickinson once wrote, don’t you?

A little Madness in the Spring

Is wholesome even for the King

One Response to “March Madness”

  1. Tinky says:

    I adore this post, particularly since I used to live in Tennessee (although it took me a while to realize that the team’s name was not pronounced “voles”). And I can identify with “Just Get It to Sue.”

    When I played basketball in gym class in high school I was always a guard because (a) I am a shrimp and (b) I am uncoordinated but (c) I am very fierce looking.

    One day I a girl on the other team and I were doing a jump shot or whatever it’s called, where you both try to jump up at the same time and hit the ball.

    Because I am so short her elbow hit my eye and I ended up with a black eye.

    People kept asking about it, and I got sick of explaining. So just as a joke I told one of my classmates that our drama coach had hit me during a rehearsal.

    I did NOT expect to be taken seriously.

    The next thing I knew the editor of the school paper was planning on putting out a special edition to expose this abusive teacher.

    I fessed up, and there was no edition of the paper. But my red face is what I think of when I think of basketball.

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