Dome and ball

Last week, in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, J and I took a day-trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, where we visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although many people think of baseball as being America’s pastime, I think basketball more truly deserves that honor. Invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a gym teacher who wanted an indoor game that could keep students at the YMCA Training School in Springfield occupied on rainy days, basketball is played by men and women of all ages across the United States and beyond. With nothing more than a peach basket, soccer ball, and thirteen simple rules, Naismith created a game with a now-global appeal.

James Naismith with his peach basket

On the drive to Springfield, J and I listed the reasons why basketball is our favorite sport. Basketball is interesting to watch at every level: whether you’re watching professional athletes in the NBA and WBNA, college amateurs, or schoolkids shooting one-on-one on the local playground, basketball is an engaging game. It’s an accessible sport: most schools and neighborhood playgrounds have basketball hoops, and if you live far from these, it’s easy to put a hoop on your garage or in your driveway. You can play basketball as part of a team, you can play one-on-one, or you can shoot hoops by yourself: all you need, really, is a ball and basket. And whereas other sports privilege particular body types, basketball players come in various shapes and sizes, from tall and skinny centers to short and speedy guards.

Bob Cousey can fly!

When I watch football or hockey, I can’t really imagine what it would be like to play those sports: I’m too small for the former and too klutzy for the latter. But even somebody short like me can learn the rudiments of shooting, passing, and dribbling: one of the pleasures of watching the NBA, in fact, is the glee of knowing even I can shoot free-throws better than some of the pros. Basketball is a team sport that leaves ample room for individual excellence, so there’s a certain joy that comes from watching a player who is on fire and in the zone, their shots tracing perfect trajectories and their footwork transcending the bounds of mere gravity.

In motion

Although the “Hoop Hall” in Springfield preserves objects reflecting the history and evolution of the game and its outstanding players, what I found most endearing was the basketball court on its first floor. While J and I started our visit on the third floor and worked our way down, admiring artifacts such as the game’s first shot clock and lots of enormous shoes worn by the pros, local children played on the court below us, shooting and dribbling and perfecting a game that for them isn’t about history; it’s a piece of the here and now.

Click here for more photos from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

Drive it up the court

On Friday night as we walked back from Boston College, where we’d gone to see a women’s basketball game, J asked me if I’d ever dreamed, back when I was a graduate student at BC, that a few decades later I’d be living part-time just a few miles from campus, walking to sporting events there. The answer is no.

DE-FENSE!

When I was a graduate student at Boston College in the early ’90s, I was married and hungry, starved for both food and affection. Those years were a crisis of faith for me: marriage was nothing like what I’d envisioned it to be, having believed the priests (celibates all!) who said both marriage and sex were sacred, sacramental things. Finding myself married, no longer virginal, and living some 700 miles from my family, I also found myself no closer to God–only poorer and more lonely–than I’d been in Ohio. I had no idea making a living could be so difficult and the slippery slope into hungry poverty so easy. The thought that I’d one day, only a few decades later, be well-fed, single and re-coupled, and living part-time in the very neighborhood I could have no way afforded at the time would have been literally unimaginable.

Jump ball!

I had no idea then–I literally could not have conceived the possibility–that I would someday find the courage (the willful audacity!) to divorce. The possibility would have horrified me then. I considered my marriage vows to be a sacred promise, unbreakable in any circumstance. And if I couldn’t manage to feed myself with the help of an employed spouse, how did I think I could feed myself on my own? Hunger is crippling not only to the body but also to the imagination. Given my crimped, impoverished belly, how could I have found the psychological strength to envision the possibility of abundance?

Rafters of glory

C.S. Lewis, like William Wordsworth before him, was surprised by joy, and in my life, I have been surprised by abundance. Yes, the Universe is ample and capable enough to bless you with not one but two lives, the second granted as a kind of amnesty: a chance to do better, this time, the things you did badly before. The Universe is ample and capable enough to find another way–one you’d never have envisioned–to give you things you never knew you needed in a place you never thought you’d be able to re-inhabit. Unimaginably, the Universe is rich in prizes and second chances, doling both out even to those of us who didn’t previously have the wherewithal to believe.

This is another lightly edited journal entry: more proof that a handwritten journal can be a boon to blogging. Click here for the complete photo-set of images from Friday’s night’s women’s basketball game at Boston College, the alma mater I never imagined I’d re-visit.

Eagle wings

It took me a while to get the symbolism. “Why are the band and cheerleaders trying to distract our free-throw shooters,” I wondered every time a member of the Boston College men’s or women’s basketball team went to the foul line and members of both the BC band and cheerleading squad crossed their hands and flapped their fingers.

Baldwin the Eagle

It’s a venerable tradition for basketball fans to do anything in their power to distract members of the opposing team as they’re taking foul shots, and BC fans are no different. At professional basketball games, fans will often wave distracting signs, balloons, or other props while the opposing team takes their foul shots. At last night’s Boston College men’s and women’s basketball double-header, the band was particularly vocal, offering catcalls whenever either opposing team–Central Connecticut in the men’s game and Saint Francis in the women’s–took free-throws. But why would the Boston College band and cheerleaders try to put a hex on their own team?

It finally dawned on me that the crossed hands and flapping fingers aren’t a distracting gesture: they’re eagle wings, intended as a sign of good luck to members of the BC Eagles as they take their foul-shots. “May the ball in your hands take flight like an eagle and fly right into the basket,” the flapping fingers seemed to say. Athletes and their fans are a superstitious lot, so any sign of good luck that seems to work must be a good thing. Last night, those flapping fingers apparently sent a lot of good luck the Eagles’ way as the men’s team beat Central Connecticut 80-65 and the women’s team beat Saint Francis University 99-68. Let’s keep those fingers flapping, Eagles fans!

Celtics win

“So, are you guys going to the game tonight?” This was the question the barista at our local Starbucks asked on Tuesday after seeing the Celtics ball-cap I was wearing when J and I walked into town for an afternoon caffeine break.

Ray Allen heavily guarded

“No such luck!” I responded. Although J and I went to a total of four Celtics home games this season, we didn’t even try to score any much-coveted tickets to the post-season games. In response to our admitting that we’d be watching Tuesday night’s NBA finals game between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers at home on TV, first one barista and then another helped compile a list of reasons why watching a championship game at home can be better being there. At home, you don’t have to fight claustrophobia-inducing throngs of fans. At home, you don’t have to stand in line to buy overpriced food and drink. At home, if someone spills beer on you, it’s your beer, not that of the person seated next to you. At home, there’s no chance the person seated next to you might be an obnoxious Lakers fan, and at home, you can go directly to bed right after the game is over.

Ray Allen in action

This collaboratively-composed list of reasons why it’s good to watch basketball games from home was inspired by the mere sight of the cap I was wearing when J and I walked into our local Starbucks. If you want a sure-fire way to generate conversation with anonymous strangers in sports-crazy Boston, simply wear a cap for whatever team is currently playing, especially if said team is in the midst of a championship run. Over the past month or so that the Celtics have been inching their way toward the NBA championship they won on Tuesday night, I’ve been deluged with basketball-related commentary from strangers on the T, bag-boys and cashiers at several grocery stores, and one rabid librarian at the Newton Free Library who gave me a high-five the day after Game 1 of Celtics/Lakers series, the game when Paul Pierce suffered what looked to be a season-ending knee injury only to return, all-but-miraculously healed, less than a quarter later.

You can't handle the Truth!

“I thought Paul Pierce was done for when they carried him off the floor,” the librarian explained. “And when he came back in the game, everyone at the Garden jumped up and started yelling, and so did I, in my living room at home!”

And so that’s exactly where J and I watched Tuesday night’s finale to the NBA finals: on the couch at home, in front of J’s wide-screen, high-definition TV. And although we, unlike fans at the Garden, had the luxury of going to bed right after the Celtics finished their complete annihilation of the Lakers (final score, 131-92), we didn’t. We had to stay up for at least part of the post-game coverage, staying glued to the screen until we saw all the necessary elements of a properly happy ending for our favorite basketball team.

Somebody stop Chauncey!

Tuesday night, I couldn’t go to bed until I’d seen Kevin Garnett hug my all-time favorite Celtic, eleven-time NBA championship winner and basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell. I couldn’t go to bed until I’d seen Celtics coach Doc Rivers actually–finally!–hold the shiny gold trophy he’d refused to touch until his team had officially won the right. I couldn’t go to bed until I’d seen Ray Allen, the perfect picture of mental focus as he’d nailed an astonishing number of three-point shots in Tuesday night’s game after having lost a weekend’s worth of sleep at his young son’s hospital bedside, hold that same son before cameras and thronging fans. And on Tuesday night, there was no way I was going to bed until I’d seen Paul Pierce claim the series MVP trophy he so rightfully deserves for his ongoing commitment to his team (injured knees be damned!) throughout this series, this season, and the past ten years.

Nobody can guard KG

An NBA championship game is only partially about basketball, championships, and bubbling bottles of champagne. An NBA championship game is also about endings: happy endings for the winning team, bittersweet endings for the losers. If you’ve ever stayed up past your bedtime with a good book because you had to see how it would end–and if you’ve ever felt a bit sad when you’d finished a good book because you know “The End” means saying goodbye to your favorite characters–then you know how J and I felt on Tuesday night. The Celtics’ victory over the Lakers was the perfect ending to storybook season, with a team we’d rooted for even when they ranked at the bottom of the league last year crawling back into playoff contention and ultimately winning it all. “Now there’s no more basketball,” J noted glumly after Tuesday night’s game. Now it’s time to say goodbye, for now, to the the cast of characters we’ve spent so many evenings cheering from the couch: Doc on the sidelines, Rondo zipping around the legs of giants, Big Baby or Powe coming off the bench to get physical on defense, Perkins looking mad and mean in the face of any opponent.

Where team unity happens

It’s entirely silly to grow attached to a group of guys you’ve watched grow together as a team for an entire season, and it’s even sillier to continue rooting for a team that hasn’t won a championship since the ’80s, before I’d moved to Boston and began cheering for the Celtics. But it’s entirely silly, too, to lose your heart to the imaginary characters in books, and it’s even sillier to hold your breath, excited and expectant, as you await the promised sequel in your favorite fictional series.

As social animals, we humans love stories about other humans, and as physical beings, at least part of us thrills at the sight of the physical mastery of a polished and poised dancer, an adroitly agile acrobat, or a well-conditioned athlete. As an admitted admirer of any well-told story, on Tuesday night I had to stay awake until a story I’ve watched for over a decade came to its fitting and well-earned end. Today in Boston, the Celtics held an amphibious rolling rally to celebrate their 17th NBA championship, but I decided not to fight the claustrophobia-inducing throngs of celebrating fans. Tuesday night’s happy ending to this present saga was good enough for me, and I’ll be back on the couch in October, ready to enjoy next season’s sequel as the Celtics try for another banner year.

Smokey rafters with banners

Since J and I watched Tuesday’s game from home, today’s photos are recycled from the four regular season games we went to this year. Now that the Celtics are champions again, we realize it will be much harder to get tickets to home games. But that’s okay: our couch is really quite comfortable.

Glen 'Big Baby' Davis rallies the crowd

Normally, if a guy the size of Glen “Big Baby” Davis got right in my face and started screaming, I’d probably have a heart attack. But when “Baby” appears in excited, larger-than-life glory on the JumboTron at a Boston Celtics home game to rally the crowd, fans don’t get scared: they get loud.

Battle of the wide-bodies

On Wednesday night, J and I watched Big Baby and the rest of the white-hot Celtics stomp the Phoenix Suns at the last home game we have tickets for this season. What I love about attending basketball or other sports events (as I’ve argued before) is the way the emotions of the game completely erase whatever worries or concerns I bring with me to the arena. Watching sports on TV can be similarly cathartic, but there’s something about being in an enormous arena with a sellout crowd of other rabid fans that works wonders for one’s stress levels. It’s possible, I’ve learned, to read student papers while watching televised sports; Stan Lombardo, for instance, once admitted that he worked on his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey while watching college basketball on TV. But grading papers or translating Greek classics just isn’t feasible if you’re actually at a basketball game. If you’re actually attending a professional or college basketball game, it would give a whole new meaning of March Madness even to try to squeeze in some work.

Like pushing a wall

The ancient Greeks, of course, were the first to argue that drama is cathartic, and the ancient Greeks were equally fond of sports: they are, after all, the inventors of the collective catharsis we call the Olympics. I suppose on Wednesday night I could have set down my grading pen in order to watch a play…but they typically don’t let you scream, swear, and stomp your feet at plays. Drama can be psychologically cathartic because you become subsumed in the emotions of others: watching Medea poised to kill her children, for instance, you might re-visit every hellish break-up or desire for revenge you’ve ever experienced. But both watching and (especially) reading plays is essentially a quietly passive act: the actors on the stage or the characters on the page are doing something, but you as viewer or reader are “active” only in your own engaged mind.

Baby takes a shot

For me, the most powerful emotions involve motion. When I have something troubling on my mind, I could sit down and try to mental it out…or I could go for a brisk walk and let my feet do my thinking. If watching a film or play offers emotional release by taking you out of yourself long enough to empathize with the concerns of fictitious characters, sporting events are equally cathartic with the added benefit of bodily involvement. No, can’t “participate” in an NBA game by jumping from your seat and taking to the hardwood to give the home team a hand…but the players, coaches, referees, and even arena security guards don’t expect you to spend the entire game completely silent and spellbound in your seats.

At least one of my sisters and several of my friends who are big-time film buffs would probably be dismayed to hear me admit it, but I actually have a difficult time sitting still for even the most engrossing movie: even my Zen school, with its emphasis on sitting meditation, expects practitioners to remain seated for only about thirty minutes at a stretch before getting everyone up for walking meditation. Does it come as a surprise, then, that I actually prefer walking to sitting meditation, and that my favorite form of collective catharsis isn’t sniffling through a sad movie but leaping to my feet to scream over a great play or swear over a bad call?

In other words, when none other than Kevin Garnett appears on the Celtics JumboTron exhorting fans to GET ON YOUR FEET…

Get on your feet!

…I am very grateful to comply. Yes, sir!

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Emotions. I shot the JumboTron images of Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett at the Celtics vs. Pistons game on March 5; the rest of today’s images come from Wednesday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns.

Ray Allen heavily guarded

There’s no dramatic reason why I haven’t been posting much lately; it’s just that Real Life has been playing me close and in my face.

Baby grabs a rebound

Today J and I went to see the Boston Celtics play the San Antonio Spurs: my much-anticipated birthday present. One thing I enjoy about watching sports is the way a good game takes you completely outside yourself. For four full quarters, you concentrate every speck of attention on a handful of guys trying to shoot an orange ball through a round hoop. For the duration of the game, you aren’t thinking about the housework, unanswered emails, or unwritten blog-posts you left at home; instead, you and an entire arena of strangers are united in one single endeavor: Us Against Them.

In real life, both of my semesters are in full swing, so I have the usual papers to read, classes to prepare, and a recommendation or two to write. J’s been sick with the cold I almost avoided, and my apartment back in Keene is in dire need of a thorough cleaning. I remembered yesterday that it was my nephew’s birthday: too late (again) to get a card and check to him on time. None of these things are exceptional: all of them are simply Real Life getting in my face and playing my “game” for all it’s worth. Am I up for the challenge?

Powe defends Duncan

It’s easy enough to shoot an orange ball through a round hoop when no one’s guarding you, but how’s your game when you have a defender in your face talking trash? Life, it seems, is no different. I could keep up with my classes at Keene State if I didn’t teach online, and I could keep an immaculate apartment in Keene if I didn’t spend weekends with J in Newton. If I didn’t teach, I’d have have time to mail birthday cards, and if I didn’t go to basketball games, I’d have time to blog.

But how less rich, nuanced, and diverse would my life be if I eliminated any one of these endeavors? If I didn’t teach, have relationships, and go to basketball games, what would I write about? Watching any player–even a superstar–shooting hoops on an empty court is far more boring than watching a close game between well-matched opponents; it’s the competition and challenge that add both suspense and savor. If I weren’t double-teamed by the players called Time and Real Life, how boring would it be to watch me shoot metaphoric hoops alone and unguarded?

Baby covers Duncan

In today’s big game against the defending NBA champions, the Celtics relied heavily on their bench players as starters Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins are both out with injuries. In post-game coverage, Celtics coach Doc Rivers explained how he prepared Boston rookie Glen “Big Baby” Davis for his match-up with veteran Spurs superstar Tim Duncan. “We had to remind him that Duncan is really good,” Rivers noted. “What we told Glen was, ‘He’s taller than you. You’re heavier than him. You’re not going to grow today.'” Instead of focusing on Duncan’s extra inches, Doc Rivers suggested, Davis should focus on his strengths as a wide-body: “[B]ecause you have a low center of gravity, get into his legs and try to push him off the block. You can’t get frustrated.'”

Everyone occasionally needs a good coach to set them straight, and Doc Rivers is as good as they come. As much as I’d like to school those double-teaming defenders called Time and Real Life, I’m not going to grow any extra inches, an extra brain, or an extra grading eye today or any other day. Instead, I come back to my center of gravity, settle into my own legs, and try to push Time off the block. Given the multiple demands of Real Life, I can’t get frustrated.


Click here
for a handful of mostly blurry photos from today’s game, including several showing Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis watching court-side as the Celtics beat the Spurs 98 – 90.

Over Red's dead body

The Boston Celtics were the last team in the NBA to get cheerleaders (pardon me, “dancers”) because Celtics icon Red Auerbach thought pretty pompom girls were a distraction from the game. According to one account, Red’s exact response to the question of when the C’s would get cheerleaders was “over my dead body”; in another, Red claimed the Celtics organization was “just waiting for me to die so they can get cheerleaders.”

Well, Red’s dead, they named the TD Banknorth Garden’s parquet floor after him, and now there are dancers striking poses over Red Auerbach’s signature. Rest in peace, Red. As for me, I was watching the score during a pivotal fourth quarter time-out last night, not the scantily clad women rolling around on Red’s floor.

Click here for a photo-set of images from last night’s loss to the Detroit Pistons. Personally, I think those sexy Celtics girls jinxed the game when they danced onto the floor at the exact moment the Pistons stole the Celtics’ lead and never gave it back. Call me old-school, but I believe basketball is about fundamentals, not fancy, ass-shaking frills.