Personal Statement: Basketball Diaries

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 6:18pm

.

Illustration by Emilie Farrugia

 

The best memory of my freshman year is the stupidest morning of my life.

It’s Feb. 23, 2014, and I’m lying on the floor while an alarm goes off before sunrise. Jacob and Kelly are together on my narrow lofted dorm bed. Katie and Leia are waking up in Max’s bed, on the opposite side of the room. Max is on our futon, trying to shut the alarm off. David and I are already awake — we didn’t sleep too well on the floor. Half of us have known each other since the beginning of high school, while the rest have become a part of our group through the random luck of freshman orientation and roommate pairings.

It’s the morning of our first Michigan-Michigan State basketball game. It’s 20 degrees outside, and the game doesn’t start for another six hours.

We walk south through a deserted Ann Arbor, already freezing, facing the prospect of more than four hours standing outside the gates of Crisler Arena, out on these stairs right next to the Big House with a few hundred other die-hards in this snowy weather, doing nothing more than hoping to see a win from the best seats in the building. Handwarmers are more valuable than diamonds this morning, and it’s not a question of whether or not you’ll lose all the feeling in your feet but rather if you can last another three hours after you do.

Eventually, the gates open, and once we get in we score a glorious spot right behind the Michigan bench as the players are warming up. I watch as the arena fills up around the student section, as I go from one of a few hundred to one of 12,000, and the noise and sense of anticipation builds and builds right until the opening tip-off.

And Michigan wins, 79-70. When I look back on the stats, I guess the Spartans were winning at halftime, but in my memory it’s the beautiful kind of victory that’s more of a party — where the outcome is always comfortably predetermined.

With two-and-a-half minutes left, Nik Stauskas dribbles up to the free throw line, stops and lofts a ball near the basket. From where I’m standing, I see Glenn Robinson III make a run from the corner, right in front of the bench, jump into the air and hang there for at least five seconds before coming down with a huge slam. If you watch the game film, you’ll see my jeans up at the very top of the screen. I crouch as Glenn starts to make his run, and I can see myself awkwardly jumping into the air as he brings the ball down. And I know that during this spasm, I’m screaming louder than I’ve ever screamed before — my body and brain glitching, because I’ve just seen something impossible.

In my three years at the University of Michigan I’ve developed these bizarre, totally one-sided relationships with all the UM basketball players. In one sense we’ve spent a ton of time together, because during the season, I’m just a few feet away from them several hours a week. I’ve committed to memory the exact form of Duncan Robinson’s three-point shot; the way Zak Irvin runs across the top of the key to take an off-balance two that always looks like a bad idea until it goes in; Mark Donnal’s calm, emotionless face after he blocks a shot; Mo Wagner’s scream from the bench after a big play.

I don’t think it’s weird to hear someone talk about Michigan sports like this, but rarely, at least in my generation, is it said about basketball. Basketball was an afterthought until very recently, and even now the 14,000-capacity Crisler Arena only hosts a few sell-outs a year.

Meanwhile, Michigan football draws more than 100,000 into the largest stadium in the country. They have a national celebrity for a coach, a fan base that won’t accept anything less than excellence and the most wins in college football history.

And actually, this year I don’t even have tickets.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had a lot of fun at football games, but a part of me used to dread every big Saturday. My best memories of football come from the lower-stakes games, like the lost, incompetently run season of my sophomore year, where the year’s premier home game against Penn State turned into an ESPN2 affair that barely anyone cared about.

But what made the game memorable to me was Dennis Norfleet, the Michigan kick returner. The contest itself was almost a parody of football — an ugly, every-inch-matters kind of grind-it-out win. But it was Norfleet’s night. Before every return, he had arranged for the stadium to play “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton, and while waiting for the kick he would stand out on the field all by himself and smoothly dance to it while the crowd went wild. Have you ever seen a guy dance by himself in front of 100,000 people? It’s unforgettable. The season was already lost, but after the win we still sang “Sweet Caroline” and entertained dreams of beating Michigan State next week.

But I’m burned out on football. I couldn’t do another season this year. Standing among the half-drunk while jostling for position in overcrowded bleachers doesn’t have the same appeal anymore, and if I’m being honest, I’ve just never felt comfortable among the mind-numbingly large numbers of Michigan Stadium.

In the Big House, I’m surrounded by people that I’m secretly afraid of — dudes who I don’t see on campus the other six days of the week yelling homophobic and sexist shit at the other team and the referees. Almost all of the time, I feel like I don’t belong, and if I stay, it’s only because the game is good enough to overcome these anxieties. I think I’ve left early from at least half of the Michigan football games I’ve attended.

I’ve struggled for years now to reconcile my pride as a queer person with my love of sports — an institution that, at least in its male varieties, is a pretty hostile space for non-straight dudes. Football, especially, is a place of old-school masculinity — a gladiator sport where the most valuable qualities in a player are toughness and fearlessness in the face of pain. In the bleachers, you’re far away from the action, cheering for helmets rather than faces.

But in basketball, players just wear sleeveless jerseys and shorts, and all their emotions are impossible to hide. It’s a sport in which you have to shoot over or glide through your opponent, not crush them to get what you want. There’s poetry in the teamwork and the improvisation, a beauty that’s so easy to love, even if you’re an outsider. And with fewer people watching — and nobody going just because the gravity of the event draws them in — it feels safer, more like a real community. The faces around me behind the Michigan bench are familiar, and I’m not as scared of wild, masculine anger forcing me to leave.

The group from my freshman year has changed since then, but still, I’ve been to almost all the games, suffering as nobly as possible through the defeats and cheering in unbelievable joy at the upset wins, the amazing plays from guys like Caris Levert and Derek Walton and the surprising star-making performances from guys like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

And it’s always been hard to describe to my other friends why this matters so much to me. Objectively, I know it seems incredibly stupid to wake up before sunrise and risk frostbite just to watch close-up as some of our peers play a game. But even if, like me, you’ve had enough of the anxiety caused by being surrounded by alcohol-and-adrenaline-filled men who might fear and hate you, taking a leap of faith and checking out basketball could be a wonderful experience. All that frostbite is worth it to see Glenn fly.