It’s a March thing. It’s a mad thing.
And for us, it’s a family thing.
In the state of my birth, with its blue-tinged grass, honey-colored Bourbon, and the fried chicken that conquered the world, basketball reigns supreme. Oh, sure, we love the Boys of Fall (especially this past year). And we did, after all, bring the world its quintessential baseball bat, the venerable Louisville Slugger. And yes, of course, our blazing-fast horses are the stuff of story and song—true, all true– but basketball is rooted in the marrow of our bones. Like so many states, we have a bifurcated soul for college sports, but there is no house divided in my family. We stand solidly within the unfettered boundaries of the Big Blue Nation (BBN), the admittedly maniacal fan tribe of the University of Kentucky. And when March rolls around in the Big Blue Nation, attention must be paid. Because they don’t call it Madness for nothing.
As luck would have it, a prime tournament game fell this late March week on an evening when Buddy and Sis were visiting overnight. How to maneuver this, I wondered, reaching back in memory, trying to recall how early I watched basketball. Must have been REALLY early, because I can’t remember not watching, any more than I can remember a spring without daffodils, dogwoods, or the Kentucky Derby. Two options emerged for Elite Eight night: offer the kids a movie in the other room, or take a shot at wrapping them into the fold. I tested this concept with preliminary market research and found that terminology may still be rolling up the learning curve, but the core concept is definitely rooted.
Hey, guys, there’s a big game on after dinner, I begin. Basketball, our Kentucky Wildcats. Wanna watch it with me?
“Nah,” Buddy responds, shaking his head. “I’m not much for that.” As I take a breath to formulate Plan B, he continues, “I really like March Madness. Can we watch that?”
That’s it! I affirm in relief. That’s what I mean. The Wildcats are playing in March Madness. Big game. Go Cats! Right?
“GO CATS!” echo the two young nascent fans, Tennessee transplants but, like their G-ma, Kentucky natives. So, I dig in the closet for extra Kentucky t-shirts, rustle up some snacks, and we settle in for tip-off.
We played the late game, with tip-off near their usual bedtime, even on a weekend. I remind myself to be flexible if they can’t hang, but the raucous game holds its own attractions. The speed alone was probably enough to keep them riveted, with the added bonus of the satisfying little flashing indicator in the lower corner of the screen each time the ball hit net.
Watch those numbers at the bottom of the screen, I urge, watch how fast they change. Look! We got a basket; what’s the score now? See that guy shoot the ball from so far away? He gets extra points for that. Three!
Buddy studied the action as the three-pointer was answered almost immediately by a snaking blitz down court and a slam dunk. The magnificence of this electrifying leap was undervalued in his reason-driven, eight-year-old brain. “It seems like that should get four points,” he observed thoughtfully, eyes still glued to the action as the young superstar hung briefly on the basket then dropped back to terra firma.
During a timeout, I keep up the patter, pointing out the sea of blue in the arena. See those folks? They’re all for the Wildcats, just like us. Hear them cheering? Later when the TV camera zooms in on the angry, swearing face of the opposing coach, I seek to divert. Look, that’s funny, he’s wearing a blue shirt, I note. That’s our color.
Sis frowns with palms up in question mode, head cocked. “That’s weird. It looks like he’s voting for us.”
Meanwhile, the family basketball commentary extends over state lines, and reaches up into global airspace. My brother, sister, brother-in-law and I, ardent fans all, often maintain a running, four-way text commentary on the status of the game. After I fire off a confirmation that we are watching in Nashville, I get a return confirmation from the sister and brother-in-law in Central Kentucky, though I have forgotten that my brother and his wife left that afternoon for a vacation in Europe. No matter! Citizens of the BBN always find the game, somewhere somehow, and sure enough, here buzzes a text from the jetliner, high above the Atlantic, bound for Paris. “This in-flight internet is the best $20 I ever spent,” says Brother, taking up his thread in the text conversation while streaming the game. “GO CATS!”
When the opposing team starts to close the gap, narrowing our lead, Buddy seeks to needle me by cheering for their progress and watching my reaction. As I try to silence this with a frown, he tries out adult logic again. “It’s just a GAME,” he says, placatingly.
There can be only one response here: Not to me, not to Wildcat fans. You have to understand, I try to explain—this was my school, where I went to college, and where your mother went, and your father went to law school, and your great aunt and uncle…on the litany goes. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with memories, bouncing atop one another. Sitting in the student section with free tickets, so close to the floor you heard the sneakers squeak. Scoring lottery student tickets to the Final Four my senior year in college, and the dizzying euphoria when the championship fell to us. The names of every starter on that team. Years earlier, sitting on the floor in front of the TV in the little paneled den at home, a young teen watching records smashed, a tradition built one championship flag after another. Something to cheer for, to look forward to, to speculate on, to scream about, something that transcends so many boundaries. Something that still peaks every year in March, still infuses unbridled anticipation. Just a game? Never. Not in my house—this last is delivered with a wink.
But it is half time now, and that means bed time for my two fellow watchers. “Tell me what happens,” Buddy pleads, and I promise I will. After I tuck them in with their bedtime books in the adjacent room, I am reduced for the second half to pounding the couch cushion and flinging arms into the air silently, hoping not to keep them awake as the game rolls to a breathtaking close. At last, a Wildcat victory is secure.
Checking on them one last time for the night, I stroke Buddy’s thick blonde bangs briefly, thinking he is asleep. The blue eyes pop open for just a second as he whispers sleepily: “How much did we win by?”
Four, I whisper back. Four points. His eyes widen in triumph, there is a very brief, -small smile, and he turns face back to pillow. But I’ll take that as a sign. Another fan in the ranks, the new generation.