Back Away from the Hoop and No One Will Get Hurt

13 01 2011

I will be the first one to admit that as much as I admire and attempt to embrace moderation in my life, I struggle to avoid going over the edge on everything from buying fly fishing equipment that I may never use to ordering too many varieties of garden seed to persuading myself that I need a Les Paul to eating sweets–I don’t want just a piece of cherry pie, I want the whole damned pie.  I can look back at my life and see a pattern of over-extension, over-indulgence and pushing things to and quite often beyond the limit.  I suspect I could have very easily become an addict on many different levels if not for the influence of some good people in my life.

It wasn’t until about twenty years ago that I even considered my perspective on life may not be one based in moderation.  I was like the woman who looked at the size 10 dress hanging on the mannequin in the department store window and thought it would look twice as pretty in a size 20.  As the 12-steppers know, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  And, before you can admit you have a problem you must be aware of it on a conscious level.

That awareness was, in one way or another, either the cause or the effect of my midlife crisis.  Unlike some guys I know, my midlife crisis did not manifest itself in the form of a red sports car and a flat-bellied 22 year old.  I sold my businesses and became a high school teacher.  No moderation in that decision either; talk about an extreme life change.

Anyways, as I have evolved/matured/slowed down/mellowed over the last couple of decades, I have learned to manage my compulsion to go over the top.  I don’t always succeed but the number of times I have lost it in recent years has greatly diminished. Some of the advantages to that new-found self control are fewer hangovers, fewer upset stomachs, fewer injuries from playing sports with reckless abandon and fewer obligatory and embarrassing apologies for something said or done that was totally inappropriate to me only in hindsight.  I am fairly sure I can identity the cause of this personality flaw but I think it is a subject more appropriate for another essay a little further in the future.

The one area of my life that has still evaded my attempts to moderate my over-the-top behavior and reactions is Indiana University basketball.  For those who are reading this and did not grow up in the state of Indiana this may seem odd.  For those of you born-and-bred Hoosiers, you understand that basketball, in general, is closer to religion than sport in this state.  Attending a high school basketball in Indiana is truly a spiritual experience for native Hoosiers.  And, depending on a fan’s loyalty, having a ticket to attend a game at Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena or Hinkle Fieldhouse is as close to Nirvana as can be found on earth.

Back in 1987, Linda and I, along with two other couples went to the Final Four in New Orleans to support the Bob Knight-coached Hoosiers who eventually won the National Championship.  An incident happened on that trip to emphasis the point that basketball in Indiana is on a totally different level than anywhere else.  I’m not necessarily referring to the wins and losses but rather the fervor for and understanding of the game.

On Friday night before the Saturday semi-final games, our group was walking down Bourbon Street taking in all the atmosphere that makes New Orleans what it is. During our trek, two couples approached us and asked what all of us considered an odd question.  The movie, Hoosiers, was released just a couple of months earlier and the people we met asked if the movie was realistic.  I am sure that the question perplexed my friends as much as it did me.  Realistic? What were they asking?  After admitting that I didn’t understand their question, they clarified it by asking if the movie accurately depicted how the people, the fans, were consumed with the high school basketball team.  All I could do was laugh.  If anything, I believe the movie downplays the fanaticism of a large number of Indiana high school basketball fans. We assured our Bourbon Street questioners that, yes, the movie was accurate in that aspect.  To tell them the truth would have totally discredited our assessment of the film.

On cold Friday nights, in small towns and neighborhoods across the state, people of all ages will pack into high school gyms and cheer for and/or against 14-17 year olds with dreams of playing at the next level.  Some members of that rabid rabble exhibit behavior that you would expect to see on The Jerry Springer Show. However, as I mentioned earlier, basketball fans in Indiana are arguably the most knowledgeable fans collectively in the nation.  Most fans know enough about the game to not watch the ball but to keep an eye on what’s going on with the players away from the ball; there is where the true essence of the game takes place.  That requires a lot of focus and leaves little room for distractions. Though very demonstrative, most basketball fans in Indiana are enthralled in the game and the strategies unfolding–keep in mind that it is called Hoosier Hysteria and there is a reason for that.

Dr. James Naismeth, the inventor of basketball, once said, “Basketball was born in Massachusetts but it grew up in Indiana.”

All of this rambling brings me to the point of this essay and that is the reality of being a fan of Indiana University basketball nowadays can be dangerous for a person’s health, or at least my health.  I admit to getting so excited in the past while cheering at big rivalry games like Purdue or Kentucky that I hyperventilated and thought I was having a heart attack–on more than one occasion.  That is not the kind of thing I’m referring to.  Most true and honest fans of college basketball know that IU basketball was on a downhill slide since the mid-1990s.  Without going into all the details of that decline, it was like the second coming (remember, basketball is religion in Indiana) when Tom Crean was announced as the new head coach in April of 2008.

Fast forward to the present day and the program has been turned around, finally heading in the right direction.  Academics and high levels of personal character are once again becoming synonymous with IU basketball.  What has not been linked with Tom Crean’s IU teams, thus far, is winning.  And that is where the rub comes in. Winning the right way is what I want and what nearly all IU fans want but it gets very frustrating and demoralizing to watch a team make the same mistakes, game after game, and do the two-steps-forward-and-one-step-backwards dance.  Some would argue that I have the sequence reversed but I will give the team and coaching staff the benefit of the doubt.

For fifty years I have, like lots of basketball fans in Indiana, both high school and college, defined at least a part of my public persona by the team that I support.  That becomes an emotional issue, one of self-definition.  This season, I have had to reassess my emotional commitment to IU Basketball.  The relatively long-term, day-to-day stress of caring for my mother and the toll that is taking on me physically and psychological has surely exacerbated the frustration I have experienced as a loyal fan in the last month or so and has caused me to actually get physically ill.  Oh, sure–it’s only a game; unless it is basketball and it’s in Indiana.

Trying to reinvent myself as an interested, casual fan is a effort to reprogram over fifty years of seeing the game as more than just a game.  Drive down any street or country road in any part of the state of Indiana and count the basketball goals in the yards, on the garages and sides of barns.  Some of the greatest conversations I have ever had with friends or with my children took place while we played H-O-R-S-E in the driveway.  Some of the greatest memories I have are of neighborhood pick up games or “my” team winning the Sectional, when it snows.  It always snows in Southern Indiana at Sectional time.

I know that IU basketball will be back to its traditional spot as one of the five or six elite college programs in the nation.  In fact, I am so confident that along with a couple of my buddies–also IU alums–I am making initial plans to attend the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta and the 2014 Final Four in Dallas.  However, until the team begins to play with sustained intensity and swagger that comes from repeated success and a culture of expecting to win, I am going to have to back off a bit or I may not make it until 2013.

Just like basketball, life is more than a game.





2 responses

22 01 2011
Nicole Heltsley (Metz)

My mother once told me a story of when she was first married to my (biological) father. She was home baking cookies for him, and thought, “if a little butter’s good, then a lot of butter must be better”. Naturally, her cookies ran together and she ended up having to toss her soupy mess, which lead to my father coming home to a sobbing wife, rather than a warm, freshly baked batch of cookies. She tells me this story whenever she feels I need to remember the importance of moderation. As a side note: My parents divorced when I was 3 -but I am not lead to believe that the great cookie fiasco of 1981 had anything to do with it.

22 01 2011

I don’t know. Remember what Jethro Gibbs on NCIS says, “I don’t believe in coincidence.”

I tend to believe in the explanation of coincidence laid out in The Celestine Prophecy.

Then again, butter and divorce do have several elements in common.

In all seriousness, thanks for reading my blog, Nicole.


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