The national college basketball tournament doesn't begin for a few months yet, but here in Bloomington, Ind. (our home team is Indiana University), expectations for a shot at the 2003 National Collegiate Athletic Association title are high as the new season opens.
Last year we played in the NCAA championship game for the first time since we won the title in 1987. We did not prevail in the final 2002 game against Maryland - but a series of unexpected triumphs had brought us that far, and they'd come in the wake of a major coaching upheaval. As most sports fans know, Bob Knight had been fired; his assistant coach Mike Davis replaced him and steadily, brilliantly ushered a stunned but talented team to within a few points of winning it all.
It helps to live in Indiana to know what "it all" means. I came to Bloomington in 1975 with little appreciation for collegiate athletics. I'd played plenty of sandlot baseball as a child, but no one else in my family was the least bit interested in participatory or even spectator sports. And so I was wonderfully naive as I settled into my new home. I didn't initially grasp the significance of the ubiquitous red sweaters in this town. I'd never heard the term "Hoosier hysteria."
By the time we triumphed over Syracuse in 1987, I'd been educated. Basketball was it.
IU basketball was the best. And here was the proof, as Keith Smart sank the winning basket, with virtually no time left for an answer. My household of family and friends erupted - as did much of Bloomington. It was my little son, then 11 months old and new to tournaments, who was unprepared. How could he have known what it was all about?
During much of the postgame celebration I found myself cradling Tim in my arms on the porch - a breezy buffer between the cheers from the living room and the roar from the block and nearby campus - telling him over and over that it was OK, he'd understand one day. Something about my own barely contained excitement spoke to him louder than those words, though. On he wailed, a lone voice of protest against a world gone inexplicably wild.
Last year was nearly as sweet. All of Bloomington, it seemed, tuned in to watch the hard-fought wins that brought us closer to the championship. We cheered IU to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and then the Final Four. After Tom Coverdale, one of our starters, injured his ankle in the upset victory over Duke in the regional semifinal, our local paper gave his recovery daily coverage, usurping space for news that was surely of greater import. But here we expected daily updates on that ankle. The next Saturday night contest rolled around, and with Coverdale up and playing again we edged out Oklahoma to earn our place in Monday's championship game.
I had joined a group of friends for dinner and the Final Four game. Tim elected to watch with his own crowd. As the clock ticked down and Bloomington knew its team would be headed to Monday's final, the old familiar roar began to build. We poured from the house to cheer passing cars, their horns ablare. Wendy and I - mind you, my friend is a tenured professor of fine arts - sped on foot around the fully lit block, too keyed up to simply stand and whoop. Along the way, IU students leapt from their own porches to offer bear hugs that we readily reciprocated. Bloomington that night brooked no strangers, generation gaps, or student-faculty protocols.
Back with our own cohorts we continued to cheer the honking traffic streaming steadily if slowly along the clogged streets toward the center of town. Young passengers hung out the windows of some of the passing cars, arms raised, mouths wide. I couldn't be sure in the confusion and cacophony, but one of those cars caught my eye as it rounded the corner. A single word half-penetrated the chaos; had it been "mom"?
Later, Tim and I reunited at home, faces abeam, and recounted our evenings. My son had indeed piled into a car with friends after the game for a victory tour.
"I saw you out in front of Colin's, Mom! Didn't you see me? I called you!"
"You weren't hanging ...?"
"I was sitting on the window of Julie's car - Samantha and Lloyd were, too!" he added defensively. "I waved to you! You were all yelling to us!"
After a brief shudder at the image of my boy half in and half out of a moving vehicle, I thought back to 1987. I'd been right that night, as I held my wailing baby on the porch. He had come to understand this Hoosier hysteria - maybe just a little too well.
It was later than usual when I went to bed that night. The town was still up, and would be for a good many hours. And somewhere a future fan was no doubt wailing a tiny protest from red-sweatered arms.