Someone gently reminded me the other day that I have been uncharacteristically quiet since Christmas. And I gently reminded my friend that the Lucky Orange Pants have been busy with more important things. Like basketball season.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that Virginia is one of two undefeated teams left in college basketball and ranked second in the country.
Second. In the whole country. For someone with a massive fear of heights, and a long memory of crashing and burning, this is a scary place to be.
My beloved Cavaliers have become quite the media darlings recently, because of what they are and what they are not.
There are no McDonald’s All-Americans peppering the roster. There hasn’t been a top twenty recruiting class in years. Their program is built on 5 tenets that are not usually associated with college basketball: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Try tacking those 5 words above the Kentucky locker room without laughing. Their talent is surpassed only by their unselfishness and honed by arguably the best coaches in the nation. Their victories are largely won, not with flashy offensive plays, but on the ugly shoulders of the packline defense. This year alone the Cavaliers have held three teams to under 30 points. 30 points. In the entire game.
Virginia has been a defensive powerhouse for the last three years and because of that, under conventional standards, they’re not a pretty team to watch. Indeed, their style of play has led to perhaps the most colorful metaphors in college basketball. We have been compared to a boa constrictor that slowly squeezes the life out of its prey. The kid “who keeps tugging on your leg asking for a cookie until you finally give in to exhaustion and give him the cookie.” A tractor pull. Porn for basketball junkies. But we can’t get enough of the packline, as evidenced by the fact that the crowds at JPJ cheer louder when Virginia forces a shot clock violation than when they score a Sports Center-worthy slam dunk.
I read every article with glee. It’s better than the Christmas morning when Santa brought me the Barbie Dream House. Because my love for the Wahoos didn’t begin last year when we won the ACC tournament. Or last summer when Tony Bennett himself awarded my little Jack the Passion award at UVA basketball camp. Or 5 years ago when we hired Tony Bennett. Or 20 years ago when we made it to the Elite Eight.
No, this love was born on my father’s lap 34 years ago. I remember watching the ACC tournament with him as vividly as I remember the taste of foam from the Coors Light that he surreptitiously let me sneak.
In time, I outgrew my father’s lap. And I eventually got my own beer. But the love that was born that day has never dissipated.
Because a love like that isn’t a crush or a passing infatuation. It neither waxes nor wanes based on the score of a particular game or the record at the end of the year.
A love like that will disappoint you. It will make you cry. But it is strong enough to withstand decades of disappointment, defeat, and heartbreak and still fill you with hope every November.
A love like that requires a strict adherence to superstition, a pair of Lucky Orange Pants, a very understanding husband, and an occasional reliance on Valium.
A love like that is big enough to sustain you for the thirty years between ACC tournament titles. And when you get a second chance, you make the most of it. You say everything you ever wanted to say and do everything you ever wanted to do and you don’t care if you look like a fool. Because you never know if you’ll get another chance. And a love like this has no room for regret.
A love like this is crazy. Irrational. All-consuming. It will break your heart into a million pieces but it will just as surely give you the greatest thrill of your life.
Sometimes, after a game like today – where everyone in your house is beset by anxiety and nausea and heart palpitations – you wonder whether you have done your children a great disservice by passing along a love like this. But then you remember sitting on your dad’s lap with your heart pounding, holding hands as the final bucket goes in. And even though he’s gone, you can still feel his arm around you when you sing The Good Ol’ Song. You remember that you didn’t choose this love nor can you choose to walk away from it. It is as much a part of you as your DNA.
And so you take your kids out of school for a Thursday night conference game. It wasn’t the first time and it surely won’t be the last. Because you know that years from now, your children won’t remember the presents you gave them, or the clothes they wore, or the grades they got. But they will remember this. And it will connect you always. Even after you’re gone.
I know most of you think I’m crazy and that’s cool. Maybe I am. But this isn’t just a game to us. It’s love. It’s family. And my boys and I, well, we’re making memories.