Yesterday an elderly man with a cane and a disability tripped and fell down in the middle of a street. The light was flashing that countdown thing they do now, and his frail wife was screaming and trying desperately to get him up. A young Superman rushed from the sidewalk while I and several pedestrians waved wildly to stop traffic, managed to get the man upright onto his medical-type shoe apparatus, and he made it awkwardly to the sidewalk. He was miraculously okay--- but shaken; his wife on the other hand was crouching and breathing heavily, wiping her brow histrionically and scolding him. 'Take a minute', I urged ... 'just breathe and thank God for the blessing of the near-miss.' He looked up at me with the kind eyes my father reserves for strangers, and I recognized it. He had his equilibrium. His wife, on the other hand, had 'seen' death; she would be the one left to suffer the unbearable loneliness of old age and was not so easily consoled.
Having conversed with angels and carried Jesus in my pocket, I still find myself at the edge of prayer for the losing team at the free-throw line, asking God for favors while waiting for the downtown 6, wearing my faith on a necklace, looking for saints on city sidewalks. I am well aware on the other hand that guitar gods who move the ground beneath me can be schmucks and losers. That the frail beauty of my pale willowy neighbor translates into a screaming harpy nag when her boyfriend fails to bring home the right bottle of olive oil. That the guy who played Christ in the movies with such credibility was a wife-beater. That the penetrating sax solo with reverb at the tail of a shivery ballad may be seasoned with cocaine and alcohol. So what if the guy is a cheating belligerent asshole-- I can still worship the melody. It is a kind of faith that survives my middle-aged cynicism. Fuck the singer (while, of course, how many of us have done so?); it's the song that we take with us, in the end.
I watch the NCAA tournament with great affection, every year, fill out my brackets with attention and faithfully watch the early rounds where I generally see my CInderella dream teams trampled. I bite my nails and cross myself while boys who played alongside my son put their hearts on the court and shoot their dreams for maybe the last time in front of a massive audience. This is 'it'. For me, it is the last year I will even know any of these players; my son is outgrowing the generation. Maybe next year it won't feel so important; maybe it will just be a fantasy game and not a prayer. I will be a spectator, not a mother. An observer, not a believer. I can't help waiting for a magical moment, for the shot to go in, or go out, or rebound off some unlikely corner, for a player to suspend just long enough to float a ball in, to get the hometown hero welcome, whatever tragedy or joy the rest of his life may hold.
I had 4 college players sleeping in my house last week. Their feet hung off our sofas, and we had to build up pillow-extensions for their mattresses. They were hungry and they were grateful for the home stay. They were soft-spoken and polite and communicated with few words and a kind of rhythmic telepathic physical ease. I didn't get to know them. My son tells me the stories-- the personal struggles, the underdogs and late-bloomers, the brothers and sisters and mothers with cancer, the fathers who are wounded vets, the orphans and foster kids, the immigrants who 3 short years prior couldn't speak a word of English or knew what a shot-clock was. I love this--- the unpaid kids with the expensive sneakers and the sometimes badly-chosen school colors who have not much future but a present so filled with excitement it will weight their past forever. This is 'it'. The 2 weeks of games, the 40 minutes of tension and thrill and heartbreak which make March mad crazy for some of us. Women, kids, poor, rich-- you don't even need cable. Our president is in on it. Wall Street. Las Vegas. The New York Times and Yahoo. Office pools. Sports for so many is the American religion. Why else are so many teams named 'Saints', Angels, Devils, Lions, fantastic heroic things. Symbols. The innocence of boys running and playing ball, no apparatus, no padding-- just man to man. God loves basketball. I feel this. At least he loves the multicolored NCAA boys, before they get contracts and begin the rat-race of money and trades and politics and power.
I have had to defend myself many times this week--- especially among my musician peers who dis and belittle my March madness. Who try to poison my enthusiasm with tales of bribes and money and capitalist corruption and payoffs and cheating and lies. But I believe in basketball. I believe in boys-to-men. The players, the sweat and tears and disappointment and elation and the aggression and the grace. Bless these boys-- the winners and losers and the wounded and injured. They are the sons of America and the idols of our kids. And next year, except the names, we will forget all about them. One or two will be sitting on an NBA bench, some of them will be soldiers, some will be coaching their successors or teaching or in bars telling their game-losing or game-winning shot story to an apathetic drunk ear. Sure you were, the guy may be thinking.
Last night I came uptown at 4 AM. In my car a long man was sleeping; he spanned 6 seats. He wore a Michigan State hoodie and his size-14 Nikes were neatly paired and trustingly unlaced on the floor in front of him. A comb was stuck in his hair, 70's style; his beard was going grey. As the train stalled in the tunnel, waiting for the late-night track congestion to clear, he let out a whooping kind of sigh--- a long exhalation of awe like he had just made a basket from 28 feet at the buzzer. In his sleep he was smiling-- maybe the only smile on the car. Maybe he was just tall, never made a hoop in his life, never stayed at anyone's house in the early nights of the tournament. Anyway, I acknowledged the points, feeling already the letdown of April post-game calm, upcoming Commencement for my son, the end of the 3-point innocence.