When a friend asked me why I was a basketball fan, I could not answer him either to his satisfaction or my own. Not everyone, I’ve since been told, has seen Walter Davis hit a turn-around jumper. Incredibly, some have not even see Phil Ford explode for a fast-break lay up. They entirely missed Dudley Bradley’s last-second steal and game-winning dunk against State! And Al Wood’s 39 point performance against Virginia in the NCAA semis, maybe never heard of it. At first I thought that perhaps these pitiable few were simply without tickets. An understandable problem, worthy of sympathy. But then, I discovered that some among them were willfully ignorant. They even lacked that obligatory complement to fandom, a TV. By choice. Indeed, this omission, they slyly imply, confers a kind of status. (Sometimes it’s put more modestly: “We don’t have anything against television. We just don’t happen to have one.") Hmmm. The fan and his questioner seem not to understand one another.

The fan, to those outside the arena, seems to lack inner life. He is not serious. His pleasures are vicarious. He is a spectator, not a participant. He inflates his ego by false symbols, cheap allegiances, and banal attachments. He wears tee shirts with his team’s logo, glues a bumper sticker on his car, reads Sports Illustrated at the magazine rack at Fowler’s. (Would you think more of him if he read porn?) Sports means Richard Nixon, Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, pot-bellied beer drinkers, vulgarity, violence, escapism, the national obsession with the brawny and the brainless, uncaring, greed, winning and losing.

Not that the counterpose lacks smugness: “I’m no fan,” the argument goes, “I create. I play my guitar. I jog. I throw pots. I read to my children. Watch basketball? I’m too busy hacking firewood, building a greenhouse, saving the whales.”

Well, me, I watch basketball.

Explanations of fandom are not lacking. The academics have had a field day: philosophical (existential encounter with boredom), psychological (libidinal release), anthropological (ritualized violence), sociological (institutionalized social roles), aesthetic (physical endeavor for form), mathematical (quantitative measure of performance), mythopoeic (athlete as knight errant; championship as grail quest), religious (mystical embodiment of the visionary) . . . . However true, none of these explanations is adequate. None is adequate.

Perhaps the most perceptive study of the phenomenon can be found in Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. This novel focuses on one fan’s obsession with Frank Gifford, the New York Giant. In Gifford, Exley’s protagonist invests all his own failed strivings, seeing in him the ghostly figure of his own father, a grid-iron hero. Exley’s acknowledgement of inner void is unabashed, an emptiness he would fill with alcohol. Football Sunday is one drunken moment of grace, his sabbath. Among his fellow fans, besotted buddies at the bar, he finds genuine communion. But Gifford, his body racked and ruined, is a falling god, and the vulnerability of the athlete, more than the memories of his brilliant triumphs, seizes and holds him. The fan finds no salvation, only inevitable losses, though he knows in his heart of hearts that the last death is never final.

A friend has a daughter who is a dancer at Duke. The daughter performs in one of those cerebral pieces, set to electronic music, where the dancers stand around and strike decorous poses. Feet planted on the floor, they gesture stylishly with their arms and hands, a celebration less of the body than of the mind, a plaything for theorists. Afterwards, the daughter runs eagerly to her mother for the expected approbation. “Go to a basketball game,” Mom tells her. “There they move. There they’re alive."

On the baseline Walter rises for one of his classic jumpers, pumps, spins toward the lane, fakes a pass, pirouettes, and hands extended, delicate as an artist adding a last brushstroke, softly arches the shot. The ball spins around the hoop and rolls out, but who cares?

Walter does not know and will never know what he has done.

The fan is by nature a discriminatory chap. The basketball fan is an elitist, more sensitive to nuance and form, than, let us say, the football partisan. The basketball fan gasps in amazement; he doesn’t grunt. Loyalty to a team he regards as a mark of refinement. (The tie to alma mater is only accidental.) I would no sooner root for the Maryland Terrapins than watch mud wrestling at a bar. Pulling for Dook is roughly akin to voting Republican. State people shoot ducks.

The articular grace of the Carolina basketball team is that we (note the narrative shift to the collective pronoun) are righteous, the perennial good guys. Our boys play disciplined, heady basketball, chess for the masses, not run-and-gun playground stuff. They freelance, but all within the Game Plan. When hurt, they band together. Of course, we owe this special grace to the good fortune of having as our coach Dean Smith (“Dean of what?” a Lebanese friend once asked when introduced to him.)

Dean Smith, who brought Olympic Gold to Tarheelia, has cultivated a certain aura: he is the brilliant innovator, the theorist, who places character above score. His boys even graduate. Dean Smith remains above the fray; he travels in international circles. When he says, as he did in a recent interview, that he first teaches his athletes discipline so that they can play with freedom, we know that the lesson extends to The World-beyond-the-Game. He is the coach who reads theology:

The Drama of the Disgruntled Fan
(a play in one act)

Disgruntled Fan: Smith never should have gone into the four corners when we went two up over Marquette in the national finals.

Loyal Tar Heel: You know Coach Smith reads Kierkegaard.

This touche is administered with all the subtlety of a neanderthal’s club. End of discussion. End of play.

James Agee in “Comedy’s Greatest Era” distinguishes among

the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo. The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure knows all about a bellylaugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills.

The fan in the upper reaches of Blue Heaven, Carmichael Auditorium, has his stages of levitation too. The thunderous applause that greets the Tar Heels as they run onto the court is a mere puerile titter, no matter how deafening. The yowl is reserved for that isolated great play-Ford spinning to the basket off the four corners or Sam Perkins, underhanded, finger-rolling one in off Big Ralph. The bellylaugh bursts in a blow out, especially gratifying if the clownish Lefty Driesell or the sinister Norm Sloan is its victim. But the boffo is reserved for rare moments when the momentum climbs the ladder, as Agee puts it, and the din rises above mere applause to a kind of humming sound at the limits of the spectrum, almost an ommmmmmm, that vibrates through the arena; it’s a heady sensation, a collective and unconscious feeling, a sweeping away. It is reserved for the big games, the really Big Games: Phil Ford’s finale against Dook for the league title, for example. It may begin with a steal followed by a fast break, another steal, then maybe a rebound, a spectacular pass or two, a fall-away jump shot. . . . The noise level peaks and the fan’s absorption in the game is so complete that he loses all awareness of himself as a cheering spectator. The thing is basketball, a behind-the-back dribble, a slam dunk by an unlikely hero, and only after a foul or a time out, as the din settles into controlled cheers, does the fan sense his limp and exhausted body, only then does he realize that he has been carried to the heights. We are talking now of autumnal evenings in Blue Heaven, to paraphrase Agee again, “in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Basketball and Sex

They don’t come any bigger. The semifinals, the right to play for the national championship. The Heels against Ralph Sampson whose seven-foot, four-inch frame extends even beyond the media hype which has designated him national player of the year. Twice before, the Heels, talented but young, have assaulted supposedly impregnable Virginia and have been thrown back. First in Charlottesville, the Heels blow a thirteen point lead late in the game. Then comes the Sports Illustrated article in which upstart coach Terry Holland and his wife quip that they have named their dog after Dean Smith because it cries all night. A Virginia player badmouths Carolina players in the media. Undefeated and challenging for national honors, the Cavs seem a natural set up for the Heels when they come to Chapel Hill for the second conference game. Once again, with some explosive basketball, the Heels go up by a large margin in the second half; once again, Virginia launches a furious comeback. Al Wood, fearless as a matador, takes it to the behemoth, but Sampson has his day, and Virginia wins by one point in overtime.

Now the eyes of the nation are on the third and final rematch.

On a cable TV pre-game show I listen to a woman sports reporter from the Boston Globe analyze the game. She lavishes praise on the Cavaliers. There’s a clip of her interview with Jeff Lamp, whom she regards as the very model of the modern student-athlete. She is infatuated with him, and why not? He’s handsome, articulate and white. Never once does she mention the Heels. Not once does Al Wood’s name part from her lips. The ACC coaches, the show’s host intrudes, do not think that Dean Smith can be beaten three times in one season. This remark she glibly dismisses. I am furious. I let loose with some sexist invective, implying perhaps some hanky-panky between the reporter and her Cavalier. A woman in the room urges me to “watch it,” but I refuse to apologize. (Not to this day, Kathy, will I.) Beyond my personal hurt is the larger drama: the insults, the humiliations of two losses, the psychology of repeated failure, the disrespect for North Carolina’s tradition as ACC kingpins.

For three quarters the game is fairly even. Then erupts one of those rare moments in sports where rationality succumbs, passion triumphs, the unconscious emerges. It begins conventionally enough.

Al Wood hits a jumper from the top of the key and is fouled. He misses the foul shot. Then Al Wood hits a  jumper from the left of the key and is fouled again.

This time he hits. Then Al Wood from the right of the key. Twice. Then Al Wood from the baseline. Two. Then Al Wood, off balance, twisting, parallel to the floor, rips the net. Then the coup de grace. Al Wood, driving, one on one against Sampson. Sampson leaps to block as Al Wood pumps, slides under the basket and drops in a reverse lay up. When consciousness returns, Al Wood has 39 points, the Heels win by 13, and however fate would play its dirty game, the world is turned right side up. Naked people dance on Franklin Street.

Basketball and Death

The day has an odd feel. Months, if not years, of anticipation are approaching their climax: the national championship game against Indiana. The tension is delicious: two virtuoso teams, brilliant coaches, great traditions. That afternoon Reagan is shot. This intrusion shatters my concentration, plays havoc with my fantasy life. Suddenly, time no longer follows the expected sequence: publicly and privately, there is a massive shift in perspective. As much as one tries to feel the personal tragedy of the victims, the assassination attempt, like the game, soon grows into a media event of another order. Somehow or other, it’s all TV: the unfolding drama follows a familiar detective show script: the shootout, the hero joking in death’s face, whodunnit, the motive for the crime? The eyewitness film is compelling: those are real bodies there. What we can’t see, the newscasters will tell us; they are full of self-importance. This is the Big One, they keep saying, here we are making history. There is a morbid obsession with gruesome detail, a race to be first to report death. The game is forgotten. When the decision is made to play, Al McGuire, the sports, caster, demurs: basketball is unimportant on a day like today. The announcers show an uncharacteristic concern for values. Assassination, basketball, it’s all grist for the media mill. Tragedy and banality mix and blend. 1 reproach myself for my petty feelings of frustration, knowing that 1 should feel solemn, and am half embarrassed that the media cliches may be true. With death in the air, a bullet in a brain, the game seems unimportant.

Death, national calamity, and trauma aside, the game begins. But before the tip off, a respectful moment of silence is observed, but only a moment. Let us pray.

From the first the Heels play some spectacular ball; they pull away by a half dozen. But as the half approaches, Indiana comes back, going up on an outside jumper at the buzzer. During the break I begin to sink; I’m losing confidence, feeling dispirited. The start of the second half confirms my worst fears. Isaiah Thomas goes berserk; the Heels lose composure and throw the ball away; Worthy fouls out. Carolina makes a bit of a run with two minutes left, but even this glimmer flickers and dies with an untimely steal. Doom is sealed. Well, the fan is resigned; the day has given him perspective, and he takes a long view. ‘Tis but a game. This is only a symbolic death, and the fan feels consolation for a season well played, a life well lived; we have knocked on heaven’s door, unexpected guests on judgment day. We have died with honor. We shall go to sleep and wake on the morn.

I know, I know. I’ve heard the arguments. Sports corrupts education. It diverts resources and misdirects energies. lt deludes youth. The endless exaltation of post-adolescent mesomorphs distorts our values. 1 know, too, that if a cheerleader were to raise her arm and to shout “seig heil,” the crowd would scream deliriously. Mass hysteria frightens. I feel little community with fat-cat alumni, alligatored fratties, apoplectic fanatics so obsessed with winning that veins pop on their foreheads at every bad call. The commercialization of the game deprives the sport of its joy, its spontaneity. The media parasites. The false air of importance. The backslapping. I’ve heard all of them. They’re all true. But then there was the time that we were 8 points down against Dook with 17 seconds left, think of it again (if you haven’t recalled it many times since), hope expiring with every flick of the electronic digital scoreboard. Imminent death beyond all redemption, doubly cursed, not just a loss, but a loss to Dook, and then the furious comeback and only a bucket behind with three seconds to play. The chicken-hearted fans, having departed for the parking lot, rush back to their seats. And Walter Davis 28 feet out — subsequent legend has extended it to 40 feet; but 28 is right; I know, I was there — arches the shot. The ball rises to its apogee when the final buzzer sounds, the death knell, and then the ball in the hoop, suspend ed in space, ringed like Saturn, an image outside of time: hope redeemed, death averted; and for us, for all of us Tar Heel fans, the palms of victory. Contenders still, we’re still alive.