Somewhere in the early 90s the Cincinnati Bengals played in the Super Bowl. At that point I was still young, not allowed to stay up for the entire game. My parents had made very clear that on that particular evening, halftime and bedtime were to be one and the same. In the last few minutes before the clock ran out on me, a lineman for the Bengals suffered a horrific broken leg and was carried off the field on a stretcher. He may or may not have been a major contributor, I honestly don't remember that, or even his name. What I do remember is literally crying myself to sleep that night, distraught over the suffering of this lineman and his teammates who were forced to soldier on without him.
I don't want to give the impression that I cared in any meaningful way about the Bengals, because I didn't and I don't. I also don't mean to give the impression that I have any particular affinity for the sport of football, because I didn't and I don't. I also could have verified a few details of that anecdote for accuracy and specificity, but that fact that I don't remember the year, opponent, the name of the lineman or anything else that happened in the game, before or after, is exactly the point. Sports used to be an intensely emotional experience for me. Used to be.
I like numbers and statistics, I always have. There are certain numbers etched in my memory, numbers without any utility that will nonetheless always be there, available for recall. Mark McGwire's 49 home runs as a rookie in 1987. The career-high 57 points Reggie Miller hung on the Charlotte Hornets in November of 1992. A 19-point performance by Dana Barros in 1996, one of the first Pacers' games I went to in person. But I also have a catalog of sports memories, clung to not because of statistical weight, but because of emotional import. Sid Bream sliding into home. Luis Gonzalez looping a Mariano Rivera fastball into shallow center. Larry Johnson's four-point play. Rex Chapman and Sean Elliot hitting game-winning three-pointers as they fall out of bounds. Reggie Miller, bouncing and spinning at center court after his push-off, fall-away three-pointer in the playoffs against the Bulls.
But somewhere along the way, things changed. I grew up. I matured and assumed adult responsibilities. I graduated from college, bought a house, started a family. The emotional piece of sports trickled away. It wasn't just the prolonged struggles of the Pacers, it was a slow sea-change in me. I watched the Pacers as intently as I ever had, but in an entirely different way. I'm still regularly stirred by incredible athletic achievements, but it's almost always on an intellectual or aesthetic level, not a sentimental one. That's not say that mature adulthood and emotional investment in sports are mutually exclusive, it had just worked out that way for me.
But last night I cried about a basketball game for the first time in a good, long while.
Pacers' basketball has meant as much to me as any other sportsy thing in my life. I grew up going to games with my aunt, who lived in Indianapolis, and have followed the team closely ever since. But repeated failures and instances of coming-up-short, have damped the intensity of my connection. I want them to win and be successful, but it's no longer a "more-than-anything" feeling. I've watched too many seasons end in disappointment to let my emotional state by dictated by a team. Gradually, I gave them less of my gut and more of brain.
My wife is often confused when she watches Pacers' games with me. We've been to see them twice together in person, and both times I spent the majority of the game with my elbows on my knees, hands cupping my chin, staring intently. She grew up in Central New York, going to Colgate hockey games and chanting obscenities at opposing goalies as a middle schooler. Sports and stoicism don't really connect for her. When we watch at home, she's often busy with other things, working as I'm watching. She'll look up to see me, still and staring as Kevin Harlan and the Fieldhouse explode at some positive Pacers' play.
"Aren't you excited?"
"Well you don't look like it."
The more I've learned about basketball the more the game has become about probabilities and less about possibilities. I've had the experience of watching the odds hold up so many times, that their weight feels even bigger than they actually are.
Which is why last night's game was so jarring for me. My wife was in bed before halftime, so she didn't see me pacing and bouncing in circles around our office. She missed me pausing the game to take a lap around the house and catch my breath. She missed me cursing and pounding, huffing and puffing, and ultimately curling into a ball in the middle of the rug. I was enraptured by every piece, the numbers, the narratives and the historic sensation of it all.
As LeBron sauntered towards mid-court, waiting for the refs to put the official stamp on his game-winner, I cried. I cried for Paul George, who played the game of his life but wound up with a loss because of a catastrophic mistake. I cried for Frank Vogel, who made the kind of error in judgement that rarely gets forgotten, by the person who made it or anyone else. I cried because the Pacers had gotten every break they could reasonably expect to get, and it still hadn't been enough. I didn't cry a river and I didn't cry for long, but I cried because my team lost.
The emotional niche that had been slowly emptied was refilled in an evening. It was horrible and wonderful all at once. I don't know how long it will last, but I hope it's here for awhile. Although it ended in heartbreak last night, it felt good to be a little kid again, so thoroughly invested in one of the most extrinsically meaningless creations of our modern society. In the end, I'd have loved a Pacers' win. But I'll settle for a beautiful reminder that in sports, emotion is not just a variable. It's what binds me to the sport. It's what binds me to the players, and them to each other. It's what holds the whole damn thing together.