Ten years ago, running the clock down close to midnight on March 10, 2008, from the stands of the North Charleston Coliseum, I took this picture.
In medias res, we learn in English class. In the middle of the story.
It wasn't a thoughtful moment of photo taking, and I'm guessing that not many photos snapped close to midnight are. It was one of many photos that I haphazardly snapped in the midst of a moment, a frazzled and joyful moment, a tired and wired moment, after the Davidson College men's basketball team had beaten Elon University to win the Southern Conference Championship and claim the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
In that moment, I think my sleep-deprived, hoarse-voiced, jubilant 20-year-old self was focused on the players wearing their new white championship shirts making their way into the stands to greet friends and fans. I was so proud and giddy that we (because when you love a team, it's always "we," right?) had done what we'd set out to do, get back to March Madness and show the world what this scrappy mid-major could do against some powerhouse programs.
I'd learned the lingo, I'd drunk the Koolaid.
As a freshman the spring before, I'd experienced the buzz and burst of heart to heart human electricity that lit up the student union, cheering our guys on the big screen (the big screen!) as they nearly conquered Maryland in the first round, as our baby-faced "He's a freshman!" (hey, so are we!) assassin began to become known.
This year, I had witnessed the same team go from 4-6 to winning 25 games in a row, a perfect conference record and the longest string of victories in the country. I had been there for every home game and away games when I could, listening to the radio broadcast when I couldn't. And now this moment had finally come. We were going back to the Big Dance.
It's funny to look back and think that "this moment" was, at one time, the peak moment.
Why did it all matter? 20-year-old me would spout a lot of words about that, in medias res and after. A decade later, I say:
It boiled down to community and belonging. The former I always gravitate toward no matter where I go, the latter we all seek. Mirroring my teenage youth group years (but in a less expected context), here in this small town circle of fellow students and professors and staff and townspeople and alumni, I had found a new way to be thoroughly and fully myself. I embraced the roots of root, root, root for the home team that my grandfather and father and uncles and brother had impressed upon me from an early age without even realizing it, the passion (and profanity) that can stem from the thrill of competition, and more importantly, what it can represent. The home team, which on this compact college campus meant more than it ever had before. Being from somewhere, being a part of something bigger than yourself.
Now I had the added element of sharing the same walkable acres of green grass and red brick with those who played, coached, and encouraged. I didn't fully understand what the players went through as athletes, but I knew the place and the people and the purpose because it was also my own. They lived in and loved this place, and so did I. And when the world had a chance to watch them, the world also got a glimpse into the home I'd found here.
I have written countless words on how Davidson became a home for me, and it has to do with a lot more than basketball, but it seems that basketball has often been the lens through which I experienced, and could best explain, that sense of home and belonging. Belk Arena became the place where I found the deep beat of our communal heart to resound most fully.
I stood alongside people who cared as much as I did, who didn't mind and even joined in when I sang and shouted and cheered as loud as I possibly could (which, for an introvert, turned out to be surprisingly loud). In another hearkening back to my youth group days, and like plenty of different communal experiences, I felt deeply--with a double ache of beauty and sadness too big to name--the passing of time and traditions from veteran students to newcomers, both for us as fans and for the players on the court. It seemed a seamless process from the outside, but was actually made up of countless introductions, conversations, interactions--somehow we, and then they, had to learn that this was important and why.
Without those who came before me, I wouldn't have seen it as such a special thing, and without my classmates and me, the next generation wouldn't have known it either.
In just over 10 days, the midnight picture that I snapped that night after the nets had been cut in North Charleston would be outshone by countless other images. Some that I took, and others that were captured by photojournalists from around the country, showcasing the pure unadulterated jubilation of a hoped for but still unexpected Elite Eight run.
For me, the best images are in my head, the strongest feelings in my heart.
Andrew grabbing that rebound and hitting those free throws to put away Gonzaga.
The lightest four hour drive home for Easter break later that night, and opening the door to my house to be greeted with whoops from my family.
The utter astonishment of our comeback against Georgetown two days later, my small flip phone vibrating wildly in my hand with Elizabeth's shrieks on the other end as the buzzer sounded and I screamed back at her from my grandparents' basement.
The text messages, the Facebook statuses (all on a computer, guys), the web articles. Instagram didn't exist, Twitter barely did, and Facebook was all humans, no organizations--so I spent hours saving photos from Google Images.
Driving to Publix the next morning because I suspected we'd probably be on the cover of the national sports sections, and then trying to comprehend a photo of beaming Thomas and Stephen grinning up at me from the cover of USA Today.
The second half of the run almost feels like a whole separate story, upped hundreds of levels after the shock of the first games--from the generosity of the trustees and the surreality of getting on a bus from North Carolina to Detroit at 5 a.m. to the joyfully fluid ease with which we beat Wisconsin, so marvelous that we got to cheer on our bench players in person in the Sweet Sixteen. A late night spent running around the Dearborn Doubletree trying to find enough places to sleep, and a random Saturday spent eating at Chilis, doing homework in the hotel lobby and making signs for the next game.
The most nervous I've ever felt and yet the most I've ever believed that we could do it.
When it ended, I cried.
Correction: When I thought it ended, I cried.
I don't remember walking out of Ford Field. I remember screaming "We believe!" over and over and over again and banging my hands raw on the plastic seatback in front of me. Then my mind jumps to getting back on the charter bus with Becca, now devoid of any excitement but just a long-ass ride home, and the tears quietly dripping down my face as a slow cover of "Daydream Believer" from the Dawson's Creek soundtrack played on my ipod.
Oh I could hide 'neath the wings of the bluebird as she sings,
The six o'clock alarm would never ring.
But six rings, and I rise, wipe the sleep out of my eyes.
The shaving razor's cold, and it stings.
“So when did I first start writing structurally about my life?”
I ask this question of myself as I stand before a class of about 20 masters-level students last week. The professor of this creative writing course has invited me to be a guest lecturer on memoir and life writing, and here I am, with a wide-open hour to speak and a sparse slide presentation on the screen behind me. Less than five minutes in and my face is flushed. I keep clasping and unclasping my hands.
“What was my inspiration? When did I begin to truly see my life as a story? When did I start to recognize arcs, trends, and patterns in my daily world?”
I click to the next slide and wait for the murmur that I know will come when they zero in on the two photos: the same young man in each, but wearing two different jerseys, with more muscle and facial hair in the second. The images mirror each other: in both, he’s pointing upward and gazing toward the sky.
A buzz of familiarity arises, maybe even surprise—not what (or who) they expected to see in a creative writing class.
“It took a little help from this guy and his teammates.”
What I didn’t say to this class of 20 students:
I have written so much about this particular journey over one decade that some might call it absurd. My words and opinions and feelings about it are recorded copiously:
In my journal
On my blog
On other people’s blogs
On social media
In text messages
In college papers
In my personal statement for grad school
In documents complete and unfinished that languish on my desktop, moved over from one hard drive to another because I can’t bear to archive them.
Thirteen months ago, my father and I did something that is very my-father-and-I-esque. We left our offices early and drove four hours on a wintry Tuesday afternoon from the middle of Georgia to the edge of North Carolina, just in time to beat sunset and make it to a men’s basketball game in Belk Arena.
As we joined the crowd flowing into the new Vance Athletics Center, I recalled a lunch conversation from my junior spring eight years before. What place on campus would you choose to have named after you if you died or gave a lot of money or somehow turned out to be special? “The endzone,” I replied without preamble when it was my turn. The student section, the place where I had spent many a night just like this one with flushed cheeks, hoarse throat, and a red ribbon in my hair.
Tonight my dad and I had returned to witness its naming, and I was willing to give up my dream.
We sat halfway up in the bleachers, with a clear view of the students, pulsing with energy and and youth and the knowledge that the best shooter in the history of basketball was in the house, his house, their house. When the time came for the unveiling, he took the microphone and said a few words (“My blood runs thick for you guys”), and then took a victory lap. I was overwhelmed at how the kids—they really are kids, I thought at my old age of 29—leaned down as far as they could without falling over, stretching for his hand, gravitating towards him, their limbs thick with adrenaline.
The seniors were 13 when we made it to Detroit, I realized. And so he has been famous for almost as long as they’ve been paying attention.
A truly cool thing for them, I thought as I watched, to have the reigning MVP back for the night. And I looked from the scene on the court to the game program in my hand, Stephen at barely 20, red away game uniform baggy around his lanky frame, ball in his hand as he sprints down court in Raleigh or Detroit. I turned to the middle of the book where the headline read “A Look Back: The 2008 NCAA Team.”
I felt a rush of gratitude. I didn’t need to look back. I had lived it. And as cool as having an NBA superstar in the house was for this new generation, it was far more rewarding--a once in a lifetime joy--to watch him get there.
The story that I thought was the whole story only turned out to be the first part of the story. And by "first part" I only mean my first part--for others, it has been writing new chapters for decades.
How satisfying it was to realize that my first chapter was not the final chapter. To watch this ongoing story play out in the lives of other players, other students, alumni, and townspeople. To be present for new memories just as joyful as the first ones, if not sweeter because we knew the struggles that had come before.
True for basketball, true for life. I was living into the story, not always certain of what would come next, especially when I left the campus I now considered home. Belk Arena continued to be a touchstone for me, even as I made my way out into the wider world. And as I saw the next generation begin to make their mark, it was a refreshing reminder that the story continues. Theirs, and mine.
My old laptop was set up so that the screensaver would rotate through the thousands of photos that I had saved on my hard drive (they were backed up, don't worry). One night, this picture popped up. Funny--after this moment stopped being the peak moment, I had stopped thinking about it.
But on this night I looked again, and something caught my eye.
My boyfriend is in this picture.
My husband is in this picture.
Long before I knew him, three years before our time to meet would come, I'm sure I didn't even see him when I giddily clicked my point-and-shoot. And yet somehow he is still the focus on the photo, nearly smack dab in the middle, whether you're looking up or down.
I'm not looking at it now and thinking, "There was a sign all along! We were meant to be!"
I'm looking at it now and thinking, "You never know where the story will lead you. You never know what great gifts are waiting for you, maybe only feet away, though it may take time to uncover them."
I have been a terrible Davidson Wildcats fan this year.
For the first time in twelve years, we haven't made it up from Atlanta for a game. (I'm actually blaming the A10 schedule for having only one game on a Saturday.) They've just tipped the first A10 tournament game in D.C. and we aren't there, nor are we at the local restaurant for the watch party. It's Friday night and our dog is sleeping next to me while my husband is watching YouTube videos trying not to fall asleep before I finish writing.
Sometimes I feel sad and guilty that my fandom has dropped a couple of notches. I don't ever want to be seen as a bandwagoner or a fair weather Wildcat, I pshawwed those enough when I was Loudest Wildcats Fan class of 2010. But I also know that I'm living my story as it is right now, and that is just as important.
And it never truly ends.
Last Sunday, I served Communion at church, and looked up to see a good friend and her husband coming down the aisle to kneel. She and I have cheered together and cringed together, in person and via text message, for 12 years of basketball games. Now, I bent down to offer the blood of Christ, shed for you.
From there, I went to lunch with family friends, one of whom is a freshman 'Cat on his spring break. Hearing how much he loves it brings me a rush of pride, gratitude, and excitement to see what he'll discover, what our experiences 10 years apart will share, and the new things that he'll have the chance to do.
I drove home and called one of my best friends, who was getting ready to fly back to the West Coast after a grad school interview. Our first interaction ever was in the stands at Ford Field, where we randomly happened to stand next to each other during the Sweet Sixteen. Six years after that, she was my bridesmaid. Four years after that, she's still one of my dearest friends and kindred spirits.
Maybe I've been a terrible Davidson Wildcats fan this year. But as my friend--the same one I served Communion to last week--texted me before I knew I would be serving her Communion, "Life happens. Cats will always be there!"
She's right. The story continues. There are more chapters for me, and others, to write.
Besides, it was always about far more than basketball.