New kind of March Madness for Concord High teacher and coach

For the Monitor
Published: 4/11/2020 7:35:06 PM

For me, it was March 19 when the new normal really hit home.

The third Thursday in March has always been, to a significant segment of America’s population in which I claim membership, a national holiday in all but name: the first full day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Some of us might have taken the day off from workI speak hypothetically, of course – to plant ourselves in front of our TV sets at the noon tipoff, and if neighbors and nature were kind, we might then have moved only minimally from that spot until long after midnight.

With no brackets yet busted, we would have been full of anticipation, ready to hop back and forth between four different channels’ worth of action for whatever buzzer-beaters, Cinderella-crownings and general marvels the day had in store. Ready to see trombones twist madly for the first few seconds after TV timeouts, cheerleaders soar, painted faces of the young and not-so-young scream in delight or despair. Ready to bear witness to Udoka Azubuike’s post moves, Tre Jones’s defensive wizardry, and Payton Pritchard’s deadeye shooting. Ready to scan the sidelines to watch Jay Wright stroll and Kelvin Sampson snarl and Coach K whine.

That’s not how it went down, of course. Wall-to-wall basketball gave way to walls of silence, isolation and, in some quarters, despair. It wasn’t the kind of March Madness any of us had in mind.

Marches are always mad seasons for me, typically filled to the brimin truth, well over the brim – with sports. In addition to watching nearly three full weeks of college basketball, I would normally be coaching a high school tennis team. On the weekends I would be competing, with considerably more enthusiasm than skill, in several local recreational tennis leagues.

Sleep is usually scarce for me this time of year; fatigue is de rigueur. I would be overjoyed to have those problems now. Of course, all trials are relative – if we and our loved ones are lucky enough to remain in good health throughout this coronavirus pandemic, nothing else truly matters. While the psychological impact of closures and distancing affects everyone, I believe that those of us who love sports, whether as participants or spectators, face a special challenge. Many hobbies can be practiced just as meaningfully in isolation – a reader can read, a gardener can garden, a musician can practice, and, yes, a writer can write. But an athlete can’t compete, not in any organized forum, and a fan can’t cheer.

This is a hard time to be an athlete but perhaps an even harder time to be a fan, because sports provide a context around which we can mark the passage of our own lives. Memories of major sporting events often unlock our own personal memories. I learned that Mike Tyson had been beaten by Buster Douglasat the time, that would have been like learning that the earth was flat by reading the International Herald Tribune at the top of a tower in Florence, Italy.

I’ve long since forgotten the name of the tower, but the memory itself is still vivid to me, 30 years on. I can see with equal clarity where I was and what I was doing when Herb Brooks’s Miracle on Ice team beat the Soviets, when the Belichick-Brady Pats won their first Super Bowl, when the Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino. Remembering those triumphs in later years allows us to remember ourselves, often in a happier or at least a simpler time.

I find that it isn’t these exceptional moments I miss the most now, but rather the innumerable little day-to-day ones where sports are woven into the fabric of our lives so closely that we almost forget they are not one and the same. We catch some European soccer from Anfield or Old Trafford while sipping our Saturday morning coffee, grateful to be living, however temporarily, at a more leisurely pace. We listen to Joe Castiglione’s soothing cadence while driving home from work on a late-spring Friday night and know for certain that summer is on the way. We endure a few minutes of Stephen A. Smith on an especially crazy day to reassure ourselves that all craziness is relative. In these instances, and so many more, sports serve as a gentle, calming soundtrack to lives that are all too often hectic and stressful. We may not even really notice that soundtrack is thereuntil it’s no longer there. Now nobody knows when – dare we wonder if – the volume will be turned on again.

Let’s be clear: Stopping organized sports for the foreseeable future is absolutely the right thing to do. It’s one of the easier calls our leaders have at a time when very few of their decisions are easy. In such an atmosphere, I even find myself feeling sympathy for President Trump, which is far from my default mode. A man who has spent his entire life successfully shaping reality is learning under the harshest circumstances imaginable that some realities cannot be shaped, only borne.

Bearing this pandemic isn’t easy for any of us. I sympathize with those thrown out of work and count myself extremely fortunate to have kept my teaching job, even though its parameters have changed considerably. Certain aspects of social distancing don’t bother me, as I’m the kind of person who might cross the street to avoid someone walking the opposite way even under normal circumstances. But now I also find myself edging away when a stranger requests that I take his picture, snapping up the large pack of paper towels for my small household and putting on gloves when the temperature does not truly call for gloves to be worn. I see others doing similar things and worse, and I wonder how long-lasting some of these habits will become.

Best case, maybe life – and sportswill someday pick up about where they left off (I don’t want to think about the worst case, though my mind does so uninvited a few dozen times each day). I’m sure all of us fervently hope that the current horrors will at least serve to strengthen our communities and cause us to value each other a little bit more. As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp so eloquently put it: “First and foremost, all of us have to do whatever we can to protect one another…This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever.” We hope that’s how it will go, but we need only look at all the empty space in our stores where toilet paper should have been to realize that the intersection of idealism and reality is every bit as hazardous as the worst stretches of Loudon Road.

One recent evening, I was under the impression I had signed up to play in a local indoor tennis tournament, unlikely as that may seem. As its start drew near, the feelings so familiar from a lifetime in sports came flooding back into my mind – the stretching and other staples of my matchday routine, the little ball of nerves deep in my stomach that no antacid can settle, the large group of hopeful players milling around while subtly sizing each other up. I felt it all as clearly as I’ve ever felt anything this side of a kidney stone.

Then, just before I walked to the baseline to begin warming up with my opponent, my catfar more eager than I to start another day under COVID-19thudded onto my stomach and I woke up. Realizing it had all been a dream, I felt an almost irrational anger for long minutes afterward. As crazy as it sounds, I really wanted to know how my match turned out. I wanted even more, I think, to hold on to the feeling of competing, which until very recently has had such a prominent place in my life.

A cat never varies its routine, not for weekends, or blizzards, or even for pandemics. Most of the rest of us aren’t so fortunate these days, and amidst all the madness we sports lovers need to hold on especially tightly to our dreams. Right now, they’re all we’ve got.


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