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Anais Nin died at the age of 73 on January 14, 1977.
January 14, 2017.
If this week’s Ice Storm of the Century allows it, I’ll be flying to Bloomington, Illinois later today. Bloomington has become quite the boomtown in recent years, thanks to State Farm and other local businesses going big, enough of a boomtown that I can now fly directly there from Atlanta. I haven’t been to Bloomington in about 20 years. My college girlfriend — yes, that one — and I went to visit a friend of hers at Illinois State once. It was a college apartment with a waterbed, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a worse night’s sleep. Waterbeds really did used to be a thing.
Anyway, I’m heading back with William and Wynn because we’re going to an Illini basketball game. The students, somehow, still aren’t back in class at Illinois, which means the student section seats at State Farm Center are available for old people like me and my father; Dad got five tickets, me, Mom, him and the boys, right there in the front row. The game is on ESPN2; look for a bunch of Leitches screaming terrible things at Melo Trimble. I am a rational human being who attempts to minimize the importance of emotion in almost all of his major (and minor) life decisions, but the payoff of that is that I am a total lunatic during Illinois basketball games. I never miss one on television, to the point that I’ll cancel dinner plans on the road if it’s the same night as an Illini game. I lose my mind during Illini basketball games. I’m a little nervous about my children seeing me that way. They might think Daddy is having a stroke.
I care about the St. Louis Cardinals more than I care about Illinois basketball, but just barely. And baseball wasn’t created for such over-the-top displays of emotion anyway. It is a daily game of relaxation, a ritual that flows around and into your life, a stream that takes whatever shape you need it too. I’m sad when the Cardinals lose, but, you know, they play 162 of those things. They’ll play again tomorrow.
But every game means so much in college basketball, particularly when your team is fighting for a NCAA Tournament berth like the Illini are. I am closer in temperament during an Illini game to how I am during a Cardinals postseason game: A screaming, pacing, cursing, ranting mess. There is no joy in winning; there is simply relief in not losing. I have season tickets to Georgia men’s basketball, and I’m into those games; I enjoy that team and cheer hard for them to win. But they don’t make me crazy like Illinois basketball does. Almost nothing makes me that crazy. I lose all perspective, too. With the Cardinals, I can see them play another team and appreciate the opponent. Just because I’m a Cardinals fan doesn’t mean I can’t drink in the brilliance of a Kris Bryant or a Clayton Kershaw. But during Illinois games, the other team is irrelevant. They are simply OPPONENT, like one of the “other” teams during a montage in Hoosiers. All analytical skills vanish. Every Illini made basket brings me joy; every shot the opponent sends me into despair. It is pure emotion.
I’m not sure why this is, why this team, in particular, can toy with my emotions so much. This is, after all, college basketball, a sport played by teenagers, people literally less than half my age. A couple of years ago, I spent a day speaking to classes at the University of Illinois, and one of the students in one of the classes was backup point guard Jaylon Tate. I have spent hours yelling at Tate in my home, cheering a great pass, howling his perpetual lack of a jump shot. But seeing them in person was a reminder that college sports fans constantly need: He’s a kid. A child, really. He was very nice and obviously a curious, intelligent person. And I, a grown man with children and a house and a job and a 401k plan, screams at him through my television in a way I would never do toward any other human being. It’s absurd. I almost apologized to him.
But Illinois basketball, even more than the Cardinals, was the centerpiece of my home growing up. All the Illini games were on WCIA, the local CBS affiliate; back in the days before ESPN-3 and all sorts of cable rights deals, college basketball games were simply on the local station. At 7 p.m., if the Illini were playing, CBS might as well not have any network programming at all. Illinois basketball was all that mattered.
Thus, when I close my eyes and think of my childhood, I’m thinking of Illinois basketball. I’m thinking of Doug Altenberger, and Tony Wysinger, and Bruce Douglas, and Efrem Winters, and Kenny Battle, and Kendall Gill, and Marcus Liberty, and Deon Thomas, and Tom Michael. I’m thinking of the NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky in 1984 — at Rupp Arena! — that had me crying for hours. I’m thinking of Nick Anderson’s shot to beat hated Bob Knight and Indiana in 1989, a moment that caused a 13-year-old Will Leitch to leap across the room and hug his father in euphoria. (Each of us jumped back from the hug like we’d just touched the stove.) I’m thinking of Andy Kaufmann’s 3-pointer at the buzzer against Iowa, a shot I was watching on the tiny television in my boss’ office at the movie theater where I worked and screamed so loud someone left their screening to make sure no one had been shot. I’m thinking of those frigid February nights in Central Illinois when everyone comes inside to watch the Illini, together. I’m thinking of this shirt, which my mom bought me at the local IGA and which I think I wore to school every day for a month.
And I’m of course thinking of the Elite Eight game in 2005, when I lived in NYC, when the Illini were having their dream season with Dee Brown and Deron Williams and Luther Head and the rest, when they fell behind 15 with four minutes left against Arizona and still somehow came back and won. (Grantland’s Robert Mays wrote a fantastic piece about the game a couple of years ago.) It was the greatest game I had ever seen until Game Six of the 2011 World Series. It’s still a close second. I’m thinking of that.
And I’m thinking, really, of home. I left Mattoon in 1993, lived in Champaign for four years, Los Angeles for one, St. Louis for two, New York for 13 and now Athens for three. I loved all of those towns, and I love the town I live in now maybe the most, but none of them have ever felt like home the way Mattoon did. It’s in my bones; it sort of is my bones. And the one constant I had there, from the time I was a little kid until I graduated from high school, was the Illini. To watch an Illini game now is to be transported immediately back there. The players will always be older than me; they will always be gods. I care too much because every Illini game feels like home.
It has been a difficult few years for the Illini, though I do believe they’re starting to turn it around, and I find myself confused and frustrated by the antipathy toward current head coach John Groce. But that team could go 0-32 and I’d still watch. When you move away from your hometown — particularly a hometown where your father grew up, and his father grew up, and his father grew up — the worry that you have lost touch with who you are, of where you came from, is a constant thought. The Illini basketball team is a way to make sure a little part of me is always there.
My boys are both flying with me today: They’re wearing the Illini warmup outfits Santa brought for them right now. They’re excited to see Grandma and Grandpa, and they’re also excited to see snow. They’re game ready.
Last night, before they went to bed, I cued up that Illinois-Arizona game for William and Wynn. They were a little confused by how difficult it was to see the players (children will never know a life without HD), but they were there screaming with every step. They’re going to grow in Athens, and they’re going to love it here. I’m glad they’re there rather than Mattoon or Champaign. But I want them to see who their father is. A large part of who their father is will be found in that building. Look for us courtside when the game starts. I’ll be screaming. But I’ll also be very, very happy.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)
1. Clemson Beats Alabama in Epic Championship Game, Sports On Earth. I’m glad I never wanted to be a beat reporter — I have a ton of respect for the job, but I have no idea how anyone who with that job stays sane — but I will say, I do love filing on deadline from events. It focuses the brain to have quick turnarounds. There was a ton of great writing about this game, much of it better than mine. But I think I held my own.
2. George Karl: A Belittling, Berating Brawler, The Wall Street Journal. This is a review of his new book. George Karl seems like an unhappy person.
3. The Chiefs’ Playoff Moment Might Have Finally Arrived, Sports On Earth. This column was almost certainly a jinx.
4. Atlanta Fans Have Been Through This Before, Sports On Earth. There’s a big, massive, hopefully awesome piece I’d like to write about the fatalism of the Atlanta sports fan. This isn’t it, but it’s a good test run.
5. Ten Films We’re Looking Forward to in 2017, The New Republic. Yes, I’m the one who made sure the new Woody Allen movie got on there.
6. CFB’s Fanbases Most Desperate For a Title, Sports On Earth. Sort of a little sibling column to the big Tortured Fanbases Rankings I do for NFL, MLB and NBA.
7. Patriots-Texans Playoff Preview, Sports On Earth. The “you need a good night of sleep on Saturday” game.
8. Falcons-Seahawks Playoff Preview, Sports On Earth. The “will anyone miss the Georgia Dome?” game.
9. Packers-Cowboys Playoff Preview, Sports On Earth. The “don’t forget that Jerry Jones is terrifying even though the Cowboys are kind of likable” game.
10. Chiefs-Steelers Playoff Preview, Sports On Earth. The “man, now Sunday is a late night too?” game.
11. There’s No Point in Doubting Alabama Anymore, Sports On Earth. NAILED IT.
As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the three podcasts I do. You don’t even have to listen to them! Just download them. Here they are:
Grierson & Leitch, our annual (well, first annual) mailbag show. We also reviewed Michael Mann’s “Heat.”
The Will Leitch Experience, previewed the divisional round with the very smart Andrea Hangst.
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, in which I tried and failed to do a postgame audio from Tampa. The fans were a little too loud.
Also, I made fun of the Ice Bowl on Pro Football Now. And made this face.
All right, have a great weekend, everyone. Go Illini!
I .. L ... L!!!!!
(Please don’t lose by 30 again.)