By the winter of 1981 I had learn to like basketball. During the winter of 1981, I learned to love basketball -- watching it and playing it.
I can't remember how often my friends and I would simply go to the park the play basketball before that winter 30 years ago. I suppose we did occasionally, just as we went to the park to play football or baseball. But that winter 30 years ago, I remember, maybe for the first time, going to the park by myself to just shoot around. The first time, I walked to Oriole Park's fieldhouse and shot around inside. I must have had the hankering to go, because I was just shooting baskets on my own. I remember the fieldhouse had a soft rock station playing over the PA and hearing "What Kind of Fool" by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb. The gym was mostly empty, so I had a basket all to myself. This may have been one of the first times I just shot on my own. I know I'd shoot around at my dad's basketball games at any opportunity (read: when his game wasn't in progress). I didn't yet have a backboard on our garage, so Oriole Park was my closest option.
Soon, the weather warmed up enough that I could shoot around on the outside rims next to the fieldhouse. It might have been gray outside, but as long as there was no snow, I could play. I liked shooting on the northeast basket that had a full square backboard but a slightly titled rim. I'd shoot around randomly or pretend I was in a basketball game, scoring points and making the game-winning shot (just like I would on my Nerf hoop at home). I started to bring a small tranistor radio to listen to music as I practiced.
That winter 30 years ago we had season tickets for DePaul basketball games. The Blue Demons had moved out from Alumni Hall in the city to the Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena) in the suburbs near our house. My aunt coached volleyball at DePaul, and we'd sometimes get her seats near the court, but even our upper deck seats weren't that far away. This might have been the best DePaul team ever with Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. The Blue Demons had been ranked No. 1 all year, losing only to Old Dominion, and had been so much fun to watch, espeically when they were beating great teams. And I loved going to the home games.
Here's where Oriole Park and DePaul converge. March 14 was a Saturday, and it was a gorgeous sunny day (I looked it up -- the high reached 50 degrees, which after a cold winter, 50 might as well be 80), and my friends and I went to Oriole Park to play basketball. DePaul was playing in the NCAA Tournament that day, a second-round game against St. Joseph's. In 1981, the tournament was only 48 teams, meaning 16 teams got byes, including the top-seeded Blue Demons. Even though DePaul had lost their first game the year before, I guess the beautiful day and the confidence that the Blue Demons couldn't lose overrode my desire to watch the game on TV. We went to the park and listened to basketball while playing basketball.
Of course, DePaul lost. Of the three consecutive upset losses the Blue Demons suffered in the early 1980s, this was the most painful -- a missed free throw, a St. Joe's rebound, a mad sprint down the court, a layup with 2 seconds left, the clock expiring. And it was the most painful because this was the best team in DePaul history. When researching the exact day of that game for this post, I discovered two other top teams lost that day in the second round. One article even implied that this day was when March Madness (emphasis on the "Madness" part) truly was defined.
I don't regret missing the game to play basketball. Instead, I'm almost glad I didn't watch it live -- it was painful enough on the radio. As I watch my alma mater waste a 23-point lead tonight (come on, Marquette, hold on), I'm reminded of the highs and lows of my favorite sport. I saw those highs and lows coaching Eldest's biddy ball team this season, which was so much fun even when it was driving me crazy. I don't know if I'll ever be as hoop-crazy as I once was. But I know I'll always be drawn to basketball, whether it's me just shooting around, the college game, the NBA game, or my son's game.