This is not about existentialism. It's also not about basketball as a metaphor for whatever or the great struggle of haves versus have-nots. This is about something much simpler than that, about a game played in a hotel ballroom on the Mexican coast. This is about experiencing a game without context beyond the visible, about 94-feet of raised hardwood upon which a group of young men try to put a round ball through a round opening more times in 40 minutes than a second similar group. Nothing more, nothing less.
For the past five years, I've been lucky enough to be employed by Our Game, at the start deriving an uncomfortable living from it, but now a welcome second income. Like all jobs, mine comes with perks: Access to a lot of live basketball, plenty of travel and suitcases full of free polo shirts. But also like all jobs, work can become just that. As anyone who has ever travailed in sports knows, often times seeing how the sausage is made can take away from the raw experience, can change how you feel about the game you wanted to work around because you love it. For me, games have become not about the game at all but about story lines, an endless stream of consciousness of who, what, where, when, why is this interesting and the intermingling of statistics and anecdotes to try and make what's supposed to be a string of simple moments in an athletic contest about something...bigger. In short, I've stopped knowing what it's like to just watch a game.
For most, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family. For basketball families, it's a time to jet off to somewhere tropical in search of photos for the recruiting brochure, the friendly confines of a neutral site, and a chance to make memories for your program. This brings us to the where and the what: Cancun, Mexico and the Cancun Challenge - a four-day hoops extravaganza featuring eight men's and ten women's programs staying at an all-inclusive resort on the Riviera Maya and playing in a hotel ballroom complete with hanging chandeliers overheard. This particular event scheduled the men's tournament (actually two tournaments running consecutively) for the two days prior to the women's, which is how I found myself three rows behind the Illinois State Redbirds' bench as they went shot-for-shot with their in-state big-brother Illinois.
I wish I could say my intentions were pure, that I woke up and thought Hey, let's go see a basketball game tonight, but they weren't, and I didn't. What piqued curiosity about this particular match-up was the basic intrigue of two teams from Illinois playing in Mexico. I immediately saw the storyline - two schools 53 miles apart were playing over 1,500 miles away! And they haven't played in seven years! How could I miss that. As soon as the decision was made to attend the game, habit kicked in and I raced for game notes. My mind demanded context, demanded that this game be interesting beyond the plain to see - but then I stopped. Tonight would not be about notes, not rosters, not statistics sheets at every media timeout...just basketball.
The game itself was magnificent. Illinois State rushed out to a quick 10-6 lead before the Illini went on a 17-3 run en route to a seven point halftime advantage. I'd love to tell you that Illinois' charge was the result of switching to their secondary defense, a fact that I learned in a morning discussion with their head coach, but I can't tell you that for several reasons, not the least of which is because it might not be true. All I can tell you is Illinois State missed a lot of shots - some good, some bad - and Illinois took advantage with methodical Big Ten offensive execution, though it was encouraging to see the Redbirds make some late baskets to cut the deficit and keep their proud and vocal supporters in the game.
The first three minutes of the second half reminded me why I was attracted to the game of basketball in the first place, how quickly it can all change. Illinois State scored 13 points to Illinois' measly three once intermission ended, an outburst that led to chest bumps, fist pounds and much rejoicing by the Redbirds faithful.
But as people who write or talk about sports for a paycheck are wont to tell you, basketball is a game of runs and Illinois had another one in them, eventually overtaking Illinois State's five-point lead and never giving it back, despite a furious end-game challenge that included the Redbirds at one time making the game-tying three pointer with under a minute to play only to have the basket waved off when the officials called the shooter out of bounds. As it should have been, Illinois beat Illinois State and remain the dominant program in the prairie state. Not that they wouldn't have regardless of the result, but that's beside the point.
For 40 minutes, the little brother had a chance to beat the older brother in the consummate underdog way that everyone on our side of the Red Line waits and hopes to see. But it didn't happen, and had I been engrossed with story lines and game themes and putting the whole thing in context, that might have been a disappointing, imperfect, maybe even unfair event. But for one night, the first time in a long time, I wasn't and it wasn't. The game was exactly what it should have been - 40 minutes in length, one winner, one loser. The kicker was that tonight, I was reminded that that was enough, and that it was still beautiful.
ILLINOIS 63, at ILLINOIS STATE 59 11/23/2011
ILLINOIS 5-0 (0-0) -- M. Leonard 3-9 4-4 10; D. Richardson 5-10 0-0 13; S. Maniscalco 5-10 3-4 14; B. Paul 2-11 7-8 12; T. Griffey 1-2 0-0 3; J. Bertrand 3-4 0-0 6; N. Egwu 1-3 0-0 2; M. Shaw 0-0 0-0 0; T. Abrams 1-2 1-1 3. Totals 21-51 15-17 63. ILLINOIS STATE 3-2 (0-0) -- J. Ekey 5-9 1-1 14; T. Brown 3-10 0-0 8; J. Wilkins 3-6 2-2 10; A. Cousin 1-4 0-0 3; J. Carmichael 5-8 7-10 17; N. Moore 0-4 0-0 0; T. Blue 0-2 0-0 0; J. Threloff 1-2 2-2 4; J. Hill 0-1 0-0 0; D. Clark 0-0 0-0 0; Z. Upshaw 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 19-47 12-15 59.
Three-point goals: ILL 6-19 (S. Maniscalco 1-5; T. Griffey 1-1; B. Paul 1-5; D. Richardson 3-7; M. Leonard 0-1), ILST 9-18 (T. Blue 0-1; J. Ekey 3-6; Z. Upshaw 1-1; A. Cousin 1-1; J. Wilkins 2-3; T. Brown 2-5; N. Moore 0-1); Rebounds: ILL 23 (M. Leonard 8), ILST 26 (J. Wilkins 7); Assists: ILL 13 (B. Paul 6), ILST 16 (A. Cousin 8); Total Fouls -- ILL 15, ILST 17; Fouled Out: ILL-N. Egwu; ILST-N. Moore.