Actually, to do that justice you have to say it in chant form: "What - the - hell's - a - Jas - perrrr?"
When I was eight years old, that was the funniest thing of all time. It never got old, especially the "hell" part of it.
My friends Tim and Pat's dad, Charlie, happened to be a Manhattan graduate, they of one of the strangest monikers in college sports, the Jasper. He would regale us with stories of the glory days of New York City basketball and how his friend John Marren would lead the Jaspers against all these great teams and their opponents' only comeback would be chanting, "What the hell's a Jasper?"
Every once in a while, John would come visit. Man, was he tall; surely he must have been good at basketball. John and Charlie never got tired of the joke, either, to their credit.
When you look back at my life and how my love for sports developed, it starts with Tim and Pat. We played wiffle ball together, football, street hockey against the older kids. When Nintendo came out, we battled in video games. Anything to keep the competitive juices flowing.
Before computers, fantasy sports involved mailings and real-live phone calls from landlines. Tim and I decided to put a team in. It made sense. We loved competing, loved poring over stats, we surely knew more than these other idiots. There was one problem: we were 10 years old, leading to some curious phone calls from people that wanted to pry Dwight Gooden off of us, but had to go through our mothers first.
Of course, we played basketball, too. I made damn sure we put a three-point line in, about the time it was becoming universal in the NCAA. We set up brackets, anything we played had to have a bracket. Sometimes we'd seed things in a big tournament, I can remember having a soda bracket. Coke and Pepsi always grabbed the first two seeds, but look out for RC Cola, and the biggest of the underdogs, local distributor Foxon Park. Maybe someday it wouldn't end in a loss for them. And sometimes, in our fantasy world, it didn't.
There was a classic 100-98 game (yeah, we were crazy enough to play tournaments with games to 100) that finished up in a near-blizzard, as I hit a step-back three to lead Sunkist to a memorable upset over Coke.
We dragged Charlie to the 1985 NCAA Tournament when it came to Hartford, and we became temporary SMU fans because they had a cool horse on their T-shirts and were led by a guy named Jon Koncak.
(Interesting historical Mid-Majority note, we were distraught when SMU was bounced in the second round by...Loyola of Chicago, who was in turn beaten by Georgetown in the Sweet 16. Two weeks later, Rollie Massimino and Villanova pulled one of the biggest upsets in tournament history over Georgetown to win the title.)
Unfortunately, like everyone else, I grew up. Well, physically I did. Mentally, I'm not so sure. But I digress.
We went our separate ways after high school, and tragically Tim was taken from us soon after, killed in an accident on Memorial Day weekend of 1999 while at college.
They say time heals all wounds, but that doesn't mean things are the same, that those scars don't show when you look at yourself in the mirror.
Kyle (via Chris Owen) masterfully wrote in this season's Prologue, "death has the final word over narcissism", and that's true for the departed, but for the ones left behind it's not so easy. Nearly 13 years have passed since Tim's death, and there are still days -- or more accurately portions of days -- that make me say, "What the hell, man?"
Life marches on, seasons come, seasons go. Sometimes I wonder why I waste my time on sports at all. Shouldn't I be trying to help the world more than that? Who is benefiting from me spending all this time on silly games?
I still don't have the ultimate answer to that question after all these years, but I know what makes me happy, and it's the same feeling I had when I was eight years old in the street. That same rush of blood I get when I'm playing a pick-up game or coaching. And the same sensation I get when I walk into a college basketball game, whether I have a rooting interest or not.
And so Friday night I made my first-ever visit to Draddy Gym on the campus of Manhattan College not to answer the question, "What the hell?", but "What the hell is a Jasper?"
As it turned out, the answer was right in the game notes:
"The unique nickname of Manhattan College's athletic teams, the Jaspers, comes from one of the College's most memorable figures, Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C., who served at the college in the late 19th century."
Of course, by now I already knew that. I also know that Charlie and John weren't lying about John's exploits on the court. He scored 1,291 points and led Manhattan to an historic upset of North Carolina in the 1970 NIT, where they were knocked off by a young coach named Bob Knight and Army in the second round (Al McGuire and Marquette won after turning down an NCAA bid). John was drafted in the fourth round by the hometown Knicks in 1970. Sadly, John is also no longer with us; he died three years ago.
On Friday night, first-year coach Steve Masiello showed what a Rick Pitino disciple looks like as Manhattan harassed and tormented last-place Canisius into a 90-77 win that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.
Tim's youngest brother will get married on March 17, which as I'm sure you know, happens to be right in the middle of the NCAA Tournament. I'll be there. At some point, the friends will get together and check the scores, and hopefully exchange some high-fives when an underdog finds a way to pull an upset, much to the chagrin of some of the guests, I'm sure.
I'd like to think Tim wouldn't have wanted it any other way.