This is 1 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
The ball makes no secret of itself; to grasp full control requires both hands. The primary instrument of our game announces its presence loudly - to maneuver the ball across the playfield is to print it repeatedly against the wood court with typewriter-key insistence, or pitch to a teammate in a bright pumpkin-colored blur. Deception is difficult and subtle, all bursts of speed, swiveling ankles, redirection. There is no "hidden-ball trick" in this game.
The target is deliberately set high, raised up and out of the reach of very nearly everyone. It is a null space given shape by a ring of cold metal, strung with a cylindrical lattice that serves to provide audiovisual confirmation of a score. There are as many paths to the goal as there are sizes and shapes of those who choose to pursue it - attempts can be made from from close-range to far away, each method offering differing levels of resistance from physical laws and counterreaction.
The rules - like all fair and good rules - are fashioned to protect the physical safety of participants, but they also deeply infused with a certain type of populist egalitarianism. The governing laws of the game are periodically rewritten to discourange dominance and to eliminate grey sameness, a living document that strives for equilibrium. The rules state that size and strength can be balanced by skill - like the two-space opening move for pawns, the availability of a bonus-point distance shot helps compensate smaller pieces in a game seemingly designed only for knights and rooks.
Our game rewards ingenuity and expression, and encourages new ways of solving the eternal problem of object and goal. Our game challenges the mind within the body, just as it tests the individual within the group. Each player possesses natural vulnerabilities - our game forces the acknowledgement of one's shortcomings, just as it encourages the development of skills to counteract them. The dynamism of basketball has allowed it to act as a world-in-parallel for larger human dramas - our game is a context large enough for courage, intimidation, disgrace, beauty, love.
It is early November now - no games have been contested as of yet. Coaches from 334 colleges across the countrry are sifting through parts and pieces, attempting to fashion them into workable wholes to last the long season. Right now, final preparations are being made in glittering luxury pavilions in Memphis and Omaha, in halls of ghosts in places like Durham and Palo Alto, and in countless cramped gyms from Cheney, Washington to Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hoops Nation is so large that just to be one of the final four teams left at the end is good enough for most - our game is the true national game, and don't let the proponents of lesser pastimes tell you any different.
Each coach knows the formula - win the league (or impress the judges), make it to the national stage, and then keep winning. That some find it necessary to lie and cheat in their pursuit only underscores the importance of the National Championship, verifies its worth. Others set different goals - a ticket to a higher-paying job, a .500 season, the simple chance to coach again next year. Still others trudge on listlessly, forgetting why they fell in love with basketball in the first place, fearful of the possibilities of a life outside the confines of the game.
Most of these 334 entries in Division I college basketball - a majority, if you will - are populated by modest dreams, decent hard-working people, and strange mascots. Many hail from small places you've never heard of, towns you will never find yourself in for as long as you live. Despite all that, each team plays the same game - same ball, same goal, same rules.
And where there is striving, there is never a shortage of tales. Over the next five months, these pages will contain some of those.