My housemate knocks on my door early Thursday morning. His knock is slightly less than firm, with a measured rhythm. I register this with curiosity.
It’s not the playful knock when he’s wanting to tell me a funny story about our resident labradoodle, Oscar the Wonderful Dog. It’s also not the hurried knock to ask if I want something from the store or which wastebasket is it that gets emptied into the compost, again? (He asks this every week, when we clean.) I can also tell it’s not a teasing knock that would indicate he’s about to call me out on something I did or didn’t do that he thinks will get me all up in my thing and will roust us into a good-natured (usually) bout of needling, because that knock is usually accompanied by a lilting, “Oh, Kaaaat.”
The less-than-firm-knock-with-a-measured-rhythm conveys to me that it’s something important and serious that lacks momentum. There’s a kind of wilted feeling to it. The way people talk when they’ve left anger behind two hours ago and are asking yet another person at the cable company, “Can you help me understand why my Wi-Fi keeps dropping out?”
“Come in,” I say. Buck opens the door and stands with the television remote in his hand, holding it out to me as if it were a ticket to a find-your-inner-whatever workshop. Something he has no desire to touch and has a vague hope I might want to take from him.
“It’s the Big East, it’s not the N-C-double-A, but it’s their chance to be seeded No. 1, but the television doesn’t work and the cable won’t go on,” he says, in a rush of words that have no spaces between them. A palette of vulnerable expressions plays over his body, the hands droopy, leather jacket sagging off his shoulders, feet moving restlessly.
Although my only interest in sports is to cheer for my nieces and nephews, I’ve lived with Buck long enough to know exactly what the problem is. Something to do with Villanova men’s basketball — his father's alma mater. It didn’t actually take very long living with him to know that’s the answer to many problems that burst into the winter air of our home in strings of invective. It took about a day. Plus, even I know there’s a thing called March Madness that saturates the space-time continuum of most males I know, each spring. If Occupy Wall Street had just done brackets for competitive prosecutions of the architects of the 2008 economic collapse, we’d have them all convicted by now. So I figure Buck is trying to record a basketball game.
Big East Playoff Takes Back Seat to Deadline
“First you have to press the button for TV, then power,” I say, “then you have to press cable and then power.” He knows this, but sometimes when he’s focused on something ahead of him in time, he forgets what to do in the present to get there. He gives me a withering look.
“Oh,” I say. “Sorry. I’m on deadline; can I come in 10 minutes?” Even though Buck kills so many fatted calves* during March Madness that there can’t be any left for McDonald’s, it doesn’t occur to me that it’s an emergency, that he’s actually trying to watch a game. It’s 8:45 in the morning. Who plays basketball at 8:45 in the morning?
(*This is a metaphor. In case you work for PETA. Same with any references to dead chickens and first-borns. We swim in sacrificial blood during the so-called Sweet 16.)
Buck doesn’t seem to hear me about the deadline.
“There’s something in the upper-left corner. I can’t get out of it,” he says. He gestures toward his upper left, his arms floppy like noodles, and stumbles through a few attempts at describing the rude square of minimalist text that’s holding the Villanova Wildcats captive. He looks down the hallway toward the room of our sleeping housemate, Emily, and then up at the ceiling, and then at me, his three sources of possible rescue. In men’s college basketball season, he’s as close to leaving atheism as he ever gets.
I actually do know how to solve this problem of the text in the upper-left corner. But I’m on deadline.
“I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”
He then sees me with the computer on my lap, sitting on the air mattress that currently serves as my desk, and realizes there’s no help here.
“Okaaay,” he says. His gravelly voice drifts off in a thin, throaty croak as he turns sideways and pulls my door shut, a man facing the miasma in the next room with only a useless TV clicker for help. He’s consigned me to the same realm as the rest of the possibly-omnipotent-but-patently-absent-every-time-it-matters beings in the cosmos.
When I emerge, deadline met, desperate for a toilet (why do journalists deny our own bodies?), I see Buck in his leather chair, pulled in front of the TV, watching the game.
“Oh, you got it,” I say, not lingering for a response and realizing belatedly that it had been an emergency. Buck grouses at the television, "Well, he can't be tired, he just had five days off."
Next Up: The Brackets, With No Love for Duke
Over the next — how many days is March Madness? — I’ll learn a lot about men’s college basketball. I’ll probably even bug Buck to fill out a bracket with me. First time we did it, we were in the top three until Georgetown lost to Kansas: 2008, loyalty over good sense. I love our animated conversations picking the upsets and deciding when we're going to dump out on Duke, which we inevitably do (apologies to our new senior editor for political coverage, John Myers).
Sometimes I won’t be able to help learning it because all conversations with the television during men’s college basketball happen at the volume of the Blue Angels. Other times I’ll wander in to watch a game and Buck, happy to educate me, will run commentary about the players (their height, weight, college record, prospects, personal challenges overcome) and plays (strategy, coach’s strengths and weaknesses, rules of the game, what the ref’s missing), while he’s hand-sewing a quilt or maybe a patch onto his jeans.
For example, Thursday morning alone I learned the following facts, useful in the days ahead:
- Pinkston (JayVaughn, a 'Nova forward) usually makes his free throws, though not in the game against Seton: “Aghghghghgh, ya bird-head!” (No, I’m not just making this family-friendly. Buck uses a delightfully broad range of epithets. And he’s as likely to say “phooey-gabooey” as %@$#.)
- Hart (Josh, a 'Nova guard) usually doesn’t make his free throws, but did.
- Commentators reliably don’t know anything: “Of course they’re playing for 1-seed; what the *$&# you talking about?”
- The word “Bonus” under the team’s score means the team has been fouled by the other team at least seven times for the half, and the team that's been fouled gets: a) to go immediately to the free-throw line; and, b) bonus free throws.
- It’s usually a mistake to dribble away four of the final seven seconds, when you have the ball and are behind and have a timeout left. Although Seton Hall did this and still won, so it’s not necessarily a deadly mistake.
- If I watch the game I start swearing, too. (Three seconds to go: Seton Hall inbounds the ball, Sterling Gibbs hits a “step-back jumper” from the top of the key -- and yes, I do know where the key is -- that drops into the basket as the buzzer sounds. I say, “OH *@#&! How did they let that happen?” Buck says, preternaturally calm, “I just called it. Didn’t I just call it?” Which he had. When Darrun Hilliard gave 'Nova the lead with seven seconds to go, Buck had said, “They can still win it.” It takes some finesse to know who “they” are when you’re hanging with sports people.)
A Lesson in How to Take a Loss
When it’s all over, I notice something I really like about sports people: If their team plays badly, they accept the loss. They might be stricken, but they accept it as right that the win went to the team who played best.
After arguing with the commentators and coaches and yelling at the players for, oh, let’s say a couple of hours, Buck says, about Gibbs’ game-winning shot, “That was a helluva play.” He pauses. “They played a great game. And we played awful. Awful. I’ll clean up the chickens in the backyard.”
I ignore the sacrificial chickens and feel a swell of love for this man, my housemate, landlord and friend. Affordable housing organizer by day, Villanova fan 24-7. And for my nephew and niece, and my sister, and everyone I’ve ever heard accept a crushing defeat while acknowledging the skill of their opponent.
“This is the thing I’ve noticed about sports people ...,” I start to say.
“It’s hard to predict their insanity?” Buck says.
Actually, no. It’s easy to predict their insanity. It revolves around the game and is gone when it’s over. Now that you mention it, my insanity is much harder to predict; it revolves around a dream I had, or whether I forgot someone’s birthday, or how long it’s going to take when I finally get around to calling Covered California to be sure my doctor’s on the plan I picked, or any number of things no one else could possibly guess at. Probably makes me harder to live with than your average sports person, even during March Madness.
Which is a good thing for me to remember during the next — how many weeks did you say this goes on?