This Week in Loving
Passion in the paint: How I learned to love basketball
Editors Note: Since we're in the month where love rules, we are temporarily replacing the weekly feature "This Week in Hating" with "This Week in Loving." It seems the right thing to do.
There’s not a single Valentine’s Day card anywhere that says the three magic words I want to say: I love basketball.
Some commemorate that romantic first date, others that first kiss. But nobody sells a card that centers on the first game I ever watched and started to understand in 1986, when the sound of players thundering down the court started to thrill me, when the squeak of sneakers as players battled below the basket for a shot, or a block or a rebound began to make me perch on the edge of the couch, tense with excitement, watching every move.
For that matter, there’s not a card in town that says what I’d like to express to my husband, Pat: Thanks for turning me on to basketball. Finally, someone had explained the rules to me without thinking my questions were stupid.
The circumstances of my two romances are closely intertwined. To put it succinctly, I went over to his house to watch a Rockets game and never entirely went home again. The Rockets shot baskets that evening; he made biscuits the next morning. And I asked him, during that tender first morning together, “When is the next Rockets game coming on?”
My vocabulary began to change. I learned that most of the game was played “in the paint,” the area of the basketball court underneath the basket (usually painted) inside the end lines, the foul lanes and the free throw line. That’s where most of the action is. I started to recognize an “alley oop,” an “assist,” and certainly an “air ball.”
And I adored the towering Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, who was just beginning his rise to fame, and the equally tall and relentlessly scoring forward Ralph Sampson. They led the Rockets to the NBA finals that nail-biting year but lost to the Boston Celtics. I was hooked.
Interspersed between Rockets games was another drug I began to use: College basketball. NCAA games are faster, more passionate. College players aren’t making the big bucks; they’re playing their hearts out because they love the game – and because they hope to get drafted into the pros so they can make the big bucks, too.
Our best friend Pete was a rabid Hoosiers fan (he had graduated from Indiana University), so we were, too, out of loyalty to him. Also because the Hoosiers had the league’s most entertaining, apoplectic coach, Bobby Knight. We traveled with Pete to New Orleans to the Final Four to watch the Hoosiers battle for the championship against Syracuse. In the last seconds, Indiana was trailing by a point. The team's star player, Keith Smart, wriggled out of a knot of players and scored a basket to win the game 74-73. We all went wild.
But my love for college basketball never diminished my loyalty to the Rockets. It was rewarded in 1994 when they snatched the NBA championship from the favored New York Knicks. And again in 1995, when they beat the Orlando Magic for another championship trophy.
I loved the Rockets – but even more, I loved Houston as a Rockets-crazy town. Everybody got into the act. Knicks star center Patrick Ewing reportedly sent back a dessert he ordered at a Houston restaurant because someone in the kitchen had written “Go Rockets” in chocolate syrup on the dessert plate.
After the Rockets’ 1995 victory, giddy Houstonians who lived near the Summit (now Lakewood Church) walked there with brooms to signify the Rockets’ “sweep” and stood alongside the luxury busses loaded with defeated Orlando team members singing “Hit the Road, Shaq” to their star center, Shaquille O’Neal.
Leading up to the championship games, everyone in Houston had the fever. Every window of every business and home displayed placards cheering on their team. And in victory, Houstonians celebrated loudly, wildly, but civilly. In some towns when home teams take the championship, the jubilation almost inevitably devolves into looting and burning. In Houston, it was pure happiness.
I was driving home from the home of a friend who had invited me over to watch the Knicks game, and I kept the window rolled down despite the cold evening. The solid wall of sound – all car horns honking and air horns bleating and cheers and whooping – nearly brought me to tears. But instead of crying, I leaned my head out the window and howled with them.
I don’t watch the Rockets as much these days, but I’m still glued to the TV every time a college game is on. Pat used to be the one to remember to turn on the game, but how things have changed. He walked into the house recently, unaware a game was on, to hear my report from the couch: “Iowa was down by 15, but now they’ve gotten it to a three-point spread.”
“I’ve created a monster,” he said.
Since he is a UT alum and the Longhorns are having a good year, I cheer loudest for Texas. It’s a long road to the Final Four in early April, so I can look forward to two months of adrenaline-soaked moments watching basketball.
As for the guy who introduced me to it, we married 22 years ago — during basketball season.