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The NCAA and Nostalgia

A return to Marquette, and the meaning of sports and memory

In 1975, the year I graduated from Marquette University as it happens, Joan Baez got her own back, gently, at Bob Dylan, for whatever happened in their complicated relationship back in what we geezer folk like to call “The Sixties,” in a lovely song called “Diamonds and Rust.” At one point, she challenges him to identify the reason he called her, which he insists was not nostalgic. “Give me another word for it,” she sings to him, slipping a velvet-handled shiv into his ribs. “You who are so good with words.”

The thing is, there has to be a better word for the way a longtime feeling of community rises unbidden when the right song pops up on a jukebox, or how I can still tell to this day the difference between the way yeast smells and the way hops smell, or the way the chill wind comes off the big lake. Or, as was the case this past weekend, how I felt just looking at the big, round dormitory I first entered four decades ago this past autumn. It is an odd sort of belonging, alive again. And it is not nostalgia, which is simple and marketable and, in so many ways, sterile and dead.

The big, round dormitory is called McCormick Hall, and it sits on the corner of 16th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, across the street from a bar that is now called Caffrey’s, but which I first knew as The Ardmore in the days in which I lived in the big, round dormitory. (The Ardmore specialized in something called “The Vulcan Mind Probe,” which you could use to run a snowmobile in a pinch, and generally caused undergraduates to behave illogically.) I saw it as I drove to the freeway that leads from Milwaukee to Madison, where Marquette was playing Wisconsin in a battle of two top-20 basketball programs on a wet, chilled afternoon. The game lived up to its billing, albeit in a ragged and eccentric fashion.

Wisconsin is a big, talented team, and extraordinarily gifted at milking the shot clock and dropping a 3-pointer just before time expires, which is an exhausting strategy to defend. “They make you play the last 10 seconds of the clock harder than the first 25,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams would later explain. For himself, Williams has an intriguing mix of young and old players, including a point guard named Darius Johnson-Odom who has a chest like Vinnie Johnson, and who bops around like vintage Earl Monroe, all herky-jerky, like a marionette of a drunken puppeteer. He’s going to spend all year trying to blend veterans like Johnson-Odom and dreadlocked forward Jae Crowder in with new players, especially an irrepressible scoring guard named Todd Mayo.

(Williams also has problems of a more serious variety. The Department of Education is wrapping up an investigation into whether or not university officials failed to report an incident of sexual assault involving several Marquette athletes. A decision is expected any day now.)

It was Mayo and Johnson-Odom who saved the game at its most critical juncture. With 10:45 left, Wisconsin finally began getting some shots to fall — they’d end up missing 14 of 19 3-point attempts — and cut the lead to a single point at 41-40. Marquette responded by stopping the Badgers on their next 10 possessions, while Mayo and Johnson-Odom controlled the ball at the other end, scoring twice apiece to build the lead back up to a working margin of seven or eight points the rest of the way.

“Ten stops in a row,” Johnson-Odom said later. “That shows you the character of this team.”

It was somewhere around Sun Prairie on the highway back to Milwaukee, when I began to feel my lights shine a little, that I began to think about trying to find a better word than “nostalgic,” which was insufficient to the way I was feeling. This was not something set in amber that I could look at, as though I were visiting the museum of my own life. This was something that felt durable and alive, whatever it was that I was feeling about how the Warriors — I will never make peace with that Golden Eagles nonsense. Never. — played down those last 10 minutes. There has to be a better word than nostalgic, and I’m pretty good with words.

I first defined myself as a sports fan through college basketball. From the time I was in second grade until the end of my senior year in high school, my father and I went to every home game Holy Cross played. The games were at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium in Massachusetts, a huge gray pile in Lincoln Square not far from the spot where one of my Irish great-cousins ran a saloon. I can still smell the cigar smoke and the wet wool of a thousand overcoats. When there wasn’t a game at the auditorium, there were dim, rudimentary telecasts of the Providence College games on Channel 10 in Rhode Island, or from places like the Palestra in Philadelphia. Once, years later, when I was covering games for a newspaper in Boston, I went down to the Palestra, and the late Dave Gavitt, who was then doing television commentary for Big East games, pointed to the visitor’s bench and told me, “I left a quart of blood under there.”

(As for Holy Cross, well, it’s been rather the family business since the family got here in 1919 or so. My father was class of 1934, and I was the only male member of my family for two generations who didn’t go up Mount St. James for college. My cousin Joanne is a professor of theology there now, which I suspect sends some people in the old Jesuit cemetery to spinning at about 78 rpm. In fact, my uncle, Fr. Michael Pierce, S.J., was partly responsible for prying loose from the Navy a Quonset hut in which a certain founder of revolutionary sports websites is rumored to have played intramural basketball. Life, as Jack McCoy once said, is a funny old dog.)

It’s hard to remember what they were like, those days before cable packages and game presentation. The telecasts were usually black and white. The score on the screen was huge and usually blocked out at least a portion of the action every time they threw it up there. The NIT was just as prestigious as the NCAA tournament, which always seemed to be being played at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and always seemed to contain at least three players named Stallworth. Those of us who followed it were part of something rather cultish, with its own secret language and its own sacred places — the Palestra, Manley, Pauley — that we whispered about while everybody else was arguing about the Giants or the Red Sox.

There’s little question that the game played no small role in where I went to college. I wanted journalism school and Marquette had one, but I also wanted a piece of what I’d seen on television in 1970, when Al McGuire told the NCAA to go climb a tree because he didn’t want to take his team to Texas to play in a regional when he could take it to New York and win the NIT. (Marquette was the last team that had that choice. The NCAA, which never overreacts when actual sweaty panic is an option, closed the loophole after McGuire dove through it.) Once there, Dean (The Dream) Meminger and his colleagues, in their black-and-yellow bumblebee uniforms, which the NCAA later banned, locked up Pete Maravich so tightly that, it is rumored, Meminger’s brother stood up behind the LSU bench, pointed at Maravich, and announced to the world, “This honky can’t dance.”

(The trip was enlivened further by Gary Brell, a forward of staggering eccentricity — even by the standards of Marquette basketball, which were considerable — who, when asked after the game what he thought of LSU coach Press Maravich’s contention that Marquette’s defense was “like watching grass grow,” told the assembled media, “We mowed his bleeping lawn,” and then, later, cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden with a switchblade.)

So J-school was fine, and the fact that Marquette was also a Jesuit school made it OK with my parents — my uncle Michael even had some classmates who taught there. The reach of The Society is a long one, which is why, as one of my European history professors once put it, “There are only three things you need to know about European history: The nobility is always corrupt, the middle class is never ready to take control, and the Jesuits are always being expelled” — but it was the basketball program that was the soul of the place. The best nights were the ones where it snowed. Not much, but big, fat flakes, swirling under the streetlights and in front of the bright neon, that seemed to soften the brutal cold and take the edge off the winds that blew up the avenue from the big lake.

We’d all meet in some campus dive or another, usually The Gym, a narrow corridor of a bar that had taps shaped like basketballs. (They’re all gone now. The last of them, Hegarty’s, where the J-school crowd hung out, was closed last spring, and the university subsequently tore down the whole building.) Some of us might have been in there early, watching a Big Ten game from one of those huge, dark arenas, or a game from Notre Dame. (One afternoon in 1974, we watched the Irish break UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. It was very hard to know which way to root on that one.) Then we’d walk down Wells Street to the Milwaukee Arena, which looked very much like the world’s largest rolltop desk.

Inside, the roiling carnival that was Marquette basketball under Al McGuire was at full boil. The uniforms were gaudy; for several years, they were designed so that the tail of the shirt could not be tucked in. The NCAA passed another rule. The players were an odd amalgam of personal quirks and competitive discipline. They shouted back at the coach. They won far more often than they lost. They were the heart of an impromptu community that lived within the larger community of the university. They were a great part of what made the place a home.

So, like I said, it was somewhere around Sun Prairie when all of that came back again, bright and living as much as it ever did. College basketball is now too much like a business to be anything like what it was when it first won my heart. There is too much television. There is too much money going to too many of the wrong people. There is too much “game presentation” in the arenas. It has outgrown the Worcester Memorial Auditorium. What Al McGuire wrought along Wisconsin Avenue is not possible anymore.

Still, those 10 straight stops were pretty damn sweet.

I got back to Caffrey’s and I noticed that there were Christmas lights in the windows of the big, round dormitory, their glow smeared into blobs by the cold winter rain. Snow was coming behind the rain, the season bearing down toward the big lake. Somewhere, further down the avenue, a bell began to ring. I thought a lot about communities, lost and found and everlasting. “Belonging,” I thought. That’s a better word than nostalgic. The bell tolled once more. To paraphrase something else Joan said to Bob, all those years ago — I’ll be damned, here come those ghosts again.

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire , is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

Previously from Charles P. Pierce:
It Wasn’t (Just) About the Money
The Tailgate and Modern America
The Brutal Truth About Penn State
The Decline of Horse Racing
The Beginning of the End for the NCAA
My Memories of The National

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Filed Under: College Basketball, General topics, NCAA, Nostalgia, Sports

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.