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College Basketball

The Family Queer Flies Home For March Madness

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski congratulates UNC forward Brady Manek after his Blue Devils lost in the 2022 Final Four.
Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The first thing that struck me about watching only basketball for the first three days of March Madness was that commentators called made three-pointers “buckets.” I wondered why nobody in the world of basketball seemed to talk about the net, at least not in such terms as “swish” or “nothing but net,” both of which reigned when I last paid attention to basketball, playing NBA Jam on our Super Nintendo. If anything, the net’s a hammock, what with all those knots, but nobody shouts, “Hammocks!” when a player sinks a three from the top of the court. They shout, “Buckets!” Or, at least, my sister does.

The pleasure must lie in the B sound. B as in “ball.” B as in “boom.” B as in “Before last year, I’d known about March Madness the way I knew about Mercury in retrograde—it was sometimes happening, and people would sometimes talk to me about it, and many people I didn’t know very well cared deeply about it.” B as in “But then I went with my sister Jenny on her annual trip to our parents’ to watch March Madness, and after three days of squeaking shoes I learned a thing or two.”

I don’t care about basketball, but I do care deeply about my family. I told myself, booking my flight, that I would do this for them. Or with them? I, the homosexual in the bunch, often confuse the difference.

Jenny drove us down to Williamsburg, Va., land of colonialist cosplay, where our parents retired to 20 years ago. Traffic on 95 was nothing, the sky a warm Tar Heel blue—a comparison Jenny would hate, given how fully Christian Laettner’s blue eyes imprinted on her in her willowy years. She’s such a rabid fan that she got to name the family dog Duke. I, the younger brother, learned that disparaging Duke (the team) got an easy rise out of her. But now that we’re grownups, and I know that families support each other, I said things like “Oh, that’s exciting” when she explained that this was Coach K’s final tournament. I agreed that Duke winning it all would be a very special thing indeed.

Jenny and I pulled into our parents’ driveway just seconds before Dad came home from his job at a golf course—he works part-time preparing carts for foursomes as a way to get a) free golf and b) out of the house. The knee of his khaki pants was stained rust red. “What happened?” Jenny asked, and he waved it away. Just tripped over a curb while he wasn’t watching where he was going. Just banged his knee a little. He thought he may have bruised his ribs, but it was, he assured us, No Big Deal. Dad is 74. Jenny and I suggested he get himself checked out at the ER, and he asked if we needed any help with our bags. Dad doesn’t fear or avoid doctors—he’s had every kind of skin cancer, he’s conscientious about his health more than ever now that he’s aging—but he wasn’t about to let a little (or large?) fall get in the way of this weekend with his kids. I couldn’t help but admire him in his red polo and khakis; he was still, at his age, a sturdy dude. His squeeze hugging us hello was solid, all-business.

After we got settled, Mom handed out brackets and I was at an immediate loss. I should love a bracket. Systematic orderings thrum something essential in me, like what a bow does to a violin string. I took a pen and stared at all the matchups. Texas Tech vs. Montana St. and Michigan St. vs. Davidson and Illinois vs. Chattanooga. I tried to picture the people for whom these names signified anything. Chattanooga had my whole life been only a choo-choo, and then a town I periodically read It’s Cool There Actually! articles about.

Basketball hadn’t even started and I was presented, once again, with The Sports Problem: how to get interested in a game played between strangers, and cared about by strangers? Put in situations where sports is the subject, I try to pretend I’m hearing news about the animal kingdom. Panthers slip past Ducks in OT. Ravens need to get creative in matchup with Dolphins. What are the Blue Jays doing? Should the Jaguars blow it all up this offseason?

I made a lot of wild guesses, and I picked Duke to lose to Michigan in the second round. Jenny picked the University of San Francisco, my employer, to lose in the first. Dad did, too. So much for families supporting each other.

Some years back, Jenny found my little league “playing card” and texted me a photo. I saw a mullet, high sweatpants, mesh jersey hanging blousily from my Olive Oyl shoulders. “What a baller!” she’d typed, reaffirming my role.

Jenny’s calendar was set by sports: Field Hockey Fall, Basketball Winter, Softball Spring. Dad’s was too, back in school. He lettered every year in football, basketball, and baseball. Dad dated the Homecoming Queen, and Jenny dated the tallest guy on the basketball team. They were jocks, those two, not unlike the kids who called me faggot in the halls and lived lives that looked, from where I stood, as smooth as a sitcom. I didn’t know I was gay, then, but I knew I didn’t fit the script everyone had seemed to memorize, and for years I’d felt myself drifting apart from my dad without knowing why. When Jenny could actually beat him in Horse, it felt worse to me than good old sibling rivalry. It felt like the answer to a question I was too afraid to ask.

I was told the “big” game Thursday afternoon was Michigan vs. Colorado State, but long after tipoff, Jenny and I were taking our time at the “good” antique shop in town. Didn’t we need to hurry? “It’s just the first half,” Jenny said, which is how I learned watching basketball was like gaming with a cheat code, or at least that it was OK to skip to the hard levels. By the time we got home, the score was a meaningless near-tie. I’d picked Colorado State to win, and they didn’t. Colorado State was then supposed to lose to Tennessee on Friday, but instead Tennessee lost to Michigan, and like that my Final Four was busted. By the end of Friday, Jenny’s and Dad’s were still intact. There was no shortage of gloating on their part about this.

But the bracket did help me Get Into The Game—something I’d never been able to do before. Middle of the afternoon on a Friday and I’m suddenly wanting the best for Villanova, scowling audibly when they foul the University of Delaware, and clapping quietly at every basket they make like a homosexual at a craft fair. Wanting to keep my bracket intact also forced me to root against underdogs, like St. Peter’s University, whom the commentators were calling this year’s Cinderella story. I love a Cinderella story, but those little debutantes kept fucking up my bracket. I found myself getting angry at every three they sunk.

I soon fell into basketball’s syncopated rhythms. Sometimes, in the twisting-eels scrum of players in the paint, someone would sneak to the three-point line, and the guy with the ball saw this and slipped it out to him. When he took the shot with a tall man flying at his face, it felt exactly like that moment at a vogue ball when the beat drops and you watch the queen collapse herself in a dip. I got it, or anyway I felt something. Any time that moment moved “my” team back into the lead, it felt almost like justice. It felt like when you hear someone’s in remission, or when Antonin Scalia died.

I knew to say “in the paint” because I asked Dad and Jenny what “the paint” was. I asked them what a “field goal” was and what a “bonus” meant. (Jenny had to go on her phone for that one.) I told myself I needed to know why some fouls got two free throws and others a “one-and-one,” because Jenny and Dad knew why, and I didn’t want to be left out. By Saturday afternoon, I’d learned so much that I started saying things like, “Given that it’s a two-possession game at this point, he better feel bad about making such a stupid foul.”

Whose language was this? This was how straight people talked, I realized, and this was what straight people talked about: competitiveness, shame, appropriate behavior. I got fluent in it early, asking the heteros who ran the world question after question about their interests, working them like a spy in the ranks. I became impressed, and I mean this less as an attention value and more as almost a physical action: I’d direct them in their answering to impress themselves upon me, and I willingly received that impression. Asking questions was always easier than saying something, even if it often left me unsatisfied, feeling somehow not myself.

This is a thing psychoanalytic scholar Léon Wurmser put into a new context for me when I read his book on shame:

The two basic modes [of interacting with your environment] could be called attentional and communicative, and the corresponding social modalities could be described as “being impressed,” with its modifications of being attentive, curious, exploring, and fascinated, and as “expressing oneself,” with its modifications of impressing, influencing, and fascinating others. Sexual scopophilia [i.e. voyeurism] and exhibitionism would be narrower versions of these more broadly conceived partial drives.

Léon Wurmser, The Mask Of Shame

If I’d had the strength last March to express what I wanted—i.e., that it was sickening to me how much poorer schools are than they used to be, and how enraging it is that dispassionate, conservative U.S. policies have gutted their budgets, and that students and faculty bear the brunt of that, and that it is college sports, this 100 percent useless vestige that has nothing to do with educating anybody, which gets all the money and attention—it would fall on deaf ears. Or angry ones, maybe, leaving Dad and Jenny not to accept my position on the matter as mine, but instead arguing over all the old shit about the value of athletics.

Feeling enough difference in my bones is all it takes to shut me up, prevent myself from advertising this difference in my walk and talk. That work isn’t just exhausting, it’s self-extinguishing. But as work, it hurts less than the pain of not fitting in with the very people who made you. Spending three days asking Jenny and Dad questions about basketball’s inane rules, trying to care about this thing they cared about, felt like being in the closet all over again: anxious and desperate to please lest I be found out.

But also: once every year, March Madness is how part of my family remembers it’s a family. Is it frivolous? What isn’t? The trick, for queers, is returning to our un-chosen families without dissolving into them, diminishing the parts of ourselves that are as essential as lube at a bathhouse. Out and proud for decades and I’m still learning how to manage it.

Ultimately, Duke didn’t make it past the Final Four, Jenny’s dreams of a Coach K Retirement Win dashed by North Carolina, of all teams. I was back home when it happened, on the other side of the continent with my chosen family, and I texted Jenny my sincere condolences. I wasn’t sad with her, but I was happy to be sad for her.

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