I never thought that I would cry watching a replay of a basketball game.
But last night, I did. ESPN2 has effectively turned into a surrogate ESPN Classic in the wake of sports’ general cancellation as of last week, and last night played what a lot of people call the best college basketball game of the 2010s – January 4th, 2016. #1 Kansas, #2 Oklahoma. Allen Fieldhouse. Lawrence, Kansas.
I have a complicated relationship with this game. It was the January of my Junior year at KU. I had gone through a breakup in the fall semester, I felt maybe more lonely than I ever had at any point before. I was in flux. That semester, I was changing majors, having to consider a future after school, and I was living in an apartment outside of the dorms for the first time.
I was in the building for that game. I wasn’t in the stands, though. I was under the East side bleachers on the third floor working a concession stand. I was working it basically as a volunteer fundraising gig for a band service group of which I was a member. I was stands for many of the great games of my college career – Oklahoma State in ‘14, West Virginia in ‘15, Kentucky in ‘16 – but I had to settle for being ‘in the building’ for that one. I’d never actually watched that game before last night.
January 4th, 2016 was a special night for basketball. It was the only time during the 2010s that the AP #1 and #2 teams met in a regular season game on campus. It hadn’t happened in eight seasons at that point. It was Big Monday on ESPN, the game was commentated by Dick Vitale and Brent Musburger, the latter of whom was only a little over a year away from calling his final college basketball game.
We were, at that point, still two weeks away from the first day of the Spring Semester, and dorms hadn’t opened up yet. It was also a night game during early January in Northeast Kansas. Weather Underground tells me that the temperature peaked at 28 degrees Fahrenheit that evening in Lawrence. That left the student section populated with primarily upperclassmen dedicated enough to brave the elements to get to the Fieldhouse that night.
They were loud. That’s most, basically all, of what sticks with me from that game. I remember the ceiling above me shaking during the second half, a rarity considering the bleachers above us were primarily populated by elderly donors. At one point in the broadcast, Dick Vitale called it the loudest building he’d ever been in. I know Dickie V’s a bit hyperbolic, but I’d been going to games in Allen Fieldhouse since I was seven years old and it felt like it to me, too.
I didn’t see Buddy Hield’s free throws to put the game in overtime, I don’t remember Perry Ellis’ three-pointer to tie the game in the first overtime, nor Wayne Selden’s missed three-pointer that could’ve won it at the end of the first overtime, nor Frank Mason’s steal at the end of the third overtime to win it for KU. All I remember was the noise. I could feel it even in the concourse. That mass of human emotion was so powerful that night that I didn’t need to see a single basket to recognize the particularity of the action on the floor.
I was with family at the turn of the new year. Most, if not all, of my close family on my mother’s side are Jayhawk alumni. As we watched KU defeat Stanford in Palo Alto in late December, they traded stories of their favorite games and players, from Danny Manning to Jacques Vaughn to Frank Mason. At one point in the conversation, my aunt said to her kids, “We have been spoiled by Allen Fieldhouse.” I agreed. When I first met one of my closest friends after relocating to San Diego last year, the first thing he asked me about after learning I went to KU was Allen Fieldhouse. It’s a bucket list arena for other people, it was home for me. And to be able to say that I was there for one of the best games in its history is special. One day, if this pandemic doesn’t bring about the death of us all, I’ll be able to tell the future generations about what I got to see.
Last night, when I heard Dick Vitale practically scream that the noise in the Fieldhouse that night was the loudest he’d ever heard, I cried. That noise, not just in the Fieldhouse but at any mass sporting event, is special. It’s spontaneous and it’s unreplicable, only produced by a mass of people in joined elation. That noise is felt more than it can be heard. That night, that noise from the bleachers above me made me recognize that the game on the floor beneath me was special.
Seeing and feeling that noise in replay, juxtaposed with the recognition that it’s going to be months at the earliest before I ever feel that again, anywhere, it hurt.
I have never really agreed with the mindset that says that viewing sports via television has surpassed seeing them happen live, and this separation from the rest of the population is further cementing that to me. Goodness, what I would give right now to be a part of a mob of humanity rising and falling in simultaneous emotion, or just to know definitively that I could be a part of one at any point before the end of summer.
This season, for the first time since, maybe, 2001-02, I didn’t get to see a single game in Allen Fieldhouse. Last year, for the first time since it opened, I didn’t see a single match at Children’s Mercy Park. It is in those two buildings where I’ve felt that noise the most. I felt it with Brandon Rush hitting a jumper to cement a 16 point comeback against Oklahoma in 2006. I felt it with Dom Dwyer’s goal against Vancouver to start the 2016 MLS season. I felt it when Eddie Johnson missed a penalty kick in the 2012 US Open Cup final. It’s hitting me now, how badly I’ve missed it.
And I am going to feel it again.
It simply pains me to recognize that I don’t know when it’ll happen again. The last sporting event I attended before the national impetus to socially distance was another special one. It was San Diego Loyal SC’s inaugural match on March 7th against Las Vegas Lights. On that night, though I attended the game by myself, I felt such a deep sense of community with the fans around me. Each of us were there in support of not only the club, but of the sport of soccer in this city. The unity among strangers, particularly in that case, was energizing, and I eagerly anticipate the night that I will be once again joining the Locals behind the East goal end in Torero Stadium, whenever that may be. I certainly will not take it for granted, and I owe it to myself never to take it for granted again.