I began running a fever early Saturday evening and went to lie down in the bedroom around 7:30 p.m. There was a lot of pain in my head and I wanted something to distract me. I didn’t want to watch anything, though. I did think I could listen to something on the radio. But it couldn’t be music. And it couldn’t be anything important. I found this old Sony portable with a retractable aerial in a drawer of the night table, turned onto my side, held it close, turned it on and twisted the dial.
Stations kept coming along. Nope. Nope. Nope. Then… “so I agree with you about the Mets. Everything you say. They are terrible. But not that terrible.”
“I just wanted to call in to say that, pal. I agree with you.”
“Thank you, Carl, you get a prize for calling in.”
“What is it?”
“They’ll tell you when you get off the air.”
“So who we got next? The Yankees? The Giants? What?”
I was listening to WFAN. I don’t know if you are familiar with it. It’s 24-hour-a-day sports radio. It’s mindless. It was perfect.
“Well, okay, Millie, yes, we’ve all seen you at the game all in green, yes we have. But we have to go now. We are heading into the Kentucky-Missouri basketball game. A big game. Stay tuned, everybody.”
Commentators gave a short, five-minute preview of the game. You could hear the crowd in the background, the cheers, the horn sounding, the sort of echo you get in a basketball arena. The two teams were both good. Both had records of about 22 wins and 6 losses. And this would be an important game in the conference. But the game was being played at Rupp Arena in Kentucky, and, arguably, Kentucky was the better team, although their star player was out injured.
“We expect a really close game, Sal,” one of the commentators said. And so the horn sounded and the game began.
This WAS a really good game. The players were fighting hard. You could tell. It was Phil Pressey stealing the ball for Missouri and driving through to make the basket. It was Willie Cauley-Stein for Kentucky, only a freshman, blocking a shot, then dribbling down, stopping short and draining a three pointer from the outside. The crowd was going nuts for Cauley-Stein. He was going to be great, one of the commentators said.
Nevertheless in the early going, Missouri muscled ahead of Kentucky. They led the whole first half, and only just before the end of the half with Cauley-Stein scoring did Kentucky pull up to end the half behind by four.
“Kentucky has to spread out the Missouri defense more,” said one of the commentators as everybody trotted off the court, “and be better collapsing in when Missouri tries to get through.”
“What about Missouri?” the other commentator asked.
“They just have to keep up with what they’ve been doing. Archie Goodwin. He’s the best shooter for Kentucky. And they kept him from scoring even one basket from the floor in that first half.”
By this point, in my mind, I had carefully decided what different players looked like. I saw Cauley-Stein, the Kentucky freshman, as very tall, six ten, thin and with long, quick arms. He’s really going to be a big star.
I saw Phil Pressey for Missouri as a short, muscular guy with great courage and quickness bulling his way through even the slightest crack in the Kentucky defense.
At this point, I was completely rooting for Kentucky. They were without their star. But they were fighting furiously. And they were lucky to have gotten to the locker room just four points back. I too would like to see Goodwin come out charging and start scoring for Kentucky. The coach must be furious with him in the locker room, without a single field goal in that first half. I imagined him tall with a long, sad face, which at this moment he was holding in his large, large hands as the coach spoke.
I would like to point out two things at this point. I had no idea what conference these two teams were in. I had never watched either of them play. I don’t even like basketball. But all this was beside the point.
The second thing I would like to point out is that I had not heard a basketball game on the radio in more than 50 years. When I was a boy, we didn’t even have television yet. We listened to all the ball games on the radio. And the commentators shouted out what was happening at a mile a minute.
“Harris stops, feints a shot and throws to Morrow in the right corner. He drives, Pincus knocks it away, but it’s picked up by Seton Hall, Bilochek getting it, and he heaves it down court to Rogers who goes up, but NO, Bevins of CCNY knocks it away into the crowd.”
Today that same call on the radio would go like this; “They get it to Morrow on the right side, he’s heading in toward the basket but it’s knocked away, now it’s headed the other way. And Rogers goes up for the easy layup—but it’s batted into the crowd.”
I suppose that today, everybody who really wants to watch this game would be watching it on TV. The commentators didn’t really need to knock themselves out so much anymore.
Well, the third quarter started and wouldn’t you know, Goodwin came out charging. He made a three pointer from the outside. He grabbed a rebound and went all the way down the court for a slam dunk. Five straight points. Kentucky was, suddenly, up by one and on fire.
Now I won’t bore you with the rest of this. Let us just say that Kentucky pulled well ahead but then Missouri came charging back and now, toward the end, they were trading the lead or they were tied and the crowd was going crazy.
You do have to know at this point that I had a totally clear image of everybody playing this. I knew what the arena was like. I knew the team colors, the big UK insignia that must be part of the floor at the center of the court. Everything. But I also knew, deep down, that the game going on in my mind could not possibly be the same game going on in person. And then I realized that this game was probably on television. Two good teams. Leaders in the conference. There were now three minutes to play. It was getting wilder and wilder. And so I leaped out of bed, strode into the living room and sat, alone, on the sofa and, after messing frantically with the remote, actually found it on ESPN.
And by God, they did look nothing whatsoever as I had imagined them. Except for the freshman Willie Cauley-Stein. He was indeed young, tall and thin with long arms. But he had a goatee. Hmmm.
Now there were 30 seconds left to play. My wife came into the living room to tell me that she was going to go to bed, she had to get up at six in the morning to catch the Jitney to the city. Was I coming?
I sure as hell was not coming, I told her.
“You look much better,” she said. She put her hand on my forehead. “Your fever is gone.”
“It will just be a few more minutes,” I said. “And you’re standing in the way.”
But it was not to be just a few more minutes. The lead went back and forth, back and forth, and then it ended. It was a tie. There would be an overtime. Now what?
I was so excited. Fifteen minutes later, it was over. Kentucky had won. They hugged, leaped around, high-fived, with the crowd going nuts again, and then they trotted off. On the other hand, Missouri just shuffled off.
I was really wired when I got into bed. I lay there for a long time, unable to sleep. I think I’ve discovered something, is what I thought. But I’m not sure what it is.