Thursday, April 11, 2013

ON THE AVENUES: 27 is just a number.

ON THE AVENUES: 27 is just a number.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Earlier this week, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team won the 2013 NCAA tournament title. It is the school’s first championship since 1986, and the third one overall.

I began pondering: How long has it been since 1986?

In 1986, the city of Louisville still was several years away from its first craft brewery, and there wasn’t a Sportstime Pizza yet. Scoreboard Liquors still operated on West Spring, and Doug England hadn’t been mayor, not even once. Back then, it truly was a different world.

I still followed the college game in 1986, although the ties previously binding me to childhood tribal loyalties gradually were being loosened as the rampant hypocrisies of amateur sports became increasingly evident to me, amid mounting daily cynicism pertaining to most things American.

Ronald Reagan was president, for chrissakes, and Ray-Gun ruined the eighties hereabouts, just as Margaret Thatcher did in the United Kingdom. In more ways than one, dementia is our collective legacy.

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To be perfectly candid, I remember almost nothing of the triumphant 1986 U of L tournament run except that the title game against Duke was quite close, “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison was a freshman, and I was extremely drunk at my Sam’s Tavern stomping ground during the final -- but of course, this may have been any night between 1979 and, say, last week -- give or take a venue or two, and an evolving selection of adult beverages in between. The difference was a local team winning.

Somehow the following college basketball season (1986-87) remains a more memorable period for me, probably because Indiana University won the championship in 1987. Moreover, defending champion Louisville suffered through one of the worst campaigns ever waged following a title, finishing only 18-14 and failing to qualify for the so-called Big Dance.

(It pains me highly to market-speak a clichĂ© in this context; I’m sorry, Mr. Mencken).

As the 1987 regular season wound down, I was only weeks away from embarking on my second grand journey to Europe, and my friend TR unexpectedly scored gratis tickets to the Metro Conference tournament at Freedom Hall in Louisville. U of L was matched against its then arch-rival Memphis State, and given the poor record recorded by the Cardinals during the regular season, the home team would have to win the Metro Tournament outright to qualify for the NCAA bracket.

A digression: Memories can be funny things, indeed. I recall that day at Freedom Hall as warm and spring-like, although it seems unlikely so early in March. Conversely, IU’s victory in the final game, three or more weeks later, strikes me as having occurred on a cold and icy night with bad roads, with only a handful of us at Lanesville’s K & H, watching on television and drinking beer I’d rather not mention aloud.

Louisville began badly against Memphis State in the Metro Conference final, and the game never got any better. In the second half, with the Cardinals consistently trailing by more than twenty points, the building rapidly began hemorrhaging people. In the closing moments, with both benches long since emptied and a pall as wide as the Ohio River settling over the steadily diminishing faithful, I glanced around our end zone seats and noticed we were among the last attendees remaining anywhere near our vicinity.

Mercifully, the humiliation on the court was about to end when suddenly I became aware of a disturbance behind me. Violent sounds were echoing off the concrete wall, far up the vastness. It sounded almost like a banshee.

Turning to look, an earthier tableau abruptly was revealed. Seated on the very last row, a man apparently afflicted with sudden onset swill poisoning was projectile vomiting in a disgusting scene fully reminiscent of a certain Monty Python film.

Who could forget such a scene?

Mr. Creosote’s visceral reaction to a three-touchdown loss (in basketball) was perhaps the very best summary of a lousy, wasted year for the returning champs. We promptly returned home, where I consumed a six-pack of Heineken Dark in short order, alone in my room, reading a travel book about Italy, and dreaming about better days to come.

In the aftermath of Louisville’s win on Monday, I’m wondering: Did those days ever arrive?

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Don’t worry, because I’m not about to embark on one of my frequent screeds denouncing the corruption of major college sports, or ramble about how we’re the only country in the world to befoul education with athletics (and vice versa), or dismiss the whole “sports fan” phenomenon as the pervasive waste of precious time it undoubtedly is.

Rather, it’s about those elusive better days.

I’m guessing they actually did arrive, and to once again quote Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now,” but along with better days in selected contexts have come inevitable changes in others, among the latter my steady, perhaps inexorable drift away from youthful pursuits, like actually caring about what happens in college basketball.

Many of my friends still do, and that’s fine. To me, it’s a topic for ruminating about personal consciousness, and how it changes and (sometimes) evolves. Interests and even obsessions come and go, and at some point, one is spotted scratching his head and asking: Why is it this way, and not some other way?

That’s the point when you reach for a beer. After all, some constants never change at all.

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