DAYTON, Ohio — The hamburgers are on the grill, and the margaritas are flowing like small green waterfalls.
“GO JAYHAWKS!” someone slurps.
“GO HILLTOPPERS!” screams another.
“Pardon me,” I mumble. “‘Scuse me. . . . Pardon me. . . . “
I make my way through the tailgating parties like a police officer assigned to Beach Blanket Bingo. A van full of students is booming rock music and singing along. Suddenly, in the middle of the song, someone stops and yells
“HOW ABOUT THEM HOGS?”
“WHOOOEEE!” they answer. “HOGS, HOGS, HOGS, HOG–“
“‘Scuse me. . . . Pardon me. . . . ” I say.
This is no place for professionals. This is no place for cool, calm, detached journalists. Yet here I am. Same as always.
Year after year, I am sent into the throbbing heart of sports emotion without so much as a beat of my own. Year after year, I am the only man in the hotel lobby not glued to the TV set at the bar. Year after year, I carry media guides and stat sheets under my arms, while everyone else is loading up with hats and caps and sweatshirts.
“Room please,” I whisper to the hotel check-in person.
“Who you rooting for, Mister?” she asks.
“I’m not supposed to root.”
“Haw! That’s a good one. Are you one of those Arizona Wildcat people? I think their mascot is so cute! No, wait! You look like one of those Colgate fans. I tell you, they sure can party! They were up till 4 a.m. this morning, drinking and singing and . . . “
“Room please,” I repeat. My colors mean . . . clean
I am the black and white man in a world of color. Wherever I turn, there are hues of the heart, Minnesota gold, North Carolina blue, Michigan State green. People wave colored banners. People drive in colored cars. People wear colored clothes, perfectly coordinated, the school color socks, the school color belts, the school color hats.
I am the only person who dresses the way I have always dressed.
“GO RED!” someone yells, noticing my shirt.
“GO BLUE!” someone yells, noticing my pants.
“GO BLACK!” someone yells, noticing my socks.
How can I tell them the truth? That I picked these clothes only because they were clean?
I cannot tell them. I nod and wave. I arrive at the arena like a tax man at Woodstock. Fun is on everyone else’s mind. Fun is what they have traveled hours for in their rickety old buses. Fun is why they are sleeping six to a room down at the Budget Inn, and sharing Pepsi and french fries for breakfast, and cheering until they are so hoarse, they all sound like Carol Channing in the morning. Fun is at the top of their list.
I have no list. I am not here for fun.
“Got any tickets, Mister?” a kid asks as I approach the entrance. His face is painted yellow. His chest is painted blue. “Please, Mister? I’ll give you
$100 for tickets! Please, Mister! Whadya say, Mister?”
“Sorry,” I answer. “I have no tickets.”
Tickets? What do I know from tickets? I have my little press pass that hangs on my belt buckle. It gets me in. It sits me down. I do not have to scrimp and save to buy my admission. I do not have to beg, borrow, steal, call a radio station, dress like Grandmama, offer to swallow 30 goldfish in order to win first prize in the “How Far Would You Go For A Pair Of Tickets Contest?” sponsored by Budweiser, Nike and Chevrolet.
What do I know from tickets? I’m nobody’s baby; no baby’s mine
Once upon a time, all journalists behaved this way. Dispassionate, removed, jotting notes and taking scores and telling the story for the next day’s paper. But now some of us are as involved as students. At least the broadcasters are. I see Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps, screaming louder than many fans.
“AWESOME, BABY!” says Dick.
“YOU’RE CRAZY, BABY!” says Digger.
“NO, WAY, BABY!” says Dick.
I see fans rush Vitale’s table and mob him as if he were Eddie Van Halen. I wonder about this. I have never been rushed. I have never been mobbed. I have never called a stranger “Baby!”
“Excuse me . . . ” I say, trying to reach my seat. “Pardon me. . . .
‘Scuse me. . . . “
I reach my seat. The bands begin. The trombones pump and the trumpets blast and the players burst onto the court to an explosion of cheers. I open my computer. I set my notes. I watch as the players take the floor, and the fans begin singing their old school songs.
“HAIL TO THE . . . “
“FIGHT ON, DEAR OLD . . . “
I sit and watch. I am the black and white man, ink and paper, notes and quotes. It is my job. It is my role. Now and then, I wish I, too, had a school song to sing, a hamburger and a margarita, a reason for the socks I am wearing — besides the fact that they are clean.
It will not happen. The shots will go up and the shots will come down and the crowd will roar and when the buzzer sounds, some hearts will be flying and some hearts will be broken.
My heart will not be broken. My soul will not ascend. I will not wake up tomorrow morning dizzy and hoarse and sounding like Carol Channing. It’s a good job, and it pays just fine, and it gets you a lot of places, except back to that place when you were a kid.
And kids have more fun. That much is obvious, year after year.