By Todd Vinyard • Special to The Smoky Mountain News
Western Carolina University head basketball coach Larry Hunter’s team had beaten Samford 88-71 on Feb. 3 for a significant Southern Conference victory, and he had become one of only 40 other NCAA men’s basketball coaches with 700 career wins. Despite the milestone, Hunter followed his postgame routine of 46 years in coaching — finish the work of game day and prepare for the next game.
I was all set to write another column on Donald Trump, who somehow seems more unhinged with each passing week, but when I sat down to write it, I had an epiphany: it is opening day of baseball season, spring is the air, and the NCAA basketball championship is just hours away. Simply put, I am in too good a mood to write about Trumplethinskin. This week, I would rather eat a bowl of thumbtacks than spend one more minute thinking about him.
I was in my early twenties before I knew what I wanted to do with my life. My son, Jack, is 10 years old and he already knows what he wants to do with his. He wants to play point guard in the National Basketball Association, specifically for the Charlotte Hornets. His favorite thing in the world is going to see the Hornets play basketball at Time Warner Cable Arena, where he can root for his favorite team while imagining himself on the court pulling up for a three-pointer at the top of the key, or “breaking someone’s ankles” with a wicked crossover dribble before finding a wide open Frank Kaminsky all alone under the basket for a thunderous alley-oop dunk.
In a crowded, frenzied gymnasium, Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland was just trying to not embarrass himself.
“I haven’t touched a basketball in years,” he chuckled. “I’m trying to not look as dumb as possible.”
There is no “I” in team for Jimmy Cleaveland.
“Listen, I don’t know where you’re going with this story,” he modestly said. “But, I sure don’t want this about me. I want it to be about these kids, for sure.”
While I can appreciate that many citizens get caught up in this so-called “March Madness” every year, I no longer have the time to cast anything more than a sideways glance in the direction of the NCAA basketball tournament. Where I once followed every dribble and rebound of the tournament from start to finish, spending every available hour — and most of my hours were all too available in those days, which is the whole point — obsessing over my brackets and trying to will my favorite teams on to the next round by sheer force of concentration (not to mention the wearing of my lucky hat), I now rely on late night recaps on ESPN or the status updates of my Facebook friends to keep me abreast of the tournament.
In other words, it floats in the orbit of my consciousness, but barely so. For me, real March Madness is pressure washing the deck, while trying to find time to get my son’s bat speed up to par for his transition from T Ball to Farm League this season, when he will be adjusting to machine pitches. Then there is tax season right around the corner, and the yard is threatening to get out of control already, and I have a stack of papers to grade. We’ve got to get the house in order for that get-together we’ve been planning, and that basement has been waiting to be organized for months. I’ve got to get my wife’s car over to Asheville for servicing, and now here is the guy to spray for bugs.
It is always something when you are a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities. I envy those that have the time to think about a basketball tournament, I really do. I wish it still meant that much to me, but I just don’t have the time or energy for it.
Pest Guy: “How are you, Mr. Cox? Had any problems with pests this month?”
Me: “No, just a random spider or two. I killed one in the bathtub Wednesday. So, who you got in the Final Four this year?”
Pest Guy: “The Heels, Kentucky, Missouri, and Syracuse. You?”
Me: “I got Ohio State beating the Orangemen. I don’t see them getting there without Melo. I got Missouri, but I don’t love that bracket.”
I followed the pest guy around the house while he sprayed under the deck and around the hedges, debating the relative merits of our Final Four picks as well as the prospects of North Carolina teams. We agreed that Duke looked pretty vulnerable and that N.C. State would be a nice darkhorse team this year if they took good shots and avoided turnovers.
By the time the pest guy left, I had to jump in the car and get it over to Asheville to get a sensor replaced, the one that tells you when the air pressure in your rear left tire is low. On the way over, I had about a thousand things on my mind, not the least of which was, did we really need to spend $200 on a sensor to tell us that the air pressure in our rear left tire was low? Who has time to think about a basketball tournament when questions such as these become part of your life?
I finally arrived, got the car into the garage, and asked the guy if he could just turn off the warning light without replacing the sensor if we would assume full responsibility for the inflation of our tires.
Sensor Guy: “No sir, we cannot really disable that light on the dash for you. Plus, your car wouldn’t pass inspection.”
Me: “I see. It just seems a little silly to me, what with air pressure gauges and eyesight and everything, that we should need a sensor to tell us that we need air in our tires. Anyway, you think Roy’s got the Tar Heels ready to go?”
Sensor Guy: “Yeah, I’d say he does. If they stay focused and play defense for 40 minutes.”
Me: “Think they can take Kentucky? I guess Obama does.”
Sensor Guy: “Yeah, I saw that. I hope God is not a Republican.”
Me: “The Republicans say He is. The Heels may need some divine intervention to score inside on Anthony Davis.”
I had the sensor installed and drove home, stopping off for gas and a sandwich. The guy at Subway noticed I was wearing my lucky N.C. State hat.
Subway Guy: “Go Wolfpack!”
Me: “I heard that. Let’s just hope CJ Leslie can stay out of foul trouble.”
Subway Guy: “I heard that. You want pickles on this?”
I took my sandwich and made a quick cell phone call to my friend, Tim, for an update on the afternoon games. When I got home, my wife and children were downstairs watching Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Them: “Hey, Daddy/Honey!!! Want to watch this with us?”
Me: “How much longer will it be on?”
Daughter: “It’s almost over.”
Me: “Don’t you guys have homework? Honey, did you remember you were going to pick up some pork chops at the grocery store for that new recipe?” Wife: “Yes, I remember. What’s wrong with you? You seem antsy.”
Me: “Me, antsy? Nah, just got a lot on my mind.”
I went upstairs and logged in on my laptop to check the scores on ESPN. I turned on some Miles Davis and tried to calm down a little. I graded a couple of papers, fed the dog, watered the plants, went to get the mail. Just how many frickin penguins did Mr. Poppers have?
Finally, the family emerged en masse from the family room, and I jumped out of the chair like a pop tart shot out of a toaster.
Wife: “Is there a game on?”
Me: “I think maybe there is. I’m just gonna watch a little TV and try to relax. I’ve just got too much going on this week, I guess.”
Wife: “Uh huh…”
Me: “Don’t forget those pork chops!”
I suppose, in the scheme of things, it is fine to enjoy such things as “March Madness” the way it should be enjoyed, as a pleasant and minor diversion from the crushing responsibilities of being an adult. As long as I am wearing my lucky hat, everything should work out fine.