As a child growing up in Bloomington, Ind., one of the first lessons I learned was that a prerequisite to any base level of social acceptance was a fluency in the lingua franca, Indiana basketball. I took this to heart at an early age. Like most everyone, and for as long as I can remember, I've followed the Hoosiers with a passion that approaches religion.
That wasn't the case for my late father. A bookish native New Yorker who never so much as learned to catch a ball, he took a sort of subversive pride in knowing as little as possible about sports in general, and particularly about
In my social circle, my father's glaring ignorance on all matters hoops was a source of unceasing amusement. A favorite parlor game during carpools entailed asking
"Who's Indiana's starting point guard this year?"
"Bent Kenson?" my father would respond, playing to the crowd.
"Okay, I give up. Who is it?"
"Isn't he the guy," my father wondered aloud, "who misspells his own first name? I-S-I-A-H. He's missing a second 'A.'"
My friends, whose dads were uberfans, never missed Knight's weekly radio show and wore the diriguer red sweaters on game days, would shake their heads in unison and wonder how I fared so poorly in the paternal lottery. When Indiana, led by starting point guard Thomas, won the NCAA title in 1981, I thought surely my father would at least share some of my excitement. I pleaded with him to buy me a commemorative championship T-shirt at the campus bookstore. He returned with a shirt reading, "Indiana 1980 NIT Champions."
The next fall, though, my hopes for a breakthrough were rekindled when my father returned from the first day of classes and announced, "There's this red-headed guy in my freshman English course who's either a basketball player, a pituitary case, or both."
I immediately deduced that the student-athlete-freak in question was a recruit named
When I put both suggestions forward, they were met with unequivocal rejection. "I could never, and would never, ask a student for basketball tickets," my father said sternly. "And if you want his signature so badly, maybe I'll give you the cover page from one of his essays."
Before the end of the semester, my father did, however, agree to buy tickets so we could watch Uwe play. Taking your kid to his first basketball game might be a rite of passage, but taking your father to his first game is something altogether different. Indiana played Notre Dame that night, and I still recall the game fairly vividly. Led by
In the second half, Indiana's two best players,
As we walked out, I asked my dad for his impressions of what, by any measure, had been a great college basketball game. "It was more fun than a kick in the head," he said in uncomplaining summary. "I was just glad IU won and they didn't have to go to a tiebreaker."
As we made our way to the parking lot, one of the other 14,241 attendees struck up a conversation with us. "Hoosiers looked pretty good tonight, eh?" he said. My father nodded back enthusiastically. "Say," our new friend continued, "You know who we play next?" Astonishingly, my father not only grasped that "we" meant Indiana, but he actually knew the answer. "Drake," he replied assuredly.
Unbelievable. At that point my mind started racing. Should I buy my father tickets to a Big Ten game? Was the newest college hoops convert ready for a baptism at the knee of
"That Wittman sure is something, huh?"
"Sure is," responded my father confidently. "Reminds me a little of Isiah Benson."