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 Bobby Knight and his subordinates. As a proud member of the IU faculty, he was distressed that the school's reputation often seemed to start and end with the basketball team. It was inconceivable to him that so many people could devote so much time and psychic energy to supporting an athletic team. As he once put it to me, "I don't get it. You can't tell Plato from play dough, but you know everything there is to know about a bunch of sweaty basketball players."
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 Mr. Wertheim a ridiculously easy basketball-related question and then seeing just how absent-minded a professor he was. My father, equally stunned by our bottomless appetite for (nutritionally bankrupt) Hoosier trivia, would gladly indulge us. A typical exchange went something like this:
"Who's Indiana's starting point guard this year?"
"Bent Kenson?" my father would respond, playing to the crowd.
"You mean Kent Benson!" we would shriek amid eruptions of laughter. "No! He graduated a long time ago. And he played center, not point guard."
"Okay, I give up. Who is it?"
"Duh. Isiah Thomas."
"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 Uwe Blab. My father had never before taught a basketball player -- at least not one that he could recall -- and I was giddy thinking about the possibilities. My father could hit him up for tickets. Or better yet, he could bring a basketball to class and beseech Uwe to autograph it for me.
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 John Paxson, the Irish mounted an early lead. Indiana got some bum calls, Knight was working the refs and the fans were, typically, worked into a lather. When I looked over at my father to gauge his excitement, I found him engrossed in a book.
In the second half, Indiana's two best players, Randy Wittman and Ted Kitchel, blazed to life and hit a string of -- and here I'm dating myself -- mid-range jumpers. The Hoosiers pulled out the game, as they always seemed to do in those days. While he never actually clapped, my father spent the second half with his gaze fixed on the game and he even managed to smile when Indiana scored.
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 Dickie Vee? My reverie was interrupted by more chitchat from our companion.
"That Wittman sure is something, huh?"
"Sure is," responded my father confidently. "Reminds me a little of Isiah Benson."