Confessions of a Basketball Junkie

As I watched Notre Dame survive through five overtimes to beat Louisville last Saturday, I had this overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Here I was pulling for Louisville, knowing full well that the Irish were going to win the game. It was destiny. I’ve seen it before. It’s a well-ordained script. Not just the luck of the Irish, but also perhaps some divine intervention. At least, the Catholics believe.


Spiritual awakenings are common in basketball at all levels, but at the college level it borders on the epiphany, where the devoted and frenzied fans drive it up a notch. Note the sign from the Georgetown faithful in the photo above. Earlier this year, Villanova channeled higher power to knock off top-rated teams Louisville and Syracuse in succession, even though they’ve struggled through the year, losing 10 so far.

I confess I draw my basketball compulsion from Catholic school. We only had one sport at little Holy Name of Jesus, the one we played in the gym/convocation center. We played on our lunch break and after school, and I followed the team religiously by bus all over western Kentucky, as a back-seat busser and aspiring sports writer. I was writing basketball game stories for the local paper when I was in high school, so I felt like a player.

Our little Catholic school would compete far above its enrollment or weight class. Boys would live in the gym, firing up shots from all over. There were no 3-point shots back then, but the long jump shooters were the heroes. We might not be able to mix it up underneath with all the big boys, but we could shoot over them, with amazing regularity.

That is what makes basketball such a great sport, the truly beautiful game. You don’t need to be the biggest and baddest, you just have to be the smartest, with the best-practiced skills. And above all, you have to play together. There’s no “me” in basketball, at least not at the winning level. Even Michael Jordan needed his Scottie Pippin and Steve Kerr. He couldn’t go it alone.

That’s what I was thinking, back in 1983, when I recruited a couple of Hollywood, Fla., cops to fill out our three-on-three city league roster. I was the player-coach, and we were definitely challenged talent-wise, with a couple of shooters and one ball-handler, not much else. I took advantage of the opportunity to draft two African-American players – one 6-7 mobile big man and a quick, agile guard who handled and could shoot.

We were three young editors/writers at the local Sun-Tatler, medium-sized guys with medium to slow speeds, so the infusion of talent may have rocked the boat a bit. My good friend Alan didn’t like it, and he told me so, but I really wanted to run and play at a higher level. And we did win more games than we would have otherwise.

There is nothing to compare with the feeling that you share, when you’re in motion, got a hard-driving notion, just running with the glides. I wrote that to my brother David and he turned it into a song, not exactly knowing what I had in mind. Later he says, I thought you were talking about racing cars in high school, and hanging out with the cool guys. It became a mixed metaphor:

We’re not likely to see this song picked up by CBS to serve as background for the NCAA tournament, but it still revs me up, makes me want to run and (if I could only jump) dunk. That three-on-three format also served as a lesson for me later as a coach for my youngest daughters, from ages 8 through 17.  You have to run, beat the other team down the court. At tryouts I would always look for girls with the best ball-handling skills, who could keep their heads up as they raced down the floor with the ball. (Yes, they also tended to be soccer players.)

I probably over-coached and under-fathered in that situation, but I would get excited. I pushed the girls to beat the other team to the basket, ideally off steals. I taught the girls how to trap the ball and force bad shots, drawing on Kentucky’s successful 1-3-1 half-court zone press of the Joe B. Hall era. The idea was to take advantage of our speedy transition game. We managed to compete in every game enough girls showed up, winning the championship once.

Sticky defense, good passing, fast break: That’s what I look for in a good basketball team, and why I think Indiana is poised to win the NCAA tournament in March, barring one of those five-overtime spiritual haymakers. Cody Zeller and Victor Olidipo are great players, and the Hoosiers also have good ball-handlers who defend, rebound and quickly push the ball down the court. They lead the nation in offense, but their offense is predicated on their defense.

Duke, Gonzaga, Florida and Arizona can stake their claims, but the best teams are in the Big 10 this year – Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, all with a legitimate chance to make noise in the tournament. We could see at least two Big 10 teams in the Final Four for the seventh time in history, most recently in 2005.

But nothing is assured in college basketball, so don’t take my well-informed judgment to the bank. In particular, beware the little Catholic schools with the big crosses on their shoulders and no conscience with their shots. Besides Gonzaga, Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame are contenders, as are Creighton, Temple and Xavier. Anything can happen. But expect entertainment, excitement and a few miracles along the way.

Here’s a Christmas Card

My friend Kieran recently sent me a single from his acapella band, Cartoon Johnny, offered free for the holidays, “What Christmas Means to Me.” It’s an old Motown song, sung years ago by Stevie Wonder, and Kieran has the Stevie voice, a soaring tenor with soul, of the blue-eyed variety. He’s got the lead here. You can download the song from the Cartoon Johnny site here:

The song conjures up the sights and sounds of the holiday, and the feelings of good times now and the coming year: “candles burning low, kissing under the mistletoe, snow and ice, choirs singing carols …” all the ambient goodies that make Christmas a romantic season for young and old.

I’ve had mixed emotions about the holiday over the years, I confess, and not all good emotions. The best memories were of the songs, from the choir lofts of our church or caroling with the boys and girls in the crisp December air, stealing kisses whether there was mistletoe or not. There was always excitement in the air.

The first five Byrnes and their meager Christmas, one toy each. I got the wrong-shaped ball, David got the six-shooter.

But that’s a boy’s memory, unsullied by the marketplace, the bubbly, toil-y cauldron of the season. I’ve always resented the crass commercialization of Christmas, with the steady drumbeat to buy, buy, buy … step right up, get your Furby here, tickle me Elmo, little Cabbage Patch doll. Fit your Barbie to the nines. Last-chance coupons for the jewelry that will make your soul mate tingle, the hard-sell merchandising.

And then, years later as a newsman, reporting on how the American economy would rise or fall at the end of the year on those holiday sales. Be patriotic, get out there and buy, buy buy!

At some point the season passed from the joy of youth to the burden of adulthood, and it was not an easy passage for me. Nothing puts me more on edge than a crowded mall, jostling with frenzied shoppers trying to get to the bottom of that shopping list, going through the motions of holiday cheer. Even the Cyber Monday online blitz is a costly chore.

Now some would say that we suffer from having taken Christ out of Christmas, but that’s not the problem with the season for me. I’ve long since lost my faith in the little baby Jesus and his unlikely crusade to die for my sins. It’s a nice story tweaked through the ages, part of the great myth of the collective consciousness of the human experience.

We bring a lot of our gods to bear during the winter solstice season, Hannukah for the Jews, Bodhi Day for the Buddhists, Pancha Ganapati for the Hindu Lord Ganesha, Kwanzaa for the Pan-African celebrants, the Epiphany celebration for the Greek Orthodox and the Puerto Rican revelers. I’m happy to celebrate Yule, the shortest day so hurry let’s dance and make merry. And, of course, there’s Festivus, “for the rest of us.”

But there is another part of Christmas that warms the cockles of my heart, eggnog or no, and that’s the gathering of families, the displays of genuine affection – through not only gift-giving but also simple expressions of love and cheer. Over the years, as the eldest of nine kids, the father of five, the grandfather of four, I’ve found plenty of good reasons to celebrate the season. These were on my mind when I sent these lyrics to my brother, David, in Kentucky, from my outpost on the beach in Hollywood, Fla., back in 1984:

Here’s a Christmas card, brother,

The gift of our song

May the words strike a chord

May we find our best reward

In knowing we belong.

Christmas across the mountains

Makes me think of you

Of partying out by the goal

The nights of rock ‘n’ roll

The songs so true.

Here’s to crisp autumn days, of hot rod heaven craves,

To those young girls who won our hearts

To the jokes and the tokes, to the lovin’ live-in folks

It’s been a celebration from the start.

Here’s to our life, brother

One we’ll always share

Meet me at the buck-buck lot

Teach you what I’ve been taught

I’ll always be there.

We’ll find our absolution

In living this good life

Taking stock of all that’s past

Yielding songs that are sure to last

Well beyond our time.

Here’s to crisp autumn days, repeat CHORUS

Here’s to all those Christmases

Under the family tree

To the gathering of our gang

To the boys and girls who sang

In five-part harmony

And here’s to life

That goes on and on and on

To the memories we’re making

To the new ground we’re breaking

All started here in our home.

Here’s to crisp autumn days, CHORUS

Five years later those words came back to me in a video, probably the best Christmas present I ever received. There was David and his guitar, along with my daughters Celeste and Jessica, lip synching and “playing” along. David had changed a few words, to protect the innocents. My son Chris made a cameo at the end. The kids were all living in Kentucky then, along with their mother.

Here it is, recently digitized and uploaded to YouTube, thanks to my sweet Terry, the love of my life:

This week I make that trek across the mountains to spend quality holiday time with the Byrnes – Celeste and her husband Glenn have two energetic boys, one already a teenager; Jessica and Jeremy have two young’uns, as well. I stop to visit Chris and his girlfriend Rachel near Pittsburgh, along the way. David and Melissa will be there, along with my mom and her husband Claud, plus most of my sisters and, hopefully, my big little brother Tim, who lives not too far away.

All the Byrnes, at a Christmas gathering, with mom and stepdad Claud, from left: Tina, Tonya, me, Tim, Paulette, David, Sandra, Teresa and Jeannette.

Terry has to work, so she won’t join us this year. But after New Year’s, we get a chance to drive south to visit with her mom and dad, sister Patti and brother Andy and his wife Beth. We’ll miss daughters Miki and Cassy this year, but there will be some sharing via Skype, plus it won’t be long into 2013 before we visit them in Chicago. The family bond really knows no season, although we make time to celebrate it at the end of the year.

There is nothing more precious than family, and Christmas brings out the opportunity to share the love. So celebrate! Best wishes to everyone (and their families) for a joyous holiday season.