Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Raised a fan

My parents raised me to be a fan. They might have hoped they were raising me to be an athlete of local repute, but really they raised me to be a fan. My ill-fated competitive days were numbered, but I really do not mind. I know being a fan is better than being an athlete.

My parents and I used to trudge toward the Wildcat Den through heavy, wet snow in the Libertyville High School parking lot. The small hallway inside the door acted as a foyer for the auditorium of my youth. Parents sold orange and black afghans to snowflake-covered fans shaking out their coats while the jazz band serenaded inside. The scoreboard buzzer sounded inside the gymnasium before the team exited the court to a rousing standing ovation for their final pregame pep talk. If we arrived late, we had to wait outside the door with tens of others and rush in together at the next timeout. My parents found my friends' parents, and I tip-toed along the edge of being my parents' son and my friends' friend. I was 6, 7 and 8. I was 9 and 10. I was growing up.

All the kids my age sat in the same spot. We watched those games knowing we all wanted to be players when we grew up, and the pressure we applied to ourselves was entirely unfair. I hope I would look at those days in the same light if I never made the team years later. Those days were magical.

I remember it all: spark plug Brian Hamlett, linebacker convert Tim Beshel, shifty Chris Mitchell and his middle-school receptionist mother, the Warren kid with the curly hair, the Heldman-Kessel rivalry, high school students strolling the sideline, Coach Panther by the side door, Coach Sanders' reddened face, Super Fan Gary and a full-court swish at the Mundelein game's halftime buzzer.

My best Libertyville hoops memory was Chad Lee's 1994 sectional final, triple-overtime dagger in the doghouse by my dad's side. I have never seen a finish so frenzied, and I am a Carolina alumnus. I watched the video eight years later with my teammates in the locker room I could finally call my own. Most of them saw it in person too. I wish I watched their faces in 2002 when they saw the shot go in again on the fuzzy screen. We were little kids again.

When Heldman passed, Libertyville held a pregame tribute with comments from our coach and video footage from his Libertyville and Illinois careers. I remember warming up without several teammates who were still in the locker room with their hands on bowed heads. I do not think any of them ever met him. We scored just nine points against Warren in the first half.

My mother and I continue our basketball tradition by going to Carolina basketball games together. As one might expect, Carolina offers a better brand of basketball than my days of youth. We danced with Danny Green. We saw the greatest Carolina player of all time play his last two seasons in Chapel Hill. Our Carolina memories live forever in our minds but also on DVDs, ESPN Classic and YouTube. We rarely walk through snowy parking lots in Chapel Hill, and I never worry about working hard enough to make the team anymore. My remaining eligibility will go unspent.

One thing has not changed. We still go to the games together. My dad cannot always go, but he calls me after the games to talk. It's a family affair. And as much as I appreciate my family's shared experience, I think my parents appreciate it more.

Despite being as blessed as I am with Carolina football and basketball season tickets, I still have the fondest memories of the early 1990s in snowy Libertyville. That was my introduction to what it meant to be a fan. I learned about disappointment, relief, caring about something outside of myself and being a part of a family. I regret to say that all of those memories exist only in my head, but I did find one video that connects my Libertyville and Carolina families.

Heldman played in one game at Duke during his Illinois career. Illinois won and ended Duke's 95-game non-conference winning streak. Heldman, not surprisingly, was a victim of the infamous yet classic Duke flop.

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