Endings by Andy Shenk
March 25, 2012, 9:52 pm
Filed under: Sports, Stream of Thought | Tags: ,

From an early age I fell in love with books. I vividly remember regular trips to the library, where I would check out Where’s Waldo? and huge, colorful books filled with fairy-tales. I remember my first library, the Springfield (Ohio) Public Library, as a cavernous space. The old brick building had massive doors leading into the lobby, and then again, into the main first floor. My two destinations — the video and children’s areas — lay to the left and right, respectively. Rarely did I venture beyond their shelves to the dull, bleak rows of adult novels and non-fiction. I read contentedly within the bright fantasy of the children’s department.

As cliché as it might sound, my passion for reading was probably directly linked to my parents’ decision to not own a TV. That’s not to say that I didn’t fantasize daily about having a TV. Faced with my parents unrelenting principles, however, I intuitively understood that there never would be a TV. Though I may have enjoyed reading just as much with a TV in the home, its absence meant that much more time was naturally given over to books.

As I grew older, the books I read changed. They grew longer and more serious. Rather than just pick out what looked most exciting or basely appealing, I began to read books because I thought I should be reading them. This philosophy nearly extinguished my reading career in college, where, as a history major, I felt pressured into reading only academic historical non-fiction.

At the time I was considering pursuing academia as a career and felt hopelessly behind on my theoretical knowledge of the historical field, not to mention my own special area of interest: the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. The list of books to read was endless. Knowing that, reading a Patrick O’Brian novel (not only was his work unrelated to my field… it also employed the type of romanticized historical perspective that made the history professors at my college furious)  caused a lot of guilt.

Nonetheless, through it all, the thrill I received from finishing a book never left me. Wrapping up a young adult title by Christian author Frank Peretti gave me just as much satisfaction as laboring through a collection of philosphical musings from Russian writer Ivan Ilyin. I suppose I was most grateful that each book, regardless of the quality of its prose, taught me something new. In return for my investment of time I invariably gained at least a drop of knowledge that enriched my understanding of the world. There were no victories or losses: simply varying levels of enlightenment to be procured, depending upon the quality of the author’s insight.

I’m not sure why I interpret books in this manner. I know many well-read people who have no interest in certain books, for whom many books are a colossal waste of time. I, in turn, look with such selectivity upon many other mediums of expression: art, drama, music, the spoken word, cinema. Too often have I begun watching a movie or listened to a program on the radio, which bored me. I felt no compulsion then to listen or watch until the bitter end in order to glean every last insight on the subject’s topic.

Books, on the other hand, have always appeared to me as a challenge. Though many are boring and dull, I believe almost any book (apart from the explicitly pornographic or lewd) is capable of changing me for the better, if given a fair chance. Perhaps it is that my mind is able to process the content at my own pace, unlike many other mediums.

Staring now at the end of yet another college basketball season, I feel much the same way about my love for watching a sports team mature over the course of an entire season. This winter my wife and I spent a significant amount of time observing two basketball teams, the men’s squads at Carleton College and Xavier University. We came into the basketball team with few expectations, other than a commonplace desire to see each team succeed. Without much reflection, we assumed that a successful season would be most enjoyable and rewarding to watch.

As the seasons progressed, both Carleton and Xavier suffered numerous setbacks. Carleton, already young and unseasoned at the outset, lost key players steadily to injury. Mid-season, they stumbled through their longest losing streak in twenty-five years. Even a late three-game winning streak provided only a glimmer of success, as the team lost four straight to close the season. The final loss came to crosstown rival, St. Olaf College, in overtime and ensured that Carleton would lose possession of the traveling trophy they had held possession of for nearly ten years.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Xavier Musketeers, after an exciting 8-0 start to the season, fell into a deep funk following an on-court brawl with their crosstown rivals, the Cincinnati Bearcats. Multiple players were suspended and for nearly three months the team could only tread water, finishing the season 19-11. Two weeks after watching Carleton lose their heart-breaker to the St. Olaf Oles, my wife and I stared glumly at the computer screen as Xavier headed into halftime with the Dayton Flyers trailing by 10 points in their Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament quarterfinal match-up. A loss to Dayton would guarantee that Xavier missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. For a team heralded so highly in November and December, such an outcome was more than we could bear.

Then, somehow, I found release from the sadness weighing me down. I knew that Xavier was still capable of defeating Dayton, yet I also knew that they were certainly capable of losing. How childish would I be if my appreciation and enjoyment of these students’ play hinged on their ability to win one game? How could I allow one game to define a season as success or failure?  I decided, then, that I was thankful for the entertainment Xavier basketball provided me, win or lose. As the second half began I sensed the pressure slipping off my shoulders and did my best to enjoy the game in front of me. That Xavier won 70-69 and later qualified for the NCAA Tournament was pure bliss. More significantly for me, however, I learned that I could appreciate the game and the season as a devoted fanatic without demanding any given level of success from my team.

Wins, yes, are fun. Losses hurt more than I care to admit. But, what I love now about sports is the opportunity they grant to see a team fight through the obstacles each season brings. Whether they overcome those struggles or not in the final standings, I learn something new about human nature. Some seasons, like some books, will undoubtedly be more exciting than others. Some will prove more emotional and bonding. Each supplies a clear beginning and a definite end — a finality not often experienced elsewhere in life. I am grateful that from each I can be entertained and enlightened.

That sense of accomplishment I’ve always felt when finishing a book…well, I’m beginning to feel it watching sports. It’s an exciting new stage in life and I can’t wait for the next season.