Leave it to me to romanticize any undertaking, even if it’s a just a drive to Charlotte with Rio.
I had long wanted to watch a professional basketball game in North Carolina, and I noticed that my beloved (but terrible) Sacramento Kings were coming to Charlotte to play that city’s team, the Bobcats. People I know are sometimes surprised to learn that I’m a sports fan, but I see no contradiction between reading poetry and reading box scores. I grew up in a sports-centric household. My father loved baseball and would tell me stories from that sport’s long history: how Ty Cobb used to slide with his metal spikes flying; how Nap Lajoie was a great hitter even though he batted with his hands in reverse position on the stick. My father was an ardent fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and one of my fondest memories of childhood was going to Los Angeles Dodgers/Pittsburgh Pirates games. My father taught me how to keep score in the game’s printed program, and he and I would always bet $5 on the game; if the Dodgers won I was elated; if the Pirates won I usually cried.
My father was a very busy man, often working late or traveling on business. But for many years he coached my Little League baseball team. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses to me of each hitter as I wondered where he would put me. My father was a great coach — thorough, committed, smart — and we were champions almost every year he served that role. When my parents got divorced and we moved across town from each other, I kept playing baseball but he could never make it to any of my games. Years later Papa told me that his boss had always rolled his eyes when my father would leave early to go to coach; in that corporate environment, choosing family commitments over work was frowned upon. To this day, I am grateful to my father for his sacrifice. I’m also thankful to baseball — a remote man came whisker-close when a ball was in play.
All that said, I deplore that sports is such a big, commercial business: here in North Carolina, to find a new basketball coach for one of the local colleges, last year that institution conducted a nationwide search and created a review panel to hire a coach that ended up getting paid a six-figure salary — so many financial and mental resources are put into sports. But I am shamelessly a fan of the heart of it: athletes working for years on their game, physical prowess being honed and tested, the fact that anything came happen in the spontaneity of live action. Last-minute victories and unlikely heroes are not public-relations stunts.
And so I bought two tickets for the game, envisioning a night of father-son bonding and adventure. I even booked us a hotel for the night, since we’d be driving two hours to get there. Rio was excited, but early on, he began chipping at my fantasy. For one, he insisted on rooting for the Bobcats, even though he literally has no connection to Charlotte. I explained that I had lived in Sacramento for five years, that he might consider engaging in something I explained as “solidarity.” When that failed, I tried to bribe him with promises of a Kings cap, but still he wouldn’t budge. At one point before we left, I told him I was disappointed he wouldn’t be cheering alongside me. Annie looked on with humored interest. Rio replied, “That’s not fair for you to be disappointed in me for that. It’s my heart, and I can do what I want with it.”
The evening went exactly as I hadn’t planned. Rather than getting there two hours early to check in and eat at the mom-and-pop pizza parlor I’d picked out, we hit stop-and-go traffic. We arrived at the hotel with ten minutes to spare to find a drab high-rise with a mediocre room with a stunning view of the freeway.
Inside, the game was a yawn: The arena was only half full. About halfway through, Rio, still cheering for the Bobcats, said, “Instead of watching this game and sleeping at the hotel, I want to drive home right now and be with my mama.”
Ah, the lure of the maternal breast.
But we stuck to our (my) plan, and we watched the lackluster game and headed back to the hotel where I watched bad cable TV after Rio fell asleep. I derived a strange satisfaction from watching no show for more than five minutes, the click of the remote like some twisted lever of pleasure.
The next morning, we talked up the big plate of pancakes we’d get at the cafe, but the one I’d chosen ended up being closed for renovation. We settled on bagels and drove out to a park where a tow truck blocked the entrance for 20 minutes. I sat there astounded by the lack of fortune. But we finally made it to a green field which is all we really need and Rio and I jumped around and found that wide open space when past and future fall away and just the smudge of wet grass on the knee is enough. When sweat well-earned marks a path well-chosen. Wasn’t it in Deliverance that Burt Reynolds’ character said, “Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to find your way”?
Holy those moments when linear lines get erased and quandary steps up and says Bounce the ball and don’t worry about where.