The first toy that my parents later remembered giving me was a basketball. They said that I had been asking for the moon, literally, and they thought that a large orange ball might do the trick.
It didn’t. I still wanted the moon, but that was probably more about an incipient character flaw than any lack of interest in the basketball. In fact, I have been addicted to ballgames throughout my entire life.
To me, there has never been a distinction between toys and sports. No matter what sort of toys I was given, I would organize them into teams to play football, basketball or baseball. Some of you might not realize that model trucks, for example, can play football, but I assure you that they can.
I also watched those three sports
on television, which at that time coincidentally had three networks. (That’s not counting the fuzzy network, PBS, which broadcast more esoteric sports, like tennis.) Each of those sports had a distinct season, which together covered the whole calendar with minor overlaps.
As far back as I remember, my friends and I played those three sports and only those three sports, just about any day that the weather permitted. There was no hockey in the town where I grew up, no soccer, no lacrosse.
We played pickup games, organized and conducted without the assistance, or even the knowledge, of parents, coaches or any other adults. We generally played on public-school practice fields, but any vacant space would do.
Those idyllic days gave way to organized sports in high school and college, but since then I have rarely touched a baseball, dribbled a basketball or tossed a football. That’s not to say that I’ve given up on ballgames. For the past 40 years, I’ve worn down my joints on hard tennis courts and walked the lush hills of Upstate New York’s golf clubs, trying to hit the perfect shot.
Why? I think it goes back to people giving me balls to play with when I was a toddler, but I’m not sure.
At any rate, I spend a lot more time playing sports than I spend watching other people play them, and that preference goes all the way back to those black-and-white TVs and their three channels. Even then, I would always choose a real game over a moving image.
That is not true of most of the men that I know. Many of them are at least somewhat athletic, but very few spend much of their time physically engaged in athletic competition. They do, however, follow sports avidly. They watch ESPN every night, know who won yesterday’s games, can tell you the standings in every professional league, and follow drafts and trades the way stock brokers follow the financial markets.
I have friends who would struggle to name a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, let alone all nine, but they can easily reel off the members of the NBA all-star team. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, in fact I envy their ability to focus on pleasurable pursuits, but my interests are mostly elsewhere.
When the coronavirus struck, and society shut down for what we were first told would be a few weeks, there were things that I expected to miss. I expected to miss my customary visits to bars and restaurants, and I have. I expected to miss going to the movies on Saturday night, and I do. I expected to miss my annual spring trip to Florida, and I did.
What I did not expect to miss was televised sports. Had I been allowed to choose 10 things to take into the bunker with me, that would not have been among them, but as it turned out that would have been short sighted.
When baseball’s opening day rolled around, and nothing opened, it felt as though spring had been canceled. A couple of weeks later, on my birthday, I realized that I missed watching the Masters Golf Tournament. I don’t normally pay much attention to professional golf, but I had unknowingly come to associate the floral splendor of Augusta with the coming rebirth in the Northeast.
As the shutdown wore on, more iconic events were canceled, deepening the sense of unreality. There would be no Kentucky Derby, no Indy 500, no Wimbledon. With each withdrawal, our whole culture seemed to diminish.
The only basketball I watch is the NBA playoffs, which is kind of like a little season unto itself, a season in which the players turn it up a few notches and play at full throttle. In its absence, sports fans tuned in to a documentary.
In April and May, ESPN ran a 10-part series entitled “The Last Dance,” about the championship years of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. Without much live competition going on, nearly six million people watched the premiere showing of each episode.
It was great, but unfortunately ESPN didn’t have any other prepackaged sports dramas on the shelf. It was forced to scour the globe to come up with actual sporting events being played, and managed to find such fan favorites as South Korean baseball, Australian rugby and Hungarian soccer.
For those who prefer to root for local athletes, ESPN brought us more provincial competitions such as darts, cornhole, ax throwing, mini golf, cup stacking, arm wrestling and cherry-pit spitting. I didn’t see any cats playing ping-pong, but I would not have been surprised.
Those efforts notwithstanding, I have to confess that the lack of televised sports was just as difficult for me as it was for anyone else, and I was just as excited to see them coming back in July and August. We all knew there would be changes, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Baseball, basketball and hockey all came back at about the same time, all feeling slightly different. It reminded me of one of those suspense films where a character disappears for a while and then comes back. He looks the same, but something about him is just a little off.
I’m not complaining. With or without cardboard cutouts and artificial fan noise, I’ll take it. Having a baseball game on in the background, summer evenings resumed something of their normal rhythm, at least for a while.
As for tennis and golf, the professionals have now picked up their sticks, which we amateurs had accomplished back in April. Since my home state took the padlocks off courts and courses I have made extensive use of them, and I am very grateful for that opportunity.
I have always believed that we have a need to play. This whole experience has convinced me that we need to see others play as well.
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.