Disclaimer: I am a resident of Wichita, a fan of college basketball, but I do not pretend to have been a Shocker fan this season. I attended one home game and could not list the five starters until the NCAA tournament. I am actually an Ohio State Buckeye fan (a painful subject). This post is not a sports commentary. This post entertains the interaction between life and sports that I observed during the past few weeks.
The “Humor Me a Moment” Section
I’m a Christian and a pastor. There is a “brand” of Christian theology called “apophatic” or negative theology. Apophatic individuals are comfortable with mystery, or arriving in spaces where our words cannot contain the fine, detailed, truth of the matter. Truth is in the “negative space” between two or more confessions; we reach our boundary line where we do not have to go any further, but dwell in the wonder.
For example, a confession in the apophatic tradition could be:
- God is good and seeks a good resolution in the world.
- God is just, not letting the guilty to go unpunished.
To go any further from there in theological study is to engage in complex-and-often-times-contradictory doctrines. Apophatic Christians are content to live into the mystery.
The Apophatic Nature of Spectating
Importing that theological aside into the Shocker story intrigues me. As the Shockers moved closer to the Final Four, the city of Wichita lit up with support and solidarity that was fascinating. The way the whole city rallied behind the yellow and the black was inspiring. This uniting around the game of basketball elevates a great mystery of spectating.
- On the one hand, the game of basketball is simply a game, a team that can play five players at a time, following basic rules that they learned in elementary school. The game, however, reaches a fever pitch each year in March/April creating realities for words like “brackets, bandwagons, cinderella, and double-bonus” take on a cult-like meaning. One of my Facebook friends, an irregular basketball fan watching the Shocker game asked, “What does Double-bonus mean?” His honesty was both courageous (exposing his unfamiliarity with the game) but also the technicality and objective nature of this sport.
- On the other hand, the Shockers’ success eroded the proximity between the actual Shockers team and their fans. The daily display of my Facebook feed revealed how different people were stewarding their affinity for the Shockers.
+ New fans changed their profile picture to prove that they belonged.
+ Seasoned fans tried to show how they were not just bandwagon fans, that they were avid fans at the start of the season.
+ The use of pronouns like, “we, us” were often used in status updates. People felt as if they were on the court, suited up, making passes, and bringing down rebounds.
+ A Facebook friend and WSU alum would check in at work and say “Working angry” or would check in at the YMCA and post “Exercising Angry.”
+ A local church began a campaign “Pray Angry” to help their congregation engage in prayer for the city.
+ Fans and former alums from WSU outside of the city of Wichita (like my dad, a WSU alum who lives in Florida) joined in the movement, erasing the distance from their home to their team’s home. A missionary friend of mine in Chile followed the Shockers from so many miles away; he is definitely the most loyal of Shocker fans that I know.. and he could maintain the “right-standing” with his role as a fan, even though he was several flights away.
+ As the Shockers played in Los Angeles, some of the Hollywood stars were seen wearing WSU gear at the games. Consumerism has a way of taking a neat story and absorbing it into a commodity.
“Coming Down from the Fever Pitch”
The fact of the matter is, the reality of being a spectator cannot be lived in either of these two poles. One cannot say that this was just a game, just one team winning basketball games. One cannot also live in the fever pitch of Shocker fandom forever. This “coming off” of the fever pitch was displayed in many ways.
- One of my Facebook friends, after the end of the Louisville game, remarked, “I don’t care what anyone else says, this is the championship game.” Well, it really wasn’t, but it was this person’s way of dealing with the end of the experience.
- Others, of course, blamed the outcome of the game on poor officiating. Every basketball game has questionable calls, but the two at the end of the Louisville game will always linger in Shocker fan’s minds. The subjective imagination of some fans, though, go to this excuse because, in their minds, “my team doesn’t lose unless there is a conspiracy against us.” This impulse helps them cope with the end of the experience. Referees and the NCAA become scapegoats for one’s angst and loss. Indeed, it is easier to blame someone you do not know, and other non-human entities, than to simply grieve.
- The common response I’ve heard is how proud fans are that the Shockers made it as far as they did. The underlying reality of that confession is that the Shockers are a team that no one expected to go to the Final Four, that they do not belong among the elite teams in college basketball. This may be safe for some to say, but to the avid fan who had high expectations for the season, this comment will not do. It presupposes that teams like the Shockers do not belong, that they defied the odds, albeit this one, isolated time.
- The welcome home gathering of the Shockers was perhaps the most poignant expression of this “coming down.” Fans were able to actually dwell in literal proximity with their beloved team. A few comments were made during that event that I find interesting and important.
+ One fan, Jacob Seltzer, commented on how this whole experience felt like a dream. For Seltzer, this experience was a mixture of a longing fulfilled and something unimaginable. I’m sure that Seltzer will rehearse this memory as long as he lives, like other Shocker fans of the past who remember other moments when their team had magnificent seasons.
+ Coach Marshall’s final thoughts at the fan gathering Sunday were particularly important and interesting. After thanking the Shocker nation for their support and dedicating himself to the task of future success, Marshall (in a chaplain-like manner) dismissed the audience with the task of “angry living.” Marshall remarked, “Do it with anger… Preach angry. If you are a cab driver or a bus driver, drive angry. If you are a teacher, teach angry.”
These words, without the proper context, are awkward. Those words are the mysterious boundary between spectating and the rest of our lives. But, Marshall’s words serve as an official transition for our city. The Shockers rallied together under the moniker of “Play Angry,” the dedication of wanting to perform better than the opponent. Playing with purpose. Playing with enthusiasm and focus. Playing passionately with relentless expectation and “mental toughness and extra effort.”
But, praying angry, driving angry, preaching angry, teaching angry have to be followed up with, “you know what I mean.”
Coach Marshall, we do.
We know that at the end of this journey, this experience was not just a game.
We know that we cannot have the fever pitch of March/April forever. You are just a basketball coach. The Shockers are just an excellent team. We are just preachers, prayers, teachers, and cab drivers.
The Shocker experience this year functions, then, like a flash mob. The deep run in the tournament has officially ended, people’s Facebook profile pictures will not have Wu Shock on them anymore, the black and yellow shirts available at Dillon’s will go on sale soon (and then off the shelves altogether), the “play angry” hashtag will be sparse on the Twitterverse (at least until next season), and the city will look the same, as it always did.
However, a new banner will be raised in Koch Arena, stories will be rehearsed, memories will be shared (and will probably grow), and our city will not be the same. People will remember what happened, what came and went in March/April 2013.
Things around our city will be the same and different, all at once.
We hear you, Coach. You are a basketball coach; we are people and a city. Something happened; the wonder of it all can help us view life differently.