My valentine

BY REBECCA AGULE

My family is not very religious. While we attended Sunday school, it never seemed overly important. But if religion is really just pure unconditional worship based on an established belief system, we value an incomparable holiness. My grandfather celebrated his own set of holy days – the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and Championship, and every game of the Major League Baseball playoffs. To relate to him, it was required that you relate to The Game. Most of my childhood memories involve some sort of field or ball or, at the very least, bleachers.

Even my first recollection of reading centers on sports. Living in North Carolina, we had gone to a Greensboro Hornets game. They were the local minor league baseball team in an area mostly devoted to college sports. As the innings wound on, it became obvious that this game was not going to stop at nine. But with little kids in tow, my father and grandfather felt the responsibility of observing some semblance of bedtime. A couple of tired children override a couple of dueling pitchers. So we headed home, the game still undecided. Waking up the next morning, my older brother and I demanded to know what had happened. And we wanted our parents to read us the box score. But that would have been too easy. With our minimal preschool and kindergarten reading and math lessons, we were forced to either read the game notes ourselves or remain tortured by the thoughts that the winner would forever be a mystery. So we trudged on. Starting with the fact that Greensboro, when sounded out, obviously started with a ‘g,’ we fought through runs, hits, errors, all the way to the eleventh inning. Sports played a role in every aspect of my upbringing. Without the Minors, who knows if I ever would have discovered the basic joys of literacy?

So is it any wonder that I have a bit of a problem, a bit of an obsession? I admit it is not healthy, and it really hinders my ability to function as a normal member of society. My one-track mind began with a simple high school basketball game. A young and impressionable seventh grader, I can hardly be blamed for what happened. In my corner of Virginia, it was a normal junior high activity to attend the games of your future high school; it let you feel old and important. It let your parents believe you were a good kid. And it let you do something other than hang out in people’s basements and behind the shopping center. For this particular game, the game that changed my life, we watched the Oakton Cougars (my school) play the South Lakes Seahawks (the school that matriculated the man who would be my life’s dream). And on this night I saw him play, in real life for the very first time, in the tiny South Lakes gym.

Grant Hill.

Now, I had read about Hill in the local papers. “High School Phenom Shoots Season High.” “Hill Hits 29 PPG on Season.” “Grant Hill Signs with Duke.” That last one stung. Born in Carolina, my parents had raised me well, which obviously means I wore Tar Heel Blue. To this day, I tell people (jokingly?) that I almost broke up with Grant when he decided to go to Duke. I assume their strange looks are because they can’t comprehend a love so intense, so real. Anyway, thanks to the local press, I knew who Grant Hill was well before the game; I had seen his pictures, and I was prepared to hate him simply because he was playing against my Cougars. But as soon as I saw him, spindly kid, socks pulled to his knees, scrawny as all hell with the beginnings of a really smooth fade, it was all over. My standards for men were permanently set. Problem is, there are very few NBA-playing-well-educated-Virginia-raised-charity-working-college-graduate-small-forwards-who-can-rebound-too out there. I don’t think I am working with the best odds here.

I have since met many others who claim to follow his career. Amateurs. They don’t know; they can’t possibly understand. Oh, you saw him play at Duke, I say. Well, he had already switched to number 33 by then. Oh, you were a Pistons fan, I say. Then you have already missed a third of his career and are in the process of missing the latest third. You don’t know a fraction of it, I say. And then I quiz them on the fun facts. How tall is he? (6’8″). Which of his years did Duke win the Title? (Freshman and Sophomore). What position did his pop play in the NFL? (Running back). Who was his mom’s college roommate? (Hilary Clinton). Pretty basic stuff that every legitimate fan should know. And every legitimate, um, girlfriend.

When I returned to college in the fall of my senior year, my roommate had already begun decorating our room. She posted two pictures on the door. Naturally, one is of the two of us, smiling, happy, as if to say, “Look at the nice normal healthy girls who occupy this room.” And the other is a Tag Heuer watch ad prominently featuring Grant Hill, as if to say, “Ok, maybe one of them isn’t so healthy and normal after all.” The rest of the room followed suit – the wall above the computer chronicled Grant’s feats during the latest NBA season. The cut outs seem to be a very classy contrast to the Andrew Wyeth prints and pictures of real people.

Grant Hill drives me to distraction. Literally. Despite my feelings about the NBA, or lack of feelings for it, during the season, wherever I am, I must be kept away from highlights shows and/or live games. Because no matter what is being discussed, no matter how fascinating I find you and all of your fantastic experiences, finding out Grant’s stat line is going to be my priority. My parents think it is rather sad that I so frequently sacrifice interaction with real people for a glimpse of what some stranger who can handle a ball did for forty minutes on any one given night. I tell them it is all about preparing for the future.

My mother has often told me about her love of Sandy Koufax. She made the whole thing seem natural and safe. She knows that today’s pitchers cannot compare, that there can never be another. It is just one of the facts of living – love can’t be replaced. She would tell me about watching Koufax pitch, about his move to Los Angeles. So really I blame her for all of this. I blame her for the fact that I actually follow a team from Orlando, that I once sat and filled out hundreds of NBA All Star Game ballots, that I have certain episodes of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Living Single” on tape. Watching him struggle to return from the ankle injury infused me with fear, hope and, finally, inspiration.

I blame her for the fact that the frame meant for my diploma actually holds his autograph. I blame her for the fact that my status as Grant’s “secret fiancé” has become a tried and true conversation starter. I guess everyone has to find that one special thing that separates him or her from the crowd. I can admit that maybe, just maybe, I might perhaps have a tiny little bit of a something you might call a problem.

But at least I always have a Valentine.

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