On becoming a beast
We button up, tug on gloves, Gene in a parka, I in my maxi coat, and dash into the bitter night. It is so black and deep, the two of us hunched together sending out white plumes of our own breath, crunching gravel that sounds like it will shatter under our footsteps as we race across campus to the university’s field house. A squat structure with a dusty green roof in the shape of a quonset hut. Nothing fancy about the building or its brick façade and front entrance. But we are just yards away now, pulling out our student IDs, ready to burst through the doors into the warmth, into the brightly-lit arena. We will take two of the 14,956 seats, our coats piles piled behind us.
We have been to this arena, this field house many times before. “Cole,” we call it. We have sat in the folding seats, wooden slats painted a sad yellow in some sections, a sadder green in others, to take final exams using lap boards. We have attended concerts here, as well as high school graduations, my own where I sat among the alternating rows of blue and white caps and gowns in metal folding chairs set up on the arena floor. Gene and I both looked forward to our college graduations in Cole Field House, too, garbed in black, listening to the precious drone, “Will the candidates for the degree of bachelor of arts or science… in the College of… please rise… Gene has even come here to participate in research on lactic acid accumulation in the muscles.
Mostly we come here to see the men’s basketball team, the Terrapins, take on their rivals. Blue Devils, Tarheels, Gamecocks, the other teams in the fierce Atlantic Coast Conference. We have been swept up in ACC basketball, raging with a new fever spread by the University of Maryland’s colorful coach, Lefty Driesell. Like the other fifteen thousand fans, we are delirious, wildly cheering with every basket, happy to sing the “Amen Chorus” along with the cheerleaders each time the Terps put another game away.
On this January night, the air inside the field house is electric, as if sparks fly from the fingertips of the fans’ banging hands. We have become one, all of us, and Cole, typically plain, industrial looking with its massive steel arches anchored into cement floors is popping bright with huge banners hung around the top. They are painted with giant red letters that spell out “F*CK South Carolina.” The clock is ticking down, the crowd is on its feet, stamping, shouting, one beast determined to get revenge against the unethical players and coaches of South Carolina. At last, the Maryland team, all legs and heads held high, waving to the fans in the rafters, runs out of the tunnel. We, the beast, roar with heart-thumping excitement, clapping and pumping fists into the steamy air.
The beast, nearly hysterical now, is sharp-eyed nonetheless. We spot the South Carolina players trying to sneak onto the floor on the heels of our Terps. Their heads are down, they look small. Even smaller when we, the beast, stop. A blood-curdling silence reigns throughout the arena, the Gamecocks look stunned, confused and hopefully, unnerved as thousands of fans give them the evil eye. We all remember the photo in the Washington Post that showed Coach Lefty Driesell, arms pinned behind him by two South Carolina players while a third clocks him in the face. This because he brought Howie White, a black player, to their house. Howie, the extraordinary ball handler.
We watch the teams warming up on the floor, shoes squeaking on the hardwood, arms reaching for the rims, multiple basketballs dribbling, swishing, rolling. Teams huddle with the coaches for last minute instructions and pep talks. Tip-off at center court, and we in our yellow and green seats about lose our minds.
It is all adrenaline now. Especially now, pumping hard when we realize that our team, our coach are taking an uncharacteristic, even transgressive approach. The beast is alert, has figured it out, loves that the South Carolina players do not know what to make of it, seem very frustrated and exasperated by it, do not know how to counter it.
It is “stall ball,” and even as the pace has slowed excruciatingly so, our hearts beat faster and faster. No shot clock in those days. Every twitch of a player’s muscle matters, every hand, every finger controlling the ball is crucial. Every foul. Every in-bound pass. Every free throw. Every attempt at the basket. All magnified. The breathless anticipation, the nerves. We, the beast, must let off steam, scream loudest when nothing, absolutely nothing is happening on the court.
Finally, a release. First chance to sit down. Catch our breath. It’s halftime. And Maryland leads by one. The lights on the scoreboard say 4-3.
I never knew I would be such a fan. But on that night in that bright, throbbing field house, there was no other place I wanted to be. Cole Field House forty-nine years ago, blowing its ugly green top off.
I was never quite that fan again, a wild beast part of a bigger unified beast. I like the Lakers, sure. But none of their games is as magnificent as the one on that cold night in College Park. Maryland went on to beat South Carolina in overtime 31-30.