For the love of the game

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August 29, 2009

3:29 PM

I was struck by something Rick Pitino said in his latest post-scandal press conference. “We need to get on with the important things in life like the economy and really crucial things in life like basketball,” Pitino said and although I do not doubt that the statement was both self-serving and pompous, I also believe that it was also heart-breakingly real.

I don’t play college sports but I know a pretty good lacrosse player from the Northeast Conference. When I talk to her, I’m struck by her negative opinion of playing in college. It’s not all negative but I would say maybe 60 percent of her feelings about lacrosse are negative. Not the I-hate-running, I’m-banged-up kind of negative but more a lacrosse makes things less fun type of negative. And to be honest, I would guess her feelings are not unique among her athletic counterparts.

Think of it like this. Imagine something you enjoyed in high school. Whatever it is, trombone, Halo, chess club, imagine you now had to do that every day for a good period of time for the four years after high school. You wake up at 6 am, you physically destroy your body to become stronger, you stay up at night to catch up on homework and you sacrifice both your time and your passions for your given activity. Maybe you never fall out of love with your activity but my guess is that if you’re human, you might begin to resent that activity a little.

But if you’re a professional and you have respect for yourself and your game, you persevere. This perseverance, at least what I perceive to see, is what makes me love the Tribe Invitational Volleyball tournament at the beginning of every year.

First a little background. The last couple of years, the William and Mary volleyball team has hosted a tournament at or near the start of the volleyball season with four to five teams. The teams show up, play Friday and Saturday in front of middling to barely-anyone-there crowds, then leave. There is no trophy presentation, no at-large bid at stake; hell, there is barely anyone there to applaud the good plays.

This year, the Tribe hosts Ohio State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the University of North Carolina A&T and Rider University, who the Tribe beat in their first game today 3-0. The stands were far from packed for that game, maybe a section of William and Mary fans and half a section of Rider fans for the Tribe’s game. By far that has been the high-water mark for attendance on the weekend so far. For example, in the UNC-A&T versus UMES game, UNC-A&T had literally one fan in the stands.

But despite the lack of pageantry or despite the low risk stakes of the tournament, the teams play very hard. William and Mary senior middle blocker Katie McCarney played with one of her hands heavily taped up. Freshman outside hitter Gina Lang took the court with her hamstring heavily taped. The number of knee braces on all the teams may have outnumbered the fans and in the UNC-A&T versus UMES game UNC-A&T’s setter busted her head as she collided with a teammate on a diving attempt (unfortunately, she was also the daughter of the only fan in the stands for A&T. Seriously.)

The reason I like this tournament so much is that every team is playing for the same reason that we all get up in the morning: because they take seriously and professionally what they do. Maybe some of them do it for a pure love of the game; if they do so, more power to them. But I would bet a not insignificant portion of the players are doing it because they respect themselves and they respect the thing they have chosen to do.

That is not to say they don’t enjoy the game while they are playing. They all seem to have fun while on the court, but I would also bet that in their hearts a good number of them wish they were someone else than Kaplan arena. They stay though because they believe what they do is important and because it is the right thing to do. And to be honest, that’s what life is.

I’m sitting here in the sports information office pounding away at a keyboard at something maybe only ten people might read, but I do it because I believe it is important and because I think it’s the right thing to do. The referee at the first William and Mary match who treats the players with the upmost respect, telling the libero “You may go in if you like” with a touch of class at the start of set, every time acts like a professional because he believes it is important and that it is right. The fans who start a “Lets go Tribe” chant with maybe only five people do so because they believe it’s important to be a fan, giving your heart to something even if no one else cares the way you do, because it is the right thing to do

So when I heard that, the first thought that came to my head was “He probably really believes that.” He has to. If he doesn’t, he becomes a sad, borderline immoral middle-aged man who wears short pants to work every day.

I like that sports are important and I like that they are important because we make them important. It may not be of any value to the world that you can throw a ball through a hoop or spike a ball over a net, but because you make it important to do things right it becomes important. Treating those moments with importance is what makes the days where you don’t want to be there bearable. They are what make life livable and they are what make the Tribe Invitational enjoyable.

Come on out and watch the Tribe take on Ohio State University tomorrow night and grab some of that enjoyment for yourself.

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