Going it alone

Last night, while dog, kids and husband slumbered, I camped out in front of the TV to watch Butler take on Duke in the NCAA championship. (I wasn’t entirely solo — I had the kids’ Easter baskets to keep me company.)

It was during the second half — sometime after the Cadbury mini eggs and before the peeps — when I realized that the game’s just not the same anymore.

When I was a kid, my Dad never watched college or NFL football, and he’d flip the channels right past baseball, golf or hockey. But he worshiped ACC hoops, especially Duke (where he went to law school). As long as I can remember, his allegiance to Coach K and Duke ball was pure and resolute.

And early on, he molded me into a Blue Devil fan. On weekends, while Mom was at work, we’d hunker down in the rec room — blinds drawn to protect the TV glow from winter glare. I’d cradle a dish of Doritos while Dad, pitched back in his leather recliner, cupped a beer and periodically rapped his pipe on his ash tray. From there we’d commiserate when Duke lost and gloat when they won.

College put me 450 miles away, but Dad and I still watched games together, tethered by a phone. Stretching the phone cord taut from my room down the hall, I’d perch on a communal couch to watch Duke play. Typically surrounded by Blue Devil haters, I’d plaster the receiver to my ear. Half the time Dad and I didn’t talk. We ran up ridiculous phone bills silently watching.

When games got too stressful for me, I’d turn off the TV and let Dad relay play-by-play. The most memorable of these episodes was after college in 2001, when Duke and Maryland were well-ranked and set to play. Martin and I watched at his friend’s house with a bunch of Maryland grads and for 39 minutes, I was taunted and jeered as Duke trailed the whole game.

Stressed out, I retreated to a dark, tv-less room where I cowered on the couch and phoned Dad. He calmly described each play while I blocked out the din of Maryland cheers. And in the final minute Dad excitedly described the unthinkable: Duke clawed its way back from a 10-point deficit. They eeked the game into overtime and won. It was one of the best games I never saw.

I don’t know when my father stopped caring about ACC basketball — dementia kicked it to the sidelines and eventually it floated away like everything else — history, politics, softball, travel. Sometimes I’ll throw a Duke score into the conversation but there’s no spark of recognition.

So last night I watched the game with interest but without the nail-biting fervor I once had. In fact, after Duke won, I half-wished that Butler had sunk the buzzer-beating shot from half court.

That would have been blasphemy back in the day. And if the old Dad had been watching last night, he would have sighed with relief when Butler’s ball rocketed off the rim. “Christ, that was a close one,” he might have said. “But my Dukies did it again.”