The first time I felt it, I was a first-year law student desperately trying to figure out why I was getting bottom-basement grades when I’d been on the honor roll most of my pampered life. It was three quarters into a difficult academic year, and I was almost ready to call it quits. The B-minuses and C-pluses were an embarrassment, and I told my mother that I would honor daddy’s memory better if I didn’t make a mockery of his profession by failing out of law school. That law school was Villanova, and I cursed every blessed corner of the place.
But on the morning of April 2, 1985, something happened, something entirely unexpected. I fell in love. True, it was a one-sided relationship because the other fellow was a chunk of real estate incapable of affection, but the emotion was quite real. The night before, Villanova University (which encompassed the law school) won the NCAA championship in basketball. The valiant young crew of underestimated (and from my perspective underfed) undergraduates led by the great Rollie Massimino, had vanquished arrogant Georgetown. St. Augustine had kicked St. Ignatius’ butt. And it was intoxicating.
I forgot about my mediocre grades and my paralysis in front of the professors, and rededicated myself to the place. I probably was only toying with the idea of actually dropping out of school anyway, because the ghost of my father was a mighty motivator, but the championship in my callow, my 23rd year on Earth, gave me an emotional boost. It also made me feel that anything was possible, as long as that anything did not include making a jump shot.
Years passed, wrinkles and debt accumulated, beloved people disappeared from my life. Only eight short months after the championship, my grandmother passed away. My younger brother, who was then a senior in high school, would never make it to his 31st birthday. My mother, long-suffering and the center of all good things in my world, left us two years ago this summer. And the ghost of my father, now gone from us longer than we ever had him, seems in some sad ways, dimmer.
But they all came back to me, along with the rush of glory and adrenaline and hope, Monday night. The perfection of that past moment, when people I loved were still alive and underdogs slayed giants on a day that makes false fools of those who doubt, sprang back to life. Villanova, my once-hated but ultimately dearly loved school, did it again. Under another coach — a George Clooney to Massimino’s Danny DeVito, a calm class to the Italian’s uncontained passion — an amazing team of young men returned my memories to me.
Again, the love is probably unrequited. I don’t know any of the players personally, and I’ve been to approximately one game in the past three decades. I swoon over Jay Wright, but I won’t break up his happy marriage, so I just gaze adoringly from afar. And I gloat, because my team now has two national championships, and the other schools have none. (Going to an Augustinian school does not guarantee grace, class or compassion.)
Seeing Kris Jenkins sink that 3-pointer, painted by Michelangelo and sent soaring by the Wright brothers, made me believe in the sort of mundane miracles that don’t lead to canonization, but that elevate the soul nonetheless. Knowing that his teammate Ryan Arcidiacono passed him the ball instead of stealing the moment and the historic shot for himself made me understand that the team part of teamwork crushes ego. It was a moment that, like my friend Jessica later said, came with its own Hoosiers soundtrack.
Of course, as with all things, it wasn’t perfect. Some people who are averse to the joy of others and who have to inject politics or pettiness into every glittering gift crept out from under their stones. First, there were the Philadelphians who resent the fact that Villanova is not, technically, a city school but hovers at the edges of our consciousness in that distant suburb less than 11 miles away known as Delaware County. To those people, who apparently use their passports to travel to that foreign land, there was no reason that the city of Philadelphia should celebrate the victory of a “suburban” school. I’ve dealt with that idiotic parochialism all of my life, where people judge others by their ZIP codes.
I suppose the fact that no city school has actually won the championship makes Villanova’s two wins particularly bitter.
Then there was the man who posted on my Facebook page about the “rioters” in the lily white suburbs who would never be called “thugs” because they weren’t from the right inner city neighborhood, or had the right amount of melanin in their skin. The “rioters” were actually just boisterous college students who, let’s face it, were plastered out of their gourds. Not exactly altar boys, but not the type of person ready to burn down a city.
So it wasn’t exactly a Thomas Wolfe moment in all of its splendor, and I didn’t exactly go home again to that moment when everything was still possible. But I came as close as I well could, all these long years later. For that, I am forever grateful.
And like Augustine, I have a confession to make: I’d marry Jay Wright. But I’d die for Rollie.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.