There’s something I’d like to do before I die.
As lifelong ambitions go, it’s not decadent or even particularly grand. But it is something I have no control over, and so the self-actualized, better Spocks of my nature think it’s silly. They’d prefer I not talk about it, and prior to this writing, I never have.
Before I die, I’d like to wake up early in the morning and fight a searing headache to the local newsstand to buy a paper. The front-page will be one that might have gone to press in 1988 or 1993 or 2006, but didn’t; one that will have kept a frame above my workbench waiting for a very long time. The newsprint will be stamped with images of breathless young men and tearful old ones. And it will say that West Virginia University has won the National Championship.
I’ll be happy to do this in January or April—turf and hardwood being equally worthy stages in my view. But no matter how cold the air, or how thick the pollen, I’ll make the errand last as long as it possibly can. I won’t expect to do it again.
I’ll also never expect to fully understand why this matters or what makes me reluctant to admit just how much.
Being a West Virginian is complicated. It’s a small state in a geographically inconvenient region, in a country obsessed with big and easy. Those who live there can be among the warmest, largest-hearted humans on the planet. By turns, they can also become the most guarded and suspicious. Wikipedia is happy to provide in-depth reasons for both, but for now let’s just say the mountains keep in as much as they shut out.
Growing up a West Virginian is complicated too, especially if you did it during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Born on the bridge between commercial and information ages, I formed my self-image amidst the same media landscape as anyone, anywhere else in the country. MTV looks the same in St. Albans as it does in St. Louis. The Internet is identical. As a teenager I bought Nikes, ate McDonald’s, stared at Cindy Crawford, and emerged from it all as generically “American” as the next guy. I was just like everyone else.
Except I wasn’t. Because the first time I showed my passport to board an international flight, the airline agent leaned across the counter and pretended to be surprised that I was wearing shoes. And because I spent an entire semester convincing my college roommate that I couldn’t find him a jar of moonshine during winter break. And because, after realizing he never had to ask me to vote for him again, the Vice President of the United States figured the best way to “loosen up” a press conference was to make an incest joke at my expense.
You learn quickly to roll your eyes at exchanges like these. “Ridiculous,” you say beneath your breath.
Except it isn’t. My state is one of the poorest in the union. Had I asked around that Christmas, I probably could have procured a jar on my roommates’ behalf. And I certainly can’t claim to have never dropped a kissing cousins reference.
Stereotypes may be nurtured by the imagination, but they are not born of it. Every place has a reputation to contend with, and it’s not surprising that people think these things of West Virginia. It’s frustrating, however, that this is all they think of West Virginia.
That is, of course, provided they think anything in the first place. It’s alarming, the number of people who treat the very existence and whereabouts of your state as if they were trick questions. Offense is rarely intended, but this too gets old. There are only so many times you can say “No, not like Richmond,” and keep smiling politely. There’s even an old joke that claims God must have anticipated this because he enabled us to jog a person’s geographical memory and vent our indignation in a single gesture. Should new acquaintances dismiss or struggle to place our state, we can simply present the back of our hand with its thumb and middle finger extended. Vulgarities aside, a truer likeness can’t be drawn.
Coincidence or not, the gesture speaks volumes about the split personality West Virginians share. One part of you longs to prove yourself to the rest of country; the other has learned better than to give a damn what it thinks.
Four years ago, West Virginia University hired Bob Huggins to lead its men’s basketball program. You’d think I’d have been thrilled. A two-time academic All-American during his own four years at WVU, Huggins had since become the fourth winningest active coach in the college game. Without question, the odds of me making that sweet, drawn-out trip to the newsstand improved the day he walked back into the Coliseum. So why did I hold my breath?
Bob Huggins is complicated too. He wins, but does so toting considerable baggage. Public battles with university presidents, an unforgiving demeanor on the bench, and an embarrassing DUI conviction have smudged the coach’s image. Further clouding the picture is his own reticence to present his side of these and other complex stories. He could have challenged the NCAA’s byzantine and often unjust method of computing graduation rates. He could have brought a reasoned voice to the increasingly cacophonous debate about what it should mean to be a scholar-athlete in today’s culture. This is not, after all, a frivolous man. Certain things matter very deeply to Bob Huggins. It’s just that being understood isn’t one of them.
The guy simply cannot be bothered with matters of perception. Consider, for a moment, the comfort-at-all-costs sideline attire. When he grew tired of sweating through the dress shirts, neckties, and sport coats worn by his contemporaries, the coach took to calling the shots in a nylon tracksuit. This sounds bad; it looks even worse. And the symbolism is, much as I hate to admit, one of the things that gave me pause about Huggins’s tenure at WVU. If there was one thing my image-addled state didn’t need, it was our highest paid employee showing up for work in sweatpants, refusing to wear a tie.
Homesickness may not be contagious, but for a disproportionate number of West Virginia natives, it is chronic. Though recent strides have been made to counter a legacy of out-migration, my state has always faced a steeper climb than most. In this part of the world, opportunity calls long distance, and, more often than not, we accept the charges. It is not a coincidence that the voice in Country Roads is singing from somewhere else, nor is it surprising that there are tears in his eyes. Rear-view mirrors just seem to flatter their subjects in ways windshields can’t. Hearts do, indeed, grow fonder.
Like myself, many of the friends I grew up with now live elsewhere. It’s been this way for nearly ten years, long enough for a pattern to emerge in our phone calls and at our reunions. Within minutes of hello we’re one-upping each other with the quirks of our respective settings. The Midwesterner tries to remember the last time he nudged the steering wheel more than ten degrees; the Southerner emails snapshots of decimated grocery aisles on the eve of a two-inch “blizzard.” We shake our heads, charmed and grateful for our experiences in the wider world, indebted to those who’ve adopted us and labored to extend a sense of belonging. Then we confess what can’t be said around our new colleagues, friends and spouses. We admit that something is, and will probably always be, missing; that we still glance into that rear-view mirror a little too often. It’s unlikely that any of us will return for more than a holiday visit or week’s vacation. And yet we’re even less likely to refer to any other place as “home.”
I know, I know. Hold the violins. Wistful as my song may be, it lacks the tragedy of a dirge and the injustice of a protest hymn. We shall not pretend to overcome. On the whole, my friends and I are a fortunate lot whose work and whereabouts were determined largely by choice. Live that kind of fairytale, and you can’t bitch because it didn’t come with ruby slippers.
Besides, who says cleats and high-tops aren’t every bit as enchanted?
You’d be amazed what a cable sports package and a cell phone full of faded accents can do to erase the miles. I talk more with the people of my childhood during half-times than I do the rest of the year. My mother and I rehash stats and commentary more intently than we plan Thanksgiving. New friends avoid spending Saturdays with me because I’m too preoccupied texting old ones.
After deconstructing a big win last season, a buddy put it best: “Move away,” he said, “and every game’s homecoming.”
I saw my first game at Mountaineer Field in 1986. It poured all four quarters. I don’t remember much about the game — I know we lost to a team called “Boston College,” but this didn’t leave much of an impression. Competition among new experiences was steep that day, and, for a six-year-old, it doesn’t get much more exotic than parking in someone’s yard and urinating in a giant trough. Beyond that, it’s all a cold, thundering, pruney, beautiful mess of a blur. Even the ponchos were blue and gold.
Since then there have been sunnier days in Morgantown. And though I’ve been present for a good many of them, like most West Virginians, I’ve lived out the majority of wins and losses via radio and television. Before moving away, it was effortless. In most small towns, you can walk down almost any street without missing a play as the broadcast echoes out nearly every door and window. I’m still waiting for someone to show me another state school that enjoys this singularity of focus from its population. Quite frankly, I just don’t believe it exists.
That could have to do with population itself. Only thirteen states have fewer people than mine. When there’s less of you, I guess it’s not as improbable to all be paying attention to same thing.
It could also be that little else is vying for bandwidth. There are no major league professional sports teams in West Virginia. We’re not a guaranteed stop for national music acts or theatre tours. And Marshall, the only other Division I school, has never been in a position to compete for allegiance.
It could be a combination of these factors and several more, but I’m inclined to believe it’s mainly just this one: For a state that’s unaccustomed to the country noticing anything but its mishaps, a sports program that gets positive national attention transcends sports. If you’re from West Virginia, Mountaineer athletics isn’t about being entertained. It’s about being represented.
I don’t believe the larger media makes a concerted effort to seek out the least of us. But for every Jessica Lynch, there are usually three Jesco Whites stumbling oafishly across the national stage. I’ve seen my state on the front page for mine disasters, meth labs, corruption scandals, class action suits, ecological trespasses, obesity indexes, and prison torture rings. Seeing it there for a championship—an admission from the rest of the country that, “yeah, you guys did this one thing better than all the rest of us this year”—wouldn’t even the score, but it wouldn’t hurt either.
Last year, as the NCAA tournament drew down to its Final Four, I was as optimistic as I’d ever been about this finally happening. But I was also still conflicted. “In two days that trophy could be on its way to Morgantown,” I thought. “But if so, a man in a track suit will be bringing it.”
What did that say about us? What would they say about us?
I didn’t have to wrestle either question long. In the semifinal, a Duke team that hadn’t played better all season, bested the Mountaineers in almost every metric and category including the one that sends you home. This would not be the year. The paper would not picture a triumphant West Virginia team or tell of an entire state’s elation.
I went out and bought one anyway.
There was another picture I wanted, an image of something else that occurred late in the losing effort, something that might mean even more than that championship scene, should they ever hang side-by-side in my garage.
This shot catches an imperfect man in an oddly perfect moment. It happened at the eleven-minute-mark when West Virginia forward Da’Sean Butler crumbled to the floor after tearing his ACL in a violent race to the goal. Collapsing with Butler were the team’s title hopes and, possibly, the professional career he’d worked nearly all his life for and had literally gotten to within days of. Watching the replay, you sense that everyone—on the court, in the stadium, on the other end of a television set—understands these things immediately. Butler too. His pain, though immense, is not enough to eclipse the larger implications, and as he screams, disappointment and fear are as distinct as the physical discomfort.
That’s when the man in the tracksuit lowers himself to the floor and, without thinking, wraps the weeping player in his arms.
It’s been said that Bob Huggins will do just about anything to get a player’s attention, and there have been innumerable episodes of vile language and snide challenges to substantiate that claim. But there is also the one you’re watching.
Cradling Butler’s head and pulling to within centimeters of his anguished face, Huggins issues a tender demand for eye contact, then uses his thumb to clear tears from the player’s cheeks. He speaks directly into Butler’s ear, saying, “I love you” and “don’t be sorry.” He gets as close as he needs to and stays there as long as it takes to calm the young man. It is pure, instinctual behavior from a coach who couldn’t be less concerned with how it will be interpreted. In this moment there are no fans, no critics, no reputation to uphold or excuse. There is only the player before him. The one he loves. The one who shouldn’t be sorry.
Days later, sports writers across the country discuss the exchange in their columns. A few jaded voices describe it as “awkward” or “uncomfortable,” but the overwhelming majority note its poignancy and commend the coach for a courageous display of intimacy rarely seen in men’s athletics. They acknowledge it as a personal triumph for Huggins. And still, they miss that it might also be the most fitting representation his state has ever received.
In that moment Bob Huggins proved himself to all of us. And it’s because he knew better than to give a damn what we thought in the first place.
After three newspapers and an online search, I finally find a photograph that does the moment justice. Taken from court level at a three-quarter angle, the shot marks the instant that connection was made. The eyes of both men say so, but the story lies as much in the unbroken space between them. It is just before the coach leans in to speak privately to his player, and there is still half a foot of nothing separating the two. Had the aperture opened a second earlier, it would show only chaos: one man reaching, the other alone. A second later and the tracksuit would have already enveloped Butler and blocked him from view. But as it is, the coach hovers, suspended above his player, and those six inches of nothing are perfectly preserved. Tracing the divide with your eyes, you instinctively look to pinpoint where attentions converge and the lifeline is grasped. The space between defines the moment. Staring into it, I shake my head and smile.
A tie would have gotten in the way.