When I was twelve and thirteen I would go with my best friend every summer to Ann Arbor to participate in Michigan’s basketball camp. I have fond memories of playing hoops in Crisler even if I was a chubby, awkward adolescent with a manic jump shot. We stayed in the dorms and, obstentiously, ate too much pizza and stayed up too late. We got jock itch and figured we could solve it by blasting ice cold jets of athlete’s foot spray on it because when you’re twelve that makes sense. I met Steve Fisher, twice, as he would have his picture taken with every kid in the camp. And one day I met Jimmy King and Ray Jackson who were at the time, just being students hanging around Crisler over the summer. They were both eminently polite and nice to the throng of us that went over and asked for autographs and as they scribbled their names on my shirt I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe as the two worlds I had always known, my own and that of Michigan athletics, had somehow seamlessly blended into a new reality. Walking home from Crisler that day it had begun to rain and I hurried back to the dorm and was dispirited as I noticed the rain had caused the autographs on my shirt to run and fade into barely discernable yellow-ish scribbles.
Then a few years later it all came crashing down. We all know what happened so it’s not like a history lesson is warranted here but it hurt. Deeply so. And it would be a decade before I returned to Crisler to see a game after a work associate offered me some tickets. We drove down, got into our seats and on February 21, 2006 watched a Michigan team led by an inspired Daniel Horton knock off a highly regarded Illinois team with Dee Brown and James Augustine. Horton dropped 39 points and it felt like he couldn’t miss that night. I was seated up from the back left side of the basket and in the second half it felt as if the Michigan players were coming right at me. And as Horton drained three after three I couldn’t help but stupidly feel that, somehow, I was being told that it was alright to be a fan again.
I’ve spent the last week or so turning the simple idea of Michigan basketball over and over in my mind. I live and grew up around East Lansing where something as simple as a tournament berth hardly scratches the local papers. Where seeding is the real issue and where it’s not so much a concept of “if” as “how far” when it comes to the tournament. My friends will no doubt needle me by extolling Clemson and openly pondering how much Michigan will lose by and they don’t seem to notice that I just smile and laugh with them because they simply can’t understand that just being there is enough. Just being able to talk about Michigan losing in the tournament is a reward in and of itself. They’ll hopefully come a day to demand more out of this program; when it won’t be enough to make the tournament, but to succeed after doing so. But that day is not this day. This is enough.
I still have those pictures and that shirt locked away in a footlocker where everybody keeps things just because they hold personal, not actual, value. Every once in a while, usually after a move, I’ll dig back in there and pull out the photos and shirt. But now when I look upon the picture of the chubby kid with the bowl cut standing next to Steve Fisher I just feel flashes of anger at the rosy cheeked, balding man standing next to me. But when I pull out the shirt I always look to see if the signatures have returned or if they’ve somehow become clearer in time. And over the last couple of years the signatures haven’t actually been restored, but somehow my reverence for them has.