Volume 3, Issue 55: Whole Love
"I will still love you to death, and I won't ever forget how."
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One of my personal side effects of the pandemic has been getting unusually emotional over otherwise unremarkable, common things. A school bus, children playing outside with other children, a lousy local band playing choppy Van Morrison covers in a public park … for 44 years of my life, none of these occurrences would have made me glance away from whatever I was reading, and now they nearly cause me to tear up. We are really starting to approach a moment of breakthrough here, as more and more people are vaccinated and case numbers continue to collapse, and these moments are going to become more and more common, reminders of what we’ve lost, and what can be regained again. A friend told me the other day that the first time she sees one of those movie-theater house ads, reminding you to turn off your phone and to visit the concession stand, she may weep so hard that she’ll miss the rest of the movie.
One of these moments hit me last night. I should have seen it coming.
I was watching my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team, one of the hottest teams in the country right now, play in the Big Ten Tournament against Rutgers. There has been much debate about the feasibility of playing college basketball in a pandemic—I’ve been a big part of it myself—and one of the ways the Big Ten Conference has attempted to pull it off is by not allowing fans in the stands for any regular season games. This is understandable, and prudent, but it also has denied notoriously rabid Illini fans from watching one of the most viscerally thrilling teams in the school’s history. (And has denied players from hearing fans cheer them on, which is half the point of being an athlete in the first place.) There have been three classic Illinois teams in my lifetime: The 1988-89 Flying Illini team with Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo and Kenny Battle; the 2004-05 team with Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head; and this one, led by All-American (and newly masked) Ayo Dosunmu, Shaq-from-1991 clone Kofi Cockburn and beloved senior Trent Frazier. (Not to mention freshman point guard Andre Curbelo, who routinely does insane things like this.) That those teams have occurred exactly 16 years apart has not been lost on the fanbase. You rarely get a truly special team. This is one of those special teams.
Which is why it’s such a cruel irony that this year, of all years, no one has been able to watch them in person … until Friday. The Big Ten is allowing 8,000 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this week—one of which is my father, who is spending his post-vaccination time incredibly wisely—and, as you might suspect, a large percentage of that 8,000 consisted of Illini fans. I have not missed a single minute of a single Illini basketball game this season; watching them with my father and my son over the last month has many times been the only activity I’ve had to look forward to all week. But watching sports on television just isn’t the same as watching them in person, another thing the pandemic has taught us. Even when it’s pretty great.
So, this was the moment:
On the first play of the Illinois-Rutgers game, Illini forward Jacob Grandison cut to the basket, laid the ball off the backboard, watched it fall through the hoop and then was knocked to the ground by a foul. An And-1, one of the most exciting plays in basketball. And I heard something I had not heard all year: A roar. The crowd unleashed a primal scream. So did I.
You can see Grandison realize what is happening, and he breaks out into an involuntary and huge smile. Fans. This season has been glorious. But that’s what it had been missing. Thousands of people, feeding off each other’s energy, uniting over a shared common goal … together. When people talk about the Unifying Power Of Sports, it’s usually a platitude, a way to try to justify spending so much time and energy on an activity that is by definition frivolous. But then you see that joy, and that release, and that connection to something larger than just yourself. It feels like your feet aren’t touching the ground. It feels like how sports are supposed to feel. It felt like a return.
It has been disorienting to write about sports professionally in a pandemic. How sports has responded to Covid-19 has been fascinating, even if leagues have not necessarily covered themselves in glory, and I understand arguments about whether we should have been doing any of this at all. But I will not lie to you: Having sports happening has helped me through this. A lot. I worried, even in print, about the return of sports leading to a dangerous illusion of normalcy, that it would make people believe the pandemic was over when it wasn’t. But I don’t think happened. I don’t think anyone, even the people denying the effects and science of the pandemic, has been lulled into forgetting about what’s happening, and sports would be low on the list of reasons why if they could. I believe sports have become what sports are meant to be: A distraction. A fleeting one, a ephemeral one, a way to go think about something else for a while before returning to the scary, dangerous real world that’s always waiting for us. One of my favorite pieces of the pandemic was about how I’d rediscovered the simple pleasure of listening to a baseball game on the radio. For three hours, there was no pandemic, and, really, nothing different from how it felt listening to Jack Buck while floating around fishing with my grandfather in 1984. We are always in danger of losing perspective about sports. But I think, for many people, that perspective was rightly re-adjusted in the pandemic. Which ended up making sports more important. You just felt grateful.
Which brings me to the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event, with the first four days, in particular, a firehose of giddy pleasures. (Though I once saw, and wrote about, a national title game that might be the most incredible sporting event I’ve ever seen live.) I’ve been drawing up brackets, tracking the bubble teams, hollering for underdogs and, more than anything, obsessing over my Illini, since I was seven years old. I once had drew a huge bracket on the driveway in chalk, and I was so proud of it I made my dad park his truck somewhere else. (My plan was ultimately foiled by Central Illinois rain.) I have passed this affliction onto my son William. We even have constructed a standings wall.
College basketball is the most democratic sport there is, though this is not saying much; sports are by nature rather totalitarian. College basketball, though, is universal. They play college basketball everywhere: Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, New York City, Los Angeles, Boise, Natchitoches, Fargo. And everybody has a chance to win a championship: All you have to do is not lose. (This is far from the case in, say, college football.) It is also a sport ingrained into my Central Illinois bones: Growing up, Illini basketball was, to a Mattoon kid, essentially the Yankees. (Lou Henson was Mr. Rogers, the President and your dad wrapped into one person.) It has provided me some of the most euphoric moments of my life, and some of the most despairing. The Illini are my open nerve.
Illinois was going to make the Tournament last year for the first time since 2013 before Covid canceled the whole thing. It stung at the time, but a whole lot of other things stung a whole lot more. And now they are back, stomping out a pretty-solid Rutgers team Friday en route to a No. 1 seed … if they can continue, like college basketball and sports are struggling with, to tiptoe through the Covid minefield. (Illinois having this season and then not being able to finish … you know, such a thought is too cursed to even compete the sentence.) And we are all screaming for them. And now: They can hear us.
I know the NCAA Tournament is not the most important thing in the world, even if it sure will feel that way this over the next week. I know sports are not going to fix, or save, anything. But I also know that the next year of our lives, and maybe the rest of our lives, are going to in large part be about readjusting, about recovering what we’ve lost, about discovering what has changed in our world because of what we have gone though … and what hasn’t.
And I think it’s mostly going to be about appreciation. Appreciation for what was taken away, for what has returned, for what we’d always had in front of us but had never seen as clearly before. I’m not sure we’ll ever truly recover from what we have gone through in the last year. But I am ready to start trying.
I already have a deal with my father that, if the Illini reach the Final Four, we’re getting tickets, no matter what. I do not know how emotional it will be if we are so lucky to make the trip. I do not know how I will react. I don’t know how I’m going to react to anything when this is all over, a moment that is beginning to feel close than ever. But I know I’m going to be grateful. And I know I am going to scream my lungs out.
So: GO. ILLINI.
WEEKLY BOOK UPDATE: EIGHT WEEKS TO LAUNCH
Every week here at The Will Leitch Newsletter, we count down the weeks until the release of How Lucky, my novel that comes out May 11. This is the spot for weekly news, updates and pre-order reminders.
Hey, look at that cool little graphic up there. Neat, huh? The Harper crew is starting to roll out its marketing campaign—now that we are, gasp, eight weeks away—and they’ve made some nifty little slides. Here’s another one:
There are some more coming. They look great! (Feel free to litter your social media feeds with them!) I know that giving you ad copy and little graphic slides probably doesn’t count as an “update” necessarily, but I’ve got a couple of fun things brewing here but they’re not quite ready.
Until then, remember to email me any questions you have about the book, for an upcoming mailbag, to email@example.com. Some good ones so far!
preorders boost bookseller confidence. Having a lot of preorders is an early indicator that the book will sell well and can encourage retailers to increase initial (ie. 'laydown') orders at launch. Did you know that bookstores can RETURN copies to the publisher that don't sell? So there's no risk to stores except loss of that literal real estate on their shelves and STILL 95% of traditionally published books never see the inside of a store.
So hey, you’re here, reading this far already. Pre-order already.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Stop Vaccine Shaming People, Medium. Fortunately, I suspect this will be a moot point very soon.
It’s March Madness in a Pandemic, New York. Well, here we go!
The Pandemic Could Have Been So Much Worse, Medium. Some reflections on the year anniversary.
Your American League West Preview, MLB.com. Just one of these left!
Internet Nostalgia: The Dancing Baby, Medium. I has been a while since I typed the words “Ally McBeal.”
Unsigned Veteran Players I’m Not Ready to Say Goodbye To, MLB.com. Somebody sign Matt Adams already.
The Thirty: A Player on Every Team To See in Person, MLB.com. And I plan to see all of them.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “Coming 2 America” and “Chaos Walking,” and we also made Oscar nomination predictions.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week. Taping next week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
Big Ten Basketball Coaches, Ranked by How Much They Personally Irritate Me
Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Chris Collins, Northwestern
Archie Miller, Indiana
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
Juwan Howard, Michigan
Matt Painter, Purdue
Greg Gard, Wisconsin
Mark Turgeon, Maryland
Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska
Chris Holtmann, Ohio State
Steve Pikiell, Rutgers
Jim Ferry, Penn State
Brad Underwood, Illinois
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
Reach out and touch my heart … with your foot. Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” U2. So here’s something I’ve discovered about myself as I’ve gotten older: I no longer feel any need to apologize for listening to U2. It is not me, it is the kids who are wrong! I’ve been surprised how much U2 I’ve been listening to while writing lately. It’s actually pretty terrific writing background music! Anyway, Zooropa is a better album than you remember, and this is the best song off that album.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Let’s go get ‘em, gents.
I - L - L!!!!