Wednesday, April 1, 2009
So I went to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to watch the Penn State basketball team continue its epic and folkloric run through the National Invitation Tournament* (as I've stated previously, this is Penn State basketball--we take whatever miracles we can get, especially in mid-to-late winter, when central Pennsylvania is frigid and dark and overrun by stray deer). And it appeared that most of the denizens of my hometown of State College, Pa., had bused up to New York for the occasion**, along with one Joseph Vincent Paterno, age 82, once of Brooklyn, NY. And during the first half, Paterno appeared on the ESPN broadcast and fell into an Abe Simpsonian dialogue about blacks and Jews and the history of basketball. It was awkward, it was not exactly politically correct, and it threw a few members of the blogosophere into a minor tizzy, as old men rambling on national television tend to do (See: McCain, John).
As I've stated before (in this ESPN.com column), I have mixed feelings about Paterno's very public descent into octogenarianism (?), about his rampant stubbornness to reveal his future plans (Or, to quote Joe: "Ehhhh..."), and about his questionable decision-making in terms of discipline (or to quote Joe: "Eyeeeedon'tknow."). And one could certainly make an argument that his comments last night, at the very least, make him appear "out of touch"--though one could also argue that Paterno grew up in a very different New York City, one often defined by ethnicity, and therefore was simply reflecting that reality.*** (Though one could then counter that reality has changed, and Paterno should reflect such changes...and then one could challenge the blogosphere to an arm-wrestling match.)
Regardless, here is what I know: An 82-year-old football coach drove (or was driven) 300 miles to attend a sporting event that began at 9 p.m. and ended sometime after 11, simply because his school was being represented in a sport where it's never had much success in the first place. And you could feel that kind of (semi-irrational) devotion at the Garden last night--overwhelmed as it was by hordes of Penn State students, by alums like me who refuse to let go of our connection to college, and by Paterno himself. Bill Simmons touched on this today in discussing his own alma mater and its athletic futility, and it is true--for many of us, sports keep us connected with our own past, and with our college experience, which is probably why they raise so much sturm und drang within the wilds of the Internet. This is their inherent value; this is why they matter, and this is why they touch on more emotions than professional sports ever could (at least for me).
This is also why I am conflicted about Joe Paterno: I am capable of constant worry about an aging man frittering away his legacy (See: Hayes, Woody), and yet I still feel obligated to defend him. We need nostalgia, and we need these connections, even if they sometimes say inexplicable things on national television.
*If it shattered the hell out of your NIT bracket, I apologize.
**State College, Pa., to New York City, should be a prime candidate for the least interesting five-hour car ride in America, right up there with Dayton to Cleveland and Akron to Anywhere. On a bus, State College to New York City is both interminable and vaguely nauseating.
***Also, he once wore an onion on his belt, because that was the style at the time.