There were maybe a dozen people in the stands when we got to the arena for the Harvard-Brown basketball game Saturday night. Ivy League ball is not exactly UNC-Duke. By tipoff the crowd was maybe 300 people and we were treated to a half of air balls and dumb fouls and guys dribbling balls off their feet. Brown was slightly less mediocre and so they led 32-20 at the half.
But it was still fun, you know? At halftime they had two kids race down the court while putting on an adult-size basketball uniform (including size-18 sneakers). After that two teams of seventh-graders played for a few minutes — that was a reminder that seventh grade is when kids start to have growth spurts. A few of the kids looked like NFL linebackers and most of the others looked like members of the Lollipop Guild. But one of the Lollipop kids drilled a jumper right at the buzzer and everybody cheered.
Somewhere in there I looked down and saw Mike Tirico, the ESPN broadcaster, walking down the sideline. If you had given me 1,000 guesses on where Mike Tirico would be on a Saturday night, I’d never have picked the Harvard-Brown game. It turns out he was doing the Celtics-Spurs game in Boston on Sunday, so he had a reason to be in town… but still. You think he’d go bowling, catch a movie, you know, mix it up a little.
Harvard has a bunch of guys who can run and bang around on the boards, but basically only one guy who can score — a 6-3 guard named Jeremy Lin. The second half started and he started making shots. Harvard pulled to within three points right away, and some of the people who had started to leave went back to their seats, and the whole second half turned into these waves of Harvard getting close and Brown pulling away again.
Somebody was doing a radio broadcast but I’d be surprised if 10 people were listening. At that moment the two teams were a combined 1-9 in the Ivy League. Nobody knew or much cared about what was going on except the few hundred people in the stands and the teams on the benches and the 10 guys on the floor. But as the game ebbed away to the last couple of minutes, and you could tell it would be close all the way, everybody in that creaky old building cared a lot.
It was tied at 63 when Brown took the ball downcourt with maybe 40 seconds left. Their best player, Matt Mullery, had killed Harvard inside all night — he finished with 27 points. With less than 20 seconds left he got the ball down deep again. Everybody standing now. He gathered himself, went up to shoot — and Harvard forward Evan Harris flew in and blocked the shot.
Harvard raced upcourt. Lin got the ball. Two Brown players smothered him. He tried to get off a shot but it squirted out of his hands as the buzzer sounded. Overtime.
One of the refs had called a foul on Brown. They huddled for a minute, then made their decision. The foul came right at the buzzer. Lin would get two free throws with no time on the clock. Make one and he would win the game.
I have to tell you at this point that I have played in hundreds of basketball games and watched thousands more and never seen a foul called with 0:00 on the clock. I’m not sure it’s even possible. If there’s a foul during the game, doesn’t there have to be some time left? But that was the call and here came Lin to the free throw line.
The rest of the players went to the other end of the court — no need to try for a rebound with no time on the clock. The ref handed Lin the ball. Here is the thing about being in a small gym. It was so, so quiet. You could hear him spin the ball in his hands before he shot. The ball had a high arc and everybody watched it.
It bounced on the rim once, twice.
Harvard 64, Brown 63. The Harvard cheerleaders screamed their lungs out. The two teams lined up to shake hands, both teams in a daze, and then the Brown kids trudged up the steps to their locker room while the Harvard team lingered on the court.
I am pretty sure, at that moment, no one there was thinking about the financial crisis.
Earlier that day we went to a seminar on careers in the humanities, and one of the speakers was the great Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins. She talked about how covering sports is really about covering the athletic heart, and how the athletic heart can tell us a lot about ourselves as human beings.
She’s right. But I think sports is about more than just the athletic heart — it’s about the heart of the fan. Why do we spend so much money on sports, spend so much time watching games, care so much about a battle between the two worst teams in the Ivy League? Well, one reason is that sports is the great forgetting machine — no matter how terrible your life is going, no matter how bad the world, you can get swept up in a game for a couple of hours and pretend that nothing else matters.
We walked out into the cold night, warm. We talked to strangers, suddenly friends. Of course Mike Tirico would come on his day off. Even a small game in front of a tiny crowd can do that to you. It is a rare and valuable thing.