The Physics of Basketball

Devereux Hall (detail, roof), St. Bonaventure University

Last night two things happened:

First, St Bonaventure University beat UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. This was their first win in the tournament since before my older sister attended the college. And during the game I was part of a spontaneous, online reunion with friends I haven’t seen in exactly thirty-five years. I graduated, in fact, 35 years ago May 15th.

It was fun interacting like college kids, our hearts racing at the turnovers, the excitement growing at the lead, boiling at the missed shots and fouls. The interaction via text and social media was so constant, we could have been all together at the Reilly Center, sitting with our floormates, cheering them on as the band played off to the side not long after “Lou” famously sang the National Anthem.

But we are much older now, closer to ninety than graduation day. Some of us have stayed close to others, some have drifted, and some are, tragically, gone too soon and missed even more on nights like this. These are not people I “kind of” knew; we lived together, ate together, sat in classes and in bars together, hitchhiked together, and, of course, lost our voices together at basketball games behind Coach Jim O’Brien and stars like Mark Jones and Eric Stover. Afterwards we walked together to the skellar and wiped clean our foggy glasses as we ordered three dollar pitchers of beer and talked over the blaring music of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Last night was a 21st version of a family reunion. I don’t want to again be the immature, overtly innocent particle I was in the early eighties; but it was fun to hang out again, from Ohio to Florida to Albany to Allegany (and yes, for you non-Bona people and spellcheck ghosts, “Allegany” is spelled correctly).

The second event of the day is desperately more tragic: Stephen Hawking died. One of the books which made a big impression on the population in the late eighties was A Brief History of Time. I remember first understanding who Hawking was when he received an honorary degree at my brother’s graduation from the University of Notre Dame. This man, who could not talk without aids, could not walk or function in just about any traditional manner, and whose diagnosis predicted his death even before that graduation day in 1978, pushed the envelope of possibility, bent time away from him as he made his mark not only on physics but on thought itself for another forty years.

Hawking once wrote, “We are now all connected by the internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” Last night was quite the example of that.

Hawking also implored us to, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

As I walk into my classrooms I am confronted by students with a desperate lack of curiosity, a dangerous lack of eye contact, a pathetically unmotivated group of teens. I don’t remember life this way. When I was my students’ age—and yes this is going to sound like an old man complaining about how things were better—things were better. We interacted, knew each other, laughed OUT LOUD, not LOL, we held each other’s hands and had each other’s backs. We formed bonds so tight they lasted three and a half decades so that for a few brief hours it was as if we were all together again, like neurons in a giant brain. I see the irony; but could we have remained so close, or reignited so quickly online had we only been connected by technology when we were young? I think it is probable the absolute raw interaction of our hearts and souls four decades ago is the only reason our friendships survived. I understand these friends today because we understood the sorrow and joy behind each other’s eyes so long ago, without the border wall of technology, without the ravine dug by platforms and gigabites. 

Hawking wrote, “The past is indefinite and, like the future, exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.” Everything changes. Everything. Even the past as we move forward on this pilgrimage. Things change, of course, and for some all the changes come at once and often unexpectedly, but physics has proven that we keep moving forward, no matter what, and if we are lucky, the best parts of our lives, the deepest roots of our lives, remain. Last night I knew that was true.

And tomorrow night, it happens again, against Florida. Gulp. What a beautiful time to be alive. Yes, 

“What a glorious time to be alive” –Stephen Hawking


One thought on “The Physics of Basketball

  1. After years and years of Alabama’s football team beating Auburn, Auburn finally won a game. My father sent collect telegrams to his Alabama friends. The telegram had two words: War Eagle! Do people still send telegrams?


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