Final Beliefs

Where do I even begin?

Does it start when I first moved to Tuscaloosa, wide-eyed and thick with anxiety over my new home—a kid without much of a plan beyond writing some things and drinking some things and maybe trying to run fives at the Rec Center courts with my roommate Rob before heading back to our apartment in Northport; you know, the one where the hot water ran out before I could get a good lather going.

Does it start before that—watching my dad dominate the Readington Over 30s Rec League with cut-throat defense and savvy point guard play: me being a kid hoping that he’d choose to put up 20 shots a game because I understood the game as “score the most points,” an archaic way of thinking, but also true in its simplicity. The ball goes in, or it doesn’t. You count by 1s, 2s, 3s—a summation of minutes of bodies crashing into each other; of fooling your opponents off the dribble, of curling around the width of the hardwood before getting just enough space to fire off a jump shot as clean as a fresh shave.

Where does it start for you? This love of basketball—specifically, Alabama Basketball. We swap credentials constantly: do you remember CM Newton? Wimp? Rob Grizzard? Ronald Steele from the corner? Trevor Releford getting hit on the follow through? The endless Februarys where it felt like we lead the nation in shot clock violations? Or are you much younger than me—Collin Sexton going 5-on-3, Collin Sexton going the length of the court to get us into the dance; the constant years of hoping we’d get an invite like a poor soul waiting by the window in their tuxedo on prom night with no one to open the door.

For me, it’s the Jarvis Varnado game. A cool February in 2009, but the Coliseum was sweaty as always—for a concrete monstrosity it sure knows how to keep heat. I had gone to many Alabama games my first years in Tuscaloosa—there’s something welcoming about Alabama Basketball the same way that football is not. There are all sorts of mysteries and pomp and circumstance to football; tailgates and sorority houses, assigned seating; the feeling of entering a new gym and not knowing how to use any of the equipment and suddenly forgetting how your body moves throughout the world. Basketball brings none of that—instead, it is a hodgepodge of chicken fingers and refillable cups. Pep bands and occasional t-shirts being thrown into the crowd. Red Panda might show up. The guy who climbs the chairs and makes me feel anxious might show up. Some days we just let the middle schoolers play in their oversized t-shirts, all taking ill-advised three-pointers just to say they hit a shot on the same basket that Alonzo Gee hit a 360 dunk against Coppin State. I was there for that one too—maybe I saw you in the concourse.

Alonzo played in this game too—a torrid affair with our cross-state rivals that always seem to have a seven footer who never gets called for three-seconds. This was no different—me and my friends stood under the basket as we saw Jarvis Varnado block eight shots and affect at least 70 others. At no point in time did it feel like Alabama was going to win the game. And so when it went to overtime, we thought we were delaying the inevitable.

But the Tide kept coming. Regardless of what we may have thought of them at the time.

I admittedly am a basketball cynic. I am a Minnesota Timberwolves fan. I loved the Celtics as a kid, but the Dino Radja/Eric Montross Celtics—too late for Bird & McHale. When my basketball teams are doing good, I am waiting for the other shoe to drop—things are going too well. I am waiting for the next injury. I am waiting for my point guard to forget how to dribble the basketball at the worst possible time.

And most of the time they deliver.

To be fair, to win a national championship in college basketball is next to impossible—it is a gauntlet of chaos and a cutthroat tournament that exists on an entirely different plane. It is also notoriously impossible to predict. A thing I always keep in mind was a conversation with a sports psychologist friend: no one can get a perfect bracket because no one knows how any team is going to deal with not only the format of March Madness, but the psychological and emotional pressure of your season potentially ending at any moment.

Alabama had never gotten past the Elite 8—their last trip was the year before I moved to Alabama. During my potential student visit, I asked to go to Coleman on a random November day. We walked around the concourse where I saw the Sports Illustrated cover framed in glass as I entered. It was one of those “Oh, I remember that,” though honestly I remembered UAB more—Squeaky Johnson bouncing through the lane and busting brackets. You could point to any factors you wanted—the recruits weren’t coming here, the state of Alabama high school basketball was mid-range at best and Eric Bledsoe was getting snatched up by Kentucky. There’s “built for this,” and then there is “built for this,” and Alabama never quite seemed like either.

Regardless, I was there, and you were too. I coached Anthony Grant’s kid in flag football. We lost every game. He told me “good game, coach” anyway. I was at the Tide Tipoff event when Avery Johnson arrived and Rae Sremmurd and Avery Johnson Jr. tweeted out “who’s meeting us at Harry’s” when every single one of them (Rae Sremmurd included) was 19. There were beautiful glimpses of potential, but we knew the ceiling was the ceiling. A last four in and we were thrilled. A favorable 8-9 matchup and we got out the good china. It was a good life, but a simple life.

Things started to change. You can credit Avery Johnson for recruiting players from out of state to come here and making it a legit destination to play—upgrading the team hotels and maxing out Marriott points, changing the court aesthetics and atmosphere, bringing that NBA feel to Tuscaloosa, if not the NBA point totals and results. You can sure as hell credit Greg Byrne for seeing the potential of a salty STEM Midwestern human layup drill hanging out in Buffalo and seeing if he could drive the boat—and you can absolutely credit that same coach for crafting a style of play that is attractive and fun to everyone involved. He preached “working your tail off,” and “max effort, continuous growth, selfless love,” and all the things you want to hear but need to see to believe.

I credit Fluff.

What Fluff brought to Alabama Basketball, as well as my way of viewing things, was a sense of optimism. This was something I was never accustomed to out of basketball—other sports I would feel confident in things happening, even calm. In basketball, so much could go wrong. Perhaps it’s my own terribleness at the sport—I often think about how the easiest time you’d have playing basketball is just shooting around by yourself, and you’d still wind up missing most of your shots. Now add five other people on the court trying to make sure that you don’t score a single goddamn point. To be successful at basketball is difficult, and to expect anything more than heartbreak and Arby’s is even more difficult.

But Fluff believed in every goddamn trip down the court and brought a beautiful levity to the game—a massive presence that somehow brought a lightness to it all. It’s something I envied—the kid was a good 18 years younger than me, and so it’s easy to dismiss his crimson colored views of the world as the feelings of youth, but the earnestness and belief in what he said and his actions and his energy transcended everything. He was a stalwart—the person you’d look for in the stands when you were across the gym in Section X, the guy the cameras would cut to screaming bloody murder and you’d be able to tell the guy next to you at the bar that “oh yeah, that’s Luke, he’s awesome.”

And so, hey, I started to believe a bit, because why the hell not.

Not outwardly, of course—my sports cynicism comes from protecting my heart and making sure I’m not disappointed at the end of the day. If I thought we were going to lose the entire time, I can’t be shocked when we lose. But I’d find myself holding on a little bit more—my body raging a classic battle of “it’s so over, we’re so back” that every sports fan knows a little bit. But it’s a lot harder to love the game you claim to love when you’re expecting the worst for the sake of “I told you so, I knew not to trust this team, enjoy Arby’s.”

And so this team—this squad that got ran out of the gym against some hated rivals, this team that sleepwalked through the end of the season, this team that finally introduced a retro jersey and then promptly cursed them only to uncurse them again is that marriage of the cold-hearted doomsayer beef n’ cheddar devil and the kid sinking the Full Moon halfcourt shot plaid wearing bourbon swilling dancing angel. The bizarro funhouse mirror 21-22 team that was the last squad that Fluff got to see. The broken mosaic “built for this” 22-23 team with the best player the Tide has ever seen who collapsed under the stress and weight of heavy expectations. Instead, we have a strange amalgamation of this cast of characters—a kid from North Dakota with an Adam Morrison mustache turning into prime Pau Gasol. The tribute to our teenage point guard defeating his hometown and the team his mom played for and absorbing their power and confidence to get us through. A meme lord getting left behind on a cross country flight, breaking a clipboard, starting every game like he has completely forgotten anything he’s ever learned about the game of basketball before getting 1% more powerful every trip down the court. A kid whose mom does every shot along with him from the stands in her custom bedazzled sweatshirts whose trajectory went Alabama-Ohio-Alabama and will throw his whole entire body into a shot from the logo like an 8-year-old who can’t quite reach the basket but damn sure is gonna try. A kid fasting for Ramadan that got the most timely and important points of the season and when asked about it was like “yeah, I can’t drink water, it’s really hard,” and has single-handedly done more for Muslim-Alabama relations in ten minutes of blue-collar basketball than most activists. An actual person under the age of 68 whose hometown is The Villages, Florida. A WWE and anime obsessed three-point assassin who is probably upset that he has to play during Night 1 of Wrestlemania weekend on Saturday because he had plans to eat pizza rolls with his friends from middle school, but instead has to finish his own story.

And so, it had to be them—this perfect concoction of college kids who are wildly inconsistent, but take turns holding each other up. There were so many times foul trouble came and I thought we were cooked—Wrightsell going down and evaporating our already thin bench. It’s so over, sure, but how can we be so back when we’re going somewhere we’ve never been before, nor dreamed about on our best days?

I wish Fluff were here. I wish Cecil were here—he’d be a lot more concise in his writing than I am being because he’s a professional and I’m just a guy looking for the meaning of delayed joy in a basketball game and attempting to encompass all of the feelings I’ve ever had while everyone in my household is asleep. I wish you were here—all of you—those I’ve watched games with, who have given me tickets, who gave me hugs in the concourse before some sophomore music major sings the national anthem.

And so, where do I begin? Because basketball is a constant start and stop—an endless string of beginnings. A new possession, a new game, a new team, a new hope to hold onto. Despite the name, there is nothing final about any of this—games, memories, people, that sense of joy and relief when the clock hits zero—it’s never truly the end.

And when you realize that, you can truly start to believe.

Brian Oliu
Brian Oliu
Featured Writer