Damn you, Greg Gumbel

Love and basketball and my almost indomitable mother.

Every year on Selection Sunday, Mom gets pissed off at Greg Gumbel’s suit.

“He had all year to pick it out. It’s damn hideous.”

And so begins the most important holiday in the Dawson family: CBS’ presentation of the NCAA Men’s Tournament brackets — the one holiday that didn’t turn awkward when my parents got divorced. I call Mom, she calls Dad, he calls my brother Frank who puts us all on speaker so his wife Mandy can hear. After Mom hates on Greg Gumbel, it plays like this: Frank’s 1992 high school squad could beat every number one seed; Kansas is useless; how great to see UNC lose because it means we’ll have a chance to watch Roy Williams cry.

Family values.

When I was a kid, I didn’t know the game but loved black guys in Nikes. I faked the flu to watch my first basketball crush, Toby Bailey, in the ’95 tournament. I applied to Georgetown because Allen Iverson was a Hoya before I’d ever set foot on campus. I loved me some Mike Bibby and wore my Arizona Wildcat shorts everywhere.

When players became the same age as my students, and the romance ended, I thought I’d lose interest in March. But my family didn’t, so I didn’t. Now I sound like a Tarantino film when I watch a game. And I drink. And it’s unchained perfection.

But this year’s Selection Sunday came days after my family found out Mom has breast cancer. Nobody said anything of it on the phone because Mom’s a boss. Urban Dictionary boss. James Brown “I got soul and I’m super bad” boss. She rarely lets you see her flinch. She’s the master — and the master of what doesn’t matter. It’s direct defiance (her term) if we disturb the balance.

For all her swagger, last Saturday, while I was watching Louisville beat Memphis, she called and wanted to weep. She said she was wearing a scarf I left behind at Thanksgiving: “I needed to be wrapped up and it smelled like you.” She felt cold though it wasn’t cold, said “It’s in my bones but I can’t chill enough to sleep.” She owned scared.

Usually during March Madness she’s prone to avoidance. She’s the one in the family who can’t handle a close game. I’ll hide my face in a corner and make someone else tell me what’s happening. Mom won’t come in the room.

Separated by the distance of two phones and miles in between, I told her it’d be okay, my Maryland accent showing itself in the long O that always slides into something more like ooh. It sounded like I’d never left home. But I felt nothing but too far from home, my family, and triple zeroes on the clock when the best team wins and the loser goes to the locker room knowing they tried.

That was before Mom asked me what Greg Gumbel does all year besides pick out hideous suits.

Yeah you did.

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