My husband and I have a mixed marriage: He’s a southerner, I’m a northerner. The differences created by our geographies are not profound — I’ve acquired a taste for pimento cheese; he’s accepted that iced tea in New England is rarely sweetened and never home brewed. We are both Democrats. The real challenge is our religions: Mine is a Buddhist/Episcopal mix; his is basketball. College basketball.
This time of year, the NCAA basketball tournament, is his Holy Week.
My husband and I have a mixed marriage... The real challenge is our religions: mine is a Buddhist/Episcopal mix; his is basketball. College basketball.
I’ve accepted this. I accepted it shortly after our four-month anniversary, when Bill said those words every person in a new relationship dreads: “We have to talk.”
“I won’t be able to see you for the next three weeks.”
“What tournament?” I racked my brains. “You’re playing in a tournament?” I knew that Bill played a pick-up game of basketball after work, but I had seen his team play. That team could not be in any tournament.
“The NCAA tournament.”
“National Collegiate Athletic Association. It’s March Madness.”
Once it became clear that I was not putting him on, Bill patiently explained that March Madness was a tournament of 64 men’s college basketball teams that he had been following since he was a boy. Since the time of Rupp’s Runts (whoever they were). That it was important to people from Kentucky, to people who attended the University of Kentucky, and to people who loved basketball — in essence, Bill.
“So, why do we need to talk about it?”
“Because women — the women I’ve been involved with — don’t appreciate the tournament. Or that I follow it.”
“What do you mean ‘follow it’?”
“I’m taking Thursday and Friday off this week to watch the games. I won’t be able to see you this weekend at all.”
“Because I’ll be watching the games.”
Thus began a new era in my life: the annual three-week absence of my boyfriend — later, husband.
This was fine. We had a pattern: I’d go away the first tournament weekend; I’d come home and watch an occasional game the second, commenting only on the coaches’ hair. (I was particularly fond of Jerry Tarkanian’s method of drying the sweat on his bald head with a folded towel.) I’d fill out a bracket that I never understood. The men I worked with found this hilarious: I was — am — notoriously ignorant about sports. One of them claimed that the only reason I knew that the Patriots were from Massachusetts was that I had once accidentally driven into Gillette Stadium on my way back to Wheaton College.
All was well until the 1993 Final Four. Kentucky had won the NCAA championship the year before. I went out to the movies with a friend. We were chatting about the movie as we came into the house and were immediately shushed by Bill, who was watching the last few seconds of the game, in overtime. We shut the door, the buzzer sounded, and Kentucky lost.
Bill was furious. Partly because my friend was a Michigan fan, but mostly because Kentucky lost. In bed that night, he said, “It’s your fault: you jinxed us.”
“That’s ridiculous! How could I jinx the game?”
“You were home. Whenever you’re home, in tournament play, Kentucky loses.”
He rolled over and went to sleep.
I did not.
I pretended to ignore him, but it soon became apparent that I was a jinx. In 1994 and 1995, the University of Kentucky didn’t even make the Elite Eight, and I was home for those games. In 1996, Bea, my gentle mother-in-law, suggested that I go away during the championship game. I spent the night in the local library and drove home so slowly that a cop started tailing me.
I proceeded at a snail’s pace, pulling into driveway at the final moment. When it was clear that Kentucky was going to win, I ran to the front door. I had never seen Bill so happy.
I thought I had beaten the jinx, but, by staying away, all I had done was cement its status, which became clear over the next two years: In 1997, I was home; Kentucky lost. In 1998, I was away; Kentucky won.
My husband pretended the jinx wasn’t happening. Then we became parents and I decided, to hell with the damned tournament. I wasn’t taking the baby out at night to assure Tubby Smith a win.
Thus began the decade of Kentucky losses. It became a constant joke — an edgy one — between us.
In 2012, I got sick during the NCAA tournament. So sick I could not leave the house. I took some medicine and conked out. Kentucky won. The illness was winning, too, and I continued to sleep through the games — all the way through Kentucky’s defeat of Kansas in the championship. I was awakened from my near-coma by my husband, yelling for joy. Clearly, the jinx was broken.
Bill says that 2012 proved I’m not a jinx. (2013 is not even factored in because Kentucky didn’t make the tournament.) I’d like to say that I agree, that I’ll stay home and watch the game with him Monday night. But Kentucky’s got a 38-0 season. Bill and I are at 25-0 ourselves. I’d like to keep that streak going.
Just to be safe, I’ll be in the library.
Update: Kentucky was ousted from the tournament on Saturday night. They finished the season 38-1. Our condolences to Bill...