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March Sadness

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By Margaret O. Kirk

This year, March Madness is just not the same.

My beloved UNC Tar Heels, last season's NCAA Champions, didn't even make it to the first round of The Dance. Then there's the Duke factor:

How did I, a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, end up with a son at arch rival Duke University, his hair in a Mohawk and his face painted Blue Devil blue on national television?

And how painful was it the other week, the day Temple University (where my husband teaches) played Cornell University (where my oldest son is a student)? As much as I enjoyed watching the Big Red advance for the first time in the school's history, watching the Temple Owls lose a game they deserved to win was sheer agony. 

But March Madness is decidedly different this year for a far sadder reason. This is my first basketball season ever without my Mom, the ultimate basketball fan.

In a small Southern town, Ann Blalock Ingram Kirk was raised by two parents who played basketball in high school; two of my favorite family photographs show Granddaddy and Grandmom in their official team uniforms, celebrating the 1921 championship season.

Long before Title IX ensured athletic competition and opportunities for young women, my Mom kept the basketball tradition going when she, too, played in high school, back in the day when girls only played half-court.

My Mom and her high school sweetheart, her future husband and my Dad, Oliver Mack Kirk, both played on winning teams, and Mom forever endured the embarrassment of their courtside nicknames: Oliver's Ox and Blalock's Bull.

They had three daughters, and not playing basketball was never even considered. For 12 straight years, my parents rarely missed their daughters' games. I still remember their faces in the crowd, cheering as our high school team advanced to the finals of the first state championship for women's AA basketball.  We lost, but Mom kept our runner-up trophies on a shelf as if they were Olympic gold medals.

At UNC, I became a college newspaper photographer, just so I could go to all the basketball games. My parents and I talked after nearly every game. And though my Dad enjoyed basketball, my Mom really loved it. She knew the players and she knew their moves. If UNC's Dean Smith, her favorite coach of all time, switched from zone to man-to-man defense, she debated it. When Smith signaled for the Four Corners, an offensive stall strategy eventually made obsolete by the shot clock, she questioned the wisdom of that, "because that's just not basketball."

When my Dad, 51, died suddenly just before Christmas over 29 years ago, my Mom's grief was so complete that she rarely ventured from the house for months. The one thing she managed occasionally to enjoy during that horrific winter were her basketball games, and the Tar Heels obliged by winning the 1982 NCAA Championship. Just for her.

Last March, I spent most of March Madness at my Mom's house. We sat in her bed together, propped up by her favorite collection of plaid and floral pillows, watching television whenever the Tar Heels played.  It was the one thing Mom insisted on doing.  She was in the final stages of her two-year battle with breast cancer. She dozed a lot and I know she was in pain. But if it was game time, that television was on. If she fell asleep during the game, her first words upon waking up were always, to my repeated surprise, the same: "Are we ahead?  What's the score?"

My Mom lived long enough to see UNC win its fifth national championship last year.   Her obituary mentioned her love for her six grandchildren, politics - and basketball. 

Which is why this year's March Madness is layered with so much more than who wins or who loses.  I just miss my Mom.  I didn't expect this to be so hard. Over the years, I have survived the loss of so many loved ones, I thought I knew all the stages of grief by heart. But the significance of this March Madness anniversary caught me by surprise.

So this is what I'm going to do: I'll take out my vintage UNC bobble-head doll and my decades-old can of Carolina Blue Soda from the 1982 NCAA Championship (the one with Mike Jordan printed on the side), and put these treasured gifts from my Mom right next to the television, like I always do.

I'll cheer for Cornell and celebrate the fact that my oldest son scored his first ticket to The Sweet Sixteen as Cornell takes on No. 1 Kentucky.  I'll pull for Duke, a truly great university for my middle son, who I'll always adore even though he is a Blue Devil.  I'll watch the games with my youngest son and my husband, and try to teach them a thing or two about the pick and roll. And I'm going to promise that I'll call my sons after every March Madness game, for the rest of my life.

And then I'm going to lace up my old pair of Chuck Taylors and go shoot a few hoops in the backyard.  My Mom had a beautiful set shot, right from the foul line.

 

 

Margaret O. Kirk is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Mount Airy. Her most recent book, "An Obsession with Rings: How Rowing became an Olympic Sport for Women in the United States," was published with Joanne Wright Iverson last year.

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