The Basketball Diaries

A visiting British scholar considers the American spectacle known as UT Men's Basketball

The early, dark days of January can be a bleak time of year, but not when you have the inescapable orange glow of the Vols to cheer you up. On Wednesday, Jan. 9, I joined twenty-odd thousand other committed souls who flocked to the Thompson-Boling Arena to watch a men's basketball game. UT were playing Ole Miss on the day that the spring semester kicked off in earnest. I initially thought Ole Miss may have been a loving name for a local prostitute, but it turns our it's a university from Mississippi.

The atmosphere in the arena itself resembled an August evening: hot, humid, sticky, claustrophobic and uncomfortable. I cowered in my sun-starved, weedy Britishness as incredibly well-developed and muscular specimens—otherwise known as "student-athletes"—went through their paces on the court. I think court is correct; my sporting vocabulary is entirely limited to football of the European kind.

The arena itself is well appointed and designed, yet it almost feels like I could be waiting to watch a band or a stand-up, not a sporting event. The sporting arenas I frequented in my formative years were horrid, decaying places, which smelt of stale cigarette smoke, beer, and the threat of imminent violence. Yet that air of menace and overt hostility made for an electric atmosphere, in which no band, cheerleaders, or announcers were required.

This is by no means a new revelation, as I know many other British or Europeans bristle against the choreographed and manufactured nature of American sporting or cultural events. Without getting all colonial about it, the tradition of, well, inventing traditions is such an American trait, it seems. Everything, especially college sporting events, provides an occasion for new rituals and rites to be invented, new people to be memorialized, new games to be written into legend, and so on. This is evidenced by the banners hanging from the ceiling, boldly pronouncing accomplishments in the history of Tennessee basketball for the Vols and Lady Vols alike.

I'll hold my hands up and say I am kind of jealous in a way. We Brits are such a drink-sodden, cynical race that we seem to have lost a sense of putting on a show, of colorful pageantry that one can find by simply going to a college basketball game here. I was pleased that I made it in time for the national anthem to be sung, as it embodies this pageantry perhaps more than anything else. I'm used to solemn, cold, and reserved anthems, yet this one was belted out by a buxom diva, and it was met by a series of enthusiastic whoops from the crowd. Whooping is such an American trait, and the section of the Big Orange Army out in force on this January evening whooped exceptionally well.

After the pageantry comes the play, and the opposition arrive to some rather unenthusiastic booing from the home crowd. But then the show starts, initiated by a rather bizarre scene that may well have been enacted out in those nearby mountains in some far-off mythical time as Davy Crockett serenades some kind of man-dog; my companion informs me, before I completely lose myself in my crazed phantasmagoric imaginings of East Tennessee days of yore, that Smokey is a mascot, thereby allaying my fears. The show then really kicks up a notch, in terms of volume and spectacle, as the Vols themselves are introduced. Someone needs to have a word with the tailor for the men's basketball team, as they appear to have been outfitted by the same guy who did Apollo Creed's costume prior to his bout with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Still, they look the part, and the lad Lofton appears to be something of a crowd favorite.

I find myself distracted by one figure as we tip-off, though. That's the bundle of frenzied, fist-pumping, vein-popping energy that goes by the name of Bruce Pearl. The presidential candidates are often asked about an impending energy crisis, but I'm sure you could wire Pearl up to some station and he could provide enough energy to power East Tennessee and beyond. Watching him is spectacle enough, and probably worth the entrance money alone. He prowls the touchline, gesticulating to his charges, bemoaning poor pass choices, refereeing decisions to his coaching staff, and snapping his Wall Street-style suspenders as he's on the wrong end of a succession of technical fouls. In fact, Pearl resembles a particularly energized preacher or evangelist, willing his men on to perform all kinds of supernatural, out-of-this-world athletic feats. In fact, has anyone ever coined the term "Vol-angelist," as Pearl seem to fit the bill perfectly.

I've decided that I like Bruce, though; indeed, I regret that the crowd don't get a drawn-out "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuce" chant going. I can't help but like characters, especially sporting characters, who wear their hearts on their sleeves as passionately as Pearl does. Sure, it may well be that the cold-as-ice, detached, and always-analytical type of coach that ultimately wins the day, but this energy is contagious, and it's most definitely made me a Vol for the evening.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm no authority on the actual rules of the sport. I'll do my best to provide some kind of synopsis of the game itself. Basketball appears to share many of the traits of soccer, a game that is so close my heart. I'm from the very edge of East London, and the colors of regional sporting pride there are claret and blue, not orange, but the crowds of both sports on both sides of the pond share one wish—to be entertained by what's put in front of them.

Indeed, it seems that a quick, sharp, intuitive intelligence is needed for basketball to be played well. The Vols put on a series of slick movements involving position-changing and pleasing-on-the-eye passing, and the speed and dexterity of these towering men clad in orange is extremely impressive, especially in the opening half. The skill seems to be as much in off-the-ball positioning and movement as it is with what you do with the ball itself, and the voice of what I thought were long-forgotten soccer coaches echo in my head as I watch the opening exchanges: You make the first moves in the head, and you should know where you're going before you've got the ball. This—in what I know is a rudimentary reading of the game, so apologies—is the most pleasing thing from the first half, as these massive Americans glide around the court with all the grace of Bambi on ice.

Yet here comes a gripe oft articulated by non-Americans when watching apple-pie American sports: It all stops too much. Just as the Vols are really getting going, one of many time-outs is called, and the flow is interrupted. Now, I know that this is partly the point of such stoppages, but it's always more interesting to see how teams are coached and tactically react to such difficulties without being allowed to stop.

Although the enforced stoppages are infuriating, the first half has been thoroughly enjoyable. I've been especially impressed by the band as well, who do their best to whip up the orange-clad student section; the sound of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" being performed by a marching band is a strange one indeed. The time-outs are also enlivened by what appear to be slave kids who appear from nowhere to wipe the surface clean. Is this some kind of Mascoting 101? I'm not entirely convinced it's legal, but it does lend a surprising Dickensian air to proceedings.

The pageantry continues at half-time, as a troupe of athletes and gymnasts take to the floor ahead of some kind of national competition. The show of physical elasticity is impressive, and everyone seems taken in by it as they munch on their pizzas, candy floss, and huge Cokes, which I'm sure will engender a physical development of quite the wrong kind. The gymnasts are replaced by a high-energy dancing team attired in sparkling silvery glitter outfits that hurt the eye. Thankfully, the Kiss Cam hasn't made a reappearance on the giant screen suspended above the court since one of the first-half time-outs. I'm incredibly grateful for that, as the man next to me really wasn't impressed as I leaned over and stole a cheeky kiss in the first half.

The second half tips off, and it soon descends into a fragmented, bitty affair, riddled with perpetual stoppages. Where the first half was all intricate passing and fluency, the second period is littered with mistakes, time-outs, and refereeing decisions that hold up the game. To the chagrin of the home crowd, an Ole Miss player goes down injured and is escorted off the court to the sanctuary of the treatment room, thereby ensuring another delay. It may have been his general basketball massiveness, but he was escorted off by what appeared to be an oompa loompa who suddenly burst forth from the Mississippi officials' bench.

I've also been distracted by a group of bawling youths seated a couple of rows behind us. What started off as gentle banter has descended into vitriol, and their allegiance for Ole Miss soon becomes increasingly apparent. From the bourbon-soaked breath wafting down on us poor folks seated below them, it seems that they are fans of Jack Daniels more than anything else, but something on the pitch may also have added to their away-fan bravado. Almost unnoticed, and with the clock ticking down, not only have Ole Miss chipped away at a seemingly comfortable Tennessee lead, but they now seem to have the upper hand. In fact, Ole Miss have taken an 83-79 point lead, with only 2:22 remaining on the clock.

Yet there was more drama in store. From beginning to end Pearl has been urging his men on, and his face is now as orange as the famous color that adorns all UT sporting teams. They seem to get the message, and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. Tyler Smith nets—is that the correct term?—the match-winning points, and Tennessee run out 85-83 winners. Cue a hysterical eruption of Pearl-inspired basketball fervor inside the arena, especially from the student section. Their gesticulating of Tennessee being number one seemed somewhat hollow until Smith saved the day. (I think I might be something of a lucky charm. The only football game I've been to in my stint at UT was this season's game against Vanderbilt, where I also witnessed some last-minute heroics that resulted in a victory for Tennessee.)

The frenzied conclusion to the game is quickly forgotten, as players and staff head out to attend to media duties. The fans don't hang about, either. There's no celebratory singing or chanting, no revelry, just a speedy exit, reminding me of the advice imparted by the narrative voice in Edith Wharton's The Age Of Innocence that, for Americans, quickly getting away from such events is more important than promptly arriving at them. The only section still modesty populated is the student one, as they embrace and sway as one whilst listening to what I believe is some kind of university anthem.

I join the other Vol fans as we race through campus on a pleasantly mild evening and on to the homestead. I take a look back at the arena. I'm secretly hoping that Bruce Pearl has a Batman-style light that projects his face into the Knoxville skyline as a measure of security, but nothing is there. But the Vols have won, all is right with the world, and the men might even give the Lady Vols a run for their money this year if their luck holds out. There's only one thing left to say—how about them Vols!

Chris Walsh, Ph.D., a lecturer at UT's English Department and a specialist in the work of Cormac McCarthy, is from London, which explains the use of the plural verb with some singular collectives, which is legal in the UK. He is a football—that is, soccer—fan, and can often be found in Knoxville pubs wearing the blue and maroon of his team, West Ham United.