As I watched the Iowa Hawkeye men’s basketball team win the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday, I had just one regret.
I was watching it by myself.
I’ve been following Hawkeye basketball for about 45 years, and when I think back and recall some of the greatest moments, almost every time, I was sharing the joy with my dad. Cheering the Hawks on in our living room. Complaining about the refs. Talking basketball strategy. Spilling popcorn and other snacks on the floor.
Dad was a coach, retired now, and he turned 81 years old on Monday. For the last couple of years, he’s been fighting cancer — just like I have for the last six years. It seems strange, sometimes, to have your dad ask you for advice as to how to handle certain health issues that come up when you’re fighting cancer — it feels like it should be the other way around.
There have been times in my life when Dad and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. There were issues we couldn’t talk about.
But we could always talk about Iowa basketball. The bond there can’t be broken.
It all started with the likes of Lute Olson and Ronnie Lester and an amazing Iowa basketball run to the Final Four, highlighted by a basket by big Steve Waite to beat Georgetown. The cheers in our living room echoed off the walls.
Our hearts both broke a little a week later, when Lester re-injured his knee early in the semifinal game and couldn’t play. We both knew that if Ronnie had stayed healthy, Iowa would’ve won the NCAA title that year.
A routine was established on Iowa game weeknights after that season. We’d eat supper during the local news. Then my sister and I would help Mom clean up the dishes while the rerun of “M*A*S*H” was on at 6:30. The Hawkeyes always seemed to start at 7 p.m. back then, and Mom would make popcorn on the stove and put it in a huge yellow Tupperware container — just in time for tip-off.
It was a family event, these Hawkeye basketball games. We’d wash the popcorn down with bottles of RC Cola. Well, my sister and I did. I’m sure Dad was drinking beer.
I was in college a few years later when Dr. Tom Davis arrived at Iowa, and I started going to games in person or watching them at college game parties or in a sports bar. Still, I occasionally took a trip back home to enjoy a big game with Dad. We watched Kevin Gamble hit a shot at the buzzer to beat Oklahoma and put the Hawkeyes in the Elite Eight.
Occasionally I’d have an extra ticket and invite Dad down to watch a game with me at Carver. We were there the night they retired Chris Street’s number, shortly after he was killed in a car accident. The opponent that night was Indiana, and Coach Bobby Knight sent his players back into the locker room during the ceremonies. Dad told me that was the smart thing to do — Knight didn’t want his players to be emotionally impacted, it might hamper their play.
But Coach Knight came out and watched, and we could see the tears in his eyes.
“He’s crying,” I said to Dad. “He’s not such a tough guy after all.”
“If you can’t cry about something like this, then you’re not much of a person,” Dad replied, wiping some tears from his own eyes.
And I thought about that on Sunday, when Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery was hugging his son, Conner, after the game. Tears and confetti were falling all around them.
And I thought, “What a great birthday present for my dad, a Big Ten Championship.”
I was there with you in spirit, Dad. Maybe, if the Hawkeyes make a Final Four run, we’ll watch them together again.