What'll I Do

Feb 19, 2023

I woke up this morning to this song.

My wife and I sleep with the television on most nights. Coming into our marriage, this was her thing, and since I was a deep sleeper, it didn't really bother me at all. Some people have a sound machine or a box fan - we sleep with infomercials in the background.

Most nights it's HGTV. I'll fall asleep playing a game on my phone; she falls asleep watching Nate & Jeremiah renovate someone's home. Sometimes she'll turn the TV off in the middle of the night, other times the channel will be changed because she woke up in the middle of the night and needed the Golden Girls to get her back to sleep. Television still on HGTV: she slept through the night. Television on Hallmark: she woke up in the middle of the night and watched Golden Girls until she fell back asleep.

Because of the last few days, I kinda knew it would be Golden Girls this morning. We got back late last night from St. Louis where we spent a few days visiting our friend whose wife passed away on Tuesday (see Check Back Tomorrow for more on that - just don't read the comments). It's just such an incomprehensible tragedy - she died while giving birth, so our friend has a new daughter but must raise her alone - and I was certain that my wife would need the Golden Girls at some point last night. This was not going to be a sleep-though-the-night kind of night.

For me, it was going to be a sleep-through-the-night night. I didn't sleep well on Tuesday night in State College, Wednesday night in Champaign, or Thursday night in St. Louis. It all caught up to me driving back to Champaign last night, and I had to pull over in Effingham to switch drivers. I fell asleep in the passenger seat not even five minutes later and didn't wake up until the exit ramp in Champaign. Once we got home, I was out cold immediately. Three days of struggling to sleep caught up to me.

So when my alarm went off this morning, I turned it off and this is what was playing on the television:

I've mentioned before that I'm a "burn out quickly" music guy. I like a song, I play it over and over, and then I move on to the next song in my life. So when I got in the shower I found the Julie London version of the song and played it on repeat. My song for February 18th, 2023 will be What'll I Do.

I kissed my wife good-bye and headed for Bloomington. In the car, I found the Nat King Cole version of the song and listened to it five or six times (it was probably 15 times, but that's embarrassing to tell you). Obviously, the song aligns with my last 72 hours. I lean into everything I do, so I just kept listening to the lyrics over and over, thinking of our friend:

What'll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to?

When I'm alone with only dreams of you
That won't come true, what'll I do?

I'm starting to cry again, so give me ten minutes. God, be with that man.

Here's the problem. A guy crying in the car while driving to a college basketball game shouldn't be going to a college basketball game. A guy like that - like me - won't have the stomach for it. It's going to tear him up and spit him out. This one tore me up and spit me out.

Why? Not because of the loss. Because of RJ.

The most difficult part of attending all of these road games: you get an up-close look at other crowds - other student sections - mocking our players. The media seats in The Other Assembly Hall are right next to the student section, and so when I left my seat to go pace in the open rows at the top, I was directly behind the students.

And when RJ, already struggling with his shot the last month, pulled up for a wide-open three in the second half and airballed it, the students let him have it. (As they should. If Miller Kopp air-balled a three in The Real Assembly Hall, I'd want Krush to let him have it.) But when you're sitting right behind them, you get to hear all of it.

"Oh my GOD dude, we didn't even guard him and he airballed. That's f%*#ing HILARIOUS."

(Attending road games is 85% grinding your teeth and mumbling under your breath.)

So now I'm all in on RJ. At the conclusion of this game, I need this specific group of students in front of me to walk back to their deer stands talking about how it was the airball guy who beat them. RJ was 0-5 in the game at that point, but I just needed him to be 1-6. One moment, for karmic justice. Come on, universe.

And would you know, the universe delivered? Well, the universe delivered the moment. If you didn't watch the game, I'll set it up.

  • The game is tied with 45 seconds left.
  • Ty Rodgers fouls Jalen Hood-Schifino with 30 seconds left and Hood-Schifino hits both free throws.
  • Indiana then fouls Jayden Epps with 16 seconds left but he misses the first free throw so we're trailing by one.
  • We go for the trap and, after five seconds, it feels like a 10 second call is gonna happen but a long outlet pass leads to a Jackson-Davis dunk. Indiana by three.
  • As I'm trying to process whether we should have fouled AND whether Jackson-Davis should have dunked it or tried to dribble around for six more seconds (kinda felt a bit like a football "let them score" moment), we're trying to get in position for a three pointer to send it to overtime (while Indiana fans are trying to process "should we foul here to prevent the three?").
  • We try to set up Matthew Mayer for the three but he slips the ball to, guess who, RJ Melendez who is wide open for the game-tying three at the buzzer.

This was then one of those "how is it possible for the human brain to process so many thoughts in such a short amount of time?" moments. I'm still in the same spot, and the same students are right in front of me, and RJ has the ball with a chance to tie the game. This couldn't be more perfect. As the ball is in the air, I'm already imagining "guy wearing a press credential breaks protocol and screams in celebration, causing dozens of Indiana students to turn around and wonder why there's an old man at the top of their section" scenarios. And I'm also thrilled for RJ. I already have the first six paragraphs of the postgame article written. Title of the article: Redemption Song.

Looks good from my angle and... he misses. Indiana wins. God, be with that man.

I immediately sat down and didn't move for at least 12 minutes. This would have been the perfect story to write - you just know that RJ would have hit two more threes in overtime to lead us to the win - and now I have to watch the "oh my GOD, dude" dudes celebrate in front of me. Sports. Every ball that hangs in the air either provides jubilation or devastation, and we choose to be there to see what happens.

In those 12 minutes I decided that I'm just not a person who should be going to college basketball games. I'm just not. It hasn't stopped me before, and it won't stop me in the future, but I really need to convince myself that I'm not cut out for this. Cold and calculating is the only way to survive all of this heartbreak, and the guy who cried at the end of Coyote Ugly should absolutely not get involved with sports.

Yet there I was, sitting by myself in the top row, staring off into space, wondering why I won't be writing Redemption Song tonight. I tried to tweet something coherent, but all I could say was this:

The drive home was a mix of music on repeat and silence (plus one more nap at the rest area just before the Marshall, Illinois exit). I think I'm mostly caught up on sleep now. I got home, gave my wife the "I'm just not cut out for this" speech again, made some pasta to get my mind on something else, and here I sit typing this out.

One one hand, sports can be a diversion. I needed some kind of diversion after the last four days. Watching a friend go through what he's going through is just terrible, and it's probably good for me to think about something else for a while. It was a great atmosphere in there (and, honestly, a great game).

On the other hand, it was more "why do I put myself through this?" As I was walking to my car I walked past The Other Memorial Stadium and thought about my two trips there this past year. Football led almost the entire second half before losing the lead with 23 seconds to go. Basketball led almost the entire second half before losing the lead with 30 seconds to go. And I chose to be there for both games and then walk out surrounded by giddy Hoosier fans. I chose to do this. Twice.

In the end, though, it's simple. The problem is me. It's 100% possible to watch a basketball game without placing everything on a potential redemptive moment at the end. It's 100% possible to listen to a song one time, not lean into the emotions of it 15 times. The narratives in my life are of my own choosing.

But I'm 50 now, and this is the only way I've lived, so I'm not sure there's any other path I can walk. Every time a redemptive three-pointer hangs in the air, I'm going to believe that it's going in. Yes, two-thirds of the time it won't, and I'll have just set myself up for more pain. But the third time it will drop, and the joy will be overwhelming.

It's time to go listen to the song one more time (OK, four more times) and then go to bed. RJ, I'll never not believe your moment is coming. The next big one is going to send us to the Sweet Sixteen.

What'll I do?



phytynlini on February 19, 2023 @ 06:58 AM

Fantastic article. Thank you.

Nabor568 on February 19, 2023 @ 07:03 AM


uilaw71 on February 19, 2023 @ 07:04 AM

Yesterday’s ending was reminiscent of the feeling as our last ditch effort at RayJay went awry. Ball is not life. Thanks for sharing your friend’s story, Robert. God bless you two being there for him.

GilThorpe on February 19, 2023 @ 08:41 AM

if it makes you feel any better , you two are hardly alone in needing TV or the Ipad to listen to in order to fall asleep . it’s our deal also .

AGig21 on February 20, 2023 @ 09:04 AM

if you've ever golfed you know the most difficult thing to watch is a regular golfing buddy who gets the yips. You feel for them. You can see and feel their struggle physically but far more mentally. You watch them practice trying to shake free. You watch them approach short puts with the doubt in their eyes and their body language. You watch opponents making them put everything out and at times bringing it up hoping to reinforce it in your buddy's mind to gain the advantage. You also fear and know if you let it creep into your mind it will happen to you. Arnie said, "Golf is a game of inches, the most important are the six between your ears". Having been there done that, it will end for no apparent reason and just as it descended down upon you it will be gone. Hopefully before the season has ended.

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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