This is not so much about basketball, and it’s not going to be some sort of sappy, “Our boys tried, next year guys!” Because NO, dammit–perhaps if we’re a #1 seed trying to SHOW UP in the NCAA tournament, we should learn how to make a layup? Or rebound a ball? Maybe. There’s still a lot of anger there. Ok, I need to cool it. DEEP BREATH. Well, maybe “this is not so much about basketball” isn’t entirely true, because this post was inspired by basketball, and the hype recently, and the heartbreak of what happened yesterday. But mostly this is about Villanova and what it means to be away from a place while connected to a place that other people might not understand. This is about how being an alumni feels and what it means to belong to a place.
Back story: I’ve been really removed from the basketball hype this season. The regular season games just don’t show out here on the West Coast, and if people are going to have an attachment to a small-ish Catholic school that’s good at basketball, it’s going to be Gonzaga. But as the winning streak continued and the buzz built, I started to get excited and proud. I’m not going to go into my reservations, or my skepticism and refusal to get TOO excited because, let’s be honest, this is Villanova basketball we’re talking about . But basically, I went to a pub to watch the game yesterday and was the only one really paying attention to the Nova game in the midst of at least five other sporting events on various TVs. Timbers fans poured in (…..PORTLAND), and at one point, one of them casually looked up at the game I had my eyes locked on (he had his back to me) and commented, “Oh wow, Nova’s about to go down to NC State.” And he made some random comments about Villanova, the vaguely generic shit you hear about us being near Philly, small, rich, snobby white kids, whatever. And all I could think was People think that even here. Even here, in Portland, Oregon, where most people only vaguely know Villanova as a basketball school outside of Philadelphia, people are prone to root against us in a sporting event just because we’re higher ranked, and that’s somehow tied to this perceived snobbery and privilege that apparently permeates the entire campus and everyone associated with it.
After the tears (and, in full disclosure, the many adorably sad bar patrons who noticed my insanity throughout the last few minutes of the game, gently rooted for Nova, and gave me some sheepish “I’m really sorry”s as I walked out of the bar) and a few wound-numbing ciders later, I thought about being a Villanovan, about being away from there and seeing its representation and aching for that little patch of land on this great big planet Earth. And this is what I came up with.
At senior retreat last January, Fr. David Cregan was talking about Villanova, graduation, what leaving will mean, all of those big things. And he said something that’s stuck with me ever since, and remains the best way I have of describing what is so sacred about 800 E Lancaster Ave. I’m paraphrasing of course, but it was something like, “Villanova is a small patch of land, a very specific place on this entire planet, but there is something special and magical about it. How lucky are we all that we get to share this little piece of Earth together?”
When you’re a student, the campus is your world. Day in, day out, it is the place that feeds you, teaches you, holds your daily activities and special events, that sees and holds your stress. Your hangouts are public spaces–the Oreo, the first floor of the library, Connelly. These places weren’t significant, they were just my world. And I didn’t realize this until I was reading about Villanova basketball and watching ads and promos on TV. The places that I inhabited daily were suddenly popping up on national television. The Oreo looked dramatic in ESPN-approved lighting; the team gathered in the damn Villanova Room for Selection Sunday; I think ratchet old Jake Nevin even made a TV appearance at one point. Helicopters love that money shot up and over the spires of the church; the church I passed every day. Media does this; it creates a sense of place, it presents an image to those who have never been there. So how strange then, to see my places presented to the country like that. I giggled at what fancy editing could do to make a rundown building look nicer. I chuckled, knowing the conversation that goes back and forth between students in all of those places. I thought of all the students there, and the place, and how I was so much a part of it, and how now I feel removed. I don’t know if I appreciated how tied to the physical sense of Villanova I was when I was a student there, if I thought about how much I would ache to see Corr again, to sit underneath that tree on Tolentine Field, to even walk through the gross halls of St. Mary’s. I miss Second Storey. I miss the damp basement of St. Rita’s. I miss the door of Connelly that is always locked, but I try to open anyway. I miss the Pit. I really miss the Pit.
I belong to Villanova, and it belongs to me, just as it belongs to anyone who has even been touched by it, and I’m realizing that now. Being out in the “real world” and so geographically removed from the Main Line has given me much needed perspective about the flaws of Villanova; we don’t do enough to work toward justice, and there needs to be a bigger focus on this or that, and the tuition is too damn high to be accessible for 90% of people who dream of it. Sure, there are a lot of flaws. Every place that matters and cares has flaws. But hearing people even in a random sports bar in Portland, Oregon making small comments about our very nature made me think hard about our core values and what we teach and what we stand for. And yes, these statements probably do not apply to a large percentage of the school that I never got to know–that whole other world of, frankly, wealthy white kids who don’t ever get that exposure to a world beyond their own, and who choose not to seek it. But for me and my experience, this is what I can say:
To be a Villanovan is to be proud, hard-working, humble. The nature of our basketball team this year reflected that, and made yesterday’s loss even harder.
It is to recognize that love is the greatest lesson that can be taught, the greatest message and mission that can ever be spread.
It is to recognize that there is great work to be done in this world, and to want to do that work, even if it is occasionally misguided or confused.
It is redefining what a family can be.
It is holding tradition sacred while striving toward progress and tolerance.
To be a Villanovan is to be tied forever to that small patch on land on this planet Earth. To be a Villanovan is to belong to a place and a people beyond oneself. It is more than our stereotype, it is more than our inaccurate reputation. To be a Villanovan is to never, ever be the same. It is to never wish to be the same.