"They've cut it to five," he said. Bob was clearly disappearing every now and then into the privacy of his office deep in the brick bowels of University Presbyterian Church, where evidently a television or a radio was broadcasting basketball even in the shadow of death.
"How much time?" I asked.
"Still the first half," he said.
"Who's playing well?"
"Forte's looking good," he said.
If only all parsons ministered to their flocks like this, I might still be a churchgoer, though I doubt it. I made it home that afternoon in time to catch most of the second half, which I watched huddled in a room by myself while the rest of the family and friends ate and drank in the living room.
Little more than a month later I sat transfixed, watching the first Duke-Carolina game that I had ever seen without my father on this earth. North Carolina was ranked fourth in the country, Duke second. As you might expect, my father's feelings about Carolina basketball were complicated. If a speck of dirt, a smudge of red clay, a bird feather or a weed came from North Carolina, he would love it. "Do you know where this weed is from?" he would have proudly said. "This weed is from North Carolina. Look at it. See how beautiful it is. They don't grow weeds like this in other states."
But he thought there was too much fuss made about sports in general and Carolina basketball in particular. "What will happen if they ever have a losing season?" he asked while considering the construction of the Dean E. Smith Center, better known as the Dean Dome, with its seating capacity of more than 21,000. Had he lived a season longer, he would have found out, and it wasn't pretty. Once he attended a game with my brother John and became irritated—you have to love this if you have the slightest bit of contrarian in you—because he felt the fans were making too much noise. According to my brother, he stood up and shouted, "Throw in the Christians!"...a reference to gladiators and coliseums and early Christian history that probably befuddled the few fans who actually heard the slender, bald-headed man in his blue blazer and khakis. "They're not the Christians," they might have answered. "They're the Demon Deacons."
And yet, my father hated Duke. Hated Duke with a passion that made him throw that blue blazer on the floor, that made him hoot and holler with the rest of us, only occasionally asking us to be a little more decorous. So that any bad behavior, any extravagant outbursts or strings of low-down profanity we exhibited in cheering against Duke received a sort of papal indulgence from him.
Waiting for the game to begin, I had idly wondered with a child's mind whether my father might be able to affect the game from wherever he might be. Not that either he or I believed in life after death, at least not in that version presented by Christians and Muslims and various and sundry others: streets of gold, 76 virgins, white robes, fleecy clouds. Give me an October field in late afternoon, a drive between two beloved places, a hand on my knee, a plentiful solitude. We both wanted to believe that life went on in some fashion and that we might see our kin again. (There are a few people I'm sure we had no desire to reconnect with.) After my grandfather—his father—died, my father said by way of comment on Pappy's simple faith in the next world, "I'm a scientist." He meant he couldn't see how the facts as he knew them would allow for his fondest hopes. That said, I wondered still if he were comfortably ensconced in some other universe, a mere wormhole away, and if he might not be able to confound Jason Williams's jump shot, or at least stop the referee from giving Shane Battier the license to flop (he was widely known as Floppier by Carolina fans) and draw a charge from an opponent.