Column: Even without new games, we rely on sports for positivity

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Because of regulations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have come to a stop, but reminiscing about favorite games can keep fans connected to one another.

When I was 6, my family and I traveled to San Antonio for the Final Four.

The Oklahoma State men’s basketball team had just defeated Saint Joseph’s in the Elite 8, so the Cowboys were joining Connecticut, Duke and Georgia Tech as teams that had chances to win the NCAA Championship.

Nearly 16 years later, the experience exists in my mind in snapshots, memories that mostly aren’t focused on the games themselves but instead remind me of the electric atmosphere.

We rode a shuttle bus and then walked to the arena in a seemingly endless sea of people. We sat directly behind a Duke fan who was wearing a hat that made it look like he had a basketball on his head. Maybe that detail stands out to me because as a 6-year-old, it was humorous to see a guy with a basketball head, or maybe it’s because it symbolizes March Madness.

In March, basketball often consumes our thoughts, gives us an escape from humdrum routines and builds friendly rivalries among friends and family members who are vying to win bracket contests.

This year, we don’t have that. And it should be this way. As much as we appreciate sports, health must take priority over everything else. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby gave us a reminder of that when he said, “…we’re managing important games, but they’re just games.”

During a time when people are dying of COVID-19, when doctors and nurses are risking their lives to save those in hospitals, it sometimes feels wrong to write about anything sports-related. What role do sports have, if any, in helping us through a global pandemic? Should this even matter? I wrestle with these questions as I try to find words to put on a page.

Sports can’t give us a cure, but they can provide us with a little positivity during a time when it’s easy to let emotions such as anxiety, loneliness and fear control us. Without new games, sports are perhaps more meaningful now than they were before, and reliving some of our favorite sports moments can show us that.

I was thinking about this Saturday, when my family and I watched a broadcast of the Cowboys’ 2004 NCAA Tournament game against St. Joe’s, the win that allowed OSU to secure a Final Four spot. I miss covering games from a press row or a press box, but sometimes, it’s nice to be able to sit on the couch and just enjoy sports for what they are.

Still, I found myself imagining how I would try to craft a lede about John Lucas III’s winning 3-pointer, about the way he embraced his father in a beautifully genuine moment of celebration after the victory.

Unlike the games I cover for the O’Colly, this one filled me with nostalgia and made me think about the reasons I write about basketball. Spending time in San Antonio for the Final Four, as well as experiencing the rowdiness of Gallagher-Iba Arena, illustrated how sports bring people together, and I loved that.

To 6-year-old me, student-athletes such as Ivan McFarlin, the Graham twins, Lucas, Tony Allen and Daniel Bobik were celebrities, the superstars that NBA giants are in the eyes of many kids – and this was before Allen became a Boston Celtic. That little girl never could have imagined that as a student reporter, she would interview Allen, Joey Graham and McFarlin and then know those former Cowboys as authentic, down-to-earth people with stories to tell.

From sports reporters to fans, many people became passionate about sports because of specific athletes and moments. This is evident in stories such as those in The Oklahoman’s “Why I love sports” series, which was a wonderful idea. With rebroadcasts of games on ESPN and other channels, now is the time for us to remember why sports matter to us. Some fans are enjoying soccer matches on YouTube. Some are watching top Michael Jordan moments on SportsCenter, and others are playing video games as their favorite teams.

No matter how we are staying plugged into the sports world, we are showing that it never truly stops. We might not be wearing basketball-head hats, but our enthusiasm is still there.

I can’t wait for the next time I can fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket. Maybe next time, I will finally win my family’s March Madness trophy – yes, we take it seriously.

Until then, I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to take nothing for granted, including sports. And when we dive into our sports memory vaults and reminisce with others, even via video chat or text message, we share connections no physical distance can take away from us.