Half the fun of the World’s Fair is the train ride getting there.
My dad frequently mutters this spiffy mantra to himself, having been in attendance at the 1964 World’s Fair. I’ve overheard it most often on the ride home after watching our hometown basketball team get destroyed — it thus carries a bittersweet significance, as does the life of a recreational ascetic: a Rutgers basketball fan.
My father and I have had season tickets for Rutgers games since my most awkward years of the seventh grade. Memories of winter night games are highlighted by the smell of popcorn, the tunes of the pep band and periodic Rutgers wins — my beloved Scarlet Knights have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991, and admittedly at times we’ve been downright miserable. I’ve sat through games where the other teams treated us like scarlet-clad punch lines, the opposing fans outnumbering us 70 to 30. Yet something besides a love of basketball keeps my father and me going back: the never-ending belief that something better is just around the corner.
I’ve witnessed countless Top 25 teams, future NBA All-Stars and plenty of losses perched in my seat at the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center.) In an area of the nation with such a proud basketball tradition, Rutgers has stood out as an aberration of failure. I’ve seen head coaches come and go, and players mature from freshman to seniors contending with the specter of overwhelming futility. Yet I keep going back, year after year.
Do I willfully spend winter nights watching the Scarlet Knights rack up losses because I’m a glutton for punishment? Or am I just a diehard zealot on the same plane as cult members and Chicago Cubs fans? (Note: my asceticism is amateur compared to those fans, who haven’t seen a World Series win since 1908.)
The answer is simple: I am waiting for something good to happen. More than ever I have faith in my Scarlet Knights. It’s not a matter of if but when the winning will start.
Besides, going to the games is a release for me, just as they have been since I first began attending games in 2001. Back then they provided a refuge from the tormented days of middle school — most people would agree this is the most awkward and terrible time of life. At the RAC I didn’t have to deal with the shame of prerequisite braces and pimples, or the added pressure of coping with dyslexia. All I had to do was make sure some goonish player from Seton Hall didn’t crash into me and spill my nachos. Additionally, I was (and am) very blessed to have my father make it to the majority of games with me — I count myself fortunate to have that time with him.
Dad would work the night shift at the oil refinery over holidays, and I always treasured our time sitting on the hard wooden benches. My dad passed on tolerance (of bad referees) and confidence (where there’s very little reason to hold onto it); he taught me how to be act more like an adult.
I learned with simple exercises. When North Carolina came to play us and there was some awful UNC fan sitting right behind me berating RU and even New Jersey right in my ear (who would ever dare insult the Garden State?), I wanted to say something as off-color as my seventh grade vocabulary would allow — and he certainly deserved it — but I took my Dad’s advice and simply let him be.
When not receiving life lessons from Dad, my seats were also a good place to bring girls on first dates, or try to convert my other friends into RU fans. The time waiting for Rutgers to win has not been futile; it has produced remarkable memories for me from the most unremarkable of games.
Maybe my dad’s World’s Fair mantra can be translated into my spiritual life as well. If I simply sit on my hands waiting for some angelic finale, I won’t appreciate the small things in life. What would life be without taking a walk in the snow or experiencing some small life-affirming moment with a stranger? If in our lives, like my dad and I at the RAC, we wait with joyful patience for that moment of transcendence, we’ll understand it was worth it. Next year, you can find me in my same old seats, in a scarlet shirt, munching on (and protecting) some nachos. Rutgers could still be pretty good; we may shock a few teams and maybe even make the bracket. At the end of the day my faith is there; I am in it for the long haul.