In the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, Georgetown lost by one point to the brilliant shooting of Iowa. At the half, while Georgetown was still ahead, a reporter from the world's greatest newspaper (after The Washington Post) said he would like to talk to me about the problems of a selective college in fielding a good basketball team. After we lost the game, the same reporter shook his head sadly and said, "Sorry, but there's nothing more to say." Then I sensed but now I know that he was missing something important. Win or lose, there was a lot more to be said.
I'm not talking about the obvious good things that come from a winning season in any major sport. It makes alumni and students proud and happy. For a private school like Georgetown, to have its name on national telecasts and in national papers is good for recruiting future students. Other friends who care for the university have their generosity raised and their pleasure in giving heightened.
Finally, whatever "good public relations" means, a winning team, particularly when its coach and students carry themselves with style and distinction, is an enormous asset. All of this helps, but that wasn't what needed to be said.
The problems any selective college faces in putting together a first-class basketball team are indeed serious. Georgetown doesn't have a school or department of physical education, and only some 2,000 male students from whom to draw a men's basketball program. On the other hand, Georgetown is not unique in this. There are many colleges that manage to support first-class programs and still keep academic standards high. The trick of it is a corporate and individual determination not to "use" student athletes. They and their education are far more important than what they "do" for the college. But even that wasn't what needed to be said.
What I really wanted was for someone to look not at the court, but at the crowd, not at the team but at the rest of us. I wanted someone to notice how several thousand students were drawn together in pride and joy by the skill, speed and power of their classmates. It was a golden moment, and I wanted to talk about the alchemy of sports at all colleges, not just NCAA winners. The last place on earth that alchemy should work is in the the abstract and windy shape of a modern urban university. Yet, it is precisely in the university, in its puzzlements and its hungers, that the alchemy of sports does work.
The house of intellect is rich, but it can also be a place of starvation. All too frequently missing in the coded chatter of learning is beauty, physical beauty. I'm not talking about the kind that leads to marriage, because that, thank God, is present. I'm talking about the beauty that calls for comtemplation, for awe -- the kind that makes a man or women proud to be human, proud to be that "half-witted angel strapped to the back of a mule." Starved as we are for this kind of physical beauty, the speed and skill and grace of a basketball team feed a hunger that most of us seldom stop to know we have.
Even at their gentlest, collegiate communities are competitive and, as every good student knows, they prepare for an even more competitive world. A winning basketball team acts out for both young and old a marvelously useless competition, where no blood is shed, no wounds given or taken and all hurts are counted in the non-convertible coinage of a score. It's a dream world and we know it. Nowhere in life will we find a set ground where rules are objectively enforced, an ideal start which all contenders are equal, and results that are judged in strictly conventional terms, with us as willing and free parties to the convention. Here is competition absolved of cruelty and hurt; here a victory that does not entail a loss. Here is all the fullness God meant for us, if only we could dream hard enough, if only we understood what those youngsters on the court are up to.
One last good they gave us. They brought us together, young and old, in denial of almost every structural limit of our lives. Knowledge may be one, but in any self-respecting college it is fractioned into departments that are really metaphors for the minimum plot of knowledge around which faculty feels comfortable. Colleges are adversarial fora of Byzantine complexity. Unifying them is difficult, sometimes impossible, always tiring. Thus we hunger for oneness that in our daily give-and-take few of us ever achieve.
But that afternoon, five young men on a court made it happen, with all of us, shouting, laughing, groaning, just being there (even by the reach of TV) -- all of us together. The oneness that they gave was something we need and cherish, and seldom get. That afternoon, proud, open-eyed and laughing, we reveled in it and most of us never even thought to say, "Thank you."
Those are some of the things that I wanted to say to the reporter from the world's greatest newspaper (after The Washington Post). T. S. Eliot tells us that "purposes alter in fulfillment," and indeed they do. Like a lot of colleges, we set out to win a basketball game and we lost one. But out of that purpose broke two good things that somehow seem to me worth recounting.
The first was the capacity of university people to dream themselves into oneness, to tug on the strength of the subtle knot that makes them human as they contemplated the beauty, fierce and scattering bright, of their student athletes. The second was that, even if only for a moment, a "great prince" was free of his prison, and all of us both on and off the court knew that it is possible, even for denizens of a house of learning, to love their own.