Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed that more people than usual put their hand over their heart during the National Anthem before the Wizards game last night at MCI Center.
Sports sometimes stop for great national tragedies or wars. Sometimes they don't. Every case, every set of circumstances, is different. Those who run our games try to sense the nation's mood and needs. And we try to give back a sense of what we prefer.
Right now, in just one day, it appears that the world of sports -- with the notable exception of Major League Baseball -- has picked up the national sentiment. Play on. Don't miss a beat.
"We can only do what the president has asked us to do -- continue on with our lives," said Michael Jordan after the Wizards had lost an important playoff-race game in overtime to Detroit, 94-90, last night. "We will try to be as normal as possible.
"But our eyes will be on it. Some players have family or friends who are over there," added Jordan. "We'll be watchful. We'll all have a heavy heart. And we'll hope it doesn't last long."
The NCAA basketball tournament led the way yesterday, making a quick, forceful decision. "We will go on as scheduled," NCAA President Myles Brand said. "We had no hesitation whatsoever."
Baseball did, although its safety issues were compounded by having two teams playing on foreign soil during a possible war. It canceled its season-opening series in Japan later this month.
But last night, the NBA and NHL seasons rolled, though an invasion of Iraq might begin in less than 24 hours.
The Wizards gave their best effort, trying to distract and inspire a crowd of 20,173. But ferocious Ben Wallace, the ex-Wizard who was all but given away in 1999, haunted his old mates once more with 20 rebounds and seven blocks, including a crucial full-facial stuff of a Jordan drive in the final minute.
The Wizards, tied for the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, now head off for a six-game road trip in which they will probably feel like they do little but travel, play basketball and watch endless hours of war coverage.
"A lot of men and women over there in the military have a favorite team and some of them are Wizards fans," Coach Doug Collins said. "What they are doing is far greater. But we're fighting and clawing so they can see we're giving it our all. It's not anywhere close to what they are doing for our freedom, nowhere close. But we want to play in a way so they can be proud of us as well."
These days, everybody in popular culture takes a cue on perform-or-don't-perform decisions in time of national crisis from the decisions of our major sports leagues. The security needs of athletic events are so similar to other entertainment where thousands gather that sports becomes the litmus test of good judgment. If March Madness proceeds as planned and Michael Jordan keeps playing, then you know Disneyland and Broadway won't even consider closing. Symphonies and rock concerts won't cancel.
After 9/11, Americans needed time to recover from their shock, begin to cope and grieve. And those who run our games sensed it, interpreted the public feedback correctly, and canceled many games, starting with big league baseball. But this time is different.
Terrorism defines itself by its ability, or inability, to disrupt the society it attacks. If the culture feels comfortable with continuing its games, then nothing is a more perfect antithesis to terror than an NCAA tournament upset with a cheerleader pyramid collapsing in glee at mid-court.
Just as the military in the Gulf War enjoyed telecasts of the Super Bowl, the troops in the Iraq theater will need a break, too. When the tanks get to Baghdad, plenty of them will have their pool brackets up to date. Do a demographic of the most rabid sports fans and you'd probably profile the American soldier.
Moments like this, however, allow figures in and around sports to show a bit more of themselves than, in hindsight, they might wish. This week, Wizards guard Tyronn Lue said: "We also have a war we have to fight, too. The Wizards are trying to make the playoffs. . . . It's pretty much the same thing."
Lue's young. Cut him some slack. But what on earth is Martha Burk's excuse? For months, she's had a perfectly legitimate case to make, protesting Augusta National's refusal to accept female members. But if she keeps popping off, she may reveal a little too much about her own agenda for her cause's good.
Burk thinks Augusta National should cancel the Masters if there's a war. Oh, there's a surprise. She would want it canceled if the pollen count was high.
"To be down there partying in Augusta when the country is at war is unseemly. If I were organizing it, I'd consider postponing it just for the public image it would put forth," Burk said.
Martha, I may play golf next week. I might have fun. The war might still be going on. Can I clear that with your Party Police?
Augusta hasn't gotten in many clean licks against Burk, but Augusta spokesman Glenn Greenspan won this round, saying, "For Ms. Burk to use the possibility of war as an opportunity to inject herself into the news again is the lowest form of self-promotion."
For the indefinite future, sports may seem like an afterthought to many. But when we find time, the games will be there for us.