The reasons I really laughed this week when I came home to find a rather large box addressed to me from the University of Akron, then spent the better part of 15 minutes wrestling with that box and unraveling its contents, are twofold.
1. I’ll play with bubble wrap like I’m four years old any day, any time.
2. At the bottom was my very own Akron Zips jersey.
I’ve only been wanting one for 25 years.
What Akron has dubbed Social Media Night has certainly been a success from a publicity standpoint, even though the original plan has been altered. I was one of 12 “media types” — I’ve been called worse — to get a personalized jersey, a real one with Nike tags and my Twitter handle on the back.
For a moment, I got to be a kid again. And it had nothing to do with all that bubble wrap.
See, I was a kid who grew up in Akron rooting for the Zips collectively and idolizing them individually. The first teams I was old enough to remember happened to be some really good teams in late 80s, teams coached by Bob Huggins and led by players named Shawn Roberts and Marcel Boyce and Eric McLaughlin. At the time I’d been voted the No. 1 young point guard in both the Manchester Youth Basketball league and the Barberton YMCA league (I did the voting), so McLaughlin, the point guard, was naturally my favorite.
I worshiped the guy. My parents took me to three or four games a year and I’d come home and go immediately to the basement, where I’d not only mimic his moves on my Fisher-Price basketball hoop but also do play-by-play for imaginary games, ones that always ended with me as McLaughlin always hitting a leaner in traffic at the buzzer. I’m pretty sure we won a few national championships; at least once, I even cut down the net and forced Mom and Dad to buy a new one.
In retrospect, I was always a better announcer than I was a player. I always had a face for radio, too, but this isn’t about me. This is about Eric McLaughlin. And about Mark Alberts, a one-dimensional gunner with zip-code range who played for Akron a few years later. I was there the night he hit 11 3-pointers against Wright State, and it was on the ride home that night that I told my parents they’d be coming to watch me shoot 3-pointers in the JAR Arena some day for the Zips.
They laughed at me.
Gosh, I hated them always being right.
The point is, I remember all this stuff partly because I’m a little bit strange, but mostly because I lived it. I was in to the Cavs, and Magic Johnson, and the Browns and all sorts of other TV heroes, too, but Akron was my team, in my backyard and everything about it — from the dance team to those players and those big games in the JAR — was big-time to me. I remember arguing with my dad that Eric McLaughlin should have been the point guard on the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team.
And here you all thought I only started knowing everything when Twitter came around.
I eventually did hit a few 3-pointers in the JAR, but only in summer camps. Mom and Dad funded my pipe dreams — to a point. It all added up to a true appreciation for what I do now, using this encyclopedia of useless knowledge I have for a brain to make an actual living out of, in part, watching basketball (usually from up close) and writing and tweeting about it.
When I go to the JAR on Saturday morning for a pre-scheduled interview with Ohio University point guard D.J. Cooper, I’ll point to the huge banner of McLaughlin in the gym and tell D.J. that he reminds me a lot of McLaughlin, one of my childhood heroes. And D.J. will look at me like the weirdo I am, I’m certain, but I’m taking that trip down Memory Lane.
I always do.
At 5’11, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, No. 25, Eric McLaughlin.
I could rattle it off then. As I look around to make sure no one is seeing me laugh hysterically at my laptop screen now, it’s clear I still can.
When it comes to Saturday and the rest of the season, by the way, there’s no bias involved. I’m a grown-up now (by age, if not actions). If anybody asks, I always say Ohio University is my alma mater (that’s a long story, too). And in season, I spend much more time watching games at Ohio State and Xavier than I do at Akron. It’s just that when I go into those places, I don’t strain my neck searching for the Eric McLaughlin banner like it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it.
I like to say that everybody has a basketball story. Mine really aren’t that good, so I prefer to think back to all those times I watched the Zips and hustled back to the basement to imitate them. We never lost. We never had a suspension. We were never late to a postgame press conference.
In case you couldn’t tell, it’s the time of year I start to fall in love with basketball again. I suggest you try it, too.
The other night at the Xavier-Dayton game, a ball came flying at me in warmups. I relied on my cat-like reflexes to keep it from damaging from my laptop, and then I laughed at myself as a team manager came over to retrieve it. I could barely dribble it twice before throwing it back.
To make an excuse for my lack of athletic ability, even when it came to the simple task of retrieving the ball, I told the manager that my dress shirt restricted me. He knew I was lying, and so did I.
Now that I have that jersey, I can feel like — and pretend to be — Eric McLaughlin again.