Live! In-person! Venturing out to watch a UAH basketball game

There’s the expression about how much you didn’t know you missed something until it was gone.

Having sat through more live sporting events than most anybody you know, I suggest we’ll soon be able to take that one step further:. I didn’t know how much I had missed until it was gone – and then it came back. And then it was so utterly glorious, and, yes, much-missed.

I would wish this for you on your return to watching sports in person: May the team you’re rooting for win the game, and may you even get the bonus of overtime or extra innings or a shootout.

Except for the occasional snippet of seeing some youth-league play, a few work-related drop-ins and going to last fall’s race at Talladega, I hadn’t attended a live sporting event since last March. For a guy who used to get paid to go two or three or four games a week, it was certainly a change.

On Tuesday, UAH athletics director Cade Smith and sports information director Taylor Flatt invited me in for the UAH basketball game against Delta State, where attendance was limited and fans socially distanced.

I was reminded that squeaking sneakers are a symphony. That a perfectly timed backdoor cut for an easy layup is ballet. That the exuberance of a college athlete, especially one in the level of relative purity that is NCAA Division II, is more contagious than any virus.

Max Shulman and Chaney Johnson are pictured celebrating after a win.
Max Shulman, left, and Chaney Johnson celebrat win — Photo by Chuck Edgeworth/UAH Athletics

UAH beat Delta State 106-102 in double overtime, the Chargers’ ninth win in a row, plenty justification for their No. 10 spot in the national rankings. They’re 9-1 in this disjointed season that saw them play only twice between Jan. 3 and Feb. 5 because of COVID-19 cancellations.

John Shulman, in his second year as head coach, has nicely continued the program’s tradition of excellence. He has much appreciation for the history, but he’s already clearly putting his own fingerprints on the program. It hasn’t been easy. It took his first year to convince the UAH fan base that the sun wouldn’t fall from the sky just because Lennie Acuff had moved on, and now the second year has a pandemic.

His guys didn’t take the easy route Tuesday. They had an 18-point lead in the first half, and it was downright miraculous they were still standing to nudge the game into overtime.

In the interest of safety, I didn’t stick around to congratulate Shulman, whom I’ve known for oh, only about 35 years, when his brother-in-law and I were softball teammates.

When I got home, I texted Shulman and stole a line from an old sports editor who once told a drained, ashen coach after a blown-lead, two-point win, “Hey, you had it all the way.”

“Got a special group of kids,” he wrote back.

One of them comes from the Shulman household. His son Max plays the game with an unabashed joy, animated and confident and entertaining. He took a few of those no-no-no-YES! long-range 3-pointers on the way to 26 points. On a team that seemed hell-bent for setting an NCAA Division II record for floor burns, Max probably leads the way.

Sam Orf plays with the shooter’s confidence that even though seven in a row may have gone astray, the next will go in. J.J. Kaplan, one of those typical UAH stories of a solid local high school player making even more of a name in college, is back after injuries sidelined him until January and seems to add a grown-up presence.

The Chargers played smart, they played better defense than the scoreboard would indicate and played with some furious periods of intensity. Lennie Acuff taught me the importance of the phrase “50-50 balls,” the loose balls and wild rebounds that either team had equal opportunity to snatch. On Tuesday, the Chargers were at least 85 percent on 50-50.

Much like a pastor proud of his sermon and bidding parishioners goodbye at the vestibule doors, Cade Smith was at the exit of the Spragins Hall lobby as I left.

“Aren’t you glad you came?” he said. Then, “How’s your heart?”

It was well-tested — and it was filled from the forgotten pleasure of watching a game in person.

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