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Monday, November 14, 2005
Getting back to basics

By Graham Hays
Page 2

Forget how it tasted. Coffee never felt this good.

After more than five hours of sitting on bleachers so cold I would have felt comfortable storing sushi overnight on them, the folks manning the coffee wagon at Morrone Stadium on the campus of the University of Connecticut could have named their price when I came looking for java. Honestly, if OPEC ever has it as good as these guys, we're all in a world of supply-and-demand trouble.

But three bucks for a cup of joe and seven bucks for a ticket turned out to be a bargain on Thursday night in Storrs. One of the best things about sports is that therapy comes so cheap, and for less than the street value of one Paxil fix, I got to see something special. And I got to lose feeling in my feet.

After a week when Terrell Owens and Drew Rosenhaus almost managed to sound like voices of reason against a cacophony of coverage by the media, I needed this journey into the realms of hypothermia. I needed it after a week of hearing about Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson's on-court marriage and Kobe's impending fatherhood off the court. And I needed it after a week of hearing about how the deteriorating relationship between Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino sunk the Red Sox.

And I doubt I'm alone.

In this case, "it" was a first-round NCAA Tournament doubleheader in women's soccer: Boston University against UConn followed by Boston College against Dartmouth.

But for those of you already rolling your eyes at another gender-bending paean to the healing powers of women's sports, save it. It could just as easily have been Catawba and Tusculum in Division II men's soccer, Lethbridge and Prince Albert in WHL hockey, or even Fresno State and Boise State on the college gridiron. All of them took place on Thursday night, and no, I didn't make those first two names up.

And if I'm alone in imagining the headlines that have been used to greet the dismissal of Prince Albert coaches, then shame on me.

Forget gender for a moment, and imagine two groups of seniors who ran more miles in preseason training than most of us would be willing to run to escape imminent death. Two groups of athletes who spent the last three months balancing practices, prelims and parties and wouldn't be recognized in a crowd unless it was a family reunion. And now one of those groups is about to play the last game of their careers, unaccompanied by cameras, media, many fans outside of friends and family, and most of all, a snazzy intro montage.

Yes, as the commercials tell us, these are the kids who will go pro in something other than sports. Although it should be noted, much to the NCAA's dismay, that more of them will first go pro in loitering, paying bills and generally "finding themselves" than microbiology or jazz.

If you're interested enough, the stories are there. With her career on the line, BU senior Ashley Chassar put a perfect-placed header past UConn goalie Stephanie Labbe in the 102nd minute, stunning the region's No. 4 seed in their first home loss of the season. I didn't use my special media powers to talk to Ashley after the game (the frozen chattering of my teeth would have made Eric Dickerson's sideline interviews look like Charlie Rose), but the BU Web site tells us she was a peer tutor and a member of SADD in high school and is now an engineering major. Neat.

But the point that crystallized, next to my breath, in my mind was a reminder that sports don't always need to be about the people. I don't need to know the names of the athletes on the field. I definitely don't need to know their thoughts on last week's game, next week's opponent, what the coach said at halftime or what they think of Samuel Alito's nomination.

When it comes down to it, athletes, like actors and artists, are just like us ... only with talent. Get to know them too well and you're bound to uncover the blemishes. Hey, I've got problems of my own. So why do I need to worry about the problems of someone whose main attraction to me is that he runs a nice fly route or signs hitters who know how to take a walk?

Get back to me when you're actually running fly routes or signing hitters.

If Dartmouth freshman Becky Poskin shouted from the rooftops that her team would have won the Ivy League title if only they had Princeton's Emily Behncke up front instead of Sarah Johnson, her teammates would have told her to shut up and the rest of the campus would have shrugged and gone about their business of modifying plastic soda bottles and illicitly downloading the new Sun Kil Moon release of Modest Mouse covers.

But if Terrell Owens does it, it's a week of news.

Midway through the second half of the opening game, BU senior Melissa Shulman came off for a substitute and wasn't too thrilled about it. I know because I was sitting close enough to hear her voice that displeasure to a coach, but no sideline reporters pounced, no analysts debated and no media took notes. After cooling off (not a difficult task on this night), she returned to the game and went about setting up opportunities for her teammates.

But if Keyshawn Johnson and Drew Bledsoe do it, it's a major story.

Why? Because we like pro football a lot more than women's college soccer. We like it so much that we don't want to stop talking about it, even if that means expanding "it" to far more than what happens between the lines on Sunday. And all of a sudden, sports aren't a diversion.

Our lives become diversions from sports.

For five hours, I had a chance to forget about the brake light I need to replace, the argument with my best friend, working this weekend and a dozen other things. Instead, I got to focus on Dartmouth's midfielders controlling tempo, Boston University's goalie making a stunning save to keep her team in the game and UConn's inability to capitalize on chances.

But that's all I need to know. That enjoyment is the reward for my investment of time and money. Just because I may have to sacrifice a toe as a result of the evening, I don't need to rehash it, relive it and generally make it the central focus of my week.

I don't know about you, but that's sometimes easy for me to forget.

I don't know if there are enough "sports" in sports to fuel a half-dozen cable networks, a radio network, this Web site and my employment, but if the alternative is another week of Terrell Owens, I'd like to find out.

Graham Hays is an editor for ESPN.com SportsNation when he isn't moonlighting for Page 2. He can be reached at graham.hays@espn3.com.