I missed my call from Bill this week.
This is the time of year when Bill—“Basketball Bill,” my daughters dubbed him—always calls. It’s the best time of year for us roundball lovers, who know that the first frost heralds a new season coming into glorious bloom.
I might not hear from Bill between late March and mid-November. But especially after last weekend, a diehard Hoosier like Bill would be buzzing my phone first thing Monday. Even though I knew no call was coming, I half expected one anyhow, from force of tradition.
One thing I learned from following this seasonal ritual for 17 years is that hardcore Indiana basketball fans are at least as crazy as Kentucky fans, whom I’ve long believed are among the craziest people on earth, right up there with Texas Aggies and Nepalese Gurkhas. To show you how crazy that is, there’s a story from World War II about how only half a unit of Gurkhas, the British Empire’s most fearless fighters, volunteered for a paratroop mission. Given their reputation, the British commander was surprised by the low percentage of volunteers—until he learned that none of the Gurkhas realized they’d have the benefit of parachutes when they jumped.
I met Bill in 1987 through a colleague. He had three extra tickets to the Final Four in New Orleans. As it happened, his beloved Hoosiers would be there. My friends Tim and Mike went, too.
Bill was in heaven all weekend, if you can imagine heaven as a place where red-robed angel choruses sing unending praises to Bob Knight. At unexpected times—in between drinks at 5 a.m., between bites of oyster po’boys at the Old College Inn, between the Nevilles’ sets at Tipitina’s—Bill would smile and start chanting “Bob-by! Bob-by!”
At the end of the championship game, Bill was so tense that he covered his eyes and missed Keith Smart’s winning shot. (He always claimed that a fat woman stood up and blocked his view.) Afterward, we saw Billy Packer grab a pay phone from an exultant Hoosier calling home, shout “This guy is drunk on his ass!” into the receiver, and hand it back to the astonished fan as he walked away.
I’ve never understood the Hoosier religion, much less the continuing cult of Bobby. For me, Bill was a small window to that exotic world. He dreamed about Indiana basketball.
Over the years, we watched a lot of their games. In Indianapolis, we saw IU play Kentucky. We saw them play Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym. At my house, we watched Mike Davis’ surprising Hoosier team in the Final Four. Every March, logic be damned, Bill would pick Indiana to reach the Sweet 16 or higher. When Bob Knight moved to Texas Tech, Bill became a Tech fan, too.
The funny thing is that Bill never attended IU. He was a Ball State grad. The other weird thing was that I never liked IU. But it made Bill so jubilant when they won, it was hard to root against them.
I found out in late July that Bill had pancreatic cancer. He’d just come home from the hospital. There was nothing they could do. The only way he could get nourishment was through a feeding tube. He told the doctors to take it out. He preferred to starve than to endure the excruciating pain that would come from prolonging the inevitable. It was his way of saying, “Screw you” to the cancer.
I saw him the day before they removed the tube. He was a gaunt specter of his old self. But he was in remarkably good spirits—better than mine would have been.
He’d had a beer the day before. It was only a few sips, actually, and they came right back up. “No place for it to go,” he explained. But he wanted that one last taste.
“If the Hoosiers make the Final Four this season,” I told him, not believing it would happen, “Tim and Mike and I will get there and drink one to you.”
Later that day I got in touch with the Texas Tech basketball office. I explained Bill’s situation and asked if Coach Knight might give him a call. “Just two minutes of his time would mean the world to Bill,” I said. The assistant said Knight was in Europe and wouldn’t be back for 10 days, but she would try to pass the message along to him. I don’t know if he ever tried to call Bill or not.
I got the word eight days later that Bill had passed away peacefully. He’d been talking with his sister and just closed his eyes.
As the fall went by, I’d think about Bill in places that reminded me he was no longer there: watching a game at McCabe, driving by his street, even seeing the Superdome after Katrina.
He was the first thought in my mind when I turned on Saturday’s game and saw that Indiana was pummeling Kentucky. Kentucky had won seven of the past eight meetings. They were supposed to dominate this year, too.
I believe that God has better things to do than intervene in basketball games, but I couldn’t help but sense something supernatural at work. In my mind’s eye I saw Bill smiling. That night, I dreamed about New Orleans.