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Bill Plaschke

It Was Freedom of Choice at Its Best

March 21, 2003|Bill Plaschke

Air raid sirens wail in Baghdad.

Click.

Pep band saxophones sing in Oklahoma City.

Click.

Terrifying blasts roll across a darkened Iraqi sky.

Click.

Squeaking shoes fill a bright Indianapolis court.

Click.

Smoke rises where a bomb destroyed a building.

Click.

Cal players dance where a basket saved their season.

Click. Mute. Power. Wonder.

What should you watch? How should you feel? Who should you be?

It was a strange, unsettling Thursday here in the land of the threes and the home of the brave.

America began fighting at the same time America began playing. A national crisis on one channel, a national joy on the other. Bombs here, basketballs there, and not even a remote control the size of Luke Walton's shoe could sort it out.

The citizen in us followed the first dramatic steps of the war against Iraq.

The American in us also kept peeking at the road to the Final Four.

We shivered as dozens of missiles were launched against Baghdad, while wanting to cheer those 32 teams beginning play in the NCAA tournament.

We talked to our neighbors about this being a frightening day in world history

But we whispered to our friends about this also being one of the best days of the sports calendar.

All just one channel apart.

Dan Rather talking about Saddam Hussein slipping away from our first strike.

Kevin Harlan talking about Cal's Joe Shipp slipping on an NCAA logo.

The toughest soldiers in the world chasing the Republican Guard.

Children in shorts chasing a shooting guard.

The choice should have been easy. It speaks volumes about our country that it wasn't, not even in Twentynine Palms, the desert military town where one tavern carried war on one television and basketball on the other.

All day long, folks clicked back and forth, their televisions, their attentions, perhaps the only consistency being their guilt.

Are we actually comparing the loss of life to the loss of a basketball game?

How can a contest of sports ever share a playing field with a battle for freedom?

Perhaps the answer could be found around midday, during a moment ridiculous and regal enough to encapsulate both.

A nutty Cincinnati basketball coach named Bob Huggins, wearing what appeared to be a camouflage T-shirt, threw a silly fit and was ejected from his game.

At the same time, one click away, in a sandstorm so severe it obscured the moon, real men in real camouflage were throwing fits against the Iraqis.

Talk about shock and awe.

It became clear, then, that this day wasn't about making a choice.

It was about appreciating the fact that we have a choice.

Imagine living in a country strong enough to be at war and play at the same time.

Imagine living in a country free enough to allow us to watch both.

Is that videotaped guy really Saddam Hussein?

Click.

Is that winning team really Central Michigan?

Click.

Who is that bald, retired general, and why won't he speak our language?

Click.

Who is that bald, retired player, and why won't he speak our language?

Click.

In the 72-inch digital picture of our life, sports is no more important than hot dogs. But a war doesn't mean we should feel guilty about enjoying either one with relish.

To forgo these simple diversions during the next few weeks would be like acknowledging that the Iraqis have invaded us.

They have not. They will not. Our ability to fill gyms for mindless basketball games during times of war is reassuring proof.

We need that proof. From what they have said, our soldiers following the games from the middle of desert bunkers also need it.

The citizen in us cares deeply about the lives of our soldiers and the future of our nation.

But the American in us still wonders, how in the heck did Arizona State beat Memphis?

Instead of feeling bad about these mixed emotions, perhaps we should be thankful for them.

I admit, while following Wednesday night's initial bombings, I put the finishing touches on my NCAA tournament bracket.

I picked some upsets. I took some chances.

But in the end, as my winner and champion, I picked what is clearly the smartest, savviest and most powerful team of all.

I picked the United States of America.

Oops.

I mean Oklahoma.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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