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Watch This (April 1, 1998)

You've spent so much time watching television that sometimes you feel like Chauncey the Gardener. You watched Kennedy get shot, Jack Ruby blast Oswald, Viet Nam go up in napalm, astronauts land on the moon, Nixon lie, Ford stumble, Evil Knievel bounce off pavement, Hank Aaron tie Babe Ruth, Carter apologize, Reagan drool, Montana hit Clark in the end zone, Bush do nothing, O.J. run, and MTV become America's most effective imperialist tool behind cheeseburgers, wrinkle-free khakis and Madeleine Albright's breath. When not watching All In The Family or COPS or Sixty Minutes or the Miracle On Ice American upset of the Commie Hockey Thugs in 1980 at Lake Placid you were hooking up an Atari to play Pong while eating wing dings. At school you watched film strips detailing the itchy horrors of sexually transmitted diseases then grainy documentaries about Ishi, last of his tribe, and how the Nazis were overcome by American ingenuity, apple pie and the atom bomb. You watched and watched and watched some more proudly, stupidly and passively witnessing the television replace God, a bastard V-hold, rabbit-eared monotheism propped up by a new and improved holy trinity promising Entertainment, Cannibalism and 24-Hour Sports, so help me Rupert Murdoch.

Then came the personal computer, which meant you could now buy an expensive machine to let you accomplish all the things you could before, only with a temperamental plastic box of cancerous rays and indecipherable commands as your technological Man Friday. According to Al Gore, that's progress. Of course teachers and educators love it because, like its older sibling television, the computer's a built-in baby-sitter. With the right games students can be left alone with it for hours while the teachers frisk second graders for Uzis and armor-piercing bullets. Now comes the internet and kids everywhere are filling Bill Gates's pockets with Third World cash by downloading pictures of the Burger Kings in Montmartre while the adults dabble in virtual S&M and describe their sticky bits to stoic forest rangers in Gnome. It's as depressing as it is inescapable.

Meanwhile you suffer, cringe, and feel sorry for yourself. You read arcane Tokyo comic books about the impossibility of true love in an age of nuclear proliferation, then try to make chicken yakitori in the microwave. You read the papers, listen to the talk shows, vote for the candidates, and hum the jingles of the hottest detergents with patented crystal whitening technology.

Now you watch not because it gives you pleasure but because old habits die hard. As you wait for the game between Stanford and Kentucky to start you remember the days when you, too, found joy in watching. You had the privilege to personally witness the legendary men's league duel between Boonville's Gene Waggoner and Ukiah's Kelvin Chapman at the old Pomolita Gym. After graduating from Anderson Valley High School Gene went on to play at Napa College and the University of Mississippi. A victim of the Ukiah schools, Kelvin excelled at both baseball and basketball at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he was an All-American hoops god before playing second base for the New York Mets. Sometimes, when the planets are aligned correctly, there are moments which are pure magic, and that hot night in the Pomolita gym was one of them. Gene and Kelvin were the two biggest guns around, and the game quickly turned into their personal war. They guarded each other, and despite their defensive efforts, it was an striking display of offensive genius. Closing my eyes I can still see Gene running down a long rebound, pushing the ball hard upcourt then pulling up for a 20-foot jumpshot boom it's down. Chapman taking the inbounds pass, dribbling to the top of the key faking left faking right pulling back then slicing to the hole before kissing a soft bank shot into the basket. Gene responding with a twisting 180-degree left hand scoop shot that draws nothing but net. Kelvin hitting an 18-footer with three hands in his face and Gene responding with a mini-sky hook sliding left to right across the free throw line. Then Kelvin and Kelvin again, then Gene going behind his back and Kelvin perfecting a crossover dribble and twisting layups and turn-around jumpshots and corkscrew assists to gape-mouthed teammates but mostly a non-stop all-out artistic bonanza of Gene vs. Kelvin basketball wonder that ended with both scoring around 50 points. No one loses a game like that, especially when you're in the stands and still young enough to dream. Remembering the adrenaline and the beauty of their battle now still makes you glow, and while you let a smile take over your face you see another familiar face on the television: Eric Reveno.

Reveno was the center on that great Menlo School basketball team that won the state championship in 1983 (gosh, has it been that long?). He went on to play at Stanford, while the team's star, John Paye, also went on to play basketball, football and baseball for the Cardinal. A couple of other Menlo starters got football scholarships to Colorado. Needless to say, they put a severe thumping on your A.V. team in the finals of the Redwood Classic. Boonville's own star, Jerry Tolman, went on to distinguish himself as captain of the Sonoma State basketball team. In fact, you remember that Jerry was pretty much the only player on your squad who was the athletic equal of that terrific Menlo five, and Reveno was a nice guy who you're happy to see as a Stanford assistant coach.

Now you watch as Reveno discusses how Stanford will combat Kentucky's quickness: pass over the top of the press, keep the dribble alive, blah blah blah. He's smooth, personable, and knowledgeable, and you wonder if he ever thinks about those few games he played a decade ago in that tiny Boonville gym in the middle of nowhere. You root for Stanford, and though the game is close, it's ugly. Too many missed free throws and bricked layups. There is no rhythm. So it's no surprise that Stanford, with 7'1" center Tim Young fouled out, loses in overtime. The game you'd been waiting for all week has come and gone and leaves you feeling unfulfilled and unrepentant. Outside it's clear but cold. You could read or vacuum or wash your socks but you feel restless, sentimental for old friends and the naive purity of high school basketball and the smell of stale popcorn mixing with the dusty wooden scent of the bleachers and wax on the floor. Sometimes more than anything you only want to watch because now it's as close as you can get to living. Maybe tomorrow you'll go to the playground and practice your lefthanded layups, but in the meantime you reach for the clicker, content to watch.

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