Watching sports is a big deal at my house. I’ve been an avid sports viewer since right around the spring and summer of 1992, when Christian Laettner’s shot and the Dream Team happened within months of each other. When we moved into the house I am currently sitting in for the final night, the first thing organized was the “man cave.” I had been looking forward to that moment since it became obvious to me in college that diehard sports fandom wasn’t just a childhood thing for me, but my great escape from the stressors of life. It has been everything I always wanted it to be, my man cave, host to some of my favorite memories over the past several years. To leave it is unquestionably bittersweet, though my second one is coming soon!
In honor of a wonderful 5 1/2 years, here are my top “first man cave” memories:
WrestleMania XXX: Pro wrestling is my oldest pastime. If it takes 10,000 hours of study to become an expert on something, then I’d surely have to be as much of an expert on pro wrestling as any non-pro wrestler can be. Most people don’t get it, focused as they often are on the pre-determined outcomes (“it’s fake”). If you told me that, I would counter that pro wrestling is the world’s most misunderstood performance art, a storytelling medium as readily capable of telling tales of betrayal, camaraderie, ultimate achievement, etc. as anything seen in books, on Broadway, in Hollywood, etc. Close those agape mouths; I’m quite serious.
Take, for instance, this brilliant night on pro wrestling’s grandest stage, WrestleMania (the 8th most profitable event franchise in the world). ‘Mania XXX was the first big event viewed in my first man cave and the featured attraction was the story of Daniel Bryan – the modern “everyman” perceived (and otherwise) as the antithesis of what WWE wanted its marquee name to be – overcoming massive odds (again, perceived and otherwise) to be positioned with a chance to both topple an overly authoritative power regime (by defeating the corporate bully) and win the championship (by defeating two corporately chosen golden boys) in the spot that has become wrestling’s Holy Grail: the main-event of WrestleMania.
The more pro wrestling you watch, the harder it can become to get lost in the fiction. For me, a 32 year fan of the industry, the pinnacle of Bryan’s saga, which began in earnest several years prior off-camera (he was considered too small and plain-looking to even get signed by WWE), was actually the moment on Monday Night Raw a few weeks before ‘Mania when it became apparent that Bryan would face three of the Top 20 wrestlers of the WrestleMania Era, but the climactic final act culminating a story that enveloped me more than any other in my adult wrestling fandom very much stands out as one of my favorite man cave memories.
Clemson vs. Alabama, Parts 1 and 2 – As an avid college football fan, I always hope to see a dramatic national championship game close out the season, but as fellow CFB enthusiasts can attest, that does not happen as often as we’d like. I sat in my first man cave for five national title game viewings, however, and three of them were outstanding.
Honorable mention to Georgia vs. Alabama to close out the 2017 season, but Clemson vs. Alabama for the 2015 and 2016 titles, respectively, was especially memorable to me. My personal college football tour made its way to Clemson in 2014, and it was a particularly awesome stop, so I was more heavily invested in the Tigers reaching their peak and was, accordingly, all the more invested in the gut-wrenching momentum swing that gave the Crimson Tide full command of the 2015 title game. I said to myself right before a bam-bam one-two ‘Bama punch of a desperation throw to set up a field goal and a recovery of the ensuing onside kick, “I’m not sure how the Tide is going to wrestle control away here.” A minute later, they had control and never gave it up.
The rematch for the 2016 title was even better than the original, coming down to the final play of the game. Back and forth they had gone all the way; then Tide QB, Jalen Hurts, scored what could have been on any other night the game-winning touchdown very deep into the fourth quarter, but Clemson’s now legendary QB, Deshaun Watson, engineered a quick drive that ended with a TD pass to Hunter Renfrow and put the finishing touch on a game in the running for the best I’ve watched in 25 years.
One 3-1 Series Comeback Begets Another – In the 2016 NBA Playoffs, a finally healthy Oklahoma City Thunder team used its size to overwhelm the defending NBA Champion and regular season record-breaking, Golden State Warriors. When the Warriors stormed back from down three games to one in a best-of-seven series to advance to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year, I’ll never forget the look on Kevin Durant’s face. It was the same look LeBron James had in the series that segued to his infamous “Decision.” KD psychologically crumbled, and his ensuing free agency decision – equal parts understandable for basketball reasons and deplorable for competitive reasons – now lives in infamy too.
What is fascinating about the series of events that spring is that Durant and the Thunder going up 3-1 created the perfect emotional storm. On the brink of ultimate glory, KD suffered his greatest professional failure instead. If the Warriors had defeated the LeBron’s Cavs to repeat as champions, KD logically might have used his experience to motivate him for a rematch. However, the Warriors fell apart despite their own commanding 3-1 lead in the Finals and the King capitalized, fundamentally altering Durant’s mindset. If the Warriors had won, KD couldn’t possibly join them, could he? Since they lost, though, it gave Durant an “in” to downplay his probable “he couldn’t beat them, so he joined them,” pariah status in favor of embracing a sort of basketball nirvana. The psychology of sport…I love it.
Of course, as a long-time fan of LeBron, just as memorable as the 3-1 comeback that fed right into another 3-1 comeback (and how it caused one of modern basketball’s most significant domino effects) was that the prodigal son returned to the Cavaliers team he spurned for the Heatles in the aforementioned “Decision” and one a title for Cleveland. To this point, the 2016 comeback squad represents the peak moment of LeBron’s career. I was too young to fully appreciate Michael Jordan’s all-time greatness, but I have optimized my experience of LeBron’s.
There’s nothing like a Game 7 in sports, so to have seen two of them in back to back rounds of the same playoffs, and for those two Game 7s to have been so influential on contemporary and overall basketball history…man…let’s just say that I have a great appreciation at this stage in my life for witnessing history.
Notre Dame’s Undefeated 2018 Season – Obviously they lost to Clemson in the Semi-Finals of the College Football Playoff, but an undefeated regular season for the Irish is the closest to sports nirvana that I have reached in my lifetime to date. Watching the Irish in the 2012 BCS Title game and the 2018 Playoff, like my viewership of the 2009 NBA Finals that my Orlando Magic lost to the Lakers, was ultimately a trio of negative experiences, but the journeys leading up to them were magical. If one my teams wins the title, sports nirvana will be newly defined for me, but in the meantime, it has gotten no better for me in the last half decade than sitting in my man cave watching the Irish run the table last year.
I have a lot of good Notre Dame football memories from my first man cave – the Irish crushing USC in 2017 was probably the most cathartic ND blowout victory I can recall and last second TD throws in 2014 and 2015, the former captured in what I consider to be an iconic father-daughter photo from when Jordan was two years old (it’s framed in my office), were the unforgettable sorts – but the totality of the 12-0 run in 2018 was an example of the escalatory nature inherent to an undefeated season. At 4-0, with quality wins, the belief in a higher ceiling of achievement begins; at 8-0, belief is strong, but it’s also tough to keep the “pride before the fall” feelings at bay; from then on, within each game, the emotional peaks are steep and the valleys are deep. It’s a ride worth the drive when the final seconds tick off the 12th victory.
My daughter got into it, too. Regularly, she would ask to watch the games with me and would throw on her Irish jersey during day games. When Notre Dame narrowly escaped with a victory against Pitt, Jordan suggested that we do something special after each Irish win, so for about seven straight weeks, we did just that. There’s no expectation on my end that my kids share in these extracurricular passions of mine – they are my escapes, after all – but if they eventually find the joy in them that I do, then that’s an added bonus that I’ll greatly appreciate.
Farewell, first man cave, and thanks for the memories!