Long before Iowa City Moms began, long before I was a wife and a mom, even long before I was a student at the University of Iowa, I was a little girl sitting at my grandparents’ house watching my Grandpa Sam yell at the Iowa basketball games on TV (“come on, Hightower!” was one of his favorites) and turn it off in frustration, and then watching my Grandma Shirl walk over and turn it back on so we could see the end of the game. Win or lose, she would be up out of her chair, clapping and dancing as they played the Hawkeye Fight Song and the Victory Polka. Once in a while, I’d even get to join them as they drove to Iowa City and watched the games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Watching those players in real life–Jess Settles, Andre Woolridge, Kenyon Murray, Chris Kingsbury, J.R. Koch–is a core memory for me. Hearing the crowd cheer for our Hawks, seeing the sea of black and gold shirts and hats, and enjoying a giant Carver cone was a must for my 10 year old self, of course–chocolate all the way!
Hawkeye basketball, as it turns out, is one of the longest relationships of my life. So I figured it’s about time I write them a love letter, no?
After the Jess Settles days of my childhood, in came one of my all time favorites: Dean Oliver. When I was about 15, he came to an exhibition game at one of the high schools in my hometown, and my 2 year old niece and I won an autographed jersey. You’d think we had won the lottery. In fact, in my eyes, we had. If I’d known that we only had 3 more years of watching the games with Grandpa Sam, I would have soaked that night up even more than I already did. We lost him on my very last day of high school. Although I wished so hard that he would live to see me officially become a Hawkeye, at least he knew that I was headed there in the Fall.
My college years brought the era of Jeff Horner, Greg Brunner, Pierre Pierce, and Adam Haluska, to name a few. I once found myself at the corner of Clinton and Iowa Street waiting for the Cambus standing next to Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska, and I thank God that social media did not exist yet–I guarantee that my jaw visibly dropped. During my junior year I worked at the Coralville HyVee, and coach Steve Alford’s wife came through my line multiple times with her groceries. I like to think that I played it cool as I rang her up, but I highly doubt that was the case. When I lived abroad in Spain during my senior year, I would get up in the middle of the night and walk over to the internet cafe to log onto the dial-up internet and watch the little icons move across the screen on ESPN.com, just so that I could “see” the games in real time. There was no way I was missing that season–we won the Big Ten Championship! I screamed and cheered in that internet cafe, staring at the monitor and thinking of Grandma Shirl on the other side of the ocean. When I became a TA in the Spanish department in 2007, I couldn’t decide if it would be a good thing or a bad thing to have the players in my classes. Luckily I never did, so no one can accuse me of special treatment (although I’m sure they would have gotten it)!
As graduation day approached in 2008, I really felt the weight of my Grandpa Sam’s absence. Oh, how he would have loved watching me walk across the floor of Carver Hawkeye Arena to receive my diploma–that same floor where his favorite Jess Settles had played, where his beloved Tom Davis had coached, where his not-always-favorite Ed Hightower had refereed…and where we had watched the most somber game of all time in January 1993, after the devastating loss of our #40, Chris Street (hard to believe it was thirty years ago today). As I walked across that floor in my cap and gown, I looked up into the audience and saw my family, my husband, and our new little family that we had just started–my firstborn son, carrying on the name of my Grandpa Sam and fully decked out in Hawkeye gear to celebrate my graduation day, just as I know his great-grandpa would have been if he were there.
We went on to welcome three more little ones over the next 7 years–each of them wearing black and gold Hawkeye gear from the time they came home from the hospital. They’ve all learned the Fight Song before they even learned the alphabet, and they’ve all grown up watching their mom and dad, and their grandparents, and their great-grandma Shirl, cheer on our beloved Hawkeyes. They’ve listened as we tell them about Chris Street, and how we excitedly remind them that our Kris Murray out there on the floor is named after him. And that Kris and Keegan’s dad was on the team when we were kids. And Carter Kingsbury’s dad. And soon J.R. Koch’s son Cooper will be out there, too! “Yes, Mom, we know! We get it! Enough already!” they shout as we watch the games and I point out the same things over and over.
But it will never be enough. Our living room is pure joy when the games are on–nostalgia, team pride, excitement for a win–the room just vibrates with emotion. This year we’ve caravanned from the Quad Cities to Iowa City multiple times, the mini-vans full of grandparents and great-grandparents, friends from school, and our good friends from Puerto Rico who we’ve now gotten hooked on the Hawks, too. All decked out in our black and gold, we grab Grandma Shirl’s walker and we brave the cold parking lots to walk our way up to Carver. Despite the walker, she’s still faster than half the people we walk past (she turned 90 this past July!), and despite her daughters’ pleading with her to be careful, there’s no stopping her from jumping up and down when we head to overtime or when those McCaffery boys make a 3 pointer.
I know it’s cliche, but I don’t care–it’s so much more than a game to us. It’s my childhood with my beloved grandparents, it’s my college years where I met my roommate and forever friend, it’s my grad school years where I got married and started my family, and now it’s another generation of our family yelling at the TV and cheering their hearts out. My daughter is now the same age that I was when I watched Kenyon Murray and Kevin Skillet and Mon’ter Glasper, and she is full on obsessed. How fun it is to see MY kid cheer on Kenyon’s kids on the court! Her walls are decorated with Hawkeye Basketball posters, and she is now schooling her friends about the players’ names, their backstories, all of it. I couldn’t be more proud. And on top of that–she now has me obsessed with Hawkeye women’s basketball, too. It’s truly a wonder that I get any work done at all between November and March! But watching her watch Caitlin Clark and Gabby Marshall and Monika Czinano and (my personal fave) Kate Martin? Worth. It. She has big hopes of becoming a Hawkeye one day too, and this mama’s heart would just melt with pride if she did.
And so, to the Hawkeye Basketball Program: thank you. Thank you so much for being a part of my family, for bringing so much joy and excitement to our living rooms and to our car radios and to the walls and rafters of Carver Hawkeye Arena. Thank you for showing my daughter that girls can do anything boys can do–sometimes even better! And thank you for the chocolate Carver cones–still my favorite to this day.