Tag Archives: Kansas Jayhawks

Coffee and Basketball

Here are two things I love: coffee and basketball. That is: good coffee and college basketball. March has been a good month for both. My hometown team, the Kansas University Jayhawks, have made it to the Final Four in March, and I’ve cheered wildly (at times nervously) for them along the way. March has also been a spectacular month for coffee-tasting. I’ve enjoyed amazing drip coffee at some fantastic destinations in the L.A. area: Handsome Coffee, Portola Coffee Lab, and Primo Passo. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend all of them (as well as IntelligentsiaLAMill, Demitasse and Spring for Coffee).

I’m passionate about good coffee and a good college basketball game. For me, both of these things can, at their best, reveal the beauty of creation and the pleasures of God.

Some people are surprised when they come across people who care about the flavor nuances of a bourbon varietal but also the shot-blocking stats of a power forward. Some people are surprised that one can be intensely interested in the oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch but also the careers of hall of fame quarterbacks. But these are usually the people who make more of the whole “red vs. blue state culture” division than is warranted. In any case, it needs to be said that so-called “high” culture and “low” culture can both be engaged in profound ways, just as they both can be engaged superficially. It’s all in the way one goes about appreciating them.

I enjoy sipping single-origin coffee black coffee (the only way to go) in the same way that I enjoy watching a well-played college basketball game. Both are examples of excellence and complexity; the results of creativity, passion and hard work. They are both the enjoyable fruits of human capacity, having been concocted out of the raw materials of creation to be fine-tuned for maximum enjoyment. Who else but humans, created in the image of a creative God, would come up with a beverage based around roasting and grinding a little brown bean? Or a game involving an elevated basket, a ball, and dribbling?

I don’t drink coffee to wake me up when I’m tired, and I don’t watch basketball to relieve boredom. It’s not about what these things can do for me; it’s about aggressively pursuing them for their beauty, appreciating them for the mysteries of humanity they uncover. Coffee is more than just “fuel” and basketball is more than just a sport with tall guys running back and forth, amusing the masses.

Basketball is like life in microcosm: competition, striving, winning, losing, doing battle for every loose ball. It’s individual achievement and team dynamics. It’s momentum, upsets, emotion, strength, humility, and the glorious feeling of coming from behind to pull out a victory with a last minute shot. It’s an elegant sport, simple and yet complicated, full of intertwining narratives; like life.

Coffee, too, is more than meets the eye. It’s an incredibly complex, multi-faceted drink with near infinite flavor dynamics. Next time you brew your Folgers (but I’d really recommend some Stumptown), take a step back and think about how crazy it is that we have this treasure. A curious Ethiopian bush, whose berries/seeds were extracted by humans and (for some reason), dried, roasted, crushed, and used to flavor hot water for a beverage. Absurd! Sometimes when I’m sitting there, sipping a particularly fragrant cup of coffee, I just smile and marvel at the fact of coffee: that a plant God created could be turned into a drink that humans can so thoroughly enjoy.

I’m not trying to convince everyone to get on board with Third Wave Coffee or to embrace March Madness in the way I do. Not everyone loves the exact same  culture or sees the beauty and truth of existence in the exact same things; and that’s fine. We all have our tastes, our preferences.

We should like what we like; but we should like it well, and we should know why we like it. And we should be open minded in the way we engage culture and consume it, opening ourselves up to the possibility that lessons can be learned and beauty can be found in areas we might not have thought. Our society has very prescribed notions of consumer identity: if you are ___, then you will like certain movies, magazines, clothing brands. But to truly connect with culture is not necessarily something bell curves or demographic patterns can predict.

I love coffee, and I love college basketball. I also love Spanish cheeses, Mark Rothko paintings, Friday Night Lights and (recently) Downton Abbey. It doesn’t necessarily follow a rhyme or reason. I just find quality, truth, and loveliness in all of these things. I celebrate them.

I think there’s wisdom in what Chuck Klosterman says in Chuck Klosterman IV about how we enjoy culture:

“If you really have integrity–if you truly live by your ideals, and those ideals dictate how you engaged with the world at large–you will never feel betrayed by culture. You will simply enjoy culture more. You won’t necessarily start watching syndicated episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, but you will find it interesting that certain people do. You won’t suddenly agree that Amelie was a more emotive movie than Friday Night Lights, but you won’t feel alienated and offended if every film critic you read tells you that it is. You will care, but you won’t care. You’re not wrong, and neither is the rest of the world. But you need to accept that those two things aren’t really connected.”

So if you’re not watching the Final Four this weekend, while enjoying the mango and papaya notes of the Mpito bean, that’s OK. But I hope you are doing something you enjoy, and are enjoying it deeply, thoughtfully, appreciatively.

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I Heart March (Madness)

T.S. Eliot once said “April is the cruelest month.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that March is one of the best months there is. We have Spring Break vacations, St. Patrick’s Day, and, most importantly, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. For college basketball fans, March is one big, energy-filled party. It’s madness. And hopefully this year it’ll be Jayhawk madness. (Again.)

The NCAA tournament is three weeks of raw, “expect the unexpected” amateur athletics at its best. Rankings, hype, politics, bracketology, office pools, endless ads for sucky CBS sitcoms … it all means little during the glorious processional of 64, then 32, 16, 8, and finally four teams giving it all to feel the inexplicable joy of being on top.

Some people are surprised to find out that I’m such a big college basketball fan (and sports fan in general). And while I make no apologies for it and don’t really think it needs to be explained, perhaps I can expound a little on why I find so much value in it.

I mean, surely there is some deeper meaning to sports, right? What does it mean that so many people go absolutely nuts watching sports? Congregating around TVs, packing into sweaty auditoriums, cheering on players running back and forth throwing a ball around? Why do we schedule our lives—and often our discretionary incomes—around what all of us would probably willingly refer to as “just a game?” Sure, we could write it off as mere entertainment, but that is an empty term in referring to what something “entertaining” actually means in our lives. Why are sports like basketball so attractive as activities to fill our diminishing spare time?

All of our choices of entertainment are, I think, on one level an attempt to escape “everyday life” but also an attempt to reinforce it. It’s an interesting dichotomy actually. Seeing a movie, for example, is obviously “escapism,” but think about the movies you like the best and why… They are the ones that reinforce what you know of the world, of reality, of existence. Not the ones that seem alien or ring false.

Likewise, attending a basketball game is a fun escape and diversion from our everyday lives. But we wouldn’t go—we wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for two hours of spectatorship—if mere diversion is all it was. No, I think basketball (as one of many sports) is so popular, so intensely followed, because it reflects things about our own lives and existence on this planet that we don’t often think about or correlate. I know this sounds extremely convoluted, but follow me here…

Basketball, and all sports, are competitions. That is the first and most basic point of connection with real life. We live lives of competition—in the workplace, in the dating world, in everything we buy or sell, etc… And basketball is one example of a heightened form of competition where the stakes are lower for us but the instincts are still as strong. We resonate with and cheer so hard for our team to win because, quite frankly, fighting to win is what life is all about.

The thrill of victory is worth the price of admission, but what about the agony of defeat? When this is an all-too-ready option in any given sporting event, why do we still attend, game after game? Well, this is where the uniqueness of sport vs. life comes in to play. Losing in sports is tough, don’t get me wrong, but it is part of the game. Losing in life is a lot more unforgiving. Basketball is 50% losing in point of fact (all games everywhere have exactly one winner and one loser), but the heart of the game is in winning. In our real lives we also relate to both winning and losing, but losing seems to get all the attention. Thus, we are attracted to something that focuses our minds and hearts on that still-small reality of life that is within everyone’s grasp—the transcendent glory that comes with winning.

You know the moment in a basketball game when your team is down by a dozen or so points, but makes a run and brings it to within two? And then the crowd rises to its feet, loudly cheering, and the team gets a new bounce in its step, hitting a long three to take the lead? That moment, with the deafening noise and dispirited opponents losing control—is a moment when you can touch the glory, where you glimpse—dare I say it—the divine. You get goosebumps, you slap a stranger’s hand, and you raise your voice to the rafters for the glory to continue.

In these moments I envision God smiling at us humans and thinking, they are feeling it in small doses. Unfortunately, many of us leave these sporting “highs” without thinking that maybe they point to something greater that surrounds us. What if sport really is a gift from God? What if the blessings of sport are only a fraction of what is available to us? I think it probably saddens God when the good things in life—sports, natural beauty, art, etc—are cheapened and seen only as ends unto themselves; not as the signposts to a greater grace that exists in the world.

And so we should not cheapen basketball by writing off its “trivial” place in the grand scheme of things. Instead we should realize that the small wonders and momentary blessings matter in life. Why? Because the existence of rays of light implies a vast sun, and if we ever want to comprehend something that vivid, we should start by taking the light in small doses, wherever we can find it.

Final Four Showdown

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Final Fours are, let’s face it, usually something of a let down after the first two weeks of March Madness. Not so this year (at least on paper). This is the first year all four #1 seeds have made it through to the end–and can duke it out (sans Duke!) as the four best teams in the country should.

It’s doubly exciting for me, because my two favorite college basketball teams comprise half of the final field! I’m from Kansas, and so the KU Jayhawks are and will always be my #1 team. I’m rooting for them to win their first national championship since 1988. But I’m a grad student at UCLA now, and so I’d also love to see the Bruins win it all (it would be their 12th!). As I see it, I have pretty good odds that one of my teams will take home the trophy. That is, unless Memphis and/or Roy Williams’ Tarheels ruin the party.

Which brings me to tomorrow night’s epic matchup between Kansas and North Carolina. Roy Williams (current coach of UNC), was the coach of Kansas for 15 years. The “Roy” years were largely successful at KU, albeit with no national championship to show for it. In 2003, Roy became the most loathed man in Lawrence (KS) when he announced that he was leaving KU for UNC–something he promised three years earlier that he’d never do. Of course, once at UNC Roy promptly won his first national championship in 2005–further incensing the Jayhawk faithful who so hoped Roy would lead them to the prize. Hence, Saturday’s night’s game is a game of emotion, revenge, and bragging rights. Will Bill Self be able to outcoach the white-haired wonder? I surely hope so.

And I hope UCLA beats Memphis too… which means KU and UCLA would meet in the National Championship game, in a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight game which UCLA won. I would be delighted by this scenario, b/c either outcome would suit me fine. Truth be told, I would be pulling heavily for KU (honestly, does UCLA need a 12th banner?), though the game would be epic regardless.