Women’s Basketball Rewards Attendees With Joy

Holiday gift-giving offers everyone an opportunity to dabble in a bit of social engineering. As our boys were growing up, we used gifts to shape and accelerate their interests and skills. Once they became men, I backed off and started giving them cash. Or, as I like to call it, a “gift certificate certificate.” (Greenbacks are redeemable wherever gift certificates are sold.)

Last Christmas, I reversed course again. My older son has been collecting Duck gear for two decades, so I gave him a place to wear it. He got two handfuls of Duck basketball tickets — the men’s team in one hand and the women’s team in the other.

Whatever social engineering I had in mind boomeranged and hit me square between the eyes. Let me tell you what a joy it has been to watch these women play basketball.

If you have barely enough time to finish reading this column before beginning your day, stop reading and do this instead. Buy a ticket or two to watch the women Ducks play this afternoon at 4:30 PM at Matthew Knight Arena.

If you have to leave work early, tell your boss the truth. This may be your last chance to see this team play. (If they win today, they will have another game here on Sunday afternoon.)

You can certainly watch the team on television or listen to the game on the radio, but you will be missing what’s most remarkable about them. Character is what people display when they think no one is looking, and this team has character.

Watch how they share the balls during warm-ups, laughing at each other’s jokes. Notice how the players at the end of the bench root for the ones on the floor. Marvel at how much they love one another, and the game they came here to play.

The men this year have players who are fun to watch, but the team and the game don’t shine brightly. They do with the women. It’s as if the men are playing for the pro scouts or for whoever assembles the highlight reels — less for their coach and their teammates. The game itself can be obscured by acrobatic derring-do. Watching the men warm up has sometimes been more fun than the game itself.

The women bring a competitive spirit that never disappoints, rewarding each and every fan who came through the doors. More than once this season, we saw history made, led by the team’s super sophomores. We were there when Sabrina Ionescu broke the NCAA record — for men or women — for career triple doubles. We were watching when Ruthy Hebard made her 33rd shot in a row — also an NCAA record, for men or women.

And we witnessed what Coach Kelly Graves later described as “the best defense ever played in this arena” against Oregon State, two days after being upset by the Beavers in Corvallis. What exactly does unparalleled defensive tenacity look like? I can’t describe it. You had to be there.

Most of what you’ll see if you go to the game is not quantifiable. When Hebard and Ionescu execute the pick-and-roll, it’s poetry in motion. When Lexi Bando gets the ball in the corner, her shot goes up before the defense or TV cameras can react. Player-coach Ionescu gathers her teammates during any pause in the action. Where is joy listed on the stat sheet?

The team’s camaraderie is palpable. Each player has a role to play, but those roles stretch and shift and switch — whatever serves the coach, the team and the game. At the tip-off, the clock starts and we watch those parts transform themselves into a greater whole.

Ionescu’s resolve never wavers before or during a game. She’s focused on her mission and devoted to her team. But once the game is over, her eyes naturally find a little girl who won’t wash her hand for a week if she gets a high five from Sabrina.

You won’t see that on TV. But it will be on display right down the street, this afternoon. Don’t miss it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.