When Tennessee doesn't make it to the Final Four, I hear a sound of something being dropped. The sound is best rendered as the word thunk but just a word doesn't quite capture the thunk I hear, which is a strong memory of something actually being dropped--thrown down really--on a post-game bus seat: a giant cardboard box, full of a thousand tee shirts.
In 1990 when Virginia beat us in the elite 8--I mentioned this before--it was the year the final four was to take place in UT Knoxville's shiny new arena. Predictions were that the capacity of that arena (over 25,000), combined with the possibility of the Lady Vols playing on their home floor for a championship, would shatter attendance records for women's final fours. Someone, I'm not sure who--some venture capitalist, or superstitious fan with a firm belief in the power of suggestion--in anticipation of the FF instant sellout should the team advance from the Elite Eight, printed 1,000 tee shirts, ready to sell at the moment Tennessee won. Here's what the screen looked like:
After the box went thunk, Pat pulled a shirt out to show us. My response, which I kept to my hunkered-by-the-window sophomore self, was one of outrage. Who made these? Setting aside the obvious fact that the shirts jinxed us, what hubris would lead someone to think of this slogan, "Tennessee and the final three," as if there would never be another final four without Tennessee in it? Who on earth thought it would be okay to print such a slogan? Pat's response, of course, was different. In the capitalist risk gone bad, Pat saw the possibility of daily reminders. She held up the shirt and announced through a tight, thin snarl, "this is next year's practice gear."
And it was. Over the summer, as players transferred to other schools or went on medical leave, and as the remaining ones, wondering if they should have transferred and feeling rather ill themselves, spent the summer months instead conditioning like no other summer before, the coaches added sayings on the back of the obsolescent shirts, chiasmatic sayings like "WHEN YOU FAIL TO PREPARE, PREPARE TO FAIL" or spelling lessons about how many "I"s TEAM has in it, or just plain old phrases they'd repeated frequently, not-so-gentle-reminders, such as this one:
During grad school I dusted furniture with these artifacts, keeping a few to drag out to tell the story, and every time, just like today when I dug it out of a moving box for these photos, the thunk becomes a shudder.