Oberlin Blogs

On Team Sports and Team Shirts

April 19, 2009

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

Like many small liberal arts colleges, Oberlin enjoys an interesting sports culture. We are a Division III school with several varsity and club sports teams, and a host of athletes ranging from recruits to walk-ups enrolled from all over the world. And though athletes find themselves in nearly every facet of the college--from biochemistry to theater majors, and leaders engaged in everything from community service to classical music, the only caveat is that not many people outside of the athletic strata know much about what they do on their respective fields. Sports are not often at the forefront of what people think of with respect to Oberlin, but that's not to say that we haven't had our moments (after all, our football team used to be coached by the legendary John Heisman).

For me, a willful sidelining of sports was regrettably one of the sacrifices I made in coming to such an engaging and diverse place as Oberlin. It was initially a bit of a shock because the sports culture that I experienced in middle and high school (though, as my parents would contest, I certainly did not grow up with) was considerably more absent. As a first-year, my immediate group of friends had little interest in watching a game on TV or trekking out to North Fields to see the varsity teams play in the fall. Indeed, to this day, the only times I have ever really watched sports at Oberlin were during Commencement weekend and the Superbowl. With time, though, the mood changed, and over the course of four years I can proudly say that I have seen almost every kind of sports team play under the Oberlin banner.

During the fall of my sophomore year, I even got so excited as to come in body-paint for the football team's first home game of the season. A group of three friends and I orchestrated the entire operation, spending the whole morning preparing in the first-floor bathroom of German House, and became, to the best of my knowledge, the first people to ever body-paint for an Oberlin game. Someone presumably affiliated with the media took a picture of us, which has since been used in numerous Oberlin Athletics publicity materials as well as on its website, in what to me was a hilarious show of opportunism on the part of the College. In the two years since, more body painting has followed suit at a sprinkling of sports games, but I will always remember our quartet as the original trendsetters.

Fans with body paint spelling YEO
An appropriate cheer for Oberlin's Yeomen (and Yeowomen). Because I had to duck out of the game early, we agreed to make me the emphatic, if not entirely integral, exclamation point.

But watching sports is only half as fun as playing them. I like to think of myself as a pretty athletic guy, and in the spirit of good health and the single best way for me to de-stress, I try to make it my business to go to the gym at least four times a week. Besides the more obvious benefits, constant exercise allows my metabolism to cut me enough slack to do one of my other favorite things in life--eat. Often, however, it is a battle--from 4:30 until dinner, the only time during the week that I am free to exercise, there are a slew of lectures, events, and performances that constantly duke it out for cognitive precedence. But I must concede that time at the gym allows me to stay in tune with the dealings of Oberlin Athletics as a whole, and still satisfies my need for a connection with both the athletes and more modest sports-players like myself. Whichever way you slice it, my sport of choice is undoubtedly basketball.

I started playing and watching basketball at a young age and immediately fell in love with it (though you probably wouldn't guess that by the state of my game). Coming from New York, home of the perennially under-performing Knicks, I must certainly credit moving to Ohio with the realization of my now-favorite basketball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Easy to say because they lay claim to perhaps the biggest name in professional sports and currently have one of the best records in basketball, but it was only after I arrived at Oberlin that I began to really follow the team, and have since been to at least one of their games every year at the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland.

It was also at Oberlin that I had my first foray into organized sports since 8th-grade, when I joined an intramural basketball team. Incredibly disillusioned by my middle school experience--finishing my season on the second string basketball team with a total of two rebounds and a steal--I was hopeful that college could renew my muddled notions about playing basketball for something bigger than myself. All throughout high school, I played pick-up games with friends after school and on weekends, but it never quite felt the same as the uncertainty and nerves that come from competition.

Intramurals help to amend the two extremes--not nearly as competitive as NCAC games, but with a round-robin system in place and a bracketed road to the playoffs, there is at least the illusion of something worth playing hard for at the end. And with pride and a commemorative T-shirt to the winning team, it is certainly not something to take lightly. They are a great opportunity for the non-varsity-athletic and the non-athletic alike to try their hand at a sport, either one that they never picked up before or one they have been playing all their lives. As such, teams can sometimes be unbalanced, managing between newcomers to the sport and ex-varsity players, but they are almost always fun--so long as you have the right people. I found this lesson out the hard way.

In its first iteration, intramural sports were almost certainly not for me. As a sophomore, I belatedly joined a team with a few upperclassmen I had only met through afternoon games over the course of the semester and we went on to have almost no functional team chemistry even by season's end. During my junior year, me and a friend decided to start our own team--the Dime Droppers--with the hopes that it would give us a chance to play ball more frequently and interact with friends who would also be interested. As you may have noted from my bio on this site, we went on to finish 0-10 with not a single win to our name, but the season itself was a lot of fun. There was about an equal share of blow-outs as last-minute heartbreakers, but if nothing else, it helped me to develop a thick skin for failure (one that I can surely put to use in the current job market).

This semester, I decided I didn't want the responsibilities associated with being captain and was fortunate to join a friend's team, interestingly named Team Lamp (think Anchorman's oft-quoted refrain, "I Love Lamp"). We went on to have a great season for a team of relative unknowns, going 6-4 and making it to the playoff semi-finals. Intramural basketball is organized 4 vs. 4 with games played two nights a week for the months of February and March. We fit into our roles well--a couple of tall people rotating as center, decent spot-up shooters along the perimeter, and a couple of slashing forwards to the middle. Oftentimes though, the actual "positions" were all but negligible, everyone was happy to jump in to the game relative to their size and quickness, and we usually had a few subs to switch with us at any time. One of the girls who played on our team does silk-screening and was kind enough to make team shirts. It's amazing how much a simple outfit change can boost team morale.

Two tee shirts
The newest additions to my sports-paraphernalia wardrobe.

It was a similar feeling to my induction into another team sport at Oberlin--bowling. I must say that I too shared your initial skepticisms--can you really compare bowling to basketball, so much as even consider it a sport? I am here to tell you that, well, no, it's certainly not basketball, but bowling is a sport, and one that is taken quite seriously at Oberlin. Judging from the dozen or so other colleges that I have visited since coming here, Oberlin is pretty unique in that it has its own College Lanes on campus. For a relatively small bowling center boasting only six lanes, it is remarkably well-kept, oiled daily and maintained by a very enthusiastic student staff (and who wouldn't be excited--working at a bowling alley is a sweet job!).

I know all of this mostly because I am in there quite often. Though I was never particularly inclined towards bowling, I kind of fell into the sport after taking a bowling class during my sophomore year. Yes, Oberlin offers bowling classes, and yes, they count for academic credit. In fact, I still tell friends all the time that bowling, masterfully taught by Oberlin grad Tom Reid, was bar none one of the best classes I have taken at Oberlin. In fact, I liked the class so much that I am now taking the "advanced" follow-up, Bowling II. We are learning more techniques than I can adequately detail in this post, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of variables involved in bowling, from positioning on the approach, height of the arm swing, placement of hands and fingers with respect to the ball, and where the body finishes at the completion of the throw. We are attempting to develop a toolkit of different skills for approaching most every situation and pin configuration on the lanes.

As part of the requirements for the course, we were expected to buy our own bowling ball (indeed, an object I never thought I would own for myself) because of the necessity to fine tune our skills with something better than the house balls at the Lanes. At the beginning of the semester, a professional ball fitter came to measure our hands, and we got to choose the weight of our ball and which design we liked best. Some were engineered with more "hook potential," or the ability for the ball to react with oil on the lanes to "hook" into the "pocket." Mostly though, the different ball styles were simply a matter of aesthetic preference, and thanks to a handsome $500 discount as a result of taking the class, they also ended up being a rather economical investment.

Bowling alley
My ball, the "Avalanche," and the Oberlin College Lanes.

The other requirement for the course was to join a bowling league. Oberlin offers students the chance to participate in bowling leagues at 6:30 and 9:30 Thursday and Sunday nights each semester. The way they work is that six teams of up to four people each bowl three games at their designated league time once a week. Every week, the teams rotate whom they are playing and individual and team averages are scored and tallied at the end of every game. However, because it is a handicapped league, you are never really bowling against the other team. Instead, you bowl against your own average that is established during the first week and fluctuates as a result of subsequent games. The team that totals more pins over its collective average in a given game ends up winning that game.

It just so happened that two other people involved in Shansi, the program through which I will be teaching in China for two years after graduation, were also enrolled in my bowling class. In keeping with the class requirements and thanks to the generous urging of the organization, we decided to start a Shansi team amongst the three of us. Through the efforts of some higher-ups, we even managed to finagle team T-shirts out of the bargain, printed with our names in "bowling" script across the front and a revised rendering of Shansi's mission statement on the back. The idea became so popular that we eventually added five more people, and now have two Shansi teams playing in the Sunday night league. Ironically, two of my team members were also people I taught English with during a TESOL training course over Winter Term.

Having this group of people to bowl with every Sunday is a welcome respite from the grind of homework and frustration that would normally plague the evening. But three back-to-back games with eight players each week can take quite a toll. Occasionally, we bring friends along to keep us company to brave the over-two-hour long bowling marathon. And to keep morale and spirit high, we now have a set of palm fronds at the Lanes to encourage each other at the line, complete with personalized cheers. Those efforts have apparently paid off. As of last week, our team is somehow tied for first place. And the prize at stake here? -- A plastic trophy to the victors.

The problems arise though when players start to perform better each week and have to maintain those high marks at the risk of sacrificing their average. Not to mention that attendance has become almost mandatory because the penalty for missing a game is so high, a deduction of 10 pins from a player's average. But when it comes down to it, ever since joining the team, I couldn't imagine spending my Sunday nights any other way.

Apollo Theater marque listing Hannah Montana and Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski and the infallible Hannah Montana, on a double bill at the Apollo.

At times this fascination with sports begins to infiltrate other parts of the college experience. Two years ago, Oberlin offered discounted tickets and chartered buses to drive students out to Cleveland to watch a Cavs game. It was part of a concerted effort by the administration to build connections between Oberlin and the greater Northeast Ohio-Cleveland area. And just last week, the college brought bowling to the forefront in its recent purchase of the local Apollo Theater with a Midnights at the Apollo showing of The Big Lebowski. This big-screen viewing may have finally cemented it as my favorite movie ever. There hasn't been a time when I've watched the opening sequence, set to Bob Dylan's crooning "The Man In Me," without feeling a connection to the sport.

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