Kieran Shannon: Flashback to a childhood enjoying sport’s special twilight zone

With all the fascinating match-ups and games there’ll be in this NBA post-season, we’ll be trying out all kind of ways, new and old, to follow the action, and as often as possible without knowing the score
Kieran Shannon: Flashback to a childhood enjoying sport’s special twilight zone

Reigning NBA finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. (Photo by Kyle Terada-Pool/Getty Images)

It’s not just athletes that need to have some strategy when it comes to sleep and their sport. So do the rest of us who follow it.

Taking power naps, or answering early-morning alarm calls that requires the mental discipline of Rocky being up cracking eggs at an ungodly hour or him beating Apollo Creed and the count when the easiest thing would be to just slump back down; if we want to enjoy our sport, or at least our live sport, sometimes we’ve to rise from that canvas, and like Ali, forcibly tell ourselves that we don’t belong down there.

Different eras have involved different challenges.

For those of us of a certain vintage — I was born the same year Ali had to stir himself from the floor of Madison Square Garden after being on the wrong end of a Joe Frazier left hook — Match of the Day was the ultimate game-changer — and the ultimate treat.

Other sporting events had been far more straightforward. Any Ali or big Stateside prize fight was on too late and inaccessible to follow in real time.

Any European Cup tie or FA Cup replay, especially featuring my beloved Nottingham Forest, was just about feasible, though you knew, listening to that cackling commentary on an old radio, that you were stretching it, it being a school night. Match of the Day though presented a quandary. It was on too late to stay up for, but in an age when not a single top-flight English league match had yet to be televised live, too important and fundamental to go without.

And so, because we were still a couple of years out from even having a VCR, let alone decades away from having Sky Plus, the father had the ingenious idea of having us tucked in bed before 9pm on Saturday nights, on the promise he’d then gently nudge us at around 10.30 to catch the latest heroics of Brady, Dalglish, and Birtles. Then, a bit before midnight, but after the national broadcaster had wrapped everything up with ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ and that eternal sunset, we’d return to our bed, though not necessarily our slumber.

Over the years we’d get the odd pass to stay up beyond midnight, even getting to take in some fights from Madison Square Garden, such as the Rocky from Roscmuc, Seán Mannion, going up against the majestic Mike McCallum, followed immediately by the Magnificent Marvin Hagler destroying whoever it was put in his wake. But usually they were on a Friday night. Superbowls, being on a Sunday, or more specifically a Monday morning, were still beyond this schoolboy’s reach.

But then we left school while satellite TV came to us. By the early 1990s we were watching the NBA finals on Eurosport, though often it was on delay, which was fine with us; with no internet or even Twitter, the first time we knew of John Paxson’s buzzer-beater to seal Michael Jordan’s and the Chicago Bull’s third consecutive NBA title was some 16 hours after the event, watching it with some American flatmates in some campus accommodation near UL.

By the time of Jordan’s second three-peat, there was an internet, and we were watching it live, on Channel 4 as I just about managed to about stay awake to see him crossover on Bryan Russell and ice that particular championship himself.

By then we’d plenty of practice in the art of watching sport into the hours, Tyson and prizefighting being not just box office but must-watch in those days, at least for us.

Since even then the media and sports entertainment landscape has gone to a whole other stratosphere.

On Monday morning my son watched some WWE box office before heading to school, having stayed up a bit past his usual bedtime the previous night to watch the Women’s Champions League final live; for more reason than one, that would have been unimaginable when I was nine, like he is now.

So would how the two of us watched some of the NBA playoffs last autumn. On a Sunday night we watched on my iPhone the LA Clippers, featuring reigning finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, playing a Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks, led by the incredibly-talented 21-year-old Luka Doncic.

At the end of the third quarter, I told Andrew he had to go to his own bed and sleep; he’d school in the morning. But he persisted and I couldn’t resist. It was the playoffs. It was Luka.

And sure enough, he was worth staying up for.

Suffice to say when he’s my current age and more, he’ll always remember Mike Breen going Boom Boom when Luka drained that from-behind overtime buzzer-beater for the win for the Mavs — and the two of us nearly waking his mother with our own exaltations.

The Finals were on too late for him to watch live, featuring as they did the Lakers from Los Angeles where they’re eight hours behind us: primetime for them is the graveyard shift for us.

But still we found a way.

For Game Five when Jimmy Butler and LeBron had one of the greatest one-match head-to-head duels in the sports history, I took a leaf out of my old man’s playbook, getting Andrew to bed early so he could get up again and stay up late.

Game Six required a different strategy. I suppose I could have stayed up all night myself and watched it live, much like I did for all those LeBron-Steph Cavs-Warriors finals and had me tweeting and raging at 5am about JR Smith’s inability to decipher a scoreboard.

But that wouldn’t have been as much fun as Luka against the Clippers. So we set the alarm for 6am, not quite Rocky-cracking-eggs time, but still earlier than even opening-Santa’s-presents time.

That alarm was my phone but we managed to avoid Twitter and any other form of media, lest we learned prematurely if LeBron had won his fourth championship or not.

As it happened he did. And so now he’s seeking a fifth, only it’s going to be particularly challenging for him — and for us.

This year in a development LeBron has criticised but the rest of us have gladly embraced, there will be a play-in tournament to decide the last two spots in each NBA conference playoffs.

And the way it has fallen, in the seventh-versus-eighth-seed match, James has to again face off against Curry and the Warriors, who happen to be my Andrew’s favourite player and team and though now 33, is playing possibly his best basketball ever.

As Eoghan O’Sullivan of this parish observed, “It’s a match that will have fans salivating — and Irish fans contemplating the best way to navigate a 3am start time.”

Indeed with all the fascinating match-ups and games there’ll be in this NBA post-season — Luka and Kawhi face off in round one again — we’ll be trying out all kind of ways, new and old, to follow the action, and as often as possible without knowing the score.

There might be time differences, and so many technological differences between now and the days of Ali and Jimmy Hill, but one thing remains the same. Some sport still makes you feel like a kid.

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