There’s so much about sport that can capture a person’s attention – the pace of the game, the roar of the crowd, precision passes, David and Goliath battles, the adrenalin and drama of not knowing what’s going to play out. Incredible last-minute victories, unbelievable last ball defeats.
For many of us, what pulls us in isn’t a passage of play. It’s a person. The one.
The one who stands out amongst their teammates and competition. The one you can’t take your eyes off. The one who’s name you can hear above everything else. There’s just something about that one – they bring you back in front of the tele, and buying tickets, again and again.
There’s no science to it. You can’t control who you fall in love with, or what you fall in love with. Sure, there’s the very obvious and sexy ones, like Michael Jordan, Jonah Lomu, Irene van Dyk, – the ones whose performances make it easy to adore them. But there’s just something special when your one doesn’t belong to everyone else, when what you have with them is unique.
They’re the one who makes you pick up a bat, trying to play just like them. They’re the one who makes you nag your siblings or team mates for ‘just one more’, searching for the perfect cut shot that they’d be proud of. They’re the reason you buy Kookaburra gear. They’re the one who adorns your walls, the cover of your third from French book. They’re the one who motivates you to complete that news report and share with your disinterested classmates how many runs they scored overnight in the 1999 World Cup.
Your friends who aren’t into sport know their name, and most probably their highest score in all formats of the game, and quite possibly their birthday – after all, friends have to email you on your email address in his honour. They laugh at you because he’s not even the hot one, but you know better. This isn’t sexual, this is something deeper.
They’re the one who you’ll defend until you’re blue in the face. Sure, he doesn’t always come off, but name someone who does? And when he does, oh boy. That cut shot is like a tracer bullet, hitting the fence before many knew it had even left the bat. That’s the one you try and try and try to copy in the nets, in the backyard, and even shadow-play in the hallways at school.
And, when you finally have a moment to meet them face to face, you freeze. Don’t meet your heroes, they say. Also, he’s really busy signing everyone else’s pieces of paper while he’s sat in the driver’s seat of a Budget Rentals van, he doesn’t want another person bothering him. Your heart starts racing, now’s your chance… and it’s only with a forceful nudge from a long-suffering best friend that you awkwardly push a pen and vivid into their face. After what seems like eternal silence, suddenly the words fall out of you before you know what you’re doing. “Oh my gosh, my idol is signing my piece of paper!!” You’ll long remember the way the corners of his mouth almost-smugly curled up in response. After thanking him profusely – for the signature, but really, for everything – your best friend pulls you away before you have chance to embarrass yourself further. A full and exhaustive debrief will be conducted in the forecourt of the petrol station across the road while waiting for your parents to pick you up, when you’ll recount the whole thing with excruciating precision.
That single interaction with the one will have you buzzing for days, and inspire you for years. The cut shot becomes your strongest shot. You re-watch as many innings as possible to study beauty in motion. You buy their books and consume them in a day. In 2002, you cry when teammates yell out score updates from the sideline, and you put up your highest score of the season buoyed off their record-breaking performance that day. You rush home to catch highlights on the sports news, and borrow money from your parents to purchase the commemorative print, which hangs pride of place in your bedroom for years. You borrow the DVD of the innings from a club mate, who ends up saying you could keep it because it clearly means more to you than it would to them. Everyone is talking about him, and you don’t mind sharing, but you know it doesn’t come close to what you two have together.
And then it’s time to go your separate ways. Life has other plans for your one, but the time you had together.. you don’t regret it, and you won’t forget it. What they gave you was special, and exactly what you needed at the time. They changed you, they helped you discover who you are. It aches for a while; the first cut is the deepest. And you’ll feel their absence from your life, but you’ll always think of them with a smile, and perhaps even a shadow cut shot from time to time. But even as you take the newspaper cuttings down off the wall, you smile. We’ll always have 222.
These days, the ones could be Shaun Johnson, Ruby Tui, Sophie Devine, Beauden Barrett, Katrina Rore. With the rise in coverage of less traditional sports, it could be Zoi Sadowski-Synnott or Israel Adesanya. Children could be launching into switch backside 720s off the backyard steps. They could be side-stepping siblings up the hallway, or spending hours perfecting their long-distance shot from the top of a crudely-drawn circle or three-point line.
Some may call it infatuation, unhealthy or unnatural obsession. Not a chance. It’s these connections which form the basis of a lifelong passion. They are the gateway drug to the sport, or to all sport, an addiction that lasts a life time.
You never forget your first.
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