“Basketball is just a game.”

Except sometimes your heroes actually fly. They jump higher, run faster, work harder, last longer and do better than you ever could—better than you could even imagine, than even they could imagine. But they imagined and they made their imaginations come true, so why can’t you? And so you imagine, every time you lift up at the rim with the ball in your hand, that this time instead of laying it in, you’ll keep rising higher and higher and grab the rim and dunk the ball through. And even though you’re 5’4 and you know it’ll never happen, you never know if this is the time you will keep rising instead of coming down.

It’s just a game, except when it helped this country’s first black president grapple with the complexities of his blackness on the courts of Hawaii and the courts of Chicago before he courted the voters with his uniquely American appeal and his cool demeanor that he carries on the court. Many are aware of “Dreams from [his] Father,” a memoir that President Obama subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance.” Far fewer are aware of an actual gift from his father, a basketball, which was an equally effective symbol of race and inheritance. Those who knew Obama say the game helped him feel a sense a belonging and developed his ability to work collaboratively. The game was with him every step of the way and helped make him the man, the leader and the president he was.

“They’re just playing for money.”

Except when Michael Jordan played for his dad and Isaiah Thomas played for his sister and although they had passed away, you know they watched. You don’t have to believe in the afterlife, or the supernatural, or religion, or heaven to know they watched. When tears were streaming down Jordan’s face or erupting from Thomas’s eyes, you knew that even those who had passed watched when their memories were honored with their loved ones’ dominant performances on the court. 

Or when Dwyane Wade played for Joaquin Oliver, a teenager who was gunned down at Stoneman Marjory Douglas High School just two weeks ago. Oliver had been buried in Wade’s jersey. Wade had just returned to Miami and had penned Oliver’s name onto his shoes. And then the veteran, coming off the bench because he’s now past his prime, dropped 27 points and the game winner and told us after the game that he felt like he was playing with angels in the outfield. Again, you don’t have to believe in angels or miracles. But you know that Oliver believed in Wade; you can choose to believe Wade won the game, or that angels won the game, but you can’t believe it’s just a game.

“They’re just ball players.”

Except when they’re multidimensional human beings like Demar Derozan, a rising star in the NBA who has opened up about his battle with depression, further breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness in our society. Or when they’re young adults like Grayson Allen, growing up with the eyes of critics and haters trained on them. After four years of ups and downs, mirroring the ups and downs we’ve all felt at Duke, he held back tears as he told us how this school helped him bounce back from his lowest points and rediscover himself in his love for the game. And you find yourself listening to this basketball player talk about his struggles and you remember how you struggled with classes and grades, deaths in the family and finding your community on campus. But at the end of the four years, you turned out alright—just like your classmate in the #3 Duke jersey.

Or when they’re role models like Lebron James who grew up in the toughest of circumstances, under the care of a single, teenage mom in the hard-knock urban sprawl of Ohio. After a nearly nomadic childhood where money was scarce, the 18-year-old took the NBA by storm and hasn’t given it back since. At any point in those first 18 years when he was constantly burdened by the pressure of national attention or socioeconomic struggles, had he made one wrong move, we might never have known his name. But now, Lebron—the mononymous face of the NBA—is making sure opportunities are available to students in Akron by taking on philanthropic and community leadership roles. Now he’s so outspoken on the topics of racism and hatred in our politics that Laura Ingraham, a proud leader of the Blonde White Nationalists Committee, feels the need to chide him for having the gall to speak up. The game allowed for a strong, admirable and brilliant black leader to have a platform, which was an idea so threatening to the regressive right that their mouthpieces exhort figures like Lebron to “shut up and dribble.” But he won’t. Because the kid from Akron is not just a basketball player.

Sometime between a 10-point deficit and a 10-point win on Saturday, while a thousand of my closest friends and I made the stadium shake, I realized that maybe not everyone understands how much the game means to its fans and its players. Even on this campus, where some abandon their dorms and subject themselves to the elements for a seat in Cameron, others will wonder whether such dedication is worth it for just a game. Even fans of certain players, admirers of certain athletes, will tone-police these same individuals, cautioning them from taking extreme steps outside of their roles as just basketball players. They will present the ultimate question every basketball fan—every sports fan, even—faces: why do you care so much about players you don’t actually know, teams you are not a part of, outcomes that don’t tangibly affect you or a game you can barely play?

But listen to what the game tells you in the language of echoing dribbles, sensual swishes, atonal shoe squeaks and the primal screams of elation. Basketball is an inspiration, a muse, a narrative, a tribute. It is a ride, a platform, a mirror and an experience. 

Yes, basketball is a game. But it’s not, and never will be, just a game.

Shivam Dave is a Trinity senior. His column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.