Ruhika Nandy / Daily Nexus

As I huffed through the Humanities and Social Sciences Building courtyard with a 10-pound bag on my back, I realized I hadn’t bought a ticket.

Then, I realized I hadn’t downloaded the app to buy the ticket. Then, I realized I hadn’t downloaded the right app, because the sports program has two slow and shitty apps that pretty much do the same thing. So, in the cold and in the dark and in front of security, I offered to the gods of shitty apps my name and my credit card number and the three little digits on the back — multiple times because my phone was shit too.

Then, I realized that students get in for free. I had already paid $12, the game had already begun, security was searching my bag and I couldn’t find the friend who had invited me.

It was a disaster.

We won that game.

To walk into the UC Santa Barbara Thunderdome for the first time is to marvel at — and to be disquieted by — excess. The court is too glossy; the fans are too loud; the cheerleaders are probably objectified or something. And are those cameras televising the game to an audience of millions across the country and the globe? And might that be me on that big screen? Oh, gosh. It is too much.

To walk into the Thunderdome for the second time is to find these idiosyncrasies compounded. There are more people. They are even louder — ear splitting — and they have all, like me, come back to watch the same thing: 10 bodies bouncing a leather sphere back and forth across 94 feet of polished maple for 40 minutes, plus 15 minutes for halftime, plus 60 or so minutes for timeouts and fouls and free throws and the occasional fistfight (or aggressive hugfights, as it were).

My friend, Mindy, kept inviting me to these games with her and some of her other friends. I consented each time out of politeness and a morbid curiosity to see what it was that got people into sports (my friend, Humberto, an otherwise reasonable individual, suffers from an intractable case of soccer fever).

We won that game too. I tagged along for some boba afterward.

To walk into the Thunderdome for the third time is to begin to understand.

You start falling down the rabbit hole. You Google funny terms like “in the paint” and “double-double.” You peruse YouTube for tutorials of moves with names like “euro step” and “alley-oop.” You consider subscribing to Disney+ but for the ESPN instead of the Disney+.

You start picking out individual players: Josh Pierre-Louis leaps in his pink shoes, Ajay Mitchell spins and drives, Miles Norris dunks with his tallness, Calvin Wishart and Cole Anderson point the threes, Andre Kelly blocks and rebounds, David Pickles is beloved by the audience for (perhaps unfairly) his last name and so on.

You start growing fond of the folks on the sidelines: the announcer guy who grits his voice for the Gauchos, but who quiets down when speaking of the opposing team; the custodians who mop the floor whenever a player falls; Head Coach Joe Pasternack, who has in recent years led the team to some of its greatest heights; and the one or two students who run through the stands to hype up the audience.

One of these students, dressed in sunglasses and a neon green shirt, had grown hoarse. It was not a good time: We were down in the first half on the heels of a three-game losing streak. Most of us were quietly seated, and desperation strained from his throat.

“I’m out here losing my voice,” Neon Shirt shouted in a half-whisper. “Why aren’t you losing your voice?”

The ball had made its way over to the frontcourt, and the Gauchos were attempting to score. As I turned to watch, Neon Shirt caught my eye and yanked off his sunglasses, murder on his face.

The ball had made its way over to the frontcourt, and the Gauchos were attempting to score. As I turned to watch, Neon Shirt caught my eye and yanked off his sunglasses, murder on his face.


But right at that moment, UCSB scored — the stands shot up. The line of sight between us broke. Roars. Tremors. Disbelief.

When enough people sat back down, I saw that Neon Shirt had darted away to harass a more amenable conglomerate of spectators. May Neon Shirt have mercy on their vocal cords.

Fashion sense notwithstanding, perhaps he had a point. The next time the Gauchos were about to score, I stood.

We won that game.

“We’re gonna upset Baylor,” the cashier said. “I have money on it.”

I had wandered over to The Arbor for dinner. It was 10 p.m. on the day before UCSB was to play Baylor University in the opening round of the 2023 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament — that is, March Madness.

Every year, the NCAA “seeds” the tournament with college basketball teams from across the country, ranking them based on data like average points scored per game and number of wins. In theory, the higher the seed or rank, the better the team.

Ariel Lee / Daily Nexus

Baylor was ranked as a No. 3 seed. UCSB was ranked No. 14. In a 68-team tournament where the lowest seed number is 16, our ranking put us close to the bottom. ESPN rated UCSB’s chances of making it to the final four at one star out of five. “If these teams get that far,” the analysts wrote of one-star teams, “it’s time to set the entire bracket on fire because this is more rare than a lightning strike.”

But sometimes, in what are known as “upsets,” the underdogs really do inspire arson. The day had already delivered two bracket busters: No. 13 Furman University had edged out a 1-point win over No. 4 University of Virginia and No. 15 Princeton University had pulled ahead of No. 2 University of Arizona.

And us?

We were fresh off a seven-game winning streak that included a co-championship title in the regular season and a championship title in the postseason of the Big West Conference — feats we had matched merely two years ago. And when we faced Creighton University in 2021’s March Madness, we had lost by a single point.

It seemed certain.

I didn’t end up buying anything from The Arbor. It was a cold night; I wanted something warm to eat.

Before I left, I overheard a second cashier.

“We’re outranked. I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

“We” is a curious word in sports.

When I sit in the Thunderdome or stream a match, I’m not really contributing anything to the game. The Gauchos’ victories aren’t really mine. Neither are their defeats. Our successes and failures — their successes and failures — come down almost entirely to their training, their coordination and their determination. All I can say for myself is that I once unwittingly donated $12 to the program, that I have occupied a bit of space in the stands for a handful of hours and that I have stood up, slowly and silently, for a fraction of that time.

“We” have very little to do with these games besides clapping, stamping and chanting some variation of “let’s go” and “defense.” When our enthusiasm apparently succeeds, we attribute that success to the Gaucho spirit, to some moral fiber woven into the very embroidery of the UCSB student mind and soul.

And when our enthusiasm fails, we project that failure onto the players who, through their failed attack of the basket, have attacked our individual dignities. As if these people, who have sacrificed lifestyles and ankles and spinal discs and perhaps even careers for the love of their life, owe anything to us.

And yet …

And yet when I see three quick passes end in a smooth 3-pointer; when I see a no-look bounce pass end in a dunk; when I see a steal, a throw across the court, a sprint to the basket and a layup — all in five seconds — I feel the beginnings of a certain pride.

And when, after the final home game of the season, I see Pasternack plead to everyone to stay in their seats to share the moment as “We Are the Champions” plays through the speakers; when I see the team lift the injured Koat Keat Tong so that he can cut down a piece of the net; when, at the end of the Big West Conference tournament, I see the Gauchos jump and cry and embrace each other like family; and when, in the final minute against Baylor University, I see Pasternack substitute Ajare Sanni, a player who had sustained a season-ending injury, into the game so that he gets a chance to dance in the Big Dance before he graduates. When I see all this, I begin to understand that basketball is perhaps more than leather spheres and polished maple.

We lost that game.

But for one brief, shining, gorgeous moment, in The Arbor and classrooms and dorm rooms and apartments of Isla Vista and Santa Barbara and with the Mindys and Humbertos and Neon Shirts of the world, we came together. We found indomitable human spirit. We found sheer unselfish humanity.

I think that that’s something, no matter one’s fever for sports, we can all stand up for.

Go Gauchos. And thank you for a lovely season.

Yiu-On Li encourages everyone to go to at least one basketball game at UCSB. Or perhaps three.